The many faces of loss at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival examines the theme of art and loss using different genres, from theatre to photography

Former Substation artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim's The Malay Man And His Chinese Father (above) is a new performance piece.
Former Substation artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim's The Malay Man And His Chinese Father (above) is a new performance piece. PHOTOS: MISH'AAL, PINK ELEPHANT LABS
Former Substation artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim's The Malay Man And His Chinese Father (above) is a new performance piece. PHOTOS: MISH'AAL, PINK ELEPHANT LABS
Photographer Tan Jun Nguan's series, How Loneliness Goes (above), examines the issue of isolation. PHOTO: NGUAN
Weird characters are an imaginative Mexican janitor's companions in The Duchamp Syndrome, which stars Antonio Vega (foreground). PHOTO: LIA RUEDA

The spectre of loss can take many forms - a haunting ache where something used to be, a sharp dagger to the heart or a thorough sense of desolation which banishes all rational thought.

Explore its numerous, different facets next month at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, which centres on the theme Art & Loss.

The 11th annual festival returns next year with a new artistic director at the helm. Theatre practitioner and educator Sean Tobin, 42, has taken over the reins from previous co-directors Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma.

Despite the sombre-sounding theme, Tobin assures that the festival will not be all doom and gloom.

"The theme of loss is explored in a host of ways and means, with a real wide range of languages and styles," he says. "There is plenty of play, humour, absurdity, belief and restoration amid the sense of sadness, grief and loss."

The festival, which runs from Jan 14 to 25, will feature a total of 18 arts events from eight countries, spanning a range of genres including dance, theatre, photography and installation.

Tobin has been appointed to head the festival, presented by theatre company The Necessary Stage, for a three-year term and he hopes that during that time, he can build up trust among audiences in local artists and their works.

He will continue to wear his other hat as head of the School of the Arts' theatre faculty while running the festival.

He says that while selecting the works for this edition, he "gave special attention to local artists who I think are showing real dedication and growth to their practice, and who have a unique angle, vocabulary and method that's worth sitting up and noticing".

He is also keen to provide local efforts a space to gestate and mature into fully realised works.

All the home-grown pieces in the festival have been shown before in some iteration, except Noor Effendy Ibrahim's performance piece The Malay Man And His Chinese Father.

Tobin says: "Too often, our local work is placed in festivals alongside international work that's well seasoned and we end up looking inferior. And too often, our work has a short incubation time and shelf life. The simple solution to that is to ensure we keep investing in our own development."

While this year's theme was handed to Tobin by the festival's former directors, next year's theme - Art & The Animal - is something he has picked himself.

"I think it invites a little more 'wildness', which we can benefit from, in the Fringe and Singapore. I am quietly a little wild and a bit of an animal," he says with a grin.

A play starring a vacuum cleaner and a cockroach

A little round robot vacuum cleaner can keep your house clean, but in the world of The Duchamp Syndrome, it is also an insubordinate actor.

"We are now able to control it, but when we started developing the piece, 'it', or should I say 'she', seemed to have a life of her own," says Mexican Antonio Vega, the show's co-director, playwright and actor.

"She seemed to be angry with us, as she would behave perfectly when we rehearsed, and then she would act really odd and funny when we had an audience. Maybe she or it just gets nervous."

The robot vacuum is just one of many odd characters in The Duchamp Syndrome, a theatre creation by Por Piedad Teatro, El Trapo Teatro and The Play Company. The first two companies are from Mexico and the third from the United States.

The other characters include a foul-mouthed cockroach, assorted toys and marionettes. They are all the companions of Juan, an imaginative Mexican janitor living in New York, who feels so lonely he starts creating his own friends out of bits and bobs.

However, when his mother obtains a tourist visa to visit America and sees for herself her son's success, things start to get complicated.

The show explores the notion of art, loneliness, the American dream and the innate desire in people to make their parents proud.

Artistic director of the festival Sean Tobin says: "The spirit of the play, imagination, heart and soul in this piece is so wonderfully child-like and artistically genius all at once. The sadness and loneliness, the sense of loss and failure are explored with such fun and beauty."

The show reflects Vega's own life as well.

