Archive for the ‘Art reviews’ Category
Study of 3 Thermos Flasks (1991/2), Faizal Fadil. Included in Intersecting Histories. Image courtesy of Postcolonial Web.
The inaugural show at the newly revived Gallery of the School of Art, Design and Media at NTU is Intersecting Histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art.
An exhibition of postwar Southeast Asian art ? Okay, pretty interesting.
One curated by T. K. Sabapathy ? I’m there.
I’m still trying to make up my mind about the show, but in the meantime, the art reviewer for The Straits Times had a couple of pretty interesting opinions about it. In response, a pal – newly befriended, through sheer serendipity – had a response to her piece. Both review and rejoinder are reproduced below.
(Full disclosure: Letter-writer Yvonne Low, a PhD candidate in the Dept. of Art History & Theory at the Uni. of Sydney, is currently researching female artists of Singapore and Indonesia. She is also the author of various articles on SE Asian art, one of which is included in the catalogue for the present show.)
Review, Huang Lijie
History that is skimpy on details
(Huang Lijie, 9 October 2012)
NTU’s exhibition on the turning points in the region’s contemporary art offers little illumination on its choices
The Nanyang Technological University recently announced its ambition to be a major player in South-east Asia’s burgeoning arts scene at the re- opening of its gallery and launch of a new exhibition.
The renovated School of Art, Design and Media gallery was inaugurated with the show, Intersecting Histories. The exhibition sets out to spotlight works of art that mark turning points in the rise and development of contemporary art in the region. The curator is well-known art historian T.K. Sabapathy.
It features 28 artists and 37 works, spanning four decades to the present, from collections such as the Singapore Art Museum and National University of Singapore Museum.
The aspiration of the university and curator to participate in the writing of contemporary art history through the show befits their callings. The university will run the Centre for Contemporary Art, which opens next year at Gillman Barracks and aims to be a world- renowned centre for art residency, research and exhibition. Mr Sabapathy, meanwhile, is co-chair of the advisory committee for the programme at next year’s Singapore Biennale.
Such clarity of vision on ambition, however, is not always evident in the show.
It opens purposefully with works by five artists that date from the 1970s but exude a remarkable sense of the here-and-now in form and content.
It includes Cheo Chai Hiang’s assembly of a found piece of log and a hinged wooden washing board that swings open to reveal in red the repeated phrase, “and miles to go before I sleep”. There is also Redza Piyadasa’s tall coffin-shaped box painted with the Malaysian flag and mirrored on the floor, and Jim Supangkat’s bust of a legendary Javanese queen placed on a plinth with the drawing of a naked female torso and a lower body clad in unzipped jeans that exposes pubic hair.
The curator asserts in the wall text that the works, which also include a painting by Benedicto Cabrera and five photo-etchings by Sulaiman Esa, show qualities of nascent contemporary art practice in South-east Asia.
Yet the reason they qualify as icons and why they were picked can be gleaned only from two oblique sentences in the text. The absence of labels for individual works that explain why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history does the show no favour.
The diligent viewer, though, will be rewarded if he reads the curator’s 32-page essay in the show’s catalogue, which is being printed. The curator posits the works as hallmarks because they are by artists who either individually or as part of a collective, voiced early-on at crucial moments the need for art to stop being a purely aesthetic object defined by rigid artistic principles. The works were also made using alternative mediums and techniques, and they engaged critically with the milieu of the times, traits that distinguish it from previous art.
Works embodying these contemporary concerns are seen in a section focusing on the female body. Nindityo Adipurnomo’s wooden sculptures of traditional hair pieces worn by Javanese women as status symbols open up like jewellery boxes with mirrors under the lids to reveal an assemblage of icons that critique social obsession with sex, superstition and intoxication.
This invitation to peek and ponder is echoed in the mirrors of nearby works by Amanda Heng and Julie Lluch. The gaze that meets Lluch’s wearied, naked female sculpture, however, is introspective while Heng’s mirror on a table under a pair of red divination blocks and dish cover has a more gender-charged view.
This dynamic interplay between works continues in an open-ended segment, which the wall text proposes, explores various themes including the human figure as a symbol of a person’s pained inner psyche and global strife.
A more satisfying approach perhaps, might be to see the works as a myriad of responses to structures of power such as in politics, the art canon and personal desires. This would place Donna Ong’s sublime dioramas in serendipitous conversation with Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s fierce metal scrap warrior. In Ong’s piece, personal desires succumb to fantastical landscapes while Bayu’s sculpture stoicly resists the siege of Westernisation on indigenous identity.
Resonance persists in a standalone section of the gallery, which looks at how artists such as Niranjan Rajah and Ho Tzu Nyen become power brokers through narratives on art and history in their video works.
