Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Testing the Silence by Rui An
June 21, 2011, 5:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,
Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll)

Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll)

At the Singapore Arts Festival last year, Rimini Protokoll astounded us with Cargo Kuala Lumpur-Singapore, a road trip into unknown nooks of our city that melded the revelatory power of theatre with the lyricism of the everyday. As we travelled down the roads within a theatre-on-wheels, mundane sights coalesce to form an evocative meditation on migration, pondering both the physical act of displacing oneself as well as the attendant emotional and socio-political ramifications. One would also not forget the two truck drivers, who charmed us not only with their vivid memories of long-distance driving, but also with the endearing little stumbles they commit as they take on what is possibly their first foray into performance.

This theatre of the quotidian is once again realised at the festival this year in Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi, a Swiss director from the aforementioned collective. Taking the stage this time are the muezzins from Egypt, chosen ones in the Muslim world who lead the daily calls to prayer (adhan) from the minarets of the mosques. The stories of four muezzins are represented, of which three are articulated by the muezzins themselves, as they stand upon the stage and narrate the vicissitudes of life that have led them into their present occupation. Their stories, at times dramatic, at others mundane, are presented in an austere, unembellished form. They are simply told, in most instances with that assured, authoritarian cadence devoid of charade or any visible attempt at showing through gesture. Clearly, it flies in the face of the mythical adage, that one must show instead of tell, but despite so, the piece still manages to exude a tender humanity, tinged at times with pathos and humour.

It takes a sleight of hand to achieve this delicate fusion of theatre and everyday life, for life, despite all its authenticity, requires careful calibration upon its transposition to the stage, without which the slice of reality would be but a banality, authenticity without persuasion.

For Radio Muezzin, intrigue is already created by its premise: the distant, ostensibly insular world of deep religiosity fascinates with its otherness. For a country that is pathologically uptight about maintaining a strictly secular public sphere, open displays of piety, upon a national stage no less, is a curiosity. The audience enter the theatre with a kind of anthropological gaze, our minds open to the unfamiliar and seemingly incomprehensible, with the ultimate intent of bridging the distance between self and other.

The stories of the four muezzins are presented with a full plenitude of gritty, autobiographical details. The first muezzin, Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy, is a blind Quran teacher who travels to the mosque for two hours every day. He relates his excitement in donning the sheik’s outfit, of which he is able to enumerate the cost that went into every article of clothing upon him. “Four hundred Egyptian pounds for the tailoring”, he says. The second, Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy, is a retired electrician who becomes a muezzin after a terrifying accident left him with a metal plate and seven stitches in his leg. The third, Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous, hails from the countryside and spends much of the day vacuuming the carpet in the small mosque. The fourth, Muhammad Ali Mahmoud Farag, the youngest and most accomplished of them, is the only muezzin absent in the line-up, having departed the production previously due to differences with the rest of the cast. In his place are a video projection of his past performances and a stand-in who reads out his impressive accolades as a bodybuilder and the runner-up of the 47th World Competition in Quran Reading.

A certain magic happens when these personal anecdotes are placed within the full splendour of a proscenium theatre production, where there is a script, an impressive set and a leering audience to contend with. The stoic muezzins stand upon a large, ornate carpet, each before a video screen and illuminated by green neon lights that create a surreal atmosphere. The colours are brilliant; the set is like a Technicolor sanctum of Muslim piety. The imposition of the theatrical upon the real pushes the performances towards a certain threshold, in which the overriding artifice and all its iridescent polish causes the little slippages of the amateur performers to become, by contrast, a kind of revelation. The awkwardness and jittery inhibition of the muezzins show through throughout the performance and it is this tension between the glossiness of their environ and their artless, non-theatrical selves that makes these brief glimpses of humanity all the more precious, honest and resonant. We begin to feel for them; the exacting anthropological gaze we came in with is softened into an empathetic response. This is real life seeping through the veneer of the theatrical, which surmounts art to reveal itself in all its luminous clarity.

The stark visuality of the set sustains our act of gazing. As the muezzins recount their lives and times, documentary footage of the streets of Egypt and the day-to-day bustle within the mosques plays behind them. The images are direct transcriptions of what is said verbally; rarely is there any deliberate attempt at incongruity. The images amplify the text unremittingly; they must not detract from it, for the voices of the muezzins must be heard in their unadulterated purity. In the case of the fourth muezzin who cannot be present to deliver his voice, an effort is made to highlight the ineffectuality of his replacement. The stand-in makes no attempt at re-embodiment; he does not hide his surrogate status, instead from the outset, he acknowledges the futility of his re-presentation. Verisimilitude, the quality of achieving mere likeness to the real, is not an aspiration of this stage.

