Posts Tagged ‘British art’
Last night’s rash of gallery openings (see previous post for full list) saw a personal five-exhibition run.
And a few terribly embarrassing fanboy moments – complete with flushed face, heart palpitations, and a mortifying malfunction of public etiquette. Meeting Belgian artist Wim Delvoye is at the top of that list.
Friends and numerous acquaintances will testify to my wince-inducing geek-out last night.
Art-wise, pick of the night: Yasumasa Morimura: Requiem for the XX Century – Self-Portraits in Motion at Ikkan Art Gallery.
Miss of the night: Monumental Southeast Asia, Valentine Willie Fine Art.
With Josef Ng.
Hyung Koo Kang admiring Isaac Julien’s work.
RICHARD KOH FINE ART & ARNDT PRESENTS (at Richard Koh Fine Art)
YASUMASA MORIMURA: REQUIEM FOR THE XX CENTURY – SELF-PORTRAITS IN MOTION (at Ikkan Art Gallery)
IN HOUSE ADOPTION, MITHU SEN (at Galerie Steph)
Martin Creed’s contribution to the Singapore Biennale this year, Work No. 112: Thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed, 1995 – 98. (His titles speak for themselves.)
I love the order of it: the metronomes lined up in a strict row like so many infantrymen, the mechanized sound playing out a rapid, staccato melody ..
Portrait of A S Byatt: Red, Yellow, Green and Blue: 24 September 1997, Patrick Heron. In the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
Image of the day: Patrick Heron’s portrait of one of my favourite writers, Antonia Susan Byatt (b. 24.8.1936), who today celebrates her 75th.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, she wrote the 1990 Booker winner, Possession: A Romance; if you haven’t read it, run to the nearest bookstore — don’t walk.
A snippet from the book, where Byatt reworks Freud’s essay, The Theme of the Three Caskets (an exposition of said theme in The Merchant of Venice and King Lear), into a fairy tale involving a sojourner and three eldritch women, who ask him to choose among them:
First came the gold lady, stepping proudly, and on her head a queenly crown of gold, a filigree turret of lambent sunny gleams and glistering wires crisping gold curls as heavy with riches as the golden fleece itself. She held out her gold box bravely before her and it struck out such rays that his eyes were briefly dazzled with it and he was forced to look down at the grey heather.
And she sang:
“Mine the bright earth
Mine the corn
Mine the gold throne
To which you’re born
Lie in my lap
Tumbled with flowers
And reign over
Earth’s tall towers”
Then came the silver lady, with a white crescent burning palely on her pale brow, and she was all hung about with spangled silver veiling that kept up a perpetual shimmering motion around her, so that she seemed a walking fountain, or an orchard of blossom in moonlight, which might in the day have been ruddy and hot for bee kisses, but at night lies open, all white to the cool, secret light that blesses it without withering or ripening.
And she sang:
“Mine the long night
The secret place
Where lovers meet
In long embrace
In purple dark
In silvered kiss
Forget the world
And grasp your bliss”
And he turned from the gold lady and would have taken the silver, but caution, or curiosity, restrained him, for he thought he would still see what the dim last might offer, compared to her two sweet sisters.
And she came, almost creeping, not dancing nor striding, but moving imperceptibly like a shadow across his vision, in a still pool of soft light. And her garments did not sparkle or glitter but hung all in long pale folds, fluted like carved marble, with deep violet shadows, at the heart of which, too, was soft light. And her face was cast down in shadows, for she looked not at him, but at the dull lead casket, as pale as might be, and seemingly without hinge or keyhole, that lay cradled before her. And around her brow was a coronet of white poppies and on her feet were silent silken slippers like spider webs, and her music was single, a piping not of this earth, not merry, not sad, but calling, calling. And she sang:
“Not in the flesh
Not in the fire
Not in action
Is heart’s desire
But come away
For last is best
I alone tender
The Herb of Rest”
The Beguiling of Merlin (c. 1872-7), Edward Burne-Jones, currently in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. Reproduced on the cover of the popular Vintage paperback edition of Possession.
[This post is the first part of a two-part review.]
Don’t be fooled by the rather routine-sounding name – these guys are huge, and they’re serious.
Spread over all four floors of a revamped Art Deco building on Armenian Street, just across from the Substation, the gallery boasts some 12,000 sq feet of display space. To put that number into perspective, the structure used to house the Mayfair Hotel (below), apparently a pretty classy joint that, by the 1980s, had fallen into disrepute — and, from the looks of it, disrepair. (There’s a short piece on it over at The Long and Winding Road.) That’s right, a hotel. All that space — which, thanks to high ceilings and massive windows, allow for copious amounts of natural light to flood the interior in the day, and suffuses the rooms with an aureate crepuscular glow that slowly dissipates into a cool, dim gloom as the tropical sun sets, the effect an utterly enchanting one — now made over into a white cube just for art viewing.
As someone remarked to me, Art Plural may represent the biggest private gallery in Singapore yet.
I don’t doubt it.
The lives and times of a building:
The brainchild of Swiss couple Frederic and Carole de Senarclens, the gallery certainly lives up to its name; art-wise, the mix is an eclectic, trans-continental one. There were pieces by modernist masters — a Picasso and a couple of Dubuffets were up for sale (which may already have gone off the market, this was a while ago) — as well as a smorgasbord of offerings from contemporary art’s biggest and hippest names. Upon being buzzed into the silent, cavernous chamber, all pristine walls and grey cement floors, with absolutely nothing extraneous to distract the eye, the visitor is greeted by one of YBA-tist Marc Quinn’s monumental flower paintings (below), a canvas of colossal, lustrously-coloured blooms that peer at you as if in an eerily sensuous reenactment of some sci-fi nightmare like The Day of the Triffids, their otherworldly, non-anthropomorphic floral visages seeming almost to present greedy mouths agape, threatening to breach the two-dimensional picture plane and to disrupt the aloof quietude of the environment through the sheer force of alien hunger … Verisimilitude, chromatic brilliance and gigantism is here synthesized to produce a profoundly, potently unsettling effect. Quinn is on record as saying: “I remember visiting a flower market one day and noticing how all these flowers that shouldn’t be available at the same time ……. It perfectly illustrates how human desire constantly reshapes nature’s limitations. The fact that these flowers are always available to us is artificial and unnatural.” (See here for the full interview.)