These intersecting discourses among the many works, which overcrowd the main gallery, highlight ideas in contemporary art. They also show how contemporary art, which is rooted in history, continually redefines itself in creative ways to respond to the present. But it offers little illumination on why themes raised, such as the female body, are pivotal to the development of contemporary art in the region and why the other works, besides those in the opening section, mark critical moments in contemporary art.
The scant wall texts are mum and the essay is not explicit. It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why or how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History And Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
Response, Yvonne Low
A response to review, “History that is skimpy on details”
(Yvonne Low, 17 November 2012)
The following article is written in response to Huang Lijie’s review of the exhibition, Intersecting histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art, held at ADM Gallery, Nanyang Technological University, which was published on 9 October 2012 in the Life! Arts section, The Straits Times.
I read with genuine surprise at the author’s appraisal of the exhibition that opened at the School of Art, Design and Media gallery on 27 September 2012 and guest curated by art historian, T.K. Sabapathy. In her write-up, Huang provided a well-composed and critical description of the exhibition, including an interesting reading of selected works. Her main contention, however, was the lack of clarity in the exhibition’s curatorial design, specifically that there were inadequate content within the signposts – by way of wall-text and labels – to explain why the selected works “qualify as icons and why they were picked” and “why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history”. Though the author referred to the curatorial essay and subsequently proceeded to provide the reasons for the works’ selection as discerned from the text, she insisted that even the essay “is not explicit”:
It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why and how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum, such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History and Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
My encounter with the exhibition turned out to be quite different from the author’s – unsurprisingly, one might say, given my somewhat privileged position where I have not only contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue discussing three of the works on display but also had several opportunities to speak with the curator when the exhibition was still being developed. That said, such “privileges” could hardly have robbed me of my ability to look at the exhibition in its entirety with all the works installed as they are now and to think for myself what to make of it all.
It is quite difficult to not consider the works in a new light given that no two exhibition can be the same; every show will be different in intent if not in configuration. It matters not if seven or seventeen of the works had in fact been shown elsewhere, but it is of how they have been exhibited in relation to other works and how they can be read in the given contexts that should matter.
Even on the outset, it is clear – without needing to read the exhibition catalogue – that this exhibition has a strong pedagogical tenor that undoubtedly sets it apart from all preceding exhibitions on Southeast Asian contemporary art. The exhibition is conceived as a project within an academic institution – a platform, far more conducive than the museum, to encourage if not foster deep and critical thinking on, especially those things that are “problematic”. The limitations of the recently renovated ADM gallery – to hold and show the scale and scope desired of a subject as expansive as Southeast Asian contemporary art – were plain to see. Huang was right about the overcrowded state of the main gallery; what she overlooked was the valiant effort that went in working with the limitations of the gallery and other institutional constraints (the works are afterall borrowed) to give to the audience as inclusive a selection as possible – or at least enough of a selection to generate some meaningful discussion and exploration of the theme and subject “intersecting histories”.
With the exception of two new site-specific creations by Koh Nguang How and Tang Da Wu (works that too were based on previous artworks), all the works on show have in some form or another been exhibited before in the last 40 years in Singapore or elsewhere in the region. Many of them acquired seminal status when they were collected by prominent institutions (and sometimes even before they were collected); these works have been rarified throughout history and in the course of their exhibition and re-exhibition. Yet, rarely have their consecration been subjected to study or examination in this manner.
The point here was precisely to explore the works’ significance and histories – this includes its exhibition history – in the context of Southeast Asian art and art historiography. The sub-themes (the explication of the human form as one example) – some of which Huang herself has shrewdly identified – reflect the investigative concerns that are deeply rooted in the discipline of art history. What the exhibition has shown is that by employing interpretive models (iconography, the study of technique and media, history etc), one may still arrive at multiple, intersecting and insightful perspectives of the contemporary.
Whether this opportunity can be fully appreciated by the Singaporean public is itself a separate issue altogether. If the exhibition has not cast new light to the works, then it would only be because the viewers have chosen to stay in the dark.
Maimed, melancholic, meta-textual.
A portrait of a young boy missing a limb, the dismembered stump dissipating into polychromatic, painterly wisps where skin and flesh should be – like so many of his fellows. A child sits with a paper-bag over his head; another is poised before what looks to be a row of Japanese soldiers in hachimaki headbands. A boy in a sailor suit and a girl perched atop a tiger-skin rug strike poses — in two different paintings — before renderings of Friedrich’s Rocky Reef on the Seashore. A seemingly unfinished triple portrait includes a re-presentation of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (the Borghese version), with a filmic projection placed squarely over Goliath’s head, introducing a constant glare of shifting, flickering disruptions into the visual field.
Such is the iconography of enigmatic, near anonymous Singaporean painter Huang Wei.
According to local gallery owner Alan Oei (the man behind Evil Empire and the annual OH! Open House event), who also curated the present show at Valentine Willie’s space in Kuala Lumpur, the story of the discovery of Huang runs like this:
In mid 2009, my [Oei’s] friend Nora Samosir called me. She said her uncle-contractor had found rolls and rolls of old paintings. At that time, I was deeply interested in the Equator Art Society – a group of Chinese Social Realist painters who were largely forgotten. To come across an outsider artist who didn’t even make it into our art history – was an incredible find !
