Archive for July 2010
Caught the “Singapore 1960″ show at the National Museum yesterday. The material culture of the past is always fascinating – even more so in the case of our fair isle, where the old and the outmoded is quickly and ruthlessly consigned to the bin of historical oblivion (only to be resurrected decades later as retro camp or outrageously overpriced vintage) – but some of the curatorial choices here struck me as being questionable. On display were these head-scratchers: the Aw family’s jade collection, hidden behind a wire mesh screen, which looked like what it was – the cheapest protective option available (record sleeves get glass but antique jades wire mesh?); two pairs of boxing gloves, apparently a reference to the history of the sport in here parts (as opposed to say, soccer?); and the opening exhibit – if one can call it that – which was pretty much just neon signage proclaiming ‘Singapore 1960′ against a background of black. This last might have been a reference to the predominance of the three Worlds back then: Great, New and er, Gay, or the main amusement parks and chief sources of entertainment in a pre-megamall Singapore. One has to ask though, why such precedence for popular culture ? Certainly the political, for instance, was an equally salient element of the show …
In any case, one of the highlights for me was a pretty impressive collection of record covers from the period. Aside from the usual suspects like the irrepressible Sakura Teng, also represented were Rita Chao, as well as this pretty face, one John Yam 任约翰 .
Apologies for the brevity of this review (right, like I have any readers besides myself ..). Camera’s battery died on me halfway through, so I didn’t get many shots, and – to be perfectly frank – the show was fairly uninspired. A couple of surprises, but that was pretty much it. To end on an upbeat note, here’s clip of Rita Chao crooning a Chinese cover of one of my favourite numbers, As Tears Go By:
In a word ? – Engaging.
Although I will admit this right now, I enjoy art, film and Singapore history, so I was pretty much predisposed to like this show on all scores. Personal proclivities aside, however, Imitation proved to be an intriguing, compelling exercise in museal creativity: artist Wong (who apparently was the sole Singaporean representative to the Venice Biennale last year, where this exhibition premiered in an abbreviated version), Tang Fu Kuen (the guest curator), and their collaborators – who included the last surviving billboard painter in town, one Neo Chon Teck; a local collector of cinematic memorabilia; and a filmmaker who produced several documentary shorts on these folks – produced a marvelous if somewhat ill-defined visual mash-up of hand-painted billboards, installation and video art, documentary photography, and a social history of local cinema.
If that isn’t bang for your cultural buck, I don’t know what is.
The historical aspect of it was quite a revelation. The items on display here, which ranged from ticket stubs to vintage posters to little blurbs on local movie theaters past and present, including photos of these structures in their glory days way back when, rather nicely encapsulated an overlooked facet of the collective memory now fast fading – like so much else of our urban fabric constantly being lost to material progress and the government’s manic fixation on ‘upgrading’. (Old National Library, anyone?) The film posters and promos in particular were awesomely trippy. Check out the one below (top) for a movie called Crazy Bumpkins in Singapore 阿牛奇遇記: it stars home-grown comic duo Wang Sha 王沙 and Ye Feng 野峯, who might be familiar to Singaporeans of a certain generation from their TV show (here’s a clip). A newspaper article (middle) announces a performance by Chinese songstress Bai Guang 白光, who happens to be a personal favourite. And posters a-plenty from a flourishing Malay movie industry; especially well-represented were horror flicks with titles like Anak Pontianak (bottom).
In an adjoining gallery was a series of Polaroid snaps of old theatres both in Singapore and Malaysia, taken by Wong himself. Really in the same vein as the stuff above, but one specifically caught my eye: a pic of the old Capitol cinema, tucked away at the corner of North Bridge and Stamford Rds, and today a derelict shell of an edifice just waiting for the URA to do something with it. But the point here isn’t to rhapsodize about old structures. This cinema in particular is significant to yours truly: it was a long-ago day in the early 90s, in the halcyon spring of my misspent youth, when I whiled away an afternoon in a stairwell of the Capitol with my first love HSC – lithesome, winsome SC, of whom another image is now surging to the fore, him on the volleyball court in white tee and blue shorts, the epitome of teenage sexuality … (Although, to be strictly factual about one’s romantic chronology, he was really the second, though one of the greatest. JL rightfully holds the title of First, puppy love though she may have been. That’s right, boys and girls, I used the feminine pronoun.) Details are fuzzy, but I think the exact stairwell we sat in is the one visible in the picture.
