Review: Artist Nature Shankar transformed personal trauma into catharsis as part of OH! Open House's Passport programme
Let it go
The experience began at a senior citizen's corner in the remote estate of Telok Blangah Heights. All nine of us were tasked with filling out a postcard (which cleverly resembled an immigration card in reference to the programme's travel-eliciting title) that required a detailed description of the object that we were asked to bring along with us. It was meant to be something significant to us but we were now ready to let go off, emotional baggage basically. Considering that I had purged my life of the items (and people) that no longer bring me any joy at the behest of Marie Kondo, I brought my old iPhone 5C that I had used while I was based in London and Dubai for several years. The phone had become a physical and digital repository of sorts: memorialising not only the time that I spent overseas through photographs but also the text messages that detailed the friendships that I formed, the romantic liaisons that went nowhere and the personal Everest that I climbed. Yet, my soul-searching escapades were nothing compared to the trauma, grief and abandonment that the other participants chose to share during 23-year-old, Singapore-based visual artist Nature Shankar's 45-minute pop-up art experience. It was one of six that took place in homes across Singapore for three weekends in March as part of arts organisation OH! Open House's Passport programme that sought to foster a collaborative exchange of stories and ideas between artists and hosts.
If I can be entirely honest at this point, I chose to attend Shankar's experience simply because it promised the chance to sample a tasting menu. Indeed, we were welcomed into a modern four-bedroom apartment with a spread of tasty morsels: homeowner and former OH! Open House volunteer Pei Ying offered Belgian waffles with Norwegian Ski Queen cheese and her husband Ganesh evoked his South Indian roots with a cup of refreshing spiced buttermilk while flatmates Ryan and Lisa introduced their Keralan and French background with banana chips and homemade bread respectively. Shankar added butter cookies as well, the offering she brought along when she first met her hosts. Little did I know then that the experience will soon turn radically from the casual chatter of a Saturday catch-up to the heavy open-hearted conversations of a therapy session.
After the snacks and introductions to Shankar and the hosts, we made our way into the living room. Taking turns, we presented the object that we chose to bring along and its significance to our personal narrative and identity. Here's a list of almost all of the fascinating items that were introduced by the participants, hosts and the artist during the quasi-AA gathering.
1. Pink sparkly material that began an artistic journey
2. PhD thesis on the relationship between genealogy and disease that was written last year
3. Radio operating license that has become a defunct qualification
4. Heirloom ring from Dad that evokes a much different landscape of choices
5. Sexist gold tiepin that's allegedly given to new recruits of a secret elite civil servant society
6. Blue sports jersey belonging to a former much-older, same-sex lover
7. Sketch of the intense pressures of being a soon-to-be new mother
8. A medal for outstanding achievement that has lost its shine and resonance over time
9. White iPhone 4S that was used to communicate with a drug-addicted ex-boyfriend
10. Brown Herschel backpack that survived a horrifying robbery in Athens
Shankar then invited us to entwine our objects with white or greyscale yarn. Just when we were getting to know her, she vanished into a back room. Left unsupervised and never having handled yarn or any sort of needlework, the process seemed repetitive and monotonous at first, but soon, it became meditative. As the bruised iPhone disappeared beneath coiled layers of yarn, I was confronted by long-forgotten memories like surfing the blue sea of Biarritz in France one summer and skateboarding all over Hoxton, London. The more the phone was engulfed, the more my past floated to the top of my consciousness.
It was hard to miss the plywood wall of bound objects in front of us, each one gathered by Shankar from across the world. Most interestingly, several of them spoke of intimate relationships that had gone sour. What looked like a wine bottle, for instance, contained hand-folded stars; each star representing each day that the couple were together. Apparently, there were plenty more bottles left to be bound. Elsewhere, a rock was gifted by a former bae to personify their desire to be the strength of a relationship, which in the end became constricting.
Eventually, I did see Shankar again. This time, it was one-on-one to surrender my sentimental Apple device forever. After a rapid-fire word association game that conjured up the past further (Brexit = Joke), Shankar offered an ultimatum; let go of the object and be set free, or keep it and tolerate its haunting. Sadly, I chickened out and kept my phone, but the others, according to Shankar, decided otherwise. A few of them had such heavy stories it must have felt like the momentous occasion of cutting a newborn's umbilical cord (just that they probably wouldn't see this baby again). After snipping the yarn, Shankar then placed the bound object in an antique chest. When she opened the chest, I spotted the brown Hershel bag and the white iPhone 4S. Shankar added that there were more than a few tears shed, and who could judge them? A crafty adaptation of Michael Gondry's romantic sci-fi Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) — it was an afternoon of communal lobotomy.