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In I Am LGB, participants in white lab coats are put through a battery of tests by facilitators in coloured coats.

In Five Easy Pieces' most terrifying scene, eight-year-old actress Rachel Dedain plays rape survivor Sabine Dardenne. Sitting in a darkened stage, she recounts how she was treated.

Radically provocative encounters

The second week of Singapore International Festival of Arts offered two envelope-pushing works, I Am LGB and Five Easy Pieces.
Aug 26, 2016 5:50 AM

Examining individual freedoms


By Lan Gen Bah Society of the Mind

HOW free are you in choosing what you want to do? How much of your life is predetermined by existing structures and higher powers? One of the most challenging local offerings in the Singapore International Festival of Arts is I Am LGB, an interactive performance work conceived by an artist collective led by Loo Zihan, Ray Langenbach, Bani Haykal, Lee Mun Wai and Shawn Chua.

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For four hours - or shorter if you're eliminated from the game earlier - you, along with 99 other participants, are subject to a battery of tests conducted by sombre-looking women and men in lab coats. You too are given a lab coat to wear. But make no mistake - you are just a lab rat with little say over what's about to happen.

The tests range from the mathematical and scientific to the wildly nonsensical. You are asked to sort objects, draw pictures, solve various puzzles, listen to lectures and perform esoteric dances.

There were other activities as well, but this reviewer can't quite say what they are since he was eliminated from the game some time after the 150-minute mark when he was asked to dance - he's an average dancer, you see.

Once you are kicked out - or "liberated", which is the term used by test conductors - you are taken to a room where the walls are adorned with the artistic documents of Dr Langenbach, whose surname accounts for the "LGB" in the work's title.

Dr Langenbach is an American conceptual artist and academic who was based in Singapore and Malaysia from the early 1990s to 2011. His body of work includes significant artistic documentation of the 1993/94 Josef Ng controversy, in which performance artist Ng faced nationwide persecution for snipping his pubic hair in a public performance. Ng eventually left Singapore to find work in the region. In the experiment, Loo refers to himself as "Josef (Ng)", in an attempt perhaps to resurrect Ng's ghost.

I Am LGB works on several complex levels. But one of its most striking effects is making you witness how automatically selfish and competitive people become when they are ranked against each other according to test scores, physical abilities, verbal wit, and so on. Even when the tests seem utterly purposeless - can you perform the Nepalese bell dance? Can you draw three windows and interpret them intellectually? - many participants displayed a serious determination to pass them. It makes you wonder if these expressions of competitiveness are born out of pure human instinct or a distinct Singaporean predilection fostered by the system.

Either way, this reviewer emerged from the test feeling both relieved and slightly appalled that he bothered to take the lab rat race seriously at all. Is this how one might feel when finally lying on one's deathbed and looking back at one's life here? Was this how artist Ng felt when he left Singapore after being persecuted for an act that ultimately hurt no one other than their sense of decency?

Is it any wonder that when it came for the eliminated participants to pick a winner from the five finalists, the majority of us voted for a female contestant who confessed to being more concerned about getting married than winning? We rooted for her because it was ultimately all we could do to beat a system that was rigged from the start.

Harrowing tale of kidnap and abuse


By Milo Rau/IIPM and CAMPO

FIVE Easy Pieces makes for a frightening and almost unbearable theatre experience. When the curtains fall, you leave the theatre almost shell-shocked.

The plot centres on Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux who kidnapped and sexually abused six girls from 1995 to 1996, four of whom died. The case so traumatised the nation that a third of Belgians with the surname "Dutroux" subsequently applied to have their names changed.

But it isn't just the facts of the case that will alarm you - it is the way that director Milo Rau has chosen to tell them.

Rau, who's famous for his incendiary political plays, has included seven children aged from 8 to 13 in his cast. These unpolished young actors play various characters, including a victim, the parents of a victim, a police investigator and Dutroux's father.

Told in five parts, the most terrifying scene involves eight-year-old actress Rachel Dedain playing real-life survivor Sabine Dardenne. Sitting on a mattress in a darkened stage, she recounts how she was treated by Dutroux on- and off-bed and the thoughts that went through her head during the ordeal.

If the scene had been played by an adult or a seasoned professional, one's reaction to it might be no different than watching TV shows and films such as True Detective and The Accused. But the shock of seeing young children re-enact scenes that should be so genuinely terrifying to them jolts you out of any usual numbness you feel towards such shows or even the TV news cycle with its endless reports of violence.

Rau takes care not to exploit his child actors by keeping them at a safe psychological distance. The children are not asked to inhabit their awful roles. Instead, he conducts it almost as a Brechtian game, in which the children get to indulge in little excuses not to perform their roles seriously.

For instance, the child actors begin the show by telling the audiences simple jokes about themselves. One actress gets to break into pop songs. Another actor casually asks for a stick of menthol to apply under his eyes to induce fake tears.

All the while, the young actors perform their roles beneath a large film screen on which adult actors are shown simultaneously playing the same roles. This film feels designed to assure the child actors that they don't have to invest their emotions if they don't wish to - they can stay detached while the adult actors do the emoting.

These devices create a sense of artificiality in the work. But how else could these children carry out these terrifying performances night after night if not placed at a certain remove? Five Easy Pieces is a high-wire act that deserves kudos for its bravery in tackling a taboo topic and doing it in the most uncanny fashion.

In the programme, Rau assures the viewer that a child psychologist and the children's parents were always on hand to ensure the psychological safety of the children. Reading this, one is reminded of the flip side of the coin: the horrors that Dutroux's young victims went through; horrors that were real, unmediated and, in four of the six cases, ending in death.

READ MORE: Thoughts in motion