The paintings of strange and maimed children were just completely at odds with everything I knew about Singapore. Me and Nora, and a few others decided to organize a lecture-performance. Nora is a veteran actress so she presented it while I helped with the research about the artist and restoration of the paintings. Part of the attraction was that there was so little material about him – one trunk of personal effects – and I’m not exactly an archivist researcher, so there was a fair amount of conjecture. I became obsessed with this romantic archetype of the melancholic artist painting in his own warped universe.
Of what little is known about Huang:
Huang Wei is a Singaporean artist born in 1914. He worked in his family photography studio even while he was in school. My guess is that his first love was art not photography. He won an art scholarship for instance, and also studied with the famous Richard Walker, art superintendent of Singapore. But his paintings are all heavily influenced by photography.
(From an interview published in the show’s accompanying pamphlet.)
In a nutshell, that’s pretty much it for facts.
And the significance of Velázquez, so tellingly namechecked in the title ?
Cue Huang’s triumvirate from the early ‘60s: The boy in the arch, The boy with the glacier, The girl with the tiger. (See above.) That the three paintings belong in a series of sorts is clear at first glance: Arch and Tiger both feature the back of a large canvas as a salient motif, the first on the right side of the composition, the second on its left, as if the same canvas – visual details also correspond in both works – had been stretched across the interstitial gap. And a rendition of Caspar David Friedrich’s Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore (c. 1824) appears in Tiger and in Glacier: mounted on the wall in the former, as a surreally large copy in the latter. The motific parallels to Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) are unmissable, if somewhat ambiguous: the canvas with it’s back to viewer, of course; the slant of sunlight moving in from the right of the space in Glacier (Las Meninas is similarly lit); the painting of a painting (like the del Mazo renditions of Reubens in the background of Meninas, themselves depictions of copies, or paintings of copies of paintings); the pendant around the necks of the girl in Tiger and the figure of doña Isabel de Velasco (standing to the right of the princess in Meninas), as well as the tiger’s head in the former, and the dog in Velázquez.
Many of these parallels are perhaps oblique visual references, and less by way of outright similarities, but the fact remains that Huang seems to have been greatly taken with the work of the Spanish master:
When I [Oei] saw Huang’s paintings with these bizarre motifs that present the back-of-canvas, I could only think of Las Meninas. And true enough, Huang was inspired by that painting. I don’t know exactly what inspired him, but he made at least 30 drawings and paintings around this iconic work …… Michel Foucault, the French theorist, suggested that Las Meninas was the first history painting to recognize and embody the idea of representation. The world that exists within paintings (and texts) is not the same as reality. Representation organizes signs and information within different systems.
(From the interview.)
Oei is of course referring to Foucault’s famous disquisition on the painting – far too detailed and extensive to reproduce in its entirety here – which concludes along these lines:
Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velázquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements … indicated compellingly from every side: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.
(See the chapter “Las Meninas” in Foucault, The Order of Things.)
You’ll have to read the essay for that to make sense, but the bottomline is this: Las Meninas is a representation of representation, a painting in which the praxis of two-dimensional depiction, in all its strategic methods, manipulations and craft, is depicted two-dimensionally – the gaps in the narrative, such as it were, foregrounding the artifice of an aesthetic construction.
And it is that sense of the performative, of a painter painting a deliberately painterly painting, an art historical art, which leaps out at the viewer. The nexus of cross-gazes and semantic lacunae which Foucault identifies in Las Meninas is missing here, but Huang’s work remains imbricated in various layers of citational self-reflexivity, of discursive canniness, of teasing, ambiguous hints and half-truths, of occluded, private spheres of meaning. What, in other words, does one make of the tiger’s head in Girl with the tiger, the feline motif also recurring in The boy with the tiger (c. 1960; below) ? The latter seems to be a self-portrait of a young Huang, if the photographs uncovered by Oei, and included in the show (below), are anything to go by; the juxtaposition of boy and tiger may be an expression of personal preference, or it may be personal in another way altogether (1914, the purported year of the artist’s birth, being a Year of the Tiger). As a creature slaughtered and skinned, lying at the feet of a winsome, comely young thing, does it assume yet another channel of significance we are not privy to ? (A lost love maybe ?) And the allusion to Friedrich ? Rocky Reef is not one of the German painter’s better-known works – what of its inclusion not once, but twice, in two different paintings ? In Boy with glacier, the work has been enlarged almost to the point of taking on the character of a realistic backdrop; the choice of a work sans Friedrich’s trademark Rückenfigur may or may not be of import. Is the boy then to be read as a reversal, of the absent “back figure” (literally) contemplating the sublimity of a romantic topography – here conspicuously turned to face the viewer, acutely aware of the “burning gaze” (as Oei puts it) of the reality beyond the canvas ? And the reduction of Friedrich’s painting to its original dimensions, firmly embedded within a domestic interior, in Girl with tiger ? The wildness of the landscape, in this case a murkily visible presence contained in a frame, a controlled sublimity; the ostensible ferocity of the tiger’s head, in actuality no more than a rug beneath the subject’s feet; even the flowers, resembling rather a naturally-blooming branch, is as carefully cultivated as a pot of bonsai, as aesthetically appealing as a still-life (the geometric angularity of the pot measured against the biomorphic shapes of the plant, the profusion of foliage and flora tapering into a slender stem) – the disparity between the tamed nature which characterizes the girl’s domestic milieu, and the deliberate verisimilitude of Rocky Reef as a backdrop for the boy, seems to gesture at some form of gendered asymmetry at work. Finally, how does one imagine the relationship between the tiger girl and the boy beneath the arch, if indeed the depicted canvas unites the pair ? And the boy with the glacier ? What is his relationship to his fellows ? How does one account for the triangulated iconography suturing the three works ?
