Yayoi Kusama in Singapore

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Horse Play Happening in Woodstock, 1967

 

Embrace narcissism.

When you recover from the invasion of polka dots on your smartphone—yellow-and-black, primary colours on white, pixelated stardust from some neon galaxy, arresting but soon annoying, with the never-ending shower of selfies, with Singaporean FOMOness suffocating all sensibilities—when you recover from that all, remember that Yayoi Kusama probably wanted you to embrace narcissism.

How else to explain the alleyway of convex mirrors, where you are forced to either stare down or stare at your reflection, sidestepping couples waiting patiently for a break in traffic. Or the Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever, into which you pop your head and see your friend’s face, and endless reflections of yourselves lit up by psychedelic lights.

And how else to explain the most popular exhibit, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, a hanging-LED infinity mirror room, into which you walk, and immerse yourself in some glittering self-absorbed universe, trying not to think of the next person in line and the usher outside timing you, for precisely thirty seconds, with a stopwatch. (“It’s the only fair way.”)

“Up till Kusama, there were many artists from the Renaissance on, who were involved with perspective and infinity but it was all a fake because you knew, you were the viewer you were always aware that you were the master,” said Richard Castellane, a former gallerist, in a documentary on her.

With her infinity rooms, Kusama fools us in a way never done before. Does “Infinite You” prove your infinite worth or your infinite irrelevance?

The Singaporean, a species engaged in perennial status competition, is the perfect subject for her play. Over the years, we have become far more sophisticated in our social media mating dances. The garish displays of branded leather are disappearing. Today there is a new battleground: travel.

So we are treated to selfies that say nothing more than “I am here.” Of course, all this is not the preserve of the Singaporean, arguably less cultural than generational, of Xs and Ys. Still, as with most money-fuelled pursuits, Singaporeans tend to go the extra mile. (A photo of your holiday business class seat? Are you trying to show off your carbon footprint?)

No surprise, then, that Yayoi’s dots have colonised our smartphones. Yet now that the torrent has slowed, one hopes her audacious aesthetics are not the only thing we remember.

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The Burning Man: A geographical analysis of a new-age pilgrimage

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At the top of “6 o’clock”, a main street in Black Rock City, Nevada

The folks at UC Berkeley’s library have just kindly dug out my Geography Undergraduate Honours Thesis from 2002 and scanned it. I had somehow lost every single copy, a depressing combination of hard-drive crashes and absent-minded post-graduation packing.

It was interesting for me to reread it now, both for reminiscence sake and to ponder how my writing has changed over the years.

The Burning Man is a yearly festival in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert that I have now attended thrice: in 2002 when I was walking around with a notebook interviewing people; in 2003, sans notebook, to partake in all the art, joy and partying that I had missed the year before; and in 2009 when my sister, brother-in-law, cousins and very good friend wanted to go for the very first time.

The Burning Man is very close to my heart, partly because of the great art on offer and partly because by living for a week in “the gift economy”, where money can’t buy you anything, one learns to appreciate labour and human interaction outside the mental confines of commerce. (One also learns to appreciate just how long the human body can go without a shower.)

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My first ever book launch: The Ups and Downs

Dear friends, thanks for all the support and encouragement. It’s still a bit surreal holding my very first book in my hands. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday that Sumana Rajarethnam, my best friend, and I were telling people that we wanted to cycle around Malaysia on RM10/day, and most responded that we’re nuts.

But the anguish and self-doubt we went through then also seems very far away when I look at the book. Now, it seems almost self-evident that we would end up with something. “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” as Mr Mandela says. Not that writing one book is that big of a deal…but it was a mountain for us.

I thought I’d just share a few thoughts about the actual launch itself because the day was both exhilarating and harrowing. I will try my best to tell this story without it becoming a bit of a Sandiwara. Not easy, given the details you’ll read, but I’ll try.

I returned home on Tuesday morning from a 10-day trip abroad–a holiday my mum had planned in January, well before I knew about the dates for the book launch. I was in pretty good shape, went to work, and then returned home in the evening, looking forward to preparing my notes and slide deck for the launch on Wed evening.

