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The labouring body meets the spectating body

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

By Corrie Tan | Writer-in-residence

June-September 2022

Image: Chong Li-Chuan

The bones of Loading/Unloading sit quietly in the darkened maze of the Singapore Art Museum gallery space, all folds and joints and ridges. The installation in the gallery doubles as a storage rack, and is also the size of a TEU or a twenty-foot equivalent unit, the standardised measurement unit for all shipping containers. It’s an intimidating skeleton to encounter at first, the modules sloping upward like the rake of an animal’s raised hackles or rows of teeth, with an enormous metal sheet suspended overhead. Each activation lasts about 45 minutes and takes place in three different locations: in the gallery itself (also the wet-weather contingency venue), in one of the enormous cargo lifts outside the gallery, and in the loading bay in front of the port.

On the show’s opening night in the gallery space, audience members pool around the structure, hesitant to enter its jaws. Set designer Ining and I sit inside the structure, attempting to model various ways in which audience members might want to position themselves to engage with the show. Opening nights are often frenetic and most of the audience members seem distracted, trying to pick their way through the crowd and to engage with as many artworks as possible. Ining is dismayed by how the performers have receded out of the public gaze and into the background. “Oh no, they’ve become objects,” she tells me, shaking her head, “They aren’t people or bodies any more. I guess that’s what happens in a gallery space.” This is a perspective I’ve never encountered before, largely because of the theatre context I come from, where audience members are conventionally expected to pay full attention to the action throughout the duration of a work. Here, attentions snag and drift, and the size of the crowd around the activation expands and contracts throughout the work.

But the performers are singular in their focus, balancing on that razor’s edge of what prime mover driver S. alluded to in his interview—that delicious mix of terror and the mundane. Each activation follows a loose score sculpted by P7:1SMA’s artistic director Haizad, which means the performers don’t have to memorise specific sequences of choreography and have a good amount of room to improvise and react to their environment and to each other. The activations all open in the same deceptively simple way, with the four performers (Haizad, Sonia, Adi and Valerie) lifting metal modules from the rack and then ratcheting a larger bridge-like structure together. They do this against the cacophony of four radios playing at once, each tuned to different channels, and occasionally the fuzz of broadcast static. This is another small homage to S. and his anthropomorphised radio and speakers accompanying him in the cramped confines of his prime mover. As the sound of the radios recede, they’re replaced by the subtle wash of Li-Chuan’s soundscape, mixed live by Chuan himself (on his phone!), that eventually swells to fill the space. The performers take their time with the opening, leaning into the rhythms of screws tightening and clicking into place. Once the structures are secure, the piece segues into a quiet feat of physical ambition and endurance, marking that transition between the body as labourer and the body as labouring.

Image: Singapore Art Museum

Haizad is often the first on the structure, and by this point most of the performers are raring to go—each of them keen to test out different shapes and movements in each iteration of the work. I’ve watched the activations and rehearsals at least a dozen times, and still I am astounded by the ways in which a body might wrap itself around metal, shuddering and slithering and sweating from rung to rung. One of Haizad’s guiding principles around the scoring of this work is that fine balance between revealing the performers’ immense physical struggles to the audience—the straining quiver of muscle and flesh—and simultaneously demonstrating how effortless the movements seem to be—bodies suspended upside-down, in mid-air, limbs extended beyond the remit of gravity. This is something he’d decided on very early into the process, inspired by the astonishing weight of cargo and freight loaded and unloaded by the cranes and machinery in the port—and how smooth and mundane these everyday acts of power and strength could be.

