Select Page

Undressing Room

← Previous

Next →

Undressing Room by Ming Poon: Moving Past Nudity as Obscenity. 

By Lee Mun Wai (8th July 2017) 

By now, most of us who are clued into the performing arts scene in Singapore would have known about the fiasco surrounding Ming Poon’s performance, Undressing Room, which had originally been slated to be performed at the M1 Fringe Festival 2017. Because of complaints from a now infamous group of religiously motivated conservatives who run the Facebook sites Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family, and We Are Against Pinkdot in Singapore, the IMDA did not allow the show to proceed on the grounds of ‘excessive nudity’. IMDA negotiated by saying that they would allow it to carry on if the creator of the work made certain changes to address its ‘excessive nudity’. 

Needless to say, the festival and Ming Poon made the difficult decision to withdraw the work from the festival. Bending to IMDA’s condition of creating a censored version would run counter to the very premise of the work. 

Fortunately, the work still proceeded independently as a private by-invitation-only event. Because it had been repositioned as a private work, it thus did not come under the regulation of IMDA. But also because it had become a private event, its efficacy in the public performance space became somewhat diminished. 

Undressing Room was a brave work that tested the social norms of Singaporean society. Few works in the local performing arts scene have dared to confront such sensitive topics of the body and the flesh so squarely. The controversy was to be expected. Indeed, a controversy showed that the work was indeed a very relevant one for Singapore. But it was a real shame that the controversy was quickly curtailed in true Singaporean style – by a heavy handed, top down ban from a government authority. My write up is but a small way to continue making this very important work visible and also for documentation for posterity. 

The inability to see past obscenity.
Those who complained failed to see that the work never once was about obscenity. It was obvious from the comments on their Facebook pages that they were using their own perversions to baselessly imagine a work that was degenerate and pornographic. To them, the act of being nude could not be seen from any other angle but the above; a state of undress or nudity signalled a person who was lewd and lacking in sound moral judgement. 

This is a highly problematic way of thinking because it is very clear that only a few religions, communities and societies think of nudity in such absolute and unequivocal terms. There are many others who do not regard a state of undress or nudity as immediately morally degenerate. The body is a human being’s physical manifestation of his / her existence. The nude body has always been a complex thing that has been revered, politicised and celebrated in many different ways. Nudity of course includes the obscene and pornographic. But not all nudity needs to be viewed as such.  For one small group to link the nude body so quickly to obscenity displays their naivete and absolute lack of critical judgement.

The further presumption that they could speak on behalf of the rest of Singaporean society.
What is very problematic is the assumption that the conservative group can act and speak on behalf of the rest. This is made worse by the way the authorities bent very readily and easily to conservative pressure. What does this say about a government that constantly tells its people that it is impartial and secular? Time and time again, the Singapore government has said that public sentiment would be the indicator they would use to alter laws regarding such contentious issues. How is it then possible that two Facebook pages with only a following of several thousands be a large enough majority to effect a ban of a ticketed arts performance with a self-imposed R18 rating already in place?  

Besides, there have also been a large number of voices who argued that the event had been very transparent in its advertising and that it was a ticketed event. If one did not agree with it, one simply did not have to buy a ticket. In light of the counter arguments that were equal in magnitude to the complaints, I find it very hard to believe that the IMDA was actually listening carefully to ground sentiment. 

Undressing Room and its intricacies.
It is important to clarify that Undressing Room never meant to approach nudity from the very myopic and narrow theme of the moral versus the immoral. To frame nudity in such a naive binary opposition is to belittle the very complex, nuanced and sensitive nature of nudity that Undressing Room tries to shed light on. It was a work that attempted to tackle the very complex yet daily issues that we face – intimacy, privacy, un-layering / un-masking, norms, limits (both individual and community), identity construction as well as the never ending discussions on authentic existences (the nude body as a pure state; The nude body as an unconstructed / yet to be activated / yet to be acted-upon entity).

