Archive for May 2011
Image from My Community Loop.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? – us artsy types getting together as a community.
I was exchanging e-mails with PM, who runs the lovely Notabilia site, when it hit me. The local food bloggers are a tight bunch, meeting up on a semi-regular basis to exchange gossip, ideas, recipes and restaurant reviews – which really seems to work for them. What’s stopping us arts bloggers from doing the same?
Methinks its high time we had a community to call our own.
In that vein, if any you arts bloggers out there reading this are keen to perhaps get together sometime for a drink and a yak session, feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or just leave a comment on this post.
Artistic director of this year’s Singapore Biennale, Matthew Ngui, recently wrote in to the press. Included in his letter was this claim: “Fourty-four per cent of the artists in this year’s biennale were from Asia, of these artists, 74 per cent were South-east Asian.” (Read it here.)
Unlike, say, the Venice Biennale, which features so-called national pavilions, the Singapore version is a themed show – by which I mean that, in the latter case, the nationality of participating artists isn’t fixed. Which of course may give rise to questions of scope and focus, like the extent of local and/or Southeast Asian representation, for instance.
I took a cue from the feminist collective, the Guerrilla Girls, who famously pointed out the skewed numbers in the Metropolitan Museum: even though less than 5% of the artists were female, over 85% of the nude artworks were of females.
And how did they know this ?
They walked in, and counted.
So I decided to start counting too.
And below are the results regarding the nationality of the artists represented in the Singapore Biennale this year. Some notes on methodology: Nationality is necessarily a far more fluid concept that gender – which made for some head-scratching moments – and where there is some overlap, I’ve noted a hyphenated identity for the individual concerned, e.g. Michael Lin, who apparently is Taiwanese-born, but grew up in Japan, or Tiffany Chung, who was born in Vietnam but moved away to the U.S. as a child. Also, quite a few artists on this list were born in one country, but are based in another. Chung, for instance, has returned to Vietnam, and is now based in Saigon; Polish-born Gosia Wlodarczak lives and works in Melbourne; Candice Breitz is South African by birth but calls Berlin home these days. And then there’s the thorny issue of the connection between environment and work: does an artist who works out of say, China, or is Chinese-born, necessarily produce work which reflects Chinese concerns? How far is geography a determinative category when it comes to art? In any case though, the effects of globalization is something I’ve had to ignore here, for the sake of clarity. Artists are listed by their country of birth.
Collectives, such as the Indonesian Ruangrupa, or the Danish group Superflex, count as one. (I assumed that the core members of those groups are mostly Indonesian and Danish, respectively. Again, hardly ideal, I know, but I don’t have all the time in the world.) The Propeller Group, on the other hand, proved slightly more complex: apparently their membership consists of Americans and Vietnamese individuals, so I’ve had to count it as two – it appears twice, under Vietnam and the U.S.
Finally, collaboratives, of which there are two, did NOT count as one entry – unlike collectives. Husband-and-wife team, Shao Yinong and Mu Chen, were counted as two individuals, though helped by the fact that both were Chinese. Couple Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset – though they produce work together as Elmgreen & Dragset – were likewise listed under Denmark (Elmgreen) and Norway (Dragset).
Results are broken down by both country and region. There’s also a separate list for female artists.
Feel free to verify this list against the information on the Singapore Biennale’s official site.
SOUTHEAST ASIA (20)
Cambodia (1): Sopheap Pich
Indonesia (1): Ruangrupa (collective)
Malaysia (2): Roslisham Ismail, Shooshie Sulaiman
Philippines (2): Louie Cordero, Mark Salvatus
Singapore (9): Song-Ming Ang, Genevieve Chua, Koh Nguang How, Michael Lim, Charles Lee, John Low, Tan Pin Pin, Ming Wong, Zai Kuning
Thailand (2): Navin Rawanchaikul, Arin Rungjang
Vietnam (3): Tiffany Chung (Vietnam-US), The Propeller Group (collective with Vietnamese members; Vietnam-U.S.), Danh Vo
EAST & SOUTH ASIA (8)
China (2): Shao Yinong & Mu Chen (work collaboratively)
India (2): Gigi Scaria, Sheela Gowda
Japan (2): Teppei Kaneuji, Tatzu Nishi
South Korea (1): Kyungah Ham
Taiwan (1): Michael Lin (Japan-Taiwan)
AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND (4)
Australia (3): Robert Macpherson, Tracey Moffatt, Stuart Ringholt
NZ (1): Dane Mitchell
Bulgaria (1): Nedko Solakov
Denmark (2): Superflex (collective), Elmgreen & Dragset (Elmgreen)
France (1): Liisa Roberts
Germany (3): Michael Buetler, Julian Gothe, Leopold Kessler
Norway (1): Elmgreen & Dragset (Dragset)
Poland (1): Gosia Wlodarczak
Portugal (1): Leonor Antunes
Spain (2): Marcos Corrales, Ruben Ramos Balsa
Switzerland (1): Beat Streuli
U.K. (6): Phil Collins, Martin Creed, Ceal Floyer (Pakistan-U.K.), Simon Fujiwara, Mike Nelson, Charles Sandison
MIDDLE EAST (3)
Iran (1): Tala Madani
Israel (1): Omer Fast
Turkey (1): Gulsun Karamustafa
South Africa (1): Candice Breitz
NORTH AMERICA (10)
Mexico (1): Rafael Lozano-Hammer
U.S.A. (9): Charles LaBelle, Jill Magid, Matt Mullican, The Propeller Group (collective with Vietnamese members; Vietnam-U.S.), Lisi Raskin, Martha Rosler, Taryn Simon, Ryan Trecartin, Charlie White
TOTAL: 65 (The Propeller Group was counted twice.)
Number of female artists: 20. Genevieve Chua (Singapore), Tiffany Chung (Vietnam-US), Ruangrupa (Indonesia), Shooshie Sulaiman (Malaysia), Tan Pin Pin (Singapore), Sheela Gowda (India), Kyungah Ham (S. Korea), Mu Chen (China), Tracey Moffatt (Australia), Leonor Antunes (Portugal), Ceal Floyer (Pakistan-U.K.), Liisa Roberts (France), Gosia Wlodarczak (Poland), Gulsun Karamustafa (Turkey), Tala Madani (Iran), Candice Breitz (S. Africa), Jill Magid (U.S.), Lisi Raskin (U.S.), Martha Rosler (U.S.), Taryn Simon (U.S.)
Country with highest number of participating artists: Singapore (9) and the U.S.A. (9).
