Events & Happenings

+13 December 2004
Artist on a global stage
VISIONARY and Implementer. Unusually, he combines elements of both, which makes Ong Keng Sen, artistic director of TheatreWorks for the last 17 years, one of the smartest players on the arts chessboard.

 He 'gets' both aspects of the game - the global artistic mood of the moment, and how to create an Asian niche within it. While many in Singapore still eyed the aesthetics and philosophical shifts of post-modernism with wariness, Ong hung his multicultural hat on it. He wanted to talk of the complexity of a changing world from an Asian perspective, decided that projects of such ambition required the coming together of many genres and cultures - and then went ahead to create a financially and artistically viable way to do it.  

If his theatre-making looks at inter-disciplinary - and other esoteric - spaces, personally, the 41-year-old occupies the paradoxical space of being a non-mainstream celebrity. He is the first Singaporean artist to have won both the Young Artist Award (1992) and the Cultural Medallion Award (2003); is invited to create and curate in prestigious venues globally; but produces work more likely to confound than entertain back home.

So what makes Ong relevant? Well, in an international arts world whose cloth is cut by rules laid down by the West, Ong introduces a weave that is Asian. While in terms of Singapore, he operates on the realisation that the arts here needs ideologies - the map of a larger picture, not just the street that takes us home.

Ong wants to see arts in Singapore as going beyond the entrepot and capitalist urgencies of buying-selling. 'Currently it's the theatre of the pink dollar here, alternately, anything with sex sells, trends come and go without anything being rooted. The topsoil of 'Singaporean' arts production - and consumption - is only 20 years deep,' he says. When Ong took on the mantle of TheatreWorks' artistic director, he was aware of existing in a post-colonial moment. 'In Singapore we spoke English but had to ask ourselves how do we move away from words, the language of the coloniser.' Ong's answer was to use interdisciplinary elements from Asian dance and theatre to dilute what he saw as the colonising power of English.

Actually, the trail of these multicultural concerns can be traced all the way back to Ong's law student days. His confession: 'I enjoyed constitutional law, inter-racial perspectives and the conflicts that arose when the laws of two different countries were involved. If I'd been trained in the arts, I'd have remained engaged with just becoming a better and better craftsman in my chosen medium. But for me it was about the role TheatreWorks could fulfil in Asia, the ambition to define what Singaporean theatre could mean, to articulate why the arts is important.'

Married to theatre
Ong always operated in a larger landscape, probably because of the global perspective that came with his legal training. But make no mistake, Ong once was all set to be a lawyer, doing his pupilage at Lee & Lee, tailoring black suits and picking colourful ties to make a personal statement. The penchant to dress - but only in black - has remained, even though the corporate 'ties' are nowhere in sight.

Picking theatre over law precipitated a crisis in his family. 'The resistance from my immigrant family was total, my father almost disowned me. My parents came as unmarried teens from China at the end of the war in search of a better life; they were scared that pursuing the arts could mark a return to a penniless condition. For me it was a life decision, going back to law was not an option. It was like a marriage, and I was committed to make it happen.'

In a life that has been marked by dramatic watersheds, Ong experienced a midlife crisis at age 29. To grow further, he went to study intercultural performance with the Performance Studies Department at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, on a Fulbright Scholarship. The man who went was a Singaporean Chinese trying to connect with Asia through the 'window of my ethnicity'; the man who came back saw performing arts as intricately connected with culture politics. 'Before, I was just interested in content, now I needed to frame the context of the play.'
 Perhaps the shift is best explained by looking at two works Ong directed - the pre-Tisch Lao Jiu in 1993; the post-Tisch Longing in 1994. Lao Jiu, written by Kuo Pao Kun, is the story of a young boy who rejects his parents' ambitions to take up the dying art of puppetry, and resonates with Ong's own life story. Longing moved away from concrete narration to fragments, to a socio-political commentary based on archives and everyday life in Singapore.

New York had definitely made him more abstract; but was he in danger of not communicating with his audiences? 'It had become more complex,' admits Ong, but this was his rebellion against a youthful education that taught there were only certain permitted ways to think. 'I want to be provocative without directing my audience on how to think. I want to create a field of thinking that audiences can navigate in their own way.'

