Townhall: Arts and the Law (updated)

Arts Engage organised a townhall meeting on the subject of the arts and the law on October 30, 2017.
The discussion extended from a recent performance by Seelan Palay on Chia Thye Poh. 

Questions for the townhall were as follows:
What is the nature of artistic (and, in general, civic and political) space in Singapore? What is the space of art, of expression, and the law? Is the issue in the aesthetic expression, or is it with the law and regulations? Do aesthetic values matter in such instances? What is the place for artists whose work tests the limits? What, if anything, should the arts community do in response?

Documentation from the townhall:

14 points about Seelan Palay's 32 Years by Jennifer Teo

1. It was raining. We were waiting under the shelter when Seelan arrived. Someone asked him to move the performance nearer to us, but he said he needed to be at the other end of the field. So we carried our umbrellas or stood in the rain with him. 

2. At the start of the performance, Seelan announced that he would take full responsibility for what was about to happen and that nobody else was involved. Later he stopped someone from trying to help him with the banner. 

3. He didn't make eye contact with the audience. Most of the time, he was looking down at the drawing of Dr Chia or looking into the mirror. So it was like he was talking to Dr Chia or to himself. He did not raise his voice, so only the people near him could hear what he was saying. He didn't address the audience. It was very much like a personal recounting or confession. 

4. He didn't speak at the same volume all the time and, because I was standing at a distance away from him, it was hard to hear everything he said. 

5. He talked about wanting to be an artist since he was young and that he was inspired by seeing Picasso on TV. He mentioned a childhood incident — when his mum praised him for his drawing. 

6. In between speaking, he would walk over to the mirror and draw on it. I couldn't see what he drew. I think he was drawing the reflections in the mirror  but I'm still not sure what it was exactly. 

7. Besides the banner, he also placed a stack of 3 books and a piece of paper on the ground. I later found out that the paper was a letter from the police asking him to attend investigations following a previous alleged offence. The stack of books comprised The Wisdom of Lao Tzu by Lin Yutang, Art As Experience by John Dewey, and Foundation by Isaac Asimov. This last book was also placed on the ground outside the Parliament House just before he was arrested. 

8. The banner read 'Passion Made Probable’. As some of you may know, 'Passion Made Possible' is STB's new tag line. Presumably to say that Singapore is a place where people are passionate and the state helps make their passions possible. This banner to me infers that not all passions are made possible here. 

9. I see the performance as a reflection on Seelan’s personal journey as an artist and also of trying to make sense of the horror inflicted upon Dr Chia. 

10. The performance may also read as his reflection on the state of things in Singapore. He asked the questions: "Can the liberated human mind be constrained by a state-sanctioned space and, in that regard, can a liberated work of art be contained within a state-sanctioned space?"

11. After these questions, he started packing up and then walked off. People were not sure whether the performance had ended or whether they should follow him. Most people left at this point. 

12. Seelan first stopped briefly at Parliament House and added to his drawing on the mirror. He moved to National Gallery where he drew some more. He then walked up the stairs but, as the door was closed, he came back down. Then he walked to Parliament House where he stood holding the mirror facing it.

13. The whole performance was very calm and orderly. People were just walking past and didn't even notice Seelan until they saw the policemen. Even when approached by the policemen, Seelan was polite, and never raised his voice. 

14. I overheard him saying to the policeman who asked what the meaning of his drawing was, "Art is open to interpretation."

Arts Engage,
Nov 8, 2017, 5:36 AM