Arts Dance with Me festival Music Review Singapore Arts, Theatre. Theatre

★★☆☆☆ Review: Realm of Silk by Sougwen Chung (SIFA 2023)

An attempt to bring robotics into art making proves the human touch still necessary.

Touted as a one-of-a-kind performance bringing together visual art, music, performance and technology, Canadian artist Sougwen Chung’s Realm of Silk breaks convention and genre to explore how art can be created using algorithms and robotics. Inspired by the beauty of silk, Realm of Silk is all about transformation and metamorphosis, as art is created before our eyes.

Making its world premiere at the Victoria Theatre last weekend, Realm of Silk is set up with a white circle at stage centre, with four robotic arms around the perimeter. Designed by Randy Chan, the stage feels grand and set to herald the coming of a mysterious new form of art, with the stage initially filled with smoke. As the screen lifts, we see a wooden plank, bringing to mind the process of printing images on silk, and primes us for this process-driven work, understanding the steps and methodology that goes into it. In all, the staging feels designed with a clear intent in mind, priming us for something never before-seen we’re about to witness.

As the screen fully lifts and reveals all before us, a starkly beautiful, ethereal set, cellist Leslie Tan takes his place onstage, seated on a separate platform, where he plays live music to accompany the performance. Sougwen Chung joins him onstage, and goes to her own circle, sitting cross-legged in the centre of the robotic arms. She puts on a high tech headband, a tool for her to manipulate the robots with brainwaves, while Leslie plucks the strings of his cello to resemble the “silk” being manipulated with the robotic arms, and the performance begins.

For all its beauty and high expectations thrust upon it, Realm of Silk‘s performance is simply unable to live up to that potential, with Sougwen initially seeming lost, attempting to make sense of what it all means, all while getting entangled in a web of silk. Clumped in a heap, it looks and feels messy. On the circle, projection mapping of paint-like scrawls takes place as a complex but ultimately, messy concoction.

Sougwen brings out plates of ink, and attempts to further demonstrate the robots’ capabilities, attaching a paint brush to each of the arms and keeping one for herself. Incapable of dipping their brushes into ink themselves, Sougwen helps them to get ready, and we are left to wonder just how limited technology can be.

Above, a reflective, moon-like mirror descends, not just an aesthetic decision, but a practical one as well, allowing us a clearer look at the ‘canvas’ the arms are painting on below, which we otherwise cannot see. Throughout, Sougwen is hyperfocused on the task at hand, ensuring the robots are performing their tasks, and there is little to no engagement with the audience. A shift in scene sees Sougwen changing into a white dress, almost as if she herself is encased in a silk cocoon. Unfurling a bundle of silk, she spreads it out, the top of the ‘realm’ she’s within stretches out towards the heavens. It tears, showcasing vulnerability and delicateness amidst beauty.

While Sougwen is fully committed to the role, Realm of Silk does little to push forward a convincing narrative of a robot-driven art future. In fact, the work itself seems to do the opposite – rather than showcasing a symbiosis between human and technology, so much of the time Sougwen has to step in to intervene in the physical aspects of the performance that it seems robots are still highly reliant on us to complete the task, and even then, seemingly random in their movement without any purpose or intent to it.

While the concept is innovative, Realm of Silk combines elements that do not gel, where even the cello feels like a last minute addition. As a whole, the two are jarring rather than cohesive, almost as if two separate performances happening simultaneously. Everything is set up for something epic, but with what seems like little artistic direction or vision, the robots doing whatever they wanted to, the performance simply does not live up to its potential. Less of a cycle and more of going in circles, Realm of Silk reaffirms that while robots could make our lives easier, at this stage at least, they instead create more confusion, and perhaps even more work.

Photo Credit: Moonrise Studio

Realm of Silk played on 20th May 2023 at the Victoria Theatre. More information available here

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

Production Credits:

Sougwen Chung | Creator, Performer, Scenography & Visuals, Robotics
Aquarian | Composition
Leslie Tan | Live Cello
Randy Chan | Stage Design
Jahnavi Sharma | Styling
Azura Lovisa | Costume Design
SCILICET | Production

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