story | Amanda Leong, Staff Editor
photos | Mark Teo, courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre
Still Life is an autobiographical play about Dana Lam’s life. It was directed by Claire Wong, who was also the dramaturg of this play, under Checkpoint Theatre. Dana Lam is most known for being President of AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) from 2000-2002 and from 2009-2010, after the well-documented AWARE saga where she stood up against an orchestrated takeover by a group of women with strong anti-LGBT and right-wing Christian leanings. However, she also wears many hats. As a writer, she has written Days of Being Wild on the watershed Singapore General Elections of 2006. As a film-maker, she created She Shapes a Nation (2009), a short documentary capturing women’s voices and choices in five decades of nation-making. Lastly, as a visual artist, her latest installation When Bellies Speak: You Are Your Own Work of Art received a warm reception at Hong Lim Park in 2015.
In my interview with Ms. Lam, I ask her which role in her life has been the most significant. She tells me, “Those are roles one takes on in life (even the role of daughter) and perform with varying degree of competency. Not so dissimilar to other roles such as being president of AWARE, for instance! You step into the shoes, you perform the task. There are emotions involved, ties that bind (to borrow a phrase). Any of the roles can have a liberating and/ or inhibiting impact. The challenge is to have enough self-awareness to work through it. Ha! Being a mother and, now, a grandmother was/is rather intense emotionally. I call it the cuddly baby trap. But that doesn’t mean I don’t relish the experience.” She also sees her art-making and political involvements as being deeply intertwined with each other as ‘the personal is the political’.
Now in her sixties, Dana Lam has chosen to write and act in an autobiographical play, taking us on a journey from the 1950s to the present. She tells me about how she attempted to tackle this art form which was new to her: “A play is an entirely different animal from what I’m used to. There is so much material, so many paths to go down. Reaching out to Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman, to Checkpoint Theatre, was a call for help. I realised I needed to work in a way that would give my writing dynamism. And, I was right! Readying my text for performance helped me to narrow down the field and make cuts I may not have made on my own. Working with Claire on the studio floor was especially helpful in finding a different, more robust voice and approach to writing.”
On the day of the show itself, I was excited and filled with questions. How does she narrate her life to others, when her life is so complex and full that it may be difficult to tell this story to herself? An autobiography is a dynamic process of looking back, based on a constantly changing present self. How does she negotiate this truth-telling process when it is played out in front of an audience?
In the warm glow of the flood lights, I sit in the performance space of 72-13 Theatreworks, which has now been transformed into the intimate space of a visual artist’s studio. Unlike traditional plays where audience members are hidden in the darkness, the open arrangement of seats makes me feel remarkably vulnerable as I am in full view of actors and other audience members.
Ms. Lam, the subject of the show, acting as herself, enters the stage. She has soft, fluffy hair and is dressed in simple t-shirt and jeans. To me, she seems unexpectedly down-to-earth for an activist. Actor Jean Ng, Ms. Lam’s muse, enters the stage. “Don’t you know that your eyes are in the middle of your head between your crown? I need to know where things are,” Dana tells us, trying to ease us into her eyes as a painter. Later, she tells us more about her tertiary education as a painter, which she says was very unproductive. She later went on to experiment with many different art forms. In her interview, she describes, “There was a time when I’d collected paper scraps, tear-offs from bigger used sheets because I thought I’d be fine no matter what, so long as I have something to write or draw on. But, of course, people have written and drawn on all sorts of other material – skin, walls, sand – anything that can take a mark. I have a book of poetry and drawings produced by Teo Soh Lung while in detention in 1987 for trumped up Marxist Conspiracy charges.” However, after a long hiatus from painting, she returns to the canvas, welcoming the familiar “sound of charcoal on canvas” as she reunites with her “first love”.
At the heart of the play is her mother.
The story of her unhappy, repressed childhood is heartbreaking. Caught between loving and idealizing her mother and being a child, she was trapped in her mother’s heaviness and melancholy. She tried her best with the space that she had, watching her mother quietly with her painter’s eyes while her mother was “unmoved and unaware of her presence”. Her vivid descriptions of her mother took me back to her home in the 1950s, where I could almost see her mother as Ms. Lam describes her: “head is hung so low it seemed to sprout from the middle of the table… (and time is) measured by the length of ash hanging by the tip of her cigarette in her mouth”.
“I don’t want her touching my children,” she bursts. Even as a mother, her complicated relationship with her mother followed her. To her, it feels like an injustice that someone who was a source of great unhappiness in her childhood should now be allowed to play the role of beloved grandmother. However, would it be fair to hold her mother accountable for something that happened so long ago and was to an extent out of her control because she, too, was struggling with her own mental health and the responsibilities of being a mother? Earlier on in the play, Ms. Lam makes references to how her grandmother forced her mother to earn money for their family through dancing, under the uncomfortable gaze of older men. Should the start of a new generation mean that the sins of the past be forgiven, even if the pain of trauma does not fade? Does filial piety necessitate forgiveness?
The play ends with her attempting to grieve the loss of her mother through remembrance. “How should I look at this- this face, these eyes?” she asks us. She tries to capture her mother through painting, but her memory “overflows at the corners of the work”.
How do we remember someone when we don’t know who they truly are? Dana recounts how her mother used to bring a collection of self-portraits wherever she went. Looking at these photographs was a way to affirm her own existence. Ms Lam muses, “Could it be the moment a shutter clicks is how and when she sees herself?” Then, to her mother, did she even exist outside of these pictures? Who was she to herself outside this act of looking?
At first glance, the title of her autobiographical play, Still Life, seems like a misnomer. The term Still Life usually refers to works of art depicting inanimate subjects, a seemingly stagnant process. However, her life was nothing but still; the subject of the play — herself and her mother — is definitely not inanimate and stagnant.
Later on, as I look around at Ms. Lam’s art pieces which cover almost all the available space in the theatre, I finally understand what her title means.
Her ambiguous and vivid brush strokes depict subject matter that are in constant motion.
The panel of portraits all talk to each other in their colors, shapes, and edges, and in a way they start to talk to me. The more I look, the more I see details I did not notice in the first place: the gentleness of eyebrows; a mouth held ever so agape; the edges of soft bodies painted in warm, gentle hues are ever so faded. Through the act of looking, the people depicted in these art pieces become more alive to me.
Painting still life is an inherently unstable process as the act of looking is a process filled with constant transformation and creation. The supposed ‘stillness’ of the moment is in actuality one filled with various temporalities and possibilities. As the painter looks, the subject is frozen in time. However, within the temporality of the painter’s gaze and brush strokes, time flows as a work of art is created.
In her play, Ms. Lam subjects herself to her own gaze. Looking at her relationship with her mother was a way of reviving a relationship that was dead at the point it ended, offering a space for healing.