The Best of SIFA 2016 (according to a completely subjective critic)

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 30, 2016

I think the usual practice during a wrap-up is to list our favourite shows, no? I’m gonna include The O.P.E.N.’s offerings here too. And this is completely subjective—some folks were completely bowled over by Ibsen: Ghosts and Five Easy Pieces, and while I enjoyed and appreciated them etc, I’ve realised they weren’t actually my faves.

Everything By My Side / Time Between Us by Fernando Rubio and The Last Bull by Checkpoint Theatre & Antonio Vargas

These works were superbly beautiful and conceptually very interesting. Fernando Rubio’s two works challenged my ideas of what theatre could be (and really, both could be labelled installations or performance art pieces), and also its translatability—the fact that they’ve travelled from country to country using different actors and local languages is worth a whole essay unto itself.

But The Last Bull was equally important to me as a Singaporean artist. Although it doesn’t overtly break conventional forms of performance, it challenges our whole idea of what national art should be about—our flag is being flown by a Jewish Moroccan flamenco dancer-cum-movie extra PR!—and it’s both deeply moving and dedicated to the simple art of storytelling. By the way, I hear the performers have been asked to check their calendars for a 2017 run. J

There’s a runner-up here: Models Never Talk, by Oliver Saillard. Because SO GLAM.

Still Life, by Dimitris Papaioannou

I only saw a dress rehearsal of this, but yeah, even that was amazing—mythos, pathos, genesis, apocalypsis, the works. And the possibilities of the human body and of plaster and foam—I bet it took a lot of technology to make those walls the dancers were breaking through.

I Know Why the Rebel Sings, by Newsha Tavakolian

The ground floor alone, Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album, blew me away. And then there was the MDA controversy that made the issues of her photojournalism all the more urgent, and then her talk—which she asked me not to transcribe, alas!—that revealed how she’d managed to rise from being a teenage token woman photographer at an Iranian paper to visiting Iraq just to see what these people her country had warred against for a decade were like (she loved them) and eventually just becoming a war journalist, no bulletproof vest, even, just because she was there during the American invasion of 2003, and how she became an artist when her journalism licence was taken away…

Perhat Khaliq & Qetiq

This guy takes traditional Central Asian traditional music and makes it rock. I know Wu Man is doing similar investigations into the instruments of the Silk Road, but this Perhat is just funkier.

The Tribe, by Speak Cryptic, and I Am LGB, by Loo Zihan and Ray Langenbach

I don’t know if I’m classifying these two works correctly, but they had loads in common: Singaporean visual artists engaging huge numbers of performers and audience members in large theatrical spaces, guiding them through rituals, mysterious and Instagram-worthy, of social integration…

Two visions of our country, one utopian and one dystopian. And both involving younger artists, who hadn’t pulled off something so large-scale before. Which makes me feel good about what SIFA’s doing, investing in potentialities, yadda yadda.

Archaeology of the Final Decade by Vali Malhouji

A crucial aspect of SIFA is the fact that it’s a festival of ideas, and Malhouji’s talk was so damn illuminating as an insight into how great artistic movements can arise in the developing world—and then be obliterated and nearly completely forgotten.

It speaks so much to what’s happening here, in Singapore. We’re riding a wave of investment in culture, but how long can it last?

A close runner-up is A Conversation with Carla Fernández, which really opened up my mind about what’s possible in terms of rural investment and addressing global inequities of cultural exchange.

… But now I wanna be controversial and also mention my least favourite works of SIFA. They’re Theatre of Nations and Robert Lepage’s Hamlet | Collage and Ahmed El Attar’s The Last Supper.

Now, these works weren’t bad. You’ll notice they’re all acclaimed works that toured overseas before being invited down here, so it’s evident that lots of people do value them. But they were both extremely wordy, which was exhausting for those of us who don’t speak Russian or Arabic fluently, and—unlike the similarly wordy and difficult Riding on a Cloud and Sandaime Richard—I’m not convinced they contained rich and original enough ideas to be worth the slog.

What were your favourites? And your least favourites?

(I'll be closing off the week with a proper essayish conclusion, doncha worry.)

  • 2016