[Review] Art Plural Gallery, I
[This post is the first part of a two-part review.]
Don’t be fooled by the rather routine-sounding name – these guys are huge, and they’re serious.
Spread over all four floors of a revamped Art Deco building on Armenian Street, just across from the Substation, the gallery boasts some 12,000 sq feet of display space. To put that number into perspective, the structure used to house the Mayfair Hotel (below), apparently a pretty classy joint that, by the 1980s, had fallen into disrepute — and, from the looks of it, disrepair. (There’s a short piece on it over at The Long and Winding Road.) That’s right, a hotel. All that space — which, thanks to high ceilings and massive windows, allow for copious amounts of natural light to flood the interior in the day, and suffuses the rooms with an aureate crepuscular glow that slowly dissipates into a cool, dim gloom as the tropical sun sets, the effect an utterly enchanting one — now made over into a white cube just for art viewing.
As someone remarked to me, Art Plural may represent the biggest private gallery in Singapore yet.
I don’t doubt it.
The lives and times of a building:
The brainchild of Swiss couple Frederic and Carole de Senarclens, the gallery certainly lives up to its name; art-wise, the mix is an eclectic, trans-continental one. There were pieces by modernist masters — a Picasso and a couple of Dubuffets were up for sale (which may already have gone off the market, this was a while ago) — as well as a smorgasbord of offerings from contemporary art’s biggest and hippest names. Upon being buzzed into the silent, cavernous chamber, all pristine walls and grey cement floors, with absolutely nothing extraneous to distract the eye, the visitor is greeted by one of YBA-tist Marc Quinn’s monumental flower paintings (below), a canvas of colossal, lustrously-coloured blooms that peer at you as if in an eerily sensuous reenactment of some sci-fi nightmare like The Day of the Triffids, their otherworldly, non-anthropomorphic floral visages seeming almost to present greedy mouths agape, threatening to breach the two-dimensional picture plane and to disrupt the aloof quietude of the environment through the sheer force of alien hunger … Verisimilitude, chromatic brilliance and gigantism is here synthesized to produce a profoundly, potently unsettling effect. Quinn is on record as saying: “I remember visiting a flower market one day and noticing how all these flowers that shouldn’t be available at the same time ……. It perfectly illustrates how human desire constantly reshapes nature’s limitations. The fact that these flowers are always available to us is artificial and unnatural.” (See here for the full interview.)
Well, he’s certainly right there.
The vivid, garish surfaces and appropriated imagery that characterize so much of Pop art — from Warhol’s silkscreens, to Lichtenstein’s jumbo Ben-Day dots, to Richard Hamilton’s collages and, more recently, the many incarnations of Takashi Murakami’s ‘superflat’ figures across a wide variety of consumer products — find a new lease of life in the hands of Indian duo Thukral and Tagra, who are well-represented in the gallery’s collection. The omnivorous, multi-media heterogeneity of T & T, which boasts an iconography of commercial merchandise and figures culled from popular culture, most often found floating in a utopian dreamscape of pastel-hued skies and cotton-candy clouds, rendered on both canvas and three-dimensional, spherical metal shapes (below), has been described as “a whimsical fascination with consumerism—not unlike Murakami— blurring the lines between fine art and popular culture, product placement and exhibition design, artistic inspiration and media hype.” (See here.) Hardly groundbreaking, since their work, as mentioned, may be located squarely in a trajectory extending from Pop’s earliest days to more contemporary manifestations; what does relieve it of an excess of commercial enthusiasm, however, is an ironic self-awareness, artistic tongue firmly in cheek. One signature T & T strategy is the so-called BoseDK trademark, which makes its appearance in quite a few of (or all?) their pieces:
Much of the output of Thukral & Tagra is presented under the brand name of BoseDK Designs. BoseDK, which is an Anglicization of a pejorative Punjabi term, is intended to create an obliquely obscene presence in the art gallery. Branding the artworks, in this way deliberately and ironically commercialises their oeuvre. The brand of BoseDK extends into all facets of their work from design and retail commissions to paintings, sculptures, wallpaper and installations. It has been described as striving ‘for a rootless cosmopolitanism, an instigation to infect all manner of communication with an unexpected sparkle, in the process making life more marvelous’.
(Quote from Initial Access.)
The idea of a spurious brandname — like so much mass-produced consumer chaff — for stuff that actually sells for princely sums, that takes its inspiration from market-oriented commodity culture, is pretty hilarious in the best pomo fashion: a self-conscious cycle of endless referentiality.
Pakistani-born, NY-bred Seher Shah produces intricate, black-and-white graphic works on paper, quite breathtaking in their near-abstract, collaged aesthetic. Shah’s understated compositions, looking like nothing so much as leaves from a draughtsman’s sketchbook filled in by a daydreaming surrealist, are informed by her interest in the visual culture of power, and her experiences as a Muslim woman in a post-9/11 America. Speaking of the use of Islamic imagery in her work, the artist noted:
It was in the midst of this [the aftermath of September 11] that I had started creating a series of works that negotiated between personal photographs, iconic Islamic spaces, geometries and symbols. I wanted to be able to construct works that showed universal connections to certain geometric forms and massing.