Well, he’s certainly right there.
The vivid, garish surfaces and appropriated imagery that characterize so much of Pop art — from Warhol’s silkscreens, to Lichtenstein’s jumbo Ben-Day dots, to Richard Hamilton’s collages and, more recently, the many incarnations of Takashi Murakami’s ‘superflat’ figures across a wide variety of consumer products — find a new lease of life in the hands of Indian duo Thukral and Tagra, who are well-represented in the gallery’s collection. The omnivorous, multi-media heterogeneity of T & T, which boasts an iconography of commercial merchandise and figures culled from popular culture, most often found floating in a utopian dreamscape of pastel-hued skies and cotton-candy clouds, rendered on both canvas and three-dimensional, spherical metal shapes (below), has been described as “a whimsical fascination with consumerism—not unlike Murakami— blurring the lines between fine art and popular culture, product placement and exhibition design, artistic inspiration and media hype.” (See here.) Hardly groundbreaking, since their work, as mentioned, may be located squarely in a trajectory extending from Pop’s earliest days to more contemporary manifestations; what does relieve it of an excess of commercial enthusiasm, however, is an ironic self-awareness, artistic tongue firmly in cheek. One signature T & T strategy is the so-called BoseDK trademark, which makes its appearance in quite a few of (or all?) their pieces:
Much of the output of Thukral & Tagra is presented under the brand name of BoseDK Designs. BoseDK, which is an Anglicization of a pejorative Punjabi term, is intended to create an obliquely obscene presence in the art gallery. Branding the artworks, in this way deliberately and ironically commercialises their oeuvre. The brand of BoseDK extends into all facets of their work from design and retail commissions to paintings, sculptures, wallpaper and installations. It has been described as striving ‘for a rootless cosmopolitanism, an instigation to infect all manner of communication with an unexpected sparkle, in the process making life more marvelous’.
(Quote from Initial Access.)
The idea of a spurious brandname — like so much mass-produced consumer chaff — for stuff that actually sells for princely sums, that takes its inspiration from market-oriented commodity culture, is pretty hilarious in the best pomo fashion: a self-conscious cycle of endless referentiality.
Pakistani-born, NY-bred Seher Shah produces intricate, black-and-white graphic works on paper, quite breathtaking in their near-abstract, collaged aesthetic. Shah’s understated compositions, looking like nothing so much as leaves from a draughtsman’s sketchbook filled in by a daydreaming surrealist, are informed by her interest in the visual culture of power, and her experiences as a Muslim woman in a post-9/11 America. Speaking of the use of Islamic imagery in her work, the artist noted:
It was in the midst of this [the aftermath of September 11] that I had started creating a series of works that negotiated between personal photographs, iconic Islamic spaces, geometries and symbols. I wanted to be able to construct works that showed universal connections to certain geometric forms and massing.
The title Jihad Pop came about as a means to construct the idea of struggle of identity alongside images from pop culture and to form a new association with Islamic visual imagery. The meeting of these two words ‘jihad’ and ‘pop’ is the marriage of this exploration of identity and the simultaneous broadcast of imagery of violence, conflict and migration. Using associations and influences from media images, personal travel photographs, animation, graffiti and hand drawings to create the series that unfolds to explore the relationship of Islamic iconography and imagery. I kept the connection open to the meaning of both words, so as to interpret it in a variety of means. Using cultural elements I had grown up with from New York, Brussels, London and Lahore I started constructing and reconstructing images and symbols I was gravitating towards. The Jihad Pop works as of now are mainly constructed through a series of large-scale drawings and several print editions.
(Full interview on QMA’s blog.)
Shah’s preoccupation with the mathematical construction of space, as seen in her Interior Courtyard drawings, for instance (below), seems to channel, strangely enough, the alliance of academicism and orientalism found in the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme. An example of Gérôme’s brand of 19th century exoticization, Prayer in the Mosque (below), set in Cairo’s Mosque of Amr, features a rigidly linear perspective of the site, the system of arches and columns — running in regular rows towards an all too discernible vanishing point on the horizon line — and the schematic description of grid-like beams overhead and patterned tiles underfoot matched only by the disciplined ordering of the human figures within this architectural backdrop. The correspondence between the depiction of social cohesion and the absolute geometry of the pictorial space here no doubt gestures at the overarching presence of Islam in the life of Arab communities, and the role it plays in regulating even the most minute of details. And it is this along this axis of synchronicity, between orthodox perspective and religious diktat, that Shah structures her architectural drawings of interior spaces, while her collages of “personal photographs, iconic Islamic spaces, geometries and symbols” instead functions to de-naturalize the seeming transparency and pictorial logic of linear perspective. On display in Art Plural were The Expansion of the First Great Ornamental Age: Division and Hierarchy (2009; below), both of which feature one of Shah’s favourite devices: the grid. As art historian Rosalind Krauss has remarked, the grid, as a spatial device, renders a composition “flattened, geometricized, ordered … antimimetic, antireal”.* According to her, it negates the contours of the real by imposing a pre-ordained regularity on the compositional surface, and not, as in the case of the interlocking orthogonals of Renaissance perspective, to map a representation of reality on a two-dimensional canvas. Krauss’ objective was to submit the grid, as an artistic tool, to a historical analysis, but as it is deployed by Shah over apparently random agglomerations of bodies, patterns, icons, and landscapes, it foregrounds the constructed nature of rationalized pictorial space — against which, as the artist demonstrates in pieces like The Expansion of the First Great Ornamental Age: Fragmented Landscapes (below), there is only the space of the irreducibly two-dimensional surface.