Region with highest number of participating artists: Southeast Asia (20), followed closely by Europe (19).
Interesting fact: The English-speaking world – of which I consider Singapore to be a part – was overwhelmingly represented. Artists from the U.S. (9), Singapore (9), the U.K. (6), and Australia and New Zealand and South Africa (5) made up some 29 in total, or 44.6%.
Regions/countries unrepresented: South America (or just anything south of Mexico – this is really eyebrow-raising); Russia; the Caribbean; Central Asia; almost all of Africa (white South African Candice Breitz being the continent’s sole representative).
This year’s biennale has been one controversy after another almost from the word go, and Matthew Ngui, artistic director, has at long last seen fit to speak his mind.
He wrote in to The Straits Times to clarify his stand on certain matters, which published his letter in the Life! section today (28 May).
YES TO GLOBAL ART
I would like to respond to two issues brought up in the article “Biennale A Big Hit” (Life!, May 17) by Deepika Shetty.
The first relates to the choice of the Old Kallang Airport site as a venue for Singapore Biennale 2011 Open House.
The use of old buildings or sites-in-transition as exhibition spaces for contemporary art is a short but distinctive tradition of the Singapore Biennale: Tanglin Camp in 2006, South Beach Camp and the Central Promontory Site in 2008, and City Hall in both years. This not only allows for unique and innovative installations that respond to the site, but also invites Singaporeans to experience sites often closed to them and, in many cases, about to be changed.
The selection of these sites is based on a number of considerations, including the size of its spaces, state of the building, safety and the convenience and comfort of its visitors. We consciously try to have spaces in or as close to the city as possible, and to provide air-conditioning and other facilities. But cost is a major factor and it is not always possible to provide pristine conditions.
Yet these spaces offer artists and curators the freedom to work with unique and evocative sites, and for audiences to encounter contemporary art is new and exciting ways.
The second issue concerns the curatorial direction of the Singapore Biennale: Should it remain international or should it narrow its focus to show only Asian or South-east Asian contemporary art?
Throughout the world, contemporary art biennales are usually international in nature. They offer local audiences the chance to experience contemporary art from around the world. When international and local artists and curators meet, networks are strengthened and new exhibition opportunities are created.
The Singapore Biennale is widely respected. In its short history, it has become known for being “international with an Asian focus”. Fourty-four per cent of the artists in this year’s biennale were from Asia, of these artists, 74 per cent were South-east Asian.
Most of the South-east Asian artists were commissioned to make major new works – enabling ambitious projects and a platform to show alongside international peers, and providing new contexts for their work.
Artists from outside the region also relish the rare chance to come to Singapore and engage with the city and its culture, and to see their work in a new environment. It would be a great loss to deny this opportunity in the future to artists and curators who do not fit a particular regional profile.
The Singapore Biennale is the only recurring, government-funded, contemporary art exhibition in Singapore that is not defined geographically. The Singapore Art Museum (SAM) already has a mandate and core programme focusing on South-east Asian contemporary art, and holds the world’s most extensive public collection in this area. A large-scale South-east Asian exhibition titled Negotiating Home, History And Nation was shown at SAM concurrently with the biennale. During the first biennale in 2006, SAM presented Telah Terbit, a major survey of South-east Asian art from the 1970s and 1980s.
If SAM is already offering such an important and extensive focus on South-east Asian art, should the biennale or any other body funded by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, have a similar focus?
The Singapore Biennale should maintain its tradition of producing extraordinary international exhibitions every two years or so in Singapore with new curators, local and international, at its helm. This complements the South-east Asian focus of our local institutions and ensures that Singaporeans can experience regular, fresh exhibitions of contemporary art from across the globe.
My curators and I feel that narrowing this focus would not strengthen the art scene in Singapore and the region, but would diminish it by removing a rare and valuable platform for participation on the international stage.
Singapore has built its success on being a global city with an expansive outlook and it deserves the opportunity to see its art as part of the wider world.
Artistic director, Singapore Biennale 2011
A couple of quick thoughts: First of all, it seems a little strange that Ngui is responding only at this juncture, two weeks after the wrap of the Biennale. He states clearly that his letter was written in response to Deepika Shetty’s article of May 17 (read it here), but public concerns over the inaccessibility of the Old Kallang Airport site and the artists represented in the show only made up a portion of that story. If anything, the writer’s main angle was the unbelievably optimistic visitorship numbers reported by the SAM – a point which Ngui chose to ignore altogether. In fact, Shetty’s piece was followed up by a longer article by Adeline Chia two days ago, which openly challenged those numbers. Ngui, however, apparently decided instead to make his reply to two lesser points – raised in a piece published more than ten days back. Why ?
Secondly, questions about the choice of some of the artworks – most notably, about the large number of video works that were featured in this year’s biennale – were actually discussed in an even earlier ST article, also by Shetty, published on 21 April. That’s some five weeks ago. Sure, SAM’s director, Tan Boon Hui, did respond to that piece, but preferred to skip over issues about the choice of artworks altogether in his reply. Why didn’t Ngui speak up then ? It seems like he decided to wait it out, and is even now only just tackling the topic of the geographical scope represented by the biennale and its artists – rather than questions of the artistic merit of some of the inclusions, which are no less valid. I’m not saying that I agree with popular sentiment in this matter – I don’t – but the event is after all paid for by tax dollars, and its organisers should remain responsive to public concerns.
So far Ngui and Tan have only responded to a select few issues raised in the press – based on personal preference, one is forced to assume. These guys, along with Storer and Smith, were responsible for making curatorial decisions, so how about stepping forward to own those decisions ?
Recently spotted on Buzzfeed, courtesy of user Mathieu S. – a bunch of polaroids snapped by actress Sean Young on the set of the 1982 hit, Blade Runner.
The ones of her and co-stars Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer are especially winsome I think.
This was Young at the peak of her Hollywood hawtness. Boy, was she gorgeous … svelte, radiant, an absolutely commanding presence in front of the camera. By the ’90s though, her career as an A-lister was all but over, dogged by widespread rumours of erratic, attention-seeking behaviour and, of course, the notorious James Woods affair. (An EW interview with Young from a couple of years back recaps a lot of that ignominious history.)
More recently, the actress was back in the headlines for yet another embarrassing public outburst: during the DGA (Directors’ Guild of America) Awards in 2008, an apparently intoxicated Young heckled director Julian Schnabel, who was up on stage to acknowledge his nomination for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, yelling at the man to “Get to it !” Schnabel didn’t take it too well: after telling whoever it was to “have another cocktail”, he left the podium without giving his intended speech, or making the remarks that he clearly wanted to. (Watch a clip of his reaction.)
