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Theatre review: Still Life is a self portrait of activist-artist Dana Lam

The performance blurs the lines between mediums to give a glimpse into Lam's storied history.

STILL LIFE

Checkpoint Theatre
72-13/Feb 28

For visual artists, painting a group of inanimate objects – a still life – can be an exercise to hone one’s skill, an experiment in new forms of presentation or a meditation on life and death. Still Life, written and performed by artist and activist Dana Lam, involves all three.

The performance itself is a work of visual art which invites the viewer to return. 72-13 is transformed into an artist’s living room or studio. Perched on cushions or chairs or sofas, the audience is surrounded by dozens of paintings, sketches and sculptures, most created by Lam in the past year.

In the centre hangs a tangled mass of twigs, the perfect drawing subject, according to the artist. “Look at those lines,” she says, as lights change to highlight the organic beauty of the curving sticks. But the real focus of this setting is Lam herself, with all these creations serving to accentuate different and unknown facets of her personality.

There are nods to her history with the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) and the headline-grabbing internal tussle for power in 2009, but the stories told here are of Lam the woman, the artist, the lover, the mother and daughter.

Art has always been part of her life. As she relives the birth of her first child, her stomach rounds with the addition of belly casts which she made in the past to normalise and celebrate the roundness of this body part. Aided by performer Jean Ng, Lam describes the annoyance of the extra weight and of hearing her husband and doctor bonding in the birthing room as she writhes in agony. Later she describes her own complex relationship with her late mother, a woman whose face she draws but whose eyes she dared not look into.

Directed by Claire Wong, who also served as dramaturg, the play evokes memories of Checkpoint Theatre’s well-known production, Recalling Mother, in which Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed explored their relationships with their mothers through their own art, theatre-making.

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Recalling Mother has evolved over several versions and Still Life too might be even more poignant with further development. Lam does not own all her words yet and trips over them at times. She could also share more of the script with Ng, who rivets the eye even when serving as a silent model for the artist.

Still Life leaves the viewer wanting more about the artist and her paintings. Every work is pregnant with a story, few of which are revealed during the performance. Perhaps these tales might come out in another version? There is still plenty of life left in the concept, which already invites repeat viewings just for the visual art.

 

STILL LIFE

WHERE: 72-13 Home of TheatreWorks, 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road

WHEN: 3pm, March 2, 3 and 10; 8pm, March 8, 3pm and 8pm, March 9

ADMISSION: $45 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

(RELATED: Review: Li Liuyi’s Hamlet breaks tradition but honours the richness of the original)

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.