It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman. No, it’s a film. It’s video installation. It’s theatre. It’s performance art. It’s son et lumiere. It’s Las Vegas. It’s 4DX without the seat movement and water splashes.
This difficulty in categorising works has become increasingly common now in the world of contemporary arts in which artists and audiences enjoy crossing genre borders and begs the question whether we need to categorise some of these works at all.
Internationally acclaimed Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Fever Room”, which premiered as part of the opening festival of Asian Culture Centre in Gwangju, South Korea two years ago and has since been touring to cities around the world, finally arrived in our region last week, and was a highlight of Singapore’s “Art Stage”, which ended last night.
Billed as “a spellbinding multi-sensory projection-performance”, “Fever Room”, or in a different and better Thai title “Mueng saeng mot” – literally “A town where light runs out” – was part of the inaugural Curators Academy by TheatreWorks (Singapore) and Goethe Institut, the brainchild of globally renowned theatre director and former director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) Ong Keng Sen.
Walking into the Victoria Theatre for the premiere late last Thursday evening, spectators were surprised when they were led to the stage area with dim lights, not the usual audience seats with house lights. While most audience members happily sat on the stage floor, a few dozen others who needed back support, myself included, favoured the chairs upstage. And if I’m using a technical theatre term, instead of a film one here, that’s because when I took out my cough lozenges from the box, a flashlight was suddenly on me, and an usher rushed in, saying, “No eating in the theatre!”
Shot in Apichatpong’s hometown Khon Kaen as well as Chaiyaphum and Nakhon Phanom, “Fever Room” began with a collage of images – for example, the statue of a dinosaur, that of former prime minister Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, a few dogs, an old tree and an aerobics ground near Kaen Nakhon lake. The first time all the images appeared on the screen with voice over, the second time only the first few. We were then reintroduced to the two protagonists from Apichatpong’s last film “Cemetery of Splendour” and continued on with their dreams from afternoon to night. Later, a second screen slid down in front, then a third on the left and a fourth on the right, forcing us to make a choice, rather as if we were watching a stage performance with multiple simultaneous actions, of where to focus our attention.
Later we were led into a cave and everything went black as slowly the stage curtain rose and our dream – or was it stage reality? – continued. Next came the performance part about which audiences around the world have been raving – the interaction between light, smoke, sound and, later on again, moving images and our perception of them. The one powerful light from the top of the balcony looked like a projector projecting a film onto us. It was also the part in which the visuals would change from one performance to another—the smoke, like human actors themselves, never exactly the same.
And while the design and technical team obviously make great efforts to make the projection and the performance fit the venue where this work is being presented, I wish they would also consider the elements of “surprise” and “accident” that would make each showing unique in itself, instead of trying to perfect it. That said, kudos to visual director Rueangrit Suntisuk and lighting designer Pornpan Arayaveerasid who helped create a dreamlike state in which we were allowed, and encouraged, to look at the theatre in a way we hadn’t before and think of Apichatpong’s work also in a way we hadn’t before. Sound designers Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr and Koichi Shimizu equally deserve credit for accompanying the visuals with their soundscape that never showed off their prowess but was always effective.
The fact that “Fever Room” ends with a film projected on one screen, the small proportion of the son et lumiere and the lack of human presence wouldn’t make me call this “theatre”, the way Kunstenfestivaldesarts did last year.
After the lights came back on, I walked over to the usher and showed her that my cough drops were not food and I took them out just so that the sound wouldn’t disturb others during the performance, I mean, the screening; my frequent coughing did, though. I wouldn’t have to do this were I in a cinema watching Apichatpong’s previous works, would I?
It should also be noted that the studio version of “Fever Room” was presented at Bangkok CityCity Gallery last year. The fact that the work is designed for only about 100 audience members who can be seated comfortably on the stage of a medium-to-large proscenium playhouse, which otherwise seats several hundred, makes it difficult for this work to be staged in Apichatpong’s home country, at least financially speaking, as the cost can never balance the ticket sales. Looking at our arts calendar this year, the only possibility for us to experience this in Thailand is probably at Bangkok Art Biennale, although that programme has already been finalised.
The experience of watching, or experiencing, “Fever Room” also reminded me of the fact that my film criticism students now have no problem watching any films I assign and they, unlike their professor who’s clearly from another generation, no longer need to go to cinemas or borrow my DVDs.
The phrase “Only in cinemas” that I often see on movie posters now, also comes to mind. With more movies shot in IMAX, 3D and 4DX formats than ever before to ensure that the movie-going experience can never be replicated, this presence in a dark room where dreams are shared and the fever is caught, could also not take place anywhere else.
While some well-established artists continue to work in their comfort zones, others are gradually venturing out and taking risks by collaborating with people they’ve never worked with before. As a result, their works manage not only to attract new audiences but also ask their old aficionados to think about the ever-expanding possibilities of the contemporary arts by going to places and spaces they’ve otherwise never been.
It’s noteworthy that Apichatpong himself couldn’t attend this Southeast Asia premiere of “Fever Room” as his new work, “Sleepcinemahotel”, was premiering at the Rotterdam Film Festival. It’s an actual hotel where you can sleep and enjoy what’s described as his “preferred plane of existence: one where sleep and film, ghosts and imagination, the past and the present collide”. Evidently, no drugs can cure his performance “fever” now, and that’s good news for us.
France’s Ministry of Culture and Communications fittingly honoured Apichartpong with the “Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” medal, the highest in this field, a few weeks ago at Alliance Francaise Bangkok, and now we know that’s not only for his film works.
The writer’s trip was fully supported by TheatreWorks. Special thanks to Ong Keng Sen, Tay Tong and Mervyn Quek.
CATCH THE ‘FEVER’
- “Fever Room” can next be experienced at National Taichung Theatre, Taiwan on April 28-29. Thailand dates, unfortunately, have not yet been confirmed
- “Sleepcinemahotel” is on until tonight at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Find out more at www.SleepCinemaHotel.com.
- For updates on Apichatpong’s works, go to www.KickTheMachine.com
- To read about the Curators Academy, visit CuratorsAcademy2018.wordpress.com.