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Undressing Room

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Participant 7: Shawn Chua
(Completed on 25th February 2017, Singapore)

1) Why do you choose to reveal your identity in this documentation?
In situations like these, with the spectre of controversy hovering, it feels urgent to be accountable, for one’s experience and one’s convictions. Part of the disappointment when this controversy arose were that many of those who’d reacted very negatively to the work, remained anonymous. But with revealing one’s identity, one is also subjected to a certain kind of vulnerability and precarity, and the care and trust that has been incubated in the performance extends beyond the ‘undressing’ into the afterlives of the performance in the documentation, and its dissemination.

2) What were your thoughts and feelings when you first read about Undressing Room?
I was skeptical about whether it would receive its IMDA* license, actually also wondered about who might participate in the work, and how it would be received by those participants.

I’m somewhat familiar with a few of Ming’s earlier works, and I was particularly intrigued by this piece because it resonated with a work I previously attempted. What might happen when we embrace this intimate space of vulnerability, where undressing and being with one another might open other possibilities that move beyond the overdetermined narratives of ‘sex’ (which does not necessarily engage with that space of vulnerability or intimacy).

*IMDA: Infocomm Media Development Authority

3) Describe your experience of Undressing Room.
For me, the work began long before I entered the first room, from the announcement of the work, to the eruption of the surrounding controversy that continually shaped and primed my encounter in different ways. On the day of the encounter, my performance (in many ways, I felt more exposed as the participant, more self-consciously performing) began when I was reflecting about what clothes to wear. Not the sexy underwear, nothing too embarrassing. Maybe something that might be interesting to undress? But no, I don’t want to ‘upstage’ the work, or appear like I’m trying too hard. What’s the more ‘normal’ and seemingly ‘neutral’ clothes that I should select? Etc. etc.

When I was greeted by the assistant I was aware of the stillness and silence of this antechamber that seemed to create a sanctuary that initiated me out of the ‘ordinary’ outside world, to begin my entrance into a space of interiority.

When I entered the space, I was trying to situate myself somehow. I wanted to be present. The eye contact was intense, but I felt like I was enacting one of those performance exercise, so I tried to snap out of that mode, to simply be present. Maintaining eye contact wasn’t an issue… it’s not so much the vulnerability or intensity of the gaze as it was trying to ‘place’ that gaze, trying to figure out the context and how I was situated within the context, in this look. The tea seemed ceremonial, almost ritualistic in its spartan space. It provided a helpful way to diffuse the encounter by triangulating the engagement with this third party. I found myself wanting to play, to disavow the ‘solemnity’ of this ritual, to offer some lightness to the encounter.

The undressing was very sensitive, very tender. I’ve never experienced being undressed so intensely, so tenderly and so sensuously before. It made me think about the choreography of undressing and how much was being communicated in that gesture. The tango of how to undress, and from which part to undress became very present. I remembered undressing Ming from behind – perhaps it was a gesture and impulse that came to me but I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. Perhaps also to diffuse the potentially sexual dimension to the act, I adopted a more playful, but still tender, approach – removing the socks first for example, or something like that.

There was a lot of projection that happened in the ensuing contact. A lot of care and tenderness of course, but a lot of projection on my part I suppose, projecting various social roles onto Ming, and sometimes using him as a conduit for these affective surges. But also trying to be present with Ming – not to eclipse his specific presence with my projections. Becoming curious about him, his life, the history that his physical body is testament to. Wondering about his gestures – how choreographed are they, or is he also present and responding to me, is he reading me in a particular way? Is this tenderness choreographed, does each participant experience the same choreography? Were these gestures part of a repertoire he’s used with someone intimate? Reflexively, I found myself naturally falling into particular repertoires of movement. Repertoires that became defamiliarised in this context, and I wondered how ‘organic’ and natural these movements were, or have they calcified into a particular choreographic cliche to signify care/affection/trust instead of truly experience or expressing them? The fluorescent lights were clinical and constantly brought me back to the space itself, it was difficult to be immersed in the moment – I was always aware of its being staged, even as I was at moment accessing some quite intimate interior spaces.

Coming out to the third space was jarring. It felt especially confronting with the recording*. I wish it hadn’t been there, but I also felt the obligation to participate in the recording, an obligation to perform for the camera (and the wider public it signalled). The jump between those two spaces was a bit of a shock to the system. I wished that third space had instead been a kind of antechamber in the way the first space was, perhaps almost as a kind of extension of the ethos of that second space, only that it is now expressed verbally, allowing us to unpack and decompress for the experience. Instead, when I’d experienced it, the camera for me signified that the work had ‘finished’ (in that second space), quite abruptly, and although this was meant to be the space for the unpacking to happen, I’d already felt the need to perform for the documentation. (I am also aware all of this is largely because of my hyper-awareness of documentation/archiving/performances of this genre). In some ways, the way I experienced this third space compromised my experience in the second space.

* Shawn Chua gave his consent to be documented in the debriefing segment. No other segments were documented.

4) What was it like for you, being a participant in Undressing Room?
I’ve answered most of this in the earlier question, but more pointedly as a participant in the work, and because of all that’s happened – I felt more like a performer in the work, more exposed in some ways, to the public through the documentation, but also a kind of personal exposure because I did not have the ‘mask’/frame of the performance that the artist might have some refuge in. It meant that what I did became a direct reflection of ‘me’, while the artist can say he is performing a particular persona within the work, which may not necessarily reflect him. I’m also implicated as a performer within the larger discourse that the work may be trying to situate itself.

The documentation became the most challenging part for me actually. In some ways, and to me at least, it seems to have transfigured the work into something else, in some ways it felt perhaps that the work reneged on its promise of the intimacy of that one-to-one experience. Although I trust the artist and his good intentions, and there was a lot of care in which all of this has been carried out, the intrusiveness of the documentation seemed to make more porous that safe intimacy of the space. Still, I participate in the documentation because of a desire to reciprocate the remarkable generosity that the artist has offered through the work.

5) How was it for you to undress each other and touch each other’s naked skin?
The particular act of undressing was actually the ‘climax’ so to speak for me. There was so much information communicated in that gesture, such that when it led to being naked and touching each other, it no longer felt stark, or awkward, or overwhelming.

I tried to be as open and present as possible in that moment. I pre-empted the possibility of arousal, but whether consciously or subconsciously, the impulses I felt more strongly were those of tender care, kinship, a kind of Edenic nakedness that wasn’t overdetermined by sexuality.

6) What did you get out from the whole experience?
The difficulty of transcending the solipsism of your own projections, the diligence of being present with another person, developing a somatic kinship with another person that need not be resolved verbally or otherwise.

I tried to enter without expectations, but I was aware how the work changed (by the controversy, but also in response to the controversy). Perhaps I also felt some subtle dissonance between the actual experience of that second chamber, and the conversation that followed. I think maybe after the experience, and through the rigorous process of documentation, where the demand to continually ‘expose myself’ is extended, I become very curious about the experience of Ming. Not just broadly or abstractly, in the navigation of this work, but specifically in his experience with each participant. Perhaps how each participant not undressed but how they might have ‘undone’ his choreography in a specific way.

What stayed with me are the very different and powerful ways and stories that the act of undressing can reveal. Nudity became an incidental byproduct of that process, only an echo of the actual work of undressing.

7) Did you feel unsafe or threatened at any point in Undressing Room?
Nope. (Perhaps the subtle discomfort of documentation as mentioned earlier)

8) Would you participate in Undressing Room again?
I would. The context would be very different, and I’m curious to see what would change and how it changes.

9) Other comments. 
None.