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Undressing Room

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Skin that Converses: Undressing Room by Ming Poon

Alexandra Kong

This chapter investigates the dialogue skin creates between the nude body and physical touch and how censorship in Singapore affects the interrogation of the human body on display. It will build on the discussion around epidermic self-awareness established in the previous chapter to further scrutinize the effects of haptic dialogue between individuals which, in certain circumstances, can provoke censorship of skin, as is the case in Singapore.

Undressing Room is a work created and principally performed by Ming Poon, a Singaporean dance choreographer based in Berlin. Undressing Room was planned to premiere in M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2016, but was dropped due to the Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) denying the show a rating, which caused a lot of discussion amongst the art scene in Singapore, a country where less liberal attitudes to nudity remain mainstream. This work touches on themes of desire, shame, power and intimacy, and how this could bring about new ways of relating to oneself and others.

Dialogue of the nude body
The performance is a one-to-one encounter between Ming Poon and the ticket holder, in which the former invites the latter to undress him and be undressed by him. In a brightly lit private space, both parties will silently meet, undress and touch, moving at a pace that the participant has full control over. Undressing Room starts off with Ming Poon sitting at a small white desk, sipping tea from a porcelain teacup. The participant sits opposite him, and they consider each other, clothed in silence. Ming Poon starts the undressing process by removing accessories or by untying shoelaces. He carefully removes a participant’s t-shirt by rolling it up and peeling it off their body, as if peeling off a second layer of skin. When both artist and participant are completely naked, the second part of the ‘performance’ begins. Touching and exploring of each other’s bodies commence, they tenderly hug, touch hands, fingers, back and feet. This scene expresses what Lepecki means by the reduction of the body, where Ming Poon is using the body in its “epidermal strength” and “massive presence”. The only sort of staging he uses is just a plain, lit room, without any elements of theatrics. There is no extravagant lighting, no talking or script to follow strictly, no fancy costumes, just two people standing in front of each other. In the documentation of Undressing Room, Ming Poon describes the silence as the “absence of external distractions” and how this “created a sense of heightened awareness of my body sensation and of the other person” (Ming). Both the participant and the artist are almost compelled to be ever so present and aware in this situation, as both of them are experiencing the same situation.

In my interview with Ming Poon, he describes the physical contact of the skin as “the language of the nude body”. (Kong, 10). He discusses how touch is the way nudity can speak for itself, how physical contact is the language of communication of the nude body. “Just like how the voice through words, music speaks through the ears, every sense and organ has their own language of communication” (Kong, 10). When touch is enforced onto someone or something, there is a realisation of layers and a dimension where a new sense of awareness is created. A dialogue is created between the two parties involved. Similarly to the concept of skin being the milieux of the senses in the body that Connor talks about, this interchange of dialogue can only be actualised with the other senses activated together with the sensation of physical touch. Ming Poon re-enforces this physical touch of dialogue by turning his audience into an active participant, where this choreography can only unfold with the other person being a part of the performance itself. The meeting point of the senses is physically experienced by both parties at the same time, opening a medium for skin to be the medium of language. There is an avid self-awareness when physical contact is at play, both internally and externally, that is created in the space of Undressing Room.

Some may question whether Undressing Room constitutes ‘choreography’ in the literal sense of the word. There is no scripted sequence of movements and no particular motion or form are specified, but a thoroughly planned soft choreography is present. On the basis of strict definitions, therefore, it is hard to conclude otherwise but semantic differences should not impact on how a work is perceived. In any case, the lines between what constitutes choreography, dance or performance are often blurred. Lepecki, for instance, might argue that Undressing Room represents the ultimate reduction of theatrics, whereby the focus of the performance on skin is nearly absolute. It also provides almost complete freedom of movement that, for the purposes of Ming Poon’s political expression, appears particularly apt given the censorship of the nude body, which I discuss further below. In exploring the theories put forth by Steve Connor, he uses Michel Serres’ work as an important discussion point of skin as a milieux. Michel Serres is a French philosopher, known for his works the philosophy of science where he explores subjects such as death, ecology and time. In Serres’ book “The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (I)”, Serres highlights the dialogue created through physical contact and touch and how skin has its own self-awareness:

“Skin on skin becomes conscious, as does skin on mucus membrane and mucus membrane on itself. Without this folding, without the contact of the self on itself, there would truly be no internal sense, no body properly speaking, coenesthesia even less so, no real image of the body; we would live without consciousness; slippery smooth and on the point of fading away.” (Serres, et al. 22)

The consciousness between skin on skin evokes a sense of awareness that is detected simply by the physical touch. The realisation of the dimensionality to the skin of the other person, a strategy that Ming Poon uses to create the realisation of the naked body as a subject, eradicates the objectification that usually occurs. Connor speaks about the relation “of impressibility and imprintedness to the world in all the many ways in which we seek to make our mark on it, to make permanently visible our touching of the world, in all the arts of printing, stamping, sealing, embossing, engraving and incising.” (35-36) As the skin comes into contact with another object, the object rises to its own surface in their own unique shape.

