Singapore International Festival of Arts

The viewer becomes the viewed

In Guilty Landscapes III, only one person is allowed to enter at a time.
In Guilty Landscapes III, only one person is allowed to enter at a time.PHOTO: JEANNIE HO



Dries Verhoeven/ Singapore


When the Netherlands cut arts funding some years ago, Dries Verhoeven was shocked to realise that the public did not share the artists' outrage. His art now seeks to involve audiences intimately, creating moments of connection.

In a white cuboid gallery space in 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road, one wall is taken over by the fuzzy image of a city in ruins. Verhoeven's website reveals this as Homs, a city in Syria destroyed by the ongoing civil war.

Only one person is allowed in at a time in Guilty Landscapes III. As the viewer approaches, so does a man on screen, picking his way through the rubble. What passes between the two in the next 10 minutes depends on each individual.


  • WHERE: L 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road

    WHEN: Until Sept 9, 3 to 11pm

    ADMISSION: $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to Register at

    INFO: Ten-minute visit for only one audience at a time

Verhoeven's idea for the Guilty Landscapes series is simple: People are bombarded daily by photos and videos of catastrophes around the world. They look and feel a moment's guilt, but there is always a wall between the viewer and the images on the news.

But what if the news watches you back?

Other episodes in this series have viewers communing with a factory worker in Hangzhou or a man in a brothel in Pattaya.

The theatrical setting inverts the power dynamic between the watcher and the watched. On television, smartphones and laptops, people have the power to remove uncomfortable images. Several who entered Guilty Landscapes III realise that the onscreen projection is in control. It is up to the performer to approach the viewer or walk away, to move things forward in their interaction.

At last year's Singapore International Festival of Arts, a viewer could get into bed with an actress for 10 minutes to listen to a story.

The experience, Everything By My Side by Argentina's Fernando Rubio, was similar to Verhoeven's in offering the chance to connect with a stranger in 10 minutes.

Is that even possible?

Perhaps, if one thinks of baristas or nameless passers-by who brighten our day with a smile. In the intangible realm of social media, strangers can forge relationships based on Instagram posts or readiness to like Facebook posts.

Yet, the grainy terrain of Homs projected in Singapore heightens the sensation that what is being viewed here is entirely controlled by someone else. Is the actor truly in Homs or acting against a green screen, in a room away from the viewer?

The con game of catfishing on social media relies on similarly ambiguous reality, where one person dupes another into a relationship based on a fictional persona.

Catfishing works only when the second person believes that fiction is truth. After participating in Guilty Landscapes III, one understands it is the same agreement between the performers and audience that allows any work of art to be staged.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2017, with the headline 'The viewer becomes the viewed'. Subscribe