Brother Cane’s tofu-whipping and pubes-snipping

From ‘Cane re-enactment draws debate’ 16 Dec 2012, article by Corrie Tan, Life! and ‘Why show Brother Cane again?’, 18 Feb 2012, Life! Mailbag,

…Artist and film-maker Loo Zihan, 28, is re-enacting Brother Cane, a 1993 performance by Josef Ng which protested the arrests of 12 men during an anti-gay operation in 1992. The performance involved Ng whipping pieces of tofu and packets of red liquid on tiles, burning himself with a cigarette and snipping his pubic hair with his back to the audience.

The original performance ignited a public debate over obscenity in performance art here, as well as a 10-year restriction of the licensing and funding of performance art in Singapore.

…Some questioned the purpose of the re-enactment and whether it was merely riding on the controversy sparked by the original work. There were also concerns about how a new audience might experience the work.

Singapore-based British artist James Holdsworth, 57, told Life!: ‘I think it’s a publicity stunt and I’m quite disturbed by it.’

…(Pek Li Sng): The Brother Cane re-enactment should not be allowed (Cane Re-enactment Draws Debate, Life!, Feb 16). Cutting pubic hair again? What is it trying to show?

There is absolutely no meaning in performing such an act. It is so silly, weird and crude. Performance should be something that one can enjoy and not cringe with embarrassment when watched.

Smashing Tofus

The original ‘Brother Cane’ in 1993 was showcased publicly at Parkway Parade and landed Josef Ng, an ex Navy sergeant, on an obscenity charge for exposing his buttocks. ‘Buttocks’ also happen to be a motif for Amanda Heng’s ‘SinGirl’ project which featured a montage of women’s bums back in 2010. You don’t even have to be a controversial artist to wiggle some flesh in public these days, what with a spate of unnecesary nudity hitting the country in the same year.  In the age of Youtube where anyone can film themselves making a booger salad for lunch or self-immolating and call it ‘protest-art’, snipping your pubic hair with or without clothes doesn’t seem very shocking anymore. And what a waste of perfectly edible tofu.

Erotica and art have been intertwined ever since early man constructed grossly exaggerated female figurines out of rocks and clay. Today, you can pay $250 just to take  photo with ‘nude artist’ T Venkenna. Cashing in on one’s buttocks is small change in comparison.

Sitting nude as art

Loo isn’t the first artist to replicate ‘Brother Cane’. In 2007, a play about homegrown pornstar Annabel Chong titled ‘251’ featured actress Cynthia Lee Macquarrie paying ‘homage’ to Josef’s tofu-bashing. ‘251’ is also the number of men that Annabel claimed to have non-stop sex with, which some, including the porn starlet herself, may label as a gritty no-holds-barred ‘performance’. Mimicry and ‘cannibalising’ the works of others, whether in the form of DJ sampling, hoax paintings, remixes, mash-ups,  ‘shot-for-shot’ movie remakes like Gus Van Sant’s version of ‘Psycho’,  have existed for as long as humans started copying and inspiring each other. Once upon a time someone decided to destroy a guitar at the finale of a rock concert, and this defiant ‘performance’ was subsequently replicated by band frontmen the world over. When it comes to brash punk/rock musicians, no one ever needs to ask WHY they do crazy stuff. Ozzy Osbourne once bit the head off a live bat. Rammstein lights their keyboards on fire. Artists, on the other hand, have some explaining to do, and I get the impression that some take their work so seriously that they deem re-enactments OK but parodies unacceptable. Speaking of parodies, this tofu-caning business reminds me remotely of the clip below.

Tofu or not tofu

Along with Josef in 1993, an artist named Shannon Tham self-induced vomitting and then poured his puke all over himself, which appears to be the stuff of freak porn, not to mention dangerous and unsanitary. It was actually a protest against ‘The New Paper’ for unfair reporting, a copy of which Shannon burnt and drank the ashes before a nauseous finale. You could at least see the point of what Shannon did, even if it seemed a bit drastic. Most people who don’t like what they read in the papers merely throw it away, spit on it, or use it for the cat litter box. The line between ‘performance’ in the traditional sense of ‘entertaining’ and creative ‘protest’ has been blurred; I could set up an act in town biting off my own armpit hair in protest of discrimination against hairy people, but without the label of ‘performance art’, it would just be seen as a silly gimmick.  Or viral advertising for hair removal cream. Some viewers may be concerned enough to report that a patient from IMH had escaped.

