Seelan Palay on Performing Without Acting, The Currency of Sincerity and The Meandering Arc of Time
Seelan Palay is a visual artist from Singapore whose practice focuses on the concerns and complex conditions found in our present-day, globalized society. Having studied Fine Art at Lasalle College of the Arts, he works with mixed media, installation, performance, film and sound. In 2018, he founded the independent art space, Coda Culture.
We met with Seelan at Coda Culture during an incredible busy period of time. He was deinstalling RAW FORMS and installing for Ben Puah’s recent show, Songs for the Common Happiness, at the same time. Paint tins and wall hooks were on the floor, and Puah’s works were neatly propped up against the gallery’s walls, ready to be hung. More often than not, this is what managing and sustaining an independent arts space looks like. Amidst everything, we speak to the multi-hyphenate about his approach towards making art today and the perspective an alternative arts space like Coda Culture can offer.
I wanted to start with your selection of Tehching Hsieh’s work. It’s an earlier work of his, and in a previous interview he did with Marina Abramović, he cites this work as setting the tone for the rest of his practice. What drew you towards choosing this piece for our conversation? Having worked as an artist for awhile now, do you find that there are certain early works of yours that have set the tone for how you approach your practice today?
I like this work a lot because it’s so real, and it would go on to become a big part of his life. When Teh set out to do this work, he didn’t know what was going to happen to him. When he jumped out of that window, he ended up breaking both his legs in the process. Putting this in contrast to a work by Yves Klein titled Leap Into The Void, the main difference between the two works is that Klein’s was not real.
This work by Teh is important to me because there was no acting involved in the work. It is performance art, yes, but there’s no acting. This is what Jeremy Hiah has described to me as the difference between theatre and performance art. In theatre (which is, don't get me wrong, an art form that I greatly enjoy) when the director or the script tells you to fall, the actor will fall in the most dramatic way possible in order to exaggerate the fact that a fall is happening. In performance art when one wants to fall, they just fall. Whatever happens to you, happens. Whether or not you get hurt, that is all part and parcel of the performance. This connection to reality is what’s interesting for me in Teh’s work, and this idea of completing the work of art — no matter the cost.
I think any artist would say that there are early works that set the tone for what they do in the future. Sometimes it could even be the opposite of inspiration. When you’re just starting out, sometimes you make mistakes that help you to hone your practice. For me, thankfully everything so far has built up upon each other to lead up to the point I am at right now. Thinking about my days in LASALLE, until the time I got expelled, I think the works that I did then set the tone for the rest of my practice. I felt I was sincere then, perhaps a little too sincere, and that might have led to the expulsion.
The currency with which I gauge anything I do is sincerity. The work has to be, as much as possible, real and a part of my life. When I create, it has to stem from something I feel with the entirety of my being. If I do, then I will jump.
That ties in really nicely to the short clip you picked out from Jean-Luc Godard’s film, La Chinoise. In this clip, the character Guillaume muses on theatre as being reflective of reality. How have you approached this process of translating the nebulous or sticky nature of reality into art? Are there particular devices or philosophies that have allowed you to stay true to your ideals when making works?
I studied painting, but I much prefer drawing. Even when I paint, I end up drawing with paint. I like how in two-dimensional works there’s just the surface, and that with which you use to make marks. It is difficult to be insincere in every stroke you make, unless you’re consciously doing it in order to make money off it. With performance, there comes performing. I love performance art, watching performance art and the ideas carried by performance art — but I hate performing. That’s also because I hate it when I’m the centre of attention. With two-dimensional works, I’m able to create the work, hang it up and be done with it. The viewer can look at the work and interpret it however they like without the artist being present. Performance, on the other hand, puts the artist in the centre of this whole entire process. That’s quite uncomfortable for me.
