KRAY CHEN, Opera Green, 2020, still from two-channel video: 36 min 30 sec. Courtesy the artist.

Kray Chen: “Hot Temple”

Fost Gallery

In the wake of canceled exhibitions and shuttered theaters during the pandemic, artists and audiences have been forced to reconsider how art is staged and perceived. In his solo exhibition “Hot Temple” at Fost Gallery, Singaporean artist Kray Chen presented the theatrical essence of Singapore’s traditionally live Teochew street opera, sublimating its energies in an installation that reflected the distanced age of Covid-19.

Classic Chinese opera is centuries old, but Singapore’s vernacular street opera is a local form dating to the 19th century. Plots involve myths and ancient fables, conveyed through codified gesture, dance and percussive music. Performed on makeshift tented stages with unobstructed views of the backstage bustle, street opera offers a transparent interface between performers and audience, provoking a vital immediacy akin to that of contemporary performance art. Yet Teochew street opera is a dying craft, as younger generations find little appeal in fusty morality tales, and speakers of the dialect have declined in the shadow of the country’s decades-long espousal of Mandarin Chinese.

Installation view of KRAY CHEN’s Opera Green, 2020, two-channel video: 36 min 30 sec, at “Hot Temple,” Fost Gallery, Singapore, 2020–21. Courtesy the artist and Fost Gallery.

Just before Singapore went into lockdown, Chen stumbled upon a street-opera troupe performing to a few passersby. With an audience of empty chairs, this enthusiastic but largely unobserved event seemed to be “performing for itself,” as he describes it. This encounter fed Chen’s personal frustrations about the loss of Singapore’s cultural and linguistic heritage—and also led him to meditate on the energies between performance and audience.

Chen structures his own performance and video practice around “a sense of rhythm, cadence and resolution.” In previous video works, he has dismantled components of commonplace events—shopping, a wedding, a dance—and isolated the discrete cadences that constitute their choreographies. Likewise, “Hot Temple” sifts among the essential elements of a nearly forgotten craft, beginning with a series of quirky chairs scattered around the main exhibition space. Covered in gleaming automotive paint, with legs truncated in graduated increments, plastic chairs of the sort used at street operas are nested in descending height [Between the Chair and the Butt #1 (Stack of 6 in Candy Red) and #2 (Stack of 6 in Pearl White), all works 2020]. The deceptively ominous Between the Chair and the Butt #4 (Haha Chair) may bristle with wires and mysterious keyboard buttons, but sitting on it harmlessly inputs “hahaha” ad infinitum on an attached display screen. The sculptural stainless-steel #4 (Heatsink and Longevity) is a sinuous reformulation of the Chinese symbol for longevity. A delightfully tactile, faux-rock piece, #6 (After the Thinker Left), is of cushion foam, while #3 (One for Each Butt Cheek) is a droll, modernist-infused stool modeled unabashedly after the artist’s own bottom. Street opera performances are traditionally staged outdoors at temple festivals as the embodiment of offerings made to deities; as such, ritual demands the front row of chairs be reserved for their spirits. Chen’s quasi-chair elements are witty, though baffling; unexpectedly, the seats are quite comfortable. That they stand empty, facing a bare wall, generates a frisson of anticipation, as muffled music can be heard coming from the other side.

Installation view of KRAY CHEN’s Between the Chair and the Butt #1 (Stack of 6 in Candy Red), 2020, plastic chairs, automotive paint, 80.5 × 45 × 49 cm, at “Hot Temple,” Fost Gallery, Singapore, 2020–21. Courtesy the artist and Fost Gallery.
Installation view of KRAY CHEN’s Between the Chair and the Butt #1 (Stack of 6 in Candy Red), 2020, plastic chairs, automotive paint, 80.5 × 45 × 49 cm, at “Hot Temple,” Fost Gallery, Singapore, 2020–21. Courtesy the artist and Fost Gallery.

Following the music, visitors find Chen’s two-channel video-performance Opera Green in a small, separate room. Its 40-minute loop features improvisations by a lone actor, Nick Shen, who oversees one of Singapore’s few remaining street-opera troupes—the very same chanced upon by the artist. In split screen, alternating between the archetypal characters of Scholar and Warrior, Shen mesmerizes with an odd contrast of orthodox operatic gestures and puzzlingly sentimental, introspective posturing, shot by Chen in fluid, extended sequences. The actor is mostly silent, his intentions opaque; the score complements his improvisations, cycling from traditional forms to contemporary motifs into pulses of silence. For the viewer unfamiliar with Chinese opera narratives, these movements, music, and characters offer up an alluring ambiguity.

While preparing “Hot Temple” during Singapore’s lockdown, Chen was unsure whether the exhibition would be held in person, or how a video surrogate for live performance might be perceived; invisible spirits notwithstanding, virtual audiences may observe, yet a vital immediacy is lost. In his meditative response, Chen highlights and sequences certain ambiguities—operatic versus dramatic acting, live versus video-performance, shifting functionalities of chair-sculpture—and propels his bemused audience through a layered, hybrid experience with a vitality all its own.

Kray Chen’s “Hot Temple” was on view at Fost Gallery, Singapore, from November 7, 2020, to January 7, 2021.

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