Arts Film Review Singapore

★★☆☆☆ Review: The Neon Hieroglyph by Tai Shani (SIFA 2022)

Chill out and open your mind to new possibilities in this trippy film.

In a world that’s constantly teetering on the edge of insanity and chaos, the more hopeless the situation seems, the more it pushes our imagination towards increasingly radical solutions to overcome it. For Turner Prize-winning British artist Tai Shani, that solution comes in the form of witches, hallucinogens, and communism.

This is explored in The Neon Hieroglyph, a film series originally commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival. In this new iteration specially created for the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), the films come together as a single, continuous one hour experience, projected on the big screen at Pasir Panjang Power Station. Considered a ‘filmic performance’, the work itself experience is accompanied by Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas narrating live alongside the trippy visuals seen onscreen.

In line with its themes and ideas, the work’s title is a reference to common imagery experienced by people having psychedelic hallucinations, with the spoken text mimicking the free association that tends to characterise these experiences, connecting to heretofore unknown ideas and objects that the sober mind cannot compute. The work itself then, deals with themes of possibility and alternatives, centering on Shani’s research on ergot – a fungus that grows on common grains, linked to mass hallucinations in Europe. 

Through The Neon Hieroglyph, Shani imagines a speculative history of ergot, weaving together myth and reality to plunge audiences into a trance or collective hallucination during the experience. Onscreen, we watch as a face straight out of the uncanny valley widen their eyes in surprise while a waterfall gushes out of their mouth, an unidentified person sips from a giant psychedelic ice cream sundae, or we find ourselves hovering, gliding over a forest, gilded with a miasma of red.

Over the course of the work, there is a sense of hypnotism, as Jo Kukathas speaks in a calm monotone, her visage represented on a small screen at the side, displaying only her face, mostly locked into the same expression throughout the show. Kukathas has a lovely voice, but the nature of the text ensures that this is less dramatic than it is manifesto, and the words drone on, utilising complex language to lull us into a shared waking dream inspired by the images onscreen. We hear of ‘wheat clouds’ and the tragic tales of starving populations on the isle of Alicudi, forced to subsist on bread made from ergot-poisoned rye crops, essentially dooming the population to an LSD-laced existence.

These are fantastical, far-reaching philosophies and ideas that spark one’s imagination, replete with these impossible visions of the past and future. But because of the niche nature of the work and the almost academic lingo chock-full of ‘historical’ text, this results in an information overload that can be hard to stomach, creating a soporific effect, instead of acting as a stimulant. The work itself is cyclical, the same images and repetitive wording eventually melding the entire experience into a gooey mass of mumbo-jumbo, hindering our ability to absorb all the ideas that are being presented, rather than easing us into this imagined realm.

One very much wants to love this production, because of how incredibly clever and ambitious it is. But in the process of transforming a a short-form experience into a longer one, from its digital form experienced at home to a live one amidst a crowd, there is something lost in the adaptation process that does not account for these changes in environment, that leaves The Neon Hieroglyph more wingdings than a book of revelation.

By the end of the experience, we are left disoriented, like waking up from a long dream that’s already half buried in our subconscious mind. As a live experience, The Neon Hierglyph has achieved its goal of having the entire audience simultaneously undergoing this communal ‘hallucination’. Yet, while we do feel that our minds are tickled into opening up to see beyond our limited scope, we are never fully intoxicated by the obtuse fantasy, making this more of a bad trip than leaving us on a high.

Photos Courtesy of Arts House Limited. Images taken by Debbie Y.

The Neon Hieroglyph ran from 27th to 29th May 2022 at Pasir Panjang Power Station as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here

SIFA 2022 runs from 20th May to 5th June 2022. Tickets and more information available from sifa.sg.

1 comment on “★★☆☆☆ Review: The Neon Hieroglyph by Tai Shani (SIFA 2022)

  1. Pingback: SIFA 2022 Wrap-up: The Anatomy of Performance – Ritual – Bakchormeeboy

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