[Singapore Biennale '11] At the Old Kallang Airport, part the first
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The third Singapore Biennale kicked off a couple of weeks ago. The whole event runs for about two months, from 13th March to 15th May, 2011. That’s probably sufficient to cover the four primary venues, 161 works of art by some 63 artists, and scores of smaller tie-ins on show at other galleries and museums throughout the island.
Why the Open House theme ? (Not to be confused with another similarly titled event earlier this year.) Here’s the official account, extended version:
‘Open House’ is presented across four exhibition venues, each with their own particular character, that draw upon emblematic spaces in Singapore: Housing Development Board flats (Singapore Art Museum and 8Q), shopping centres and night markets (National Museum of Singapore), and international air and sea ports (Old Kallang Airport). Major art works at Marina Bay will amplify individual experience in the city.
In Singapore, at Hari Raya, Deepavali and Chinese New Year, people open their homes to others, inviting them to visit, eat and talk. This is not only a gesture of hospitality and good will but also an opportunity to reflect, negotiate and exchange. The threshold between the private and the public is made permeable, if only for a moment, relaxing boundaries between individuals and barriers between groups.
Contemporary art often emerges out of a need to communicate across such thresholds of difference that may be experiential, psychological, or grounded in social and political hierarchies. As such, artists’ practices are not simply about something in the world, they are real attempts to exchange information, translate experiences and even trade places. Borders may be guarded with force, yet artists find ways to embed themselves within such systems of control, turning unspoken desires toward unexpected ends. Sometimes artists displace or exchange objects, materials and information from one context to another, revealing unexpected connections between culturally divergent situations. The labour of constructing or deconstructing common objects and materials highlight the creative potential in seemingly mundane situations, suggesting fresh ways of seeing the world.
‘Open House’ examines these artistic processes and their links to the daily transactions that take place between people. From trading objects to swapping stories, from sharing food to dressing up, we are constantly making exchanges, as individuals, groups, cities and nations. In the world’s busiest port, a multicultural city built on trade, ‘Open House’ brings together artworks that offer multiple perspectives and myriad creative approaches to questions of how we move across borders, see other points of view, and form connections with others.
It remains to be seen if the event as a whole lives up to that conceptual ambition (although it certainly sounds broad enough to be all-encompassing). The old Kallang airport site was my first stop, a good third of which MY and I left unexplored on our first visit. After two straight hours of trying to concentrate on the art in stifling conditions – i.e. sans air-conditioning – we gave up. Or rather, I gave up, perspiring, sticky and highly uncomfortable, and suggested we retire to a makeshift Toast Box outlet set up on the premises to refresh and regroup. It took a couple of subsequent trips, joined by MP and SY, to finally finish seeing everything.
Biennales are hard work for all involved.
In any case, the theme of materiality, as the medium of exchange and encounter and generated by the dislocation of “common objects and materials”, was certainly evident in many of the displays. While this sort of border fetishism is hardly new – William Pietz identified the historical fetish as a literal fixing of, and fixation on, hybrid configurations of desire, belief and narrativizing that remain embedded in the object’s material and social specificities, a “totalized series of its particular usages” brought to light by cross-cultural and cross-border movement (see here) – it was really the era of the Readymade that marked the rise of the liminal, ontologically unstable object so prevalent in 20th century art, which took pride in transgressing traditional demarcations and provoking metaphysical speculation. Duchamp’s Fountain, of course, leaps immediately to mind, as do the work of the Surrealists or, later, Rauschenberg’s Combines. Earlier concerns with narrowing the gap between art and life seems, at the dawn of the new millennium, to have been superseded by a new paradigm of social engagement and moral awareness. The attempt to “communicate across … thresholds of difference” has resulted in pieces which not only articulate those margins of disparity, but, in a couple of instances, actually operate at the edges of physical and national boundaries, featuring what Arjun Appadurai famously called “things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context.”
