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This band does not cave

by CT Lim

Shortly after I was asked to write a response to The Observatory’s new show Refuge last year, I got a message from the band’s Yuen Chee Wai. He asked me if I had any contacts for schools; the band was hoping to use one of their bomb shelters as a venue for Refuge. They were trying to recreate the cave experience they encountered in Malaysia while researching the show — total darkness and enveloped by silence, but not quite. Your eyes are open but you can’t see anything. I was overseas at the time of his call; we discussed how, ideally, the venue for this show should be an underground facility, but those were secured areas. There are no caves in Singapore. Can we get back to nature? We are as man-made as we can get, just like the eventual venue for the performance, the School of the Arts (SOTA) in the heart of town. The arts are manufactured, we should have no illusions about that.

There is something seductive about returning to the caves, returning to a primordial past. An experience of sensory deprivation and heightened feelings and awareness. Your sense of hearing is more sensitive. You pick up the nearby streams, the crickets, the insects, the person next to you who you are desperately holding on to because you know after this trip/gig, he/she/they will leave you. But they are not quite there in the first place. And you are not quite here either.

One can never experience complete darkness in Singapore, there is too much light pollution. And there is this constant low hum you hear from the underground cities and tunnels that surround us. The vibrations from the hollow passages and the network of trains that bring us from one place to another but not quite where we want to be. Often we are not standing on ‘original’ ground, but reclaimed land. You wonder about the foundations of our lives.

Experiencing Refuge (and it is more of an audio-visual-sensory-olfactory participatory spectacle to be experienced) is to see/hear/smell/feel The Observatory’s struggles to create an artistic distillation of a year of research. Knowing what the band had gone through in trying to find a venue, it is also a testimony of their struggles against bureaucracy, idiocy, mediocracy, and those who questioned their current relevance and existence.

The performance starts with a film clip telling you about the Perak Man, which reminded me of the road trips I used to take as a child to visit relatives in Malaysia. Then the music and movement began, with scents pumped into the room, an attempt by the band to recreate the smells of the caves but it’s too posh to be a cave. The ambition of Refuge is evident and it ties in with the band’s earlier works in terms of scale and its focus on the subaltern.

Is there really such a thing as refuge? Can the arts provide some answers or comfort to our perforative existence? Doing the work can be a form of refuge — the scattering beats (Cheryl Ong), the relentless guitars (Dharma), the spiraling effects (Chee Wai), and the haunting vocals (Rully Shabara), all in a day’s work and augmented by the recorded dance by Justin Shoulder and the lighting by Duck Unit. It provides refuge by refusing sentimentality (a constant theme that carries over from The Observatory’s 20th-anniversary exhibition, Refuse, in 2022), by slowing down (the performance was 75 minutes but it did not feel rushed) to consider the stories of the land and what they have to tell us.

If it takes millions of years for cave systems to form, then we need not be in a hurry to move on to the next thing, the next trend, the next project, the next band-aid to patch us up but only temporarily. It’s okay to slow down, take a break, take a year off, take off everything, and run through the canvas like Rully. Do nothing, learn something, love someone else, love yourself, dismantle your life, start anew, refuse, fuge, and refuge. There are different lives, different systems and ways of living, varied experiences, variegated existence. It’s not utopia. The allegory of the cave reminds us that staying too long in the cave will rob us of agency, and what we see reflected on the walls is an illusion. But The Observatory has continued searching for new ideas, and challenging expectations of themselves and others’ expectations of them. They like to make things difficult for themselves and don’t like to do the easy things. Refuge embodies this spirit.

31 May 2024, Fri | 8PM

1 June 2024, Sat | 3PM & 8PM
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