* Rosalind Krauss, “Grids”, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde, pp. 9 – 22. See p. 9.
Interior Courtyard I (2006), Seher Shah. Image from the artist’s personal site.
Prayer in the Mosque (1871), Jean-Léon Gérôme. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
Also spotted at Art Plural were photographic prints of the Starn brothers’ Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop installation (below), which was featured last year at the Metropolitan Museum as part of their series of exhibitions on the roof. Alas, I had already left NYC then, but here’s a short write-up from the NYT:
From April 27 through Oct. 31 the twin artists Mike and Doug Starn will be creating a site-specific installation that is part sculpture, part architecture and part performance. Called “Big Bambú” it will be a monumental bamboo structure in the form of a cresting wave rising as high as 50 feet above the roof. Throughout the summer the artists and a team of rock climbers will lash together an intricate network of 3,200 interlocking bamboo poles with nylon rope, creating on the roof’s floor labyrinthlike spaces through which visitors can walk.
“Big Bambú” is a perpetual work in progress — it will never quite be finished — that will evolve in three phases: first, the basic structure will be completed by the opening day; second, the eastern part will be built by the artists and rock climbers to a height of about 50 feet; third, the team will build the western part to about 40 feet high. Not only will visitors be able to watch the installation as it is constructed and walk through it, they will also be able to climb up the sides.
Big Bambú seems to encompass a number of strands in contemporary art: installation, participation, performance, process. What is interesting in the present instance, however, is that it speaks to Art Plural’s ambitions for its role in the local art scene. Carole de Senarclens revealed in a conversation that their goal is to eventually be able to stage a similarly large-scale, public installation in Singapore — perhaps one of French designer slash artist Thierry Dreyfus’ light shows …
But more on that in part deux.
The Starns’ Big Bambú installation at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, in 2010. Image from Carlisle Flowers.
Big Bambú at the Met. Image from this site.
Big Bambú at the Met. Image from this site.
[To be continued.]
Lucian Freud in 1952. Image from CNN.
Lucian Freud passed away in London yesterday.
His New York Times obit:
LUCIAN FREUD, FIGURATIVE PAINTER WHO REDEFINED PORTRAITURE, IS DEAD AT 88
By William Grimes. Published July 21, 2011
Lucian Freud, whose stark and revealing paintings of friends and intimates, splayed nude in his studio, recast the art of portraiture and offered a new approach to figurative art, died on Wednesday night at his home in London. He was 88.
He died following a brief illness, said William Acquavella of Acquavella Galleries, Mr. Freud’s dealer.
Mr. Freud, a grandson of Sigmund Freud and a brother of the British television personality Clement Freud, was already an important figure in the small London art world when, in the immediate postwar years, he embarked on a series of portraits that established him as a potent new voice in figurative art.
In paintings like “Girl With Roses” (1947-48) and “Girl With a White Dog” (1951-52), he put the pictorial language of traditional European painting in the service of an anti-romantic, confrontational style of portraiture that stripped bare the sitter’s social facade. Ordinary people — many of them his friends — stared wide-eyed from the canvas, vulnerable to the artist’s ruthless inspection.
From the late 1950s, when he began using a stiffer brush and moving paint in great swaths around the canvas, Mr. Freud’s nudes took on a new fleshiness and mass. His subjects, pushed to the limit in exhausting extended sessions, day after day, dropped their defenses and opened up. The faces showed fatigue, distress, torpor.
The flesh was mottled, lumpy and, in the case of his 1990s portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery and the phenomenally obese civil servant Sue Tilley, shockingly abundant.
The relationship between sitter and painter, in his work, overturned traditional portraiture. It was “nearer to the classic relationship of the 20th century: that between interrogator and interrogated,” the art critic John Russell wrote in “Private View,” his survey of the London art scene in the 1960s.
William Feaver, a British critic who organized a Freud retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002, said: “Freud has generated a life’s worth of genuinely new painting that sits obstinately across the path of those lesser painters who get by on less. He always pressed to extremes, carrying on further than one would think necessary and rarely letting anything go before it became disconcerting.”
Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on Dec. 8, 1922, and grew up in a wealthy neighborhood near the Tiergarten. His father, Ernst L. Freud, an architect who was Sigmund Freud’s youngest son, married Lucie Brasch, the heiress to a timber fortune, and the family enjoyed summers on the North Sea and visits to a family estate near Cottbus, in Germany.
In 1933, after Hitler came to power, the Freuds moved to London, where Lucian attended progressive schools but showed little academic promise. He was more interested in horses than in his studies, and entertained thoughts of becoming a jockey.
In 1938, he was expelled from Bryanston, in Dorset, after dropping his trousers on a dare on a street in Bournemouth. But his sandstone sculpture of a horse earned him entry into the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He left there after a year to enroll in the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting in Dedham, where he studied with the painter Cedric Morris. While it is true that the school burned to the ground while he was there, the often repeated story that Mr. Freud accidentally started the fire with a discarded cigarette seems unlikely.
In 1941, hoping to make his way to New York, Mr. Freud enlisted in the Merchant Navy, where he served on a convoy ship crossing the Atlantic. He got no nearer to New York than Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after returning to Liverpool developed tonsillitis and was given a medical discharge from the service.
Mr. Freud was a bohemian of the old school. He set up his studios in squalid neighborhoods, developed a Byronic reputation as a rake and gambled recklessly (“Debt stimulates me,” he once said). In 1948, he married Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, whom he depicted in several portraits, notably “Girl With Roses,” “Girl With a Kitten” (1947) and “Girl With a White Dog” (1950-51). That marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Lady Caroline Blackwood. He is survived by many children from his first marriage and from a series of romantic relationships.
His early work, often with an implied narrative, was strongly influenced by the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) painters like Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, although his influences reached back to Albrecht Dürer and the Flemish masters like Hans Memling.
On occasion he ventured into Surrealist territory. In “The Painter’s Room” (1943), a zebra with red and yellow stripes pokes its head through the window of a studio furnished with a palm tree and sofa. A top hat sits on the floor.
