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When the arts build bridges
INTO its seventh year, the George Town Festival (GTF) continues to see substantial Singapore participation and support - with artists who see it as a chance to expand their horizons, not to mention sinking deeper into their family roots, if they have any in Malaysia.
"The Singapore component really enriches the festival - we've collaborated with Singapore almost every year with the staging of plays, showcasing its creative crafts, food, music, comedy and art. It has helped build a Singapore link, especially our collaboration with artist Tan Kheng Hua," says Joe Sidek, GTF's artistic director.
"It's great as we get to see how Singaporean standards are applied to the way they work and how much we need to catch up as Singaporeans tend to have better working structure and production standards," adds Sidek.
This year's headline show by Singapore artists is Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental, written by Lim Yu-Beng and produced by Tan Kheng Hua. The husband-and-wife duo staged the sold-out play, 2 Houses, in GTF 2014, housed in a 20th century mansion. This year's play - Lim's second in a trilogy of odes to Penang - is also site specific: It will be staged at the E&O Hotel, originally built by the Sarkies brothers who later also built Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
For Tan and Lim, it has been the chemistry and respect that they have for Sidek that has made this festival the one that she has been involved with the longest, outside of Singapore. Lim's parents are also from Penang - hence the close ties.
"We are interested in a similar sort of world - of the shared history and culture between Penang and Singapore - and telling stories from that world," says Tan, who had also acted in No 7 (a monologue about the favourite wife of a tycoon in Penang) in GTF 2011.
While Tan and Lim might have seen themselves more distinctly as Singapore artists in the past, they have evolved to become just a group of artists (from the two countries) working on a project together. "The amalgamation is well-oiled," she quips, especially since many Malaysian actors have also gone to work in Singapore. The cast of Pearl, for example, is all Malaysian, but two are based in Singapore. Rehearsals begin in Kuala Lumpur this week - so the production will end up spanning three cities.
For Lim, researching and writing these plays have been a way for him to dig more into his own family's roots, and he sees Penang as his second home. So this play, which is slightly more political than his previous one, has been harder to write as he is trying to be more respectful and sensitive to local sentiments and the viewpoints of Malaysians.
Another Singaporean artist who is taking the opportunity to research her family history while presenting at the festival is Sim Chi Yin, a former photographer with The Straits Times now based in China for the past nine years.
She says that she has been looking at GTF and Obscura Festival of Photography with interest from afar for a couple of years. "Penang is my father's hometown which we used to visit annually; I have lot of fond childhood memories. To see it become a cool town with jazz, theatre and a photography festival with a growing reputation in South-east Asia made me quite excited."
Sim was already planning to use Penang as a base to travel to Perak for a family history project, when she was introduced to Obscura co-founder Vignes Balasingam, who asked her to lead a workshop and curate a film night showcasing her short documentary and other films by her colleagues in the New York-based VII Photo Agency.
"As an artist/practitioner, I'm modestly hoping to give back what I can to my own backyard as it were, having become one of a few (women) documentary photographers from Asia working in the international space," she adds.
She also thinks that Singaporeans overall can feel quite divorced from their South-east Asian neighbourhood. "It's a good thing to have more interactions both ways.
"Specific to Singapore and Malaysia, as a first-generation Singaporean with Malaysia-born parents, I sometimes am embarrassed by my own lack of knowledge and exposure to Malaysia, and I wonder how two countries that used to be one are not closer. The project touches ultimately on our identities as Malayans - and now Malaysians and Singaporeans - and our common past, and common traumas."
Singapore art gallery Objectifs co-founder Emmeline Yong was also invited by Obscura. Yong has curated a slideshow of works of 12 photographers and two filmmakers in Masterplan, alluding to the Singapore government's 1958 land use plan which is updated every five years. The fast-paced changes in recent years however has unsettled a population with a nascent national identity. Singapore-based photographers and filmmakers have been responding to this sense of loss and change in the past decade in their works.
Meanwhile, a highlight in GTF this year is a new venue: the restored Majestic Theatre, the third phase of Singapore company 1919 Global Sdn Bhd's restoration activities in Penang. The interiors are done by Singapore's Ministry of Design. The 800-seater Majestic was one of the oldest in a neighbourhood of theatres that included the Odeon, Rex and Capitol on what was Penang's theatre row of the 1930s and 40s.
Company CEO Jonathan Foo says: "The current owners of The Majestic want to revive the 'Grand Old Lady' by restoring it to its former glory and bringing back entertainment and events into the building. The restoration works have taken two years, and the final product will be a celebration of Penang's colonial heritage and its future relevance in design and entertainment."
While this will be a "homecoming" for some, ultimately, Singapore artists are also looking forward to a more down-to-earth festival celebrating the arts of all sorts. "Less posh and fussy than we might get in the hallowed halls of Singapore or Kuala Lumpur," says Sim. And of course the food, declare Sim and Yong.
Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental runs on July 28-31 and Aug 4-7 at the E&O Hotel, Farquhar Street. More details at www.georgetownfestival.com.
Sim Chiyin's curated slideshow, From Stills to Motion: A Night of VII Films, date to be confirmed; her workshop Ground Up - Telling Stories in the Multimedia Age will be held from Aug 15-20, at Hin Bus Depot.
Emmeline Yong's curated slideshow, Masterplan, will be screened on Aug 20, 8pm, at Hin Bus Depot, 31, Jalan Gurdwara, George Town. More details at www.obscurafestival.com.
