Archive for September 2011
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, best known hereabouts for her contribution to the inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006 (below), her signature dotscapes wrapped around several trees along Orchard Rd., is back.
Pop and Contemporary Fine Art is currently staging a mini-retrospective of her work in the ION Art Gallery space, on the fourth floor of the mall.
I’m not sure how I feel about her work exactly.
On the one hand, her obsessive repetition of dots and lines strike a chord with me. She utilizes the former to build up graphs of pictorial forms like pumpkins (well-represented in the show), animals, and landscapes. Otherwise, entire canvases are simply subjected to an abstract design of dots which retreats from any semblance of mimesis. On the other, Kusama’s oeuvre is quite inextricably tied to her personal mythology: her abusive, deeply unhappy childhood; her escape to New York and her exploits there; her history of mental disturbance and hallucinations; her return to Japan and voluntary confinement in a mental institution since. The most frequent explanation of the artist’s obsessive-compulsive fascination with dots, webs and chronic repetition of these patterns is that they originate in hallucinatory states she suffers – as the title of the exhibition suggests – and that their recitation in her art represents an exorcism of sorts. Beyond the paradigm of the artist as privileged originary point though, with all lines of explication converging on the crux of artistic personality, is there much to say about Kusama’s stuff ? …
The show runs till 2nd Oct.
Ascension of Polkadots on Trees (2006), Yayoi Kusama. Image from call me shortySTK.
I’ve been getting requests to publicize, quote unquote, various arts-related events on this blog – mostly from corporate entities.
The interest is much appreciated, but the answer is a blanket “No”.
I certainly entertain invitations to view and/or review art exhibitions; I almost always make it a point to see the show in question, whether or not that ultimately translates into a review here.
I do not, however, dole out free “publicity” – at least not of the sort that precedes a viewing. The primary purpose of this site is to provide substantive, critical engagement with the visual arts in Singapore and (sometimes) beyond, not to provide yet another forum for press releases reproduced verbatim.
So feel free to send me an invite to see your show or visit your space, and I’ll definitely give it a review if I think it’s worth the effort – but free publicity constitutes a free lunch around here, and unfortunately this till is operational.
Apropos of the Sub’s big milestone – which, as JW remarks, means that the institution has now reached official adulthood – this piece by former NMP and ex-artistic co-director of the Sub, Audrey Wong, has been popping up with clockwork-like regularity on my Facebook feed.
It’s worth the read. Some of it is perhaps a little too personal for me – or I just happen to disagree – but there’s a bit in there about how Singaporeans tend to “unconsciously shackle our own imaginations.’
Truer words were never spoken.
The personal angle does provide a nice counterpoint to Pete Schoppert’s ST piece though.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SUBSTATION !
By Audrey Wong.
So I’ve finally read the article in The Straits Times about The Substation’s 21st anniversary (8 Sept 2011), and the headlines made me sigh – once more, yet another press article about whether The Substation is “relevant” today. The media keeps harping on that. I’m sure Adeline Chia (the reporter) did as much as she could, but I think that our national newspaper could do so much better and come up with more insightful editorial angles. Two other things struck me personally: one, Weng Choy was barely mentioned (not quoted even – perhaps he wasn’t available for an interview, but perhaps the national paper should really go for an in-depth perspective even if it took a little longer to get the story?); and two, my quote (taken from a 20-minute chat with Adeline) was about Timbre. Ha.
But back to the ‘relevance thing’. I’m not so interested in this – I’m really more interested in thinking about ‘what is the art that happens at The Substation and how and why this has connected with people all these years’. And thinking about that took me down the road of thinking about what’s now going on in Singapore’s arts development – not at the level of arts policy, but at the level of the everyday reality of the arts-goer and artists. One clear development that’s taken place since the 2000 Renaissance City Report and the opening of the Esplanade in 2002 was the increasing ‘mainstreaming’ of the arts in Singapore. Once the government said, ‘it’s a go!’ we steamed ahead, and in the top-down fashion of Singapore, it became a game of numbers and hype, in order to win approval – from policy-makers, influencers, the media, and ultimately the masses. The NAC, for instance, always issued a press release after the Singapore Arts Festival which focused on audience numbers and ticket sales, with hardly any discussion of the ‘artistic’ aspect of the festival. Such habits of thought and practice (of looking at numbers, and using numbers as a measure of how much an audience ‘took to’ the artistic work) have become second nature to many Singaporeans and affected how we accept, receive, and perceive the arts. The highly materialistic and results-focused society that’s Singapore has bred a consumerist mentality towards the arts. We’re susceptible to the next big spectacle, the next ‘new’ thing, hype. A lot of present-day culture, especially popular culture, is built on the ‘new’ and the newsworthy: just think of the emphasis in the movie industry and across all the media, of a movie’s opening weekend box office take. When one thinks about it rationally, what’s the actual purpose of this emphasis? It’s not really about whether a movie is good or not, or even whether it’s worth watching; it’s about driving even more ticket sales and grabbing media attention. It’s about pushing the sale of a commodity and driving consumption, and everyone’s bought into this game. But, as Weng Choy reminded us years ago, the ‘new’ had become normal business in contemporary arts in the 1990s. (“The Substation’s Place in Singapore Arts”, http://www.substation.org/about-us/artistic-mission). And sometimes, certain genres of art, artists, places, events, become media darlings because of the spectacle, the money it earns or other reasons, garner the lion’s share of media space and thus, the public mindshare.
