Best and worst 2016: Arts



• Edith Podesta's B***h: The Origin Of The Female Species

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Esplanade Recital Studio, Jan 21 to 23

This tight, epic play wrung tears - sometimes of laughter - from the audience. The script showed how language and the ability to use it shapes mythology as well as the relationships between a stroke sufferer (Helmut Bakaitis), his wife and his dog (both played by playwright and director Edith Podesta).

• Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival

Lasalle College Of The Arts, June 30 to July 24

Of all the theatre festivals last year, this stood out for showcasing top-notch works of new and recent theatre made in Singapore. Highlights included Hatch Theatrics' poignant death story Hawa; Thomas Lim's Grandmother Tongue, about a character's connection to his Teochew roots; and The Business Times writer Helmi Yusof's playwriting debut, My Mother Buys Condoms, a fiery take on active ageing. The last two were staged by organiser Wild Rice, which also restaged its award-winning SG50 homage, Hotel.

• Drama Box & The Necessary Stage Present Manifesto

The Necessary Stage Black Box, March 9 to 13 & 16 to 20

Two highly skilled theatre troupes came together to create an immersive, multi-layered work that viewers were chewing over for days. Theatre, art installations and multimedia were deployed to put viewers in the shoes of fictional Singaporean artists from 1956 to 2024.

The message about an artist's place in civil society was powerful indeed - and was delivered before opening night, when the-then Media Development Authority gave Manifesto an R18 rating "as it deals with socio-political issues that are more appropriate for a mature audience".


• The Theatre Practice's Descendants 600 and Descendants 400/1 Table 2 Chairs Experimental Series

M1 Chinese Theatre Festival, Black Box, Centre 42, Aug 4 to 7

Director Liu Xiaoyi's sketches inspired by Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral were interesting as visual art, boring as theatre.

The audience was meant to discern the inner thoughts of Admiral Zheng He from an actor staring at a table for 20 minutes. Halfway through, a viewer covered his eyes with his jacket, echoing my sentiments.

Akshita Nanda



• La Loba (M1 Singapore Fringe Festival), Lenka Vagnerova & Company

Esplanade Theatre Studio, Jan 22

Visceral and vivid, this work by a Czech dance company unfolded like a gothic horror film.

Its central character is an old wolf-woman who collects and assembles animal bones to bring these dead creatures back to life. In her world, innocent folk songs end in guttural snarls and movement is predatory and vulnerable. Everything is animated by the potently entwined performances of dancer Andrea Opavska and singer Jana Vebrova.

• Still Life, Dimitris Papaioannou (Singapore International Festival of Arts)

Victoria Theatre, Aug 25

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is condemned to push a rock up a hill over and over again. This endless repetition is explored in Still Life, by Greek choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, but it is a thrilling kind of repetition that celebrates the futility and defiance of human endeavour.

The seven performers drew audible gasps from the audience for their feats of balance and athleticism. One tried to balance on a precarious structure of bricks, while another teetered under the weight of bricks stacked on his head. Still Life looked risk in the eye and, in doing so, brought a little levity to the futility of life.

• Being (Dance In Situ), Zhuo Zihao

Ang Mo Kio 3G Centre, June 24

For two weekends this year, the inconspicuous social service centre Ang Mo Kio 3G Centre came to life, thanks to this performance.

Independent dance artist Zhou Zihao's choreography sent its dancers staggering down slopes, leaning on trees, slouching around a mosaic table and leaping over a drain. The environment provided beautiful frames through which the audience was transported to a new world, where trains and joggers flashing past seemed to be distant reminders of reality.


• In The Mood For Frankie (Singapore International Festival of Arts)

Trajal Harrell, 72-13, Sept 2

There is no doubt about American choreographer Trajal Harrell's wide-ranging inspiration and ambition.

In the Mood For Frankie aimed to re-imagine the relationship between butoh, the Japanese dance of darkness, and the flamboyant Harlem voguing, while tipping its hat to giants in film and fashion.

Unfortunately, instead of exploring a beautiful middle ground, the work fell into no man's land.

Harrell and his two performers teetered down a makeshift runway with clothing held haphazardly against their bodies. Each dancer performed disparate solos, none of which pointed to a new movement vocabulary borne of Harrell's research into the aforementioned forms.

Germaine Cheng



• Sea State

NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, April 30 to July 10

This show, of an ongoing, long-term project by the critically acclaimed Singapore artist Charles Lim, was a much anticipated and jubilant homecoming. He represented Singapore at the prestigious Venice Biennale exhibition last year with this body of work, but it was the project's most extensive iteration to date.

Begun in 2005, the work plumbs the depths of Singapore's inextricable relationship with water and takes the form of three-dimensional models, videos, photographs and altered marine charts. The exhibition is the centre's first major show of a Singapore artist and Lim's work proved it could hold its own against other outstanding exhibitions there, which featured renowned artists such as Joan Jonas from the United States.

• Benesse Prize

The art award, which comes with a cash prize of three million yen (S$36,500), was launched in 1995 at the Venice Biennale and, until 2013, had been awarded in conjunction with the Italian biennale.

But the 11th edition of the prize will be presented with the Singapore Biennale. The award is sponsored by Benesse Holdings, a Japanese company with business interests in education and nursing care. The move is a boost for the profile of the Singapore Biennale, which is into its fifth edition this year and ends in February.

The winner, picked from artists participating in the biennale, will receive a commission to make a work that will be exhibited at Benesse Art Site Naoshima, an acclaimed art project in Japan. The winner will be announced during the Singapore Art Week next month.

• The Substation's new chapter

The Substation's plans for the year drew ire from some members of the arts community when they were announced by its new artistic director Alan Oei. Some baulked at the inflexibility of having a year-long theme for programmes at the independent arts centre, while others protested the intention to phase out venue rental.

The kerfuffle, however, sparked small group discussions and a townhall session that brought together arts lovers to debate the proposed changes.

The result was an about-turn on matters such as venue rental and the introduction of programmes that interrogate the purpose and function of the art space. More significantly, it pointed to how a community can collaborate constructively, despite its differences.


• Closure of Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris

The Singapore offshoot of the Paris private museum, Pinacotheque de Paris, had been expected to add pizzazz to the arts scene when it opened last year at the Fort Canning Arts Centre. The Paris museum, which opened in 2007, held exhibitions featuring famed artists such as Edvard Munch, and it was reported to attract more than one million visitors annually.

But plagued by poor attendance and financial challenges, the Singapore outpost bowed out in April, less than a year after it opened. The sudden closure came after the flagship museum in France shut in February, also due to poor visitor numbers.

While the quality of exhibitions at the Singapore museum left much to be desired, its closure was still a disappointment to Singapore's ambition of burnishing its art world credentials.

Huang Lijie

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline Best and worst 2016: Arts. Subscribe