I only use performance when all other mediums cannot achieve what I intend, and this was the case for my work 32 Years: The Interrogation of A Mirror. The work came about when I revisited the life of Dr Chia Thye Poh on my 30th birthday. I had read about Dr Chia’s story much earlier in my life, but it always stayed in the back of my head. On my 30th birthday I realised that in two years time, I would have lived for the same amount of time that Dr Chia spent in detention. It was this idea of how long this period of time was. Even thirty years was difficult for me to fathom, so I couldn’t imagine what spending thirty two years in detention without trial or a semblance of hope that there would be was like. That must have been unbearable, and it was unbearable for me to think about someone going through that. I had an emotional breakdown. I was on the floor just banging my fist onto the ground and repeating the phrase “32 Years”. After about an hour, I got up and started observing my emotions. I first felt agony, then anger, which turned into determination. In that spirit of determination, I told myself that these were very strong emotions that I had to respond to when I turned 32. At that point, I didn’t know how yet. I just made a promise to myself that I would. Leading up to the performance, I didn’t show much art. I was planning for it, and technically I spent two years preparing for the piece. During that period of time, I produced some engraved drawings. I used a soldering iron on an acrylic plate to create a portrait of Dr Chia, and I had this portrait with me during the performance.
There were three parts to the performance. The first was at the Speakers’ Corner, the next at the National Gallery Singapore and then it concluded at the Parliament House. When I carried the portrait of Dr Chia with me, nobody could actually tell that it was an image. It’s white on white, so if one were to look at it straight on, the lines are not immediately discernible. Similarly, there are many such details in my other works that viewers might just miss out on. Sometimes these details are not immediately visible, but other times viewers might lack the necessary contextual knowledge.
I take very long to make works. I took two years to make 32 Years: The Interrogation of A Mirror. With another performance I did at Backstage titled Anti National Anthem, I took one year to develop that. There was one year, either 2016 or 2017, where I only made one drawing the entire year. If I don’t feel it with every ounce of my being, then I won’t do it. If I feel like something I’ve made is not aligned with what I really want to say, feel or experience, then I’ll destroy it. I guess one method I employ is that I destroy a lot of my works. Sometimes I’d tell my collectors or my friends that I have some sketches or drawings of final artworks. They’d ask how much it is, but I’d just give them away for free because I’d otherwise destroy them.
Something that you said earlier on in your response was that the work that resulted in your expulsion from LASALLE might have been too sincere. What did you mean by that?
It wasn’t about the work itself, but what happened after that. I was doing a lot of research and reading around Situationism at the time. I wanted to think of myself as being situationist as well, but none of my cohort understood it. This wasn’t something that the lecturers were teaching in school, and my other classmates weren’t reading this sort of material at all.
I wanted to create something in the school that didn’t have any authorship to it, but could still provoke thought or response. I employed tactics that are associated with graffiti or street art, even though I don’t really like these forms of art. One artist whose works I really do not like is Banksy. I agree with his messages, but I don’t like his aesthetics. The images he creates are too two-dimensional and didactic for me. Somehow, his works are lapped up by the art world and I don’t understand why. There are other street artists who do similar or even more interesting things.
This work was titled Gotta Start Somewhere, and I made a stencil and chose pastel-toned spray paint so that it would match the tiles in the school’s basement. I used pastel pink, pastel blue, gold, cream and light grey and spray painted a few places around the school’s basement. Particularly, I painted a phrase going upwards from a staircase near the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (ICAS) that read “Gotta Start Somewhere”. Each word took up one step, and I wanted that to inspire or lead upwards to further thought.
In the end, I got caught. A lot of my lecturers stood up for me, and said that I needed to continue with my education. The administration said that I’d get expelled unless I apologised for the work. I was willing to explain or discuss the work, but I wasn’t going to apologise. That’s how I got expelled, and that’s what I meant by being a little too sincere. A place in an art school comes with networks, connections, access to a studio space, potential for further employment, and more. Yet what was more important to me was to be true to myself and to my work.
After I was expelled, I was approached by Jeremy Hiah from Your Mother Gallery. I still identified as Situationist, but was unsure about the way forward. I always knew I couldn’t practice normally, but now that I was expelled, I was further plugged out of the system. I used attend a lot of events at and associated to Your Mother Gallery, so Jeremy asked me to do a solo exhibition there, and I did. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but most of the works at that exhibition were sold. After that, I thought to myself, “Okay, I guess I will continue doing this”, despite the mounting financial pressures of my family.
