Archive for April 2012
Conceptual artist David Weiss, of Swiss duo Fischli/Weiss, has passed away, two months shy of his 66th birthday.
The film, Der Lauf Der Dinge (The Way Things Are), tends to be cited as their representative work — but me, I love their early series, The Sausage Photographs, from 1979 (below).
No more Würste.
This is one of those randomly topical posts.
Image of the day: photog Franco Rubartelli’s iconic image of ’60s supermodel Veruschka, swaddled in fawn-hued fur and leather straps.
The humidity ’round here has been out of control this past week. (The April-May season is a killer. Killer.) We denizens of the tropics, though, have at least the comforts of casual wear and flip-flops … for this spread for the July ’68 edition of Vogue, shot under the searing sun of Arizona’s Painted Desert, stylist Giorgio di Sant’Angelo (yes, the designer started out as a lowly stylist) swathed Veruschka in a full-body, fur-lined wrap, held together with asphyxiating tightness by bands of brown leather. Rubartelli’s photograph of his then-squeeze made fashion history – it remains one of the most famous images of her – but the combination of sizzling heat and winter wear proved too much: she simply “tipped over like a tree.” (“Lummbeerrrrr !”)
Read an account of the episode here.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, the sun’s been great for getting the brown on, but just looking at this image (and the ones below) is making me slightly dizzy …
Like the good people of PETA, I want to say “NO TO FUR” — but that hardly seems necessary in Singapore’s context.
Image from youthquakers.
Image of the day: an advertisement for Malaccan artist Charles Cham’s t-shirt enterprise, The Orangutan House.
Local Sing-Malaysian vernacular is all about the “lah” apparently, nevermind the entire plethora of other er, verbal add-ons.
Life’s like that lor.
Image of the day: American painter Wayne Gonzales’ Seated Crowd, which depicts a movie audience. Gonzales, a native of New Orleans (one of my favourite places in the world, which is saying a lot), recently returned to the city of his birth to stage his first major solo exhibition in the country.
It’s a topical choice.
The following piece appeared in today’s edition of my paper - apparently the proliferation of CCTVs across public space in Singapore has now reached movie theatres as well, with anti-piracy measures being cited as the chief reason behind the move.
In other words, the watchers are now being watched, the subjects of the gaze simultaneously its objects.
Surveillance, in the Foucault-ian sense, has taken interesting new turns.
CCTVS TO KEEP TABS ON FILM PIRATES
By Tong Jia Han. Published: Apr 16, 2012.
Moviegoers, take note: Don’t be surprised to see an announcement flashed on the silver screen just before movies are screened, to inform you that you are being watched.
Cinema operators told my paper that they have begun installing closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras not just in the common spaces of their cineplexes, but in movie halls as well, citing security and movie piracy as reasons for doing so.
Over the last two years, film distributor and movie-theatre chain Shaw Theatres has installed CCTV cameras in all its newly established and renovated multiplexes, such as JCube and Lido.
Lido, located in Shaw House in Orchard Road, re-opened after renovation works in May last year while JCube, a mall in Jurong East where the Cineplex is located, opened on April 5.
Mr Terence ong,Hong, vice-president of media for Shaw Theatres, said that the CCTV cameras are meant mainly for anti-piracy purposes.
“However, we also realized that they allow us to trouble-shoot (in the event of) any disputes involving cinema operators or customers,” he said.
“Only authorised personnel have access to the CCTVs and their footage,” he added.
Mr Heng said there are plans to have CCTV cameras installed at all seven of Shaw’s multiplexes in due course.
The CCTV cameras have also helped in police investigations into one case so far, he said, without providing details.
A spokesman for leisure and entertainment group Cathay Organisation Holdings said that CCTV cameras are installed on their premises, especially at entrances, exits and in projection rooms.
The spokesman added that night-vision binoculars are also used to monitor piracy activities.
The Motion Picture Association (MPA) reported that about 90 per cent of newly released movies that are pirated can be traced to thieves who use digital recording devices in cinemas.
Mr Edward Neubronner, vice-president and regional operations officer of MPA Asia Pacific, said: “Despite measures to inform moviegoers that the use of recording devices is prohibited in cinemas, we still see cases involving students or foreign nationals caught using their mobile phones to record.
“It is of paramount importance to the local film industry that measures to deter illegal camcording remain a priority.”
Some cinema patrons are uneasy over the move.
School teacher Chue Weng Fai, 32, said: “It seems like an invasion of privacy and feels strange knowing that there are cameras watching your every move.”