What is it that drives people to seek out alternatives to mainstream entertainment? I think it’s something intangible that unfortunately, we don’t discuss a lot in the public sphere. Not in Singapore. But, artists and arts groups might see it through audience responses and feedback forms. What’s this intangible thing? At the risk of sounding overly romantic, it’s about any of these: it takes us out of our narrow banal everyday concerns and our selfish concerns; it provokes us to think about the world; and it just gets us beneath the surface of life and its glittering temptations. I was very moved when one of my students told me about what was recently, his first experience of ‘serious’ theatre in Singapore. He was someone who had always focused on bread-and-butter issues, but he attended the “Remembering William Teo” event at The Substation and subsequently went to see TheatreStrays’ performance, “What the Dog Knows”. He responded to the performance directly, emotionally and intellectually, and developed an interest in and admiration for William Teo and other practitioners who passionately dedicated themselves to the craft of theatre without consideration of material rewards. In short, it was a deeper experience of life.
“Unless artists are capable of grappling with the full and unmitigated force of the complications of history, the dilemmas of modernity, the complexities of life as it is lived collectively by men, women and children, they will never be capable of making great art … There can be no great art, no living culture, without great lives, at least lives lived not just expansively but also more deeply.”
Living deeply, perhaps, is what attracts us to the arts. And maybe we Singaporeans could do with a reminder about this, every so often. Earlier this week, during consultations for first-year BA Arts Management students at LASALLE, one student told me that she enjoyed reading an article about how the media’s depiction of women affects social norms and influences the self-image of young women and girls. She had not seriously thought about these issues before, she said, and she was glad to have gone beyond the surface, and glad that it showed her truly what it meant “not to judge a book by its cover”.
Another aspect of living meaningfully has to be about making connections with our deeper selves, humanity, and others. I think of the artists who continue to gravitate towards The Substation even after 20 years. Although Keng Sen said in the Straits Times article that The Substation hadn’t maintained its relationships with artists who were there at the start in the 1990s, there are actually artists from the old days who continue to do work with The Substation … Effendy being one of them, some others being Lee Wen (who was an Associate Artist in the first decade of the 2000s) and Amanda Heng (who presented “I Remember” in 2005 for SeptFest and presented another in her “Let’s Walk” series with The Substation in 2009). As for why some artists stopped being / working at The Substation, well, I can offer three reasons: not enough space to accommodate all; some artists getting bigger and better stages, or their very own space; and – something else which we might call an artistic director’s prerogative, or an artistic direction. More recent artists who are “still there” include Raka Maitra, Sherman Ong, Daniel Kok, Elizabeth de Roza …and hopefully the newest ‘additions’ like Bani Haykal continue the relationship.
I’d venture to say that one aspect of this ‘relationship thing’ is that it’s not merely transactional. Many artists do not go to The Substation just to get something back; if anything, the “getting back” has to do with the artists’ work … the work of constantly making, trying, failing, reflecting, persisting … There was a conversation among the programming team a couple of years ago about the selection criteria for Open Call, which concluded with the thought that the artist(s) selected should not look upon the programme as simply a chance to get exhibition space or get funding. It was about a deeper engagement, with the work, with The Substation as a space, with the ideas, with the public.
Another aspect of the relationship, and perhaps this has to do with the value of an alternative space, I can only explain this way: some years ago, a theatre artist I met talked about the image of stray dogs and why they matter and where there can be space for them. That struck me. You never know how a stray dog might turn out. It’s a life after all, and life should matter. There will always be those who, by choice or circumstance, are left out of mainstream culture and arts, and society has to make spaces where they can be heard, where they can gather. They’re not lesser because they are strays; they might be more interesting.
Maybe what bugs me most about our consumerist mentality, is that we Singaporeans often unconsciously shackle our own imaginations. I’ve begun to understand this a little better, as I’ve met young people who have been trained to conform to the certainty of fixed structures, and habituated to repeating what the teacher wants. Unfortunately, as we train young people not to stray from a prescribed frame, we also train them in self-limitation. This isn’t about censorship; it’s really the shackles we ourselves put on our imaginations out of habit, we don’t permit ourselves to reflect deeply or to play.
