Sifa’s O.P.E.N. pre-festival drew almost 16,500 people

Argentinian artist Marina Otero pieces together her life through an eclectic medley of dance, song, monologue and mixed-media art in Remember 30 Years To Live In 65 Minutes.
Argentinian artist Marina Otero pieces together her life through an eclectic medley of dance, song, monologue and mixed-media art in Remember 30 Years To Live In 65 Minutes.PHOTO: ANDRES MANRIQUE

The O.P.E.N., the prelude to the Singapore International Festival of Arts, drew more than 16,000 people

Euthanasia, war and the refugee crisis seem like tough topics to chew on for a pre-festival programme meant to whet the audience's appetite for the arts.

But The O.P.E.N.'s risky programming paid off.

This year, the prelude to the Singapore International Festival of Arts drew its largest crowd yet.

Nearly 16,500 people flocked to the 43 programmes, held from June 22 to July 9. This is double the crowd for the inaugural edition of The O.P.E.N. in 2014 and up from 12,000 last year.

Most of the live performances and talks were sold out this year, says festival director Ong Keng Sen, adding: "This was the first year we had to turn people away at the door.

"Audiences are definitely ready for new challenges and they want to combine pop-rock, thinking through about euthanasia and a fashion show."

The bold line-up this year dared to confront the bleak realities of the world - British film-maker Sean McAllister's A Syrian Love Story (2015), for example, follows two political prisoners who fall in love but ultimately find their family torn apart by the Syrian war.

It also featured personalities, who have pushed the boundaries of their fields and shone the light on the potential a person has to bring about change.

One of them was Mexican fashion designer Carla Fernandez, who works with indigenous communities and whose ateliers at The O.P.E.N. were fully subscribed.

Ong says: "Surprisingly, the provocative performances and salons were strongly attended, indicating that audiences were actively participating in the exchange of ideas."

A hot pick was Ibsen: Ghosts, a documentary performance by German theatre collective Markus &Markus, about an 81-year-old woman's journey to Switzerland for assisted suicide.

"Many people were crying at the show, shattered to see the video of her last minutes... But the questions at the post-show dialogue were also very rational, mature and compassionate," says Ong.

"I have seen worse post-show dialogues in Europe, I must say. I was very proud of our audiences. They showed that the ground is definitely ready in Singapore."

Another crowd favourite was award-winning Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian's I Know Why The Rebel Sings, an exhibition that showcases the staggering range of her work, from war reportage to artistic portraits of the private lives of the people of Iran.

The exhibition at times drew several hundreds in a day - "very unusual for a non-museum solo show", says Ong.

It opened on June 22 to some controversy, after the Media Development Authority objected to photographs depicting Kurdish female soldiers, who had joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Fifteen photographs, which had originally been published in a 2015 issue of Time magazine, were removed and replaced with black cards.

"So many people came out of curiosity, but were riveted by her sensitivity and intelligence," Ong says.

That was the case for sales manager David Lim, 43.

"I went because I wanted to see what the fuss was about," he says. "But then I had the time to walk around and look at her work, which are not just beautiful, but also powerful. They tell stories. It was eye-opening to see a different side of Iran."

He was hoping to sign up for one of Newsha's two talks, but they were already oversubscribed.

The O.P.E.N. also saw the old Kallang Airport come alive for Club Malam, a three-night art bash.

Hundreds of tickets were sold at the door, says Ong, and there were many repeat audiences, who turned up for all three nights.

Barista Mohamad Khairul Nizam spent two nights there, dancing along to the sounds of Indonesian rock band Senyawa and mingling with the 100 performers dressed up as Singapore artist Speak Cryptic's signature black-and-white characters.

The 28-year-old, a first-timer at the festival, bought a $45 pass that grants access to all 43 of its programmes.

"Club Malam was the event that I wanted to attend, but I decided to be kiasu and buy the pass just in case I felt like going for anything else," he says with a laugh.

He ended up watching A Syrian Love Story and viewing two exhibitions.

The single pass, all-access format, gives arts buffs and newbies the opportunity to venture into different genres of arts

Ong says: "An O.P.E.N. community emerged - people who initially had a preference for a particular genre were more open and invested more time in engaging with other genres and formats."

The programme this year got people thinking and talking more in the run-up to the Singapore International Festival of Arts, which opens next month, with lively participation at talks and post-show dialogues.

It is evident that audiences are "taking ownership of the ideas, issues and themes" explored, says Ong.

He is convinced that Singapore audiences are eager for something new in Singapore's art programming: "They want to have the adventure of hopping from one extreme to another."

He felt that strongly in Argentinian artist Marina Otero's one-woman show Remember 30 Years To Live In 65 Minutes, which hurtles through her life through an eclectic medley of dance, song, monologue and mixed-media art.

"The audiences, mostly young, were admiring and yearning to have her freedom to just be," says Ong. "To move from poetry to action movies in one life, in one night."

•The Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from Aug 11 to Sept 17. For more information, visit sifa.sg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Risky line-up pays off'. Print Edition | Subscribe