The end result of all this was voluntary admission to a rehab program on her part.
But its nice to remember Young in her heyday … which these snaps are a wonderful, candid testament to.
Hmmm. It seems as if controversy is stalking this year’s Singapore Biennale every turn of the way. Some two weeks after the event ended, questions about its dubious visitorship claims are still being floated in the media.
The following article, which appeared in The Straits Times today (26 May), builds on an earlier piece.
The difference ? The skepticism is now full-blown and undisguised.
Good for ‘em.
MEASURING THE BIENNALE
The art show drew more than 900,000 visitors, but the bulk of them viewed two free exhibits. So is it considered a success? By Adeline Chia.
Hollywood blockbusters are not the only ones in the business of chasing eyeballs. Arts programming is also pulling out all the stops to boost audienceship.
Take the recently concluded Singapore Biennale, which drew a record number of more than 900,000 visitors during the two-month run of the contemporary art show. This tops the 502,200 visitors that the second edition drew in 2008, and exceeds the inaugural edition’s 883,300 visitors.
On paper, this year’s Biennale should be considered a roaring success. But a closer look at the visitorship figure reveals that nearly 700,000 of the 900,000 visitors were “outdoor” visitors.
This means they went to Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich’s installation in the National Museum’s Rotunda, and to the Merlion Hotel installation at Marina Bay by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi, but did not enter it.
These works were free exhibits and were installed in public spaces where there was heavy pedestrian traffic. They comprised only two out of the 161 artworks shown throughout the visual arts event.
In contrast, the number of people who went to the Biennale venues of the Singapore Art Museum, (SAM), National Museum of Singapore, Old Kallang Airport and inside the Merlion Hotel was about 196,000.
The Singapore Art Museum, which organised the event, declined to reveal the number of tickets sold.
To put the 900,000 figure in context, it exceeds the 743,647 visitors that went to the Singapore Art Museum for the whole of 2009.
It also beats the visitorship to the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious art show in the West, which drew 375,000 during its six-month run in 2009.
Going by the Singapore Biennale figure, about 700,000 people would have visited the outside of the Merlion Hotel or the National Museum’s Rotunda, making both places extremely busy and vibrant arts venues, with an average of about 11,700 visitors a day.
How did the Biennale organisers arrive at such a high visitorship number? The Singapore Art Museum says people who made “clear and deliberate eye contact” at the Merlion Hotel are counted. These included people who stopped to take pictures or to read the artwork description.
The counting was done manually by staff or volunteers who were station every day in the open space outside the hotel over one month. The figure was then used to estimate the outdoor visitorship for the exhibition period of two months.
At the National Museum’s Rotunda, visitorship was tracked by a computerised People Counting And Tracking System, a special sensor that is sued by major museums around the world.
But should the Biennale relook its method of estimating visitorship figures?
After all, what is the difference between an arts “visitor” and a passer-by who happens to glance in the direction of an artwork? This distinction is especially important when artworks are placed in busy public places.
In response to queries that the visitorship number seems inflated, a Singapore Art Museum spokesman says: “The overall figures are certainly not inflated. This can be attributed to the increased public outreach and community efforts by SAM.”
For example, it worked with grassroots organisations, which provided free bus rides to visitors, and with schools, which organised student trips.
The Biennale organisers also integrated its programming with existing shows at the museums to attract more visitors.
The spokesman said outdoor visitor figures act as a gauge of the public’s exposure to the event.
But the visitorship number also begs the question: How fair is it to use visitorship figures to assess the success of an arts event?
Clearly, numbers cannot tell the full story. They say nothing about the quality of the artworks or the subjective experiences of visitors.
No doubt, figures are important because they help to measure the reach and impact of an event.
Arts Nominated MP Audrey Wong, who used to be artistic director at the Substation arts venue, syas that while attendance figures may be a limited part of the story, they are a significant part.
She says: “If your attendance is 40 per cent, that’s not good. In the end, artists want an audience. They want to communicate to people.”
Attendance is especially important because many arts programmes are funded by public money and such spending has to be accounted for. No one wants to pay for a festival that nobody is watching.
If an event is doing consistently badly at the box office, funding for it may be cut. The result may well be a smaller Singapore Arts Festival or Biennale in future. Or the direction of a festival may be changed to take on a more populist slant, to attract more visitors.
Even if an event is privately sponsored, sponsors would want bang for their buck.
Take the Singapore M1 Fringe Festival, which is supported by the telco company. The arts festival, which typically runs in January and features emerging artists, is organised by The Necessary Stage.
Ms Melissa Lim, the theatre company’s general manager, says “attendance and ticket sales will always be important to our sponsors because they represent the market outreach for their sponsorship dollars.”
But even if numbers are the easiest and most direct way to measure the impact of an event, an over-reliance on figures may start a meaningless numbers game.
In a bid to justify funding, arts managers may need to top each year’s performance with even higher attendance numbers to satisfy their bean-counting paymasters.
As the Singapore Arts Festival general manager Low Kee Hong puts it, it is a “vicious circle”.
“If you’re busy chasing numbers, you’re stuck in a rut,” he adds.
He should know. After he took over the running of the annual festival in 2009, the attendance figures for the arts festival released by the National Arts Council fell drastically compared to previous years.
Last year, the council said 80,800 people attended the Singapore Arts Festival. It is a far cry from 2009’s 800,000 and 2008’s 600,000.
This was because the festival stopped counting complimentary tickets given out and also took care to exclude passers-by when a free event was taking place outdoors. Instead, the organisers counted people who registered their names or took a goodie bag.
The resultant figure, Mr Low says, is a more meaningful one.
He says attendance figures tell only “10 to 20 per cent of the full story of the festival’s impact”.
“It is not a qualitative understanding. You don’t gain any insights as to what is going on in people’s heads, how they are processing the festival,” he says.
He is looking to “softer” measurements such as feedback forms, post-festival focus group studies and what people share with him informally.
Are these measurements enough to satisfy the bureaucrats who need to meet performance targets and who want hard figures? Mr Low says he sees “the beginnings of change”.
He adds: “We need to understand it’s more than just numbers. As civil servants, we need to grow and mature in the way we measure success.
“If internally, people don’t see the value of the things I do, then there is no way I can say 80,000 people attended the first edition, right?”
The Necessary Stage’s Ms Lim says counting is “more of an art than a science”.
