Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Life of Practice - Kuo Pao Kun: Special Guided Tour with the Curator

Good luck was on my side when despite a rather busy schedule, I could steal some time out to attend a special guided tour with the curator of the exhibition, A Life of Practice - Kuo Pao Kun.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of Kuo Pao Kun. He was an internationally acclaimed playwright, director and arts activist. He was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1990 for his contributions to Singapore theatre. While I am not very familiar with Singapore theatre, I felt it was critical to learn more about Kuo Pao Kun as he had contributed significantly to the local theatre scene.

A Life of Practice - Kuo Pao Kun

Weeks before I had attended the special guided tour with the curator, Lynn Lee, I had visited the exhibition on at least two occasions. During my first visit, I browsed through the entire exhibition yet I left lost as I did not know how to make sense of the exhibition, given its depth and breadth. My second visit to the exhibition was spent sitting down to watch the recording of an interview with Kuo Pao Kun's wife, Goh Lay Kuan. As I watched the interview that gave visitors glimpses of Kuo Pao Kun's artistic vision and practices, I knew I had to return to the exhibition yet again to find out more.

When I learnt that there will be a special guided tour to this exhibition with the curator, I instinctively knew it will be in my interest to register for one of the tours. I had managed to register for one of the Mandarin tours.

The special guided tour was very well-delivered. The curator pointed out the important exhibits that were worthy of our attention, which on my own, I had totally overlooked many of these exhibits.

Growing-up years of Kuo Pao Kun
The tour began with an introduction to Kuo Pao Kun. The curator led us to a section of the exhibition which displayed photos and archival materials related to the growing-up years of Kuo Pao Kun. The curator pointed out to all the participants a photograph. On the back of this photograph, Kuo Pao Kun had written a personal message to his father. It revealed to me that even as a teenager, Kuo Pao Kun had an independent mind of his own.

Growing-up years of Kuo Pao Kun.

His Theatrical Education
More intriguing for me was the next section of the exhibition which showcases Kuo Pao Kun's theatrical education at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. When I had visited this exhibition on my own, I had completely neglected this section thinking it was just showcasing some papers that I could not seem to understand. Alas! I was wrong! Through the curator, I learnt that one of the artefacts in this section contained notes that Kuo Pao Kun had written down when he directed The Bear by Anton Chekhov. I was impressed by the systematic and diligent way that Kuo Pao Kun had made notes to enhance his learning.

The motivational letters by Kuo Pao Kun
I was most captivated by the letters and greeting cards written by Kuo Pao Kun to his family. These letters and cards were written during the period when Kuo Pao Kun was detained under the Internal Security Act from 1976 - 1980. The sense of optimism and hope in these letters and cards were simply uplifting.

For example, in one of the letters, there was a parting message to his family that I have found very uplifting:
"Even though we're apart, let us work hard together in our respective positions and places; cultivate good habits and better ourselves everyday. When we next meet, we can proudly proclaim to each other, time is not wasted on us, I was better than yesterday!"
The drawings on the greeting cards also drew my attention to Kuo Pao Kun's creativity and talent in sketching.

Poem by Kuo Pao Kun on a greeting card:
"The world does not treat us unkindly or forget us.
In the midst of solitude,
even the maize teaches me generously each day:..."
(English translation by Teo Han Wue and Kwok Kian Woon from

Kuo Pao Kun and some of his major plays
The rest of the exhibition was equally engaging. The curator tour gave the participants critical insights on how we can better appreciate this exhibition that discusses the life and the practice of Kuo Pao Kun. 

When we were at the section of the exhibition that focused on the play, The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree, the curator drew to our attention to the detail that for the first performance of this play, Kuo Pao Kun had engaged Liu Ching-min as one of the directors so as to engage Liu's expertise in the radical theatre methodology of "Poor Theatre".

The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree.

Liu Ching-Min had trained with Jerzy Grotowski who developed the concept of "Poor Theatre". I was rather intrigued to learn that it was important to Grotowski that the actors "delivered through their bodies and voice without aids...". I had the pleasure to watch excerpts of the recordings of this play, and it somehow made me think of the magnificent rain-tree at the roundabout of the Bukit Brown cemetery which is to make way for the proposed development of a dual four-lane road. May there be a positive ending that is in the highest interest of all concerned somehow.

In this exhibition, there are sections of the gallery that are dedicated to some of Kuo Pao Kun's major works such as Mama Looking For Her Cat, The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, The Spirits Play and so forth. By the end of this special guided tour by the curator, Lynn Lee, I could finally consider myself to have an appreciation of Kuo Pao Kun's life of practice. He was a dedicated artist to look up to. I could not help but be moved by his passion for and his contributions to theatre art in Singapore.

Many thanks to the curator for an excellent guided tour. It has helped me make better sense of this interesting exhibition, and it has deepened my appreciation of Kuo Pao Kun and his practice of the performing art. I strongly recommend that visitors could consider attending one of the guided tours.

The guided tour aside, I highly recommend interested visitors to make multiple visits to this exhibition so as to have the time to browse through the various recordings of the excerpts of the plays that are featured at this exhibition.

Ideas for the busy visitors
If visitors has only half-an-hour to spare, I would strongly recommend that they watch the interview of Goh Lay Kuan as well as browse through the letters by Kuo Pao Kun that were displayed under the section, Four Years and Seven Months of Solitude.

Interview of Goh Lay Kuan which last about 30 minutes.

Special Guided Tour with Curator
Tours in Mandarin: 15 Dec 2012 (Sat) and 19 Jan 2013 (Sat). 3 p.m. (60 mins) 
Tours in English: 12 Jan 2013 (Sat) and 16  Feb 2013 (Sat). 3 p.m. (60 mins) 

Venue: Exhibition Gallery 2
Free admission with exhibition admission of $5

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