As the audience, one is here purely to listen. Everything is plain, lucid and ingenuous. The false notes of ambiguities that often demand of the audience to play the role of the thinker, to negotiate the issues on their own terms and derive their own conclusions are eschewed. There are no riddles to untangle, no disparities to reconcile. The piece is characteristically unthinking, with little of that postmodern reflex through which a piece displays its self-awareness. In place of introspection is complete projection, to be consumed by the gaze of a compliant, unquestioning audience. One must accept the utterances of the muezzins as they are, for like the chanted verses of the Quran, the words are pure signs – a fact that is put forth in one instance when the surtitles go off and all we hear is the deep, soulful voice of the muezzins. This is listening at its purest and most uncompromised – the act of piety the audience must necessarily perform.

Piety defines also the relationship between the artist and his subjects. In contrast to the trenchant, provocative approaches taken by some practitioners in the treatment of religion-based subjects, Kaegi appears to be examining the world of the muezzins via a purely phenomenological lens. Within the text itself, there is little to suggest the advancing of an artist’s statement; Kaegi’s voice defers to that of the muezzins. When the show veers into the touchy areas, such as the position of women in Islam, for instance, its manner is light and detached, leaving the muezzins to speak for themselves. To the question on why women are not allowed to perform the adhan, one of them answers nonchalantly, “because the Prophet never asked [them] to do so.” Granted, there are those sporadic specks of irony that are clearly devised: a wooden divider that is often used in mosques to segregate the women is used here to hide the testosterone-loaded, weight-lifting gear of Mr. Mahmoud, but they are so benign that they register as nothing more than comic asides.

But the fact that the work is conceived to be seemingly apolitical does not mean that it is capable of transcending the politics that surround its creation. The absence of Mr. Mahmoud, for one, is a sobering indication of the tides of change in Cairo that has left an entire generation of muezzins silenced. The Minister of Religious Affairs has denounced the cacophony emitted by the thousands of muezzins each day across the city and is selecting the city’s best thirty muezzins to take turns to broadcast a centralised adhan via a radio channel. Among the cast, only Mr. Mahmoud has been selected to be a part of this elite cadre. While the differences that led to his departure from the show are not spelled out, it is not hard to make a guess what happened.

Towards the end, as a radio engineer appears to demonstrate the new technology through which the adhan would be emitted, one cannot help but notice the absence of the one person who has been qualified to use the contraption. Prior to Mr. Mahmoud’s departure, he would end the show with a rousing solo chant, but here, his silence is deafening.

The context in which the show is performed can also embed within it significant political undertones. In its 2009 premiere in Berlin, for instance, where loud calls to prayer are prohibited, the piece became a reflection on the waves of protests that have erupted in response to the building of mosques across the country. In an overwrought socio-political climate where overt religiosity is too often misconstrued as extremism, is there still a place where one can practice his faith freely and yet still abide by the contract of his society?

Similar questions can be asked within our society. Would the rapturous music we hear in Radio Muezzin still be appreciated beyond the asylum of the theatre? Or would it too be condemned as noise that encroaches upon the sterile, vacuous silence that is our secular space?

Ho Rui An


Cargo Travellin’ Thru by Rui An
June 1, 2010, 12:56 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,
Promotional photo for Cargo Kuala Lumpur - Singapore

Promotional photo for Cargo Kuala Lumpur - Singapore

Cargo Kuala Lumpur – Singapore is amazing. It is easily one of the must-sees of this year’s Singapore Arts Festival. The basic concept of the work is a sure-win at least in the pleasure factor; everyone loves a road trip, even within the small confines of a city-state. But given that the work is so many things rolled into one, it is astonishing how the creators made every single cog tick. The result is richly layered and complex art work that stands in a category of its own. Most impressively, it skillfully dodges all the common trappings of the multiple artistic ventures it undertakes.

It could have easily been another feeble attempt at “intermedia” art, which more often than not entails a very cheesy insertion of multimedia in theatre which amounts to nothing more than an intrusive stage prop. It could also have been one of those reckless, auteurist excursions into the experimental art – aesthetically overloaded yet vacuous in content. It could also have been a clumsy lugging of the everyday into the realm of art, which often ends up reinforcing the very crudeness of reality, instead of its poetry.

But Cargo rarely misses a step. In fact, it scores on all fronts. It achieves not just amalgamation of disparate forms, but elegant synthesis. Its aesthetics are deeply evocative and purposefully so, skillfully teasing out the layers of meaning that are embedded within the landscape, architecture and communities of our city spaces. It surfaces the hidden aesthetic qualities of the everyday without belaboured aestheticisation, achieving so via the subtle methods of framing, isolating and destabilising the quotidian.