Mr. Freud later rejected Surrealism with something like contempt. “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me,” he told the art critic Robert Hughes. “That would be a pointless lie, a mere bit of artfulness.”
A decisive influence was Francis Bacon, a fellow artist at the 1954 Venice Biennale and the subject of one of his most famous works, a head painted in oil on copper in 1952. Bacon’s free, daring brushwork led Mr. Freud to abandon the linear, thinly painted portraits of the 1940s and move toward the brushy, searching portrait style of his mature work, with its severely muted palette of browns and yellows.
“Full, saturated colors have an emotional significance that I want to avoid,” he once said. To the artist and Freud biographer Lawrence Gowing, he said, “For me the paint is the person.” Mr. Freud’s dingy studio became his artistic universe, a grim theater in which his contorted subjects, stripped bare and therefore unidentifiable by class, submitted to the artist’s unblinking, merciless inspection.
The sense of the artist-model relationship is suggested by “Reflection With Two Children,” a 1965 self-portrait showing Mr. Freud seen from below, the vantage point of a dog looking at its master. Two children, almost miniature in scale, are shunted to the side of the canvas. A glaring light overhead contributes to the impression of the artist as all-powerful inquisitor.
His female subjects in particular seemed not just nude but obtrusively naked. Mr. Freud pushed this effect so far, Russell once noted, “that we sometimes wonder if we have any right to be there.” By contrast, his horses and dogs, like his whippets Pluto and Eli, were evoked with tender solicitude.
“I’ve got a strong autobiographical bias,” he told Mr. Feaver, the British critic. “My work is entirely about myself and my surroundings.”
On rare occasions Mr. Freud took on something akin to official portraits. He painted the collector Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, fully clothed, in “Man in a Chair” (1985). His stern 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth, showing the royal head topped by the Diamond Diadem, divided the critics and public.
Some critics hailed the picture as bold, uncompromising and truthful. Arthur Morrison, the arts editor of The Times of London, wrote, “The chin has what can only be described as a six-o’clock shadow, and the neck would not disgrace a rugby prop forward.” The newspaper’s royal photographer said Mr. Freud should be thrown into the Tower of London.
These were deviations. Much more in the Freud vein was his portrait of a man sprawled on a couch holding a sleeping rat (“Naked Man With Rat,” 1977-78). The animal’s tail, draped across the model’s left thigh, nearly makes contact with his genitals, producing an ineffably creepy effect.
Mr. Freud remained deeply unfashionable in the United States for many decades, but in 1987 the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington exhibited his work in a show that no New York museum would take on. This was a watershed event. Mr. Hughes proclaimed him “the greatest living realist painter,” and a Freud cult soon developed. In 1993 the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized a retrospective of his work.
“It is an attempt at a record,” Mr. Freud said, describing his work on the occasion of his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1974. “I work from the people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know.”
I’ve been obsessed with Anthony Poon‘s paintings lately.
More on that later though. While doing some research, I stumbled onto a fashion spread in the 1987 issue of the Her World Annual (below), which featured Singaporean designer Tan Yoong’s creations, inspired by the work of several local artists — of which Poon was one.
Tan Yoong left the gallery with his imagination fired by six local artists’ works. The challenge presented itself – to translate art executed in fabric, metal, ink and acrylic into a form which could be draped on the human body. The works themselves were diverse expressions from a group of second-generation painters and sculptors. Gathered under one roof for the Asian Contemporary Art Exhibition 1986, fashion designer Tan Yoong was transfixed by the textures, colours, shapes and forms which were a bold departure from the restraint of linens, organza’s and crepe de chines in his workshop. A few months after th exhibition, six outfits emerged which imitated the perfection of what Tan Yoong had seen in the gallery, but with a new interpretation of form and shape. In one instance, Teo Eng Seng’s The Great Gossip, the transformation was subtle: a cluster of withered Sakura trees imported by the artist from Japan, inspired in Tan Yoong a design full of Eastern austerity and grace – a jacket-suit textured with embroidered pleats, fold after fold falling in a restrained ripple down the body. Thomas Yeo’s collage composition, on the other hand, found a reflection in gossamer-thin layers of organza, while Eng Tow’s fabric sculpture (Four Winds) became a fragile shell of hand-painted organza. Whether in idea, colour or texture, Tan Yoong has faithfully created fashion in the image of Art.
[Top] FOUR WINDS, Eng Tow: ‘Constant change and movement is personified by the nature of wind. There is constant change in life, in the things around us. Just like wind, you can’t see it, but you know it’s there. Four Winds is a way of showing this change.’
[Bottom] A hand-painted silk organza blouse features the intricate Eng Tow pleat. But the delicate shadings come from Tan Yoong’s palette.
[Top] UNTITLED II, 1986, Tan Teng Kee, Sculptor: ‘You can heat metal, you can fire it, you can cut it up, build it up … It needs strength, a big hammer to hammer it. Yet, it’s also very flexible. My work is not so smooth that you can stroke it – if you’re not careful, you might be pierced. You can say that I have some thorns too …’
[Bottom] The timeless fluid lines of this crepe jacket-suit find a counterpoint in the stark modernism of polished metal and jagged edges.
MOVEMENT IN WHITE, 1986, Thomas Yeo, Artist: ‘Some people say, how can a mountain look like that? I ask them, have you really seen a mountain? Before you look at the painting, you’ve got to get rid of the pictorial preconception. You’ve got to clear the mind, be an innocent, and look again.
Looking at abstract painting, a lot of people expect to visually come to terms in the first encounter. But it takes time to understand the modern picture language. And you’ve got to allow yourself to be exposed to the different mediums. Then, you can come to terms and grasp the language. Abstract works require participation. You can’t just sit there and look …
When I see a great painting, all my hairs stand. It moves me.’
The gentle blithe spirit of layered gossamer echoes the delicate paint on paper on paint collage …
FIRE DHYANA, 1986, Tan Swie Hian, Artist: ‘Dhyana means meditation.
