Man at His Best

Wisdom: Sean Tobin

The Artistic Director of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, and the Head of the Faculty of Theater at SOTA, tells us how art is more than skin deep.

BY Wayne Cheong | Jan 11, 2017 | Design

Photograph by Ronald Leong.


I have quite a ridiculous amount of compassion. When I watch a film or the news, I can be really [empathic]. Some days, if I return home from school, and I know what one of my students is going through, I have to protect myself from that too, because that can be really intense. I could never be a social worker or a counsellor. Those were some of the jobs that I thought of doing, but I couldn’t because I would just be a wreck the whole time.

Growing up in a highly religious environment forced me to address a lot of questions, I suppose.

Not all religious environments are like that, but the one that I grew up in was harsh, and very judgmental, when it was supposed to be all about love. That forced me to figure out where compassion [fits into all this]. What about when things aren’t so black and white? That’s why I find Jesus Christ fascinating. People distil him down to a list of rules, when, in fact, he was wild, a revolutionary. He spoke against the institution, the system and the zealots, not the prostitutes or the [downtrodden] he was hanging with.

My mum dying prematurely. Being bullied in school. I’ve lost two of my best friends very prematurely to death. Oh yeah, lots of disappointments.

What I’ve been telling myself recently is that I’m coming to [God] with more doubt than ever before; therefore, the faith part is really just that: faith. Anything that I’m holding on to is genuine faith. I believe in something that I can’t see.

I would describe censorship as a temporary plaster that you put over something. That’s all it’s doing. No one finds out what’s underneath because it’s covered up. It’s taken away. It’s invisible. And because you see a plaster, you assume that [there’s damage beneath it]. You assume there is an illness, a problem, something infectious.

If you were to ask, “Is [censorship] necessary to the growth of the arts?” I would reply, in fairness and balance, that censorship has been central to how Singapore decided to develop its scene. I don’t think it was ever an option for Singapore to develop the landscape without censoring it. It’s not going away. Regardless, artists are still making a living out of their discipline, and there’s an amazing audience for the different forms of art. So you can’t stop creativity. You can’t stop people thinking for themselves.

I’m interested in how theatre can help empower an audience and make them realise that they have choices. It’s not only the artist who should be bold in questioning; it’s for everyone to question and be critical. That’s what good art should achieve. It’s empowerment for humanity.

You don’t have control over your surroundings, but you can control your response to [said] surroundings. People often tell you your story. “Oh, your story is such-and-such.” But what they are doing is imposing their story on you.

I don’t know how people grow up without reading Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies. If you haven’t read them, then you’re going to be really stuck because you have to know those laws of life. That’s real.

People always ask what should they catch at the Fringe Festival. Everything. It’s all really good. Because with the more controversial works, the danger is the rest of the other pieces get eclipsed.

[Liz Atkins] is an artist who used her art to overcome her anxiety disorder: compulsive skin picking. She then helped other people with different anxiety issues, like teenagers dealing with body image problems. It’s exciting to see how an artist uses art to help her or himself, apply it in a very direct way to help others, and create awareness of mental health, which is something that we need to talk about a lot more.

There are some things that physical time can’t replace, but I think, in this day and age of technology, there are a lot of opportunities to keep friendships alive.

I don’t want to be told what to do. I don’t like it when people are brainwashed into being someone they’re not. With fashion, for example, guys are free now to wear things that were once considered no-nos or too feminine. You see progress, an evolution. But I would also argue: why must you wait for someone to tell you that it’s okay to wear something before you do?

That’s also why I like the Fringe Festival: we make sure that the local artwork has plenty of time and space to mature like Pretty Butch. [Tan Liting, the artist] proposed the work to us for [last year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: “Art & the Animal”]. We told her to hold it off for “Art & Skin”, because it was important for her to take time to develop it. At other festivals, seasoned foreign works are placed alongside brand-new local pieces. That communicates the idea that local artwork is inferior.

I guess that I have my whole life to keep figuring all this out.


The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017: “ Art & Skin” will run from January 4 to 15 at venues that include the Esplanade, Centre 42 and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.