[Singapore Biennale '11] Whither aesthetics ?
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
That’s the million-dollar question – literally, considering the obscene amounts that art goes for these days on the auction block …
Straits Times writer Stephanie Yap, whose initials may not be entirely unfamiliar to sharp-eyed readers of this blog, has a piece in today’s Life! considering the debate.
That particular discussion came out of an evening of post-Biennale beers at The Cider Pit, and, boy, was it a hard-fought battle for all involved ! While it shouldn’t come as any surprise which side of the lines I have my tent pretty firmly pitched on, I think Steph’s opinions deserve to be taken seriously – if only because she is hardly the only person who feels that way, the sentiments of a large number of practicing artists and certain art critics these days constituting an informal backlash of sorts against the theoretification of the art world and the sidelining of aesthetic affect.
The glut of literature dealing with the topic is copious and, in many cases, incomprehensible – though W. J. T. Mitchell‘s writings are a good place to start for a lucid introduction. However, for a caustic, deliberately provocative, infuriating war-cry on behalf of beauty in the visual arts, nothing beats Dave Hickey’s slim volume of essays, The Invisible Dragon.
A preview of Hickey is available on Google Books.
FINDING THE ART AMONG THE JUNK
Visual art should be attractive and engaging or risk getting cast aside as a piece of garbage. By Stephanie Yap.
On a recent weekend, I visited the Old Kallang Airport, one of the four sites of the ongoing Singapore Biennale 2011. As in the case of most trips to art exhibitions or the museum, I liked some of the artworks and disliked others.
This time though, my reaction was more heavily weighted towards the latter than it usually is. This is not a condemnation of the artists, curators and other personnel involved in staging the biennale: I’m the first to admit that I have a very uncompromising, even narrow-minded attitude towards visual art that does not lend itself well to many exhibitions of contemporary art.
You see, I have come up with a personal litmus test as to whether something is a work of art or not: If you saw it in a garbage dump, would you go, “Oh no, there’s a work of art in the garbage dump!” or would you pass it by, not even noticing that the so-called artwork is out of place?
In his 1967 book The Medium Is The Message, Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote: “Art is anything you can get away with.” [Too, too true …]
An early practitioner of this philosophy was French artist Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 acquired an ordinary porcelain urinal, gave it the title “Fountain”, and signed it “R. Mutt”. (Interestingly, while replicas of “Fountain” are on display at various museums worldwide, the original is lost, believed to have been thrown away. Obviously, no one thought of saving it from the rubbish dump.)
The idea behind Fountain takes the subjectivity of value to the extreme: If one treats an object as art, it then becomes art.
This is an idea I feel, in more ways than one, is full of crap. Yes, it is liberating to embrace a wide definition of art rather than sticking to specific mediums or traditions. But if anything can be art, then the term itself becomes so nebulous that it loses all definition and becomes meaningless. And that’s even before you start appending adjectives like “good”, “bad”, or “complex”.
It is understandable in this high-tech age, where cameras can capture reality more easily and accurately than any paintbrush or chisel, artists might want to avoid being made redundant by eschewing craftsmanship in favour of context, representation in favour of abstraction, accompanied by chunks of wall text explaining what they were trying to achieve in the first place.
Often, the intent described in the text is so exciting, brimming with artistic manifestos and claims to significance, that the actual execution inescapably feels rather underwhelming in contrast – indeed, the artist might have been better off not making the work and just publishing the description, letting readers’ imaginations do a better job than he ever could and saving money, space and the environment in the bargain.
So, which works did I dislike at Old Kallang Airport? The last work I saw before closing time was Imminent Departure by American artist Lisi Raskin, a site-specific work that takes material from the crumbling airport and puts them together to create a new, rather haphazard space, complete with garish colours. According to her bio on the biennale website, Raskin “creates stage-like installations that play on fears engendered by the threat of war”.
Perhaps because I am a sheltered Singaporean, the threat of war has failed to engender any fears in myself for her installation to play on. I must agree with the “stage-like” aspect though – the installation did look like a set for a B-grade science-fiction movie set in a dystopian future with 1970s aesthetic sensibilities. But if I wanted to see such a set, I would be better off watching a B-grade science-fiction movie, which might at least raise questions about the meaning of life, the nature of humanity or feature aliens.
Compare this with Singaporean artist Michael Lee’s Office Orchitect installation, which introduces the viewer to a fictitious 20th-century architect called K. S. Wong, complete with a timeline charting his influences and cardboard models of his unbuilt designs. The architectural models are exquisitely rendered and gorgeously surreal. It also helped that I was caught up in the narrative of this brilliant man whose genius went unrewarded during his lifetime.
Call me old-fashioned, but I do think that visual art should look, if not necessarily attractive, then at least engaging, its physical form being its prime mode of communication with the viewer.
Otherwise, to the rubbish dump it should go – and stay.
Oh, P.S. My response to Steph’s rubbish-dump test can be found here.