It is especially difficult for outdoor performances and artworks. For example, in the Esplanade Tunnel, where the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival has art exhibitions, a volunteer is stationed there for a day to count the number of people looking at the artwork. The number is then multiplied by the number of days that the festival lasts.
It is not a scientific method, but these ar eth realisties of such calculations, Ms Lim says.
The Hong Kong Arts Festival has a simple solution: It counts only what is directly quantifiable, such as the number of tickets sold and the number of underprivileged children sponsored to go to a performance.
Over at the Sydney Festival, the largest arts festival in Australia, it measures attendance figures, both ticketed and unticketed, as well as the revenue generated by the festival.
For non-ticketed attendance, it relies on an external government agency that makes estimates by observing how many times a public space, whose capacity is known, is filled over the course of an evening.
This year, the festival also commissioned an external body which estimated that the event contributed around A$50.2 million (S$66 million) to the New South Wales economy.
This is calculated from visitor expenditure and the demand for goods and services in other industries, such as restaurants, hotels and shops.
That is another way of measurement, but as Ms Wong points out, “the emphasis may switch back to economics to justify spending on the arts”.
The more important question, she thinks, is measuring the quality of the visitor’s experience.
“In evaluating the arts in Singapore, we haven’t come up with a proper method of qualitative analysis,” she says, adding that the problem is faced by many other arts councils in the world.
But a fuller picture can emerge from using a variety of measures, she says, such as by counting, one-by-one interviews with attendees, focus group studies and, for big events, measuring the economic impact.
As the Singapore Arts Festival’s Mr Low says: “It’s clear that you cannot depend on absolute numbers alone. I’m not saying abandon the numbers, but beef up the other aspects as well.”
Image of the day: Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank’s London Street (1951), currently in the collection of the V & A.
The brief write-up on the museum’s site notes that
In this foggy London street scene Frank aligns a number of seemingly unrelated elements into a coherent picture. On the left a running child is reflected in the wet pavement, while in the foreground the open door of a hearse frames the grainy form of a rubbish collector. The solid black bulk of the vehicle is set off by the soft greys of the houses, fading almost to white in the distance.
Its kinda odd to think that a warehouse space in Tanjong Pagar Distripark – a cargo storage and shipment complex next to the Keppel docks – is now playing host to limited edition Warhols and multi-million-dollar pieces by Pollock, Hirst and Jasper Johns.
But, thanks to blue chip art dealer Ikkan Sanada, that’s the delightful reality.
Sanada recently relocated the base of Ikkan Art International from NYC to Singapore (read about it here); he joins a growing number of art spaces sprouting up in the Keppel warehouse neighbourhood, which include Valentine Willie, Fortune Cookie Projects and L2 Space. Are we seeing our own meatpacking district in the making ? – albeit with storage depots instead of disused slaughterhouses, industrial containers and cranes taking the place of transgender prostitutes and cobblestoned streets. In any case, the new kid on the block represents the arrival of an international player on the local visual arts scene, which can only be good news.
Sanada’s inaugural show is titled Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol. As the name-dropping suggests, the exhibition features work from a range of 20th century luminaries, both Western and Asian: Warhol, Ai, Matisse, Pollock, Hirst, Johns, Richter, Oldenburg, Stella, Tracy Emin, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Yasumasa Morimura, among others. Johns, in particular, is represented here by a series of original prints produced in the last two decades, including a number apparently never before shown. Those prints, however, were the least interesting things I saw – if only because I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. Johns made his name back in the ‘50s with his richly textured, vividly coloured encaustic canvases that called into question the iconicity of common images, like the American flag; these recent pieces seem to indicate a 180-degree turn in sensibility, being most black-and-white or thinly tinted intaglio prints of indecipherable patterns, silhouettes and abstractions. Johns’ work seems to have made a detour into the personal, which I think is the only – if overly convenient – way of accounting for some of these pictures, and titles like Shrinky Dink (below).
In other news, the show itself came across as something of a hodgepodge of the greatest postwar hits. It is called Surfaces of Everyday Life, but that thematic framework really encompasses two different theoretical concerns: materiality (surfaces), and the everyday. While those ideas have been brought to bear on each other – in very interesting ways – by certain academics and thinkers*, they are still necessarily separate concepts. And at times it seemed like the pieces in the exhibition either fell into one category or the other, only rarely demonstrating discernable links to both. Admittedly, though, Sanada has been pretty candid about the rationale, or lack of one, behind some of these inclusions – “I am not pretending to be a museum curator. The works you see in this exhibition are a reflection of my personal taste” – so perhaps the connective tissue there, between the notion of materiality and the prosaic, was supplied by his own predilections. Charles Merewhether of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, though, provides a different take. In a brief but incisive essay for the exhibition, he explicitly adduces mass production and consumerism as the glue between the everyday and the material: “Critical to the transformation of the “everyday” was the process of modernization, most notably industrialization and mass production. … What emerges from this period is a number of artistic practices that critically engage the ethos of consumerism within the development of industrial modernization—practices seeking not just to understand the logic of consumerism, but to harness and appropriate the energies of consumerism … Materiality was of primary importance ……” (Read excerpts here.)
* See for instance, Bill Brown’s Thing Theory (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 [Autumn, 2001], pp. 1-22).
All that, however, doesn’t explain the presence of works like Frank Stella’s Cinema de Pepsi (below), which is comprised of two squares divided up into geometrical bands of varying shades and hues. This canvas is quintessential Stella: blandly, calmly non-pictorial, denying even the painterly gestures of abstract expressionists like Pollock, Rauschenberg and Johns, and insisting on the primacy of the flat canvas surface and the materiality of the art object. Speaking of his own praxis, he declared that “Its posture is not romantic. Its method is not improvisational. It’s a more classical, more controlled art, that in a certain sense reacted against the “action” conception of abstract expressionism, and against what by the late 50s had come to be a great deal of very bad painting made in abstract expressionism’s name.” (Quote here.) While the alternating strips of colour in Cinema seem to suggest some kind of movement – a sort of optical illusion of advance and recession – I guess the point here would be that, up close, the appearance of hard-edge painting gives way to fine textural nuance; the seemingly defined lines begin to betray tendrils of paint seepage and other surface irregularities.
