RECENTLY, RESEARCHER KIRIN HENG VISITED ARTIST WEI LENG TAY AT HER NINE-MONTH SOLO EXHIBITION CROSSINGS AT NUS MUSEUM, ABOUT THE THEME OF MIGRATION AND DISPLACEMENT. WEI LENG TAY IS A FORMER PHOTO JOURNALIST WORKING WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, AUDIO AND VIDEO THAT ARE MADE INTO INSTALLATIONS AND PRINTS. SHE TAKES AN ORGANIC, CONVERSATIONAL APPROACH IN HER WORK, THE IMAGES AND FORM OF HER WORK INSPIRED BY INTERACTIONS SHE HAS WITH PEOPLE SHE MEETS. THIS IS THE LAST OF THREE INTERVIEW EXTRACTS.
A SPECIAL THANKS TO ATHIRAH ANNISSA FOR HER HELP WITH TRANSCRIPTIONS.
The following extract is on the re-telling and re-enactment of stories during the exhibition opening’s performance piece
W: We also did a performance at the opening, it was a bit nerve-wrecking but fun. What we did was, we had four members of the public, one young man from Yale-NUS and one man from NUS and then two women, who work in different fields. So what we did was we gave them recordings from my interviews of people talking about their lives, so its people talking about their lives and things like that so it’s in four different languages. It’s in English, Urdu, Cantonese and mandarin and then we asked them to memorise from the recording what was said and they in a sense also embody what was said, and then in the performance they recited it.
It was actually very fast the performance, in that the whole process took a few weeks. Most of it is not in English, so while they were speaking during the performance, there was projection on the ceiling with, with subtitles, or translations from the original voice transcript and so how they interpret and how they re-speak is different.
K: Were they fluent in each of the languages?
W: Not all. So one of them wanted to do [the recording in] Cantonese. His family is from Malaysia also and his parents came in the 80s and he was born in the 90s and his parents were Cantonese and but then growing up here, he never really learned a dialect or Cantonese. For him, he always felt this loss, he wanted a part of something where he could try to maybe reclaim or recuperate this kind of language so he was I think it was actually the hardest for him because, also the recordings he got were very different [in terms of what he is used to]. One of them was a Hong Kong recording, [but] the accent and the tone is more [very different from] the Hong Kong cinema kind of Cantonese which was easier for him to understand. Whereas the other person, who is my uncle, talking about how he felt about what it meant to not get citizenship or internalizing the kind of value that the government places on an individual you know, it’s kind of like you are worthless, you don’t have any skills, so why should I give you it, so it internalizing that.
But it was very difficult for him listening to that, because I guess I think Malaysian, Singapore, older generation Cantonese where they swallow words and you join three words to make one word. So then in that sense there was also a lot of interpretation in the performance I guess. Also, on top of that, none of them are actors, so it was actually really interesting because they also had different processes. We did a kind of post mortem interview with all of them about what happen and how did they feel and how it was for all of them. Some of them were more emotional and one of them, she was re-speaking the English bit, and it was this woman talking about her son and being a single mother and how she thinks her son never thinks she not good enough, things like that. So, some of them related very personally to the content and some of them wanted to get it right, whatever right means. Some of them would listen to, like the young man, who did that Urdu bit and English bit, he’s a student here but he’s from, Punjab. So it was interesting for him because one of the recordings that he listened to, the person was a migrant from Punjab also, so then way Urdu is used, is a mix of Punjabi and Urdu. So then very quickly you can tell a class, a you can tell the social-standing and the kind of person it is. So, in terms of relating that way, was very interesting because he related to that person. But then there was this other woman who spoke in English, who was talking about being a muhajir. So the Muhajir are Muslims that came from India to Pakistan during partition, and so he couldn’t relate to her and because she spoke English in a certain way. She sounded like she was from upper class and he said “oh she was from that class”. So then, also how the speaker were dealing with that was very interesting and also the audience, because some of the audience could only understand maybe half of it or two-thirds of it. And then there’s the projection’s text, but it’s running as not a direct translation, and so it sometimes will coincide with what they’re saying and sometimes it just departs. So then it’s also a question of language and understanding language. And what language can actually do. And how people who were listening or looking sometimes couldn’t understand and then they started looking, trying to find clues. This was just feedback from people. They were trying to find clues, of what someone was saying.
K: It’s a very poetic, sort of disembodying experience. Taking someone’s story and making someone else experience it, there’s this sort of an universal message around your work that migration and fragmentation of identity and the splitting of families is something that we all experience.
W: I think there’s a kind of thing that a lot of people experience but at the same time, there are many particularities in every individual’s person’s story or life right. It’s also very nice that how these people, when they were responding to the specific stories, all had a very specific response that came from their own specific history or experiences, which is nice. But then at the same time they were able to find entry point or tangents into the specific stories.
K: Did they add in their own content as well?
W: No, so they were speaking, they were memorizing. But then the thing is because sometimes they couldn’t remember, so sometimes there were just gaps. But sometimes they would just change the words and say it according how they felt what they thought it meant. So it became very funny, one audience member came up to me after that and was asking if the person’s from China. Then I was like no, why’s that? Oh sometimes she would use China-Chinese work then sometimes she would use Singaporean-Chinese words? So I couldn’t actually tell. Because what she’s talking about, is specific to a China experience, but at the same time you have a Singaporean-Chinese words, the way it’s used here. I think that kind of confusion or that kind of dissonance created is actually quite productive.