The Pandemic Year of Arts

The art of getting through a pandemic: 10 works of art from a Covid-19 year

The Silence Of A Falling Tree staged as part of the Singapore International Festival Of Arts v2.020. PHOTO: THE ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

SINGAPORE - Though Covid-19 closures devastated Singapore's arts scene, they did not stop the creation of new work. The Straits Times' reviewers take a look back at 10 productions, concerts and exhibitions between March 26 last year and today (March 25) that got them through the pandemic year.

Olivia Ho picks:

1. Theatre


Index, The Studios

Esplanade Theatre, Jan 14 to 17

It is hard to explain in words why I was so profoundly moved by a show that basically involved sitting on the Esplanade Theatre stage, watching light travel around the space. Yet #Theatre, helmed by lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, was perhaps the most powerful and cathartic response I have seen to the loss that the pandemic has exacted on the performing arts scene. It was all space, no people. It asked: What is a theatre with nobody in it?

2. Exhibition


Singapore Art Museum, Proposals For Novel Ways Of Being

National Gallery Singapore, Sept 4 to Feb 21

Drop Of Light (Pyramid) by Ashley Yeo at exhibition Time Passes by Singapore Art Museum. PHOTO: ST FILE

Time passes differently in a pandemic. This exhibition, which takes its title from a section of Virginia Woolf's 1927 novel To The Lighthouse, subtly navigates a "corridor of time" through expressions of stillness and care, from Yeyoon Avis Ann's documenting of her rainy day ritual of saving snails to Ashley Yeo's delicate paper pyramid, hand-cut with breathtaking intricacy.

3. Theatre


Wild Rice

Wild Rice @ Funan, Nov 4 to 22

Siti Khalijah Zainal in An Actress Prepares by Wild Rice. PHOTO: RUEY LOON

This monologue, in which actress Siti Khalijah Zainal tells her life story as she prepares for a show, was the play with which Wild Rice reopened its theatre after months of closure. It proved the perfect choice. Alfian Sa'at's script, first devised in 2016 and reworked for the Covid-19 era, gained uncanny resonances which made this love letter to live theatre all the more poignant.

Ong Sor Fern picks:

4. Theatre


T:>Works, N.O.W. festival

YouTube Live, July 23

King, written by and starring Jo Tan, delves into the limits and accesses of male privilege. PHOTO: DANIEL CHOONG, PIXEL ARTIST

Actress-writer Jo Tan's one-woman show, about a meek office executive who discovers her secret drag king persona, was the only local production I have seen which worked beautifully online. This is thanks in large part to director Jasmine Ng, who staged this like a film, with different camera angles supporting Tan's multiple character changes. Tan's script explored gender assumptions with nuance and sensitivity, and her performance was a tour de force.

5. Theatre


Compound, Singapore International Festival of Arts v2.020

Victoria Theatre, Dec 12 and 13

The Silence Of A Falling Tree was staged as part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts. PHOTO: ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

Arts collective Compound created a four-part audio experience, the final instalment of which was staged at the Victoria Theatre after theatres were allowed to reopen. This serendipitous decision produced a thought-provoking meditation about theatre, audiences and the power of shared imagination. This was pandemic theatre-making in the truest sense, a piece circumscribed but not limited by the coronavirus.

Toh Wen Li picks:

6. Exhibition


National Gallery Singapore, Nov 27 to present

Georgette Chen: At Home In The World at the National Gallery Singapore. PHOTO: ST FILE

Georgette Chen, born in 1906 in China, was a well-travelled cosmopolitan and a gifted portraitist - as this robust, gorgeous retrospective amply demonstrates. It shines a light on the late pioneer artist's early years and her time in Malaya and Singapore, with 69 artworks and 74 archival items. Among the rich offerings are large-scale paintings such as Hakka Family (1939) and Family Portrait (1954), as well as a 1949 letter to Chen's friend Soong Ching-Ling, also known as Madam Sun Yat Sen.

Benson Ang picks:

7. Theatre


Toy Factory Productions, Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts

Esplanade Theatre, Feb 19 to 28

Actors Johnny Ng (left) and Timothy Wan performing in All The World Is One's Stage at the Esplanade Theatre. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

Pursuing one's passion is already hard, let alone during a pandemic. This Mandarin production wove together the life stories of four Singapore stage veterans - Leanne Ong Teck Lian, Liow Shi Suen, Yong Ser Pin and Johnny Ng - into a tender valentine to acting. Their anecdotes and tales of dedication to their craft, amid tough economic conditions and other difficulties, were an inspiration to keep chugging along at one's passion in life, even in the face of adversity.

Chang Tou Liang picks:

8. Concert


Wong Kah Chun

YouTube Live, July 30

Chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Wong Kah Chun, leads musicians in a virtual performance of the Ode To Joy segment from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. PHOTO: ROLTON PRODUCTIONS

In what was possibly mankind's darkest hour of the new millennium, Singaporean conductor Wong's "universal musical kampung" of more than 1,000 professional and amateur musicians delivered a heartwarming message in Beethoven's Ode To Joy. Within a virtual concert hall with a 360-degree view of all performers, this marvel of modern digital technology and innovation made Schiller and Beethoven's credo of "All people become brothers" a memorable and immersive experience worth savouring over and over.

9. Concert


Ding Yi Music Company

Stamford Arts Centre Black Box, Nov 15

Ding Yi Music Company put on their first physical concert of the year, Together We Stand, Live Again!, at the Stamford Arts Centre Black Box on Nov 15, 2020. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DING YI MUSIC COMPANY

Ding Yi was one of the first groups to put on live concerts after the circuit breaker. It did so with fully masked performers and wind players sequestered behind screens resembling Covid-19 swabbing stations. The audience was divided into two blocs - in a gallery and onstage near the musicians - resulting in a surround-sound experience. The programme of Chinese and locally composed works was a contrapuntal stew.

Melissa Quek picks:

10. Dance



Online, Aug 17 to Sept 27

A screenshot of Jiwang, a karaoke dance film by P7:1SMA. PHOTO: P7:1SMA

At a time when audiences were overwhelmed by a surfeit of impersonal online content that failed to capture the live experience, this dance film was a welcome relief. Presented like a karaoke playlist of jiwang (1980s and 1990s Malay slow rock music), it allowed the audience to choose tracks and sing along at home. Performers juxtaposed the sappy music with mundane tasks such as eating cup noodles or applying make-up. This staged intimacy created a vulnerability lacking in other shows.

  • The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards will go on hiatus, in the light of the unprecedented disruptions caused to Singapore's theatre scene by the Covid-19 pandemic. Productions from last year will be considered alongside this year's for the 2022 edition of the awards.

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