That was a good day.
Anyways, enough reminiscing. The other salient aspect of the show, and really what grabs the viewer first, is the metamorphosis of the gallery space and the art objects into an approximation of the movie-going experience. The hand-painted posters, so evocative of a bygone era, were designed by Wong and executed by local billboard artist Neo – who, according to a documentary by filmmaker Sherman Ong, is pretty much the last of his breed. The lurid colours, the misshapen facial features, the grotesquely exaggerated proportions .. I haven’t seen these around since I was a small child, terrified by the mammoth hideousness of their figures. Most of the posters are of faux-movies produced by Wong, parodies of actual films ranging from Malay melodramas to Douglas Sirk – whose Imitation of Life from 1956 provides the title of the exhibition – to Wong Kar Wai’s more recent In The Mood for Love. The galleries were transformed into mini-theaters, complete with seats and curtained-off screening rooms in which Wong’s video pieces were screened; one of the hallways was even equipped with a wall of flashing neon Plexiglass to give one the impression of a lighted marquee (presumably). There were also a couple of strange-looking installations resembling projection devices .. And that’s where the congruity ends and the self-reflexive cleverness begins. Like Wong’s “rehearsals of rehearsals”, his caricatures of actual films featuring himself and other amateur actors, one person often playing several parts simultaneously in a bid to de-suture the viewer from the filmic diegesis, the exhibition itself is set at a remove from experiential reality. While the ostensible effect is one of an old-world theatre, the actual displays seem suspended between kitschy (semi-)recreation and a sense of the Freudian Uncanny. What Freud dubbed unheimliche, or unhomely, relates to “what is familiar and comfortable … [and conversely] what is concealed and kept hidden”; in other words, the uncanny connotes not just what is otherwise obscured from view, but that which was meant to remain veiled and has instead been brought to light. To illustrate his point, Freud read several texts – including, famously, E.T.A Hoffman’s short story, “The Sand-man” – for examples of the uncanny, an exercise which leads him to surmise that the primary mechanism of the phenomenon is the gesture of returning: “… this uncanny element is nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.” The Unheimlich, as such, is marked by the return of the repressed; the once-familiar, in surfacing from the depths of memory or returning from the realm of the forgotten, is what engenders the sensation of uncanniness. Here, then, in the cinematic worlds of yore conjured up in an alien space, we have the familiar embodied in not-quite-recognizable form: the posters announcing known movies with unfamiliar faces; the ‘projection devices’ that broadly resemble real ones, yet are clearly non-functional art installations; the screening rooms where instead of projection screens one finds flat-screen TVs and playfully-angled mirrors; the empty gallery spaces with just a row or two of seats, alluding to real-life movie theaters but falling short of reality in surreal, spectral fashion, rather like returning home only to find that all the furniture has been rearranged or removed, a known quantity rendered otherwise unexpected …
Both nostalgic and novel, and yet sly enough for art snobs like myself – kudos to the organizers.
The sunny shores of the motherland have called me home. Singapura ! – land of the lion-fish and the megamall. Am loving the parental pampering, which includes meal and laundry service, among other fantastic perks … but the best thing about being back is <drumrolllll> the food. First meal I had – two hours after touching down at one in the morning – came out of a can, but was it ever, ever so good: greasy fried bamboo shoots with mushrooms, fatty pork bits and chilli oil, or, as the dish is colloquially dubbed in Chinese, 炒三丝. Absolutely ambrosial stuff …
More lip-smackers …
Fried rice cooked up on the spot at a teppanyaki restaurant, with condiments (above).