The art of history: Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai rediscovers lost republic

SINGAPOREAN PERFORMANCE INSTALLATION CONCEPTUAL ART

Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai’s project “Lan Fang Chronicles 2012” was part of the Singapore Arts Festival, held from 18 May to 2 June 2012. The show weaves together fact and fiction to create a tangible legacy for what was possibly the first democratic republic in Southeast Asia.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Epic Poems of the Kongsi War', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Epic Poems of the Kongsi War', in "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Directing a team of artists, performers and writers, Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai’s the “Lan Fang Chronicles 2012” was a series of installations and performances that together served as a living museum and an attempt to provide a more holistic understanding of a place and people that no longer have a story of their own to offer.

Fascinated by a tale he heard about an early civilisation in Southeast Asia, Choy went in search of the Lan Fang Republic. He visited Indonesia, China and the Netherlands in search of information and turned up, sadly, not a whole lot: a temple, a descendant and a handful of documents. Still, Choy did discover that Luo Fang Bo, a Hakka Chinese, had founded the Lan Fang Republic in 1777 in West Borneo around the local gold mining industry and that the republic had flourished for 107 years, elected ten different presidents and successfully navigated the needs and interactions of four different cultures before falling to the Dutch in 1884.

For an entity that could be said to own the auspicious title of first democracy in Southeast Asia, Choy was astounded and disheartened that he had dug up so little, so he started filling in the blanks himself. As the introduction to the work states, his goal was to “uncover, discover and recover this mythical republic”.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Hybrid Chinese Opera Mask', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image by Art Radar.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Hybrid Chinese Opera Mask', in "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image by Art Radar.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Crocodile Leash', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Crocodile Leash', in "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

The artist as historian

While historical fact and fiction have often been uncomfortable bedfellows, Choy’s contribution to the story of the Lan Fang Republic was generally pragmatic, which both added to the project’s believability and contributed to some of the confusion felt by viewers. Where does the real end and the imagined begin? Is history an acceptable subject matter for an artist?

Anticipating these questions and in order to validate his efforts, Choy hosted a public talk with a historian prior to the show opening, to discuss how piecing together history typically does include a fair amount of speculation, even for historians, and so an artist filling in the missing pieces of the Lan Fang story is not as far-fetched an action as it initially seems. In this case, the role of the artist as a historian helps to illustrate not only that history should be considered critically, but also that in some ways the past is available for individual contribution at any time. As Choy states,

In a way, I prefer the small gaps or lapse[s] in between that you can actually fill in. Also, trying not to be so didactic in a way, especially in Singapore. I think we are brought up in a way that we always receive information … and generally in Asia as well. We are taught not to question.

While “recovering” the story of Lan Fang, Choy began to notice similarities between the Republic and Singapore. Not only were they alike in size, government structure and an active citizenry, but they were both also home to a mix of cultures and races.

I was very interested in the idea of the relationship between the different races, because Singapore always champions this idea of racial tolerance. I think it shouldn’t be tolerance; I mean, from the very beginning it should be acceptance of. … I think also that’s one of the most interesting parallels, how they deal with the relationship between all the different races. How they collaborated together or how they made use of each other.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Prologue', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Prologue', in "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Insignificant Landscapes', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image by Art Radar.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Insignificant Landscapes', in "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image by Art Radar.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Ty Ka Fai, 'The De Groot Collection', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'The De Groot Collection', in "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Memoirs of the Visitors', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Memoirs of the Visitors', in "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

The Lan Fang Republic comes to life

The “Lan Fang Chronicles 2012” consisted of ten different installations and performances, or “Chapters”, scattered among the buildings and grounds of the Shuang Long Shan, the site of the ancestral hall, cemetery, and community hall for the Hakka Chinese in Singapore. The selection of venue was serendipitous and dovetailed nicely with the Hakka Chinese element of the Lan Fang story. Lore has it that when the Hakka left Lan Fang, one of the group’s resettlements was on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, the future site of Singapore. The historical backdrop and reverent spaces helped in the presentation of what Choy referred to as a “pop up museum”.

Research and artefacts: the installations

The chapter “Chronicles of Disappearance” was a staged study area with copies of all the written documentation acquired during the research phase; visitors were encouraged to sit down and dig into the background first hand. The video installation Insignificant Landscapes provided panoramic views of the areas where the Lan Fang Republic once existed, landscapes that now display little or no effect of this history ever having taken place. “The De Groot Collection” was an assemblage of three-dimensional artefacts based on bits and pieces from the research. As Choy says,

I wanted to actually make 107 objects for the 107 years [of the republic’s existence], the idea of telling a story through the objects because there are really no objects about this.