If the first segment of these activations relies on these dramatic expressions of what a body might desire to push itself to do, the second half of the activations moves us into a more hypnotic, trance-like state. This is often when a significant portion of the audience fades away, underwhelmed by the rhythms and cadences of durational repetition. But those who choose to stay—including many young children—are often completely absorbed by the turn-taking of the performers, each slipping into the place of the next, or the creak of the structure as it rocks back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, lifting the performers into the air and setting them back down. During the first cargo lift activation, the lift we were slated to use was under maintenance—something the team had not expected. The performance was delayed as we waited for the lift technician to make his way down to the site. What we also did not expect was for him to linger behind so that he could watch the performance unfold in the very lift he had just maintained. He sat behind a stack of wooden pallets, just out of sight of the audience members filtering into the lobby space, and whipped out his phone to record the piece. In fact, most of the audience for the work and its rehearsals has been the janitors, handlers and security staff who undertake the invisible, day-to-day maintenance of the distripark site. I’ve watched them steal glances at the work as they move back and forth across the space on their forklifts and bicycles, or pause to gawk while pushing carts and trolleys. Some of them are momentarily confused by the homage Li-Chuan’s soundscape pays to the triadic melody that usually marks the arrival and departure of an elevator. These interventions are most special to me, those that allow us a detour from the usual spatial practices that mark these sites.

Images: Singapore Art Museum

Because of the durational nature of these activations, which take place across the span of several months, the metal modules that form the foundation of the work are exposed to a great deal of the elements (both rain and sun), as well as wear and tear. Ining grows increasingly concerned even as she watches the performers move with increasing confidence across the structures, her seasoned gaze picking up on flaws and forces we haven’t been paying attention to. Standing next to her at one of the loading bay activations, she’s a jangly ball of nerves, commentating anxiously on every single movement and decision the performers make under her breath, so quiet I’m the only witness: oh no, oh no, oh no, I don’t know if there’s enough of a counterweight, ahhh, ok, ok, it’s ok if he’s on that side, oh no, I hope it doesn’t collapse, ahh... The performance concludes without a hitch, but Ining sends everyone a series of messages after to make sure the remaining performances will go as smoothly, pointing out suggestions on how to keep the structures stable:

About halfway through the series of activations, Ining also decides to “retire” several of the weakened modules for safety reasons, because several of the screws are stuck. “My bad. Bad choice of screw type,” she texts us. “But it is interesting for me to know what type of screws are capable of screwing and unscrewing all the time. Haha.” I feel a deep affection for the materiality of metal and its enormous range of manifestations, from the tiny nuts and bolts that hold the piece together—to the angular, shapeshifting modules that form its scaffolds. Metal is performing together with the work, and we must adjust to its every warp and weft and idiosyncratic quality with both patience and respect. Metal is bearing the load of the performers, even as the performance gestures to the loads that others carry that have all too often been rendered invisible or marginal. At the close of each activation, the performers fold the metal structure into a fraction of its height. For the cargo lift activation, in particular, the performers fold themselves into the structure and remain there for a moment, just breathing. Sometimes I breathe with them. Warm bodies in the belly of a creaky metal beast.

Image: Singapore Art Museum

It can be so difficult to sit with the aesthetics of labour in Singapore, especially when we are aware of the workplace fatalities and even more rampant injuries that put people out of work, that heighten that sense of the body’s disposability. I keep returning to the suggestion in the previous essay that the human body is the bottleneck in the system, the liability in the machine. Loading/Unloading feels like an attempt to disentangle the fetishisation and the aestheticization of repetitive and difficult labour, a labour often farmed out to bodies classed as more disposable because they are more transient, but also more desperate, or more compliant. Bodies who contort themselves to fit, even when they cannot. Each performer must weave their way through the metal modules and structures differently, depending on their physical state, their emotional state, even the weather. And even if the attentions of the spectating bodies around these labouring bodies fades away, the work continues. The metal sags and sighs, then springs back into shape. The nuts and bolts tighten and loosen. This country thrums with the rhythms and pains of labour even when no one is watching. Loading/Unloading invites us to linger with these tensions a little longer than we are used to, to be awed by the magnificent machines rising with and setting down what we import and export in the backdrop of the port, but also to be astonished by the fleshy machinery of the human body, the limits and constraints of its exertions, and the care we take to keep it safe.

Image: Hariz Bakri for P7:1SMA

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