When I returned home, I found out that my dad had been admitted to hospital. Nothing too serious, he had been down with flu on the last day of our holiday. But still cause for a little bit of concern. Given that he wasn’t too ill–“just observation”–the main disappointment here was that he would not be able to attend the launch the next day.

Soon after, I found out that my uncle in KL had just passed away. I wouldn’t say I was super close to my dad’s cousin, but neither were we far–I always had a good laugh with him whenever we met, and often sung songs together.

Regardless, these double shocks meant that despite being quite tired from the trip and the whole day at work, I just wasn’t able to sleep. I slept for 3 hours, and then woke up at 2am, and couldn’t get back to sleep. From 2-7, I was just lying in bed, a million thoughts racing through my head. “Should I postpone the event? Should I go to KL for the wake? Should I visit my dad in the morning?” etc. etc.

The most immediate problem, of course, is that I had a Channel News Asia interview scheduled at 8.20am. Up till about 7.15am, I thought I might cancel it. But I was also worried about the repercussions, especially after the planning the CNA production team had done–reading the book, writing up questions for the anchors, etc. If I cancelled, would CNA ever call me back? How bad would it look for the book if I wasn’t there? How many people would  I be letting down?

So, I got up showered, chugged two big mugs of green tea, and headed over to Caldecott. It seems like only a few people who knew me well could tell I was tired, so overall, not too bad. You can watch the interview here.

The next problem is that I had to go to work, but I could hardly sit up after the Live TV energy-boost had worn off. So, at around 9.30am, I spoke with my boss and applied for urgent leave. Always understanding, she told me to take it. I worked for about an hour, some urgent emails and calls, and then collapsed in bed.

I woke at around 2pm feeling fantastic. From that point on, the day was a breeze, actually. Sumana, my wife and I headed down to the Esplanade at around 5.45pm. The folks there were setting up, so we just hung around waiting.

The next few hours passed by so quickly. Before I knew it, some guests had arrived and were asking for the books and my signature. From then on, I was moving around, saying hello, signing books, getting dragged back into the studio and asked to “relax and prepare”. I didn’t really need to, because I am quite comfortable speaking in public. In fact, people around often have the opposite problem–getting me to shut up.

Many people asked me how I was feeling. I said great, but that I had had a real moment of crisis and panic in the morning. Before I could explain why, I was whisked off somewhere. It was all a lot of fun, but also quite chaotic.

The diversity of the crowd was wonderful. On the one hand, there were people who have known me since I was in diapers, and friends who had been there right from the start–they had bade farewell to Sumana and me in 2004, as we cycled off. I felt so happy that they were there to witness the end of the long journey. On the other hand, there were quite a few new friends–people I had just met, some others who I was meeting for the first time, people who have followed my blog writings and had come down to support me. I was humbled.

One of my big disappointments of the night was the organisation. There were long queues of people waiting to get into the Studio, waiting to buy the book, waiting to get my signature. I don’t think this is necessarily anybody’s fault, but just a confluence of factors.

The Esplanade is extremely stringent about all sorts of things. All guests must have a ticket before they enter. We are allowed to issue only 245 tickets (the capacity of the Studio). Guests are allowed in only after 730pm. etc etc.

On top of that, my publisher, NUS Press, was also a bit under-resourced for an event like this. I know they were all trying their best, but many guests entered the Studio feeling tired and frustrated after what must have seemed like an unnecessarily laborious entry process. As the author, I felt quite bad.

Note to other artists/authors: The Esplanade, while a lovely venue with a great location, has soooo many regulations and rules. It would take me an hour to list them all, but here is one: no outside mineral water bottles allowed because of product placement rules.

What did this mean for us? Well, Christine from NUS Press had brought 3 bottles of Evian water and placed it next to the panellists chairs. Before the event started, an employee from The Esplanade went around removing the labels from around the bottles. No big deal, but just another activity in the rush to set up. If you’re interested, The Esplanade has its own water–of course–that you are welcome to buy and use there.