As with so much concerning Huang Wei, answers – or even leads – seem to be in short supply at this stage.
Another reiterated motif in Huang’s oeuvre is that of the maimed child: often missing an arm, sometimes an eye. And – again, in the absence of the displaced artist, who cannot or will not speak out of the silence to which history has relegated him – we have only Oei’s word to go on: Alan Oei, who willy-nilly seems to have become a posthumous alter-ego of sorts for Huang, speaking for, or channeling, if you will, in the manner of a conjuration or a possession*, the dead man, the ghostly overtones of that process evoking the no less eerie, spectral entities of Huang’s paintings, haunting the present moment like so many anomalous apparitions. In any case, here is Oei on the topic of Huang’s malformed children:
Huang lost his family – his two children and his wife – at the start of the Second World War when the bombs fell. I don’t know if he was specifically trying to express or sublimate that trauma onto the canvas, but it certainly feels that way. It’s hard not to relate this to the violence of war. However, I do think there is much more than that. Perhaps it’s also the futility of making paintings in a time of photography, of new ways of looking at the world.
(See his interview.)
* Although it has to pointed out, perhaps, that in this case the line between the roles of possessor and possessed are far from clear.
It may be a little difficult perhaps to make a case for Huang’s aesthetics of negation and transformation vis-à-vis photographic technology – the “the futility of making paintings in a time of photography, of new ways of looking at the world” – almost a century after the advent of Impressionism, which emerged in part at least as a response to the new scopic regime of the photograph. Most of his paintings on display here date to the 1950s and 1960s, only a short while, one notes, before the relationship between the autographic and photographic arts was reconfigured again by the photorealist movement, which took flight in the late ‘60s. If anything, Huang’s work seems deliberately anachronistic: harking back to an earlier era of the studio photograph-portrait, adopting a citational idiom teased out from the work of the Baroque masters – at a time when his peers, like the Nanyang school folk, were still indebted to the visual vocabulary of the various Modernist -isms.
Yet, at the same time, Huang also strikes the one as being more … oddly contemporary than many of his contemporaries. (Though ‘contemporary’ in this case may be something of a relative term.) Take The boy with the golden collar (above), the figure quite visibly wanting a left limb. Despite the conventions of portrait painting which informs so much of Huang’s vision, the point at which the human body is disrupted here – the boundary between broken arm and exteriority – is rendered destabilized, ambivalent, heteroclitic. The departure from the nominally naturalistic idiom of the painting is striking: the child’s coat-sleeve has seemingly vanished along with his phantom limb, leaving in its place an abstract mess of thread-like skeins resembling splinters of ripped-off fabric – or, more significantly, brushstrokes that never quite cohered into a recognizable form. The phenomenon becomes even more pronounced in The boy with the emerald sleeve (above): where the rest of the figure’s right arm should be is instead a kaleidoscopic complex of painterly gestures in bejeweled hues, a complex of dripping, bleeding runnels of surreal chromaticism. The motif of the fractured body, then, of the breakdown of bodily integrity, dovetails, at both visual and conceptual levels, with an inflected, irregular mode of mimesis, a grammar of naturalism interrupted by hints of the sort of Pollock-ian painterliness that came to dominate the Ab Ex school – as if, at the very point where the mimetically-depicted human body surrendered its fleshly unity, the means of representation itself relinquished any claims to verisimilitude, assuming instead the abstraction of process-oriented actionism, with the conceptual shift occurring spatially at the site of a corporeal distortion.
Untitled (unknown date), Huang Wei. Oil on linen (and video projection).
