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Photo of Seelan Palay holding his artpiece in front of the Parliament House.

Performance art piece “a work of art that is open to interpretation”: Artist Seelan Palay on trial for performance of art piece from Hong Lim Park to Parliament House

Artist Seelan Palay has stated in his defence that contrary to the charge being held against him – the alleged participation in a public procession without a permit under the Public Order Act – his performance art piece was "peaceful at all times" and "a work of art that is open to interpretation".

Seelan declared in his testimony in court last Thursday (27 Sep) that he "did not address anyone, nor instruct anyone to follow" him to the National Gallery and the Parliament House.

"Any speaking I had done that day as part of the performance was only addressed to the mirror. The point of the performance was to remain silent throughout and I had only responded to the authorities at times out of time and necessity and courtesy," said the artist.

He added that "the performance and object used in it are not meant to demonstrate, but are means for artistic expression."

Seelan added that Assistant Superintendent Lionel Lee, one of the officers who had arrested him during his performance, was not able to explain how Isaac Asimov's book, "Foundation"– which the artist had used as a part of his performance – was related to Chia Thye Poh, along with the "passion made probable" text and the drawings which the officer had "interpreted as inscriptions".

"When he first asked me about the artwork, I had told him that it was open to interpretation. I had also taken several steps to ensure that my performance was not disruptive. Including the fact that I had chosen to perform it on a Sunday. And when Parliament was not in session. That I avoided standing on the main road where there was traffic. And that I avoided standing on the red brick floor tiles of the Parliament House itself.

"Lastly I would like to add that my performance was meant to end by 4pm. Had I not been arrested, I would have completed the final segment of the artwork and left the Parliament House. As I had done at the National Gallery," elaborated Seelan in his testimony.

When he was shown the pole cam footage at Hong Lim Park, which was timestamped at 2.15 p.m. which Deputy Public Prosecutor Dwayne Lum alleged showed "that there were people standing close enough watching" Seelan's performance to render his speech audible, Seelan revealed that he was so focused on his performance that he was unsure as to whether or not people could hear his words.

"It also does not matter to the performance whether they can hear me or not, because an audience is not required for performance art," he added.

When the prosecutor argued that Seelan's performance was not without a purpose, the latter replied: "Art does not require a purpose other than art itself."

Upon being probed as to whether or not his true intention was to demonstrate his opposition to the government’s actions for detaining Dr Chia, Seelan said that while he does oppose Dr Chia's detention, "the purpose of the performance is only to complete the performance and it is open to several interpretations. As all works of art are."

"The space that he [Dr Chia] was detained was the space he was detained physically, emotionally, mentally," added the artist.

Seelan, who was unrepresented during the hearing on 26 Sep this year, held a cross-examination against ASP Lee.

ASP Lee, who had arrested him along with several other police officers, testified that an auxiliary police officer had informed him that "a small crowd" had gathered behind Seelan from Hong Lim Park to the Parliament House.

When prompted by Seelan if his performance posed a threat to national security, ASP Lee said that while it did not, Seelan's performance "caused disturbance to the officers at the Parliament House, which was why police were called in."

Seelan then queried the officer if his performance had threatened public order in Singapore, to which the officer replied that while the performance did not result in "any direct threats," the aforementioned small crowd was perhaps enough of an indication of such a risk, in his "assessment".

ASP Lee said: "I placed him under arrest for taking part in a public assembly in a restricted area under the Public Order Act. This is because his actions reflects him opposing the action of the government and what he feels is the wrongful detainment of Dr Chia Thye Poh."

32 years referred to in the title "ostensibly" refers to Chia Thye Poh's detention without trial: DPP

About a year ago, Seelan performed his piece called "32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror" at Hong Lim Park.

The DPP in his opening statement last Wednesday (26 Sep) argued that the 32 years referred to in the title "ostensibly" refers to Chia Thye Poh's detention without trial under the Internal Security Act in 1966. 

"The event of Oct 1, 2017 was intended to commemorate that event," added the prosecutor.

Dr Chia was detained on the grounds of allegedly conducting pro-communist activities against the government, and all restrictions upon him were only lifted in 1998.

During the performance, Seelan, who was 32 years old at the time, said that he found it unfathomable that a person could be locked up without trial for the same number of years that he has lived.

The DPP – said during the second day of Seelan's trial on 27 Sep this year – that "He [Seelan] expressed his view, performed his work, without any interference from the authorities on the first of October, 2017. He was allowed to publicize the event on the Internet. Even after the event, his views were reported about online. Again, no interference from any authorities.

"The issue that is before this court is the offence that arose when he left the Speaker’s Corner [Hong Lim Park] and embarked on a public procession without a permit under the Public Order Act.

"I had stated that he took part in three demonstrations or public assemblies that day. One of which was at Speaker’s Corner.

"I have expressly indicated in my submission that he had approval for his demonstration of public assembly at Speaker’s Corner, for the prosecution would dispute Mr Seelan’s point that he was not allowed to express his views when he was given approval to do so in a public space, and did not need to seek approval to express his views online," said the DPP.

 

 

Prior to marching out of Hong Lim Park– where he sought and obtained a permit to perform– to carry out the unannounced part of his art performance, he said to his artwork, as though he was speaking to Chia himself:

I hope to ask you two questions. Can the liberated human mind be constrained by a state-sanctioned space, and in that regard, can a liberated work of art be contained within a state-sanctioned space? Do you know the answers to both of these questions? I will show you.

After making his way to the National Gallery and the Parliament House, Seelan was eventually arrested by the Police at 3.20pm after about 30 minutes of standing in front of Parliament House while holding his art piece, before being taken away in a police vehicle from Parliament House.

Seelan was then charged by the Attorney-General's Chambers for allegedly holding a "public procession [...] to publicise the cause of "the illegal detention of Dr Chia Thye Poh," and, as no permit has been granted under s.7 Public Order Act (POA), Seelan was deemed to have committed an offence punishable under s.16(2)(a) of the POA.

The judgment for Seelan's charge will be passed today.