There is an episode in the Buddhist scriptures – a monk meditated on a pool of water and became the water, such that he found rocks in his body. He had become the water and the rocks were rocks from the pool …
The fire dhyana is inspired by fire. Once, when Buddha was meditating on a mountain, he achieved the state where he became fire. When you achieve that state, you can become a holocaust … You can achieve anything through meditation, through the power of the mind.
For me, to create requires the freeing of one’s mind. A great artist, according to Picasso, has no one style. There shouldn’t be any restriction to what may appear on your sheet of white paper …’
The flame of thousands of beads flickers on hand-painted fabric, raising this tunic-and-skirt ensemble to a high point of sophistication.
THE GREAT GOSSIP, 1986, Teo Eng Seng, Sculptor: ‘My job is just to create the object, and it’s for the viewer to respond – people using the trees will have to use their imaginations. In all my work, I like to see that there is an allowance for people to come up with something which is a part of them. I want to create an event or occasion when people can participate. It is not just passive art.
I don’t think artists today can run away and hide in a cave. You need to be able to share your art with others, to forge relationships …’
Pleats crest on pleats to fall in a gentle froth of fabric just below the hips. Tan Yoong’s mastery of the medium has resulted in opulence but with Oriental understatement.
P ON GREY RECTANGULAR, 1986, Anthony Poon, Artist: ‘One always wants to do something different, but it needs continuity to maintain a seriousness about it. I look to see the progression – how some good things become better …
The years before my seriousness occurred, I dabbled and had a lot of fun. I think there comes a time in life when one has to decide. I made up my mind that the good that would eventually arise in this journey, would be very obvious – to attain the consistency which I am very conscious of.
Some day, I want to gather all my works together and illustrate the changes, and show how they’re related in the continuity process.
I think that the format of the canvas is just as important as the content … I must do them big. And I’ve been asked, how big is big? … My dream of the scale …
The great satisfaction is, once you overcome it, you regain the confidence and surety of what you can achieve.’
Shape has been given new definition with colour. A midriff blouse sheds its frivolity when teamed with an elegant, black body-conscious shift.
God, how I love Poon’s meticulously plotted, methodically coloured canvases …
Interestingly enough, the work of Op Art pioneer Bridget Riley – Op Art provided Poon with one his biggest influences – was likewise transposed into the realm of the sartorial back in the ’60s (though perhaps not voluntarily). Art historian Pamela Lee relates the episode in her book, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s:
For soon after hanging her works at the MoMA, Riley met up with Larry Aldrich, among the best-known collectors of contemporary art in the city. A dress manufacturer for B. Altman’s, among other stores, Aldrich owned one of the two Riley paintings in the show, Hesitate, and had built a public institution to house his collection in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He had a good reputation for supporting the work of emerging artists, and so Riley was pleased to meet him. After exchanging introductions in the gallery, Aldrich invited her to his Seventh Avenue studio for a “surprise.” The surprise was such that Aldrich arranged a photographer to document the event.
Yet upon her arrival, Riley was not so much surprised but shocked and offended. For Aldrich had taken the pattern of Hesitate, now hanging at MoMA, and commissioned Maxwell Industries to make a mass-produced textile out of it. Aldrich’s in-house designer “Morton Myles for Young Elegante” then fashioned the fabric into simple modish shifts, all the better for the wearer to serve as a moving screen for the optical dazzle. An obscure, blurry photograph … [above] records the tension of the summit. Hands in pockets, Aldrich attempts to gauge her response. Riley presses her fingers to her temples as if massaging an incipient headache. “I was shocked,” she stated flatly of the encounter. “In England, there are laws that take care of things like that,’ she complained to a fashion reporter. “Nobody asked my permission for the fabric.” ……
For his part, Aldrich willfully ignored Riley’s claims by suggesting his actions were populist in intent. “Everybody else thought it was gay and amusing,” he shrugged. “I respected her attitude, but I made no effort to apologize. After all many people approached me to get Hesitate fabric or buy dresses for the Op art show at the museum. They wouldn’t have wanted to if it were wrong.” In the spring and summer fashion season of 1965, he would produce a number of Op art dresses from paintings in his own collection. In addition to Riley, the artists Julian Stanczak, Richard Anuskiewicz and Vasarely would also have their own work transformed into the dresses by “Young Elegante,” as seen in a photo spread in Art in America … [below]. Unlike Riley, however, they were content to oversee the metamorphosis.
Here, then, begins the vertiginous rush into the craze for Op fashion of the mid-sixties. Coverage was not limited to the fashion trade, although Vogue, Harper’s, Women’s Wear Daily, and other style magazines weighed in on the phenomenon exhaustively. In addition to design magazines, which seized upon Op as an important trend in interior décor, local American papers from all across the country clamored to get a piece of the Newest Thing. Days after the opening, photos appeared in the papers documenting the wild and vibrant styles that various artists, collectors, and socialites wore to the event. Black and white was the order of the evening, taking the form of checks, stripes, dots, and mind-numbing patterns. Ethel Scull attended with Warhol on her arm, mysterious behind huge black glasses and a wavy line lame suit. Larry Rivers showed up wearing two ties, one black, one red, as if playfully dressing the part of an afterimage. Store windows in New York – Bonwit’s, I. Miller, Lord and Taylor, Elizabeth Arden, and Altman’s among them – all scurried to showcase the new fashions against equally eye-popping backdrops. “Op fabrics, Op stockings, Op maternity wear, Op everything,” one reporter put it, “exploded on the style scene.” There were even such inventions such as Op restaurants, Op beachwear and, improbably enough, Op girdles. And in a presumably unironic twist, Women’s Wear Daily reported on Op cosmetics, highlighting a fanciful new way of adorning the eyes. In record time, then, Op became something of a media spectacle. It even made it to the airwaves in a show hosted by no less of an art authority than Mike Wallace, entitled “Eye on New York.”
