Ong Keng Sen

Article Bio Works Projects Images Video
body, gender, identity, modernity, tradition
Performing Arts (docu-performance, tai chi)
Asia, Southeast
Singapore, New York
created on:
May 14, 2003
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since August 22, 2008. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
information provided by:
Other languages:
Ong Keng Sen
Ong Keng Sen


Confrontation between the self and the Other

Ong Keng Sen is the artistic director of the theatre group "Theatre Works", founded in Singapore in 1985. He created a furore in 1997 with his version of "King Lear", delicately balanced between European and Asian cultures. In 1999 the production was shown at the German festival "Theater der Welt". Ong Keng Sen created the genre "docu-performance", in which he examines contemporary Asian identity through historical exploration and the confrontation between the "self" and the "Other".
Ong Keng Sen, head and director of the theatre group "Theatre Works", has commited himself to the development of a new Asian identity and aesthetics for the 21st century. For years he has been demonstrating this intense commitment to intercultural exchange, mainly with other Asian artists. In 1995, he initiated the pan-Asian creative laboratory "The Flying Circus Project", which draws attention to the extreme differences among "Asians" and the resulting difficulties in treating Asia as a uniform continent. The long-term research and development programme explores Asian art in the 21st century. Theatre, dance, music, the visual arts and documentary films are developed in classes, seminars and workshops. The focus lies on creative strategies used by the individual artist from all genres, from traditional to contemporary art. The pan-Asian dialogue first took shape in 1999 with the establishment of the "Arts Network Asia".

His productions have been shown by major cultural institutions and at major art festivals in Asia, Australia, Europe and the USA. In addition, he contributed largely to the development of Singapore theatre. Ever since 1990, Keng Sen has been running the "Writers´ Laboratory", a workshop for young playwrights, which has taken on a pioneering role in the production of contemporary Singapore plays.

Keng Sen is known for his elaborate and risky performance concepts. In "Destinies of Flowers in the Mirror" he collaborated closely with performance artists and acrobats to create an epic, location-specific and interdisciplinary production in which 300 spectators, equipped with umbrellas and rain clothing, found themselves in the midst of a gigantic fountain.

Keng Sen directed "King Lear" intending to bring contemporary Asia onto the stage. The production premiered in Tokyo in 1997 to great critical acclaim.

With his genre "docu-performance", he explores contemporary Asian identity through the confrontation with its history and the Other. "Broken Birds", for example, is a piece about Japanese prostitutes in Singapore at the turn of the century. In "Workhorse Afloat" he addresses the exploitation of Indian construction workers by Singapore’s middle class.

In 2002, he presented the docu-performance "Beyond the Killing Fields" as part of the Berlin performance festival IN TRANSIT. It is based on the true story of Em Theay, a master of the classical royal temple dance in Cambodia. 90 percent of the royal dancers, musicians, actors, poets and artists were murdered in the course of Pol Pot’s fanatical attempt to rid the country of all capitalistic and “impure” elements. Em Theay barely survived the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. Today, she is passing on her dancing skills to the National Dance Ensemble. The docu-performance incorporates interviews and film scenes at the historical locations in Cambodia.

Ong Keng Sen was the co-curator of the annual festival IN TRANSIT 2002 and 2003, organised by the House of World Cultures in Berlin.

Author: House of World Cultures


Ong Keng Sen was born in Singapore to Chinese parents. Originally trained as a lawyer, he studied at the New York University School of Arts and helped initiate a theatre studies programme at the National University of Singapore. In 1985 he founded the theatre group "Theatre Works", and continues to act as its artistic director. In 2002 and 2003 he was the co-curator of the House of World Culture’s performance festival IN TRANSIT. He gave talks on "Performance in Asia" in cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, Sidney and Hong Kong.

Keng Sen is a member of the Asia-Europe Network, which promotes the artistic exchange between Asia and Europe. Keng Sen is a Fulbright Scholar and the recipient of various fellowships such as the Japan Foundation Fellowship and the British Council Fellowship. He is a member of the New York Asian Cultural Council.


Beyond the Killing Fields

Production / Performance,
Yale University, 2001

Silver River

Production / Performance,
Spoleto Festival

King Lear

Production / Performance,

Destinies of Flowers in the Mirror

Exhibition / Installation,

Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral

Production / Performance,

Trojan Women

Production / Performance,


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Spaces and Shadows

Contemporary Art from South East Asia

(30 September 05 - 20 November 05)


Customs – Nothing to declare

(30 May 03 - 14 June 03)


Transforming the arts

(30 May 02 - 14 June 02)
From: DocuPerformance "Killing Fields"

DocuPerformance at IN TRANSIT 2003

play video