“Expectations, memories, nostalgia, frustrations, a potential in real limitations. Our resources are very limited. And to a large degree, our imagination – the Substation’s , everybody’s — has been kind of battered, with the loss of the garden, funding, cultural policies… In a way our imagination becomes restricted, reduced. The challenge now is to recognize the physical limitations and really see how small the space is, and at the same time find the potential of that space that has not been tapped yet.” – Noor Effendy Ibrahim.
Ultimately, the arts can’t be a hegemonic thing, prescribed to us by the powers-that-be or those who just happen to have money and social influence. It’s about the “more” in all of us, perhaps it’s the “more” that keeps me awake at 2am typing this out after a 12-hour workday and a late night trip to the supermarket – because this matters to me, and I want to share it with others. Out of these little “more” moments that we carve out of our lives, perhaps, we find “the potential” of the untapped, the chink in the shutters of our minds.
Remarkably, I see that I’ve managed to write about The Substation without quoting Kuo Pao Kun! Perhaps that’s what he’d have wanted – if The Substation can go on without him, that’s probably proof enough that it’s needed?
Owner of the Singapore Public Art site – and my sometime correspondent – Peter Schoppert had a piece in last Saturday’s ST (Sept 10), which considers the dichotomous impulses seemingly at play on Armenian St. today, with venerable indie arts space, The Substation, on one side, and the moneyed, sleeker-than-silk Art Plural Gallery, the new kid on the block, on the other.
Actually, Pete’s point is that neither represents a mutually exclusive position in the spectrum that is the arts industry, here or elsewhere. He notes – astutely – that independent collectives and resource-rich institutions are simply two points along the way for most artists, with sites like the Substation playing the role of nurturing materfamilias, and high-end galleries representing the best of highly visible, trans-global cultural capital. In the interest of full disclosure, the article does mention that he’s on the board of directors over at the Sub, and it does seem as if Pete is, in the final analysis, rather more oriented towards the communal spirit that that institution consciously cultivates, but he does give Art Plural its due for doing what it does. After all, the arts scene is – or should be – a diverse playing field, and any expansion of the limits that come with a circumscribed market/audience like Singapore’s can only be a good thing.
One quibble though: this may be a personal opinion, but I hardly see the fight on Armenian St. - so to speak – as a two-way affair. What about the Peranakan Museum? Art Plural is a privately-financed outfit; the Sub, as the article points out, is partly funded by government moolah (rather than being completely independent, a fact sometimes lost to popular view), so why not take into consideration a fully public establishment as well, if one is discussing the variety of institutions that constitute the arts scene? If anything, governmental organizations probably represent the biggest and most influential players on the field, so it does seem as if developments occurring within our museums are a pretty good gauge of the prevailing state of affairs – rather than just a single private gallery. Also, the connections here are more subtle than just a series of oppositional stances represented by two antithetical attitudes: the mini “lifestyle” renaissance fostered by the museum along Armenian St. – with its pricey gift store and the opening of the upscale Nonya restaurant, True Blue – seems perfectly aligned with the takeover of the Sub’s much-loved garden space by bar and restaurant (and contributor to general noise pollution) Timbre, not to mention the blue-chip art market catered to by Art Plural. In other words, all three institutions may have as much in common as they do differentially …
Nevertheless, Pete Schoppert’s article is a valuable contribution to the flurry of opinions being bandied about in light of the Sub’s upcoming 21st birthday. Reproduced below.
A TALE OF TWO ART SPACES
Substation, which turns 21 next week, is Singapore’s angel investor in the arts. By Peter Schoppert for The Straits Times.
There’s a stretch of Armenian Street that perfectly captures recent changes in Singapore’s art scene. On one side, opened in 1990, the Substation, Singapore’s first independent arts centre; on the other, opened in 2011, Art Plural, 12,000 sq ft of high-end art gallery, featuring artists such as Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Robert Longo, and Thakral [sic] and Tagra.
When you walk into Art Plural, you are greeted by polite, well-dressed and well-informed young art students working as gallery attendants.
You never know who might (or might not) greet you in the Substation: a grouchy poet, our artistic director wearing a pair of angel’s wings, a post-punk rocker, an artist inviting you to join her in making an installation out of feminine hygiene products, or Mrs Chua, our iconic, laconic caretaker.
On a recent evening, great gouts of white noise, fuzz and howling came pouring out of the Substation, in a performance by musician and circuit bender Mel Araneta, from the Philippines, collaborating with a group of Singaporean sound artists. Roaming performance artists perplexed passers-by, wrapped in plastic, shaving cream covering their heads.
