Naked and Unafraid: Stripping Down Ming Poon’s Controversial Undressing Room

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Earlier this year during the annual M1 Fringe Festival, Singaporean artist Ming Poon was thrust into the spotlight when his work Undressing Room was removed from the lineup due to the sensitive nature of the work.

Undressing Room felt like the perfect fit for this year’s theme of Art and Skin. After all, one would literally bare all during the work itself, undressing the artist from top to toe and vice versa in the privacy of each other’s eyes, and there’d be plenty of skin to ponder over. Unfortunately, under the IMDA, the performance was ruled to have ‘excessive nudity’ and was denied the license to be performed as a public work of art.

Nonetheless, Undressing Room lived on in a small way, as Ming Poon invited 18 people, including ticketholders to the original Undressing Room, to instead attend a privatised version of the event, held from 12th – 15th January at Centre 42, resulting in a documentation of the project. Ming Poon has since made the documentation of the project publicly available, having posted a video of the rehearsals on Faceboook, as well as the anonymous feedback forms filled out by participants on Dropbox.

As a dancer, one imagines that Ming has greater body awareness and comfort in his own skin than most people, yet he himself is still not comfortable being naked in front of others. The aim of Undressing Room was to remove the masks and falsehoods we put on when we are clothed, and years of denying the existence of our naked bodies beneath our clothes, and perhaps put the body first once more.

Undressing Room is not meant to discomfort participants. They were allowed to stop the process at any time should they have felt uncomfortable, and decide if they wanted to be partially or completely nude. In the rehearsal documentation above, it’s clear that this is no shady proceeding either, with the entire process held in a spacious, brightly lit room, and an assistant explaining the entire procedure to the participants prior to beginning.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt, white pants and white socks, Ming Poon sits at a small white desk, sipping a drink from a porcelain teacup. There’s something incredibly pure about the scene as the participant sits opposite him, and they consider each other, clothed and in complete silence (both are not allowed to speak until the end of the process). One wonders what feelings are going through their head as they ready themselves for the ‘performance’.

The undressing process itself feels like a ritual, sacred almost with the way both participant and Ming Poon treat each other with reverence and respect. Ming Poon starts off by removing accessories such as necklaces or untying shoelaces. As he gingerly removes a participant’s t-shirt, he rolls it up and peels it off their body, like removing a second skin. There’s almost something sexual about the whole affair, yet if there is, it’s buried beneath the intensity with which both artist and participant focus on the task at hand.

By the time both artist and participant are left completely naked, you can almost hear the sigh of relief in the air as their skin is allowed to breathe completely. They begin the second part of the ‘performance’, touching each other tenderly, and exploring each other’s bodies. They hug each other, touch hands and place fingers on their feet, but this is not foreplay – there is the idea that one has deconstructed the body into something simpler, that there is a pureness and intimacy to seeing each other in the nude, vulnerable and real.

According to the documentation, Ming describes the process as if each individual action was somehow magnified, partially due to the silence, and the entire process brought him on a rollercoaster of emotional states, from shame to embarrassment initially, to an eventual sense of freedom of movement, almost like doing a duet with the participant, their own private dance. The entire intimate affair is based around a mutual trust and understanding, forgiving each other if there is arousal, connecting on a pure, primal level by simply being in each other’s presence.

The 18 participants themselves offered their own views on the experience. Many of them went through a similar experience, and became more aware of the symbolic significance and impact that years of body shaming has led to, a kind of vendetta and fear of nudity, where clothes are a form of protection, but against what? The experience, for most of them, was liberating, and almost certainly left them feeling much lighter when they left the room. There is still a long way to go in terms of being comfortable with one’s own body, but perhaps this experience at least, has helped them begin the process of acceptance and better awareness of their own body and their own views of it.

In the second part of the documentation process, participants were also asked how they felt about IMDA’s classification and subsequent withdrawal of the initial work. Many of them expressed the understanding of IMDA’s necessity in existence, but were upset at the way they had decided to proceed with this seemingly thoughtless condemning. After all, the amount of nudity was purely up to the participant who was always in full control of the situation. Ming Poon himself was surprised that the work had received its denial of classification, having expected it to hit the R18 rating instead, which he would have been fine with.

Perhaps then, in addition to the art work itself, the declassification of Undressing Room not only reveals our own grievances with the naked body, but the source of those fears. A government body that decries a work as possessing ‘excessive nudity’ begs the question of how much nudity is actually acceptable, and how it is possible that nudity can even be in excess? Within the country, the government itself is distrustful of nudity, and (presumably) associates the naked body automatically with sex, a thing we should cover up and be ashamed of, leading to continued blanket censorship without attempting to understand that nudity in itself is not a crime, and in future, must ask themselves what the nudity symbolizes and tries to achieve. Greek sculptures, for instance, almost always reveal plenty of skin, yet unlike Undressing Room, are symbols to be celebrated and not censored. Are our own bodies then, considered less beautiful than the Greeks’, pornographic in their very existence?

Ultimately, the withdrawal of Undressing Room from the 2017 M1 Fringe Festival might have been a blessing in disguise, raising more publicity for the work and bringing awareness to IMDA’s classification system, and how we still have a long way to go in our arts scene. By privatising the event, Ming was still able to perform and carry out the work in its full capacity, instead of heavily compromising on the artistic intent and message behind it should he have attempted to dumb down the work to IMDA’s standards.

Undressing Room is a conversation not only between ourselves, the artist and our bodies, but in its interaction with state intervention, questions what our bodies mean to the nation and how our own society still possesses a deeply embedded shame of the self. Our bodies are not ours to own; they are society’s to shame. Perhaps Undressing Room is so liberating simply because for a brief moment, one feels as if they are loved not in spite of their body, but because of it. Every scar, scab and fold is a gift, not a curse, and we are all the better for realizing it.

You can find out more about Undressing Room via the experiences of the participants and artist here, and keep up with artist Ming Poon via his website and Facebook

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