Nevertheless, strict rules and guidelines can be the bedrock of efficiency. Another good thing about The Esplanade is that everybody there is very professional and competent, and their systems seem to be working perfectly.

So, once the guests had finally sat down and the proceedings were underway, everything went off flawlessly.

The rest of the evening went by in a blur. First Mr Nathan made a speech that had been largely written by Sumana. Then I spoke for about 20mins. Then Donald Low, Manu Bhaskaran and myself had a panel discussion, with lots of audience participation. (For those who are wondering why and how I asked Mr Nathan, Donald and Manu to join me, please read this other piece, The politics of personalities.) Then everything was over and I was outside signing books. And then, finally, I was downstairs at Sauce, having drinks with friends and family.

By that point, the stress of the early morning seemed so, so far away. It was quite thrilling, really, to be celebrating with friends, new and old. A good friend bought me a Flaming Lamborghini, something I hadn’t had for a long time. As the bartender lit the drink up, he said, “This will help you float on a Malayan breeze.” It did.

In a way, all this is a bit anti-climatic, because I had actually finished with the manuscript in April, and for the past month have actually been thinking a lot about my next project. That said, it still feels quite good to know that an 8-year project has finally come to an end. This is the longest piece of work I’ve been involved in. At many points I felt like giving up.

When I started it, I was single, still in college, and wondering what I was going to do with my life. Now, by the time I’ve finished, I’m married to my darling wife, working in a job I like, and….still sort of wondering what I am going to do with my life.

Now that it’s all over, I actually feel a bit of a void.

Why I like Sticker Lady

By covering up banal pedestrian fixtures, Sticker Lady has exposed a divide. As soon as she was caught, some labelled her a vandal, lumping her with brats who seriously damage public property for no apparent reason. But that ignores both the impermanence of her work and the laughter her cheekiness provokes.

Others try to vilify her by taking her art to its logical extreme, creating, for instance, photoshopped images of her stickers covering traffic lights, implying that the police had nipped in the bud some adhesive monster. But any idea taken to the extreme can be dangerous.

Still others have suggested that all “art” in Singapore requires approval. This misunderstands the very nature of art. One of the greatest counter-culture art festivals in the world, Burning Man, began in 1986 when 20 people burned an effigy on a beach without approval. Today, it draws some 50,000 people annually. Artists, creators and innovators live on the edge of society, pushing our collective boundaries. By boxing them up, Singapore clips their wings.

“Much of the Beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium,” Henri Matisse said. The genius of Sticker Lady’s work is that she adroitly treads the line between humour and inconvenience. Like all great street art, her little messages create inner dialogues between passers-by and hitherto inconspicuous public spaces. They force us to take pause and question the subconscious actions the urban madness breeds—“Will pumping the button twice really let you cross the road faster?”

Perhaps the most romantic aspect of Sticker Lady’s art is that it is truly Singaporean. One needs to be steeped in local culture to really grasp the nuance of “kancheong”. As Singaporeans struggle with an identity constantly in flux, pulled this way and that by global currents, it is wonderfully refreshing to encounter random reminders of what it means to be Singaporean.

Of course Sticker Lady must be punished, just like other public performers who break rules. But how so? If we let Singapore’s supposed vulnerability guide our instincts, then we might retreat to the pragmatism and safety of strict vandalism laws. Because we have to show that we treat all “vandals” the same, that we tolerate no nonsense, as we preserve the sanctity of our hallowed streets.

But we would miss a few opportunities. First, to show that, as a thinking, tolerant society, we know how to differentiate between alleged annoyances and criminals, rather than tarring all with the same brush. Second, to encourage people who want to push boundaries in a considered way—whether they be in business, civil society or art—to go ahead and do so. Third to acknowledge that, while we will always be a country run by the rule of law, we are compassionate and educated enough to periodically negotiate its application.

The way we treat Sticker Lady will reflect how far (or not) we have come. Ordinary Singaporeans will take their creative cue from the top. So, let’s slap her on the wrists and then pin a medal on her.