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 PHOTOJOURNALIST 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. READ PARTS 1 AND 2.
The following extract is on the re-telling and re-enactment of stories during the exhibition opening’s performance piece, transcribed by Athirah Annissa. It has been edited lightly for clarity on 24 August 2019.
All photos are from Wei Leng Tay’s website.
(…) a lot of people experience (fragmentation) but at the same time, there are many particularities in every individual’s and person’s story or life. It’s also very nice that these people, when responding to the specific stories, had very specific response[s] that came from their own specific history or experiences. At the same time, they were able to find entry points or tangents into the specific stories.
W: We also did a performance at the opening. It was a bit nerve-racking but fun.
We had four members of the public, one young man from Yale-NUS, one man from NUS and two women who work in different fields. What we did was, we gave them recordings from my interviews of people talking about their lives and things like that in four different languages. It was in English, Urdu, Cantonese and Mandarin. We then asked them to memorise from the recording what had been said and in a sense also embody what was said.
The making of the performance was actually very fast; the whole process only took a few weeks. Most of it is not in English, so while they were speaking during the performance, there was a projection on the ceiling with subtitles, or translations, from the original voice transcript. How they interpreted and how they re-spoke [the recording] was different [from the original].
K: Were they fluent in each of the languages?
W: Not all. One of them wanted to do [the recording in] Cantonese. His family is from Malaysia, his parents came in the 80s and he was born in the 90s. While his parents were Cantonese, growing up here, he never really learnt a dialect or Cantonese. For him, he always felt this loss. He wanted a part of something where he could try reclaim or recuperate this kind of language.
I think it was actually the hardest for him because the recordings he got were very different [from the Cantonese he is used to hearing]. One of them was a Cantonese recording, [but] the accent and the tone was [very different from] the Hong Kong cinema kind of Cantonese, which was easier for him to understand. The person [speaking in the recording], who is my uncle, was talking about how he felt about what it meant to not get citizenship and internalising the kind of value that the government places on an individual. Making you feel like… “you are worthless, you don’t have any skills, so why should I [the government] give you citizenship?”
But it was very difficult for [the performer] to listen to that, because in the Malaysian, Singaporean and older generation Cantonese, they tend to swallow words and [often] join three words to make one word. There was also a lot of interpretation in the performance.
Also, on top of that, none of the [performers] are actors, so it was really interesting because they also had different processes. We did a kind of post-mortem interview with all of them about what happened, how did they feel and how it was for all of them. Some of them were more emotional.
One of them was re-speaking the English bit, [which was a recording of] a woman talking about her son and being a single mother, and how she thinks her son thinks she is never good enough. So, some of them related very personally to the content and some of them wanted to get it right, whatever “right” means. Such as the young man, who did that Urdu bit and English bit―he’s a student here but he’s from Punjab: it was interesting for him because in one of the recordings that he listened to, the person was a migrant from Punjab also, [but the] way Urdu [was] used was a mix of Punjabi and Urdu. [From a person’s way of speaking] you can very quickly [surmise] the class, the social-standing and the kind of person it is. So, it was very interesting for him because he related to that person.
But there was this other woman who spoke in English, who was talking about being a Muhajir. The Muhajir are Muslims that came from India to Pakistan during partition, and so [the performer] couldn’t relate to her 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”. Thus, how the speakers were dealing with that was very interesting.
[How] the audience [was dealing with that was also very interesting], because some of the audience could only understand maybe half of it, or two-thirds of it. And then [during the performance] there is the projection’s text, but it’s not running as a direct translation, and so it sometimes will coincide with what they’re saying and sometimes it just departs. So then [this piece] also asks a question about language and understanding language. And what language can actually do.
People who were listening sometimes couldn’t understand and then started looking, trying to find clues. They were trying to find clues, [to guess] 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 that’s a kind of thing that a lot of people experience but at the same time, there are many particularities in every individual’s and person’s story or life. It’s also very nice that these people [the performers], when responding to the specific stories, had very specific response[s] that came from their own specific history or experiences. At the same time, they were able to find entry points or tangents into the specific stories.
K: Did they add their own content as well?
W: No, they were memorising and speaking from memory. The thing is sometimes they couldn’t remember, so sometimes there were just gaps. Other times, they would just change the words and say it according to how they felt what they thought it meant. It became very funny [at those times].
One audience member came up to me after and asked if the person [performing] is from China. I said, “No, why’s that?”.
[The person replied] “Oh, sometimes she would use China-Chinese words, then sometimes she would use Singaporean-Chinese words. I couldn’t actually tell.”
Because what [the performer is talking about] is specific to a mainland Chinese experience, but at the same time [articulated using] Singaporean-Chinese words, the way Chinese is used here [in Singapore]. I think that kind of confusion or dissonance created is actually quite productive.