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S.P.A.M. - Daniela Beltrani, Natasha Wei, Farah Ong and Vincent Chow (Singapore) Beautiful Ugly, Future Of Imagination 9, Singapore. Photo by Jason Lim
S.P.A.M. - Daniela Beltrani, Natasha Wei, Farah Ong and Vincent Chow (Singapore)
Beautiful Ugly
Future of Imagination 9, Singapore
September 6, 2014
by Naresh Subhash

They stood there, each holding transparent buckets of water, as if in a meditative trance. So began S.P.A.M.'s performance on the opening night of the Ninth edition of The Future Of Imagination (International Performance Art Festival). As they stood there in a meditative silence, amidst the intrusive flashes from the event photographer's monster DSLR – we begin our experience of the S.P.A.M.'s performance.

How does one experience performance art? As a young art student in University, I was told we had to “appreciate art”. I found that phrase extremely problematic, to me the act of appreciating something places the viewer in a position of authority and in turn allows him to take a backseat in truly interacting with the piece intellectually. In “experiencing” performance art we do not need to be active participants in the piece itself, however, we are called toward engaging with the piece intellectually as well as psychologically. It is through experiencing something that we could debate, investigate, internalise and then truly chose to appreciate the piece. As a viewer, I allowed myself to absorb the energy and spirituality of the work, this essay is the result of meditating on the first night into the Future of Imagination.

S.P.A.M.'s performance in many ways was a play on objects, symbols and the senses. The combination of these elements would then render our experience of the piece. The four-man performance created a world within their performance space, and within that world we are invited to be partakers of their discourse. What I found extremely exciting was how the performers used water as a cleansing element, water became a tool that cleansed the objects they found and collected in shopping trolleys. What truly heightens the symbolic element of the work is that these objects were part of bigger objects – such as the wheels of an office swivel chair or the metal frame of a housing unit. The act of cleansing and rearranging seemed to “give life” or “resurrect” the initial purpose of these objects. Farah Ong and Natasha would interact with the water element physically, and in doing so would create interesting soundscapes that heighten the importance of water as a cleansing element of rebirth. Their use of water seems to play on the association of, life, rebirth and cleansing this was very much certain, however, SPAM presents the element on another level, and that as the 5th performer this to me was the most interesting element within their piece.

However, as the piece began in such a spiritual manner, we are suddenly hurled into imagery and discourses that seem to be far from what the piece had originally began as a discourse. Daniela would play with a bar of soap as it were a phallic element, if that were not enough Vincent Chow (the only male with in the group) would proceed to destroy the bar of soap as if in an act of auto emasculation. This seemingly important discourse of sexuality and sexual roles would come to a crescendo within the piece, as the female performers would form a V using the plastic wrap and bicycle tire, Vincent would have his back turned to the audience and seated as he scrubbed a piece of acrylic. The image created could not be ignored, as it became such a clear discourse of sexuality and the sexual roles; it is as if within this re-appropriated world created by the performers traditional domestic roles are turned on its head. Other instances of this were perhaps within the seemingly erotic embrace by both Daniela and Natasha with in a space that seemed like a bedroom and with Vincent looking on and later proceeding to destroy the bar of soap. Was this the intention? This performance was created within a world of refuse (found objects) and created an alternate world that rejected traditional sexual roles – the juxtaposition though profound. We question, was this the intention to the piece or was this discourse the result of stronger personalities within the group?

My question essentially lies on how much of this performance was intended? To me performance art is a singular art form that is photography viewed in 4D, film viewed in 4D, a continually evolving sculpture and a painting that is created as we are watching it. Performance art is to me as planned and carefully designed as are other forms of art. As such I cannot help but question the intention and authenticity of S.P.A.M.'s work. The strong visuals and discourse seem to launch out the act of a certain individual, I cannot help but notice that Daniela perpetuated the phallic, mother Mary, erotic embrace and the emasculation imageries. Though I thoroughly enjoyed these aspects of the piece, I wonder how much of what this piece evolved into was as defined by the group? It was clear to me that the initial direction of the piece was centred on the found objects, but as the piece continued the performers no longer reacted with the objects but were pulled under the purview of a certain aesthetic as defined by Daniela. This then rendered the massive amount of props useless, as the dialogue that ensued was one that was strong enough to hold itself without the need for the shear amount of objects that by this time seems cluttered and distracting.

Another element that seemed to distract us as audience was perhaps the video projection. The intention of the video was clearly to highlight the act of finding the objects from around the vicinity of the performance area. However, not at any time was this connection made with the objects and the vicinity, as such I found this confusing as a viewer. The objects within the space lacked identity and purpose, and what the SPAM sought out to do – seemingly- was to appropriate these objects to one another. Another element of contention was how the images within the video showed the performers in a candid state; the video was neither a documented performance nor added to psychological aesthetic for the piece. If anything, the video was a trailer that was on loop and only confused the audience further.

Therein lies the burgeoning question of what roles do the group of performers play in a unit such as SPAM. Inevitably, we do see striking individuals who seem to absorb and propel the energies of the piece while others seem to take a back seat and are seemingly comfortable doing their own little thing in some corner of the space. A.Howell describes performance art as an “organism” and it would be wise to look at SPAM not as collaboration of four individuals, but an organism itself that behaves as organically as any living organism. According to the “The Behaviour of Organisms” by B.F Skinner, he describes an organism as a make up of 3 components, “Super-Ego”, “Ego” and “Id”. These elements are those found in any conscious organism that contains the ability to reason and negotiate, which essentially can be defined as the human being. Here SPAM evolves in to a singularity that exhibits these components in a poetic symphony.

As you would imagine, Daniela and Natasha takes on the “Super-Ego” aspects of the piece, and as a viewer we immediately see their intentions of the piece. While, Farah takes on the “Ego” element that seems to be taking on a “need” within the group, she continues washing the objects and gives the piece a momentum. Vincent, while silent, is the obvious “Id” element. He is the psychological element within the piece, or in a sense the very essence of the piece. The piece through Vincent reflects on the violence that comes with re-appropriation and in turn causes a shift in the paradigm from what essentially is deemed conventional. Though, some might argue that he is the perhaps the weakest amongst the four. I can clearly see how the work comes to a full circle with his part, though I would have to agree that his actions and reactions to the rest could have been better executed to really highlight his role and discourse.

The performance comes to an end with the performers facing the projection for an extended time and then walking off the scene. I found this quite unsettling and would have preferred something less dramatic than a seemingly theatrical end. Again, many would contend that the piece had irrevocable theatrics; I found that up till that point (the ending) those so-called “theatrics” could be deemed permissible to the larger discourse of the work. However, the ending seemed lack lustre and contrived and as we (the audience) could see that the group struggled to bring the piece to a poetic end in relation to how they first started. As discussed previously, the role of the projection within the piece was not a strong one and does little to highlight the evolution of the piece or the discourse of the work. As such, by ending the piece in such a manner did SPAM want us to reflect on the origins of the piece or their initial direction of the work? Indeed, the intention of such an act would be interesting in the evolved discussions within the piece. However, as mentioned the images and projection are far too detached from the tone of the piece that such an ending leaves us - the audience- confused and might even discount the work as an entirety.

Though there are shortcomings within this piece, from an audience's point of view I would say the piece was highly successful in evoking our imaginations and brings to attention the fragilities of performance art itself. For instance, we do see how props could be both strength and weakness for a piece, and beckons the question -how much is enough? Overall, SPAM has attempts to dissect gave depth to time through their durational performance and for that I commend them. From an organisational point of view, this piece could very well be another evolution of the collective craft of the group.