Hesitate (1964), Bridget Riley. In the collection of the Tate.
Image of the day: Scotsman Duncan Grant’s Matisse-esque self-portrait, produced c. 1920. The painting is currently in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.
Unfortunately, Grant is remembered these days less for his artistic output than for his involvement with the Bloomsbury set. He was the lover of both economist John Maynard Keynes and writer Lytton Strachey, and later became involved with Vanessa Bell – wife of art critic Clive Bell and sister of Virginia Woolf – even fathering a daughter by her. The child, Angelica Bell, turned out to be a chip off the ol’ block: she horrified her parents by marrying David “Bunny” Garnett, her father’s one-time paramour and son of the prolific translator of Russian novels, Constance Garnett. Bunny G was present at the birth of his future wife, and reportedly proclaimed: “I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?”
Now there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy …
Image of the day: Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank’s London Street (1951), currently in the collection of the V & A.
The brief write-up on the museum’s site notes that
In this foggy London street scene Frank aligns a number of seemingly unrelated elements into a coherent picture. On the left a running child is reflected in the wet pavement, while in the foreground the open door of a hearse frames the grainy form of a rubbish collector. The solid black bulk of the vehicle is set off by the soft greys of the houses, fading almost to white in the distance.
Its kinda odd to think that a warehouse space in Tanjong Pagar Distripark – a cargo storage and shipment complex next to the Keppel docks – is now playing host to limited edition Warhols and multi-million-dollar pieces by Pollock, Hirst and Jasper Johns.
But, thanks to blue chip art dealer Ikkan Sanada, that’s the delightful reality.
Sanada recently relocated the base of Ikkan Art International from NYC to Singapore (read about it here); he joins a growing number of art spaces sprouting up in the Keppel warehouse neighbourhood, which include Valentine Willie, Fortune Cookie Projects and L2 Space. Are we seeing our own meatpacking district in the making ? – albeit with storage depots instead of disused slaughterhouses, industrial containers and cranes taking the place of transgender prostitutes and cobblestoned streets. In any case, the new kid on the block represents the arrival of an international player on the local visual arts scene, which can only be good news.
Sanada’s inaugural show is titled Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol. As the name-dropping suggests, the exhibition features work from a range of 20th century luminaries, both Western and Asian: Warhol, Ai, Matisse, Pollock, Hirst, Johns, Richter, Oldenburg, Stella, Tracy Emin, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Yasumasa Morimura, among others. Johns, in particular, is represented here by a series of original prints produced in the last two decades, including a number apparently never before shown. Those prints, however, were the least interesting things I saw – if only because I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. Johns made his name back in the ‘50s with his richly textured, vividly coloured encaustic canvases that called into question the iconicity of common images, like the American flag; these recent pieces seem to indicate a 180-degree turn in sensibility, being most black-and-white or thinly tinted intaglio prints of indecipherable patterns, silhouettes and abstractions. Johns’ work seems to have made a detour into the personal, which I think is the only – if overly convenient – way of accounting for some of these pictures, and titles like Shrinky Dink (below).
In other news, the show itself came across as something of a hodgepodge of the greatest postwar hits. It is called Surfaces of Everyday Life, but that thematic framework really encompasses two different theoretical concerns: materiality (surfaces), and the everyday. While those ideas have been brought to bear on each other – in very interesting ways – by certain academics and thinkers*, they are still necessarily separate concepts. And at times it seemed like the pieces in the exhibition either fell into one category or the other, only rarely demonstrating discernable links to both. Admittedly, though, Sanada has been pretty candid about the rationale, or lack of one, behind some of these inclusions – “I am not pretending to be a museum curator. The works you see in this exhibition are a reflection of my personal taste” – so perhaps the connective tissue there, between the notion of materiality and the prosaic, was supplied by his own predilections. Charles Merewhether of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, though, provides a different take. In a brief but incisive essay for the exhibition, he explicitly adduces mass production and consumerism as the glue between the everyday and the material: “Critical to the transformation of the “everyday” was the process of modernization, most notably industrialization and mass production. … What emerges from this period is a number of artistic practices that critically engage the ethos of consumerism within the development of industrial modernization—practices seeking not just to understand the logic of consumerism, but to harness and appropriate the energies of consumerism … Materiality was of primary importance ……” (Read excerpts here.)
* See for instance, Bill Brown’s Thing Theory (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 [Autumn, 2001], pp. 1-22).
All that, however, doesn’t explain the presence of works like Frank Stella’s Cinema de Pepsi (below), which is comprised of two squares divided up into geometrical bands of varying shades and hues. This canvas is quintessential Stella: blandly, calmly non-pictorial, denying even the painterly gestures of abstract expressionists like Pollock, Rauschenberg and Johns, and insisting on the primacy of the flat canvas surface and the materiality of the art object. Speaking of his own praxis, he declared that “Its posture is not romantic. Its method is not improvisational. It’s a more classical, more controlled art, that in a certain sense reacted against the “action” conception of abstract expressionism, and against what by the late 50s had come to be a great deal of very bad painting made in abstract expressionism’s name.” (Quote here.) While the alternating strips of colour in Cinema seem to suggest some kind of movement – a sort of optical illusion of advance and recession – I guess the point here would be that, up close, the appearance of hard-edge painting gives way to fine textural nuance; the seemingly defined lines begin to betray tendrils of paint seepage and other surface irregularities.
