Corporealities: Dance of a Humble Atheist and Religious Procession

October 5, 2019, 9:50pm
By Fiona Lim

Toh Hun Ping’s Dance of a Humble Atheist begins with dying – and silence. In the prelude, we see a congealed mess resembling dismembered, headless bodies (or a close-up of the wonton, a beloved Chinese dumpling). Thus, we set off on an existential journey masterfully crafted by Toh, an auteur of local cinema. What follows is 17 minutes of arresting, indeterminate images, without scale and dislocated in space and time. Working in the tradition of abstract expressionist filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Toh employs the stop-motion technique using digital scans of over 600 unique ceramic reliefs that he laboriously sculpted. The scans are then digitally manipulated, and arranged. The result is a sublime, poetic film reflecting the artist’s meditations on mortality, spiritual faith, nature and the cosmos. 

There are several versions of the film. The current iteration features a soundtrack by Dharma (of local band The Observatory) on prepared guitar, and Toh playing ‘ceramic percussion’. Coupled with the convulsive frame-by-frame editing, the soundtrack succeeds in creating an atmosphere of nagging dissonance that sets the audience on a path of incongruity that never fully resolves itself.

Primordial chaos
Still from Dance of a Humble Atheist

There was a thing
Inchoate but Whole,
Before Heaven and Earth.
Silent!
Without Form!
Alone, unchanging

Daodejing, section 25

In the first act, ‘The Funeral’, a fissure in a darkened landscape yawns wide open into a gaping abyss, like a growing scar on a body. The cracks grow and multiply until all matter is consumed: Death arrives – in cold, utter silence. But this is not a death that is final; this is a fertile, life-giving death. Like a dying star that births a universe out of primordial chaos. 

Fleshy geology
Still from Dance of a Humble Atheist

Positively titled ‘Cornucopia’, the second act is composed of two parts: birth and decay. A slight contusion quickly evolves into a volcanic-like protuberance with a hollow centre, letting light in. The wound grows; it looks ugly, like a freshly birthed being. And it begins to resemble a bodily orifice – gaping mouth? Anus? In Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque, bodily excrescence and orifice represent a continual process of becoming. In and Out. Decay, death, birth, renewal. The body transforms, grows, touches another. To Bakhtin, “these convexities and orifices have a common characteristic; it is with them that the borders between one’s own and other bodies and between the body and the world are breached”1 – a borderless existence in which dualities collapse.

A congregation of orifices…
Still from Dance of a Humble Atheist

Cells multiply, birthing myriad things. Meanwhile, cosmological balance, represented by the perfectly stable structure of the hexagonal tessellation,2 slowly and inevitably destabilises. The body convulses, wrecked by disharmony and intransigence. The fabric of the cosmos mutates and warps – and it carries on, apathetically.

The cosmos
Still from Dance of a Humble Atheist

In the coda of the film, titled ‘Phosphorus’, which Toh describes as ‘a revolt against consciousness’, we see all that has gone before and hence all that will come after – an eternal recurrence that is inescapable. We hear Toh’s sharp scraping of the ceramic pieces, like a mortal scratching on the walls of a deep cave, desperate to escape a sick existence. The film reaches its apotheosis with the recognition of a universal balance born of chaos.

Because there is no scale, what looks like a mote of dust in Toh’s film could also be a universe, or simply just specks on a screen. As Yeats said: “Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.” Dance of a Humble Atheist is a film that rewards repeated viewings, and hopefully each time it will bring us closer to a state of bliss in uncertainties

* * *

While Dance of a Humble Atheist takes us on a spiritual voyage of the cosmological unknown, visual artist Dave Lim’s Religious Procession turns the camera eye on the processions of two major religions in Singapore – Hinduism and Taoism. At times a spectacular visual feast, the different processions play out concurrently for the most part in this split-screen work. In stark contrast to Toh’s work, Lim uses documentary, archival and found footage for his film, which examines “governance, syncretic religious forms, religious and racial harmony”. He urges the audience to question, “How do we build religious harmony in increasingly fragmented societies?”, and seeks to interrogate the struggles that different religions undergo to carve out space for sacred activities.3

The 16-minute film opens with four split screens of places of worship: Masjid Jamae (or Jamae Mosque), two Hindu temples (Sri Mariamman and Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temples) and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. A silver chariot carrying the Hindu deity of Lord Murugan – the god of power, youth and virtue – and his consorts passes by each location as part of the Thaipusam procession. The diegetic sounds of all four scenes are overlaid, and this happens for much of the rest of the film, occasionally creating an interesting cacophony.

