Brian Gothong Tan: "I just wanted to express what I know and feel."

Brian Gothong Tan is an award-winning visual artist and filmmaker. An alumnus of California Institute of Arts, he works extensively across a multitude of artistic fields—from designing multimedia for theatrical productions that have toured globally, to making art-works which have exhibited worldwide and lensing films that have shown at film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin.

In Lost Cinema 20/20, an iteration of the Lost Cinema project that was previously staged at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Tan further probes the relationship(s) between history, memory, dreaming, and the filmic mode in a dazzling production that blends installation with text and performance.

Here, Tan speaks to SINdie about his creative process and inspirations for the piece.

What inspired Lost Cinema?

I had many inspirations over the years. One was this three channel video installation by Catherine Sullivan that I saw in Los Angeles a long time ago—the form of it just blew a young me away. Another was the artist Isaac Julien, with whom I showed in an exhibition in Melbourne in 2006. While I knew of his works from before, I was quite inspired by his philosophy after talking to him. I would say that my knowledge of cinema back then was pretty standard, and it was not until I saw works of video art and experimental cinema that I realised we can think outside the box with the cinematic form. I was also very much interested in the idea of dreams; in my art practice, a lot of my inspirations come from my own dreams. So then I started reading about the nature of dreams and found out that there is actually a very strong link between filmmaking and dreaming. When we dream, our subconscious takes memories, perceptions, and all these sensory inputs and then conjures our dream while we are asleep; in a way, it is very much like filmmaking, where you  film scenes and then edit it to finally create a film.

All these are, of course, very abstract, and so I wanted to express this idea in a form that is understandable. I knew I did not want to create a piece that is very philosophical—I am not writing an essay. I just wanted to express what I know and feel. With this in mind, I started this project and applied for a grant to explore what this idea of cinema and dreaming was all about. From then on, I took my inspiration from three different filmmakers who I know: Wong Kar-wai, Eric Khoo, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. With Wong Kar-wai, I like the way he works; he does not really use a script, he just creates and films for months. Meanwhile, Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys was the film that made me want to go into filmmaking when I was younger. Lastly, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady really bowled me over… in a way, it is like I tried to condense these three filmmakers into a love letter. This is the starting point.

What have changed since it was last shown at ICA Singapore?

There were a few major changes, or evolution, I would say. With this showing at Esplanade for The Studio season… well, everybody knows that this is theatre. So, of course, to translate a video installation with a live performance component into a theatre piece is already a change of format. While originally I wanted to do a durational performance, that is maybe five hours long with screens just going on and on, eventually I decided that I should just condense it and make it a more theatrical experience, just perhaps not a standard one.

I roped in Kaylene Tan, a writer whose works I have admired for a long time since she started the performance company Spell#7. In a way, our interests intersect because she had already created nonlinear works before, and her texts are so very poetic and beautiful. I invited her in and now there is the use of text in this iteration. And naturally, I have also brought in more theatre performers to contribute to the piece. While the backbone of this work is still the installation, I would say that I have built more and more layers on top of it. I like to break boundaries. No matter if I am making a film or a piece of theatre, I want to break the boundaries and conventions of the form. However, I also need my creative decisions to be practical—it would be quite impossible to do the five hour performance as I initially wanted, and so, I have decided to merge both considerations into this one piece.

When you watch Lost Cinema 20/20, you will be able to see bits of everything: sometime you may recognise a character arc, sometimes it is more performative, and other times it is almost meditative.

What was your working process like for this?

As I started working with Kaylene, I knew I had to find an entry point to start for the both of us. In my case, I have been on this project for years—I have quite literally been dreaming and thinking about it since I was 21. However, this work is a brand new encounter for Kaylene, and so I decided to be very practical in finding an entry point for her to meet with this idea of cinema and dreams.

Eventually, I went to the Cathay Gallery—which was basically the only film museum we have in Singapore—and then I said that, we can start right here, from the Golden Age of Singapore cinema onwards. I had previously worked on the SG50 commemorations and was then working on the Singapore Bicentennial, so a lot of these ideas of history and memory and dreams was coming up in my mind. I went to the Gallery, and then realised, that there was so much information there about so many of the things that we have lost—things which I was specifically interested in, such as the important Malay films that Cathay-Keris Studio had produced. All this resonated with the idea of Lost Cinema, and so Kaylene and I began to look into it, searching for characters and stories. We dug and dug, but still treating it much like the way we dream up dreams. We read and watched and what we felt resonated with the project, we just picked and chose. We were like the subconscious mind making a dream for a sleeper. And then we just wait and see what we have mixed up and created. My working process was very organic, in this way.

Lastly, how did you come up with the title of Lost Cinema 20/20? Was it just a pun on vision or—?

You are right! I was referencing, of course, the idea of the 20/20 vision and also the fact that this work is being shown in the year 2020. For me, the idea was that when you wake up, you lose your dreams, and if your dreams are your cinema, then you lose your cinema every morning. We are our own directors; we make films in our dreams every night, and when we wake up we forget them—this is the lost cinema.

Lost Cinema 20/20  will premiere on Esplanade Offstage from 12 July, Sun, 3pm and be available online until 18 July, Sat, 11.59pm.

Text/Photography - Alfonse Chiu

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