SINGAPORE: Neatly stashed away in an HDB flat somewhere in the western part of Singapore are a folded black robe, newspaper cuttings, tiles with splashes of red dye, and strands of pubic hair.
These are all that remains of Josef Ng’s Brother Cane, one of the most controversial performances in Singapore’s contemporary art history.
“Yes, everything is still at home. They’re all stored in a corner of the storage area in my mum’s room,” said Ng, with a smile.
It’s a Saturday evening at Changi Airport Terminal 3, and the 40-something Singaporean is having a quick bite before flying off to Shanghai, where he now lives.
It has been more than a decade since his last interview with the Singapore media. And for the first time, he is willing to speak at length about a certain pubic hair-snipping performance he did back in 1994.
Today, the remnants from Brother Cane are safely stored away. But back then, the performance itself proved to be a proverbial Pandora’s Box moment for Ng and his fellow artists. The media-fuelled uproar that followed led to the withdrawal of public funding for performance art and forum theatre for 10 years.
And for Ng himself, the consequences were major. He was one of two artists specifically banned from future performances, and it signalled the end of his artistic career - at least in Singapore.
“I was confused, upset, worried and stunned,” Ng said, recalling the mixed emotions during the days that followed the controversy.
“I was wondering, ‘What was I doing on the front page (of a tabloid)?’”
PUB(L)IC PROTEST ON NEW YEAR’S DAY
During the wee hours of Jan 1, 1994, Ng had collaborated with another artist, the late Juliana Yasin, for a performance to welcome the New Year.
It was part of the 12-hour closing event of the Artists General Assembly (AGA), a week-long arts festival held at the defunct art group 5th Passage’s gallery space at Parkway Parade.
“She was in a wheelchair and I was doing actions, and there was interaction with audiences,” he recalled. “It had something to do with carrying each other and the art form we were practising. There was a very good energy from the very first performance that whole night.”
But 1994 had something else in store for Ng. Two days later, on Jan 3, he would wake up to a front page report about another performance he had done at that same event.
Local tabloid The New Paper had published a photo of him with his back to the audience. His black swimming trunks were lowered, and he was seemingly cutting his pubic hair.
The headline screamed: “Pub(l)ic Protest”.
It was a short segment of Brother Cane, a complex and visceral performance piece protesting the media coverage of an anti-gay operation in Tanjong Rhu. It also alluded to the caning sentence that was meted out.
In hindsight, the presence of a reporter and photographer at Ng’s performance was only the latest ingredient to what was already shaping up to be the perfect storm.
Prior to that night, the AGA event had already encountered road bumps - two videos had been censored for homosexual and political content.
Performance artists were also upping the ante. The year before, another artist, Vincent Leow, drank his own urine at another event.
Meanwhile, Brother Cane itself wasn’t a spontaneous, isolated performance by Ng. He had already tackled the same themes with an earlier performance titled Don’t Go Swimming, It’s Not Safe.
Having previously worked with theatre groups such as The Necessary Stage (TNS) in the late 1980s, Ng was keen on bringing up socially relevant issues.
“I think it was a very sticky issue that I had brought up,” he explained. “It was the whole theatre training of looking into things that were being swept under the carpet.”
But Brother Cane was more than that. As a relative performance art newbie back then, he was also exploring ways of developing his craft.
The infamous pubic hair-snipping moment was a small part of an elaborate, ritual-meets-theatre performance that also included whacking pieces of red dye and tofu set on tiles with a rotan.
“During a large part of it, I was on the verge of physical dance, which wasn’t reported in the paper,” he added. “It wasn’t just about content and context, it was also theatrics and performativity.”
A VERY CONFUSING PERIOD
Things swiftly spiralled out of control. The Brother Cane incident (or at least the short part that was reported) snowballed into a heated public debate about art and obscenity.
It would carry on for months, even dragging Ng’s early mentors at TNS, director Alvin Tan and playwright Haresh Sharma, into the fray.
By the time the smoke had cleared, things had changed for Ng.
He was charged for committing an obscene act in public and eventually fined S$1,000. Together with friend and fellow performance artist Shannon Tham - who had vomited as part of his own protest performance that night - Ng was banned from performing in public again.