Art Plural is a much more discreet neighbour, with its “ring doorbell to enter” sign.
The contrasts are obvious: foreign versus local, polished versus rough, art market stars versus uncelebrated art workers, private bankers versus skinheads, discreet versus attention-seeking, art that was once shocking but is now a commodity versus art that sometimes strives – and sometimes succeeds – to actually make people uncomfortable.
The Substation celebrates its 21st birthday on Sept 16, but its theatre has not had an upgrade in many years; Art Plural is up-to-the-minute.
So is the Substation the past, and Art Plural the future of arts in Singapore?
Actually both aspects of the art world are important and interdependent. The art world stars presented by Art Plural once depended on independent art spaces like the Substation to provide them support, feedback and that crucial first show. Robert Longo started his career in an artist-run space in an old ice factory, the Essex Arts Centre in Buffalo, New York, with his fellow student Cindy Sherman.
In a recently fashionable view, a city’s arts scene is part of its cultural capital, a key asset in the global competition for talent and investment. If Art Plural represents the world’s top artistic brands, their success validated and revalidated, in New York, Paris or London, you might say that the Substation is early stage angel investment in Asia. In this view, Substation develops and nurtures artists at crucial phases of their career, when spectacular failure is as likely as success (and more valuable in some ways).
Indeed, prominent Singapore artists, people like Ho Tzu Nyen, Matthew Ngui, Zhao Renhui, as well as film-makers like Royston Tan and Tan Pin Pin all had early or important showings at the Substation. The list of local artists who’ve worked at Substation is a long one, and covers performing arts and music as well [as] visual arts and film.
Still, this economic lens on art is only part of the story. Kuo Pao Kun’s founding vision of the Substation sees the arts as a vital source of energy and understanding for Singapore society. By providing a home for the arts, for mid-career artists as well as younger ones, the Substation attempts to create a space for artists to operate as a community, on their own terms. Under artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, the Substation is renewing its mission of “nurturing and challenging Singapore artists”.
We believe that an artistic community works to open spaces for dialogue and new understanding within society, inside and between other communities however defined. Under Effendy’s Associate Artist Research Programme, our artists are asked to engage directly with a real community unfamiliar to them, whether that be scientists in Biopolis or an underprivileged group.
Keeping the mission fresh and relevant is not necessarily a simple matter. We have lost some key assets – our garden, now rented out, the kopitiam across the street, now Art Plural’s ground floor, which was the venue of so many meetings of artists, film-makers, dancers, musicians and people just hanging out.
And the Substation can be a bit of a headache at times. We believe our mission requires us to offer a safe space for the artistic expression of marginalised groups, and – sometimes – for a testing of the relevance of art in the social and political realms. Government grants provide us with about 20 per cent of our annual income, but the Government sometimes seems only 20 per cent comfortable with our total vision. Arts grants are now linked to notions of “acceptability” of content of the art, but this criterion is rarely the highest on our list.
Art Plural shows works by artist Jean Dubuffet, part of a movement known as Art Brut. In the 1950s and 60s, he wrote of the cultural asphyxiation created by Europe’s arts institutions. He demanded “a teeming diversity” of art, which would require “a crusade against taste and decorum”. Art Plural now sells his works in their very tasteful gallery, but if he were a Singaporean artist starting out today, I bet he would have had an Open Call show at Substation. At the very least, he would appreciate Substation’s contribution to the diversity of the arts in Singapore.
The writer is on the board of directors of the Substation. Formerly with McKinsey & Company, he is an entrepreneur and publisher.
An apology to all my regular readers – and occasional visitors – out there.
This site has been woefully neglected of late. Aside from a couple of projects with firm deadlines, I’ve been unable to shake a general sense of .. febrility. It’s nothing serious enough to keep me from being productive, yet the constant, low-level symptoms – fatigue, a dry throat, a slight temperature – are debilitating enough to interfere with the functional rhythms of daily life …
Rest assured the pace of postings will pick up soon. In the meantime, an overdue mention of the 2nd arts bloggers meetup: attendance numbers dipped somewhat, but as it turned out that was a lil’ blessing in disguise – it became so much easier to have conversations ! Regulars Joyce, Joelyn and Corrie showed up, as did a couple of new faces like Kaishi, Dave and Tara. Oh, and of course, my faithful partner-in-crime, Pooja, who, happily enough, saw her lovely visage in an article on bookmaking which appeared in the Sunday papers (below). Never looking better …
Bookmaker, blogger and amie Pooja Makhijani. Image courtesy of Notabilia.
Also, the third bloggers’ meetup is confirmed:
The time: 8pm, 2nd November (Wed).
The place: our now regular dive, The Pigeonhole, 52/53 Duxton Rd.
Join us then !