“SpectRoom: Fluid Narratives”. Kenneth Constance Loe on ‘Bua Cek’, a series about homosociality and their experience in the Singaporean Army

Portrait of Kenneth Constance Loe. Courtesy the artist.

TW: Mental health, physical and emotional trauma

Francesco Ferranti: Can you please introduce yourself?

Kenneth Constance Loe: My name is Kenneth Constance Loe aka @trying_to_be_a_petal and I am an artist currently based in Vienna, Austria. I’ve recently started using he/they pronouns and am embracing what being a gender-nonconforming fag entails.

I am the co-founder of @cheapmozart, an online store featuring handpicked secondhand and vintage garments and accessories. They are the co-founder of @softwallstuds, a collaborative project in Singapore involving several artists, writers, film makers, art workers, and researchers.

Francesco Ferranti: What does spectrum mean?

Kenneth Constance Loe: I starting thinking about spectrum in terms of personal histories, friendships, relationships, and how intersubjective experience lends itself to there being “nothing solid beneath our feet”, to quote Lynne Huffer in her book Are the Lips a Grave? A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex, and how that inflects on our respective positions and identities, queer or otherwise.

Francesco Ferranti: Which work have you selected for “SpectRoom: Fluid Narratives” and why?

Kenneth Constance Loe: I was invited by Francesco in December 2020 to participate in ​”SpectRoom: Fluid Narratives”.​ The timing was impeccable as I had then started coming to terms with my own gender expression and identity, having previously felt that it was disingenuous for me to identify outside of being cis-male.

Because of personal circumstances, the ongoing third lockdown in Vienna, Austria, which started on 26 December with a slow reopening from 8 February, has been the first lockdown that I have spent largely alone. What precipitated then was all the trauma that I had somehow convinced myself that I have already processed and gotten over started bubbling over and with that came the sorrow, heartbreak, shame and agony, alongside the joy that came with honesty, that this gender non-conforming fag was hurting deeply and feeling things. I created a series called ‘Bua Cek‘ inspired by the fern that grew on the island Pulau Tekong (Singapore), where I spent 3 months on as part of my basic military training.

With this opportunity, I decided to delve into my two-year mandatory military service in the Singapore Armed Forces from 2009 to 2011, what John Lee in his article “How Discrimination Kills Gay Men in Singapore” for the New Naratif calls “perhaps the best equalizer of all Singaporean men, regardless of sexual orientation.” I specifically wanted to draw upon my experience with the first 3 months of basic military training for this series—how even though it has been 10 years since I completed my service, the mental, physical and emotional abuse I (alongside countless others) was subjected to have shaped me in ways that I am only starting to fathom, one of them being how any explorations of femme-ness I was exploring via club kid culture prior to enlisting was symbolically shaved off my head on day one.

I have tried to reclaim it over the years but through the past 2 months of soul-searching alongside therapy, I reached the conclusion that I tended to rely on my partners to grasp at this sense of queerness that Singapore and subsequently, National Service had stripped me of. Of course, we all have different coping mechanisms and mine was that post-army, I felt secure in my masculinity for the first time in my life and confident that I was desirable in the eyes of a cis-gay matrix, so that is that. And I know my being able to pass as masc where necessary shielded me from the more intense taunts and bullying from fellow recruits, unlike some of my more unfortunate/braver peers, except for the one time a sergeant asked me point blank if I was gay because of the way I spoke. I didn’t say yes then. I guess it’s time to say fuck off and live my truth because if not now, then when?

Kenneth Constance Loe, Why Worry? You are asked to make camouflage, not salad from ‘Bua Cek‘(2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, Lights out! from ‘Bua Cek‘ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, My femmeness is under attack from ‘Bua Cek‘ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, My mission is to become a housewife in Hougang from ‘Bua Cek‘ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, PES fag from the series ‘Bua Cek’ (2020).
Kenneth Constance Loe, SAFsquat from the series ‘Bua Cek’ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe SAR 21 from the series ‘Bua Cek‘ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, I wonder if there are any wild orchids out here from the series ‘Bua Cek‘ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, I < dick from the series ‘Bua Cek‘ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, 6have6hoot6nail from the series ‘Bua Cek‘ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, Precipice from the series ‘Bua Cek‘ (2020)
Kenneth Constance Loe, pansy pees on a panzer from the series’Bua Cek‘ (2020)

You made me dig my own grave while slicing onions in my face

You called it a shell scrape and you told us it would protect us from artillery fire. You gave me a shovel, a shitty
rod with a metal plate that one could lodge into one end. Six hours, I remember, it took me, amidst torrential rain— jungle soil turning to sludge as the monsoon wept for us— to dig a grave that would fit all 180 centimetres of me,

plus my rifle and 20kg backpack stuffed full with fatigues and rations for the week (2 metres then I would say?)