The 39-year-old says: "I filled this piece with issues that are obsessions of mine: The need to be fully appreciated by my parents and the need to make them proud, the feeling of getting smaller when you face overwhelming situations or before great beauty.

"The solitude of the immigrant is also a key theme... I chose to explore all of these themes because this being my first original play, I felt I could write only about what was really close to me."

Vega earned a degree in performing arts from the Jalisco School of Theater in Mexico and has also trained at the American Institute of Comedy and the Actor's Centre in London.

The Duchamp Syndrome is named after Marcel Duchamp, a French-American artist who gained both fame and infamy when he submitted a urinal

to a Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917.

However, even Vega himself is hesitant to explain what the syndrome of the title of his play refers to.

"I honestly don't know what it is. I would love the audience to answer that, but what I can do is to venture an answer.

"I could say the Duchamp syndrome is the condition by which one comes to understand art in a personal way and because of that understanding, he or she becomes some sort of artist as well."

He adds that although Juan is chasing the American dream, the sense of longing and wanting a better life is universal.

"Everyone knows what that means. Whether it is easily achievable or not is a different story," says Vega.

"I hope that anyone, regardless of his nationality, can relate to Juan and the other characters of the play. After all, everybody dreams of a better life."

Book it


Where: Gallery Theatre, Basement 1, National Museum of Singapore

When: Jan 14 and 15, 8pm

Admission: $22fromSistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

New lease of life for Aids character

In August 1999, Singapore's first openly HIV- positive individual Paddy Chew died, his body ravaged by the effects of the virus.

Several months before that, he worked with The Necessary Stage to create a landmark autobiographical one-man show, Completely With/Out Character, at the Drama Centre on Fort Canning Hill.

Now, 15 years later, performance and moving- image artist Loo Zihan has pored over Chew's work and will be meticulously re-presenting the seminal performance in his own documentary performance, With/Out. The project brings together archival footage of Chew's performance as well as multimedia and other materials to reconstruct the production through technology.

Loo, 31, who did not see the original performance, says that from his research, it was clear to him that Chew created it "with the intention to educate and shed light on the experience of a person living with HIV".

"He wanted this knowledge to be passed on beyond his time with us, and perhaps one way of honouring that is by re-presenting his production."

In 1999, when Chew went public with his condition, the stigma and fear surrounding HIV was much stronger compared with today. Then, modern anti-retroviral therapy was still in its infancy and the management of Aids did not slow the progression of the condition for long.

Artistic director of the festival Sean Tobin says he "loves the sense of duty with which Loo approaches this work". He adds: "I think this will not only be an important artwork in and of itself, but also a great chance for people to get in touch with a person and a show they may have missed or forgotten in 1999, and to sensitise themselves to the issue surrounding HIV and Aids."

The process of piecing together the play was rife with ups and downs. To re-create the work and piece together fragments of the puzzle, Loo turned to the archives of The Necessary Stage.

It was there that he encountered his first roadblock - a water leakage had destroyed many of the files, leaving him with only photo negatives, unlabelled video tapes and a folder with newspaper articles and e-mail messages pertaining to the production.

Likening his process to "detective work", Loo says he had to sift through the decades-old sources to salvage any documentation.

Fortunately, in the video tapes, he found fragments of not just one but three evenings of performances, which were enough to stitch together an approximation of what the performance might have been like. "The highlight of the research process was completing the edit and sitting down to watch it in its entirety for the first time."

Loo also hopes that 15 years on, audiences will approach the piece with a new pair of eyes.

"On top of changing perceptions about Aids/HIV, with the passage of time, emotions are tempered," he says. "Individuals involved in the production and audiences who came to watch it have changed and developed in a different direction, and perhaps with that, we can look at and recognise the play more objectively in hindsight."

For Loo, one part of the original performance stands out in his mind as being "quite emotionally overwhelming".

"In the original production, Paddy talks about the Aids candlelight memorial service and speaks to a friend who refuses to attend the memorial because he felt it was too emotionally draining," says Loo.

"Paddy then asks, 'When I go, will you come and light a candle for me?'"

Book it


Where: Black Box/Rehearsal Room, Centre 42, 42 Waterloo Street

When: Jan 14 to 18, 8pm

Admission: $22 from Sistic

Snapshots of loneliness

His photographs, in shades of gentle pastel, draw the viewer into a world of quiet contemplation. The lens brings something almost untouchable, something alien as he captures solitary figures amid Singapore's familiar landscape of coffee shops, swimming pools and bus stops.

