[Review] Tags and Treats: Works by Vincent Leow
Strictly for art buffs and/or VL devotees, otherwise you aren’t missing much.
VL, along with names like Josef Ng and Shannon Tham, evoke an earlier moment of performance-art provocation and daring-do sorely missing these days, even if they were still only noteworthy exceptions back then rather than the rule.
Brief digression slash diatribe: The headlines lately seem to be hogged by misbehaving bloggers rather than artistic controversy. The last couple of years have witnessed prosecutions against members of the online community caught indulging in the most asinine instances of racism, one of whom turned out to be a PSC scholar at Northwestern who had this to say of the non-Chinese members of his school’s Singapore Association: “Ya. I discovered I’m so racist. At the club [under lighting in which everyone is supposed to look good], I still find Indians and Filipinos [dark ones] so repulsive and such a turn-off.” Well. Meanwhile, just this past week, local food blogger Bradley Lau was thrust into the glare of public ire when it turned out that not only did he demand a free meal costing nearly 500 SGD at a Joo Chiat restaurant, he became downright unpleasant with the staff when his request was not fully met. Now, Mr. Lau’s bad manners are one thing, but the reactions to the incident on Yahoo Singapore definitely crossed the line from outrage into inexplicable hate. The language and the personal attacks, ranging from alarming vilifications like “you piece of shit” to deeply personal assaults on his presumed sexuality [“f*cking faggot”] and his appearance [“langah-lorry”], were if anything far more appalling than the blogger’s antics. Nothing like an ugly Singaporean to bring out other ugly Singaporeans eh …
Back to the topic at hand. Before a discussion of VL’s significance in the history of Singapore’s visual arts scene though, a look at the exhibition itself: divided over three levels of the 8Q building, the gallery on the ground floor surveys the first, early phase of his career, comprised in the main of satirical paintings such as the one on the left, called Dumbo (1991, above), which, according to the wall label, represents an experiment with polka dots as a means to “convey the idea of viewing the world through the pixels of a television screen.” The animal is “both an image from childhood memory of the earliest drawing he [VL] did, and marks the beginning of Leow’s use of animal characters in his paintings. Done during the time when the US invaded Iraq, the elephant alludes to the US dominance in the war.” Nothing terribly groundbreaking here, but I do like the grid-like effect imposed by the web of dots on the surface of the work, a recurring motif in VL’s oeuvre (above). The mathematical regularity and visual uniformity – all the more salient for being juxtaposed against a biomorphic image – dovetails pretty nicely with the qualities of similitude and homogeneity inscribed into the figures of a neighbouring display, Big Head, Little People (1999, below), consisting of a group of little look-alike aluminum figures lined up in methodical, quasi-military formation like the terracotta warriors of the Emperor Qin, and literally watched over by a large wooden head. The implications here – both art historical and socio-political – are interesting: this piece seems to have much in common with the work of contemporary Chinese artists like Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun, both of whom are famed for their iconography of repetition. The former, at least, has explicitly adduced the terracotta figures as inspiration in his own oeuvre, while the latter has likewise produced stuff along the same lines (below). The relentless act of reiteration that occurs in such pieces, approximating the appearance of a uniform mass, seems to speak to the phenomenon of a surveillance society – analogous to the inexorable visibility of the Benthamite Panopticon – as delineated by Michel Foucault in his Discipline and Punish. The homogeneous seas of figures conjured up by VL, Yue and Fang resemble the sort of disciplined bodies that Foucault wrote about – and which seem to channel the rigid, hierarchical societies and the corresponding cultures of self-censored conformity that are operative in countries like Singapore and China today. VL, in fact, very pointedly notes this impulse behind Big Head, Little People: “The work originates from the Chinese expression “Someone with a big ego with ill intention”, where identical casts of little men are ruled by a big head that oversees all of them. The work represents the unequal balance of power and ego that exists in our society” (wall label). But more on all that in a later post …
Another Chinese artist with whom VL’s work finds agreement is Zhou Chunya, who obsessively paints and sculpts images of his dead german shepherd, often in startlingly sexualized poses and always in a lurid shade of electric green (below). Like Zhou, one of VL’s favourite themes is his late pet, a dog named Andy. Andy is resurrected in a number of ways, but most often pictured in a hybrid representation with his owner’s caricatured mug substituted for his own (below), resulting in a pretty unnerving amalgamation of homo sapiens and canis lupus. One is vaguely reminded of the monsters of Greek myth, here transplanted into the disquieting realm where the comic and the sexual meet – like watching hentai. Anime fornication has always unsettled me. The supposedly innocuous and the blatantly carnal make for very uneasy bedfellows, pun not intended, and as any hormonal teenage boy can attest to, sh*t gets pretty nasty pretty fast in the world of hentai …… Elsewhere, the trope of death – its originary moment located in Andy’s passing – is again played out in pieces like Conversations with a Femur Bone (2010, below), which deploys replicas of life-sized human bones, piled up on a stainless steel cart one imagines a coroner would utilize, as a particularly eerie memento mori, the sight conjuring up not so much the pictorial theme of vanitas but the grisly mounds of skeletal remains that often serve as evidence of mass slaughter, as at the infamous Tuol Sleng museum slash former torture center in Phnom Penh, for instance (below). (Notwithstanding the opinion of the curator/s, who, according to the wall label, consider the piece to be “injected with Leow’s trademark playfulness.” One bone may perhaps be that, but a whole lot of them on a hospital cart is just creepy ..)