Which explains “surface”, but not “everyday life”. (Its hard to imagine anything less evocative of the ordinary than Stella’s abstract, meticulously calculated canvases.) What does, however, are, say, Claes Oldenburg’s oversized food objects, or Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds or block of tea, or Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans – all featured in the show. Oldenburg’s Leaning Fork With Meatball and Spaghetti II, in particular (below), produced in collaboration with wife Coosje van Bruggen, was definitely one of the more eye-catching pieces. In a well-known statement of 1961, the artist remarked: “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top … I am for the art of neck-hair and caked teacups, for the art between the tines of restaurant forks, for the odor of boiling dishwater … I am for the art of rust and mold. I am for the art of hearts, funeral hearts or sweetheart hearts, full of nougat. I am for the art of worn meathooks and singing barrels of red, white, blue and yellow meat.”*
In other words, an art of the mundane and the everyday. Duchamp and his Readymades were an acknowledged influence: Oldenburg recalls seeing Duchamp’s work at the latter’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum – and coincidentally, a signed copy of a poster for that now legendary show is on display here (below). As art historian Benjamin Buchloh remarks, Oldenburg was “the first sculptor after Duchamp who uses a kind of iconography that is completely alien to all preceding sculpture, which is the industrially produced, ready-made object.”** The avant-garde Dadaist project, formulated as an overt critique of the separation of art from the praxis of life within bourgeois society, by which the autonomy of the institution of art is understood as a corollary of the rise of the leisured classes and the ensuing social divide,*** finds a re-articulation in Oldenburg’s hands. His oversized foodstuffs, in particular, represent an attempt to recuperate our experience of the familiar, the prosaic, which become embedded in the routine of daily life as so much background noise. These humble things – the things we eat every day – exist for the most part below the threshold of sustained attention and memory because they function as conveniences, their constant repetition and easy availability within the circuits of modern consumer culture serving to mask their ubiquity, to lull and dull us into “social forgetfulness and thereby constitute the sphere of hidden historical otherness.”****
* See Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995).
** See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Three Conversations in 1985: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris”, October 70 (Fall 1994).
*** Peter Bürger discusses this idea at length in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). See the section, “On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society.”
**** C. Nadia Serematakis, ed., The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994).
A Poster Within A Poster (1963), Marcel Duchamp. “Poster for Duchamp’s Retrospective exhibition held at the Pasadena Art Museum, October 8 to November 3, 1963, signed and dedicated by the artist. Edition of 300, only 10 of them were signed by the artist.” (from the wall label)
As subjects of artistic intentionality, Oldenburg’s food objects imply participation in the long, if historically unremarked, genre of the still-life, a tradition that reaches back into antiquity. The category of painting the Romans referred to as xenia stands at the hoary head of a genealogy that is defined largely by its exclusion of the human form, according to Norman Bryson, a denial of the visual dimension of the animate that at the same time “expels the values which human presence imposes on the world.”* While this statement belies the peculiarity of Oldenburg’s anthropomorphized objects – and, indeed, a feature of his modus operandi – Bryson’s distinction between megalography and rhopography presents one of the chief cruces on which turn Oldenburg’s strategies of interruption, dislocation, defamiliarization. Megalography is the stuff of history painting and portraiture, which deal with the grand themes of mythology, religion, literature and history, allegories of the great and good, as well as the invocation of the lives and likenesses of celebrated men and women. Rhopography, stemming from the Greek rhopos (trifling things, or small, inconsequential goods), portrays that which the prescriptions of the class of momentous events and illustrious personages programmatically omit from their range of subject matter: the undramatic material base of life taken for granted in an age of plenty today, a substratum of habitual, habit-forming objects which define the contours of “hidden historical otherness.”
In his appropriation of the trope of rhopos, Oldenburg displays a preference not just for an iconography of the edible, but also for a particular type of fare. A quick survey of objects from his 60s period discloses the predominance of the sort of foods that have come to symbolize a twentieth-century America of the diner, the deli, the fast-food restaurant: burgers, sandwiches, cakes, pies, ice-cream, baked potatoes, breads, and roasts – as choice of meatball and spaghetti, for one, seems to suggest. Despite the claim that his choice of subject is “only an accident, an accident of my surroundings, my landscape, of the objects which in my daily coming and going my consciousness attaches itself to”, Oldenburg’s art, in its foregrounding of gastronomic (all-)Americana, clearly reflects an exclusion of other types of cuisine, perhaps the kind of food that he may have been accustomed to growing up in a privileged Swedish-American household in the 1930s and 40s (his father first served as Swedish Consul in Chicago and, later, as Consul General). More than simply being determined by considerations of cost, taste and custom, however, what people eat is very much an indication of their values. The introduction of the technologies of food preservation and processing radically altered the American diet in the mid-twentieth century, freeing up a whole generation of women for the workforce and shifting the main site of food preparation and consumption from the domestic kitchen to the cheap eating establishment and food retail outlet – originating, ultimately, in the processing line – with their quick, affordable, labour-saving meals, a medley of the “bleached, dyed, sulphured, refined, synthetic, dehydrated, adulterated, and emulsified”**, a celebration of everyday realities that continue to shape our dietary habits and lives.
* See Bryson’s perceptive, valuable study, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990).
** Linda Weintraub, ed., Art What Thou Eat: Images of Food in American Art (Mount Kisco, New York: Moyer Bell Ltd., 1991). Her Foreword contains a brief history of American gastronomic practices.
Donald Judd – a personal favourite – was represented in Surfaces by a stainless steel piece (above), a horizontal bar hung on the wall, and marked along its length by spherical protrusions set apart at gradated intervals. Classic Judd. The piece, like Oldenburg’s Meatball and Spaghetti, sits comfortably at the intersection between concerns with materiality and the everyday – though the artist himself might have begged to differ. Judd was famous, or notorious, for his theoretical pronouncements on his own work, insisting on the abstract, non-associative autonomy of his ‘specific objects’, their essential resistance to any sort of gesture towards a reality external to their particular forms. However, a number of critics, most notably Rosalind Krauss, disagreed. She openly refuted his claim of hermeticism in her well-known essay, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd” (Artforum, vol. 4, no. 9 [May, 1966]). Judd’s sensuously tangible and seductively engaging objects were, for Krauss, the epitome of “the inadequacy of the theoretical line, its failure to measure up (at least in Judd’s case) to the power of the sculptural statement.” His artworks were “insistently meaningful” to her, and that meaning was generated through an embodied experience – meaning denied by a solely optical involvement from a single (frontal) perspective. Krauss saw Judd’s work as “objects of perception, objects that are to be grasped in the experience of looking at them” (italics mine). The impression of tactility, in both a metaphorical and corporeal sense, seemed especially important to her: “the work plays off the illusory quality of the thing itself as it presents itself to vision alone … as against the sensation of being able to grasp it and therefore to know it through touch.”
