Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Testing the Silence by Rui An
June 21, 2011, 5:20 pm
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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


Bodies as Violence by Rui An
June 7, 2011, 3:38 am
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Tempest: Without a Body by Lemi Ponifasio/ MAU

Tempest: Without a Body by Lemi Ponifasio/ MAU

How do we stage the primitive? How do we enact violence? These are critical questions to be addressed in considering Lemi Ponifasio’s Tempest: Without a Body, the production which has attracted one of the most polarising reactions at this year’s arts festival. While some members of audience have been most profuse with their compliments, there are those who absolutely hated it, with walk-outs happening as early as fifteen minutes into the show.

Most of the flak were directed towards what was seen as a gratuitous sensory assault, at times tending towards audience abuse. Others decried its apparent lack of meaning, denouncing it as an overblown aesthetic excursion. Both accusations puzzle me, less so due to the justifications provided – which I must say contain a ring of validity -, but the vehemence with which they are articulated. After all, there are a good many other productions at the festival which are equally, if not more vulnerable towards such indictments, and none of them have attracted dislike of such extent.

The reason for this perhaps lies in the sheer baggage of expectations that Tempest had to contend with, most of which were simply not fulfilled. For one, the title carries a heavy literary reference and I would not be surprised if anyone had walked in expecting to see a re-interpretation of the Shakespearean classic. Other references in the programme notes – “post-911”, “Giorgio Agamben”, “institutional injustice”, “terrorism” and “colonialism” – farther suggests an engagement with prevailing political discourses, when discursivity is perhaps the one thing that Ponifasio eschews.

Interestingly, it is the reference that I feel was the least discussed that singularly defined the performance for me – Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Klee is a fitting source of inspiration in many ways, for the works of the painter-aesthetician are similarly bold experiments that come with subdued and thus all the more unsettling political undertones.

Angelus Novus (1920), Paul Klee

Angelus Novus (1920), Paul Klee

In Angelus Novus, we see a monster which Walter Benjamin has once described as “the angel of history”. There is something bewitching about this grotesque semblance of an angel, particularly with its sphinx-liked countenance and its head of unfurling scrolls that resembles Medusa’s. Its wings are spread out, but appear locked in stasis. The angel is suspended not in flight, but in limbo. Its gaze is averted away from the viewer, disregarding the present while fixated with an invisible time-space that Benjamin described to be that of history. Its beastly jaws are open, but the viciousness of its snarl is deflated by the tiny fangs that stick out rather lamely. It is an image of surrender, of a hapless angel stupefied by the vistas that it encounters as it is propelled away by the winds of change.

Like in Tempest, the political undercurrents in Angelus Novus are perceptible, but they are there not to buttress a tedious exegesis of what the work is about, but to be dissolved into the textures that constitutes what the work is. As it seems, both Ponifasio and Klee are artists who do not seek for interpretation as an end-point; instead, interpretation, if necessary at all, is that which enriches experience, meant to farther sensitise us to the sensorial plenitude presented.

This is why one who tries to construe Tempest as a kind of political text must necessarily falter, for this is a work that demands not reading, but direct experience. In this theatre of textures, ominous drones, baroque designs and traumatised bodies dominate, collectively conjuring a haunting yet intensely lyrical world.

A naked body wriggles across a raised platform in spasmodic motion.

A naked body wriggles across a raised platform in spasmodic motion.

The performance opens abruptly with an acoustic explosion, blaring into our ears a wall of mechanical noises. Upon the stage, a hunched, tottering woman appears, dwarfed by a massive, vertical wall with a rock-like surface that is suspended from the ceiling. She appears to be an angel, but the tiny wings that spurt out of her back like vestigial appendages make her look more like a monster. She cannot fly, for the wings that are usually the embodiment of freedom are upon her an ugly deformity. Her body is soiled with dirt, her face ghoulish and the scream that she howls pained and chilling to the bone. This recurring image of the ravaged angel-monster is one of the show’s most startling, and the first of the many traumatised bodies that follow.

