Light / Dark mode

The Otherworldly Darkness of REFUGE by The Observatory

Out of the inky darkness, a falling star blazes through the Earth’s atmosphere, crashing into an early civilisation. In its fiery wake, only rudimentary hand axes remain to tell of the Paleolithic humans who once lived on what we now call Bukit Bunuh

Fast forward 1,830,000 years, and this meteorite’s shattered remains have been worn by wind and rain to the size of broken tree stumps, their surfaces ragged with age. 

These rocks look deceptively ordinary in the photograph I’m looking at. Under the dappled midday sun, they’ve become seats for a group of people dressed for a hike. 

At Bukit Bunuh, the site of the oldest known tool workshop belonging to prehistoric hominids. Foreground, from left to right: Rully Shabara, Dharma Shan, a local guide, Deanna Dzulkifli, Pornpan Arayaveerasid (Ching), and Ruengrith Suntisuk (Ton). Back row, from left to right: Cheryl Ong, Yuen Chee Wai, and another guide. Image courtesy of The Observatory.

There’s Dharma Shan, Cheryl Ong, and Yuen Chee Wai, the trio behind The Observatory (or “The Obs”), Singapore’s pioneering avant-rock band since 2001. 

With them is Rully Shabara, who’s one half of the Javanese duo Senyawa, an experimental outfit known for their impressive vocal textures, neo-tribal punk aesthetics, and handmade instruments. 

And then there’s Ruengrith Suntisuk (Ton) and Pornpan Arayaveerasid (Ching) of Duck Unit, a studio that specialises in creating immersive spatial environments through lighting, sound, colour, and scenography.  

Two trusty local tour guides are there to round up the group, alongside producer Deanna Dzulkifli. 

But what exactly is this motley crew of creatives doing in the middle of an archaeological site? It’s a winding story, but it explains why REFUGE, The Observatory’s performance at this year’s Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) is one to anticipate. 

Cave diving

Billed as a “metaphysical sojourn into the subterranean”, REFUGE grew out of The Obs and their collaborators’ journeys into the Lenggong Valley, where the oldest known archaeological sites outside of the African continent are located. There, they not only encountered staggering beauty, but also caught a glimpse of the Earth’s real age, which stretches to billions of years. 

How they got to the Lenggong Valley was rather serendipitous. “Sometime in early 2023, we were involved in another project with the artist Lucy Davis,” Shan told me, explaining how he had travelled to Gua Tempurung, a limestone cave in Perak, Malaysia, for field research. Despite having grown up in Perak, he hadn’t been aware of the ancient history around him.

“We were led by certified cave guides and had permission to go off the beaten track,” Shan explained. They were wearing headlamps to find their way through the dark. “We decided to switch off the lights, and that’s when we experienced sensory deprivation. Totally black.” 

In the darkness, Shan found all his other senses heightened. He could hear a small stream coursing through the cavernous expanse, and he could feel the air touching his eyes. “It was a very special experience. That inspired us to do something related to caves.”

The Obs and their collaborators emerging from Gua Gunung Runtuh. Image courtesy of The Observatory.

After further research, the band decided to focus on a cave named Gua Gunung Runtuh, where the earliest, most anatomically complete human skeleton in Southeast Asia was discovered in 1991. Radiocarbon dating showed that the skeleton, popularly known as the Perak Man, had lived 10,000–11,000 years ago. What’s more, the Perak Man was born with a genetic deformity, and had been singularly buried with a cornucopia of objects, suggesting that his community may have regarded him as a shaman. 

The unknowns surrounding the Perak Man inspired The Obs to begin a speculative project revolving around caves and time. What might existence have meant to a being who once lived so close to us, but whose remains point to timescales far beyond our everyday imagination? 


If you’re an Obs fan, you might’ve noticed that REFUGE is just one letter away from REFUSE, the title of the band’s major retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum in 2022. By translating data derived from fungal decomposition into music, REFUSE explored how perceiving the world from a non-human perspective might remind us of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. 

Continuing REFUSE’s exploration of the natural world, REFUGE furthers The Obs’ interest in deep time. That is, time, not measured in human lifespans, but in geological and cosmic terms. Think: endless cyclical processes of rock formation and erosion; the time it takes for light to travel across a galaxy. 

Looking at time in this sense is deeply humbling. “I have been put within the vast spectrum of time, to realise that one is but a small speck, a dust, an insignificant moment, and that as a civilisation, we too will pass,”  Yuen writes, reflecting on the past year of research behind the project. 

In exposing mankind’s hubris, REFUGE speaks to the urgencies of a world in crisis. “Geologists have begun to call our time the Anthropocene, the epoch in which human disturbance outranks other geological forces,” writes scholar and anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

By viewing the Earth’s resources as mere stepping stones in achieving our short-sighted goals, humankind has made a mess of the planet, setting the stage for total ecological collapse. How can we reconfigure this destructive relationship between humanity and nature? 

“There’s a lot of quarrying that goes on in Perak,” said Shan, citing an example of our exploitation of nature. “Limestone mountains are being blasted, and the limestone is being used to create cement and concrete. Now, make a wild guess: where does this concrete go?” 

The answer is clear. Much of Singapore’s glittering urban cityscape has been built from—and in the case of land reclamation, on—natural materials acquired from nearby countries. How can we justify this extraction of resources from our less wealthy neighbours? How can we critique natural destruction when our desire for bigger, “better” things drives this very same destruction? 

Image courtesy of Arabelle Zhuang.

Reflecting on these questions, the band was initially torn as to whether it was right for them to “extract” these images of another country’s caves for their art. 

