With There Can Be No Touching Here, a project that is showing at an exhibition titled An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season in National Gallery Singapore until 21 February 2021, multidisciplinary artist Ila continues to build on her pet themes of gender, identity, and history.
By homing in on the topic of sexual assault, and spotlighting how news of it is consumed and shared, she wants to not just help address and reduce occurrences, but also inspire new pathways towards a more humane future.
Ila started researching sexual assault in 2017 for a work where she highlighted how people have become desensitised to violence because of how it has been played up in the media. There Can Be No Touching Here encapsulates the whole gamut of emotions that sexual assault evokes, through Word document-style tracking edits and comments on a news report where a general practitioner was cleared of rape and molest charges.
“I wanted people to stop and really look at it,” says Ila of her latest work. “Social media has allowed us to access information so quickly but we need to reconsider how we are consuming all this information. Even if one is doing so to support the survivor, sharing the description of the sexual assault forces him or her to relive the experience repeatedly. But is this what survivors need?”
She says she’s heard too many stories from people who have experienced some form of sexual harassment, and even knows those who have been victims of sexual assault, including some from the arts industry. She refuses to elaborate but concedes: “I feel helpless whenever I learn about these experiences. Most artists, such as myself, may not have structural support from, say, a HR department, if such issues occur.”
Such lack of structural support in the arts led her to seek advice from Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research), where she learnt and attended the NGO’s sexual assault first responder training. She wants to encourage others to receive this same training through There Can Be No Touching Here and, by activating everyone as a body of resource, she says it could serve as a starting point for increasing awareness and pave the way for preventive measures.
“When a friend shares that he or she has been sexually assaulted, how do you react? Are you likely to brush it off as an isolated incident, or will you accompany that person through the pain? Can you understand what he or she’s going through?”
Indeed, if there’s something Ila wants to evoke through her works, in particular her latest, it’s empathy. And instead of the binary approach — the perpetrator is wrong; the survivor is right — she says we should focus on the wider implication.
“What was it that we as a community did or didn’t do that made the occurrence of sexual assault possible? Why do perpetrators commit the offence? Is there adequate support for survivors, such as counselling?”
This sense of empathy may stem in part from her being a mother. Ila’s four-year-old daughter Inaya has global developmental delay due to a rare brain condition known as agenesis of the corpus callosum.
“Inaya’s taught me that change doesn’t need to be big; it just needs to be consistent. We always find little victories to celebrate. There were certain tasks she couldn’t accomplish before, but with regular therapy sessions, she’s made progress,” Ila lets on with a smile.
“Maybe that’s why I’m trying to encourage others to become more empathetic. I hope that by the time she’s ready to enter society, our world would have become a better and kinder place.”
An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season is part of Proposals for Novel Ways of Being, a partnership between National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum with 10 other local art institutions, independent art spaces and art collectives.
This is part of our series on Rising Above Adversity. For the full story, click here.
The story first appeared in the October issue of A Magazine.