Which explains “surface”, but not “everyday life”. (Its hard to imagine anything less evocative of the ordinary than Stella’s abstract, meticulously calculated canvases.) What does, however, are, say, Claes Oldenburg’s oversized food objects, or Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds or block of tea, or Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans – all featured in the show. Oldenburg’s Leaning Fork With Meatball and Spaghetti II, in particular (below), produced in collaboration with wife Coosje van Bruggen, was definitely one of the more eye-catching pieces. In a well-known statement of 1961, the artist remarked: “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top … I am for the art of neck-hair and caked teacups, for the art between the tines of restaurant forks, for the odor of boiling dishwater … I am for the art of rust and mold. I am for the art of hearts, funeral hearts or sweetheart hearts, full of nougat. I am for the art of worn meathooks and singing barrels of red, white, blue and yellow meat.”*
In other words, an art of the mundane and the everyday. Duchamp and his Readymades were an acknowledged influence: Oldenburg recalls seeing Duchamp’s work at the latter’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum – and coincidentally, a signed copy of a poster for that now legendary show is on display here (below). As art historian Benjamin Buchloh remarks, Oldenburg was “the first sculptor after Duchamp who uses a kind of iconography that is completely alien to all preceding sculpture, which is the industrially produced, ready-made object.”** The avant-garde Dadaist project, formulated as an overt critique of the separation of art from the praxis of life within bourgeois society, by which the autonomy of the institution of art is understood as a corollary of the rise of the leisured classes and the ensuing social divide,*** finds a re-articulation in Oldenburg’s hands. His oversized foodstuffs, in particular, represent an attempt to recuperate our experience of the familiar, the prosaic, which become embedded in the routine of daily life as so much background noise. These humble things – the things we eat every day – exist for the most part below the threshold of sustained attention and memory because they function as conveniences, their constant repetition and easy availability within the circuits of modern consumer culture serving to mask their ubiquity, to lull and dull us into “social forgetfulness and thereby constitute the sphere of hidden historical otherness.”****
* See Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995).
** See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Three Conversations in 1985: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris”, October 70 (Fall 1994).
*** Peter Bürger discusses this idea at length in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). See the section, “On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society.”
**** C. Nadia Serematakis, ed., The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994).
A Poster Within A Poster (1963), Marcel Duchamp. “Poster for Duchamp’s Retrospective exhibition held at the Pasadena Art Museum, October 8 to November 3, 1963, signed and dedicated by the artist. Edition of 300, only 10 of them were signed by the artist.” (from the wall label)
As subjects of artistic intentionality, Oldenburg’s food objects imply participation in the long, if historically unremarked, genre of the still-life, a tradition that reaches back into antiquity. The category of painting the Romans referred to as xenia stands at the hoary head of a genealogy that is defined largely by its exclusion of the human form, according to Norman Bryson, a denial of the visual dimension of the animate that at the same time “expels the values which human presence imposes on the world.”* While this statement belies the peculiarity of Oldenburg’s anthropomorphized objects – and, indeed, a feature of his modus operandi – Bryson’s distinction between megalography and rhopography presents one of the chief cruces on which turn Oldenburg’s strategies of interruption, dislocation, defamiliarization. Megalography is the stuff of history painting and portraiture, which deal with the grand themes of mythology, religion, literature and history, allegories of the great and good, as well as the invocation of the lives and likenesses of celebrated men and women. Rhopography, stemming from the Greek rhopos (trifling things, or small, inconsequential goods), portrays that which the prescriptions of the class of momentous events and illustrious personages programmatically omit from their range of subject matter: the undramatic material base of life taken for granted in an age of plenty today, a substratum of habitual, habit-forming objects which define the contours of “hidden historical otherness.”
In his appropriation of the trope of rhopos, Oldenburg displays a preference not just for an iconography of the edible, but also for a particular type of fare. A quick survey of objects from his 60s period discloses the predominance of the sort of foods that have come to symbolize a twentieth-century America of the diner, the deli, the fast-food restaurant: burgers, sandwiches, cakes, pies, ice-cream, baked potatoes, breads, and roasts – as choice of meatball and spaghetti, for one, seems to suggest. Despite the claim that his choice of subject is “only an accident, an accident of my surroundings, my landscape, of the objects which in my daily coming and going my consciousness attaches itself to”, Oldenburg’s art, in its foregrounding of gastronomic (all-)Americana, clearly reflects an exclusion of other types of cuisine, perhaps the kind of food that he may have been accustomed to growing up in a privileged Swedish-American household in the 1930s and 40s (his father first served as Swedish Consul in Chicago and, later, as Consul General). More than simply being determined by considerations of cost, taste and custom, however, what people eat is very much an indication of their values. The introduction of the technologies of food preservation and processing radically altered the American diet in the mid-twentieth century, freeing up a whole generation of women for the workforce and shifting the main site of food preparation and consumption from the domestic kitchen to the cheap eating establishment and food retail outlet – originating, ultimately, in the processing line – with their quick, affordable, labour-saving meals, a medley of the “bleached, dyed, sulphured, refined, synthetic, dehydrated, adulterated, and emulsified”**, a celebration of everyday realities that continue to shape our dietary habits and lives.
* See Bryson’s perceptive, valuable study, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990).
** Linda Weintraub, ed., Art What Thou Eat: Images of Food in American Art (Mount Kisco, New York: Moyer Bell Ltd., 1991). Her Foreword contains a brief history of American gastronomic practices.
Donald Judd – a personal favourite – was represented in Surfaces by a stainless steel piece (above), a horizontal bar hung on the wall, and marked along its length by spherical protrusions set apart at gradated intervals. Classic Judd. The piece, like Oldenburg’s Meatball and Spaghetti, sits comfortably at the intersection between concerns with materiality and the everyday – though the artist himself might have begged to differ. Judd was famous, or notorious, for his theoretical pronouncements on his own work, insisting on the abstract, non-associative autonomy of his ‘specific objects’, their essential resistance to any sort of gesture towards a reality external to their particular forms. However, a number of critics, most notably Rosalind Krauss, disagreed. She openly refuted his claim of hermeticism in her well-known essay, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd” (Artforum, vol. 4, no. 9 [May, 1966]). Judd’s sensuously tangible and seductively engaging objects were, for Krauss, the epitome of “the inadequacy of the theoretical line, its failure to measure up (at least in Judd’s case) to the power of the sculptural statement.” His artworks were “insistently meaningful” to her, and that meaning was generated through an embodied experience – meaning denied by a solely optical involvement from a single (frontal) perspective. Krauss saw Judd’s work as “objects of perception, objects that are to be grasped in the experience of looking at them” (italics mine). The impression of tactility, in both a metaphorical and corporeal sense, seemed especially important to her: “the work plays off the illusory quality of the thing itself as it presents itself to vision alone … as against the sensation of being able to grasp it and therefore to know it through touch.”