Since we’ve started talking about your work 32 Years: The Interrogation of A Mirror, let’s talk about that a little more before we go into the rest of your selection. When I was preparing for this interview, I did Google searches of your practice and found that the first two pages of search results were filled with articles pertaining to 32 Years. Many of these articles don’t discuss the performance of the work itself, but the detainment that followed. Some artists are averse to the label of a political artist, and that seems to have been something that has been thrust upon you.
Now that some time has passed, how have you processed what has happened? Has your relationship to civil disobedience in art developed or evolved since?
In my mind, I had to complete the work. I made a promise to myself, and for two years I prepared to act on that promise. It was crucial that I had to be 32 years old when I performed the work in order for it to have any meaning at all. The piece was as much about Dr Chia’s life and his lived experience as it was about my life and my lived experience. With this performance that reflects on Dr Chia Thye Poh’s life, it wasn’t just about his politics or his ideas. It was about him as a human being, and the amount of suffering he’s been through. There are many details within the performance that relate to this, but one has really read into it or spoken to me in order to glean this information. Though yes, I too do not publicly talk about it in black and white, and people can say whatever they like about the work. It doesn’t matter to me. I know what I have to do and why I do it.
As an artist, all I have is art and I have to respond. I can draw, and I’ve been drawing all my life. If I can draw people, I’m not just going to draw anyone. I’m going to draw someone who really affects me. The main reason why I draw anyone at all is empathy. Even if the entirety of society doesn’t understand, I will do it for myself. I never ask for anyone’s help or sympathy, and no one is expected to help me when I face the consequences of my own actions.
During the two years I was preparing for this performance, I went through an emotional breakdown every time I thought about what I had to do. This was especially prominent in the months leading up to the performance. I wasn’t afraid, but it was just the anxiety of being there, doing something and how unpredictable everything would be on the day itself.
The banner that I placed in front of me for the performance read “Passion Made Probable”, and it is a response to the Singapore Tourism Board’s slogan “Passion Made Possible”. The point I was trying to make was that not all passions are possible here, some are only probable — so let’s see what’s probable today. Throughout that journey from the Speakers’ Corner to the National Gallery and finally to the Parliament House, there was always this sense of probability. I didn’t know if I was going to be stopped in the park, or as I walked out, or at the Gallery, or at the Parliament House. If they stopped me, would I be arrested? If they did, would they charge me? If I went to trial, would I be found guilty? What would the eventual verdict be? At every single point, the state was an active participant in this performance. The state was also a very crucial factor in the probability of the performance. I’m very happy that it worked out, because that’s exactly how I planned it.
It’s not even about political art. I don’t think you have to call yourself a political artist. I don’t. If other people want to call me that, that’s on them. I don’t just make political works. Even if there are particular works of mine that touch on politics, they aren’t about politics per se. The works are comments on what politics, politicians and policies have done to humanity and the human condition. Essentially, they pose existentialist questions. What has politics done to you? What sort of power or agency do you have over yourself? Do you have any way to respond to this control? That goes deeper than politics and deeper than civil disobedience.
When you ask about what I think about or reflect on civil disobedience, actually I don’t think about it at all. Whether I’m out on the street or I’m performing, I’m just being natural. It’s not even about civil disobedience. If civil disobedience were to be used for political means for social change, it would have to be a lot more organised or purposeful. You’d need a clear sign, a petition, and a campaign. It’s activism, that’s what it is. But with my work, I drew reflections of objects and places onto a mirror. All of these black lines would overlap over one another to create a big collage of lines. It was raining that day, so the ink was dripping down the mirror as well. This is what I showed to the Parliament House, and this is what the police officer looked at. When the mirror was brought out in court again after being held in their possession for a year, it was shown to the judge, to me and to the officer who arrested me. I asked him what he saw in the mirror, and he said he didn’t know. He didn’t understand it. So it’s not about civil disobedience or politics, it goes much deeper than that. It’s about being human and being natural. That’s where Taoism comes into play as a philosophy that drives me, is beneath and within it all.
With the state functioning as an active participant in the performance of 32 Years, was it then interesting for you to note that the police officer didn’t understand what was being performed? This is assuming that you saw the police officer functioning as a proxy for the state.
