Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, May 31, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
7,000 fire pots cascaded from banyan trees, metal spheres, and garlands attached to trees and then anchored in the ground from the waterfront park in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum, part of the heritage trail, in Singapore.
The smell of burning wax permeated the air. The humidity commingled with the heat from the fires.
I had wandered over to the installation with Stewart and my NTU colleagues Sharon Lin Tay and Adam Knee. On the way, we stopped to listen in on a Filipino cover band doing a cover of Jason Mraz pop hit, I'm Yours. They were good-- in fact, so great that at first we thought they were not a cover band at all but the back-up band for Jason Mraz himself-- but we kept walking anyway. It was a warm, lovely, sultry night.
At first, we spotted a couple of fires in pots along the river. Then, as we turned the corner, a massive spectacle of fire and metal machines engulfed our senses. Sleeveless white men’s t-shirts hung from metal poles, illuminated like ghosts from charcoal suspended beneath the shirt. They evoked the custom of drying laundry on bamboo poles hung outside here in Southeast Asia.
Near the bridge, a large vertical metal machine, referencing the coal industry in 19th century Europe, bloomed huge plumes of smoke intermittently, moving up and down. Under a white tent with flames poking out of small hanging globes, experimental music from a single bassoon player laying tracks into a looper in a Erik Satie-like fantasia drifted through the park. We were startled. We kept getting drawn deeper into the installation—it was massive.
A forest of fire burned through the Empress Place Precinct and the Esplanade Park, the opening kick-off event of the first weekend of the Singapore Arts Festival.
Called Invitation to Dream—A Fire Garden Installation, the fiery sculpture garden was produced by the Compagnie Carabosse from France, a group that concocts a sort of public space alchemy by combining street art, circus, experimental music, sculpture. It was easy to spot the artists –wearing black pants, sleeveless white t-shirts, suspenders and black hats, they looked like chimney sweeps. They tended the fires and pumped the machines. And sweated.
Running for a month from May 14-June 13, the Singapore Arts Festival started in 1977 as a way to celebrate local arts emerging from Singapore’s different communities—Chinese, Malay, Indian. It’s now grown to a month of inspiring, must-see events that include dance, music, theater, multimedia productions, and street buskers with a focus on Asia but also conversing with the rest of the globe. It features 34 premier productions from 20 countries/regions. Part of the festival is ticketed, and part is free.
Almost every show has some kind of audience talk back session. It’s really heartening to see how many people stay and how perceptive the questions are. The lack of pretension (compared to what I often encounter in the snobby Northeast arts and intellectual scene in the US) and the embrace of the works and the artists is notable, and refreshing.
We didn’t know what to expect, but we were swept up into a feeling of awe, whimsy, delight, surprise—and shock. Everywhere we turned out heads, a maze of simple yet eery machines and fire. Was this avant garde, edgy cauldron of fire and music happening in public in Singapore, a city renowned as much for its strict rules about not littering and not assembling as a group in public as it is for its chilli crab and laksa?
This massive installation had to be probably the most extraordinary arts experience I have had in Singapore. Or, really, anywhere.
The sheer daring of fire everywhere is hard to imagine in the US, where insurance and liability issues certainly would constrain something as expansive and bold as this. If it did happen, my guess is that it would be cordoned off, and spectators would watch from a safe distance behind a fence. Since this is Singapore, there were fire specialists roving around the half meter expanse of the installation, but they were so unobstrusive at first I just thought they were artists in different costumes.
Here, people strolled around the fire pots and the pipes billowing fire into the night. A lot of families posed for snapshots by the fire structures, especially around the big 20 foot high globe-like orbs decked with pots of fire.
Malay families with children in strollers roamed around. Young hipster Singaporeans with tight low slung pants and even tighter t shirts, with so much hair product their heads shimmered in the light, caroused in groups. An Indian family had not one but two older members in green and purple saris in wheelchairs. Ang mo (white) tourists from the hotels ambled around in their Patagonia shorts and Tevas. One Chinese Singaporean boy, about four years old, danced around one of the pots of fire at the base of a statue. I spotted just about every age and ethnic group imaginable, all mixed together, communing with each other around the fire.
People were participating, engaging with the sculptures and the fire. As Adam pointed it, even though this was a very experimental art installation, its sheer vastness and the number of people milling about on the grass and on the sidewalks made it feel like a community event. Sharon observed that Invitation to a Dream was like a circus of ideas and embodied art. Yes, it was spectacle—how could 7,000 pots of fire not be?—but it was also human-scaled, approachable, interactive, a puzzle of sight, smell, body, tactility, and conversations about what it all meant. It was magical and provocative.
At the other side of the installation, I heard post-rock music with an electronic beat drifting through the thick, smoky, humid night air. I thought it was a band, and dragged my companions over to the tent.
A guitarist, dressed in a white sleeveless t-shirt and black pants just like the artists, played riffs into some kind of synthesizer. He jabbed continuously at several computers, which I assumed were also laying down tracks into this haunting yet alluring soundscape. The music was soothing yet had a beat, demanding yet accessible. It was completely seductive and mesmerizing. Maybe it was the night. Maybe it was the fire. Maybe it was hearing experimental rock outside by the river in Singapore.
The almost primordial feel of the fire—both visual and physical—contrasted with the expanse of the postmodern cityscape on the other side of the Singapore River.
On the grass just across from the rock musician, large metal tubes spouting fire filled up the small grassy area like fossilized cornstalks. You could only see the patterns of Chinese characters carved into the tubes when the fire shot up and billowed out.
The next Monday back at my office in the School of Communication and Information at NTU, I was chatting with my colleague Fernando Paragas, a Filipino scholar who studies transnational migration and new technologies, about the Invitation to a Dream-A Fire Garden Installation. He, too, had meandered around the Empress Place Precinct amidst the fires over the weekend with some friends.
Fernando revealed that his friends noticed that the words carved into the pipes spelled out the Chinese characters for good fortune and good luck.