Perhaps no other work in the show encapsulates, or crystallizes, the issues concerning the Huang Wei myth better than the untitled piece (above), a seemingly unfinished, undated/undateable canvas featuring a troika of figures including two unidentified personages – although one of those bears a rather uncanny likeness to Singapore’s eminent Minister Mentor – as well as a reproduction of Caravaggio’s version of David with the Head of Goliath in the Borghese gallery. The curator – I think – decided to augment the piece, such as it were: Oei projected video footage of the head of Goliath, said to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, over its painted counterpart, a projection which assumed the angular contours of a four-sided canvas, thus imposing onto the real canvas a meta-painting of flickering light, with the subject matter of both – Goliath’s, or the artist’s head – meeting in a precisely calibrated position. One, an actual, three-dimensional object, a work sedimented in numerous layers of contextual, iconographic and semantic uncertainties; the other, a thing of light and shadow, insubstantial as the evacuated meanings behind the first. One, an obscure artist unknown in his time and now dead; the other, a curator-archeologist whose personal presence at the site of the first seems in equal parts excavation and intervention.
It’s all almost delectably confused.
The cab ride there, which included two spins down the length of Jalan Cempaka and a couple of mini-tours of the surrounding housing estates, cost me 30 RM. Matching up addresses and topographical reality can be a hazardous business in Kuala Lumpur.
Well worth it though, all things considered.
The House of Matahati, which evolved out of the Matahati collective founded by a group of young Malaysian artists in the late ’80s, is definitely one of the highlights on the KL art circuit (the latter, unfortunately, a rather nondescript one). Its current offering, Drawing a Distance: Drawings from 3 cities, boasts quite a few gems: works from Filipino Victor Balanon’s Dream of the Nameless Hundred series; Indonesian Maryanto’s etchings on photographic paper; Nurrachmat Widyasena’s Each One Was a Hero; Malaysian Lim Keh Soon’s whimsical, macabre little figures, in the spirit of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies perhaps.
Pictures below; enjoy.
Works by Poodien. [left] Brave Old World: Raya Untuk Ravana (2012), charcoal, acrylic & ink on canvas. [right] Brave Old World: Langkapuri Yang Lain, Melarut ufuk, Berpasak Alih (2012), shadow puppet & charcoal on paper.
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.
Local artist Alecia Neo’s Goddess of Mercy is being presented at the Substation Gallery as part of the M1 Fringe Fest. this year.
The artist has recreated two living spaces from real-life referents, belonging to a pair of mother-son couples: the Neos (any relation?), a devoutly Buddhist, cancer-stricken woman living with her hairstylist son, who professes faith in a personal mash-up of various Buddhist and Taoist cults, as well popular Asian folk religion. In the other section, culled from the lives of the Tans, the younger Tan considers himself agnostic, while his mother, a pious Catholic, now suffers from a debilitating case of Alzheimer’s.
Re-imagined domesticity as narrative is nothing new. (Simon Fujiwara’s censored contribution to the local Biennale last year, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, is a case in point.) What was striking about Neo’s piece is her embrace of the olfactory dimension: a small coil of incense was kept burning in one section of the work (the Neos’), and some essence of rosemary in the other. Engaging the sensorium is a big deal in contemporary art these days, but the tactile and the aural senses are the next most common modes of appeal after the visual – and only rarely the olfactory and/or gustatory after that.
Props to Neo, and the Substation as well for being open-minded about their space. It may seem like a trifling touch, but not for nothing is smell considered the most powerfully evocative of the senses – the incense, in particular, activated the display for me in very immediate, visceral ways, evoking the numberless shrines and temples I’ve encountered over the course of my life, the thick, woody scent of joss sticks coating the air almost always an inescapable element …
Goddess of Mercy runs till Feb 26.
Prices (2011), William Powhida. Image courtesy of the artist’s personal site.
A belated look at Art Stage Singapore 2012 .. or ASS, as some are fond of referring to it.
There are no numbers here.
And there are no definitely no checklists inventorying who sold what to whom for how much. (Interest in art itself deflected by interest in their prices – just about so neat a fulfillment of Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish it’s nearly ridiculous.)
A disjointed juxtaposition seemed like the only comprehensible response to the bloated phenomenon that is the contemporary art fair.
Next to the entrance to this year’s Art Stage fair, where a posse of goons in dark suits stand like chthonic sentinels before a walkthrough metal detector soaring ceiling-wards, guests are greeted by an aureate version of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue (above). This one isn’t too large. Measuring some six by six feet, it’s love on a manageable, human scale. Unlike its more monumental counterparts – say, the colossal one just a block away from the MoMA in Manhattan – this piece crouches down to look the viewer in the face … or, more pertinently, to let the viewer look it in its (type)face.
Painted a gleaming gold, this particular incarnation of Indiana’s work was proudly displayed on a L-shaped platform, like the embrace of a cupped hand, with spotlights trained on it both from above and below, the illumination serving to bring out the incandescent shimmer of the hue. The sides were coloured a bold, garish red: besides chiming with the rich vermilion and crimson shades of the wall-to-wall carpeting beneath, the immediate evocation – for me anyways – was a pair of Louboutin stilettos.