Vincent Leow, Conversations with a Femur Bone (2010)
The making of Conversations also forms the basis of the sole performative piece included in the show (below). A short video of the artist assembling the various elements that come to constitute the display, it’s pretty much as dull as it sounds. On the benches, however, was the most interesting object in the gallery (below): a photocopied booklet of newspaper and magazine articles concerning the scandal that cemented VL’s reputation in the annals of local art history, his no-holds-barred act of public pee-guzzling, as well as the equally notorious shenanigans of fellow artists Josef Ng and Shannon Tham the following year. Back in 1992, during the first flush of the liberalized, post-LKY years, VL was a relatively young art student just back from a stint at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, and running with the boho-ier-than-thou Artist Village (TAV) crowd. At the annual Artists’ General Assembly, a week-long interdisciplinary festival of the arts organized by TAV and 5th Passage Artists and held over New Year’s at the Parkway Parade mall, VL performed a piece he dubbed “Coffee Talk”: on stage in front of an audience of about 60, he urinated into a mug and then downed the whole thing (below). Et voila ! – instant infamy. The point, as he remarked, was to make a statement, “like slamming a table with your fist. People listen after you do that … It made people think.” Mission accomplished. And hot on his heels at the 1993/94 AGA, Ng and Tham, in protest against a recent spate of entrapment-based arrests of gay men, raised the stakes even higher:
A group of Singapore performance artists named 5th Passage stirred controversy and government ire for their activities in a rent-free studio in at Parkway Parade. …… First, performance artist Vincent Leow drank his own urine before an audience. Two performances at the shopping center early on New Year’s Day 1994 ensued [sic] the controversy. Performance artist Josef Ng, then 22, cut his pubic hair and presented it on a plate before an audience. Performance artist Shannon Tham, then 20, vomited into a bucket as part of his performance. The “performances” protested the arrests of 12 men for homosexual solicitation and protested the perceived imbalances in the news coverage of the arrests. ……Commentary writers Lee Weng Choy and Ray Langebach defended Ng’s public pubic clipping as contemporary art. Lee Weng Choy said Josef Ng arranged 12 tiles, representing the arrested men, on stage in front of the audience. He placed a block of white tofu (flesh) and a plastic pack of red paint (blood) on each tile. Josef Ng, dressed in a black robe and black swimming trunks, picked up a rattan cane and danced and hopped around a bit. Then he lashed the tofu blocks and paint bags with the cane, splattering the art asunder. After caning the tofu and paint bags, Ng went to a corner of the stage, faced away from the audience, dropped his trunks, and started clipping.”No one actually observed him cut his pubic hair. The audience only became aware of what appeared to be cut hair when Ng placed it on a plate before us. “He received enthusiastic applause from the audience. He requested help in cleaning up the tofu. A few members of the audience assisted in the process,” Ray Langebach commented.
(From an article on Ng at the Singapore Art website.)
VL got the ball rolling. And Josef Ng – to this day a household name among Singaporeans of a certain generation (including mine), thanks to a sensationalized cover story of the event in The New Paper – pretty much smacked it right in the faces of his countrymen, still unused to the wacky stunts of contemporary performance art. Needless to say, the result was an immediate public furor. The National Arts Council condemned the act, Ng was charged and fined 1,000 SGD, and, most unfortunately, funding for performance art of all stripes was proscribed – a ban lifted only in 2003, nearly a decade later.
All of this history, however, was relegated to a xerox-ed pamphlet in an empty screening room.
It was at this point, I think, in the last gallery of the exhibition, that the murmur buzzing at the back of my brain the whole time finally piped up: that’s IT, no more, nada, zip, boh liao, if you came looking for the Vincent Leow who gulped down a cupful of his own urine “to force his audience to pay attention” and to demonstrate the idea of the cyclicality of nature, that “what comes from you will eventually come back to you”, then sorry – better luck next time. That chap belongs to the heady era of the Goh Chok Tong 90s, now quite indubitably part and parcel of the endlessly rehearsed, and utterly irrecoverable, past.
Vincent Leow, Making of Conversations with a Femur Bone
Straits Times article on Vincent Leow’s Coffee Talk (1992)
August 2nd, 2010, interview with Vincent Leow in The Straits Times’ Life section
An addendum: Turns out VL’s personal gesture of artistic SOS slash liquid reclamation was way ahead of its time, anticipating the Singapore government’s development of NEWater. About a decade or so ago, largely to curtail the nation’s dependence on external sources of drinking water – i.e. Malaysia – the powers-that-be introduced NEWater: clean, potable, recycled wastewater treated with some fancy new technology to supplement the traditional desalination process. Now I’m sure we all know what that means: Singaporeans are now quaffing their own pee (among other unmentionables). So, really, VL wasn’t doing anything the rest of us aren’t already, he was just one step ahead. Now isn’t that all the more reason to celebrate this clairvoyant model citizen ?
(Note: This piece was NOT included in Tags and Treats, but in the 2008 show on TAV at the SAM, The Artists Village: 20 Years On. Image from Wikicommons.)