[Non-review] An Exile Revisits the City + The Sovereign Art Prize 2011
Zeng’s nominated piece is Parliament House (below). On its own, it doesn’t immediately grab the viewer, but it was exhibited in July this year at the Substation as part of a larger series of photographic works titled An Exile Revisits the City - which, as a cohesive unit, was compelling, poignant, and absolutely apposite. In a year which saw the general elections of May 7 marking a watershed moment of sorts in local politics, as well as the continuation of a trend involving memoirs put out by ex-political detainees, one of the most talked about being Teo Soh Lung’s Beyond the Blue Gate (who, by the way, happens to be the sister of ‘paperdyesculpt’ artist Teo Eng Seng), Zeng’s elliptical visual narrative was a cogent statement about the silences and the gaps inscribed into official accounts of Singapore’s post-war history … and their often unremarked human cost. His pictures of a geriatric man, presumably a victim of the PAP’s leftist purges of the 1960s, revisiting various sites of interest such as – yes – Parliament House (no more unambiguous a symbol of power), the Nantah arches, the former Supreme Court, and the old University of Malaya campus, represent an interrogation of the complicity between political hegemony and historical amnesia embodied by many of these locales, craftily foregrounding their emplotment, as sites of official exaltation or collective loss, in the annals of the Singapore Story.
While it did make my Top Ten list for the year, An Exile was a worthy show that deserves better than the ‘non-review’ I’m belatedly giving it. In lieu of what my flagging energies might otherwise have accomplished, here is critic David Spalding on the figure of the ghost in its character as a revenant, i.e. a remnant of the past that haunts the present moment, a spectral reminder of that which has been consigned to (deliberate) oblivion:
To believe in ghosts is to admit that we cannot escape the past. When bygone events are willfully ignored, voided, or otherwise rendered imperceptible, they give rise to ghosts—spectral figures that attempt to reveal what has been excised from collective memory. Ghosts are not simply human spirits who continue to roam the earth after their bodies have decayed. Rather, they are forces whose presence disturbs our temporal and empirical expectations in order to remind us of earlier disasters and injustices that live beneath the thin skin of the present.
Yet a ghost’s enchanted history lessons are never straightforward. Instead, they flicker in the dark corners of our minds, operating outside the laws of logic, often broadcasting scrambled transmissions. Though they can be comforting, afﬁrming what we’ve suspected all along, ghosts seldom bring good news: One is never haunted by pleasant events, unless they dissemble an unknown undertow fraught with terror. Still, without these haunting confrontations, the wounds of the past can never be redressed.
The term haunting best names the ways that certain historical moments—and the forgotten faces and demolished places that comprise them—return to puncture the present. Understanding haunting in this way helps us to detach the ﬁgure of the ghost from visions of a ravaged, reanimated corpse, wreaking vengeance and havoc. Instead, haunting points to visitations from something more mysterious and, sometimes, more frightening. As sociologist Avery Gordon has written:
If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities, the ghost is just the sign, or the empirical evidence if you like, that tells you a haunting is going on … The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well trained eye, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course.
The pieces of the past that return to haunt us are precisely those which have been pushed off the margins and over memory’s edge. The time lines, neat narratives, and illustrations that comprise our accounts of the past can only tell us part of the story. In fact, historical records—in both our psychological and institutional archives—often operate under the logic of exclusion, which tries to discard whatever cannot be easily assimilated. What remains are history’s remains, its forgotten subjects still stirring in the shadows, whispering incessantly and eager to take possession of the present. Though missing from our textbooks and collective memories, these ghosts will not be ignored. They will not be laid to rest anytime soon because they still have something they need to communicate, and we need to pay attention. Perhaps they’ve been exiled from their homes, murdered, or enslaved. “All the departed may return,” writes Nicolas Abraham, “but some are predestined to haunt: the dead who have been shamed during their lifetimes or those who took unspeakable secrets to their grave.”
Ghosts often come to us in the form of sightings, their shapes vaguely outlined in the shadowy half-light that lies between the visible and the invisible. Sometimes we need the aid of a seer to establish contact. Other times, they make their presence known through a striking absence, carving their outlines onto the present in a kind of intaglio that urgently tells us that something is missing. “Visibility,” writes Laura Kipnis, “is a complex system of permission and prohibition, of presence and absence, punctuated by apparitions and hysterical blindness.” In fact, haunting is inextricably linked to seeing, to the revelations of our phantasmatic visions and to the blind spots that sometimes shroud the past in dark obscurity. Accordingly, visual artists are in a unique position to give form to the specters of the past that still shape our present. Such hauntings, whether staged or sighted by visual artists, channeled through the myriad media of contemporary art, have become my preoccupation.
(See here for a full pdf version of Spalding’s text.)