Rediscovering the Everyday

Rimini Protokoll’s Cargo is essentially about travelling. We go on board a specially converted truck, sitting in as human cargo in a moving theatre. One side of the container is replaced by a huge window, through which we experience the cityscape. We are greeted by the friendly truck drivers, “Welcome to Kuala Lumpur!” and embark on a journey towards Singapore.

The concept is seductively simple. It harnesses the latent wanderlust of urban dwellers to initiate a contemplation of the familiar and not-so-familiar spaces that pass us by. Consumed by the unceasing rhythm of the metropolis, the pockets of time spent travelling on wheels are the much-needed caesuras – necessary moments of pause and stasis that are forced upon us. We are resensitised to the oft-obscured aesthetics of our built environment and their embedded meanings: the cold, oppressive regularity of the Merrill Lynch office cubicles, the stringent uniformity of our phalanx of port containers, the ostentatious expanse of the golf courses… rediscovering these constructs as living elements of our contemporary culture.

Live video feed connecting us to the drivers seat

Live video feed connecting us to the drivers seat

Beyond the aesthetics of the landscape, we are also reaquainted with that of the everyday experience. We gain an acute self-awareness towards our experience of travelling, of movement. Every bump, turn and swerve suddenly becomes more pronounced and loaded with meaning, which begs the question: why is it that it is only under the institutional label of art that we (re)gain this sensitivity towards the nature of everyday experience? Why do we need to rely on art to demarcate a region of everyday life for appreciation and reflection? Are we able to experience the totality of the lived experience with the same self-reflexivity?

A live video feed brings us into intimate contact with the drivers, Mr Ramachandran and Mr Ravindran. The little performance by the duo really brings out the best of what amateur efforts can produce. We listen in earnest as they share their feelings towards driving, describe their nomadic habits and rituals and narrate personal anecdotes about their family, friends and colleagues. We watch them stumble a little through parts of the dialogue and catch their endearingly transparent attempts at improvisation and in the process, we can almost feel their jittery thrill as they participate in what is possibly their first formal foray into performance. Consequently, driving suddenly becomes an experience laden with aesthetic, emotional and even intellectual meaning. It is in fact remarkable that the entire work actually succeeds in making the absolutely quotidian activity of driving appear… sublime.

Spaces in Migration

There is also a much broader thematic concern of the work that merits deeper examination – migration. At various junctures in the journey, a scrolling text projected on the window serves as annotation to the sights. It articulates the history of immigration in Singapore and the evolving roles and statuses of migrant workers in the city-state, particularly highlighting the plight of migrant workers in present-day society. As we watch these little nuggets of information dispensed against a backdrop of the expansive metropolitan landscape, an uneasy interrogation begins to unfold between the inconvenient truth articulated by the understated text and the landscapes which showcase our economic ballast.

The ports at Tanjong Pagar

The ports at Tanjong Pagar

In fact, it is of particular significance that much of Cargo takes place within the premises of the ports at Tanjong Pagar, the nexus of Singapore’s economic exchange with the exterior world. The port is a geographically peripheral site in perpetual flux; yet it also serves as a fixture of our national identity. As a nation which started out as an immigrant community (and continues to be so), where should the line between migrant and native be drawn? Who is the migrant and what is his place in society? Is he able to lay claim to the dazzling facades of the city skyline to which he has made a direct and concrete contribution? Or is he alienated from his products of labour?

As audience members who are seated in where the freight used to sit, there is an uneasy sense that we have taken on the positions of the migrant workers who are delivered like raw materials to feed the state’s economic ambitions. In our new identities, benign architectural structures begin to take on oppressive or even dystopian dimensions. The various elements of the production in fact work to destablise our sense of reality and we begin to feel the sense of deportation and displacement faced by migrant workers in a culturally alien world.

In what can be seen as the turning point of the two-hour long piece, the truck steadily ascends a huge, spiral carpark to the tune of Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube Waltz. The darkening horizon framed between the architectural planes of the spiral initially appears as a picturesque image of nostalgia and wanderlust. But the relentless continuity of the image eventually distorts the concrete structures into an oppressive megalith. We feel it caving in our very sense of reality. The slow, momentous climb to the deck cultivates our expectations to such insurmountable heights that it creates both uncertainty and fear. Wanderlust has been transmogrified into a portentous sense of dread. Are these not precisely the conflicting emotions that characterise migration?

