By Lee Jun Yi
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And right at this moment, another unassuming visitor struts into the screening room, engulfing the dark room with a jarring light, while Mrs van Ghestel talks about her wartime stories to her African European tenant-caregiver – much like how my grandmother talks about her experience during the Second World War, when she had to cross-dress to evade sexual slavery from the invading Japanese troops. It is funny how such a particular event had affected two extremely different individuals in much the same way – perhaps human consciousness is universal after all. It was right there, when I decided that I enjoyed this art piece tremendously.
Figure 1.1 The Young Couple
Next door, in the privacy of a modernized bedroom, the caregiver from the previous scene talks to her boyfriend about the recent death of Mrs van Ghestel. His emotional deficiency is jarring; he remarks that he was never close to her, despite being her grandson. This impotence is further accentuated by the fact that these two youthful figures are technically undressed and placed in the intimate setting of a bedroom, which will usually be associated with impassioned energy. We are unsettled by the conflicting images Omer Fast has presented – much like how film director Quentin Tarantino murders expectation by accompanying happy music with gory scenes. I compare the scene with the actual room I was in – standing, as there were no chairs around – it feels like an unprofessional movie theatre; every time the door opens, the invasive light breaks the fourth wall mid-film, thrusting us back to where we came from – reminding us that everything that we see on-screen are fictitious. Couple that with the irritable faces that turn to stare in disapproval, and you have the essence of Fast’s self-reflexive video installation.
As I enter through the only ingress to the unlit room at the 2nd floor of the 8Q Museum, I unwittingly throw sunlight into the space. Sheepishly, I close the door and feel my way quickly to a relatively vacant corner of the room, disrupting a few viewers in the process. On-screen, a Caucasian man talks to an Arab man – something about how policemen are the definitive perpetuators of racism by picking on the wrong people all the time. The problem with most Biennale video pieces is that they are way too long – take the 50-minute process video of Nedko Solakov’s piece at Old Kallang Airport for instance – practically no one would be lucky enough to come in front of that television set at the exact moment when the film starts, and possess sufficient mental fortitude to suffer through the entire length of that video. The brilliance of The Big Message is that it is perfectly non-consequential that you come in when the film is already playing – in fact, it does not really have a beginning, middle or end, for that matter. Title-less and credit-less; it is, virtuously, a consecutive sequence of beautifully shot images. The most dignified of purists could not have done it any better.
Figure 1.2 The Married Couple
We peek into the kitchen of a married couple, who argue about their dissatisfaction with each other – the wife works as an air stewardess while the husband bums around at home. Fast’s camera brings us meandering, lingering through these 3 adjacent rooms – a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom, presenting to us different characters and their various levels of intimacy, determined by their age-gender-racial affiliations, the specificity of their tête-à-têtes, and the rooms they are in. The best part about The Big Message has to be the fact that every viewing of the scene reveals new findings, and re-establishes the inter-personal relationships of the individual characters.
The Big Message is conscious of its identity as a film that goes nowhere. Ironically, my other favourite work from Open House has to be Navin Rawanchaikul’s Hong Rub Khaek at the National Museum site – a documentary film that, by contrast, brings us on a conscientiously well-structured trip, through a series of interviews conducted on the Indian immigrants in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Hong Rub Khaek, a film that echoes Thai hospitality, is screened in a dimly-lit room, with properly cushioned sofa seats that gives little reason for viewers to leave halfway. The Big Message, on the other hand, keeps you up on your two feet (though some viewers opted for floor seating, which worked too); you are unsettled because the premise of the installation, itself filmic, draws reference to your experiences of sitting in a conventional theatre, allowing yourself to be absorbed into the narration – yet the physiological discomfort of having to stand is a screaming reminder that you are looking at a video installation in an art gallery. At this point, some fidgety viewers cave in to their impatience, and decide to walk out from the room. It repeats itself; the entire process of a disrupted viewing that is obscured by transitory audiences and floodlights. With a film like this, as with life, it is no longer the product that mattered – it is the process. A reading of The Big Message cannot possibly be too different for any two persons: they may come in at different points of time during the film, stand at different spots and get affected by dissimilar external factors – but they will always end up with the same end-product; the gratifying completion of the 26-minuted footage. By contrast, the screening of Tan Pin Pin’s five films necessitated a schedule: the experience would be incomplete if, say, you walked in 10 minutes into “The Impossibility of Knowing”, and watch the next 4 films before being able to catch up on that lost 10 minutes on your first one.
Figure 1.3 Mrs. van Ghestel
The Big Message is a film that orchestrates itself; a microcosmic piece of art that flings us out of our comfort precincts. It is an invigorating variation from the classical three-act assemblages that we are so inured to accept; that every story should end with a proper denouement that helps us leave the establishment with a sense of completion. The Big Message is an anti-film that aids us to think of film, and of life, on a more critical level, although I would have appreciated the addition of comfortable cushioned chairs in the room – preferably in the same set-up as the screening room for Tan Pin Pin’s films on the same floor of the museum. And right at this moment, another unassuming visitor struts into the screening room, engulfing the dark room with a jarring light, while Mrs van Ghestel talks about her wartime stories to her African European tenant-caregiver. It was right there, when I decided that I enjoyed this art piece tremendously.