The first thing you notice about Still Life is its set. A massive bird’s nest structure hangs from the ceiling, alongside faux wooden beams and matte black pendant lamps. Nude sketches and paintings are donned on all walls. Petrina Dawn Tan’s set feels cosy, and even lived-in, especially with the mishmash of seats that circle the stage: rattan chairs, sofas, high stools, rugs and more.
The next thing you notice about Still Life is Dana Lam herself. Sporting cropped hair and clad entirely in black, Dana exhibits a no-nonsense spunk. She shows a careful consideration with her words, and a fluid freehand style with her live artistic sketches. Still Life is centered around Dana, and her life is anything but still.
Still Life moves like a dream with Dana tackling her fragmented memories. Her primary school teacher reprimands her for having a different name from her father. She recalls the pride and triumph felt from the 2009 AWARE saga. As a teenager, she moves to Malaysia with her mother and new step-family. The memories come abruptly, bound by Dana’s fear, longing and regret. Still Life is a portrait of the artist as a woman at various stages of her life. With a heightened sensitivity, Dana’s confessional nature is riveting.
Still Life arguably serves as an introductory piece to Dana’s life, but also seeks to address universal truths. Under Claire Wong’s direction, the theme of maternal lineage consistently brought to the forefront. Papier-mâché moulds mount on Dana’s womb, alluding to her growing pregnancy. Multiple sketches of Dana’s mother line a wall, along with photographs of her being scattered throughout the space. Two black lines are painted across a wide blank canvas, a fitting conclusion to Still Life. The repetition and duplicity of these elements present ideas of how we repeat our parent’s mistakes, how we try to break free from them, and how we might eventually become them. With these clean and concise visual representations, Still Life reveals how trauma is hereditary, a resounding truth that courses through our veins.
Despite this, Still Life paints a dreamscape that is warm and inviting. At certain moments, Dana sketches her partner-performer, Jean Ng. She points out the cyclical viewing relationship with live model sketching: she looks at the model, while the model looks at her, and both parties know they are being looked at. We, the audience, are also looking at Dana looking at the model, with the model looking back at her. The repeated overtones of looking, observing and watching , a la “ways of seeing“. After all, we are witnessing an artist at work, and we can’t look away.
This review is based on the performance on 8 March 2019. Still Life ran from 28 February to 10 March 2019 at 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road.
Featured photo is courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo Credit: Mark Teo.