There’s this concept of time, and long periods of time. This relates to a few things — the work, Tehching Hsieh and my own practice. In the work itself, I used the book Foundation during the performance. That book centers around the notion of time, particularly shrinking time. With Tehching Hsieh, he oscillates between doing year-long performances and not making art for extended periods of time. That’s really interesting for me, and I think it relates to a lot of what I’m thinking about these works. It all goes back to the time and the essence of being. This all brings us back to Taoism, where all we need to do is be alive and be ourselves. With my own practice, I produce just a single drawing within an entire year and spend two years in preparation for a single performance. This is not because I’m inspired by Teh. It’s because it’s the only way in which I can practice. I only do things when I need to. If I don’t, then I don’t. I’ll just be reading, researching, sketching, writing, speaking to people, organising shows and helping others.
At the end of the trial, I had to talk about whether I had any mitigating circumstances — and this is where I have to say that I have a family, or that I’m jobless, so that it results in a reduced sentence. I just asked for my three objects back — the mirror, the banner and the book. I believe the judge referred to the prosecutor, who then declined my request. He then recommended that all of these items be marked for disposal. I was very upset at the time that I couldn’t get those objects back. I was upset that I would lose these objects. But if anyone looks back on this work in ten, thirty or fifty years from now, and asks where these objects are, it can then be made clear that the state made that decision to destroy them. The state participated in the conclusion of the work. It always had a choice, I always gave it a choice, and it made its decision. This will reflect on itself, and that’s important to me.
I don't adhere to unjust laws. I adhere to natural law, but not laws from a repressive state. Perhaps through this process, the state has learned something. Maybe in fifty years or a hundred years from now, a performance artist could do the same thing at the same spot and not be arrested because knowledge has been gained.
I also wanted to talk a bit about shrinking time. When we look back at dystopian or utopian visions of the future, or contemporary science fiction productions, we’re now able to better judge whether something is possible. We have scientists creating genetically modified babies now, and this might’ve been something we thought would only happen in fifty years time. This is what I mean about shrinking time. The future is closer than ever before, and easier to predict and map out as well.
Let’s talk about one of the books you picked out for this conversation — The Wisdom of Lao Tse, which was edited by Lin Yutang. Stemming from the fact that this text is so old, it has been translated into many different languages. With English translations alone, the various editions differ as to their interpretation of this text. Talk me through your choice of this book, and what do you enjoy about reading Lin’s edition of the text?
I’d been reflecting and thinking about what we’ve just talked about for a long time, and was reading several different texts ranging from philosophy, to spirituality, political theory, religion and more. At the end of it all, it was Lin Yutang’s transliteration — not translation — of Tao Te Ching that really spoke to me. It was the way in which Lin selected passages, contextualised these texts through a historical lens and his responses to these Confucian ideas that led me to a deeper understanding of what the text means and the contexts under which it was made. Zhuangzi, who was a disciple of Lao Tzu’s, wrote directly in response to Confucianism — often times in a mocking tone as well. I found a lot of affinity in this particular transliteration, and it guides a lot of what I do.
I remember an excerpt from the book more or less reads, “Kings lay down your crowns, soldiers lay down your weapons, farmers lay down your pitchforks, and all shall return to its natural state”. That’s essentially what I believe in. When I walk down a street and I’m told that I’m performing without a permit, my question would be why a permit is necessary in the first place? I’m human, and you are too. As long as the exercising of my humanity does not restrict or impinge on your humanity, there shouldn’t be a problem. I am powerless to respond to everything a politician, policeman or judge does to me. I have no power or agency.
Let’s move on to your choice of Isaac Asimov’s book, Foundation. For all its depiction of a seemingly distant or fictional society, it does bear a lot of similarity to the reality we live in today. There are clear parallels between our humanity and the humanity Asimov describes in his book. Tell me more about when you encountered this book, because that often tempers or informs our response to the texts we read or the artworks we see.
As I said previously, Foundation was one of three books that I brought with me to the performance of 32 Years. I placed the book down at Parliament House, and it was this book that got me handcuffed. It was also the book that they decided to confiscate, and to use as evidence in court. This officer was talking to me, and I could see from his face that he was tensing up. When I placed Foundation down on the ground between me and him, that really angered him. His face turned red, and he asked, “What is this?” I said it was a book. He asked what book it was, and I said it was Foundation by Isaac Asimov. When I started describing the book, I said it was science fiction and that it was about the future. He asked, “The future of what?” I said, “The future of mankind”, and soon after that I got arrested.
