[Singapore Biennale '11] Shocked by censorship ? In Singapore ?
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The following editorial by Straits Times columnist Ong Sor Fern appeared on Thursday (31 March), two days before notice of the closure of Simon Fujiwara’s Biennale piece, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, appeared in the same section of the paper.
Ong lays out some well-known arguments against the censorship of art by official institutions – a case made more urgent by Singapore’s desire to position itself as an arts hub for the region, as she notes.
Having said that, I do have issues with her article, for reasons which I go into at the end of this post.
Meanwhile, Ong’s piece is reproduced in full below.
SHOCKED BY CENSORS
I was appalled that the Singapore Art Museum had unilaterally amended a work of art. By Ong Sor Fern.
British artist Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munber at the Singapore Art Museum has shocked me.
But it was not the graphic homosexual content which got my attention. By the time I saw the work on Monday, the gay pornographic magazines in the installation had already been removed by the museum. They were taken out after a private preview preview of the show on March 11 and 12.
And it is this action which has appalled me. The museum had done so without first consulting the artist. To me, the move is tantamount to an act of vandalism. To amend a work of art without an artist’s prior knowledge and/or consent is a strict no-no. to draw a parallel, it is akin to putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo’s David.
It is even more shocking that this is done by a museum which is organizing the Singapore Biennale and which is pitching itself as an art institution of repute in the region.
The museum might be concerned that the installation could break the law. As lawyer Samuel Seow pointed out in a Life! report on Monday, under the Undesirable Publications Act, anyone exhibiting “any obscene publication knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the publication to be obscene” can be fined a maximum of $10,000 or sentenced to jail for a maximum of two years, or both.
One might add that this rule applies equally to both straight and gay pornography, so the museum’s action is not so much anti-gay as legally prudent. But the moral morass the museum finds itself in is, to my mind, the result of its bungled handling of the whole episode.
If the work were in breach of the law, then the sensible thing to do would have been to close it and talk to the artist about a possible compromise or even a withdrawal of the piece, explaining in the process that the laws of the land do not permit a display of pornography. The installation takes up one room in a gallery, and closing the exhibit would be a simple matter of cordoning it off.
[N.B. Which the museum actually did, a little before this piece appeared in the press apparently.]
The museum could also, from its position as a home for contemporary art, negotiate with the authorities to make exceptions to the rule. While there have been tussles between artists and censors over what is acceptable in Singapore’s social landscape, artists have won concessions for freedom of expression.
The Singapore International Film Festival, for example, won the hard-fought right to show movies with graphic content by saying the films would be screened to a limited audience who were sophisticated enough to handle the content. And theatre groups here have staged plays dealing with sensitive themes such as gay rights, race relations and politics.
The censors have also conceded that such fare should be accessible to certain audiences. The same principle should be applicable to challenging works of contemporary art. It should be within the purview of the museum as an arts institution and as an arts educator to champion such works and educate both the censors and the public.
For all one knew, the authorities might have been open to the work being shown, with certain limitations to access. There are already two advisories, warning of graphic sexual content, on the walls leading to the exhibit. Parents who do not want their children exposed to such fare can simply skip the exhibit.
The museum could also position a gallery sitter – common practice in museums all over the world – in the installation itself to make sure no one can pick up the pornographic magazines, one of which was displayed on a magazine rack within a visitor’s reach. The other magazines were displayed on a shelf well beyond any curious visitor’s grasp. As an aside, visitors should not be pawing through an exhibit anyway, unless they are specifically invited to interact with the artwork.
By choosing to unilaterally amend a work of art, the Singapore Art Museum damages its own reputation as an arts institution and does harm to its ambition as a curatorial authority. Contemporary artists who create edgy work may now think twice before agreeing to exhibit at the museum, or even at other arts events here. That diminishes not just the museum, but the arts scene here in general.
This is the second time this year that a ruckus has resulted from a contemporary artwork that challenges social mores. As the inaugural international art fair, Art Stage Singapore, in January, Hyderabad artist T. Venkanna caused a stir with his performance piece in which he stripped naked and invited visitors to sit with him for a portrait shot. He sat hidden in a cubicle with a cloth-draped doorway and gallery owner Abhay Maskara was on hand to explain the nature and the concept of the work. still the work attracted press, was yanked from the fair and the artist was questioned by the police.
If Singapore wants to host contemporary art events such as Art Stage and the Biennale, then it had better be prepared to deal with the fallout caused by artists who challenge social norms and unknowingly violate the laws here. Nudity and pornography might seem a big deal today, but I am sure that even edgier works dealing with race and religion will spark an even bigger furore in the future.
Singaporeans here are increasingly curious about contemporary art, as can be seen by the 32,000 visitors who paid $30 a pop to get into Art Stage Singapore.