In 1992, Vincent Leow drank his own urine as part of a performance piece. According to his website, ‘the art gesture was later elaborated upon through the packing and sale of bottles of urine – epitomizing Leow’s artful handling of ‘underground, subversive’ practices with a savvy understanding of the mechanics of market consumption and its desire for and absorption of infamy, scandal and controversy‘.  Blah-blah. If you take away the fancy conceptualisation behind consuming your own excrement, or the ‘artist’ away from the ‘act’, it becomes not so much a ‘gesture’ or ‘statement’; but a wacky Jackass stunt or a ragging forfeit played  out by drunk campus kids. Those who flock to watch gory movies just to squirm in their seats are probably the same lot who’d be fascinated by artists squeezing unmentionables out of their orifices.  If an audience has been moved in some way by the artist’s antics, be it tears,  nostalgia, goosebumps or a grimace with reflex crossing of legs, then the artist has succeeded. Still, it’s all been done before, and the torture-art circle needs something fresh and unflinching to wow fans already attuned to mind-numbing degradation. Today it could be pube-snipping, tomorrow someone may neuter himself with a razor blade.

Some forms of performance art, if not known for vulgar display of bodies and bodily functions, are also steeped in violence and masochism. In last year’s ‘Future of Imagination 7’, Loo Zihan reenacted another Josef Ng work called ‘Don’t Go Swimming, It’s Not Safe’, in which he asked a random audience member to hit him with a violin. Loo then proceeded to hurl himself at walls, which is exactly what the folks at JackAss do. It appears that in order to succeed as a ‘performance artist’, you need to score some brutality points to bring the meaning of ‘tortured artist’ to a whole new level. Like how Jackie Chan collects broken bones, battle scars and concussions throughout his career as an international action star.

Walling is the new planking

In 2007, vegetarian artist Simon Birch showcased a multimedia art show which featured a scene of himself, dressed as a SAMURAI, killing a pig with a sword. A gruesome act which was ‘conceptually necessary’ to depict the theme of death. I just hope someone made a good meal of the poor creature.  You can also poke needles on butterfly wings and revolve an entire exhibition around it. I’m not sure how ‘conceptually necessary’ snipping your pubic hair is. I ‘get’ the tofu analogy (white and soft i.e innocent), but giving your naughty bits a trim defies explanation. Or as the swanky art elite would tell me: ‘Why don’t you just go home to your Michael Bay DVD collection, you unsophisticated pilgrim?’

Whatever.  Performances which involve artists maiming themselves with household appliances or intentionally falling down should come with a ‘Don’t try this at home’ warning and a standby medical squad.  If your motivation as an art-goer is to watch people do crazy stunts professionally for an audience, you can get your torture-fix from the comfort of home in front of the computer without spending a single cent. You’d just have to settle with the lack of ‘participation’, ‘immersion’,  ‘interpretation’ or ‘meaning’ that comes with ‘performance art’.

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3 Responses

  1. While it is probably futile formulating an appealing defence for the existence of gruesome art, what it undeniably achieves is a foregrounding of the issues of social boundaries in human relations. Everyday, we cover our private parts and perform to a code of acceptable social etiquette that has been drummed into us so effectively it is almost subconscious. What such performances show us is the constructed nature of these norms and etiquettes, leading us to wonder ‘why do we behave like this, and not the way the artist did?’

    I think this is a worthy question to ask.

    However, we also find it troubling to view gruesome art, as lay people have the desire for art to be something appealing, cultured and ‘beautiful’. Truth is, beauty as a necessary feature in art faded in the 1960s when artists became more interested in exploring concepts rather than creating beautiful things (that had started to become too formulaic). Beauty and appeal were relegated to the products of Design, rather than art, and it is now the designer’s job to make things that are pretty and pithy, while the artist seeks now to ask questions, frustrate and complicate. Gruesome art emerges as one of the manifestations of art’s contemporary manifesto.

    The question ‘is it really art?’ has really become moot in contemporary times. And that is perhaps the most troubling aspect of art nowadays, for lay people and for critics.

  2. You may be interested in reading an article I wrote entitled, “Nudism in Singapore”: http://signel.pbworks.com/w/page/51022874/Nudism%20in%20Singapore

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