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Volume 1 Issue 3
September 2012
GUEST COLUMN
Zhang Huan - To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997, Performance, Beijing, China
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Casting Stones

Written by Loo Zihan


When my first moving-image work was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival in 2007 because of censorship, the term 'activist' started popping up. This label of 'activist' was brought up again when I made my valedictorian speech at Nanyang Technological University in 2009 and most recently when I chose to re-enact Josef Ng's 'Brother Cane' in February 2012. Questions I fielded from the media often included 'Are you a gay activist?' and even 'Are you advocating for the abolishment of the censorship system in Singapore?' Honestly, I was perturbed and perhaps due to my conditioning, I initially denied the label vehemently.

Growing up in Singapore - where the idea of democracy is celebrated, but the practice is not always encouraged – the term 'activist' has always seemed too political and militant. We read about such people in the international section of the papers, but the concept has always seemed foreign. I have met people who proudly brandish their labels, claiming various badges of honour like 'entrepreneur' or 'philosopher', but have never heard anyone in my circle of friends dare to introduce themselves as an 'activist'.

As I thought about it more, I figured - yes, I am gay, and I am concerned about the overbearing censorship facing the arts community in the production of our work. Yes, I hope that things will change in the future. I began to ask myself 'Does the fact that I have a vested interest in human rights, and am willing to take a stand for it publicly, make me an 'activist' and is there a need to be ashamed or anxious about such a label being associated with my work?'

Everyone should have the right to share and defend his or her convictions, and especially if those conventions do not conform to the mainstream. A healthy society should aim not merely for collective consensus, but for a rich and layered discourse that promotes tolerance and diversity. Perhaps the blameless ones in our society will feel entitled to continue casting stones, but I have in mind a richer purpose, one that has allowed me to better understand the objectives of my work.

In particular, taking on the role of an educator this past year has been helpful in clarifying my own artistic practice. You have certain expectations of your students' work, and naturally you scrutinise your own work in light of the demanding criteria you are imposing on others. I often ask of my students during artist critiques, 'Why does this work need to exist in our society, and if there is no reason for it to exist, why are you putting it out into the world?' We are living in a time when we are saturated by images and experiences. As artistic producers, how do we add our work to the media clutter of our time meaningfully?

In the face of such questions, the work will naturally have a social message. The way I see it, all artists are activists, whether they admit to it or not. We are broadcasting our views to be heard. Inviting an audience to look upon a work, and to consider it as an artwork, is an 'activism' of sorts – we are demanding the world to see things from our perspective.

When I present my work to the world, it is as if I cast a stone into the placid waters of society, and I watch the ripples radiate and grow from my action. I learn that I can only throw a stone so far. Most importantly, I learn to choose the weight of my stones. The heavier ones fall closer to me but cause a bigger splash, while the lighter ones may have lesser impact but travel further and can reach out to people who are less exposed to my work.

Yes, I am an activist: not the kind of activist defined for us by the media, but an individual committed to enriching the society in which I live. I take heart in the knowledge that art has a unique ability to exist in the liminal space between reason and logic. As artists, we should not feel bound to rules imposed by convention or tradition or what is considered sensible. This permission to defy logic allows for the invisible to be witnessed, for the unspeakable to be said and for the impossible to occur. The reminder that there are still too many things in society that are unseen and unheard motivates me to soldier on, along with the hope that if enough stones are thrown into the sea, someday, we may be able to raise the seabed to a level where we are able to walk across oceans and connect continents, people and ideas that have been separated since the beginning of time.


Loo Zihan Loo Zihan is a performance and moving-image artist and educator based in Singapore. He received his Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has had exhibitions and showings at NEXT / Art Chicago, Macau International Performance Art Festival, Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival (Chicago) and the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. His moving-image works have been screened in various film festivals including AFI Fest (Los Angeles), Pusan International Film Festival, Newfest (New York City) and Frameline (San Francisco). He is a part-time instructor at Nanyang Techonological University, School of the Arts and the National Institute of Education.

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