Interview with Brian Gothong Tan, creator of Tropical Traumas

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 31, 2016


This Friday night, Ron Arad’s multimedia installation 720˚ is going up at Gardens by the Bay, with an as-yet-unreleased schedule of art film projections. (I hear David Shrigley and Hussein Chalayan are on the program.)

The installation will be up for the remainder of the festival, but just for this weekend we’ll also get to see a *FREE* 9pm live performance at the site: Tropical Traumas: A Series of Cinematographic Choreographies, created by Brian Gothong Tan. (You might remember him for his multimedia work on last year’s performance of The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers.)

The show stars the actors Karen Tan, Koh Boon Pin, Felipe Cervera and Edith Podesta, playing everything from Sir Stamford Raffles’s wife to an orang-utan. They’ll be accompanied by dancers Koi Jun and Sabril, plus a whole buttload of live projections.

Brian’s an old friend, so I was able to call him up for a quick interview about the project.

NYS: When did you start work on this?

Brian: As in thinking about it? Well, Ong Keng Sen approached me last December, so I started conceptualising it then. He asked me to do a special piece within Ron Arad’s installation.

It’s really quite difficult because it’s 12 projectors, and I have to break the image into 12 parts. When you experience the show, of course, the technology is invisible. You’re just immersed in the images. It’s a virtual world you’re in. you don’t have to wear the headset. You just experience it live.

NYS: What about the content? All the colonial motifs?

Brian: I’ve always been kind of fascinated by this colonial thing lah. You know this colonial aesthetic—like, Donna Ong has it. We look into these colonial artworks like etchings and illustrations.

Donna Ong, Gift Series: Pluvia Silva

Brian: But I was also interested in the idea of traumatic experiences that shape our identity. I’ve been exploring it in my past works. I had a very small installation called Tropical Traumas that explored this only halfway: like the three main ones [for Singaporeans] are colonialism, the Japanese Occupation and separation [from Malaysia].

This time round I decided, based on the site that was given to me—Gardens on the Bay is like our second Botanical Gardens—I decided to do something about Raffles. My actors are playing a group of actors reenacting the travels of these people who came to this part of the world. When I did my research I started reading a lot about Sophia Raffles and Alfred Russel Wallace, all these English explorers who came to this part of the world.

Sophia Raffles

NYS: Who plays which parts?

Brian: Although the character Sophia keeps appearing and Raffles keeps appearing in various scenes, they permutate and play themselves.

NYS: What language is it in?

Brian: Felipe speaks in Spanish half of the time, and there’s Malay here and there. The rest is English.

NYS: And what’s the rehearsal process been like?

Brian: It’s quite fun lah, because I’m working with Edith and Karen and Boon Pin. They all have their quirks and their strengths and we incorporated them. We did a lot of workshops and read Sophia’s memoirs and took what we liked and threw away the rest.

NYS: How about the dancers, Koi Jun and Sabril?

Brian: They’re very young! I think they’re 15 or 16 years old. These kids I discovered them when I was working on Child Aid and I spotted them and they were pretty good dancers. I think they’ve never performed in a theatre piece except only in school. So for them it’s a learning experience ah.

Sublime Monsters and Virtual Children

NYS: Is this the first live performance you’re directing since Decimal Points 4.44?

Brian: I did another one in 72-13 two years back: Sublime Monsters and Virtual Children. That was a Deconstructed National Day Parade.

NYS: It’s not the one I destroyed with my clumsiness on opening night, was it?

Brian: No, that was Signs, Opens and Relics of Faith.

Signs, Omens and Relics of Faith

NYS: Tell us a bit about this piece.

Brian: It’s a very visual piece, and I made this for the Arts Fest crowd, so it’s going to be a bit weird. But the crowd is not going to be a typically Arts Fest crowd, because it’s outside: it’s at Gardens by the Bay, and there’s the Lantern Festival going on.

When I presented the project to the Gardens by the Bay team, they were hoping I would include elements like the moon and lanterny stuff… and I was like, “Sophia gave birth to five children and all five children died, so I have a funeral scene.” And they were quite like apprehensive at first, but then they were like, “Oh well, we can’t change history.”

Because it’s set in the Victorian period, there’s a lot of Gothic images here and there. Right now Gardens is filled with Chinese mythological lantern pieces everywhere, and then you’ll see this weird European projection. But that’s what I wanted. Something a bit strange and colonial.


NYS: Colonialism is strange. It’s literally an alien invasion!

Brian: It’s going to be fun. I’m doing my take on history, which is totally disrespectful.

NYS: You’ll have all those colonial images of tropical animals. People will be trying to catch them with Pokéballs.

Brian: It’s kind of like your play about Stamford Raffles. It’s kind of along that vein. You take history and do your own take on it.


NYS: Any tips for audience members? Should we bring food?

Brian: If you like! And I think you should come early to chope a place and get a good view. Because, you know, this whole Ron Arad space, you can go inside and see the performance. And it’s not on the grass. You sit on a platform.

The best view is inside the space—or else you’ll have to experience it from the outside, which is not optimal. They’re also showing other films before and after, but Keng Sen wanted something special for this weekend.

NYS: One last question: What’s been your favourite thing in the Arts Fest so far?

Brian: I loved Still Life. It was just such a visually rich and complex work. Even though it looks simple I could tell the technologies employed were quite sophisticated. It was quite invisible. Also the whole philosophy of it was very rich. You could feel it was both very personal, a bit dreamlike, and also very universal.

Brian: And of course the performers were all like amazing. Dimitri is amazing and he loks like Salvador Dali or Walt Disney when he’s younger. He’s quite charismatic on stage.

But then again I only watched two shows. That one and Hamlet. And I know you can’t write any bad things about Hamlet so I won’t talk about it.

  • 2016