After 4 terrific years in London, Kai went home. That was when all the big grand questions flooded her small brain: Where am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? So many questions. So, so many many works. Kai made many many installations, films, texts, and showed her works in film festivals, museums, galleries within and beyond Singapore – and opened up more and more and more questions. So far, so arty, so indulgent, so reflective. Kai was also a responsible adult. She had a job. She taught in a film school, where there was a swimming pool. To make all this working/living business palatable/stomach-able/logical, Kai started swimming.
Chlorine Addiction (transmediale, YIDFF, Fukuoka Art Museum)
That is the short story behind Chlorine Addiction, one of Kai’s most popular works. The cine-essay was structured as a swim, with a series of 10 videos with a runtime of 3 minutes each, which was the time she took to swim each of the 10X100-metre laps daily. The films encourage the audience to ‘re-map’ or re-order and edit them. They may be viewed independently, in any order, as short films or an installation in space, or from the ‘beginning’ to ‘end’ as a linear film. Using images and sounds collected from Singapore, San Francisco, Bangkok, Taiwan and elsewhere, the work contemplates the everyday, rather strange, reality of Singapore and existence in general. Chlorine Addiction has been shown, for instance, at Transmediale and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2001. An early version of a clip was collected by the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan. Kai also published a book which is distributed by Select Books, and produced an interactive DVD. The poetic + dynamic music was composed by Philip Tan, who also scored most of my pieces I created in this period.
SPRING.BEAUTY.LOVE. (Shot In the Face show with Song Dong)
SPRING.BEAUTY.LOVE. was another work that Kai holds dear from this period. The subtitle of this installation is Her story of trying to tell the stories of the three sisters. As a young person from a young country (with its own histories nearly wiped out), one of the first steps that she took to understand myself was by discovering, (re-)telling and (re-)constructing her own history, or rather histories. She did so by interviewing her mother and aunties, hence the title is an English translation of their names. Yet, instead of a ‘straightforward’ documentary with an all-telling, truth-seeing ‘voice of god’, this was one in which the narrators and filmmaker alike were unreliable, with their lapses in memory, miscommunication (English was the filmmaker’s preferred lingua franca, while the women spoke in their mother tongue of the Chinese dialect of Hokkien). The stories of the sisters were also different. One was born before the war, one given away for adoption during the war, and the youngest – Kai’s mother – was born after the war. The way the work was presented questioned the grand notions of identity, subjectivity, documentary, truth and so on, with the three films played simultaneously as an installation. The audience had to physically and metaphorically navigate the cacophony of sounds and conflicting narratives. Additionally, as if a literal interpretation of ‘oral history’, only the women’s mouths are filmed. In the screen in which ‘Love’ – Kai’s mother – appears, Kai appears, too. The latter was filmed by her mother, who interrogated her as to why she created such a project at all. The subtitle of this work itself highlights how it is a self-reflexive exercise that problematises these notions. The show was curated by BingHui Huangfu. Other artists in the show include China’s Song Dong (with whom Kai will go on to exhibit with in a few more shows, and who makes amazing works, and whom she later get to know as a grounded and giving artist and person) and Lin Tian Miao.
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.
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’ ofmeanings.
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.
TOKYO TREMOUR TRIPLET
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.