Unwalked Boundaries presents the rationale and accouterments of a performance, about the use of Indian convict labour in the building of Singapore, that was planned for the Singapore Biennale but aborted due to purported ‘religious sensitivities’. This performance was to take the form of a procession echoing but not embodying traditional Hindu rituals of making penance. The installation at the Singapore Biennale was presented ostensibly as an ‘intention to walk’ but indubitably carried within it an unwitting testimony on the state of information and its management in Singapore society. The work itself was, I believe, intended to translate into palpable experience, the history of Indian convicts in Singapore – the labour that built the founding infrastructure of what has today become a global megapolis. Jee Leong Koh speculates in his blog that this restriction might have been due to issues around the containment of contemporary foreign workers, rather than the officially stated ‘sensitivities’. The Bras-Basah area through which the performance would have traversed is not just an Indian quarter, it is today, a place of congregation Singapore’s multitude of foreign labourers who work under the the difficult conditions of the global migrant-labour system.This is a plausible interpretation but I wonder if the explanation is simpler.
Perhaps, despite recently commandeering a slice of the global art market, Singapore is not ready for such contemporary forms of expression as public body piercing and the existential embodiment and reification of physical and psychic pain. Indeed, the impasse may be that of a clash of aesthetic norms, on the one hand the Western, now global, performance idiom and on the other, the local decorum around ritual acts. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the work was rendered inert and presented as an installation titled Unwalked Boundaries. During his artist talk Chandran unexpectedly exhorted, “I’m making a blood oath today, that I will never perform in Singapore until this [work] is performed. And every day I will mark my skin, a scar, until I perform. This is my oath.” He went on to cut his forearm and to smear the blood on a work in his installation representing the intended procession route. Following Chandran’s oath and action, a curator who was present came forward to present the Singapore Biennale perspective on the matter, triggering a barrage questions from the audience on the Biennale’s role in censoring the performance. In the face of the the question from members of the long suffering local arts community, the artist had repeatedly responded that what mattered to him was, not WHY (the performance did not happen), but WHEN, it would happen.
This is where I intervened, noting that members of the audience were erroneously reacting in terms of their own their concerns with censorship and that however valid these might be, they were missing the point. I noted how Chandran had in fact, discreetly and elegantly, begun his performance, “The performance is ongoing and it’s at a slow boil. The extension of the idea into the act has begun here, this moment, and that’s enough. I congratulate you [Chandran] on finding a way to do it, to go beyond the [contextual] issues and focus on your performance.” Indeed, Chandran’s action was not a protest but a discrete and incremental commencement of the performance itself. I entreated all present to savour the elegance of Chandran’s action. My intervention was reported by Reena Devi in her piece on the event in TODAY a digital news provider within MediaCorp Press Singapore’s largest media broadcaster.