Taryn Simon’s Contraband series, for one (below), a photographic project “documenting confiscated items seized from airline passengers and [the] US Postal Service at New York’s JFK Airport,” represents “an anthropological portrait illustrating the desires of those entering the United States”, and “explores how privilege and power operate in a world divided between those who have access and those who are denied.” The stuff she shot covered the usual gamut: foodstuffs, cigarettes, designer knockoffs, medical supplies. (Sadly, health insurance is not a fact of life for all in America.) While the work was .. interesting, I’m not sure if patterns of privilege and power as such were actually being exposed. If anything, the pictures seemed like a selection of completely anonymous items, begging the questions of who, where from, and why – issues which go much further towards articulating the configurations of desire and profit that inform international trafficking activities. The cartons of Marlboros, for instance, must be a pretty common sight at customs checkpoints everywhere in the world, and their appearance in this context hardly speaks to more than the usual desire to bypass tariff duties; an impoverished foreign student could have been responsible, as could a well-heeled Wall Street type or someone intending to sell the stuff on the streets. In a world where Winona Ryder is capable of shoplifting, one can’t automatically claim that theft indicates poverty or want … What really puzzled me though were the clear plexiglass boxes which encased the photographs. They seemed like a conscious artistic choice, yet what were they supposed to convey ? It was as if the articles constituting this otherwise random mass of contraband were being elevated to the level of individual, auratic works of art, which didn’t quite square with the impersonal, collective presentation of the pictures or the claims being made for them.
Contraband (2010), Taryn Simon.
In an adjoining gallery was Singaporean Charles Lim’s fascinating All Lines Flow Out. Comprised of a video piece and two er, drainage socks stuffed full of dried leaves and random garbage (below), the composite work well, worked. From the wall text:
All Lines Flow Out features a migrant worker navigating the hidden waterways of Singapore’s underground drainage system. As with many of Charles Lim’s works, water carries personal and symbolic significance. A competitive sailor, Lim sees water as representing movement and flux, and of course it is highly significant to Singapore, an island where the supply of water is a fundamental concern. The city’s drains are unfamiliar and unruly, at odds with its image of cleanliness and order, and lead in unexpected directions. His process reveals an often unseen part of Singapore.
The video in particular was engrossing, especially when the camera tracks slowly down the length of various canals and rivers at the level of the water’s surface (below). The effect is compelling and creepy all at once, providing an alien, bottom-up perspective on the island’s urban landscape, literally capturing a worm’s eye view of everyday terrain most people are otherwise unaccustomed to, while at the same time approximating the POV of the monster, a cinematic device commonly utilized in giant creature movies (think Anaconda or Lake Placid) – the silent stalker in the water oh-so-slowly moving in on its prey … It’s as if the usual tourist boat jaunts from Clarke Quay down into Marina Bay (think the Duck and Hippo) has been substituted with a riverine tour of Singapore by some subaquatic leviathan. The process of defamiliarization was echoed in the two installations nearby, which hung from the ceiling like a couple of supersized beehives, left there by mutant insects as a testament to their existence. To raise again the spectre of the Uncanny – making an appearance on the pages of this blog for the umpteenth time, sorry – it 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. 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 act of repression and return, then, may be located in Lim’s excavation of “often unseen part[s] of Singapore”: the uninhabited waterways, canals and storm drains of our city-state, rendered from a distinctly unsettling perspective, the slowly gliding camera seeming closer to the experience of some form of marine species, rather than the thrashing movements of a human being in the water; the stuffed drainage socks suspended in the middle of a gallery space, an item of utility that most people may be unfamiliar with, and taking on an even more eerie aspect for their mode of display.
All Lines Flow Out (2011), Charles Lim.
All Lines Flow Out (2011), Charles Lim.
A sense of uncanniness also seemed to hover around Michael Lin’s What a Difference a Day Made (below). I don’t get the namechecking of Dinah Washington’s hit, but the piece spoke to me, and in a very powerful way.
