[Review] Site Specific Works – Sculpture in the Park, II
[Part two of a two-part review. Part One here.]
Sculpture in the Park also features two gleaming stainless steel pieces, Chua Boon Kee’s Spring of Life and Untitles [sic] by Baet Yeok Kuan. Chua’s Brancusi-esque work is a streamlined, sinuous curve of a statue, a minimalist take on what the artist calls “a sprouting spring of water column” that “harmoniously creates a contrast to the surrounding tropical landscape.” Baet’s seems less ambitious: tucked away in a corner of the park and obscured by some temporary tentage, it resembles nothing more than a large, indented bean, sitting discreetly, unobtrusively on the ground, and rather perilously secluded; I very nearly missed it, were it not for a map of the exhibition provided by the SSS. Untitled (one assumes Untitles is a typo) looks rather like an overturned version of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, a large piece inhabiting Chicago’s Millennium Park which locals have actually dubbed The Bean. And like Kapoor’s popular work, the significance of Baet’s sculpture – and Chua’s – seems to lie in the fact of their one dominant superficial quality: the glossy, reflective sheen of the polished metal.
Despite Chua’s claim that Spring “creates a contrast” with its environs, an antithetical effect is instead produced: the stainless steel mirrors the lush green foliage of the wall of trees that enclose Fort Canning Park, the landscape becoming inscribed onto the skin of the statue in a constantly shifting impression that registers the subtle changes of environmental and climatic conditions from moment to moment. The body of the sculpture is, as such, visually subsumed into the landscape, almost effacing its own auratic presence and rendering it practically invisible from a distance, the margin between steel and shadow unstabilised by the play of the tropical light. This act of self-negation also characterizes the unassuming Baet piece. Even more so than Spring, which stands upright, Untitled keeps itself close to the ground, and through the gesture of mimicry – reflecting the brown of the earth, the green of the grass – likewise effects an erasure of its already inconspicuous anatomy. What was referred to an “ontology of disappearance” with regards to Victor Tan’s steel-wire animals (see part one of this review) seems to be operative here as well. Chua’s and Baet’s abstract sculptures, chameleonically echoing their surroundings – albeit in distorted form – highlight instead the lush, fecund hegemony of Mother Nature in her own milieu, their inorganic armatures nearly dematerialized into a sea of light and shadow and swimming reflections.
The uneasy coexistence of nature and civilization is also intimated by Lam Fung’s Rule of Harmony and Han Sai Por’s Meditation Space. Han arranged a series of wood-sculpted benches and little stands and tables (above) – which I read somewhere she was responsible for crafting with her own hands – around a small knoll, all for some reason dyed a pitch black. Or at least I think the colour is artificial; hard to imagine any naturally-occurring timber with that saturated hue. In any case, the impulse behind Meditation Space, as the title suggests, is human use: “The natural row wood benches line up and setting at a tranquility space surrounding by greenish, it provides visitor a tempera meditation space to refuse from the restless and noisy working environment [sic].” The reshaping of the natural environment towards utilitarian ends is here accentuated by the tension between biomorphic form and human intervention: the contours and texture of the logs used were left intact in some areas, while other surfaces had clearly been planed to flat, linear precision, angles and sharp edges bound to grainy curves and ridges through the play of inflected morphology. In Han’s vision, the organic origins of our everyday objects return to haunt the omnivorous, all-consuming material culture of contemporary urban life like the retort of conscience. Her composite structures, though, seem suspended between contradictions not just form-wise, but also in terms of function. I tried parking my ass on one end of a long bench, and nearly fell over: as it turned out, the seats of these so-called benches weren’t secured to their bases at all, but simply balanced on top of those little blocks. Now that’s not really kosher, is it ? The whole thing came across as being sly, wink-wink commentary on the ambitions of art itself: artworks masquerading as utilitarian objects revealing themselves to be, after all, rather un-functional art pieces …
I had a good chuckle.
According to artist Lam Fung:
Rule of Harmony presents a sequence of dialogues between the mundane and the phenomenal.
One such dialog is between social mechanism; the aspirations we have and the way in which we struggle to fulfill them become central to these works. ‘Rule of Harmony’ is a series of work which uses organic material complete with native plant species within Singapore’s natural areas. Here, the naked trunk of the coconut leaves processes in white and black lean against the grids of SSS pavilion structure is simultaneously both reassuring and disturbing in the way its awkward presence expresses our frailty.