The National Arts Council also announced a no-funding rule for unscripted art performances, affecting proponents of performance art and forum theatre.
For Ng, who was in his early 20s at that time, it was a “very confusing period”.
“Before I could even think about it, I was called in for questioning. Then the whole NAC statement came in. It was like a ladder to climb - but before I could even take my first step, more and more steps came. It was kind of like a tsunami,” he said.
Ng became the de facto poster boy for the controversy, but he was also concerned about everyone else who was affected, including his friends and peers from art collectives 5th Passage and The Artists Village, who had organised the event and also included fellow performance artists.
At the same time, he added he was lucky to have parents who understood and supported him throughout his ordeal. He also remembered how some members of the arts community voiced their support and pushed the debate in the media.
“I wasn’t mature enough to respond back then, so I was in awe at the support and work I witnessed from those involved in the case,” he said.
But the experience also led Ng to think twice about dealing with Singapore media.
“To be honest, it was an awakening on the meaning of tabloid journalism for me,” he shared.
“In general, I’m not afraid to talk to the media, but here in Singapore, I’m cautious. There have been so many miscommunications about my performance and the after-effects, what I did and what I’ve been doing ever since.”
LIFE POST-BROTHER CANE
A day before meeting at Changi Airport, Ng had invited me over to his office at Pearl Lam Galleries’ (PLG) Dempsey Hill space, one of two branches it has in Singapore.
Inside his neat little office loomed a huge painting. Made by Chinese artist Su Xiaobai, the oil and lacquer, black and white abstract work is called Solemn Dignity 3.
It looks like it’s about to burst at the seams and is an imposing presence in the small space.
“I love it. It’s so Black Metal, right?” he quipped. “He’s a very good artist, born in 1949, a very good period to be born in China, when things were changing, followed by ideologies and revolutions.”
For Ng, things have also changed. Since December 2015, he has been PLG’s managing director for Asia, a role that seems light years away from what he did back in 1994.
These days, the former performance artist is a curator-gallerist - and a very busy one at that.
To describe Ng’s work schedule as hectic is an understatement, as he constantly travels back and forth between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, where PLG branches are located.
Before he flew off to Shanghai, he had already spent a week in Singapore, meeting clients and collectors, and checking out other arts events. Prior to that, he was busy flying PLG’s flag at Hong Kong's chaotic Art Basel fair. “I only had my first glass of champagne on the fourth day!” he joked.
When he reached Shanghai, he would have just enough time to recharge before even more trips to Beijing, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. There are also scheduled trips to Los Angeles, New York and Singapore, before he goes on a “grand tour” of Europe’s mega arts events: Art Basel, Documenta and Venice Biennale.
“A third of my schedule revolves around airports, customs and airplanes,” he quipped.
For people who only know of Ng from his “Mr Pubic Hair Artist” days, it’s a clue into what he has been doing post-Brother Cane.
After the controversy surrounding his performance, Ng kept in touch with fellow artists but stayed away from the art scene.
“There was such a loud reverberation in the aftermath and I personally didn’t want to deal with it,” he admitted. “I stepped out of art completely, just to assess whether it was something I really wanted to do my whole life.”
Barring a short stint in London, where he took up curatorial studies, Ng shifted gears in the mid-1990s. Instead of making art, he helped out with the family business and travelled a lot.
But it wasn’t long until he was back in the art world. By the start of the new millennium, Ng had reinvented himself in a new country - Thailand.
TO BANGKOK AND CHINA
While he was unable to publicly perform in Singapore, Ng did some performance art in Bangkok, where he was invited to a few art exhibitions and seminars.
One of these took place in 1998, where he alluded to what had happened in Singapore in a piece called The Death Of Me.
It involved Ng carrying his own tombstone at a park. “It was like, ‘I’m dead’. I was doing a lot of action with it and it was tough - tombstones are heavy!” he recalled, amused at the memory.
In 1999, he went on a backpacking trip in Thailand, after which things began to fall into place. He decided to stay there permanently - and shifted from being a performance artist to being an art writer, curator and gallerist.