Don Judd in the 1960s. Image from Mondoblogo.
Other critics have noted that “Claims … that Judd’s art has a discrepancy – or even a falsification – as its heart, have by now long been central …” (David Raskin, “The Shiny Illusionism of Krauss and Judd”, Art Journal, no. 65 [Spring 2006]).The juxtaposition between Judd’s own conceptualization of his work, and the manner in which it has sometimes been received, makes this disjuncture all too clear. Krauss noted the deceptive appearance of his art, of the necessity of an embodied experience with which to grasp it in its actuality, a process that foregrounded the way the materials were “used directly” – in his own words – and, thus, the resultant, insistently tactile quality. Judd’s work appears to deny the possibility of any haptic exchange, by dint of his critical pronouncements as well as their circumscribed status as high art objects, but reception tends to elude those sorts of pre-determined channels. Judd’s objects, as three-dimensional forms in space, as staunchly material presences that incline towards the non-figural and a-referential, can be said to evoke a response beyond the purely visual – i.e. to draw attention not simply to their forms, but to the almost tangible qualities of their surface texture. To return to Krauss’ assessment of Judd’s art as inducing the perception of graspability and a touch-based epistemology, perhaps it should be noted that the haptic entails more than just an appeal to tactility via the mechanism of sight, but implicates the entire sensorium in a synaesthetic act of looking as well. Krauss brings to mind Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of embodied, multisensory experience: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.” Or, to quote Carolee Schneemann on her own performative practice: “Vision is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations.”
Judd’s objects present a façade of finished, flawless, machine manufacture. In other words, their industrial look, or the appearance of being the products of the factory line rather than the artist’s tool, was – and is – very much the initial impression that they left on viewers. Barbara Rose, for one, remarked that they seemed “machine-made, standardized …. easy to copy and not hand-made”; another reviewer spoke of the “slow, determined beat of a stamping machine” (Jane Gollin). And Robert Smithson, in detailing Judd’s preferred materials and the sources he turned to for them, listed a catalogue of obscure-sounding trademarks and industrial locations:
He may go to Long island City and have the Bernstein Brothers, Tinsmiths put “Pittsburgh” seams into some (Bethcon) iron boxes, or he might go to Allied Plastics in Lower Manhattan and have cut-to-size some Rohm-Haas “glowing” pink plexiglass. Judd is always on the lookout for new finishes, like Lavax Wrinkle Finish … Judd likes that combination, and so he might “self” spray one of his “fabricated” boxes with it. Or maybe he will travel to Hackensack, New Jersey to investigate a lead he got on a new kind of zinc based paint called Galvanox, which is comparable to “hot-dip” galvanizing.
(Robert Smithson, “Donald Judd (1965)” in Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996].)
While the stuff of Judd’s art were, literally, heavy-duty substances and materials, the actual execution of those pieces remained a very hands-on process for the artist. Much of his early 60s work were produced manually at a small, family-run piecework shop called Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties Inc., which produced a range of items for industrial purposes, like smoke stacks, general roofing, skylights, ventilation systems etc. The procedure for constructing one of Judd’s pieces at the Bernsteins’ typically involved a high degree of hand operations:
… adapted from the shaping of ventilation ducts and industrial sinks, [the process] involved measuring and cutting the sheet iron, notching it with hand shears, and folding it in a brake die. … the sculpture [was finished] by truing its angles with a rubber mallet and … reaching inside the back to solder its three pieces carefully together.
(Joshua Shannon, The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009].)
Don Judd (right) at the Bernstein Bros. workshop, 1968. Image from DB Artmag.
The appearance of industrial manufacture, then, belied the manual labour that went into the production of Judd’s pieces; their materials, the “adapted” processes, the high degree of finish, and their geometric, modular shapes all went towards suggesting an origin in the factory rather than the studio. And it is precisely this deceptive indexing of industrial means of fabrication and engineering, the assumption of the look of capitalist, technocratic power – by creating objects resembling mass-produced commodities, objects which then enter our everyday lives as items of utility – that engenders the desire to touch. Or, to put it another way: Judd’s objects, in suppressing most visible traces of the artist’s hand*, and approximating the appearance of those ordinary things that we use in our mundane lives, like floor boxes and stacks and bleachers and architectural columns, breaks down the barrier between the visual and the tactile that is part and parcel of the contemporary experience of art – that is to say, the dictum that one can look, but should not touch, is expressly infringed upon.
* See Josiah Mcelheny, “Invisible Hand”, Artforum International, vol. 42, no. 10 (Summer 2004).
By adopting the aspect of everyday articles, Judd’s objects almost seems to invite the viewer to experience them in those embodied ways with which we come into corporeal contact with those familiar things. One handles a box, sits on a bleacher, perhaps unthinkingly runs a stray hand over a row of colonnades in strolling past. And although it is difficult to conceive of actually picking up one of Judd’s box-like sculptures or parking your behind down on his Bleachers piece, it is not too far a stretch to imagine kissing your reflection in a particularly shiny surface, or using it, mirror-like, to peruse the state of your hairdo – which is exactly what critic, Anna Chave, witnessed two girls doing one day in the MoMA. She relates the following incident involving a “gleaming brass floor box” of Judd’s on display in the museum: “… two teenage girls strode over to this pristine work, kicked it, and laughed. They then discovered its reflective surface and used it for a while to arrange their hair until, finally, they bent over to kiss their images on the top of the box” (Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power”, Arts Magazine, vol. 64, no. 1 [Jan, 1990]).
…… Hey, I did say Judd was a favourite.
But enough of the art history and the theoryspeak, I think.
Being at Sanada’s was like New York all over again: the quiet moments of wonderment at MoMA, amidst the throngs of tourists; the endless galleries in Chelsea; the marathon Met walkabouts.
It was nice …
Some of the other stuff in the show:
Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol runs at Ikkan Art from 18 May to 5 June, 2011.
Ikkan Art Gallery, Artspace@Helutrans,
39 Keppel Road #01-05,
Tanjong Pagar Distripark,
11am – 7pm, Monday – Saturday
1pm – 5pm, Sundays and Public Holidays
In 1968 the Beatles crooned: “Happiness (is a warm gun), bang bang shoot shoot, happiness (is a warm gun, momma), bang bang shoot shoot.”
Banging and shooting definitely helps the happy for a lot of people, I think.
But apparently that’s not all.
The following article appeared in The Straits Times yesterday (25 May 2011). Nothing we humanities and arts grads didn’t already know, especially with regards to earning power: we don’t get no respect. Oy.