In this vein Ong did important projects like Descendants of the Admiral Eunuch, that 'crystallised an awareness of what it is to be - figuratively - castrated in Singapore'. However the fusing of the pre- and post-New York Ongs happened with Lear. Ong was suddenly working with more money, performers and the weight of performing traditions more than ever before. Funded entirely by the Asia Centre of the Japan Foundation at a cost of 160 million yen (S$2.5 million), and combining ancient artforms like Japanese Noh theatre and Beijing Opera, Lear's world premiere in Japan (1997) won an ecstatic reception.

It marked one of Ong's still-relevant strengths: an ability to recognise and bring diverse talents together. It also marked still-ongoing criticisms of exoticising Asia. Ong shrugs eloquently: 'I am conscious of the dangers of taking an Asian artform and presenting it out of context, and therefore act responsibly.' He suggests that exoticisation also happens when an artform is used in a gratuitous or formulaic way, something he has avoided. But 'I live dangerously,' he acknowledges. 'Maybe I'm the most selfish artist around, I believe the things that interest me would also be of interest to the audience. Intellectually I know that the meaning of existence is existence itself, but emotionally I'm still searching.'

Perhaps a result of this search was a foray into documentary performance and Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, a docu-performance on four Cambodian artistes - including Em Theay, a highly respected classical dancer - who survived Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. Ong as an anthropologist-artmaker excavating Em Theay's story created some of the most heart-stoppingly and memorable moments of Singaporean theatre - but was it 'theatre'?

'I believe I have to act'
Ong agonised endlessly through the process of Continuum: 'Am I right in making a work of theatre with their experiences?' But finally, he realised that the real tears shed on stage were a healing process for the four artists,'they have become ambassadors for their experiences. There are so many who critique but do nothing about working things out. My solutions may not always be the best, but I believe I have to act.'

In 2002 Ong became the first South-east Asian director invited to direct at the Lincoln Center in New York, the opera The Silver River; he initiated an arts exchange project with Laos, where he relooked the country's Ramayana performance tradition as a way for the artists to make a living; he staged the third of his investigations into Shakespeare, Search: Hamlet (2002) at the Kronbourg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark.

Hamlet represents the next watershed in Ong's life: a deeper engagement with Europe. He made work - like Hamlet - that was shown exclusively in Europe. He was invited by the House of World Cultures in Berlin to conceptualise and curate an arts festival that focused on cultural negotiation and process; the result was In-Transit, an annual three-week festival that he curated in 2002 and 2003. This strategy of doing international work, he says, is a way to stay competitive, relevant. 'It allows me to redefine - yet remain - myself, and I always bring it back to Singapore. This is the new phenomenon of mobility. I could not otherwise have stayed in the same place for 17 years.'

In Berlin an important question would be posed to him: 'Is what you are doing artistic, or just cultural exchange?' It made Ong reevaluate his position yet again, leading him to conclude: 'Artists from all nationalities are equal on a contemporary stage. You are who you are, you don't have to explain it.' It was the approach he would take in The Global Soul-The Buddha Project (2003).

Ong these days seems busier than ever. Upcoming projects include Chinoiserie, which will open in Vienna as a collaboration between Viennese and Japanese artists. Next year he is curating for the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Art in London; a programme for the Summer Institute of the famous performance venue, The Kitchen, in New York; the visual arts segment of the House of World Cultures project on South East Asia, in Berlin.

Eyebrows have been raised at his move into the visual arts, a prominent example in Singapore being curating Insomnia 48 at the visual arts festival. Ong grins, but points to his long involvement with visual arts in the Flying Circus Project. Anyway, Asian art, he says, isn't as strictly divided as art forms in the West. A ballet dancer is only a dancer but a Kathakali performer from India deals with dance, story-telling, theatre, visual arts. 'My role as a visual arts curator will be affected by my theatrical background. I'm working with visual arts' relationship with time, space, audience activity, treating it as an 'event' rather than an 'exhibition' '. 

Finally, what gives him hope for the arts in Singapore? 'That The Business Times thinks an artist has relevant things to say in a business paper,' he says, 'is an indication of a larger shift in attitude. And a changing scene where, say, at age six, a Singaporean has an opportunity to see a play made outside of school.' Ong's mission is to provide a different way, away from convenient forms of representing Singapore. Theatre to him isn't a popularity contest - he accepts that people may love or hate his work but come to see it anyway.

Artists, to misquote Kazuo Ishiguro, are inhabitants of a floating world. Ong's personal utopia is a time when a play for 20 people is seen as being as valid as a musical that caters to 2,000, and when a box called 'nationality' needs to be filled, he can write 'artist'.

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