How Performance Drives Marc Nair’s Art
By Tan Kaiyi
Poet. Photographer. Singer. Bearded botak (bald man). As an artiste, Marc can be best described as a living kaleidoscope. His creative work can be hard to pin down. So far, he has written and edited twelve books of poetry, the latest being Sightlines, a collection of poems and travel photography co-created with photographer Tsen-Waye Tay. He plays with a band, Neon and Wonder, and set numerous poems to music with his band mates. He is also active in Singapore’s poetry slam scene, and participates in regular sessions at Blu Jaz Cafe.
If that’s not all, he is passionate about photography and the principal photographer of Mackerel, an online culture magazine he founded. He also collaborated with well-known Singaporean satirical personality Mr Brown in an online video that made fun of a MasterChef judge who misunderstood the nature of chicken rendang. Responding to his criticism that the chicken was not crispy enough, the song playfully (shown in the video below) corrects the judge with an appropriate understanding of the Malay delicacy:
The lines sing out:
Hello, this is not KFC,
Rendang not supposed to be crispy.
If you don’t know what is Asian food,
Don’t tekan auntie on the TV.
Associating his playfulness with a lack of impact would be a mistake. This restless creative spirit has driven him to win a slew of awards and residencies. Of note, Marc was an NTU-NAC Writer in Residence from 2016 to 2017. In 2016, he was also awarded the Young Artist Award by Singapore’s National Arts Council.
Being involved in so many mediums, projects and collaborations, it can be tricky to discern a core to his work. Perhaps, the conventional idea of having an artist using one medium and focusing on a set of subject matters might help to divide works and artists conveniently, but it certainly isn’t keeping up with reality. An artist like Marc Nair brings with him a child-like wonder. When one encounters his work, one gets a sense of freshness, as if he and you are exploring a well-worn format, like poetry or photography, again for the very first time.
But what ties it all together?
“Performance drives my art,” he said. “I am an artist and I find the form to fit what I want to say.” It is this central motto that drives him to experiment with different mediums and work with other artists. His latest release, Sightlines, is a great example of that. This book of poems with photography is a collaborative piece between him and photographer Tsen-Waye Tay. The short, sometimes haiku-like, poems jot down the observations of a wandering photographer as she journeys around the world. One of the poems is called “Four at Wuḍū”, consisting of four haikus arranged underneath a landscape photo of four men at a wall. The austere photography and the artful composition and arrangement of the poems bring the inner lives of the four men to life. The chemistry of the two artistic approaches is very apparent. Simple and minimalist, both picture and words form a stark harmony.
Taking the best of photography and poetry is characteristic of Marc. His previous collection, Vital Possessions, uses the same format — with the difference being that Marc was also the photographer. Inspired from his time the artist-in-residence for Gardens by the Bay, the book contains his musings on the Singaporean garden city. He observes the conflicting but ultimately balanced forces of nature and urban civilization with economy:
Nature never fails
to push against the grain
of forgotten cities
To home in the point, the poem accompanies a simple photograph of a wall with old bricks and cracks. Small flora can be seen sprouting from the cracks, showing nature’s defiance in the face of human superstructures. Another minimalist poem, together with a photo of a flower, captures the shape of a tiny flower perfectly within the space of a few words:
A star from a stem
in the sky of this garden
points the way home
Apart from mixing mediums, Marc’s career is also one of mixing talents. He constantly works with other artists, such as photographers, fellow poets and musicians. Marc credits this deep connection with other artists to an attitude of sharing. “You share yourself. You grow larger,” Marc said when I asked why he liked collaboration so much. It’s easy to stereotype artists as fiercely independent and selfish of their work. While such artists no doubt exist, Marc bucks the trend.
He describes the collaborative process as a humbling one. Working in a field that is different to one that you’re used to allows you to see the limits of what you know, according to him. This motivates him to find out more about other forms of art. So far, his collaborative journey is not limited to the traditional forms of images and words. For an upcoming project, he plans to merge his poetic power with the elegance of dance. For this performance, he wanted to explore everyday things, such as ideas of work, sleep and beauty, through movement.
Marc worked with a dancer in Hong Kong, sending her recordings of him reciting his poems. In turn, she responds accordingly through dance choreography. The creative dialogue extends beyond dance itself and even influences the costumes she is wearing. The result of this project will be displayed at the Arts House in Singapore. Marc’s inspiration also extends beyond the realm of art, and into science. In the very same piece of dance work, he enlisted the help of a biotechnologist who has created some costumes for the dancer out of kombucha, a fermented, mildly alcoholic tea.
When working with another creative mind, differences are bound to emerge. Apart from humility, Marc says that taking yourself less seriously is essential to creating a good collaborative work. “You can’t be too precious about your own art,” he said. His work is constantly open and evolving. Marc resists a certain sense of finality about his art, leaving space for another artist to enter the fold with his or her own thoughts.
His attitude of openness influences his subject matter as well. For Marc, no topic is too sacred or profane, too high-brow or low-brow, for him. To get a sense of this, look no further than his TEDx Singapore lecture on YouTube, in which he performed three poems. One of them is titled “O Holy Torrent”, about a Swedish file sharing cult. Sang to the tune much like a Christian hymn, the poem is a supplication to some torrent deity in the sky to spread free information to the masses.
O Holy Torrent,
full of light and love.
Send us your blessed broadband
O Holy Torrent
From Thee is born the seed,
to freely share with
everyone in need.
Switching to a more political mode, the other poem is “Sampan2.0”, inspired from a comment from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that the country is not a cruise ship, but more like an upgraded traditional flat-bottomed Chinese boat. What he meant was that the island nation remained small but it was no longer as vulnerable and defenceless as it was during its founding days. In response, Marc pens a poetic petition to remember the forgotten, the marginalised and the destitute in the face of Singapore’s rapid economic progress:
We know there are others down in the engine room,
but you don’t want them to mix with the other passengers up top.
Yet when the sampan lies dead in the water,
when cranes collapse and polls reveal our course towards unhappiness,
Who sets their shoulders to push?
Even when discussing such heavy topics, Marc’s levity is always there. It is one master stroke that defines his work, setting it apart from the more sombre poetics of his peers. A great example is this unnamed poem that is paired with a photograph of a dog and its owner in an empty void deck:
The void deck, spotless;
where not even doggies dare
to leave barks behind
Through the dog, Marc skilfully condenses and seemingly hints at the issue of Singaporean self-censorship within the confines of the ground floor of a residential block, a place so familiar with the locals.
Rather than seek to just describe, it can be said of Marc’s works that they do not accept what is seen as a norm. “Reality is not given,” he says. It is something to be played with.
And play, in the context of art, is serious business. Marc’s poems are arranged in wondrous (sometimes even ridiculous) shapes, bound to a photograph or some other medium like installation art. “Monument”, a poem in Sightlines, is arranged in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and cheekily imagines the structure as a symbol of a sunbather’s virility. “O Supertree”, a Vital Possessions poem on the gigantic trees that populate Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, has its words neatly arranged in the shape of the titular object.
Every work is a celebration of art itself, as if its creator has not ceased to wonder at the tools and power of the creative imagination. Marc’s body of art invites us to see what is beyond the surface. The world is not what it seems, and we are forever participants interlinked within reality’s web, shaping it even if we take an observer’s stance. This ecstatic celebration of the world around us is a breath of fresh air amid a climate of uncertainty and cynicism. It is heartening to see that joy infused with a Singaporean perspective.
While Singaporean, Marc doesn’t restrict his explorations within the island nation. His imagination takes him, and his artists, across continents—from Istanbul to Siem Reap and Tokyo. He remarked, “We are such an open city. We are such a well-travelled populace. It makes no sense to gaze on Singapore alone.” Perhaps, Marc himself signals a milestone in the maturity of Singapore’s artistic scene. In the past, poets and artists are fiercely local, using traditional forms of poetry to call attention to scenes from kopitiams (local coffee shops), void decks and natural landscapes that can be found in Singapore’s urbanised geography. In terms of economic progress, the nation is being seen as one of the most prosperous and successful countries on the planet. But, the price to pay was its arts and culture. Marc could be heralding a generation that has a growing confidence in Singapore mythmaking, elevating the stories of this small island onto the same mythological plane of Old World and New World civilizations. He seems to be hopeful of Singapore’s artistic future. Marc is glad to see more spaces for the arts to flourish, mentioning how Sing Lit Station, a Singaporean non-profit dedicated to promoting local writing, has become so central to the scene.
His willingness to use other mediums is also timely in the dawn of the digital age. Marc acknowledges that we are living in a world where literature competes with rich content from Netflix, YouTube and forms of social media. Why read and savour a book that takes hours to months to read when you can gobble up a show in a few minutes? These are the emerging challenges writers need to face. Marc’s experimentations seems to be one of many viable answers, bringing an old form to new life to a new generation.
A relentless wordsmith, he is currently thinking of writing a memoir that discusses his evangelical childhood. And ever the experimenter, he is thinking of combining it with elements of stand-up comedy. “I hope that people would see how words can live in many different forms and believe in the performative possibilities of words,” he said.
When asked about his artistic legacy, he simply replied in characteristic humility, “I don’t know if it’s about achieving—like I must publish twenty books. At the end of my career, I want to be able to say I kept on experimenting and trying new things, trying to find answers. Whether I succeed or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s more important to just keep thinking and keep making.” And in three lines, he captured his attitude in this stanza for a poem he wrote for the 2019 National Day:
But there is also joy in the journey;
because art is not an act of believing,
it is the reason for being
Tan Kaiyi is a content consultant at a marketing communications firm, based in Singapore. His poems have been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. Kaiyi’s horror story, The Siege, appeared in Kitaab’s Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018).
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