[Review] Art Stage Singapore 2011
Kedai Runcit No. 12 [Retail Store No. 12], Gallery 12, Malaysia. A stand made up to resemble an old-school candy and toy store – of the sort one would be hard-pressed to find in Singapore these days – featuring young Malaysian artists. Beyond nostalgia, a droll comment on the undeniably commercial and elitist nature of the international art fair ?
The inaugural edition of Art Stage Singapore was a mammoth affair. Occupying an entire basement level in the suitably massive Marina Bay Sands Exhibition and Convention Centre, the event touts itself as “Asia Pacific’s new top international modern and contemporary art fair … a meeting place, a show, a market place, an ‘instant’ museum, and much more.” At least that’s the vision set out by its director, the redoubtable Lorenzo Rudolf – or the man who used to helm the prestigious Art Basel. (Read an interview with him here.) I’d headed down a tad earlier to catch a panel discussion on contemporary Chinese art – involving artist Shen Shaomin*, critic Pi Li, and collector Ulli Sigg, among others – but even then it took me nearly four long hours just to give the place a cursory once-over. Leafing through the catalogue (which cost a surprisingly economical 10 SGD), I realized just how much I’d missed. In that vein, this post adopts a straightforward ‘greatest hits’ approach, listing my three favourite moments of the afternoon.
* Shen’s short slide show, presented as part of the discussion, featured numerous photos taken with scholar and art historian Wu Hung, as well as a selection of Wu’s comments on his (Shen’s) work. Wu is an accomplished academic and a gifted thinker, as well as being my former advisor – something not lost on the artist, who clearly had bromantic feelings going on <lol> ..
A disclaimer, though: some of my choices are going to seem pretty obvious, insofar as works like Ai Weiwei’s large-scale installation, Through, quite literally stood out from the run-of-the-mill offerings; and there were a couple of stops, like the Singapore platform, titled Remaking Art in the Everyday, or the contribution of Malaysian Gallery 12, Kedai Runcit No. 12 (above), that I wished I’d paid more time and attention to … but, alas, I had to rush off for a German dinner at Brotzeit with CH and his delightful friends, KR and IG, who happened to be visiting from Mumbai.
Plus, after a couple of hours I was getting pretty art-ed out already.
Anyways. Bearing that in mind, here we go.
1. Through (2007-8), Ai Weiwei
As mentioned, Ai’s installation was one of the highlights of the event, if only in terms of sheer size. Taking up a space of some 115 sq meters, it involves colossal wooden beams and traditional Chinese furniture (mostly tables) dating from the Qing era, or so the wall label informed us. The objects were all mutually supportive, with niches and holes cut into each to accommodate the other, in effect creating a geometric forest of wooden structures. The artist declares that “certain objects, certain materials, need a certain scale to achieve a clear identity and voice, and that is what large-scale events provide. Artists are not in a position to decide the conditions imposed upon them but they can make statements about those conditions.” Which is well and good, and pretty commensensical as artists’ pronouncements go; the label continues:
Employing materials and techniques embedded in Chinese culture, Ai’s elegant objects can overwhelm viewers who do not fully grasp the conceptual implications of his work; their imposing, meticulous physical presence and massive scale often require considerable teamwork and vast production spaces to realize, and are made possible thanks to the artist’s influence, wealth and sprawling social network.
As much as I appreciate the “imposing, meticulous physical presence” of the piece, in the same way I do Richard Serra‘s steel behemoths, and interesting as the meta-commentary on the role of the contemporary artist is, surely scale can’t be the final word in any act of exegesis here. The vintage of the wooden objects certainly deserve consideration, for one, but the most noteworthy facet of the work, at least for me, is how they fit together as a cohesive whole. The niches cut into the beams of course reference the traditional process of construction for Chinese furniture, where, instead of nails, joints are used to fit the different parts together. This seamless mode of joinage, however, is belied by the disruptive manner in which the vertical beams and the horizontal tables come together: large holes are cut into the tabletops to allow the pillars to pass through. If one is allowed to adduce social factors in attempting to read the work, then perhaps a statement on the supposed cohesion of Chinese society – founded on paternal Confucian strictures and the extended familial unit – and the intrusion into that sphere by the praxis of the modern Communist state, may not be altogether implausible.
Along those lines, could then the solitary pole (below), standing in the midst of the installation and dwarfed by its fellows, be emblematic of the individual, subjugated by overarching socio-political structures ? I’m finding it difficult otherwise to account for its presence …
2. Procession (2009), Paresh Maity
I l-o-v-e-d this piece. 50 metallic ants, put together from used motorcycle parts, including lit-up headlights as Cyclopean eyes, crawl across a bed of twigs. Cue B-grade horror flick featuring the invasion of giant bugs .. Below is a still from Them! (1954), an old black-and-white sci-fi film about the attack of oversized radioactive ants.
Procession also reminds me of other art-animals put together from found materials – Picasso’s Baboon and Young, for instance (below). Both Picasso’s and Maity’s pieces are witty, humorous likenesses, a point of intersection between the industrial and the zoological. Baboon, in its indexing of the goods of the factory line, the commodities of mass production – a jug, toy cars, an automobile spring – reifies the “typically Cubist paradox”* of interrogating the semiotic and material modes of visual representation with these signifiers of daily life, provoking metaphysical uncertainty. It re-directs the aims of both analytic and synthetic Cubism: it does not merely yoke together its various elements, but engages them rather in an active reconstruction of the once fractured subject. Analytic Cubism’s shattering of the human figure into its constitutive planes and dimensions witnessed in, for instance, Ma Jolie, and the figure-ground reversal of, say, Guitar (1912) – where positive and negative spaces are inverted so that the sound hole of the instrument is indicated by an empty can projecting outwards – is here explicitly denied by the re-assembling, or re-imagining, of disparate industrial fragments into a new organic whole. Like Baboon and Young, Maity’s ants, constructed from vehicular parts and re-imagined in their, or a, natural habitat (the bed of twigs), gesture at once at both the realms of nature and society; they are hybrids caught in the flux between two dialectical poles which yet firmly occupies its own semantic space between these variable ontologies.
* See Timothy Hilton, Picasso (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1975), p. 119.
Baboon and Young (1951), Pablo Picasso. Image courtesy of MoMA‘s website.
3. Crystal City (2009), Wu Chi-Tsung
Here’s the scoop on Wu’s piece from the catalogue:
Taiwanese artist Wu Chi-Tsung (吳季璁) presents 水晶城市, or Crystal City (2009). Through a series of installations using a projector, LED lighting and plastic, Wu reveals the invisible city in which modern society resides, made up of electronic equipment, programs, networks, media and information. The artist chose the word “crystal” because this information-dense city grows like one; each component element organically comes together, infinitely expanding and spreading according to a set internal rhythm and logic. it is a city that is transparent, light, and lacking in real physical volume, but it projects a very real experienced world of unparalleled reality. It is this space that the artists considers contemporary society’s spiritual home.
At its most essential, Crystal City is a cluster of transparent boxes assembled in a dark room – with a toy train, bearing a light, making its way back and forth, casting a series of constantly distending and dissolving shadows. Beyond the pure visual pleasure derived from watching the gossamer silhouettes shift and morph and flicker across the surface of the wall, the piece also calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave:
Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see … Such prisoners would mistake appearance for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) were real; they would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
(Summary from a University of Washington page – read it in full here.)
Standing at the entrance to the little room, watching the exquisite dance of shadows from the harsh fluorescent glow outside, its not hard to imagine that Wu is deliberately making claims, contra Plato, for the impalpable realm of shadows as the highest form of “unparalleled reality” – a postmodern idea if ever I heard one.