The title Jihad Pop came about as a means to construct the idea of struggle of identity alongside images from pop culture and to form a new association with Islamic visual imagery. The meeting of these two words ‘jihad’ and ‘pop’ is the marriage of this exploration of identity and the simultaneous broadcast of imagery of violence, conflict and migration. Using associations and influences from media images, personal travel photographs, animation, graffiti and hand drawings to create the series that unfolds to explore the relationship of Islamic iconography and imagery. I kept the connection open to the meaning of both words, so as to interpret it in a variety of means. Using cultural elements I had grown up with from New York, Brussels, London and Lahore I started constructing and reconstructing images and symbols I was gravitating towards. The Jihad Pop works as of now are mainly constructed through a series of large-scale drawings and several print editions.
(Full interview on QMA’s blog.)
Shah’s preoccupation with the mathematical construction of space, as seen in her Interior Courtyard drawings, for instance (below), seems to channel, strangely enough, the alliance of academicism and orientalism found in the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme. An example of Gérôme’s brand of 19th century exoticization, Prayer in the Mosque (below), set in Cairo’s Mosque of Amr, features a rigidly linear perspective of the site, the system of arches and columns — running in regular rows towards an all too discernible vanishing point on the horizon line — and the schematic description of grid-like beams overhead and patterned tiles underfoot matched only by the disciplined ordering of the human figures within this architectural backdrop. The correspondence between the depiction of social cohesion and the absolute geometry of the pictorial space here no doubt gestures at the overarching presence of Islam in the life of Arab communities, and the role it plays in regulating even the most minute of details. And it is this along this axis of synchronicity, between orthodox perspective and religious diktat, that Shah structures her architectural drawings of interior spaces, while her collages of “personal photographs, iconic Islamic spaces, geometries and symbols” instead functions to de-naturalize the seeming transparency and pictorial logic of linear perspective. On display in Art Plural were The Expansion of the First Great Ornamental Age: Division and Hierarchy (2009; below), both of which feature one of Shah’s favourite devices: the grid. As art historian Rosalind Krauss has remarked, the grid, as a spatial device, renders a composition “flattened, geometricized, ordered … antimimetic, antireal”.* According to her, it negates the contours of the real by imposing a pre-ordained regularity on the compositional surface, and not, as in the case of the interlocking orthogonals of Renaissance perspective, to map a representation of reality on a two-dimensional canvas. Krauss’ objective was to submit the grid, as an artistic tool, to a historical analysis, but as it is deployed by Shah over apparently random agglomerations of bodies, patterns, icons, and landscapes, it foregrounds the constructed nature of rationalized pictorial space — against which, as the artist demonstrates in pieces like The Expansion of the First Great Ornamental Age: Fragmented Landscapes (below), there is only the space of the irreducibly two-dimensional surface.
* Rosalind Krauss, “Grids”, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde, pp. 9 – 22. See p. 9.
Interior Courtyard I (2006), Seher Shah. Image from the artist’s personal site.
Prayer in the Mosque (1871), Jean-Léon Gérôme. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
Also spotted at Art Plural were photographic prints of the Starn brothers’ Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop installation (below), which was featured last year at the Metropolitan Museum as part of their series of exhibitions on the roof. Alas, I had already left NYC then, but here’s a short write-up from the NYT:
From April 27 through Oct. 31 the twin artists Mike and Doug Starn will be creating a site-specific installation that is part sculpture, part architecture and part performance. Called “Big Bambú” it will be a monumental bamboo structure in the form of a cresting wave rising as high as 50 feet above the roof. Throughout the summer the artists and a team of rock climbers will lash together an intricate network of 3,200 interlocking bamboo poles with nylon rope, creating on the roof’s floor labyrinthlike spaces through which visitors can walk.
“Big Bambú” is a perpetual work in progress — it will never quite be finished — that will evolve in three phases: first, the basic structure will be completed by the opening day; second, the eastern part will be built by the artists and rock climbers to a height of about 50 feet; third, the team will build the western part to about 40 feet high. Not only will visitors be able to watch the installation as it is constructed and walk through it, they will also be able to climb up the sides.
Big Bambú seems to encompass a number of strands in contemporary art: installation, participation, performance, process. What is interesting in the present instance, however, is that it speaks to Art Plural’s ambitions for its role in the local art scene. Carole de Senarclens revealed in a conversation that their goal is to eventually be able to stage a similarly large-scale, public installation in Singapore — perhaps one of French designer slash artist Thierry Dreyfus’ light shows …
But more on that in part deux.
The Starns’ Big Bambú installation at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, in 2010. Image from Carlisle Flowers.
Big Bambú at the Met. Image from this site.
Big Bambú at the Met. Image from this site.
[To be continued.]