I’ve always been intrigued by science fiction, and it probably started when I was thirteen. I don’t know if it’s the best or the worst book to start with, but I started off with Dune. I read it on my way to school everyday, and even whilst I was at school, my mind wasn’t there. My mind was in Dune. I tried reading fantasy books as well, but I still prefer science fiction. Even though science fiction could be considered as being part of the genre of fantasy, I think there’s this element of realism there that makes these books probable. What these books describe could happen, because it is somehow grounded in science. There’s a difference to me between science fiction and science fantasy. Science fiction is Star Trek, science fantasy is Star Wars.
Over the years, I’d find myself being drawn music that sounded more futuristic or electronic. I’d listen to a lot of industrial, which eventually led me towards listening to pure noise or experimental noise. When I watched film, I’d be drawn to science fiction films. When I picked up comic books, I’d be more interested in science fiction comics. All of this eventually led me towards Foundation, which I actually picked up much later in my life. What really intrigued me about this book was how all of these scientists knew what was going to happen in the future. They could predict the downfall of empires, and the rise of others. Because of that, they were deemed too dangerous. They had to be exiled to a distant planet because they had too much knowledge. Instead of using this knowledge to better humanity, those in power decided to write these scientists off as a threat.
One of the things that struck me in Foundation was how the story jumped in time. It’d jump a hundred years, five hundred years, or a millennium. All the characters would change, yet the setting remained the same. This really blew my mind. Although I was reading a book, it amazed me to think of how Asimov conceived this world and these concepts.
Knowledge, to me, is very important. When I was growing up, my hobby was reading the encyclopaedia. I’d read them cover to cover, because I wanted to know everything about every single thing in our known world and in our reality. That was my voracious thirst for knowledge. Every day I look at about three hundred images of art online. Even now, I’d tell all the artists that I work with to keep looking. You’ll learn something from everything, and somehow that will improve your practice.
I wanted to talk about your work with Coda Culture as well. It might seem like an obvious question, but why is a space like Coda Culture important and what was the impulse for setting it up?
The answer is very, very simple. These kinds of shows and these kinds of expressions happen all over the world. It just didn’t happen in Singapore. That’s all. All you have to do is travel to see this. You don’t even have to travel to the West to see this. You can find independent spaces in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines that are putting on productions that are incredibly experimental and pushing boundaries. Some of these shows might not be commercially viable, or might prove controversial in more established galleries.
I used to visit p-10 when it was still around, Your Mother Gallery and Post Museum. These experiences taught me that it is possible. We can have independent spaces that are not just spaces. They allow for alternative thought and practice, and I believe that alternative thought and practice is what I’m personally engaged in as well. It’s not just about why it’s important. There’s a gap and I’m filling it. Whether or not it is important, that’s up to artists and audiences to decide in years to come. Everything comes back to time, existence and experience — whether its Tehching Hsieh, or my practice, or Coda Culture, or Foundation.
A recent group exhibition at Coda Culture, RAW FORMS, was a long time in the making as well. The show was centred around figurative art, which you have a strong personal relationship to. Having worked on this idea for two years, it is interesting to note that you were conceptualising the show before you even signed the lease for your current premises here at Golden Mile Complex. How was that process of putting the show together like? Did things shift from when you first conceived of this show to the point where it was finally installed?
Again, the fact that I spent two years putting together a show is consistent with everything else we’ve talked about. With everything I do, even my drawings, the process is 70% cerebral, 20% written, and 10% execution.
Of all the shows I’ve done in Coda Culture, this is the most personal. One reason is, as you said, because I’m most drawn to figurative art. Figurative art is the expression of humanity or other human beings, and it can ask many existential questions. For some, it's not just about drawing or depicting people you see or know. It is about exploring what it means to be human. I wanted to work with artists who expressed that exploration in their art, and I did this quietly. I followed what they did, how they did it, and got in touch with these artists. For those with whom I was already friends with, we started talking about the show. For those I wasn’t so close to, we had to start that conversation. For those I didn’t know at all, I had to first reach out.
