“stored in a jar: monsoon, drowning fish, color of water, and the floating world”, Tiffany Chung
Artwork of the day: Viet-American artist Tiffany Chung’s stored in a jar: monsoon, drowning fish, color of water, and the floating world (2010 – 11), which was included in the Singapore Biennale earlier this year. (My previous post about Martin Creed made me realize what a backlog of images I have, and just from the past year alone …)
The piece was on display in the National Museum, one of the Biennale’s four venues. The basement gallery was rendered a deep, dark pitch-black, a reversal of the typical white cube aesthetic. The transformation of the space was stunning, I thought, but combined with the low lights overhead, it wasn’t exactly the most propitious of conditions under which to view art – as evidenced by the difficult time I had trying to eyeball Chung’s exquisite miniatures of floating homes. Little models of floating communities, complete with green spaces and rowboats, were laid out on plates of glass suspended from the ceiling, the entire setup indeed resembling the sort of water-borne “alternative” architectural modes envisioned by Chung:
Tiffany Chung’s work monitors the dramatic effects of economic development, urbanisation, and consumer culture in her native country of Vietnam. Inspired by her experiences of the historic 1978 Mekong River floods – an event that has haunted her into her adulthood – Chung has constructed an alternative model of urban development where ‘floating life’ is a way of life. Based on a principle of horizontal planning rather than the grand vertical structures found in modern cities, Chung’s project draws upon traditional architectural forms in the Mekong region and other parts of Asia to propose alternative modes of sustainable living.
As artistic representations, Chung’s prototypes are beautifully realized – not unlike Michael Lee’s delicate paper models at the Old Kallang Airport site. Seemingly set adrift in mid-air in the dim glimmer of the space, the tiny houses and aquatic parks are also supported by miniature flotation devices, a fact made clear only upon close inspection. Beyond that, however, there didn’t seem to be any acknowledgement of the problems that comes with real-life usage. The label refers to the piece as an “alternative model of urban development”, or “alternative modes of sustainable living”, but without some accompanying proposal as to how these habitations will function in real life, they remain quite simply in the sphere of representation, falling somewhat short of the claims that they present a viable solution to urban overcrowding – and its myriad practical difficulties, which really require more than the spectatorial impact of art to address adequately. This deracinated character of the work – its failure to transcend the visual register, a failure brought into focus by its own contradictory claims – seems to bear out Guy Debord’s prognostication: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Here, the subsumption of “social relations” by the image, in a twist on the Marxian commodity fetish, is betrayed by the disembodied nature of a work that purports to offer a model of “sustainable living” but stands as an appeal only to the gaze; the inversion represented by the visible “in societies where modern conditions of production prevail” is signaled here on a formal level by the almost oneiric quality of Chung’s levitating miniatures, their spectral silhouettes on the ground (above) as prominent as the objects that cast them, insubstantial entities doubly displaced from the realm of the real.
(The full text of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is available over at the Marxists Internet Archive.)