2002-2005: islandhopping, conflict, difference, meaning, live-ness.

Restless, Kai took off again. This time, she ventured to the ‘far east’ – Japan. And how ‘far’, different and exotic it was, even for a ‘fellow’ ‘easterner’. Which was one of the many starting points of her ISLANDHOPPING.


Drawing on the Japanese aesthetic concept of ‘ma’ (in between), ISLANDHOPPING aims to provoke a re-imagination of the literal and metaphorical meanings and manifestations of ‘island’ .

Over the period of 3 years (2002-2005), Kai travelled between — islandhopped — various islands of Japan. With the aid of her video camera, she collected and mixed together a range of images, sounds, texts and stories from the people and places she encountered in her grand tour. As an islander (from Singapore) myself living in the archipelago of Japan at the time, she is particularly interested in the attractions and tensions between the two island nations historically and politically. More generally, she wants to explore how points or zones of contacts and conflicts arise when different sounds and stories are clustered and mixed up together within the same space (actual or filmic), and what these new tensions can add to and/or challenge what we (think we) know about these places and people. In other words, by collecting personal stories or micro-narratives from ordinary folk that I meet on my trip, and juxtaposing them together in unexpected ways, she was also keen to raise questions about the power of dominant or ‘official’ narratives, and explore how we may emerge with re-imaginations, new ‘islands’ and ‘archipelagos’ of meanings.


A major ‘archipelago’ of stories, for instance, relates to the Pacific War. They include her visits to: the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo while impersonating as a Japanese; the peace ceremony at Hiroshima during which the message of Japan as victim was propagated; an American military camp in Okinawa (filmed with a hidden camera) with an interview with an elderly uncle of his ordeal during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. As I — and the audience — hopped from ‘island’ to ‘island’ and story to story in the form of densely-montaged films or densely-packed installation site, the boundaries  between victim/victor, truth/fiction may become blurred.


As  research-practitioner, she did not function as an ‘island’ myself. ISLANDHOPPING also acted as a mechanism for me to reach out to Japanese artists. Over the period of 3 years, successful interdisciplinary and intercultural collaborations I carried out included that with dancers (including Butoh expert Matsubara Toyo and contemporary dancer-choreographer Takao Kawaguchi), musicians (composer Professor Christophe Charles; noise artist Adachi Tomomi) and media artists (Videoart Centre Tokyo’s Taki Kentaro and Masayuki Kawai; Takano Satoru).


Kai’s outputs were as agile and ‘promiscuous’. Apart from a thesis written in the Japanese language (a language that she had only picked up upon stepping foot in Japan), she generated a large body of works spanning different genres and media, including installation, performances and film. There are no limit as to the combinations and permutations of ISLANDHOPPING as she responds to the specific spatial, political or social contexts of each show. Apart from the Biennale of Sydney 2006 (curated by Dr Charles Merewether), Singapore Season (curated by Keng Sen Ong) at ICA London, and Contemporary Art from South East Asia (curated by Rirkrit Tiravanija) at the House of World Cultures Berlin, ISLANDHOPPING has been seen in 5 solo exhibitions (ASK Gallery; Gallery Surge) and hundreds of group shows and performances (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; Tokyo Design Week). In addition, Kai conducted talks in universities (Tama Art University; Musashino Art University; Film School), and participated in symposiums that explored new forms of the documentary film (Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival’s POST-FICTION! held at Box Higashi Nakano, Tokyo). During my Biennale of Sydney residency, I took part in a Symposium on teaching at College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales. In addition, she ran Masterclasses in the Australian National University and Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, which are examples of how I integrate research and teaching. In the Biennale of Sydney catalogue, curator Johan Pijnappel describes ISLANDHOPPING as possessing an ‘unusual mix of critical engagement, intellectual references and […] a very, very special way of engaging humour’ (2006). Art critic Tracey Clement states on the cover of the Sydney Morning Herald (2006) that ‘Singaporean artist Kai Syng Tan [is] known for her eclectic style and cheeky attitude to the art world […]’.


ISLANDHOPPING is a precursor of Kai’s current exploration, RUN! RUN! RUN!. Before she could run, she has hopped. While she has only picked up running in 2009, Kai has lived life on the run. The action, visuality, rhythms and poetic implications of both ‘running’ and ‘islandhopping’ functioned as critical processes for me to figure out, work out, work through, work with or work against the world around her (and perhaps particularly with running, as it is arguably the most powerful given how it is simple, primal, childish and banal). In both works, she synthesises theoretical concepts with art practice, and is on the ground running field work as a research practitioner. Also, both works are characterised by eclecticism, irreverence and responsiveness in their form and content. Both have intercultural sources, and feature interdisciplinary collaborations. RUN! RUN! RUN! and ISLANDHOPPING present examples of how the contemporary artist could function: versatile and agile not just in terms of approach, but being and working on the move, crossing geopolitical boundaries, with the computer functioning as their mobile studio, shapeshifting, intellectually promiscuous and insatiable.


Another significant work was nicked-named Tokyo Tremour Triplet. This was an early work which Kai presented as an immersive installation at the President’s Young Talent exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum. All the films mobilise the same pool of images, of public events shot in Tokyo. However, one film has a voiceover in the Japanese language, the other English, and the last, in both English and Japanese. The audience meandering through the darkened space is assaulted by a cacophony of sounds and sights, and has to navigate and negotiate their own meaning out of the visual and audio noise – the same way she felt when she first lived in the metropolis.