Interestingly in the show, we have works by artists such as Tang Mun Kit, Jimmy Ong and Jeremy Hiah alongside works by Haq. Haq is a 27-year-old artist who works in a 7-Eleven full time. He comes to all our shows, and I just reached out to him. I then found out that he makes drawings as well, and he shared them with me. When he showed them to me, I immediately felt that something important was there and I wanted to include him in the show. He was unsure, but I knew I had selected him for a specific reason. In the exhibition, I put his work next to Mun Kit’s and Jeremy’s because the works speak to each other. There is no notion of hierarchy or seniority here. It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as I see your voice in your work.
Thankfully, we managed to showcase a variety of mediums in the exhibition. There was video, sculptural works, drawing, painting, site-specific work and works on fabric. It was a very important personal project for me. Essentially, I’m just an artist. I’ve seen other artists doing interesting works, and I just wanted to bring them together. I don’t think anything has changed throughout this process because I’ve been very consistent over the course of the two years about what I wanted the end result to be. I wanted to showcase a variety of mediums, a variety of expressions, nothing superficial and a mix of emerging and established artists. Everyone that showed their work in the exhibition was interested in depicting humanity or the human condition in their own way, whatever that might mean to them. If there’s anything I’ve learnt, it’s that I should try to have exhibitions such as these run for longer periods of time. RAW FORMS was on for about nine days, but I should have had it on for at least twice that amount of time.
Much of what you picked out for this conversation and what we’ve been talking about points towards intertwining concepts of — amongst many other things — time, society, and history. Do you think you work towards a gesamtkunstwerk, and if so, how do you envision that totality?
I’m trying to get to that point where, perhaps, there’s a unity or where everything comes together. This is not only with the art forms or artistic expressions I employ, but with every aspect of my life as well. In my last performance at Backstage, I incorporated a lot of this. I included elements of theatre, film, music in a performance which responded to an engraved drawing I had exhibited there. I got very interesting reactions. Loo Zihan and Ray Langenbach were amongst the audience, and they had told me that they greatly enjoyed the work. I think I’m quite happy with that performance because it all came together, and I am somewhat achieving this totality.
Above it all, I make art because I have to — not because I feel like I’ve achieved something. I’ll continue doing it for life, and that’s why I give it my all. I give my all to the space and to every artist I work with. I wouldn’t do anything else. I refuse to do anything else. For one I’m obsessed, and it’s also because this is what puts me in that natural state we’ve been talking about. Everything else doesn’t. I’ve done many other things. I worked in a factory with my mother when I was thirteen. After secondary school, I did dishwashing. I was a janitor, and later on I did some video editing work as well. I did all of this because I had to survive.
When I was three or four years old, I’d draw a lot. My drawings would fill up the entire house, and usually for my income group, parents would not be supportive of such endeavours. Yet for some reason my mother, despite everything, was incredibly supportive. She repainted the house with a special type of paint so that I could keep drawing and she’d just wash it off the walls easily. She never wanted to stop me, and later enrolled me for art classes at a local community centre. I asked for a box of big oil crayons and brought that to the class. I was the only non-Chinese person in the entire class. The teacher herself was Chinese, and she ran the entire class in Chinese. I didn’t understand anything and I felt confused. I kept asking the boy next to me what she was saying, and he tried explaining to me a couple of times but soon got annoyed with me as well. Understandably, because he wanted to do his own thing as well. I ended up doing what I felt like doing and what I felt like I needed to do. I left that art class after two lessons, and told my mother that I didn’t feel like going anymore.
It was the first time I felt like an outsider and an other — completely alienated and cut off. I think that feeling continued for the rest of my life, no matter where I went. This could be in my ethnicity, in my philosophy, in the way in which I practice art. I feel alienated because I am different.
When I was ten years old, my mother was working at a factory and would usually be out all day. I’d be home alone most of the time. One day I was watching the television and there was this show that featured travels through Europe. In one particular episode, I was introduced to Picasso and his works. I was looking at these abstract, Cubist works and found them rather interesting. I took four or five pieces of drawing block, and starting painting these portraits in what I thought was the style of Picasso. I put them up on the fridge with magnets and when my mum came home, I told her that this was my exhibition. I said, “I am Picasso. I am an artist.” I made that declaration when I was ten, and I think that feeling and idea has followed me throughout my entire life.