Artist cuts himself, takes blood oath, after his performance piece was cut from Singapore Biennale

Artist cuts himself, takes blood oath, after his performance piece was cut from Singapore Biennale
S. Chandrasekaran declared in a blood oath that he will not perform here, or anywhere else in the world, until his performance piece, which was cut from the Singapore Biennale 2016, was allowed. Photo: Nuria Ling
Organisers felt S. Chandrasekaran’s planned walk-performance could be deemed religiously sensitive
Published: 3:40 PM, October 28, 2016
Updated: 4:00 PM, October 28, 2016

SINGAPORE — After multidisciplinary Singaporean contemporary artist S. Chandrasekaran was denied an opportunity to perform an element of his Singapore Biennale work Unwalked Boundaries by the organisers, the 57-year-old performed a dramatic blood oath ceremony this afternoon (Oct 28) during his artist talk segment, expressing his disappointment and declaring that he will not perform again until he was allowed to perform this particular piece.

“I’m making a blood oath today, that I will never perform in Singapore until this is performed. And every day I will mark my skin, a scar, until I (get to) perform. This is my oath.”

Chandrasekaran, known for his intense physical performances, had proposed a walk-performance through the Bras Basah-Bugis area and also the former location of the convict prison, with the artist personifying a nineteenth-century Indian convict.

The academic, who has 18 years of teaching experience at institutions including Lasalle College of the Arts and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, said he had intended for his body to be “pierced with six metal hooks behind my back”, while “shrine-like ice sculptures” are attached to the hooks. “I have a head gear with my IC number printed on it, and then have a metal rod pierced through my cheek,” he added.

“All these hooks and metal rod do not have any religious purpose or connotations because temple priest did not consecrate them for any ritual or prayers purposes,” he explained.

His intention, said Chandrasekaran, was to focus on the story of Indian convicts who laboured to construct the roads and buildings along the route of the proposed walk. Thousands of Indian convicts were transported to Singapore in the early 1800s to serve their sentence as manual labourers, and their hardship was what he wanted to portray, he said.

“During the walk, my body goes through the painful process with the hook and rods. In doing so, I am also narrating the painful life histories of the Indian convicts through the journey. My performance gives meaning to their presence. Without the performance, they are just like life histories of the past situated in the heritage centre or archival,” he elaborated.

When approached, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), who are the organisers of the Singapore Biennale, explained that they disallowed it as they felt the performance could be religiously sensitive.

“Chandra’s initial proposal involved a performance which carried very strong visual bearings or similarities to a sacred and religious ceremony. The proposed act, when performed outside the context of religion, could be deemed offensive or religiously sensitive for certain segments of the community,” said Lynn Sim, SAM’s head of marketing communications and international relations.

“Hence, Chandra reworked the proposal into how it is currently presented at the Singapore Biennale, while maintaining the concept and intent of his proposal,” she added.

Currently, Chandrasekaran’s work, which is currently on display at SAM at 8Q, comprises a glass showcase exhibiting a metallic headband that bears the artist’s national registration identity card (NRIC) number and a set of six hooks. Across from it hands a road map etched onto ceramic boards.

These were intended to be preparatory materials for his walk-performance.

Audience members, most of whom were from the local arts community, raised concerns about the process of negotiation between artist, curator and the Biennale during his dialogue, and questioned whether there was a way to step away and approach the subject from a less dramatic angle.

However, Sri Lankan artist Niranjan Rajah, who is also exhibiting at the Singapore Biennale, said the responses “seem to be missing the point”, pointing out that what’s important is focusing on Chandrasekaran’s work.

“The performance is ongoing and it’s a slow boil. The extensions of the idea into the act has begun and that’s enough. I congratulate you on finding a way to do it, to go beyond the issues and focus on your performance,” he said.

During the talk, Chandrasekaran explained that his response, as well as his work, is not political, neither is it about the state. Rather, it is about his art, connecting with his Indian identity and the history of Indians in Singapore.

The veteran artist has performed locally and internationally for the last twenty years, participating in major international exhibitions such as the Havana Biennial (Cuba, 1997), Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Brisbane, 1993), Construction in Process (Bydgoszcz, Poland, 2000) and International Festival of Contemporary Art (Ptuj, Slovenia, 2010).

However, he moved to Australia in 2003 and since his return to Singapore in 2009, he has not performed locally, and was hoping for this performance at the Singapore Biennale to be his comeback.

However Chandrasekaran does not see this as the end. For him, these obstacles allow him to constantly rethink the context of performance art as a Singaporean artist. “It basically illustrates that we have to continue with our challenges as a performance artist in Singapore. Performance art is not banned in Singapore, however, we still have to work based on blurred boundaries.”

On why he did not pull out of the Biennale when he was told to rework his proposal, the artist said: “By not having any existence in the Biennale, (it) is removing the intention of the work. By having to display just an intention, it becomes a story to tell to others, a story to tell about Indian convicts and myself.”