Indiana’s LOVE design first emerged from the socio-political ferment of the 1960s as, of all things, a MoMA Christmas card. (It was also probably a response to certain nascent visual trends, like Pop Art and hard-edge painting). According to this Mental Floss article:
Robert Indiana never intended for his LOVE sculpture to become an emblem of 1960s counterculture, because it had nothing to do with free love or hippies. As with his other works, LOVE was all about personal symbolism
The word “love” was connected to his childhood experiences attending a Christian Science church, where the only decoration was the wall inscription, “God is Love.”
The colors were an homage to his father, who worked at a Phillips 66 gas station during the Depression. “When I was a kid, my mother used to drive my father to work in Indianapolis, and I would see, practically every day of my young life, a huge Phillips 66 sign,” he once wrote. “So it is the red and green of that sign against the blue Hoosier sky.”
The tilted O was common in medieval typography, and Indiana has variously described the leaning letter as representing either a cat’s eye or an erect phallus.
The LOVE icon as commentary on Christian Science – and, more broadly, the promises and blandishments of organized religion …
… here morphed into a gilded monument, glittering away under the spotlights.
A neat segue.
First, Stephen Colbert on what he dubbed “moneytheism”:
And it means that our collective cultural belief that the unfettered free market will take care of us is also not delusional. No. It is actually a religion. You see, psychiatrists often use use cultural acceptance to explain why it is not crazy to hold certain religious beliefs, say, a virgin gave brith to God’s son, or it’s an abomination to eat shrimp, or we protect ourselves from evil by wearing magic underwear. So, let’s just classify belief in the free market as religion. After all, they both have invisible hands, and move in mysterious ways. That way, no one can call us crazy and we can get all the benefits the government gives to churches. We no longer have to pay taxes on the money we make as long as we face Wall Street six times a day and say our prayer. “There is no god but Alan and more profits are his prophet.” Then on Judgment Day Ronald Reagan will return on a cloud of glory and take us up to money heaven.
(From the Nov 19, 2008, episode of The Colbert Report. Watch the relevant clip here.)
Now Martha Rosler on the money-driven world of the contemporary art fair:
Accusations of purely symbolic display, of hypocrisy, are easily evaded by turning to, finally, the third method of global discipline, the art fair, for fairs make no promises other than sales and parties; there is no shortage of appeals to pleasure. There has been a notable increase in the number and locations of art fairs in a short period, reflecting the art world’s rapid monetization; art investors, patrons, and clientele have shaken off the need for internal processes of quality control in favor of speeded-up multiplication of financial and prestige value. Some important fairs have set up satellite branches elsewhere. Other important fairs are satellites that outshine their original venues and have gone from the periphery of the art world’s vetting circuit to center stage. At art fairs, artworks are scrutinized for financial-portfolio suitability, while off-site fun (parties and dinners), fabulousness (conspicuous consumption), and non-art shopping are the selling points for the best-attended fairs—those in Miami, New York, and London (and of course the original, Basel). Dealers pay quite a lot to participate, however, and the success of the fair as a business venture depends on the dealers’ ability to make decent sales and thus to want to return in subsequent years.
(See Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”?” in e-flux Journal 12 [01/2010].)
The always-already interpellated subject, according to Althusser:
To take a highly ‘concrete’ example, we all have friends who, when they knock on our door and we ask, through the door, the question ‘Who’s there?’, answer (since ‘it’s obvious’) ‘It’s me’. And we recognize that ‘it is him’, or ‘her’. We open the door, and ‘it’s true, it really was she who was there’. To take another example, when we recognize somebody of our (previous) acquaintance ((re)-connaissance) in the street, we show him that we have recognized him (and have recognized that he has recognized us) by saying to him ‘Hello, my friend’, and shaking his hand (a material ritual practice of ideological recognition in everyday life – in France, at least; elsewhere, there are other rituals) ……
As a first formulation I shall say: all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject.
This is a proposition which entails that we distinguish for the moment between concrete individuals on the one hand and concrete subjects on the other, although at this level concrete subjects only exist insofar as they are supported by a concrete individual.
I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellationor hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. And yet it is a strange phenomenon, and one which cannot be explained solely by ‘guilt feelings’, despite the large numbers who ‘have something on their consciences’.
Naturally for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal succession. There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out often it is the right one) turns round, believing/suspecting/knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing. But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.
I might add: what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology. As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing). Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality).
Above is Indo-Thai artist Navin Rawanchikul’s massive painting, part of his Navinland installation.
This, perhaps, represents the navel-gazing of the art world at its best.
The label describes it: “Navinland Needs You: We Are Asia! is a newly composed art created especially for Art Stage Singapore 2012. Almost 13-metres in length, the centrepiece acrylic canvas is a celebratory Who’s Who of many of the significant figures in Asian Art today.”