Similarly, the sense of physical touch used in Undressing Room realises the shape of the other person, the realisation that the person is more than just an object. Serres describes how the skin can explore possibilities, where “the map of the epidermis most certainly expresses more than touch, it plunges deeply into the internal sense, but it begins with the sense of touch.” (Serres, et al. 26) The exploration of the dialogue, and therefore the dimensionality of the other person, only occurs with the touch. Without sound or verbal conversation, the attention of participants is focused on the sense of touch, which provides their only means of interacting with the external world.

Frédérique de Vignemont, a research director at the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris, expands on how tactile sensations require the awareness of the inner body sensations and boundaries in order to have a sense of what could arise from that boundary. She writes that, “In order to be aware of one’s body as one’s own, one needs to discriminate one’s body from what is not one’s body” (Vignemont 467). She argues that this happens simultaneously; the knowledge of what the specific tactile sensation one is feeling at one time, and the knowledge of the exchange between the external world and on the skin (Vignemont, 476). In Undressing Room, with the inescapable brightly lit white room and without any chatter for distraction, both parties are highly attuned to each other. Participants would sense an awareness of not only the tactile sensation of each other, but also a heightened sense of what is not being touched. A sense of ownership and consent is formed on the body part where the physical contact occurs. Ming Poon uses this as one of his ways to de-sexualise the nude body. The participant has a realisation that this nude body is not an object, the body that they’re touching is reacting with their own will as well.

Censorship
Undressing Room was the catalyst for discourse around the delicate topic of censorship of the Arts in Singapore. Lepecki reinforces the caution that needs to be taken with using the bare body in choreographies, “created by artists coming from different cultures and countries, with sometimes conflicting aesthetic agendas, antagonistic stances in body politics, or simply divergent choreographic styles.” (“Skin, Body and Presence in Contemporary European Choreography” 129) What is really being controlled here is the communication channel of art, which in this case, would be a dance performance. Ming Poon’s creation of Undressing Room stems from a place of looking for freedom, for a chance to truly embrace his own nude body as it is.

Lepecki binds together three concepts: “political (as the opposite of the business of politics, politicians and policy makers), movement (sometimes danced, sometimes not), and freedom (as that about which we must gain kinetic knowledge)” (“Choreopolice and Choreopolitics” 15) The political spectrum he discusses here is heavily based on Hannah Arendt’s preliminary draft of “Introduction of Politics”, where what is at stake is the extreme danger of potentially losing the political movement of the world. The movement of freedom that finds humanity.

There is a clear choreographing of the body in Undressing Room which seeks within a larger choreopolitical phenomenon in Singapore of censoring the body. In Singapore, the IMDA formed in 2016 develops and regulates the infocomm and media sectors in order to safeguard the interests of consumers and foster pro-enterprise regulations. Arts entertainment are subjected to this regulation implemented by IMDA and license for classification may prove to be quite tedious to obtain for pieces of work including nudity, religious or political elements. Undressing Room was denied a classification by IMDA and subsequently withdrawn from the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017. The classification system by IMDA is created specifically for arts entertainment events and according to the Arts Entertainment Classification Code (AECC). There are two categories of classification: (i) General rating; content suitable for a general audience including children, (ii) Advisory, Advisory 16 or Restricted 18; content targeted at a more mature audience. Any content which goes beyond the Restricted 18 rating “which may undermine national interest, likely to cause feelings of ill-will between different racial or religious groups or is excessive and/or exploitative in its depictions, will be disallowed” (Sinnathamby). Such is an example of the limitations of communications enforced by a controlled society.

Although the IMDA does not publish detailed reasons why a particular performance is denied classification, it should be assumed that the nudity element of Undressing Room could not be tolerated under the AECC. Here, the suppression of expression involving the naked skin underlines its sheer potency as something that, as stated in the AECC, might “undermine national interest” or “cause feelings of ill-will” (Sinnathamby). These serious concerns could only be warranted in circumstances where the skin truly converses as an effective choreopolitical tool and where the messages of Ming Poon’s piece would engender a response in the participants (or wider society). Singapore is a country where appearing naked in public view is criminalised, even if within the confines of one’s own home and this case study should be understood within that context. Skin may, therefore, be especially active and effective as a choreopolitical tool in the minds of particular spectators or performers. Although this piece could not be physically performed in Singapore, the simple denial of a classification generated additional publicity and discussion regarding attitudes to the skin which could not have arisen if the skin itself did not have such importance. Skin is active, it performs, and even more so where it is considered taboo. This use of skin for political effect is investigated further in the following chapter.

(An extract from her final year dissertation The Living and Active Skin of the Performer on Stage at LASALLE College of the Arts)