'The Neon Hieroglyph' takes a trippy dive into a hallucinatory universe


Kukathas takes on the fantastical, immaterial and mystical role of narrator in an new exciting iteration of 'The Neon Hieroglyph', created for SIFA 2022. Photo: Eric Chow

Malaysian theatremaker Jo Kukathas is set to collaborate with British multidisciplinary artist Tai Shani on the online artwork The Neon Hieroglyph, which focuses on an unlikely protagonist – the ergot, a fungus found on common grains that has been linked to mass hallucinations across Europe.

The 60-minute trippy filmic performance is part of the upcoming the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), organised by Arts House Limited and commissioned by Singapore’s National Arts Council.

With the title The Anatomy of Performance – Ritual, this year’s festival (May 20 to June 5) features new commissioned works by a mix of local and international artists.

The Neon Hieroglyph, ticketed, will play from May 27-29 at Singapore’s Pasir Panjang Power Station.

It’s been nearly a year since Kukathas last appeared in a dramatic role on a KL theatre stage (last year’s How To Be Alone workshop production). She returns to the Singapore arts scene (where she is equally well-known) to lend her voice to the hallucinatory world of The Neon Hieroglyph as the narrator.

“The show is beautifully languorous and hypnotic. There is a calm acceptance of the mystery and capacity of the female mind. We are still exploring, of course.

“But the text itself is such a mystery. For myself, I’m enjoying the act of trying to unravel it and I’m just seeing so many things in it. I just like Tai’s writing, I like its form. It’s highly poetic,” said Kukathas recent a virtual media event.

Shani, who co-won Britain’s Turner Prize in 2019, will present her first online artwork at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Photo: Tai ShaniShani, who co-won Britain’s Turner Prize in 2019, will present her first online artwork at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Photo: Tai Shani

“The text shifts between many stories of hallucinogens and hallucinatory states. This piece is about plagues and physical and mental afflictions and what it does to our minds and bodies and sense of self not in a negative way, but in a way that makes you explore the nature of reality,” she continued.

Impossible places

Shani weaves a series of psychedelic vignettes around ergot that encompass a historical narrative between myth and reality, including references to a continuous 450-year outbreak of ergot poisoning in Alicudi, one of seven islands that make up Italy’s Aeolian islands.

With scenes set in “impossible places”, The Neon Hieroglyph segues from the cellular to the planetary, from ice cream sundaes to Palaeolithic caves, dancing plagues to communist witches, as Shani rolls out her subtle commentaries on altered states, communality and speculative futures.

“Why ergot? I have always been interested in counter cultural histories and also, I usually work on a very big body of work that spans a few years.

“So, I was trying to find something that will have a lot of scope in it and different kinds of narrative information that I can go into. And ergot provided me with that,” said Shani, who co-won Britain’s Turner Prize in 2019, at the same virtual event.

For the Turner Prize in Britain, Shani reflected on the intersection between historical events, science fiction and mythology in her installation version of DC Semiramis. The project took inspiration from The Book Of The City Of Ladies by French medieval author Christine de Pisan, which depicted an allegorical city inhabited by mythical, imaginary and real women from the past, present and future.

For Shani, female otherness is the perfect totality, and she creates images that subvert patriarchal narratives with violent, erotic and fantastical imagery.

“This piece The Neon Hieroglyph is looking at whether psychedelic experiences of unity and togetherness can be used as a tool to facilitate reaching an egalitarian future,” she added.

The film series The Neon Hieroglyph was commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival. The project is also commissioned by The British Art Show, and is developed in collaboration with Serpentine’s Back to Earth project.

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