Indeed it is. Below is a listing – helpfully provided by Art Stage, next to the painting – of just who.
Wally-spotting was never so amusing.
In the meantime, here is a snippet from art critic Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class:
2.0 Today, the ruling class, which is capitalist, dominates the sphere of the visual arts
2.1 It is part of the definition of a ruling class that it controls the material resources of society
2.2 The ruling ideologies, which serve to reproduce this material situation, also represent the interests of the ruling class
2.3 The dominant values given to art, therefore, will be ones that serve the interests of the current ruling class
2.4 Concretely, within the sphere of the contemporary visual arts, the agents whose interests determine the dominant values of art are: large corporations, including auction houses and corporate collectors; art investors, private collectors and patrons; trustees and administrators of large cultural institutions and universities
2.5 One role for art, therefore, is as a luxury good, whose superior craftsmanship or intellectual prestige indicates superior social status
2.6 Another role for art is to serve as financial instrument or tradable repository of value
2.7 Another role for art is as sign of “giving back” to the community, to whitewash ill-gotten gains
2.8 Another role for art is symbolic escape valve for radical impulses, to serve as a place to isolate and contain social energy that runs counter to the dominant ideology
2.9 A final role for art is the self-replication of ruling-class ideology about art itself—the dominant values given to art serve not only to enact ruling-class values directly, but also to subjugate, within the sphere of the arts, other possible values of art
And here is current darling of the New York art scene, William Powhida, famed for his take-no-prisoners approach to art world critique, and his Dear Art World, the text of which is transcribed below (courtesy of brainpickings.com):
Dear Art World,
I feel you sitting there trying to process the CRAZY shit going on. I’ve been there for months, and it’s driving me INSANE. Fuck it, it seems counterproductive to EVEN talk about this shit, because EVERYONE ALREADY KNOWS WHY “SHIT is REALLY FUCKED UP,” or why I’m wrong.
BUT, I’ve come to some conclusions about shit. One is that we spend A LOT of time BLAMING each other for notunderstanding WHAT the problem actually is — TRANSPARENCY, Barack Obama, mandates LOBBYISTS, immigrants, RESPONSIBILITY, FREEDOM Truth, LIZARD PEOPLE, FLUORIDE in the water… TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE OF ANY OF IT.
I mean, everyone ALREADY has the Answer, it’s just that every ELSE just has ‘it’ all wrong. It’s really simple, apparently, to fix everything by applying some JESUS™, REGULATION®, or CONSTITUTION™ to it. If only we’d just free the Market, convict some bankers, spiritually channel the Founding Fathers, regulate derivatives, STOP eating GM corn syrup, spend more…time with your Family OR LEGALIZE DRUGS.
EXCEPT WE don’t do shit*, because this is AMERICA, Land of the Mr. Softee® and home of the BRAVES® where we are FREE to ARGUE about the CAUSES of social and ECONOMIC inequalities until the grass-fed cows come home. We argue in comment threads, on Facebook™, and twitter™. AND, when we aren’t arguing, We agree with our favorite ‘experts’ on FOX®, CNBC™, and CNN™ as we slide into RECESSION 2.0.
One of the OBVIOUS conclusions I’ve arrived at is that a very FEW people LIKE it that way. WHILE SHIT is bad for MOST of us — 9%+ unemployment, $14 TRILLION+ debt, and a perpetual War on Terror® — *THEY* hope we’ll all just pull a lever next fall ‘PROBLEM SOLVED’ and argue some more about the INTENTIONS of the CLIMATE, BECAUSE the 1% is doing fine.
The only FACTS worth stating are that 20% of the population controls 85% of the net worth and earned 49.9% of the income last year. IN the AMERICAN SPIRIT™ of BLAME and recrimination I’m going to point the finger at…deREGULATED CAPITALISM®! IT is in the very spirit of Capitalism to ACQUIRE MORE CAPITAL. To quote @O_SattyCripnAzz, fellow citizen and member of #Team #1mmy [?], “Money is money no matter how u get it.”
Unfortunately, the same 1% also supports the rest of us by BYING shit and funding almost everything else (museums, residencies, grants…) putting some of us in an awkward position (YOU TOO NATO and Pedro), BUT that doesn’t mean we should SHUT THE FUCK UP, take their MONEY, and say ‘Thank you!’ The Art World is NOT separate from SOCIETY and THIS is how SHIT gets all FUCKED UP — PLUTARCHY, motherfuckers.
So, in my useless capacity as a tool artist, I’ve made some pictures about this SHIT that are FREE to look at**, and they’re ALL DERIVATIVES.
[signed William Powhida]
** Bring a chair
Dear Art World (2011), William Powhida. Image from the artist’s site.
Korean artist Lee Yongbaek’s Broken Mirror Classic consists of a mirror in a gilt frame.
Serendipitously, the perfect moment of self-regarding complicity.
Image from The Substation site.