What a Difference a Day Made began when the artist purchased the entire contents of a local hardware store. The store is recreated in the exhibition space along with the crates in which the work has been shipped to Singapore. In each of the crates, samples of each type of product are displayed as a makeshift archive of different object categories contained in the store. Finally Lin also asked a performer to juggle each of the various items purchased, suggesting unexpected and playful potential in objects more commonly associated with work and domestic chores.
What’s striking about the Lin’s work are the type of objects on display: the sort of everyday household articles that are either little utilized these days, or tend to be viewed as ‘nostalgic.’ I mean, I saw carpet beaters, chamber pots and scrubbing boards. Chamber pots and scrubbing boards. I’ve never had to use the first, and haven’t seen the second around in a while. The litany of bric-a-brac otherwise consisted in the main of plasticware, crockery with ye olde designs, rusting pans, brooms, metal tools, antique rice cookers, raffia string … the whole set-up looked like something out of the ‘70s, which it probably was before the artist transplanted it hook, line and carpet beater.
The act of recontextualization is key. No longer part of a functional retail operation, the goods and merchandise of yesteryear are here ossified into inaccessible nostalgia, a consumerist spectacle reframed into auratic ‘art’ displays. The dialectical oscillation between the past and the present, reified here in the shape of the nostalgic commodity – or the cultural detritus of a bygone epoch, the now obsolete odds and ends of another age reiterated as reminiscence – calls to mind the glass-covered walkways, or arcades, of 19th-century Paris that Walter Benjamin so suggestively evoked in The Arcades Project. The urban passages that were created when Haussmann razed the medieval city to rebuild one worthy of the Second Empire, arcades that were spaces of leisured consumption for the emergent moneyed classes, where all sorts of luxury goods beckoned from behind glass windows, fascinated Benjamin precisely because they, by the time of his writing in the 1920s, had become mere shadows of their former selves. What had once been “glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors … [housing] the most elegant shops, so that the passage is a city, a world in miniature” (W. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trs. Eiland and McLaughlin [Harvard U. Press, 2002], p. 15) now existed as a world of dusty objects, where “out-of-date advertisements hang on within these interior spaces, and the displayed wares are of no significance, or of many significances” (qtd. in Max Pensky, “Tactics of Remembrance” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, p. 166). The many significances that Benjamin read into the text of these forgotten, occluded objects constituted for him the “dialectical fairy-scene” of capitalism and the 19th century, but here it is his understanding of this realm of commodities as an enchanted historical eloquence that is apropos:
In the flickering light of the arcade, outmoded commodities transform themselves, as if through enchantment. Space-time comprehends both the spatial and temporal juxtapositions that occur when many different, many useless things are jammed together in a small space … things in the old passage begin to wink and mutter, become phantasmagoric in the other sense, not as sensation but as sensing, magically half-endowed with the ability to communicate. (Pensky, pp. 166-7)
The language used to characterize Benjamin’s vision of a world of articulate, communicative materiality – enchantment, phantasmagoric, magical – smacks of the otherworldly. What Benjamin’s fragmentary musings foreground is the intersection of history, memory, commodity, and the phantasmal, or – again – the Uncanny. The idea of objects that speak is of course uncanny on the most visceral level, but, in the case of Lin’s installation, the commodity-as-history exemplifies the Freudian Uncanny to the extent that it embodies a return of the once-familiar, a panoply of otherwise forgotten objects almost seeming, in the silence of an uninhabited gallery space converted from a disused airport, to become enchanted not just in a supernatural sense, like ghosts from the past, literally, but also to take on a new (after)life as aesthetic spectacle. What seemed to drive the point home even more were the video pieces showing a Chinese juggler fooling around with the stuff (see the clip below): the perceived human body, set at one experiential remove from the viewer’s own embodied presence through recording technology – itself a form of ghostliness – renders the immediate reality of Lin’s objects even more preternaturally alive, beginning to “wink and mutter”, nostalgic objects caught in the slippage between the supernatural, the material, and the historical.
What a Difference a Day Made (2008), Michael Lin.
A walkthrough of Lin’s What a Difference a Day Made.
[TO BE CONTINUED IN A LATER POST.]