Secretary Philicia Mok, 38, felt that the use of CCTV cameras to curb piracy would have limited success.
She said: “There are many ways to skin a cat. people will still find a way to steal content if they want to.”
Image from Shaw Online.
First, anonymity as a regulatory force, socio-political instrumentalism at its bluntest: “ … an effect of actions taken against a subject by one invested with greater authority or power. This is anonymity as something done to the subject, acts that take what is most recognizable or objectionable about the subject and diffuse or nullify those parts.”
Now, anonymity as a radical response, a re-direction of the otherwise negational act of erasure: “What I am suggesting in this exhibition is a counter possibility, that when faced with this force the subject as glimpsed in this exhibition could take on that anonymity toward altogether different ends. When the anonymity maintains the trace of individuality rather than erase it, for one, or when anonymity is a sign that the subject is not completely whole or human, and therefore not quite within reach of any attempts to normalize it.”
That’s local artist Jason Wee, who curated Subject Shall Remain Anonymous, on his theme of choice. It’s a suasive thesis. The resonances here are varied and urgent: the revelation of intersecting power structures; the expression of subalternity (especially immediate within the context of Southeast Asia, where autocratic regimes of one sort or another are the norm rather than the exception); the possibilities of aesthetic resistance. The title, as a matter of fact, pretty much sums it up. The use of the imperative – the voice of decree – establishes a differential of authority between speaker and audience, and the omission of an article, whether definite or indefinite, functions as a grammatical elision invoking the contingent status of the “subject”. Interposed, then,between the denial of individual agency by oligarchic systems, and the appropriation of such gestures as, antithetically, acts of ownership and self-determination, are the multifarious strategies serving to occlude the artistic object, the effacement, abstraction, deracination, dispersal, withdrawal, material inflection and iconographic negotiation shrouding it in layers of eloquent hidden-ness.
Perhaps the most direct measure here of anonymity and its modalities is the distance from naturalistic representations of the human body – i.e. how the somatic complex, as the consequence of long-held traditions and discourses of verisimilar portraiture, is simultaneously evoked and erased. Take Maya Munoz’s paintings (above, top), for instance: incognito personalities posed against equally unrecognizable backdrops, both figure and ground constituted by trickles, streaks, blotches, and whirling eddies of paint, the legibility of their subject matter receding beneath the barrage of conspicuous mark-making. Or Jeremy Sharma’s rather derivative contributions (above, bottom). While likewise appropriating the idiom of gestural abstraction, their surfaces submitted to an imbroglio of conspicuous brushstrokes and bleeding drips (de Kooning, anyone?), these works extend the trope of anonymity by a doubled act of obfuscation: the subjects, an astronaut and a racer, are individuals masked – literally – by their respective occupations, any suggestion of subjectivity buried by livery, equipment, signs of corporate sponsorship. The person inhabiting the suit is removed twice over from the spectator’s gaze, rendered ambivalent by both attribute (what they wear) and style (how they’re depicted).
Portraiture is often adduced as that most iconic of signs (along with photography, though not without howls of protest in the latter’s case), a system of corporeal representation foregrounding physical and social semblance – i.e. likeness. C. S. Peirce’s semiotic triad of icon-index-symbol has been discussed elsewhere on the pages of this blog, but just by way of a quick recap: the iconic sign-type is largely premised on verisimilitude, the degree of proximity to its real-life referent. Of the icon, Peirce had this to say: “Most icons, if not all, are likenesses of their objects.” Or: “… firstly, Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves …” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) He would go on to qualify this definition – and categorize three different sorts of icons – but more on that later. The point here is, at its most basic (and reductive), Peircean iconicity is established on similitude.
The second sign-type, the index, is predicated on existential contiguities between sign and object. As commonly understood by art historians, the painterly gesture, qua index, is a trace of the artist’s hand that emphasizes its own processual or constitutive nature, rather than being an image grounded in naturalism (unlike the index). Elsewhere, Rosalind Krauss has said of the index: “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents … Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects …” (Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths [MIT Press, 1986].) As signs that exist “along the axis of a physical relationship”, indices are marks (like footprints) that act as material indicators of their origins (the foot that made it). One of the primary mechanisms of the semiotic process here, then – Peirce identified several more – is that of cause and effect.
Harold Rosenberg, c. 1950. Image from Archives of American Art.
Clement Greenberg, in 1978. Image from this UW-Milwaukee site.
