'Singapore Electric Soul' offers a different gaze at a 50 year-old Singapore

Still from Ho Tau Nyen's 'Utama Every Nation in History'

At first glimpse, I was not sure what to call this project. To call it a screening of Singapore films seems reductive and ignorant of the dialogue that goes on beyond the constraints of a screening. While scoped within the parameters of an exhibition, the spirit of the project extends beyond these parameters, and many of the ideas presented are worthy of boundless, lengthy conversations. It is also possibly a French love affair with Singapore and Singapore art. Aptly titled Singapour mon amour, this is an event that featured Singapore art in various disciplines including film, in Paris from 4 June to 12 July this year. 

Works from 40 artists and intellectuals were brought together by a brilliant French-Singaporean team consisting of editor Mickaël Robert-Gonçalves, producers Patricia Cartier-Millon and Jeremy Chua and graphic designer Winnie Wu. In collaboration with musée du quai Branly, Centre Georges Pompidou, Église Saint-Merry, La Cinémathèque française and Point Éphémère, these works were given air time in Paris, opening up the eyes of the French to Singaporean works. 

Part of Singapour mon amour is its film programme called Singapore Electric Soul. As Singapore turns 50 years old this year, this showcase looks beneath the sheen of economic success and order and tries to find the latent voices hidden underneath sweeping rhetoric about Singapore and its identity. 

As a co-curator for this program, Nicole Brenez, a film scholar and professor of cinema studies at the Sorbonne Universityin Paris, describes the group of films presented:

'The usual representations of Singapore as a natural paradise or as a conquering city-state, a lookout for economic and architectural modernity, are yet challenged by more complex, elegant and sometimes unexpected propositions expressed by a generation of visual artists both critical and constructive.' 

Here are some photo highlights of Singapore Mon Amour in Paris earlier in June.

The online publication of this homonymous interdisciplinary art project was launched at The Select Centre Bookroom at The Arts House last Saturday 21 Nov. It houses a more complete introduction to the project as well as statements by the curators. It retraces the artistic and intellectual achievements collected during the visual arts, cinema, performance and research events in Paris and features portraits, interviews, visual, sonorous and textual contributions by some of Singapore's and France's most striking artists and cultural practitioners. 

Click here to get to the online publication.

SINdie caught up with Silke Schmickl, Curator of Singapour mon amour and Head of Lowave, to pry beneath the thought layers of this project.

Still from Rajendra Gour's 'Labour of Love'

Still from Ming Wong's 'Hong Kong Diary'

Still from Liao Jiekai's 'Before the Wedlock House'

Jeremy: I really like the idea of putting together these films that present a very alternative and perhaps critical gaze at Singapore, that are also edge in terms of style. How did the idea of curating a set of films like these films come about?

Silke: The four film programmes screened under the title "Singapore Electric Soul" which I curated together with Nicole Brenez, a film scholar and professor of cinema studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris, was part of a bigger art project called "Singapour mon amour". I developed "Singapour mon amour" as part of the Singapore Festival in France 2015, organised by NHB and Institut Français. "Singapour mon amour" (Singapore my Love) speaks about my love for Singapore, but also the complex relationship that many of the selected artists entertain with their home country, sometimes a love/hate relationship. In this regards, the title is also freely inspired by one my favorite films, "Hiroshima mon amour" by Alain Resnais, in which the encounter of the East and West is subtly developed through a personal love story that allows to look at the bigger history, the socio-cultural, political and historical background of these two lovers and their respective countries. The film demonstrates the urgent necessity of memory, the horror of neglect, and the capacity of speech to rise up the past in the present. Within the context of Singapore's 50s anniversary of Independence, the framework of this festival, the question of memory and how we can look at this past of modern Singapore, and also the present and future appeared as a key question.

Still from Rajendra Gour's Sunshine Singapore'

Still from Tan Pin Pin's 'Invisible City'

"Singapour mon amour" was composed of four modules dedicated to film, visual arts, performance and research, supplemented by an online publication which will be launched on Lowave's website by the end of this month. Each component had the objective to critically examine urban, socio-political and historical aspect's of the city state, and to pay tribute to alternative currents, individual and daring art initiatives and cutting edge culture in a broader sense. I wanted to provide an interdisciplinary platform where theory and practice could enter a dialogue, question, stimulate and enrich each other. It was in that sense a classical Lowave project as all our projects since 2002 have been developed at the nexus of cinema, visual arts and research.

My first entry point to the Singaporean art scene was the 1st Experimental Film Forum held at The Substation in 2010. During that event, I did not only see films that triggered my interest, but also met many wonderful filmmakers, artists and programmers with whom I stayed in touch and who made me discover more fascinating works over time. I slowly started composing programmes in my head, based on thematic and stylistic analogies and affinities that I sensed. This happened very naturally and long before "Singapour mon amour", yet this project provided the perfect opportunity to translate these thoughts into a concrete selection of films. Before presenting them in Paris we got the chance to show a smaller selection at ICA Singapore in January as part of Art Week 2015. The turnout of this event was fantastic, we had 800 spectators and this great energy carried us until Paris where the final selection was screened at La Cinemathèque française on 12 June and 3 July 2015. 

Jeremy: Could you share about your curation process, e.g. how did you go about selecting these films? 