But rather than enacting a top-down, exploitative survey of the land, REFUGE approaches the cave introspectively, as a starting point for intimate, subjective experiences. How can we understand the experience of entering a subterranean realm as a retreat into the self and the body? How might surrendering our senses to the unknown heighten our receptivity to other ways of relating to the natural world? 

Crossing disciplines

Like many of The Obs’ multidisciplinary projects, REFUGE is grounded in an experimental sonic landscape. But working with moving images, visual art, and performance has deeply enriched the band’s practice ever since they started “dabbling” across disciplines in 2009, and they wanted all these other elements to play a role in their distillation of that moment of total darkness in the cave. So, gathering co-conspirators was their next step. 

Having worked with Rully Shabara previously, The Obs saw that his interest in exploring the human voice as a primal medium of connection to spirituality and the environment would be a good fit for REFUGE.

“How we manage knowledge from the past—that’s my main interest, which is what they’re working on now, to a certain extent. So that’s why I said yes to the project,” Shabara said. 

His improvised vocalisations will feature alongside performative elements by artist Justin Talplacido Shoulder.

Using costumes and prosthetics, Shoulder creates uncanny human alter egos that resemble both masked figures from tribal rituals and alien visitors from a distant future. This resonated with The Obs’ speculative approach to the Perak Man’s story, as well as their interest in transcending linear time.

As for Duck Unit? “Well,” said Shan, “All I can say is we’ve seen their work with Apichatpong, who we are a fan of, and we know these are the people we need for what we’re doing.”

If you’re a fan of contemporary Southeast Asian art, you’ve probably already encountered Duck Unit’s work with light, sound, and space. Duck Unit has worked on commercial and art projects of all scales, from megahit concerts to video installations and unconventional projection performances by the likes of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and artist Korakrit Arunanondchai. 

The process

With this all-star team, the process of putting together all the moving elements involved a lot of back-and-forth discussion. While The Obs’s musical composition leads and grounds the work, much of what audiences will see will have grown organically out of dialogues between the band and their collaborators. 

“The challenging part is that we’re all from different places,” said Ong. “And everyone’s very busy, because they’re all very good. It’s hard to get all of us in the same room for a period of time to work on this together.” But despite these difficulties, working across disciplines brought vitality to the project. 

“Because I came from performance and theatre, I tend to start with a complete script. When I had to work with the music first, it took me a while to rearrange my ideas. But it’s actually a very fresh, new experience to do this,” reflected Arayaveerasid of Duck Unit. 

“If you’re just doing music, for me, it feels very one-track,” said Shan, echoing her excitement. “When you work across disciplines, with artists from other fields, they bring in other elements that inspire your work and bring it to another [level].” 

Besides roping in artistic collaborators, The Obs also made it a point to test the show—given its participatory nature—with a small group of audiences.

What you’re in for

When I sat in on the team’s rehearsal last week, I felt a real sense of camaraderie as they bounced ideas around, working out how best to integrate the live performances with the dynamic, interactive scenography, which will be manipulated in real time. 

Without giving too much away, I can say that the show will be an immersive, experiential performance. 

With enveloping scenography channeling the feeling of wandering in the Earth’s bowels, REFUGE’s potent concoction of image, sound, and performance conjures the presence of timeless, otherworldly creatures that verge on being human. 

Atavistic imagery meets cutting-edge technology as REFUGE integrates Rully’s Xhabarabot Voice Machines. “Xhabarabot is a series of experiments I have been doing to extend my voice by transforming it into data,” says Rully. These interfaces allow him to manipulate audio data and generate new sounds from his voice which are independent from his body. 

In the shimmering, undulating darkness, I felt myself briefly transported into another space and time by primordial voices and shapeshifting bodies. It felt as if I was witnessing some kind of ritual, tunnelling through layers of time to arrive in an interior chamber—a place like a body turned inside out. 

Rather than trying to literally replicate a cave environment, The Obs has transformed all their research—visits to archaeological sites, readings and reflections on deep time and the Anthropocene—into a richly sensorial experience. Altogether, REFUGE challenges us to awaken our senses to other ways of seeing and being in the world. 

When I asked the team if there was one thing they hoped the audience would take away from being part of the performance, they shook their heads. 

“We don’t want to dictate it. Come as you are, open-minded. You decide for yourselves,” said Ong. 

“There’s no lesson to be learnt,” added Shan. “It’s experiential.” 

“But we’re happy to have a chance to show a first draft, and then we can try and improve it from there,” Ong said, expressing the band’s desire to develop REFUGE beyond its run at SIFA. 

Final thoughts

Today, the evidence that we have made a mess of the planet is everywhere around us: crushing heat waves, freak accidents triggered by the changing climate, rising temperatures amplifying the spread of unpredictable pathogens—the list goes on.

“Sometimes it is almost impossible not to feel hopeless and broken,” said one climate scientist. As we watch humanity hurtling headlong into its own destruction, is there nothing left but despair? All this weighs heavily on artistic projects that confront the Anthropocene. I see REFUGE as one of many attempts to light a way, however tentatively, out of this darkness—precisely by diving into it. 

Image courtesy of Arabelle Zhuang.

REFUGE revels in the unknowability of deep time and the natural world, challenging our arrogant view of humankind as the centre of the universe. By reaching for different ways of seeing, hearing, and feeling, what this ambitious project aims for is no less than a renewed ethical consciousness of the ways in which we are connected to the world around us. These are lofty goals, but I’m excited, and hopeful too, to see where they’ll take us.


The Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), Singapore’s premier performing arts festival, runs from 17 May to 2 June 2024, and boasts a full slate of local and international theatre, music, dance, and children’s programmes. Visit for details and read more of our SIFA coverage here.

Header image: REFUGE by The Observatory. Image courtesy of Arabelle Zhuang. 

Interview quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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