Tan Jun Nguan's photography series, How Loneliness Goes, takes what people know and makes them look at it afresh.

The 41-year-old, who goes by the name Nguan, says: "How Loneliness Goes is about the architecture of isolation. The vacant landscapes and candid portraits serve as allegories for the impossibility of connection in modern life."

The festival's artistic director Sean Tobin says of Nguan's work: "The sense of beauty in sadness in this work is very charming to me. There is a great deal of loss and longing in it all."

How Loneliness Goes is also the title of Nguan's second monograph, which was published last year. The 48-page book, which was printed with a run of 220 signed and numbered copies, is sold out.

At an ordinary bus stop, indistinguishable from any other bus stops in Singapore, a man in a long-sleeved shirt and pants kneels on the floor, with a stoic expression on his face. His hands are draped over the utilitarian bench.

At a public swimming complex, a woman in a striped bathing suit looks to the floor as she pulls a pair of goggles over her head, while chlorinated water laps idly at her feet. She is seen, perhaps voyeuristically, from a distance, captured through the circular window of the wall of the complex.

In Nguan's work, the simple, serene and everyday are infused with a shade of melancholy.

"Common in all my work is the theme of yearning - more specifically, the yearning to be some place, some time or someone else," says Nguan. "In this particular series, I also wanted to convey a sense of void and absence."

Despite the cleanliness and unyielding sense of harmony which permeate his work, the photographer says his process is entirely unstaged. "However, I regularly make lists of scenarios to look out for, so I'm ready to act when I do stumble across a particular situation."

He adds: "I used to think photography was waiting for things to unfold, but more and more, I feel it's a process of recognition - a process of recognising something of myself in the world."

The result is a series of works which aims to be "fully articulate by itself. As a visual artist, I'm determined to communicate without the assistance of text, sound or other potential crutches".

"There can be transcendence when you persevere with a single means of expression at a time."

Although Nguan, who graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in film and video production, has shot photographs in many countries - his first monograph, Shibuya (2010), was taken entirely in Japan - seeing Singapore through a lens poses a unique task.

"Singapore is one of the most globalised cities on the planet and much of it looks like everywhere else.

"My job has been to amplify certain aspects that I see as being distinctive, such as the flagrant pastels of our vernacular buildings, so that it looks like absolutely nowhere else."

Book it


Where: Ion Art, Level 4 Ion Orchard

When: Jan 14 to 25, 10am to 10pm

Admission: Free

Also, don't miss...

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour

What: Four Singaporean actors - (below, from left) Lim Kay Siu, Karen Tan, Benjamin Kheng and Pam Oei - will take on Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's work over four nights. They will not be allowed to look at the script before the show, and instead will be seeing and performing it for the first time on stage. Soleimanpour's work dissects the experience of a generation of Iranian youth.

Where: Esplanade Recital Studio

When: Jan 21 (Lim Kay Siu), Jan 22 (Pam Oei), Jan 23 (Benjamin Kheng) and Jan 24 (Karen Tan), 8pm

Admission: $22 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

The Malay Man And His Chinese Father by Ponggurl

What: A Malay man is left to care for his dying father and seeks to stay with him in hopes of finding out who his mother is. Ponggurl is a process space conceived by former artistic director of The Substation, Noor Effendy Ibrahim. Sean Tobin, artistic director of the festival, says this is the only new local work in the Fringe.Durational performance

Where: Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore

When: Jan 17 and 18, 3 to 6pm

Admission: Free

Ticketed performance

Where: Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore

When: Jan 17 and 18, 8pm

Admission: $22 from Sistic

Mosaic by Take Off Productions

What: A group of 20-somethings turn up at a 1980s-era mosaic playground to protest its demolition, but as the evening progresses, questions of the cost of progress and the value of nostalgia come to the fore. Tobin says he chose this piece because of playwright Joel Tan's writing. "I love his wit, boldness and playfulness. The issues are done in a clever, thoughtful way, but it's not heavy-handed."

Where: Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore

When: Jan 22 to 24, 8pm

Admission: $22 from Sistic

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