Preview: The Swimming Pool Library by T:>works

Man Booker Prize-winning author Alan Hollinghurst is a controversial writer, thanks to his explicit sex scenes and unabashed depictions of queer life in London, all of which have earned him little discussion in mainstream Singapore. But beyond all that lies a far deeper observation of gender, something that will be thoroughly explored as multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan embarks on his artistic atelier project with T:>works.

Inspired by Hollinghurst’s seminal novel The Swimming Pool Library, Brian Gothong Tan’s new multimedia installation and performance of the same name takes a closer look at the cultural norms of masculinity, and whether feminine traits such as tenderness, vulnerability, intimacy and being in touch with one’s emotions have a place in masculine culture. These views of gender still remain startlingly relevant even today, and the work aims to provoke conversations surrounding such themes.

The Swimming Pool Library marks the first of four projects Tan will direct over the next four years, as part of an artistic atelier presented by T:>Works. This follows the third and final instalment of theatre artist Noorlinah Mohamed’s three-year artistic stewardship of Festival of Women N.O.W. (not ordinary work). Tan will draw on his visual artist roots and continue to explore mediums such as theatre, film and installation art in his ongoing journey with T:>Works, which began with 2007’s The Flying Circus Project in Ho Chi Minh City. To date, his portfolio of work with 72-13 includes interactive multimedia installation Signs, Omens and Relics of Faith, through the company’s Creatives-in-Residence programme.

With this atelier, audiences can look forward to exciting new forms of storytelling as he pushes the boundaries of artmaking, supporting T:>Works’ larger mission to encourage knowledge production, research, and contextualised practice. Says TanL “I’m very excited to work with my new T:>Works family, especially in these strange times.”

It’s a blessing to have this window to articulate and redefine the world that we live in. T:>Works is one of those rare companies that has evolved and transformed radically over the years, and I am energised to contribute to its body of work.

– Brian Gothong Tan

In the immersive, multi-sensorial installation, Tan will take audiences on a less conventional coming of age journey where society’s labels of gender and sexuality do not necessarily apply. Says Tan: “The Swimming Pool Library questions, among other things, why masculinity can’t involve tenderness, kindness, softness. Why do we define things so rigidly that the inability to meet those definitions causes such feelings of failure?”

The exhibition is split into various chapters that mark milestones in a rite of passage, reflected through Tan’s intimate, surreal lens. Paper sketches, paintings, 3D printed sculptures, 3D film photography and DIY books evoke memories of a boy trying to make sense of who he is, and where life will take him. Complementing this is a live performance specially choreographed for the camera and performed in-situ at 72-13, while simultaneously live-cast over the internet.

The production reunites Tan with Lost Cinema 20/20’s Karen Tan and Irfan Kasban, who join a cast comprising Umi Kalthum Bte Ismail, Lian Sutton, drag artist Azizul ‘Izzy’ Mahathir (a.k.a. Vanda Miss Joaquim) and theatre newcomer, songwriter Ronald Goh.

For the live elements, The Swimming Pool Library draws upon texts from performance company spell#7’s Various Gangsters (2002), a satire of the “Remaking Singapore” initiative which painted an envisioned utopia where rebels and misfits find their place within society. These are interspersed with writings from “EXHALE: An Anthology of Queer Singapore Voices” about coming of age, bodies and vulnerability. The cast will perform the meshing of these texts, creating a layered portrait of the quest for love and belonging in the garden city.

“The Swimming Pool Library is my most personal work to date, and a fitting start to the atelier that I’m creating for T:>Works. I’m going back to the basics of my artistic practice, which is rooted in visual art. This work… is a lexicon of material and memories, images and imaginings.”

– Brian Gothong Tan

The Swimming Pool Library runs from 21st October to 7th November, 2021 (with live performances from 21st to 30th October) at 72-13. Tickets available via Peatix

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