Cacophony of religious music
Still from Religious Processions

Lim shows footage of a briefing on crowd control during the Thaipusam procession. Juxtaposed with that is a shot of bright-yellow barricades meant to regulate human traffic, and subsequently a scene of a traffic marshal waving pedestrians across the road, while participants of the Thaipusam procession pause before continuing on their route on Serangoon Road. What follows is a found video of a scuffle that broke out during Thaipusam in 2015. Police officers had stopped a percussion group from playing during the procession as it contravened the regulations then, and aggression on both sides resulted in a skirmish. However, devoid of context, I found the inclusion of the video problematic. The YouTube video was bizarrely titled “Singapore Thaipusam 2015 WAR” (emphasis in original) – a gross exaggeration as it was merely a scuffle, which is lightyears away from being a war. Without providing further details of the incident,4 the video is an unfair representation of the devotees and risks perpetuating the state paranoia of a Thaipusam procession erupting in violence.

Left: A tangki (spirit medium) possessed by Nezha, a child deity. Right: Thaipusam procession.
Still from Religious Processions

Live music is a crucial component of Thaipusam: It gives devotees, especially kavadi bearers (those carrying a large, heavy steel structure affixed to their body by piercing through skin), strength and a sense of calm during the walk. Live music during Thaipusam was banned in 1973 after fights occurred among rival musical groups. The ban lasted until 2016, though it remained severely restricted then – live music performance was limited to only a few designated areas and had to be static. In 2019, 46 years after the ban was implemented, the government finally decided that musicians accompanying the kavadi bearers could play a stipulated list of non-amplified percussive instruments. In an absurdly Singaporean caveat, these musicians would have to register themselves AND their instruments with the Hindu Endowment Board beforehand – as if in anticipation of public disorder. Unfortunately, this important context is missing in a film that seeks to interrogate religious space in Singapore.

Left: Taoist practice of washing in water with flowers. Right: A stall selling flower garlands used in Hindu worship.
Still from Religious Processions

Throughout the film we observe some similarities between Hindu and Taoist rituals such as cleansing the body with water; devotees entering a trance-like state; the performance of religious music; self-wounding; the processional march, etc. Lim placed similar scenes next to each other to encourage the audience to compare the different religious practices. However, we also see scenes of police patrolling and performing crowd control for Thaipusam, unlike for the Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival, where police presence is non-existent.There are protracted scenes of self-mortification during Thaipusam and Taoist tangki (spirit medium) worship. While Hindus self-mutilate as an act of gratitude to Lord Subramanian, the Taoist tangki does that as a manifestation of being supercharged with the fighting power of a deity in order to battle demons. The film ends with a Chinese community that participates in Hindu rituals. Among them, a man explains the significance of Thaipusam and Thimithi, the fire-walking festival, and points out a commonality uniting different religions – kneeling, a sign of respect. In a time of increasing social fragmentation, respect for another’s religious practice – or, simply, basic respect for another person – is more important than ever.

Footnotes

  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1968). Rabelais and his world. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 317–318.
  2. The six-sided geometrical shape is ascribed cosmological significance for its recurrence in nature. It is seen as the symbol for universal balance. Read more about the symbolism of the hexagon here: https://imperiumadinfinitum.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/the-meaning-of-the-hexagon/
  3. See press kit on FilmFreeway website: https://filmfreeway.com/ReligiousProcession
  4. Eye-witness account of the Thaipusam incident on 3 February. (2015, February 4). Retrieved from The Online Citizen website: https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/02/04/eye-witness-account-of-the-thaipusam-incident-on-3-february/; Chelvan, Vanessa Paige. (2018, February 8). Trio who scuffled with police during Thaipusam in 2015 convicted. Retrieved from Channel NewsAsia website: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/trio-who-scuffled-with-police-during-thaipusam-in-2015-convicted-9920516

About the writer

Fiona Lim is a freelance writer, editor and researcher. Contact her for work at fffiona.lim@gmail.com


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.