Later, a naked, supine body is seen wobbling across a raised platform. He appears not to be moving at his own whim, impelled instead by the onslaught of spasms that run through the length of his torso like a malevolent current. Here, we see the interplay of light, colour and body at its most ingenious. Against the coarse texture of the towering wall, the man appears like a gleaming sapling of a being, with the reflected sheen taking on a surreal purple-grey hue due to the paint on the body. This subtle colouration of the body, seen also in the other performers, is one of the most delicately devised features of the show. Against the inky blackness of the stage, these tinted bodies gain a spectral translucency that suggests their gradual disappearance. The colour is also striking for its reminiscences of the paintings of Francis Bacon, in which the very same hue appears upon the coagulated, deoxygenated bodies that too, lie like pieces of carcasses upon an improvised plinth of sorts.

Two Figures (1963), Francis Bacon

Two Figures (1963), Francis Bacon

This connection with Bacon, I believe, is more than serendipitous, for in its portrayal of violence, Ponifasio has created what Deleuze, in writing on the paintings of Bacon, called the “violence of sensation”, and here, I find no better way to convey the nuances of this notion than to quote directly from the author himself:

What fascinates Bacon is not movement, but its effect on an immobile body: heads whipped by the wind or deformed by an aspiration, but also all the interior forces that climb through the flesh. To make the spasm visible. The entire body becomes plexus. If there is feeling in Bacon, it is not a taste for horror, it is pity, an intense pity: pity for the flesh, including the flesh of dead animals…

It is the confrontation of the Figure and the field… that rips the painting away from all narrative but also from all symbolization. When narrative or symbolic, figuration obtains only the bogus violence of the represented or the signified; it expresses nothing of the violence of sensation (emphasis mine) – in other words, of the act of painting.

Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze

The precision with which Delueze’s text can be applied upon Ponifasio’s work is almost uncanny. Indeed, the bodies that populate the stage have been stripped of their capacity for symbolisation. They do not perform, represent or signify violence but are, simply put, the very incidence of it happening. The presence of these diminutive bodies upon the vast cavern of the stage is itself a point of resistance, as each solitary figure wrestles with space that presses upon his body-space. Whether is it the four-legged beast who restlessly circles the stage against an unruly soundscape of barking dogs, or the hefty, heavily-tatooed man who stands solemnly like a bulwark protecting the Maori tradition, the bodies we encounter all remind us of their vulnerability to the surrounding elements. Their movements are prolonged, repetitive and at times Butoh-like, as if their bodies are in pereptual negotiation with the forces acting from within and without them.

The four-legged beast prowls the stage.

The four-legged beast prowls the stage.

Meanwhile, in counterpoint to these slow-moving, traumatised bodies are the fleet-footed men in black who frequently glide into the stage to enact a set of highly controlled and ritualistic gestures. With their synchronised thigh-slapping and hurried shuffling of feet, these bald, monk-like men come across as a squad of lifeless automatons. Could they possibly, just possibly, signify the bureaucratic colonisers?

Indeed, it would be doctrinaire to consider Tempest as a pure experience devoid of all potential for signification. There are certainly many possible ways to read the performance if one wants to. For one, the distinctive Maori elements already point towards a potential post-colonial discourse. The work could also very well be a larger, more encompassing examination of human history, with the suspended wall construed as a civilisational mural that bears the marks of its vicissitudes.

But these possibilities for signification, I believe, must remain just that – as pure possibilities; insinuations that serve to intensify our experience of the performance’s textures, without reducing them to mere devices for aiding interpretation.

In fact, it is when the performance tries to do the latter, when it tries to interpret itself, that it slightly comes apart. The sequence in which the tatooed man reappears in a corporate suit to delivering a blistering speech against the Christian invaders, for instance, is far too direct, even jarring against the general abstraction of the piece. Other parts such as when the squad of automatons begin to hurl chucks of plaster against a helpless man, creating a massive cloud of white dust; or when the angel-woman tries to use the fallen dust to wash herself, are far too reminiscent of the old-fashioned clichés of purgatory and redemption.

Notably, it is when the performance consciously tries to invoke that the power of its expression becomes lost.

In my conclusion, I turn once again to Deleuze. On the figures on Bacon’s paintings, he said:

These are monsters from the point of view of figuration. But from the point of view of the Figures themselves, these are rhythms and nothing else, rhythms as in a piece of music, as in the music of Messiaen, which makes you hear “rhythmic characters”.

The monsters of Ponifasio’s universe are precisely that: rhythms – rhythms of terror and paralysis that nonetheless manage to animate the senses and expand the power of theatre.

Ho Rui An