It is in the break between the iconic (representational mimesis) and the indexical (a-referential action-ism) that the works of Munoz and Sharma locate their various configurations of dis-identification. As Wee notes, anonymity, as a response to the depredations of hegemonic networks rather than being a mere effect of said incursions, operates most cogently when it “maintains the trace of individuality rather than [completely] eras-[ing] it.” Put another way: these paintings of rubbed-out individuals, clad in everyday attire like jeans or veiled behind helmets and buried in hi-tech gear, may seem to proscribe the sort of subjective, iconic specificity afforded by realist portraiture, the departure from verisimilitude dovetailing with notions of social marginalization. Yet the sort of pictorial delineations here function also in the way of indexicality: while retaining the broad contours of figural description, they also employ the sort of vigorous, assertive, dynamic brushwork associated with action painting.* Or, in Harold Rosenberg’s words: “The innovation of Action Painting was to dispense with the representation of the state in favor of enacting it in physical movement. The action on the canvas became its own representation.” (Italics mine.) The self-evident, self-defining gestures of the Abstract Expressionists – to use the label appropriated by Greenberg, who, famously, disagreed with Rosenberg’s characterization – channeled by the present paintings belie the understanding of facelessness as powerlessness, anonymity as anomie. Quite simply, the energy and the authority conveyed by the brushstrokes (as indexical signs) contradict the impression of invisibility (in the iconic register), restoring to the otherwise obliterated, undistinguished subject on the surface of the canvas a sense of puissance.
* It’s perhaps not uninteresting that, apropos of artists working in the year 2012, explicatory recourse is still being had to paradigms established 60 years ago. (Rosenberg’s piece, “The American Action Painters”, was first published in 1952.) Failure of critical response (mine), or artistic imagination (theirs) ?
Yet, even within the conceptual framework of the show – of anonymity as criticality – works like Munoz’s and Sharma’s seem … the least compelling.
The interruption of a mimetic pictorial syntax by the sort of gestural inflections discussed above are utilized to similar effect by various other pieces as well: Mella Jaarsma’s melding of synthetic Cubist forms and Orientalist motifs (Protectors of Candi Suku III; above, top); Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s depiction of a man’s back, the enclosing space thick with a mesh of charcoal pencil-lines (Reclining Figure #13; above, middle); the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t faces of Vincent Leow’s figures (above, bottom). Deviating from the tropes of iconic representationalism seems the most straightforward process of constituting the anonymous – and, by dint of that fact, the most unexciting as well. If anything, those inclusions here which lend themselves less immediately to claims of visual anonymity offer precisely the richest examples of that very proposition. The show, in fact, opens with a classic instance of traditional portraiture, a painting of a nameless young woman (below, top) being the first work in the gallery the viewer encounters:
This exhibition started with a mystery. The gallerist Tolla Sloane showed me a painting by Doris Duke, a commercial portraitist who worked in Malaya and died in Singapore in 1967, who was also Tolla’s grandmother. The portrait ‘Girl in Pink’ was finished in 1955 for an exhibition for the Women Artists of Malaya group, which included Georgette Chen among others. The Malay girl in the painting was not named in any of the exhibition documents in Tolla’s possession, and though we suspected that some of the other artists in that exhibition may have painted the same teenage model, we could not find her likeness elsewhere, at least not in what we saw of Chen’s and her contemporaries’ paintings from those years. She remained a nameless cipher for the ambitions of others …
(Jason Wee, “Subject Shall Remain Anonymous”, in the accompanying catalogue.)
Duke’s Girl in Pink, at first glance, is that which many of its fellows in the show are not: an expressive, suggestive depiction of an individual, rendered with the specificity of detail appropriate to the work of a professional portrait painter ? (Which Duke was, according to the brief bio in the exhibition booklet.) The figure’s softly-limned features, the coy, downcast gaze and ever-so-slightly parted lips; her quaint braids, and the pink ribbons, and the wispy peach-hued blouse with its snow-white collar; the edge of a painting behind her set into an edge of the painting – the cumulative effect is one of class and culture, gentle breeding and gracious manners. So much for the immediately expressive. What the painting suggests, while less discernable, is no less interesting nor significant: a girl of her race and (presumably) religion in 1950s Malaya – the fledgling federation then a mere two years away from full independence – with uncovered head and open neck, sitting for a portrait. The question, of course, is one of wider social mores, of the particular historico-geographical moment in which the image is moored: did Malay-Muslim girls of her age and class, in 1955, wear these things, do these things ? If it’s fair to assume that they generally did not, what sort of inferences may be drawn about the sitter ? Does the deliberate aura of refinement and breeding – of a certain socio-economic class and its prerogatives, in other words – serve to set her apart in more ways than one, and what, if anything, does that say about social differentiation and the practice of Islam in the Merdeka era ?