Towards the deck, the speakers begin playing a wistful Malay song, only to have our sense of reality taking jolt upon our arrival. The source of the voice is revealed: we see a solitary songstress delivering her serenade. Illuminated by a single spotlight, her countenance is spectral. Some members of the audience completely freak out but it is the beauty of the moment that strikes me more than its creepiness. The truck gracefully revolves around the songstress, establishing her form against the wider space she inhabits. The moment is intensely cinematic, registered as one long and slow motion arc shot. The sequence is both breathtaking and disconcerting as our ability to differentiate the fictive from the real is challenged: what appeared to be a recording is actually performed live while what is performed live has taken on the quality of filmic fiction.

But the bigger question is: does the moment offer any meaning beyond its immediate aesthetic? What does this ontological destablisation lead to? Personally, I thought that the image of a solitary figure poised against the cold, unvarnished architecture of the industrial environment evoked a melancholic yet resilient solitude. Her humanity presents a rupture to crude regularity of the architectural planes that enclose us all. It is the engagement with the physical space that really elevates the moment beyond gimmick, which is what I feel the songstress’ subsequent reappearances lack. Her reemergence at the roadside, in a passing car and at the dropping point evokes little more than surprise.

Interestingly, as we enter the depths of the ports, the sights we are confronted with take on an uncannily dystopian quality. We delve deep within the container labyrinth, with a commentator cycling beside the truck methodically listing the attributes of the containers that pass us by. The environment is harsh, dark and damp. The wandering stray dogs reinforce this notion of a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland. In fact, I’m very much reminded of Ho Tzu Nyen’s Earth. The running commentary by the cyclist becomes an indiscernible drone over time as the bleak monotony of the landscape begins to cloud our perceptions.

Outside the foreign worker dormitories

Outside the foreign worker dormitories

Another powerful moment of the journey happens outside the premises of a foreign worker dormitory. The deeper we venture, the world we so comfortably inhabit progressively takes on alternative facades that are beyond our expectations and comfort levels. We seem to take on the role of the outsider when we enter what appears like a migrant community ghetto. The workers gaze upon us with an almost scientific curiosity. We become the subjects of their scrutiny and judgement. But this is not a perfect schematic inversion, for we are hardly the marginalised other. We are physically elevated and cloistered in the comforts of our touristic journey; we come to gaze as much as to bask in the gaze of others. Such richly layered moments are abundant along the rest of the journey, as our Cargo passes by the real human cargo transported in air-conditioned tourist buses to and fro the work sites. The irony can kill.

When we emerge from the abyss and return to the familiar sights of our picturesque skyline, our perception of it has been radically distorted. Its polished sheen now radiates with ostentatious glare – one which obliterates the visibility of the very individuals who have made it possible.

Promotional photo for Cargo Kuala Lumpur - Singapore

Promotional photo for Cargo Kuala Lumpur - Singapore

The Intermedia

Stylistically, it must be said that this is a rare piece of art which actually possesses a deep and purposeful understanding of intermediality. It delicately fuses two of the most successful and accessible mediums of theatre and cinema, employing both in connection with text, sound, image and architecture. So often have theatre and cinema been crudely conflated together that the distinctive ontology of each has been grossly overlooked. Amateur theatre particularly has the tendency to mimic its more popular cousin, often to disastrous results.

The basic concept of a theatre on wheels is itself a clever synthesis of theatre and cinema. While the latter extracts its material from the wide expanse of the real world which is framed through the lenses of the camera, the former gains form upon a stage – a demarcated space and a sanctuary housed within the real. In Cargo, the sites of the stage and the real world are reversed. The tiny cargo becomes the domain of the real and the world exterior to it its stage. The entire experience is that of a road movie experienced live.

The integration of cinematic language within the live performance also serves it well. Some of the most compelling moments of the work result from the purposeful employment of the cinematic frame, camera-like movement and “subtitling”. Complete that with the nimble soundscape by Evan Tan and the rich vocals of Celine Rosa Tan and Judee Tan and you have a near-perfect work.

I say “near-perfect” because the production is not without its flaws. While the representation of the Singapore landscape as that of Kuala Lumpur does create some interesting juxtapositions, I find the comparisons pointed and reductive at times. The transitions into the video segments of the show could have also been less flimsy. But my main quibble is with the short documentary video sequences which introduce the everyday workings of the logistics and transportation industry. They appear more like advertisements that add little to the work.

But these are insignificant scratches upon what is otherwise an extraordinary gem of this year’s arts festival. So wait no longer and hop on for the ride!

Rui An