Last December, we attended an event that lived up to its name for being an Awkward Party. It was an exercise in weirdness unlike any other – from an eternal wait for an aunty host who never shows up, to being barred from leaving the event, to seemingly delectable desserts that oozed with the unwelcome surprise of condiment fillings. Yet this strangeness was delicately balanced with exquisite attention to detail in the décor and food, which the Awkward Party organisers Rachael Cheong and Sheryll Goh executed in partnership with homegrown patisserie brand Kki Sweets and botanical design studio This Humid House.
Bewildered and more than a little intrigued, we catch up with Rachael and Sheryll to get an insight into the idiosyncratic world that they’ve created, and where they intend to take it.
Let’s start from the beginning – how did you two meet?
It’s a small world — our mutual friend, Kirti Upadhyaya, assistant curator at OH! Open House, connected us. Kirti and Rachael were schoolmates from the School of the Arts and Sheryll got to know Kirti through her internship at OH!. She saw an interesting overlap in our practices and suggested we meet. Our first meeting was at Tea Chapter, and it felt like a blind date. We realised that we had a quite a lot in common, in terms of past internship experiences, a shared interest in image-making and collaborations, and our love for the slightly too loud / dramatic / romantic.
How did you get started with Awkward Party and what are you trying to achieve with this collaborative practice?
To be honest, we didn’t imagine it would be such a long-term collaboration! In 2018, I (Sheryll) approached Rachael with a pitch to throw a one-off Awkward Party. It was to be a room-based installation filled with gaudy home furnishings that our friends and family could experience at their leisure. That later morphed into a more ambitious, full-on second party with theatre practitioners at Jalan Besar Salon and after that, we realised that hey! There is something interesting here… a party is just the starting point.
Did you feel like you were filling in some kind of gap in the present contemporary art scene?
We’ve noticed that the art and design scene in Singapore is still clearly delineated. Having studied in art school in the Hague and Glasgow where things were a lot more free, interdisciplinary and experimental, we thought, “Why not! It’s not that crazy. Let’s play with the boundaries a little bit and see what happens.”
What has the response been like so far? The people who attend the Awkward Party, what are they like?
It’s been quite varied! Some are confused and not sure what we’re trying to achieve, others think it’s something fun and entertaining and a small handful are intrigued and want to see more. Our guests from the first two parties have been a mix of industry friends – fashion photographers and editors, producers and artists – along with family members, ex-colleagues and ex-classmates who are working in professional, managerial, executive and technical positions. We wanted to create an experience where these different groups of people would be bewildered by each other and be confused as to how to interact.
Costumery, dress-up, and beautiful design were hallmarks of the Awkward Party that I attended – tell us more about that, and how that feeds into your practice. Are these essential to the experience?
Thanks for picking up on that! Yes, it’s an essential part of our research and the experiences we hope to create. We are curious about the individuality of personas – how this is constructed, communicated and on display to others via dress-up or the creation of personal surroundings. While we explore these ideas earnestly in our own practices, Awkward Party is our platform to take things less seriously and poke fun at ourselves.
I’ve always wanted to ask – what made you decide to wear the frightening masks that you wore at the Awkward Party?
We didn’t know if we wanted to put ourselves in the party or outside of it. So in the end we decided to create this distance, by wearing masks. The one that Sheryll wore is from Rachael’s own collection, and the one that Rachael wore was from Marine Serre. We didn’t really have a reason for choosing those masks in particular, it was more of a practical consideration – those were what we had on hand.
Tell us a bit about your own personal style and how this informs your art practice.
Rachael’s style is a cross between Goth and full-on gingham, lace and ruffles, and hobo chic on lazier days. Sheryll’s style is dramatic puffy sleeves, ruching and walkability. In reflecting on this question, we got one of our friends to share her observations about it, and here’s what she had to say about our personal style and how it connects to our art practice:
“The hints of vintage fabric and floral and gingham prints in both your personal dress senses reveal your common interest in kitsch and old-time charm that is let loose to explode in Awkward Party. There are also layers in your dressing, from practical considerations like how your dressing seldom restricts mobility to little touches that pay homage to more esoteric fashion icons. The same detail-oriented approach taken to your dress sense spills into Awkward Party because it parodies the cultural and practical functions of objects within the commonplace familial setting, which first requires astute observation of the original functions of unremarkable objects and the potentially subconscious references they make.”
Tell us a bit more about your involvement with Dance Nucleus – how did it come about and what prompted you to seek it out?
Independent producer – and former Programmes Manager at Dance Nucleus – Hoo Kuan Cien encouraged us to apply for the associate membership after attending Awkward Party 2. He picked up on the performative elements in Awkward Party and saw an opportunity for us to continue expanding on this dialogue through the research-based, interdisciplinary platform at Dance Nucleus. It has been an eye-opening journey of acquainting ourselves with different performance-based practices and lots of in-depth research that has helped us to clarify our artistic motivations and the next steps for Awkward Party.
So what’s in store for the Awkward Party girls?
When we participated in a micro-residency with Dance Nucleus over the Circuit Breaker period, we investigated our simultaneous love-hate relationship with Singaporean Kitsch, which I think is something that every Singaporean grew up with. It’s become part of our vernacular and understanding of visual culture – going to 7-eleven and buying that terrible Slurpee, or agar agar and neighbourhood bakery cakes and things like that.
In doing so, we zeroed in on the visual language of the Singaporean experience of communal dining – be it a birthday party with friends, Chinese New Year, or a meal that you dabao (takeaway) and have at home with family. Our research findings from the residency will be published in an online catalogue soon and it’s also served as the foundations for our upcoming show in February, for which the working title is Reunion Dinner. You can expect this third edition of Awkward Party to centre around objects that you associate with the communal dining experience, rather than the performative aspects that took centrestage in our previous editions.
Sounds exciting, we hope aunty sends us an invite!