I almost wish that those conservatives had participated in the performance. In the spirit of defending their conservative stance, that would have had much more efficacy. The performance was a one-to-one format. Ming Poon was definitely open to discussion, interaction and idea exchange during the work. It would have been the perfect opportunity for the conservatives to confront and engage in a meaningful way. Instead, they chose the lazy way out, by sitting behind their keyboards and informing the authorities. They chose to disengage from direct engagement. This discredits them and creates yet more problems – further empowering an already very authoritarian regime.

Reading the feedback and documentation forms of the participants reveals the very layered nature of the work. It is definitely a work that challenges its participants to confront issues of nudity in a manner that is complex, personal and revealing; revealing not only for the participants themselves but also for Ming Poon. The work allowed the participants the opportunity to be open and vulnerable in an environment that was safe and consensual. 

Most of the stakeholders who had a say in the work were very aware that this work was boundary pushing for both private and public limits. Though probably not its main focus, there was definitely an element of testing the limits of social acceptability. The work itself was a very political one in the Singaporean context. It highlighted the varied reactions of the different sections of society, the authorities as well as the festival. In this sense, I would argue that it had been a successful work indeed. Because the value of the work lay not solely in itself, or its aesthetics (there was hardly any aesthetic to discuss at great length in this performance), but in the discussions and debates that have arisen because of it. Its success was its visibility. It catalysed a discussion about the limits of modesty as well as who should / has the power to set these limits. This discussion also joins a whole host of other social discussions that have been gaining traction in the normally passive Singaporean society. A more vocal social sphere has emerged thanks to social media outlets. The varied communities of Singapore have begun negotiating social space, sometimes amicably, other times antagonistically. 

Almost all the participants indicated in their forms that they had no problem with the presence of IMDA. What most of them had a problem with was its seemingly arbitrary decision making processes and the fact that it banned the show. They agreed that IMDA was good because it allowed consumers and potential attendees of performances / events to make informed choices, especially young audiences not yet of legal adult age. But they disagreed with the ban, stating that an R18 or even R21 rating would have been sufficient. They were unanimous in saying that adults would be able to make their own informed choices, bolstered by the fact that sufficient consumerist structures  (the act of having to buy a ticket) were already in place to ensure that this performance would not have encroached on anybody’s way of life or rights to expression should they disagree with it. In short – don’t like the show, don’t buy the ticket. 

From the feedback, it was clear that the participants found the experience professional, carefully considered and respectful. 

In the work, various personal barriers were confronted and sometimes broken down. The work challenged each participant, including Ming Poon, to actively question every single moment of the entire performance process because there was a lot at stake for both. The work became a very effective way to use bodily and physical performance to discuss issues surrounding nudity. 

Ming Poon’s Undressing Room was a very important performance for Singapore. Rarely does a performance in Singapore confront body politics so squarely. Through the one-to-one performance format, the contentious topic of nudity was discussed at a very powerful and personal level. The work’s efficacy lay in the fact that each participant entered a carefully set up frame work that ensured no abuse of power or any disrespect. The act of undressing each other and then proceeding to touch each other allowed the participants to experience and therefore confront the issue first hand – let’s not talk about nudity. Let’s actually try to be nude in front of each other and then figure out how we feel as we go along. 

Contrary to all the predictions made by the small section of conservatives about how the work would be an opportunity for perversion, lewdness and obscenity, what the participants and Ming Poon actually showed was a huge amount of restraint, respect and consideration. Because nudity is considered something highly private in Singapore, the participants probably gave a lot more thought about nudity and the act of getting / being nude than they ever did in their lives during this performance. None of them acted carelessly or brazenly. The vociferous naysayers painted an orgiastic picture of unbridled sexual perversion. In fact, Undressing Room was a performance that reminded us that most persons in society still had faculties of sensibility, sensitivity and respect for others and their bodies.