Pick of the crop
THIS year's festival will launch the Arts for Humanity Project and the two headline speakers will be Larry Harvey, co-founder of the iconic Burning Man Festival in the US, and prolific Cambodian director Rithy Panh.
Every year, thousands of people make their way to the middle of a desert in Nevada to explore various forms of artistic self-expression and give away their art "selflessly" in The Burning Man Festival. This year, 30,000 tickets for the main events sold out in 30 minutes.
Panh is the first filmmaker from his country to have his work nominated for the Oscars in 2014. The seminal work The Missing Picture also garnered the top prize in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
- July 30, 11am-1pm, E&O Hotel. Ticket prices unconfirmed.
Raising the street art stakes, GTF has commissioned two works from French sculptor Matthieu Robert-Ortis, who uses simple metallic wire to create 3D line sculptures that morph into different shapes depending on your viewing angle.
One of his most popular works is the Elephant x Giraffe sculpture in which a pair of giraffes become an elephant as the line of sight changes. A video of this art work has garnered over 84 million views on Facebook.
- Venue to be confirmed. The works will be on show from July 29-Aug 28.
South Korean artist Lee Lee-nam reimagines traditional art with digital imagery, creating vivid images that have been likened to dreams overlapping with reality. Some of Lee's notable works include his interpretation of Jan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring and Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Lee also reworks classical Korean art. His work has garnered a string of accolades, including Young Artist of the Year (2005) from Gwangju Museum of Art, and can be found in New York, Beijing and Germany.
- July 29-Aug 28, 10am-5pm daily, Penang Science Cluster, Gat Lebuh Cina.
All That Fall was originally a radio play written by Samuel Beckett and first broadcast in 1957. Part black comedy, part murder mystery, a cryptic literary riddle or a quasi-musical score, Irish company Pan Pan Theatre has set it in a theatrically-tuned listening chamber.
All That Fall won two Irish Times Theatre Awards in 2011 for Best Sound and Best Lighting Design, as well as the Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh International Festival 2013. Having performed in Dublin, London, New York and Sydney, its performance in the George Town Festival will be its first in Asia.
- Aug 6 & 7, 4pm, 6pm, 8pm at Majestic Theatre. Tickets from RM25.
Having racked up more than 3.7 million views for his TED talk,Theo Jansen brings his Strandbeest to South-east Asia for the first time. These gigantic "beach animals" with many legs are moved by wind. Largely made of stiff plastic tubes, these Strandbeests are purely mechanical and have gone to Japan, France, Taiwan, Australia and Spain as well as the Art Basel in Miami Beach.
- There will be a demonstration at the A+SEAN showcase at The Esplanade on July 30 & 31, and thereafter, the exhibition will be held at the Penang Science Cluster & Event Hall at Bangunan UAB at Wisma Yeap Chor Ee (Ground floor), 37, Gat Lebuh China, open daily from 9am-6pm.
Art for Causes
Championing animals has been something of a pet project within GTF, and several artists have created works based on this theme this year. Sighted: Endangered Animals of Malaysia is the brainchild of Penang-based Alvin Neoh, who owns and manages Narrow Marrow cafe. The hanging art installations are composed with clouds of digitally orchestrated dots that are shaped to form a sun bear, a tapir and a mouse deer to highlight the plight of endangered animals.
Product designer and woodworker Arthur Lamon created Poocher, designed as a playful twist on small DIY wood kits, to shine a light on the poaching issues of the endangered Malaysian tiger.
Self-taught Penang artist Ethen Ng's artworks, drawn with ballpoint pens, show animals with batik motifs in an attempt to create awareness about cruelty to animals.
- July 29-Aug 28, Sighted will be at Narrow Marrow on Carnarvon Street, 10am-5pm; Poocher at Whiteaways Arcade, 10am-10pm; Ethen Ng at A2+ Art Space, 5 Lebuh Armenian, 10am-6pm.
This is the sophomore showing in Penang of award-winning dancer, choreographer and director Akram Khan, who teams up with celebrated sculptor Anish Kapoor and composer Nitin Sawhney to revive his first full-length production, Kaash (the Hindi word for "if only"). This is Akram's quest to build bridges between the world of contemporary dance and Indian classical Kathak. The original Kaash tour from 2002 performed 133 shows in 65 venues across 23 countries while its revival premiered in Grenoble, France, in 2014. The George Town Festival performance of Kaash will be the company's first in South-east Asia.
- Aug 20 and 21, 8.30pm, Dewan Sri Pinang. Tickets from RM25-RM125.
Site Specific Work
George Town's historical buildings are pretty much the lead player in the festival and Malaysian choreographer Aida Redza has created boundary-pushing, site-specific works since GTF's inception. Moved by Padi (the Malay for "paddy") involves growing a patch of paddy in the urban city, in Macallum.
Together with her artistic collaborators Ombak-Ombak ArtStudio, Ng Chor Guan (composer), Sarah Ameera (visual artist), Lisa Foo (installation artist) and Mao Arata (Japanese choreographer and performer), Aida will present a contemporary reinvention of rituals and communal celebrations honouring the semangat (spirit) of paddy and rice as a source of existence and self.
- Show time to be confirmed.
- Go to www.georgetownfestival.com for more information on times, venue and ticketing.