Skimming the surface of the quest for queer identity in Singapore.
Being queer has never been easy on our conservative, sunny island. Not only does does one have to face the disapproval of the general public and fear of coming out, but the road towards sexual awakening is often a bumpy one, with fleeting sexual encounters taking place with strangers under cover of darkness, or repressed desire buried deep within our furthest recesses.
To present the queer experience in Singapore, multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan has decided to create an atelier of work that captures all the pain and ecstasy of the alternative lifestyle, starting with a live performance. Titled The Swimming Pool Library, after Alan Hollinghurst’s novel of the same name, the performance is a heady journey that seeks to present the underground nature of queer life in Singapore, and the seemingly endless search for love and belonging here. This is achieved by combining his signature multimedia elements, along with selected poems from “EXHALE: An Anthology of Queer Singapore Voices”, as performed by Karen Tan, Irfan Kasban, Umi Kalthum Bte Ismail, Lian Sutton, drag artist Vanda Miss Joaquim (Azizul ‘Izzy’ Mahathir) and Ronald Goh.
The Swimming Pool Library is an unabashedly Brian Gothong Tan work, with a heavy emphasis on aesthetics, atmosphere and spectacle. There is a clear appreciation and love for cinema, theatrics and camp throughout the performance, resulting in visually arresting scenes that demand immediate, visceral responses. Early on in the performance, the performers lip sync to a scene from Disney’s Pinocchio, where the Blue Fairy (Vanda, of course, complete with LED wings) turns the titular puppet into a real boy. Besides the nostalgia factor, it’s an effective allusion to the idea of sexual awakening, and marks the first step in the tumultuous journey of queer adolescence, and makes us excited for what’s to come next.
But it is then that the problem arises, where the main bulk of the performance feels curiously bereft of emotion, focused on spectacle above sincerity. That’s not to say that the chosen poems aren’t good selections – Ad Maloud’s ‘Health Cock Up’, for example, tells the tragic tale of a child realising their transgender status when school authorities force their gender upon them. There’s even room for more light-hearted takes on the queer experience; Irie Aman’s ‘Girls’ features Karen speaking like a lovelorn Ah Beng as she expresses her innermost desires for the women around her; while Ronald Goh, in Nikhil Mahaputra’s ‘An X-Rated Ode,’ balances both humour and drama, discussing the very real fear of never being loved again after breaking up with a man with an unusual fetish.
There’s a degree of audacity in these scenes, capturing our attention with their content, but leaving us feeling empty. That’s not to say it doesn’t try – one instance of this is in the performance of Paul Jerusalem’s ‘Ode To Happy Together’, referencing Wong Kar Wai’s classic film in an outpouring of heartbreak. The way it is performed feels overwrought and melodramatic, reminiscent of the over exaggerated language of teens experiencing their virgin break-up. But with Brian’s choice to overlay the actors in monochrome scenes from the film, it ends up distracting from the words rather than enhancing them, instead obscuring the pain with flashy visuals.
One thinks of how the queer experience is so difficult to describe in words, and as such, the chosen texts attempt to express that through evocative literary devices and self-deprecating humour to mask the incredible pain that lies beneath. There is potential for the production to reach the emotional core of each work, but in its execution, only scratches the surface of each poem, capturing the most immediate interpretation of it without plumbing its depths, unable to elevate them to a performance that’s truly devastating and heartbreaking.
In addition, while Brian Gothong Tan has an eye for quirky visuals, many of these lack purpose beyond being tangentially related to the performance itself. For the most part, the multimedia is fine, relying on a carousel of photos revolving around the walls, often depicting images that are in-theme with the performance. The set, on the other hand, exists without being properly utilised. The most effective use of the set is perhaps the three shower cubicles in stage centre, used in Rodrigo Dela Pena Jr’s ‘Thirst’, where Vanda, Irfan, and a skimpily-clad Lian simulate rough, violent sex. But for the majority of the space – an overturned statue of Stamford Raffles, a swimming pool filled with ghostly white boys taking a dip, suggestive but simply not harnessed for a greater purpose.
It is only towards the end of The Swimming Pool Library that the work finally finds its stride. Here, we receive the most resonant moment throughout the performance, with Lian performing Andrew Sutherland’s confessional work ‘I watch the student actors perform Angels in America the day after I am diagnosed positive’. Of all the poems chosen, it is the most raw, showcasing the poet in a moment of emotional vulnerability, and captures the crushing sense of doom gay men feel when living with HIV, moulding it into a painful existential crisis, something that is lacking across most of the earlier poems presented.
This powerfully segues into a scene where Karen becomes a pseudo-prophet, dreaming up a utopia and opening up a portal-like wormhole into a kaleidoscope universe behind her, and for a moment, she feels like a beacon of light to lead us into a brighter future. This future however, is not for us to have, as the show ends instead on a note of crushing despair. Watching Vanda perform a full blown choreographic sequence, complete with dips, kicks and every other trick in the drag performance book, we see the rest of the cast twerk and dance the night away in the background, only to eventually leave Vanda dancing on her own, as the lights dim and narrow her performance space to nothingness, leaving behind an unutterable sense of loneliness, reflecting how flighty and fleeting queer relations can be.
The Swimming Pool Library is an ambitious work that is swimming in a sea of spectacular visuals and ideas, but needs a stronger dramaturgical thrust or emotional anchor the audience can latch on to. In establishing his position as a new member of T:>works, Brian Gothong Tan’s artistic vision is clear for all to see in a work like this; now all he has to do is take a deeper dive into his source material, and tease out the raw passion lurking just beneath the surface of this queer library for maximum effect.
Photo Credit: T:>works
The Swimming Pool Library played from 28th to 31st October 2021 at 72-13 and online. The visual and sensory exhibition of the work will take place from 6th to 23rd January 2022, while a talk series on “Othering in Gender and Sexuality’ will take place on 10th November, 8th December and 5th January.