Grand-sounding claims. The litany of issues above, though, ultimately fails to take into account a crucial point: whether the painting was a commissioned portrait, or posed for by a hired model (as Wee suggests). And it is in that sense, of a fundamental ontological instability, that the girl in pink remains as much an enigma to us as, say, Munoz’s obscured bodies. The portrait may situate itself within a discourse of representational image-making, of pictures as signs that resemble their real-world referents, but, imbricated as it is within a web of contextual uncertainties, the unanswered questions of just who the girl was, and the circumstances of Duke’s painting of her, render the work a deracinated likeness of no one, a signifier of anonymity rather than identity. To return to the idea of the icon: Peirce would go on qualified the concept in a more specific fashion, noting that “An icon is a sign which would possess the character which renders it significant, even though its object had no existence; such as a lead-pencil streak as representing a geometrical line.” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) In other words, likeness, as it concerns iconicity, is not predicated on actual existence; rather, the resemblance may relate to completely imaginary objects or to ideas (e.g. geometry) instead. An icon, then, may operate along the lines of visual similitude without gesturing at any particular object existing in reality – as, of course, Duke’s girl in pink does here, a nomadic sign anchored to an indeterminate, evacuated entity.
I like the idea of recuperating the anonymous underside of portraiture – itself a kind of intellectual agency. The issue perhaps becomes particularly acute at the intersection of History (with the capital ‘H’) and subjectivity, as is the case here. I think T. J. Clark put it best: “Class is a name, I take it, for that complex and determinate place we are given in the social body; it is the name for everything which signifies that a certain history lives us, lends us our individuality.” (Italics mine; see The Painting of Modern Life [Knopf, 1985].)
Ang Sookoon’s Love is like a chunk of gold (below, bottom), the sole sculptural piece included in the show, makes for a wonderfully apropos note on which to end. The artist introduced a solution of phosphoric acid into a loaf of bread, causing crystals to sprout, and then encased the entire object in resin. The final product looks rather like a mutant cephalopod.
It just sits in its little plastic case, coolly, calmly, self-possessed; it is also the one work here which simply jettisons any form of reference to the human body at all. Non-existence – the most radical form of anonymity ?
Worth a check-out: Valentine Willie’s latest show, Wawasan 2020: The Malaysian Dream.
Wawasan takes as its jumping-off point Mahathir’s programmatic vision of Malaysia in the year 2020: a progressive, affluent, unified utopia, no longer “developing” but “developed” – to use an often ill-adjudicated prescription. The show presents a fairly diverse congregation of the country’s emerging generation of artists, a cross-section of imaginaries conjuring “their own future through the lens of the past, present and beyond, taking Malaysia’s plans for modernity as outlined in Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020) … The premise being that by 2020 Malaysia would be a self sufficient industrialised nation that encompasses economic prosperity, social well being, world class education and political stability .” It “seeks to uncover how do [sic] artists feel about where Malaysia is going given the current socio-political landscape of the country. What are the concerns, anxieties, optimisms, and hopes for the future of Malaysia Boleh?”
The de-suturing, in other words, of faultlines running beneath the level of uncritically affirmative public discourse in Malaysia – the political, religious and racial fractures exposed by even the slightest social judders, so close to the surface of the everyday do they operate – constitutes the chief thematic thrust. Immediacy of expression seems to be key to the most compelling articulations here: Jalaini Abu Hassan’s imbrication of various gestures, materialities and referential orbits in The Prince and the Pauper; the excavation of social invisibility sedimented in squatter sub-culture by Eiffel Chong; Gan Chin Lee’s disrupted tableau limning the contours of various alterities; Anurendra Jegadeva’s iconographic mash-up of personal narratives and marginalized historical and political motifs; Sharon Chin’s installation dealing with outlawed texts, which invites the viewer’s participation and subsequently emits a flashing light and screeching noise, the resultant sensorial trauma evoking in a very visceral way the public histrionics attending the censored object and its perceived transgressions.
Other works seemed less cogent – or remained inadequately contextualized – but the show’s inspiration is laudable.
Wawasan 2020 runs at Valentine Willie Fine Art till 22 April.