The high happiness quotient at museums and concerts though, is a bit of a surprise. I think that only applies to museum goers, ’cause I’ve interned in a couple of museums in my time, and people there didn’t strike me as being overly cheerful. And what about those incessant naggers who complain of boredom whenever they step into one (a museum) ? Perhaps the Norwegians are a breed apart.
CULTURE AND ARTS MAKE YOU HAPPIER, BUT NOT WEALTHIER
Paris: The arts may make you happier but not richer.
According to a study released yesterday, people who go to museums and concerts or create art or play an instrument are more satisfied with their lives.
And feeling good differs for men and women, according to the study, published in the British Medical Association’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
For men, passive activities such as taking in a concert or museum exhibition are associated with an upbeat mood and better health. Women need to be more active, feeling less anxious, depressed or unwell if they played music or created art.
Researchers led by Mr Koenraad Cuypers of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology surveyed 50,797 adults in Norway.
The results were unambiguous and somewhat unexpected: Not only was there a strong correlation between cultural activities and happiness, but also men felt better as spectators whereas women preferred doing to watching.
The study found that wealth and education were not an issue.
Meanwhile, another study by researchers at Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce found that over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 per cent higher than the earnings of those who majored in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology.
It found that the median annual income for someone with a bahcelor’s degree in engineering was US$75,000 (S$93,500), and US$47,000 in the humanities, US$44,000 in the arts and US$42,000 in education or psychology.
The individual major with the highest median income was petroleum engineering, at US$120,000, followed by pharmaceutical sciences at US$105,000, and mathematics and computer sciences at US$98,000.
“I don’t want to slight Shakespeare,” said Dr Anthony Carnevale, one of the report’s authors. “But this study slights Shakespeare.”
Agence France-Presse, Washington Post
So the third Singapore Biennale is over.
And my reviews are still only partially done.
This is why I suck at life …
Anyways. Yesterday, in addition to putting out a concluding piece on the Fujiwara saga, The Straits Times also ran a brief post-mortem of sorts on the event.
Comments at the end of the post.
BIENNALE A BIG HIT
Visitor numbers rise to almost one million thanks to Merlion Hotel. By Deepika Shetty.
The third edition of the Singapore Biennale which ended on Sunday drew 912, 897 visitors. This is substantially more than the 505,200 visitors the second edition drew in 2008 and exceeds even the inaugural edition’s 883,300 visitors.
The final tally comes after a mid-term report saying that just 100,000 visitors had seen the $6-million contemporary art event after five weeks, far below the target audience figure of 650,000.
According to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), which is in charge of this edition, the earlier update did not include outdoor visitor figures for the most popular site, the Merlion Hotel in Marina Bay, which explained the difference. There were 696,709 outdoor visitors to the Merlion Hotel and the Rotunda at the National Museum while indoor or admitted visitors totalled 196,028. Other related and pre-opening events attracted 20,160 visitors.
In a statement to Life!, SAM said there was a surge in attendance in the last two days. The target audience figure of 650,000, it said, includes outdoor visitor figures. For this, only visitors who made clear and deliberate eye contact with the art works were counted. At the Merlion Hotel, some instances of “clear and deliberate eye contact” included those who stopped to take pictures of the hotel or read the artwork description.
The show, which opened on March 12, had attracted its share of complaints and controversy including that of inaccessibility, the condition of the main venue Old Kallang Airport and the censorship of an installation by award-winning British-Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara (see other story).
Arts educator Angelia Neo, 39, said: “My friends visiting from overseas made a stop at Old Kallang Airport. Sadly, they did not discuss the art, rather the heat and humidity which most visitors experienced. I felt sad because there were many good works at this iconic venue which were under-appreciated just because the audience felt physically uncomfortable.”
Mr Tan Boon Hui, director of the Singapore Art Musuem, told Life!: “We did underestimate the amount of time we needed to work on Old Kallang Airport. It is a very beautiful building but somehow it is not in the mindset of every Singaporean, particularly the younger ones.”
While the venue was criticised, some people in the arts industry feel it has the potential of being developed into a space for contemporary art.
Influential regional gallerist Valentine Willie says that with minimal costs, Old Kallang Airport could become the permanent home of the Singapore Biennale, just like the Arsenale (arms depot) became the main venue for the Venice Biennale.
Ms Iola Lenzi, 48, a Singapore-based curator, art critic and researcher, said while the Old Kallang Airport with its modernist architecture was a treat to discover, this biennale had trouble reaching out to people unfamiliar with art.
She added: “Meaningful contemporary art is not obscure. Too many works in this edition were flat both conceptually and visually, lacking the spark necessary to excite people and drive them to investigate the meaning of the piece.”
Gallerist Stephanie Fong, 35, agreed: “For the next edition, I would like to see works in more sites that are accessible both literally and metaphorically to ordinary Singaporeans.”
Interestingly, it was works by Asian artists that had some of the strongest recall with visitors. Singapore artist Koh Nguang How’s painstaking installation titled Artists In the News, was one of the works which resonated with visitors. It featured a room full of newspaper articles and an installation looking at artists and key art events which made it to the news. The work examined the documentation of Singapore’s art scene in the mainstream media and called for greater inquiry about art and artists.
Student Amarylis Seah, 17, said: “This work had the deepest impact on me and made me realize how the stories behind the news could be so engaging.”
While Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s The Merlion Hotel – a 100 sq m luxury room that encased the iconic half-lion, half-fish statue facing Marina Bay – emerged the biggest draw of this biennale, some of the other works made their mark on visitors too.
Marketing manager Nor Jumaiyah, 30, said: “This edition felt like a platform for experimentation with its focus on artistic practice and daily life influences. Unfamiliarity is a great starting point and I found some works such as the confessional videos by Malaysian artist and curator Shooshie Sulaiman and local film-maker Tan Pin Pin very intriguing.”
Others applauded the move to have a local artistic director to lead this event. Singaporean artist Matthew Ngui led the curatorial team which included Canadian Trevor Smith and Australian Russell Storer.
Mrs Neo said: “While it was a good move to have a local artistic director for the biennale, the selection of works could have benefited more had the curators been Asian too. I would like to see more works by South-east Asian artists in the next biennale. After all, we are in Asia, home to a vibrant arts community and I would want to see how Asian artists confront key issues and concerns in their countries.”
A stronger focus on Asia is what Ms Lenzi would like to see as well in the next edition of the Biennale. “I feel strongly that in view of the number of biennales and triennales these days, in Singapore we would do better to focus on our particular area of expertise,” she said.