While this chapter does not actually contain 107 objects (that number was too ambitious funding-wise, says Choy) it did include a variety of pieces that all gave weight to an established and well-functioning society, for example, the Official Seal reinforced the sovereign nation status. The seal, envisioned as an extra large stamp, was based on the image of a seal Choy found in one of the few actual documents discovered. He researched seals from the period and, together with a graphic designer, created this “artefact”.

Other fabrications included the Hybrid Chinese Opera Mask, an ornate piece that perhaps served as an example of how the people of Lan Fang were capable of creating their own cultural pleasures, and also the Crocodile Leash, a manifestation from a folk tale in which the hero-figure Luo Fang Bo harnessed and exercised his crocodiles. A performer, playing the role of collection curator, added an element of authority to the miniature lineup as she walked viewers through the compelling history of each piece. At the end of her presentation she pointed out that “all items were for sale”.

The curatorial narratives and sales pitch, combined with the fact that every artifact, from coins to monuments, was exactly the same scale and colour, hinted at some of the larger questions this show broached: Where does history come from? How should history be viewed? Who owns history?

Choy Ka Fai, 'Memoirs of the Visitors', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'Memoirs of the Visitors', in "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'The Archivist's Room', in Lan Fang Chronicles 2012, Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Choy Ka Fai, 'The Archivist's Room', in "La Fang Chronicles 2012", Singapore. Image courtesy Law Kian Yan.

Drama and storytelling: the performances

A series of short performances gave additional depth to the background. In “Memoirs of the Visitors”, an actor provided dramatic readings of accounts from visitors to the Republic, telling stories of gambling and busy street life.

In another performance, “The Archivist’s Room”, a performer playing the role of collection archivist walked viewers through the background behind the presented archival photographs that documented the costume, customs and daily scenes from this republic, all while applying his own impressions and beliefs to the mix, a bit of storytelling so compelling that a few audience members seemed to forget it was a performance and asked questions following the session.

In “Epic Poems of the Kongsi War”, a performer provided a dramatic recitation of a Malay war poem chronicling the beginning of the decline of the Republic. The performance included a costume change, a fire bowl, war paint and climactic posturing in front of the Shuang Long Shan cemetery.

Perhaps the most delightful invention was the Lan Fang dollars that were printed on the back of the programme brochure. While not mentioned elsewhere, this funny money gently reminded the audience that just because something looks like a fact, it does not mean that it is a fact. As Choy put it,

I put [the money into the brochure] because it’s the idea that these are recreations, which means that you can just make your own artefact.

Choy Ka Fai, Lan Fang Chronicles 2012 Program Brochures, Singapore. Image by Art Radar.

Choy Ka Fai, "Lan Fang Chronicles 2012" Program Brochures, Singapore. Image by Art Radar.

Performer, director and artist Choy Ka Fai

Choy calls himself a “speculative designer” and as such is interested in taking a concept and creating scenarios or other ideas around it. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in London (Design Interaction) in 2010, and has directed, collaborated and performed in shows all over the world since 2004. He is the recipient of both the NAC Overseas Scholarship (2009) and the Young Artist Award (2010) from the National Arts Council, Singapore, in addition to numerous other awards and recognitions. As his biography states,

He is inspired by stories of history and speculations of the future. His research often stems from a desire to understand the conditions of the human body: its memories, influences and conceptual fantasies. These conceptions coalesce into intricate narratives at the intersection of art, design and technology.

Other recent work includes Prospectus for a Future Body (2011) an exploration of body and muscle memory using electrical nerve stimulation and the medium of dance, and Revolution-Per-Minute (2009) an artistic breakdown of a motorcycle accident and the impact on both lives and bodies.

While the “Lan Fang Chronicles 2012” kept with Choy’s preferred themes and included a heavy dose of performance, they also offered recitations, videos, a research library and an array of fabricated miniatures playing the role of artefacts. Choy states,

I always wanted to try more installation, visual stuff, because it also kind of becomes performance-like…. With an exhibition you get more exposure, you get more audience, you maybe can sell stuff. Performance art is temporary, so I figured out a way to do both at the same time.

The original research and exploration for the “Lan Fang Chronicles” was presented at the Singapore Art Museum’s SAM at 8Q space in 2010. The Singapore Arts Festival, with its 2012 theme of “lost poems”, made for an easy fit with Choy’s lost history and provided an opportunity for his project to come to fruition.

Choy’s next project, “Soft Machine”, has him back in the world of body and movement as he explores the future of contemporary dance in Asia. Another project entitled “Naturalise”, about creative Singaporeans who chose to live away from their home country, should be ready just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Singapore in 2015.

SS/KN/HH

Related Topics: Singaporean artists, conceptual art, installation art, performance art

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