Silke: The curation process took us almost a year. Based on a list of films I already had in mind we enlarged our research through various catalogues such as Objectifs' film data base or The Substation's film archive. I had a lively discussion with Wenjie Zhang who made me discover Rajendra Gour's beautiful films from the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as Zai Kuning's "RIAU". Ho Tzu Nyen made me discover Jason Soo's work. Other films were found on vimeo, such as Loo Zihan's "Autopsy" or Kevin Foong's "Sunsets of another world". I shared these films with Nicole who had a fresh look at them as she had not been working with Singapore before. With her unique expertise in avant-garde cinema, she analysed the works from a more international point of view and put them into a very interesting perspective. We decided to present the films in four thematic blocks: the geography and history of Singapore, everyday life and social issues, art as a moment of fiction, and a homage to Tan Pin Pin. The overall title "Singapore Electric Soul" alludes to Nelson Yeo's "Chinatown. Electric Soul #01". According to our respective curatorial practice, we both had the desire to present works originating from the art and cinema context, with a variety of styles ranging from documentaries to home movies, essay films and installation pieces. We were interested in examining various creative strategies employed by the artists, to speak, despite a restricted liberty of expression, critically and even politically about certain facts of Singapore's history. 

Still from Zai Kunning's 'Riau'

Still from Loo Zihan's 'Autopsy'

Jeremy: What in your opinion are some of the most interesting films among your selection? Why?

Silke: This question is always difficult to answer as I like them all and for me each of the films is essential in the holistic composition of the programmes. I am definitively a fan of Ho Tzu Nyen's work and in this particular context especially "4x4 – Episode 3: Tang Da Wu – The most radical gesture", and in this same subversive spirit Urich Lau's "The Orators: Monologues", a very interesting collage film based on 3 cinema classics by Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Rajendra Gour's "Eyes", is also one of my favourites as an example of an early experimental film with a political dimension. I am attached to Jiekai Liao's personal approach and the silent beauty of his super-8 film "As winter escapes me". Zai Kuning's "RIAU" is a sublime and rare anthropological document on the world of the Orang Laut, a nomadic fishing village that lives around the islands of Riau. Sookoon Ang's emblematic and bold "Exorcize me" and Tan Pin Pin's beautifully choreographed montage in "9th August" are also personal highlights of the selection. Nicole was very interested in Tan Pin Pin's and Zai Kunings’ work and also "Peep" by Wesley Leon Aroozoo, "Solitary Moon" by Eva Tang, "Sunsets of another world" by Kevin Foong…

Still from Rajendra Gour's 'Eyes'

Still from Tan Pin Pin '9th August'

Still from Wesley Leon Aroozoo 'Peep'

Still from Eva Tang's 'Solitary Moon'

Jeremy: What's the general impression of Singapore cinema among the French? (if there is even an impression at all)

Silke: The programmes were very well received and were a real discovery for the French audience who got to see for the first time video art and experimental films from Singapore. If several of Pin Pin's films were shown at the Cinema du Réel Festival at Centre Pompidou before, and some other films here and there, it was the first time that such an important body of work was presented in one cycle, which was furthermore part of the month-long "Cinémas de Singapour", a programme curated for Cinemathèque by Warren Sin. It was important to illustrate, that beside the more commercial productions, there are other alternative and personal filmmaking styles in Singapore. Even if there is a local tone and cultural specificity in the presented films, they are universal enough to speak to anyone who is interested in audio-visual experimentations and avant-garde cinema, as well as Sout-East Asia. Pascale Cassagnau, an important figure for art films and the head of the audiovisual and new media collections at Centre National des Arts Plastiques, an equivalent of the National Arts Council, congratulated us after the screening for the high quality of the programmes. I would like to share this positive feedback with the local filmmakers as an encouragement to continue the essential work that they do for the development of a rich, unafraid and diverse art scene in their country. 

Jeremy: I am quite intrigued that the experimental film forum sparked off your interest in Singapore film. Having to been to some of the past editions, many of the works are of a more esoteric nature that may not be the easiest way to get a feel of Singapore because the experiences are highly personal to the filmmakers. Could share more about what in the experimental films you saw sparked of your interest.

Silke: Seeing EARTH by Ho Tzu Nyen moved me deeply. I had never heard of Tzu’s work before but this film resonated very strongly in me as I had studied many of the paintings he alludes to during my art history studies. The experience was unique, this mixture of familiarity and strangeness, of understanding without knowing why. When we talked about the film later, we found out that we were reading the same books, for example "Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot" by art critic Michael Fried, a great study on the place of the spectator and art perception theory. I also remember Wesley’s and Nelson’s films and was glad to see some films again which I really like such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s "Mysterious Object at Noon", "Mobile Men" or "Block B" by Chris Chong. Seing that there were parallels and intersections between The Substation and Lowave made me feel comfortable and as I mentioned before, the encounters with people such as Victric Thng, Low BK, Aishah Abu Bakar, Tzu Nyen, William Phuan, were as important as the works. 

Jeremy: Name me your favourite Singapore film of all time.

Silke: This is another difficult question to answer as my knowledge of Singapore film is still rudimentary and I have not started to explore Singapore’s feature films, not even those of Jiekai, Boo Junfeng… If I have to pick a film that I really loved and discovered recently it’s Daniel Hui’s "Snakeskin", a brilliant work in many regards, with an extremely inventive and original cinematographic language. Definitively a film I would highly recommend. 

Here are some photo highlights of the online publication launch on 21 November:

Interview by Jeremy Sing
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