The facade of the Substation is currently swathed in a screen of black and white PVC slats. The installation is the brainchild of a local architect and a designer, Randy Chan and Grace Tan, titled Building as a Body. The work, as that moniker suggests, imagines architecture as anatomy. According to Tan:
The façade becomes bare and neutral, but powerful and dynamic beyond the surface. Subsequently, Randy and I started talking about the parallel between the body and architecture. Over the course of our dialogue, the notion of constructing a layer/skin to cover the façade came naturally to us.
By shrouding the façade, we are removing and masking the ‘face’ of the building, which is the most critical, visual, and symbolic physical representation of The Substation.
(See an interview with Tan here.)
The correlation between built structures and somatic structures is not a new one:
… Renaissance building owed its special qualities as an “architecture of humanism” to its analogies, in theory and physical presence, to the human body. A confessed Wolfflinian himself, Rowe would seem to agree with the ascription of a corporeal psychology to the experience of architecture, a response of the human body to a building that, for the building to be successful, would have, so to speak, to be matched and instigated by the building itself. We sense an echo of Wolfflin’s conclusion that “we judge every object by analogy with our own bodies.” Wolfflin wrote of the “creature”-like nature of the building, “with head and foot, back and front” ……
For Geoffrey Scott, the building’s “body” acted as a referent for “the body’s favorable state,” the “moods of the spirit … power and laughter, strength and terror and calm.” Translating the long tradition of Renaissance bodily analogy into psychological terms, Scott identified two complementary principles at work: the one, founded on the response we have to the appearance of stability or instability in a building, is our identification with the building itself: “we have transcribed ourselves into terms of architecture.” The other was founded on the fact that with this initial transcription we unconsciously invest the building itself with human movement and human moods: “we transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves.” Together, these two principles formed, he asserted, “the humanism of architecture.” … Thence Scott’s impassioned plea for the body in architecture: “architecture, to communicate the vital values of the spirit must appear organic, like the body.”
(Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny [1992, MIT Press].)
Comparisons to the large-scale outdoor projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude aside, Building as a Body strikes one as an informed intervention in the urban streetscape: cloaking the physical presence of a well-established local institution in a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t play of shifting chromaticism, the work perhaps functions as an oblique comment on the Substation’s diminished influence in the arts scene hereabouts, a game of optical hide-and-seek to mirror its vicissitudinous wax and wane in the public eye …
A write-up in The Straits Times last week, reproduced below.
VEIL FOR SUBSTATION
Artists turn the arts centre into an art installation for its 20th anniversary.
By Denise Cheong. Published: 3 February 2012.
One of Singapore’s landmark arts centres has itself been turned into a work of art.
Take a stroll along Armenian Street and you will find The Substation shrouded in interwoven black and cream plastic strips.
The arts centre-turned-art-installation was commissioned by the National Heritage Board and the Singapore Art Museum.
Singapore artists Grace Tan, 32, and Randy Chan, 41, created it to celebrate The Substation’s 20th anniversary. Their work, quite an artistic and architectural feat, is titled Building As A Body.
It is a 15m-tall and 10m-wide matrix of 471 PVC strips, each between 5m and 9m in length and 3cm in width. These strips are connected to steel poles using square rings and conceals the entire facade of The Substation building.
The 80kg structure was completed on Jan 10 and is on display till March 28. It is supported by steel scaffolding clamped to the building’s pillars, and took three days and 10 construction workers to build.
On why the artists concealed the arts centre, Chan said he was disappointed that since the National Library and a well- known char kway teow stall (Armenian Street Char Kway Teow, now at Block 303, Anchorvale Link Coffeshop in Sengkang) were relocated, the area was now often deserted.
‘The idea was to personify the building. If you look at it one way, the veil represents a woman’s coming of age as a young bride. However, it can also stand for something more morbid, as a veil is also used to cover a corpse,’ he said.
Tan added: ‘This is why we chose the monochromatic colour scheme instead of something more striking. The polarity is very symbolic.
‘The image of a veil in itself is very elusive and mysterious. This can be paralleled to how The Substation means different things to different people.’
The Substation artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, 38, said: ‘I hope the installation will activate a new imagination of The Substation, not only as a home for the arts but also as a platform for design and sculpture.’
He added: ‘The Substation already stands out in gentrified Armenian Street. This installation disrupts the clean lines of this neighbourhood. I like it and I think it’s an important statement.’
On the use of PVC strips, Chan said: ‘As this is a public art installation, we were very strategic about the materials used. Instead of just draping a big cloth over the building, which will eventually get wet and heavy, we went for this idea of weaving so that wind can flow through it.
‘PVC material is water-resistant and also very light, making the veil structurally sound.’
This is Chan and Tan’s first time collaborating on an art project of this scale.
He is an architect by profession, and she is an associate artist of The Substation’s research programme and the founder of kwodrent, an inter-disciplinary practice specialising in design and fabric works.