“Singaporeans, I believe, are genuinely interested in South-east Asian contemporary art and the international crowd is far more likely to come to Singapore for world-class regional art, fresh and relatively unexplored elsewhere, than for re-heated international art in the tropics.”
I get that the organisers probably have visitorship numbers to meet with regards to funding for future biennales. After all, 6 million big ones is quite a chunk of change. (Though, considering the YOG budget fiasco …)
But, seriously, “clear and deliberate eye contact” is all that’s necessary for a head-count these days ?! Rather than an actual head ? So, someone strolling past a museum with a piece of outdoor sculpture stops to eyeball the work and then moves on – that guy gets to be included in visitor numbers for the day, going by the SAM’s arrestingly wacky logic.
Sure, the Merlion Hotel may be situated out of doors, but its interior comprises the chief significance of the work, by which I mean that one can only really claim to have “seen” or “experienced” Nishi’s piece by going indoors, and witnessing how he incorporates our national symbol into the realm of private luxury living. The Merlion is a regular stop on the local tourist trail – as the number of tour buses parked along Connaught Drive on any given day is testament to – and just how many of those sightseers were there of their own volition, or even for the Merlion Hotel, as opposed to the Merlion itself ? If one were to queue and actually enter the MH, then yes, “attendance” and “visitorship” would become incontrovertible experential facts. Banking on “eye contact” and picture-taking though – which engages only the work’s exterior, hardly the primary locus of interaction both in terms of intent and on a practical, formal level – and especially when the work is also situated where there already is plenty of foot traffic, is a double dose of disingenuousness, no ?
Lame, lame, LAME.
Shetty also notes in her article that the magic figure of “696,709 outdoor visitors” includes more eye contact with the art in the National Museum’s Rotunda – which really only refers to Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich’s Compound. The rotunda is free to all, meaning that one can enter the National Museum, look at whichever piece happens to be on display there, and leave, all without paying the price of admission. Or, as is more likely – since everyone entering the museum has to pass through the rotunda, which effectively comprises the sole public entrance to the building – visitors simply walking in and giving Pich’s piece a second look while buying tickets or ambling past were also co-opted by the SAM into its ocular-based accounting, regardless of whether those people actually made it to the Biennale exhibits in the basement, or were simply headed off to the National Museum’s other shows, which have nothing to do with the Biennale.
I want to be generous and say, okay, if funds are contingent on meeting quotas, then yeah, all this is pretty ingenious; I’d rather some artful tallying than no more biennales in future. If all this, however, is simply some kind of PR exercise to justify themselves to the public, then really, I think the public deserves better.
The following piece appeared in The Straits Times yesterday (May 17), bringing to a conclusion the uproar over the SAM’s censorship of Simon Fujiwara’s contribution to the Singapore Biennale, Welcome to the Hotel Munber.
Having kept silent for the duration of the Biennale, the artist has, at long last, raised his voice on the matter – revealing a couple of interesting nuggets, one of which is the fact that he’d provided “images and detailed descriptions of the finished work many months before the exhibition” (italics mine).
In other words, according to Fujiwara, the SAM knew of the inclusion of pornographic material in the piece beforehand. Which begs the million-dollar question: why was it only an issue two days into the event ? I suppose there are several possibilities: a. no one on the curatorial team was reading those “detailed descriptions” too carefully, and/or b. they assumed they could get away with it (only to be torpedoed by hawk-eyed viewers).
I still say Fujiwara passed up on the perfect opportunity though. If indeed censorship of homosexuality is one of his themes, as noted below, then the SAM’s act of censoring would have been the chance for the work to self-reflexively perform its own thesis – an artwork about censorship itself materially censored. All that was needed was perhaps a sign explaining the absence, in place of the porno mags ? Now that would have made a splash: a work enfolding the experiential terms of its own statement into itself, meta- and ur-levels of being collapsed into one …
ARTIST DECRIES SAM’S ACTIONS
By Adeline Chia.
British-Japanese Simon Fujiwara (right) whose art installation Welcome to the Hotel Munber was closed to the public for much of the Singapore Biennale following a censorship controversy, has finally spoken up.
He had converted a gallery at the Singapore Art Museum into a 1970s Spanish hotel bar, complete with hanging legs of ham, and containing erotic pictures and text.
But just after the opening weekend of the Biennale in March, the museum removed some gay pornographic magazines from the installation, citing legal prohibitions against the display of pornographic material. There were also concerns that the pornographic magazines, which belonged to a collector, could be handled by the public.
A public outcry ensued when it was revealed that the museum had removed the magazines before informing Fujiwara, and the exhibit was closed “temporarily” while the artist and the museum discussed other options. But it ended up shut for most of the two-month biennale.
Last week, two days before the biennale ended, the museum said that the installation would be permanently closed. Speaking for the first time about the controversy, Fujiwara, 28, described the actions of the museum as “unprofessional and unethical”.
In an e-mail statement to Life!, he said: “While I understand the legal prohibition of exhibiting pornographic materials in Singapore was the main cause of this removal, I believe it was both unprofessional and unethical to alter the work without my prior consent.”
He explained that his work “examines the violent oppression of human freedom and the censorship of homosexual literature under General Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship in 1970s Spain”.
It does this by fusing seemingly harmless nationalist symbols such as bulls’ heads, wine barrels and portraits of the leader with banned materials such as pornography and erotic literature.
As the work was conceived partly to raise awareness of censorship and civil liberty, he added that “it would have been both hypocritical and unjust of me to continue to show the work in a censored state”.
The winner of the Frieze Art Fair’s prestigious annual Cartier Award for emerging artists last year, Fujiwara’s works often deal with fictional narratives, sexuality and history, and have been exhibited at prestigious platforms such as the Venice Biennale, Manifesta and the Sao Paolo Biennale.
He added that he had provided “images and detailed descriptions of the finished work many months before the exhibition” and that the sexual imagery had been discussed with the exhibition organisers, and that was why an advisory had been prepared.
He said: “I believe that it was the responsibility of the museum to have made a balanced judgment before the work went on display.”
Yesterday, the museum director Tan Boon Hui said the museum decided to permanently close the work as both sides could not agree “on a solution that will work for all”.
He added that “the complexities and integrity of the work would be lost if any part were altered”.
Despite his strong criticism of the museum, Fujiwara said the Singapore Biennale has been an “important and encouraging experience”.
He said the unsensational journalism and the voices of support in Singapore, Asia, Europe and the United States made it clear that “an important debate has been had and is still in progress”.