He wrote for publications such as the Bangkok Post, and would later become heavily involved in the Thai art scene, culminating in his position as artistic director of Tang Contemporary Art Gallery in the mid-2000s.
“I felt I belonged in the Thai art community and they saw me as part of them, not ‘Josef the Singapore artist’ who moved there.”
By 2007, he would also be travelling to and from Beijing, championing some of Thailand’s biggest artists and making his mark as a known curator and gallerist in Asia.
In Singapore, however, he was still mostly known for Brother Cane. It didn’t help that he kept a low profile throughout the 2000s. Apart from a short-lived art consultancy business, he wasn’t plugged into the local arts scene.
The turning point came a few years ago, when gallerist Pearl Lam invited him to join her team.
With two gallery branches in Singapore, it was a chance to reconnect with an art scene he left decades earlier - but it also meant he would have to confront certain ghosts from the past.
At the beginning of a round of interviews with Ng, there was a palpable sense of hesitation talking about Brother Cane. The past was the past and his world now is different.
“It wasn’t easy coming back. There was much hesitation,” he admitted.
But in the end, he said yes. “I can truly say I’ve got one foot back in Singapore and I can now really see what I can do with the art community here,” he said, adding that he plans to showcase more local and regional artists at PLG - and that involves bringing in performance art, too.
TIME HEALS EVERYTHING
As Ng returns to the local arts scene, it’s clear how much has changed since 1994.
For one, Brother Cane is now regarded a very significant moment in the story of Singapore art, something its creator is aware of.
“It has become part of our history,” Ng said, before wondering how things would have played out had there been social media back then. “Imagine the explosion of commentary!”
In a way, that scenario actually played out a few years ago, when artist Loo Zihan enacted Brother Cane in 2012, resulting in a minor deja vu moment online, with debates surrounding performance art resurfacing.
As for his peers and mentors whose practice was once frowned upon, many are now lauded.
Some have even been awarded the Cultural Medallion, the highest honour that can be given to a Singaporean artist. This month, one of Ng’s fellow performance artists from the AGA event, Zai Kuning, is representing the country at the Venice Biennale.
As for performance art itself, the no-funding rule was officially lifted in 2004.
Ironically, the changing landscape has seemed to result in Ng’s specific situation slipping through the cracks.
He pointed out that there has been no official announcement rescinding the specific ban on all performances by him or Tham, which had been announced along with funding proscription in 1994.
But a spokesperson from the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA), which is now the body that handles licenses for arts and entertainment events, told Channel NewsAsia it has not banned either artist, and assesses works based on content.
The authority had not yet been formed during the Brother Cane incident.
Despite the vagueness of his particular situation, Ng said: “I think time heals and mends everything.”
But, he also added: “We were all deeply affected. There were practitioners who were bitter about the effect and left the scene completely. It wasn’t a nice feeling to have something taken away as a practitioner.”
But the incident also spurred many of his peers to persevere even more during the decade that followed.
“It made people more motivated and stronger,” he said. “If you want to look at the bigger picture, histories are not made because everything goes according to script, you know?”
The lines of communication between artists and authorities have also opened up, compared to before.
“There is definitely a lot more dialogue now. Back then, they just took everything. Now there’s a mediation,” he said. “It has been up and down, but you can see there’s an effort.”
That said, Ng pointed out that more could still be done.
Citing the gay issues that led to Brother Cane, Ng said: “With what’s happening to Pink Dot, I must say the issues haven’t really died, just fashioned out differently.”
It’s also been a case of “same same but different” when it comes to recent debates about art involving the recent gold foil staircase and “Sticker Lady” incidents.
“More than 20 years later, we’re still talking about what art is and what it’s not,” he said.
If there’s one thing that he sees as lacking in the local arts scene today, it’s the absence of “grit”.
“There’s no grit anymore. That has been sacrificed. If you want to do graffiti, there are now places for you to do graffiti,” he said. “It boils back to the idea of letting things grow organically. I’ve always believed in being daring and being bold.”
Does that entail giving performance art another go? Perhaps the return of Brother Cane?
“Right now, I have no desire to do my own performance. But I still believe performance art is a very potent force,” he said. “Brother Cane is part of me.”