Zentai artists wearing full-body spandex costumes bemuse onlookers

Zentai artists in full-body spandex suits explore issues of identity

Japanese artist Yuzuru Maeda helps to zip up her statuesque friend, transgender artist Marla Bendini, into a full-body black lace number at Lasalle College of the Arts last Friday evening.

They draw some curious onlookers attracted by Bendini's ensemble, which also comprises black high-heeled combat boots and a train made of a camouflage-print ground sheet.

Among them is Lasalle fine arts student Sharyl Lam, who leaves her books to take a photo with Bendini.

The 22-year-old says: "I was studying and realised that something awesome was happening, so I came." She talks to the pink-clad Maeda, 36, and soon, she joins Bendini, 28, in a black spandex suit to walk down Albert Street.

The world starts to look like a Keith Haring painting.

Zentai, short for "zenshin taitsu", involves the wearing of a skin-tight spandex suit that covers every part of a person's body, including the face. Created in Japan in the 1980s by photographer Marcy Anarchy, it is an art form that explores issues of identity as it conceals and reveals the wearer in different ways.

Maeda, a Singapore permanent resident, is the organiser of the Zentai Art Festival, which is taking place till June 5. At the Earl Lu Gallery in Lasalle, an exhibition exploring the phenomenon of zentai is on display till May 10.

Joining Bendini and Ms Lam at Lasalle is performance artist Chand Chandramohan, 22, also clad in black, and a mystery man dressed in a zebra-print outfit, who wants to be known only as Jasper.

The engineer in his 30s says he does zentai at home as a form of meditation. He does not want to give his last name and says he is doing this walk "just for kicks".

When all are ready, the zentai artists walk down Albert Street, a pedestrianised lane near Sim Lim Square mainly populated by tourists and local seniors. Looking like a more artistic version of TV's Power Rangers, they create a minor stir.

Passers-by whip out their phones and stare openly. A child bumps into Chandramohan and screams, running for his mother. Maeda waves at a baby in a stroller and his parents smile back.

A girl goes up to Ms Lam and asks: "Are you Sharyl?" After getting an affirmative answer, she says: "Are you crazy?"

"Maybe I have an aura," says Ms Lam, hazarding a guess as to how her friend recognised her despite having her face covered.

The quintet cross a road and the red and green men in the traffic light appear to join them as zentai artists.

As they sit down for a while, a crowd of about 30 people surround them, arms extended to take photos on smartphones. Bendini buys an ice-cream cone from a nearby seller, prompting a Chinese tourist to laugh in amazement: "She wants to eat."

It is tough to eat when your face is covered, but it is possible as the suit is porous.

As quickly as the onlookers form around the zentai group, they disperse when Maeda approaches them to shake hands. Those who do accept her pink hand do so with a mix of amusement and fascination.

Maeda tells her name to an elderly man, who then asks: "Is that Kumar?" He is gesturing towards Bendini, who is now doing a performance where it looks like she is "licking" the ice cream while wearing a mask that resembles the lips and tongue design from a Rolling Stones album.

Soon, most of the people move on, thinking it to be an art or fashion shoot.

As the group walk back to Lasalle after a refreshment break at Albert Centre Market & Food Centre (the zentai practitioners drink through the fabric covering their heads), Chandramohan says that the suit makes her feel rather isolated. It is her first time wearing zentai.

Ms Lam says that she had wanted to break out into a dance initially, but changed her mind as she "didn't want it to be a performance".

This reporter finds the different reactions fascinating. "I wish I had worn the suit with you guys," I blurt out, feeling a little like a loser.

Says Jasper: "You should - you don't know what it feels like until you try it."

He disappears into the basement and the last thing I see is his retreating back. I cannot see his face, but I imagine that he is smiling.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg