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Undressing Room

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Artist: Ming Poon
(Completed 1 May 2017, Berlin)

1) Why do you choose to write down your experience for this documentation.
Undressing Room is a work that required me to be more than just a performer. In it, I was no longer just a performer, concerned with merely the technical and artistic side of the work; I was also a person confronting my own personal barriers, just like the other participants. I believe that we found and shared a language of intimacy together through the work. So I would like to continue the journey with the participants together and share my experience in this documentation.

Moreover, due to the controversy surrounding Undressing Room, taking part in this documentation is not always an easy decision for the participants of this work because they are aware that it will be read by the public. Despite that, most of them have agreed to share their experiences in this documentation, so I think it is only fair that I also share mine as a performer. Just as in Undressing Room, where the participants and I were equally undressed, I feel that I cannot hide away behind the safety of my role as the artist, while the participants themselves are being ‘exposed’ to the public.

2) What were your thoughts and feelings when you first conceived Undressing Room?
Undressing Room is a very complex work for me on many levels. First of all, I have to admit that I feel rather uncomfortable to be totally naked in front of strangers. So, on a personal level, this work was my way of confronting my own insecurities and shame about being naked. On a boarder level, I wanted the work to question our relationship to nakedness. Why is nakedness always associated with sex? Is there no other ways to relate to nakedness? Can it not bring other meaningful experiences, other than sex?

When I started working on Undressing Room, there were a lot of unknowns, not only in terms of what it could evoke emotionally and physically as a work, but also in the working process. How do I rehearse this work? How do I prepare myself physically, mentally and emotionally? I knew that there was no way I could prepare myself fully for what was to come, as each person who stood in front of me would create a total experience. The spontaneity and unpredictability were what made the work exciting. So I told myself, just be yourself, stay present and listen. And for the rest, trust. Trust the process, trust the performance structure, trust my instincts and lastly, trust the participants.  

To be honest, having been constantly told that Singapore is a conservative society, I had doubts people would come to the performance. But within three days of the ticket sales for M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, all the tickets were gone. On the one hand, I was very surprised by the reception of the work — Singapore is not so conservative after all, there were people who were interested in the work! On the other hand, I thought to myself, now this gets real, I am going to be naked in front of eighteen persons! I began feeling the pressure. 

I also expected the work to rile certain segments of the society, given its unusual theme and format. Naturally I wondered if it would pass IMDA’s* vetting.

* IMDA: Infocomm Media Development Authority 

3) Describe your experience of Undressing Room.
As a performer, my experience of Undressing Room stretched over a period of five days with nineteen different persons (seventeen in the actual Undressing Room, one person did not show up, and two in the rehearsals). So, it was more like a journey, a sort of marathon. 

The experience of Undressing Room itself was very meditative for me. The silence, the simple gestures, the austere setting and the breathing created a sense of heightened awareness of my body sensation and of the other person. I could hear every sound inside and outside the room — the creaking of the stools, the swirling of water in the teapot, the rustling of the fabric on skin, the vibration of the glass windows, the rain and the construction work going on outside. I could even hear my own breathing and soft footfalls on the carpet. I felt the little tensing and loosening up of my body. The strange thing was that I could also ‘hear’ that in the other person. Maybe it was my imagination but in the absence of external distractions, everything the other person did was somehow magnified. 

The calm and quiet in the room also allowed me to recognised many of the emotional states I was going through. It ranged from fear and shame to desire and enjoyment. There were also brief moments of uncertainty, and the occasional boredom. In the beginning, I sometimes had sudden flashes of shame or embarrassment when we were naked. But with time and  practice, I learnt to manage those emotions and to relax and enjoy just being with the other person. When that happened, I felt myself most free and light. A kind of innocence, I would say. 

From the moment we met, undressed, touched and then parted ways, it felt like the two of us were doing a little dance together. It was like a duet, made up of simple gestures and actions, with little shifts of body positions and changes in space. We listened to each other’s rhythm, responded to each other’s moves, sometimes leading and sometimes following. Sometimes we made a pas faux but we continued to hold the space for each other. It was very tender and loving. The fact that there was no one else to witness it but ourselves, made it very special for me. 

4) What was it like for you to perform in Undressing Room?
Like any performance, Undressing Room followed a clear structure and a set of rules, which formed the basic performance ‘score’ for me. This was basically the only thing I could hold on to. For the rest, I had to go with what the other persons brought along with them. There was a lot of room for free play. So it was pretty much like unwrapping a present each time. There was no way of knowing beforehand how each experience would turn out. It was both exciting and challenging. 

I noticed that the more I performed the work, the more confident I became. But for the other persons, it was always their first time. Sometimes, there was this disparity in state of mind between us. So before each person entered, I reminded myself not to rush through the process because they probably needed a little more time than me to get used to the situation and deal with their emotions. I had to really listen to their needs very attentively, instead of going with my own tempo.  

There were some moments where I found myself becoming unfocused and going through the motion. Probably because I was tired or becoming desensitised. At such close proximity with nowhere to hide, that would be the worst thing that could happen. When that happened, I tried to look into the other person’s eyes. The rawness of the eye contact somehow helped bring me back to the moment.

Another challenge was to avoid comparing the different experiences. Undressing Room was not trying to create a feel-good experience or the ‘perfect’ experience. It required us to confront our barriers, which was hard work and could sometimes be unsettling and unpleasant. So I had to take each experience as it was, without comparing it to the other experiences because every participant’s reaction and decisions were going to be different.  Doing that also helped me to be more present and ‘listen’ better to each participant. 

5) How was it for you to undress each other and touch each other’s naked skin?
For me, the undressing already began from just being silent. Without words, we had nothing to distract or divert our attention. There was almost always this little awkwardness because suddenly, we were forced to just deal with each other’s full presence and attention, with nowhere to hide. Just as I could pick up every gesture, shift of weight or smile that the other person made, I was equally conscious of my every gesture, shift of weight or smile that I made. In a way, we became a mirror for each other and every detail was reflected back to us. It was an unnerving experience at first. But as I continued with it, I began to enjoy the process.

For me, there was something very poetic about being undressed by someone else, or undressing someone. It was like a mixture of care, surrender, servitude and giving. The act of undressing made me feel loved and loving. It was a very pleasant feeling. As the undressing was done with such care and tenderness, taking off the underwear was less scary than I initially imagined it to be. It became just a natural extension of events that happened. The silence and the slowness of undressing sort of prepared the way for the eventual skin contact. I found myself enjoying the innocence of our physical contact the most. 

There were some arousal a couple of times. When it first happened, I felt ashamed and embarrassed because I felt that it was ‘wrong’— it should not happen, not here, not now. What would the other person think? Would they think that I have sexual intention? It was in these moments that I had difficulty to stay connected with the other person because I was caught up with these thoughts. Suddenly, I felt really exposed and wanted to cover myself up. But I reminded myself not let the arousal dominate my whole experience. Just let it be and focus on connecting with the other person. The arousal was just a bodily reaction and I needed to accept it as it was without judgements. The important thing was that I had no sexual interest and was not encouraging it to happen. When arousal happened the first time, it took me some effort to manage my emotional reactions. But in the subsequent times when it happened, I was able to deal with it better and find the innocence and lightness back much faster. 

6) What did you get out from the whole experience?
I would say trust. There was so much trust in the room. To entrust my nakedness to another person made me feel very vulnerable. There was nowhere to hide and everything was exposed in plain sight. But I found that the moment I began to trust in the other person, as well as in myself, there came a sense of release. It felt like a stone cracked or a veil lifted off my heart. Nakedness did not matter anymore. It was a very subtle inner moment, but I think that that leap of faith was crucial for me. In hindsight, what I learnt from the experience is that the way to deal with my insecurity and fear is to trust. Trust the body. Trust nakedness. Nakedness does not have to be terrifying and dangerous; it can also be a source of transformation and liberation. For a brief span of time in Undressing Room, nakedness became my point of connection, instead of separation, with the other person.

This experience also allowed me to catch a glimpse of what my naked body could do. I saw that it was possible for it to go beyond the usual association with sex and experience other wonderful things, such as innocence and lightness.

7) Did you feel unsafe or threatened at any point in Undressing Room?
Not at all. First of all, there were the rules in place and everyone respected them. Everyone was very open and respectful. So inside the room, there was always an air of caring and tenderness. 

8) Would you perform Undressing Room again?
I would say yes. But there is a part of me that is still nervous about performing the work because I have not gotten completely over my insecurity and discomfort about being totally naked in front of strangers. It’s not like after this experience, they are all gone. But I did manage to freeze them temporarily and it was a wonderful feeling to be able to do that.  So I am sure I could do that again. 

9) Other comments.
Taking part in this documentation is in itself a journey for me because of the themes involved in it and the many layers of things it reveals, some of which are intimate. But knowing that my personal experience will be made public brings it to a totally different playing field. There are certain parts of the documentation which I would prefer to hide away from the public’s eye because I am not sure how they would react. In particular, the part about arousal. I know there is nothing salacious about it, but there is always this fear that it might be misconstrued and taken out of context when it is read. Nevertheless, I feel I should be as transparent as possible, otherwise it would defeat the purpose of participating in the documentation. Also I feel that this is a good opportunity for me to apply what I have learnt in Undressing Room — Trust the body. Trust nakedness.