You then called on your lackeys, who lorded over us on this
excuse of a la isla bonita. We weren’t even flies—we were maggots, subject to 1-litre water parades, a gazillion push-ups,
rifles overhead, 3 billion sit-ups,
5am mornings calls and 5BX,
marching to the beat of this country’s drum,
made to crave mealtimes with “signature succulent pork cubes served with abnormally large steamed chicken drum in
sticky clear sauce.” You were basic, alright.

They unleashed on us a flurry of punishments for apparently not having dug fast enough. We crawled through
the mud, up and down, back and forth. I don’t
quite remember what else they made us do,

except it was our third or fourth day outfield, surviving on 4 hours of sleep and powder baths and I remember you told them to ease off, that we’re completely broken now. Now is the time…

And then, they sat us down on the same boggy clearing that We’d just crawled on. The platoon commander spoke,
He was pretty much the same age as us, except he had Gone through nine months of officer cadet training

And prior to that, the same basic military training as us. He told us, in a serious timbre that was unlike him,
to remember what we were doing all this for.
He repeated the same things that’s been drilled into

Us for months now—this love for our land, esprit de corps, etc. Then he said, “Think about your family at home.
They’re all rooting for you!”
I’m paraphrasing of course. Tyra Banks he is not, neither

Was he very PC but that’s beside the point.

He then handed each and every one of us a letter.
Mine was from my mother.
You made her write her at the start of my training,
Or was it sometime in between, I don’t remember.
She said in the letter that she was proud of me,
That she could see the positive changes National Service Was instilling in me, week after week,

that I was growing up.
She might even have said that
I was becoming a real man,
Or was that what Kenny Pereira’s dad Had said to him?

Who was I to fight the flood
Of tears that ensued? These woeful emotions that You wrenched oh so forcefully from me.
December pissing on my guilt from
My parents having had to deal with my teenage angst, My dropping out of school twice before
I started donning eye shadow and wearing lipstick
To parties, all the way to London just so
I could lose my virginity because
I couldn’t deal with my shame,
The shame of being in the closet
Which you oh so gleefully shoved me back into Because I couldn’t deal with being outcast,
Bullied or teased, where even the way
I spoke was suspect, and this deep exhaustion
That I felt all through my bones
Made me weep at the bunions of my socks
As though it were Bobo, my bolster, that I hugged
Oh so dearly through those nights when
My classmates made fun of my email address miffy_loe, what a sissy, and you wouldn’t even
leave that childhood memory of mine alone, calling recruits who couldn’t aim their rifles “Bobo shooters” Well I’m no good at aiming but I can aim it at you— Yes, you crushed me, Pesto Junkie,
broke my spirit and made my body
the fittest it’ll ever be and moulded me into
a person who will always have this trauma
of being a soldier etched into the nether regions
of my hippocampus—the first time I ever shaved,
the first time I fired a rifle, a pistol, a machine gun, the first time I experienced emotional manipulation in the first degree.

Series:​ Bua Cek​, 2021

Material: Army-issued Gore-tex pixelised camouflage raincoat, Commando pixelised camouflage boonie hat, pistachio shells, nail polish, pistachio batik tie-dyed cotton ribbed singlet, pink leather, black suede pants and bum cutout, self-adhesive digital prints, images of graffiti and firing target from Neo Tiew Estate (army training site), images of orchids from an earlier work called “Vanda”, orange floral ornaments, plastic onion slices, polymer clay, vintage black leather Luichiny platform boots, plastic leaves, dried flowers, satin butterflies with glitter, hand mixer beaters, black leather gloves, black PU collar with nipple clamps, silver chain belt, silver clip-on earring, nitrous oxide cartridges, air-filled plastic packaging, pink beaded ornaments with stars, shaving razor, piece of wood with moss, silicone snail, friendship bracelet by Rogine Moradi, chainmail underwear by Jonas Brøns-Piche, quote by Kenny Pereira from the movie “Army Daze”

Camera: Hanna Kučera

Support Kenneth Constance

Francesco Ferranti: What are your dreams and hopes for the future after Covid 19?

Kenneth Constance Loe: That’s a really tough question. I think I’ve been so steeped coping with present times and situations that I haven’t really given that much thought. I would say that I’ve always had quite an optimistic outlook on life and it has been a real challenge maintaining it in these times. Nevertheless, I hope for a future with more empathy, compassion and self-reflection, and joy from meaningful connections.

Francesco Ferranti: Are you working on any projects right now?

Kenneth Constance Loe: I’m currently recording an album of cover duets with different friends, mostly acoustic versions of songs about love and letting go. I’ve also rearranged my studio space in a way that allows me to focus on movement and some simple choreography that I can hopefully incorporate into future projects. I finally managed this semester to get into the stone course at the academy where I’m studying at and am working on a condom sculpture out of marble. It’s in relation to an earlier piece that I made out of soap in 2017, alongside paintings of condom packaging, so I guess you could say I’m expanding on the series? On a personal note, I’ve been spending a lot of time delving into my past, and wondering about how it commingles with my present. Questions aside, I’m also trying to engage with some childhood and teenage past-times of mine, like rope-skipping, playing the guitar and singing.

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