Granted, the majority of Singaporeans may not care to tell a Botero from a Bencab. But this is where institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum have a vital role to play in nurturing this interest and educating the public. This means also that museums need to refine their processes so that they can handle better any complications that might arise when foreign artists who have no knowledge of local sensitivities present works that violate the laws here.
The museum should lead the way in responding to controversial works with the same care and consideration it extends to the sensibilities of its visitors.
Unfortunately, its actions in this incident only reflect that Singapore is not mature enough to host such art. And that is a loss for all Singaporeans, not just the dedicated artsgoer.
Ok, things I like about this piece:
1. The point about the utterly forseeable consequences of dealing with contemporary art: “If Singapore wants to host contemporary art events such as Art Stage and the Biennale, then it had better be prepared to deal with the fallout …” YES. C’mon folks, even people who don’t exactly keep up with the visual arts scene know that if there’s one thing contemporary art does very well, it’s stirring up controversy, from the mid-century antics of the Neo-Dada school to those of the YBA in more recent years, the culmination of which must surely include Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, which provoked outrage in the U.K. for Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Moors murderer Myra Hindley, and for the resultant withdrawal of public funding for the Brooklyn Museum when it hosted the show in the U.S. On the local end, there was Vince Leow’s public pee-guzzling back in the early ’90s, as well as Josef Ng’s scissor-happy turn …
There’s absolutely no reason why the SAM would not have some sort of plan of action for tackling such issues, much less be caught off-guard when they do arise, which, judging by the way it bungled matters, seems to point to a tragic lack of awareness on its part.
2. Ong’s penultimate observation: “The museum should lead the way in responding to controversial works with the same care and consideration it extends to the sensibilities of its visitors.” Again, a good point, and one that may very easily get lost in the shuffle. Being censored by the censors is one thing, but a museum arrogating to itself the privilege of editing works of art – especially ones they don’t own – is pretty repellent, not to mention legally fraught. The museum’s director is on record as saying that the SAM needs to respect the views of its diverse audience, but what about trying to uphold the rights of the artists it plays host to, or the principle of freedom of expression in general ? Museum goers and children have rights, but artists don’t ? I mean, there didn’t even seem to be much of an attempt made here … Really, for shame.
Now, things I disagree with:
1. The degree of Ong’s reaction, which strikes me as being somewhat disproportionate to the local climate of widespread conformity and censorship – a fact of life that every true blue Singaporean accepts as ineluctable. Yes, she did note that here it was the SAM’s act of self-censorship which rankled, but unfortunately she also expends too much ink retreading old ground – the sanitization of the arts by the local authorities, why that harms rather than helps – for me to take her seriously. I mean, was there much in her argument which even the most casual of arts lovers aren’t already familiar with ? If indeed it was the museum’s actions which made this particular instance of censorship especially egregious, then that should have constituted the main thrust of her article, not all that blather about the ideal role of the museum as an arts institution, the hard fight fought by local artists against the establishment, further instances of how naughty contemporary art can be and why it makes sense for Singapore to go with the flow … Yawn. Get to the point already. She declares it in the first couple of paragraphs, proceeds to ignore it for much of the piece, then resurrects it in the last two lines. And the characterization of her response as “shocked” – unless one’s had their head stuck in the sand for the last four decades or so, how is the act of censorship hereabouts, even self-censorship, even remotely surprising anymore ? Yes, Ms. Ong, we get that you’re a plugged in, liberal, arts-loving soul, so sensitive to the desecration of the artistic voice that you’re “appalled” by a single instance of expurgation, but, to borrow an expression from Gayatri Spivak, that position has become a “meaningless piety” so far as Singapore is concerned. Yes, censorship sucks .. and we all know that. How about something a little less platitudinous next time ?
I know I sound snarky, but Ong’s tone was really exasperating. I was having lunch with an ex once, in an Indian restaurant – this was in New Jersey – and apparently some woman spotted a roach, screamed, raised a stink, and then left hurriedly with her family. It wasn’t so much the reaction, but the way it was played out – not unlike a hammy, sub-par performance in a low-rated daytime soap. In other words, affected, and it definitely showed.
The incident kept coming back as I was reading Ong’s article. ‘Nuff said.
2. Her suggestion for a compromise: “If the work were in breach of the law, then the sensible thing to do would have been to close it and talk to the artist about a possible compromise or even a withdrawal of the piece, explaining in the process that the laws of the land do not permit a display of pornography.” HOW DULL DOES THAT SOUND ?! This is contemporary art, babe ! Nobody wants to do the “sensible” thing … I say Fujiwara should just run with it, make lemonade out of lemons: leave the work in its bowdlerized form, put up signs saying what’s missing and how and why and by whom, and see what alignments of meaning, power and plurality arise out of this new configuration.
But that’s just me.