I’m not sure I see any of that, but I’m going to take his word for it. Looking at the piece from a distance – which, as Lam notes, pretty much consists of several stems of the coconut palm, painted largely white and propped against a grid of metal bars overhead – I was confused at first. I couldn’t tell if those vertical white strips were part of the architectural program of the SSS pavilions, or, well, something else. Even up close, it wasn’t till I located the label nearby that I realized that, ok, this was part of the exhibition. And here was something that adopted a contrary stance to Han Sai Por’s assertion of ecological ontologies: literally whitewashed to blend in with the structures, and insinuating itself into the exchange between vertical and horizontal elements, the beams and bars of the two intertwined pavilions, Rule of Harmony hints not just at the “mundane and the phenomenal”, but actively harmonizes itself with its host, indulging in a game of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t with its audience. Like the gestures of dematerialization initiated by other pieces in the show, Lam’s coconut stalks are transformed and displayed in ways that deflect the premeditated gaze, emerging from its surroundings to announce itself as art only upon close inspection. Contra Han’s Meditation Space, Rule represents a retreat of the organic into the man-made, an act of overt yet incomplete camouflage to challenge the asymmetries of power between viewer and viewed.
One of the few pieces in the show to focus on the human form, Chng Seok Tin’s and Aileen Toh’s Dance, Dance, Dance (above) features a collection of stuffed fabric figures, suspended from trees in poses of balletic grace. Like the title, the short blurb alludes to the cosmic sanguineness that is the artists’ intent: “The beauty of nature is irresistible, let us dance until all the flowers bloom and until the rainbows hang across the gloomy sky. No fighting, distortion, violent [sic], bloodshed, greed, hate and man-made storms, be happy and dance- dance-dance.” The cheery colours and bold patterns of the batik cloth used to make the figures certainly attest to this, lending them an air of whimsical merriment.
But I gotta admit though: they freaked me out.
Chng Seok Tin has earned herself a name locally not only for her print works, but also for the fact of her near total blindness. I don’t want to be one of those schmucks who reduces an artist’s output to one salient biographical detail – e.g. Asian artists have to traffic in er, “Asian” themes to be relevant, or the work of a transgender individual always relates to his/her transgenderism – but one can’t help but wonder if the peculiarities of these figures don’t allude to their creator’s impairment.
How so ? – They lack facial features of any sort (including eyes), their largely digit-less hands and feet ensnared in lengths of satin ribbon like bound feet (even the vaguely triangular shapes of those appendages recall the humpbacked ‘lotus feet‘ of yore), and they’re strung up from trees like eerily lifesized marionettes or, worse, the victims of lynch mobs.
I realize that it sounds ludicrous – assuming an absolute correlation between representation and personal identity – but these bodies seem so … maimed, and deformed, that, in spite of the happy hues and bouncy postures, they seem utterly incapable of sensorial engagement with the world they purportedly celebrate, or the means necessary to effectuate their desires. The faces of Chng’s and Toh’s sculptures, like their bodies, are wrapped up in strips of batik fabric, and resemble nothing so much as mummified corpses, rather than animated bodies in tune with the cosmos. It may not be inappropriate to conjecture that, on some deeply personal level, they perhaps express the travails of their creator’s physical affliction, cut off as they are, like she is, from a very fundamental form of sensorial interaction with their/her world.
Spoils of Man, Joel Yuen’s contribution to the show, before and after it’d been wrecked. Image from Stomp.
Finally, Joel Yuen deserves a mention. Unfortunately, when I visited a couple of weeks ago, Yuen’s contribution, Spoils of Man, had apparently been vandalized – before and after pics above – and had to be removed. I don’t know if it’s been repaired since, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed: his work looks promising, combining a conceptually rigorous vision with an overt interest in issues of materiality (see his personal site for some examples), and for a while back there at least he was working on-site at Fort Canning Park, going away at some logs with a diesel-fuelled chainsaw. It was pretty impressive, the unintentionally performative aspect of it providing a dynamic take on the otherwise mute objects that tend to be associated with the environmental art movement. Joel’s also uber friendly, and when I caught him on one of his breaks, was perfectly happy to chat about his work and plans, and even to pose for a picture.
Yeah, ok, so I’m a little too camera-happy sometimes, sue me.
Sculpture in the Park is accompanied by a sister show at the National Library called Sculpturing Singapore, which runs concurrently. I’m not covering it here; the library doesn’t allow photography, and my general rule of thumb is, no pictures = no review. It’s definitely worth a gander though, so if you happen to be in the Bras Basah neighbourhood, do swing by.