Don Judd in the 1960s. Image from Mondoblogo.
Other critics have noted that “Claims … that Judd’s art has a discrepancy – or even a falsification – as its heart, have by now long been central …” (David Raskin, “The Shiny Illusionism of Krauss and Judd”, Art Journal, no. 65 [Spring 2006]).The juxtaposition between Judd’s own conceptualization of his work, and the manner in which it has sometimes been received, makes this disjuncture all too clear. Krauss noted the deceptive appearance of his art, of the necessity of an embodied experience with which to grasp it in its actuality, a process that foregrounded the way the materials were “used directly” – in his own words – and, thus, the resultant, insistently tactile quality. Judd’s work appears to deny the possibility of any haptic exchange, by dint of his critical pronouncements as well as their circumscribed status as high art objects, but reception tends to elude those sorts of pre-determined channels. Judd’s objects, as three-dimensional forms in space, as staunchly material presences that incline towards the non-figural and a-referential, can be said to evoke a response beyond the purely visual – i.e. to draw attention not simply to their forms, but to the almost tangible qualities of their surface texture. To return to Krauss’ assessment of Judd’s art as inducing the perception of graspability and a touch-based epistemology, perhaps it should be noted that the haptic entails more than just an appeal to tactility via the mechanism of sight, but implicates the entire sensorium in a synaesthetic act of looking as well. Krauss brings to mind Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of embodied, multisensory experience: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.” Or, to quote Carolee Schneemann on her own performative practice: “Vision is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations.”
Judd’s objects present a façade of finished, flawless, machine manufacture. In other words, their industrial look, or the appearance of being the products of the factory line rather than the artist’s tool, was – and is – very much the initial impression that they left on viewers. Barbara Rose, for one, remarked that they seemed “machine-made, standardized …. easy to copy and not hand-made”; another reviewer spoke of the “slow, determined beat of a stamping machine” (Jane Gollin). And Robert Smithson, in detailing Judd’s preferred materials and the sources he turned to for them, listed a catalogue of obscure-sounding trademarks and industrial locations:
He may go to Long island City and have the Bernstein Brothers, Tinsmiths put “Pittsburgh” seams into some (Bethcon) iron boxes, or he might go to Allied Plastics in Lower Manhattan and have cut-to-size some Rohm-Haas “glowing” pink plexiglass. Judd is always on the lookout for new finishes, like Lavax Wrinkle Finish … Judd likes that combination, and so he might “self” spray one of his “fabricated” boxes with it. Or maybe he will travel to Hackensack, New Jersey to investigate a lead he got on a new kind of zinc based paint called Galvanox, which is comparable to “hot-dip” galvanizing.
(Robert Smithson, “Donald Judd (1965)” in Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996].)
While the stuff of Judd’s art were, literally, heavy-duty substances and materials, the actual execution of those pieces remained a very hands-on process for the artist. Much of his early 60s work were produced manually at a small, family-run piecework shop called Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties Inc., which produced a range of items for industrial purposes, like smoke stacks, general roofing, skylights, ventilation systems etc. The procedure for constructing one of Judd’s pieces at the Bernsteins’ typically involved a high degree of hand operations:
… adapted from the shaping of ventilation ducts and industrial sinks, [the process] involved measuring and cutting the sheet iron, notching it with hand shears, and folding it in a brake die. … the sculpture [was finished] by truing its angles with a rubber mallet and … reaching inside the back to solder its three pieces carefully together.
(Joshua Shannon, The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009].)
Don Judd (right) at the Bernstein Bros. workshop, 1968. Image from DB Artmag.
The appearance of industrial manufacture, then, belied the manual labour that went into the production of Judd’s pieces; their materials, the “adapted” processes, the high degree of finish, and their geometric, modular shapes all went towards suggesting an origin in the factory rather than the studio. And it is precisely this deceptive indexing of industrial means of fabrication and engineering, the assumption of the look of capitalist, technocratic power – by creating objects resembling mass-produced commodities, objects which then enter our everyday lives as items of utility – that engenders the desire to touch. Or, to put it another way: Judd’s objects, in suppressing most visible traces of the artist’s hand*, and approximating the appearance of those ordinary things that we use in our mundane lives, like floor boxes and stacks and bleachers and architectural columns, breaks down the barrier between the visual and the tactile that is part and parcel of the contemporary experience of art – that is to say, the dictum that one can look, but should not touch, is expressly infringed upon.
* See Josiah Mcelheny, “Invisible Hand”, Artforum International, vol. 42, no. 10 (Summer 2004).
By adopting the aspect of everyday articles, Judd’s objects almost seems to invite the viewer to experience them in those embodied ways with which we come into corporeal contact with those familiar things. One handles a box, sits on a bleacher, perhaps unthinkingly runs a stray hand over a row of colonnades in strolling past. And although it is difficult to conceive of actually picking up one of Judd’s box-like sculptures or parking your behind down on his Bleachers piece, it is not too far a stretch to imagine kissing your reflection in a particularly shiny surface, or using it, mirror-like, to peruse the state of your hairdo – which is exactly what critic, Anna Chave, witnessed two girls doing one day in the MoMA. She relates the following incident involving a “gleaming brass floor box” of Judd’s on display in the museum: “… two teenage girls strode over to this pristine work, kicked it, and laughed. They then discovered its reflective surface and used it for a while to arrange their hair until, finally, they bent over to kiss their images on the top of the box” (Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power”, Arts Magazine, vol. 64, no. 1 [Jan, 1990]).
…… Hey, I did say Judd was a favourite.
But enough of the art history and the theoryspeak, I think.
Being at Sanada’s was like New York all over again: the quiet moments of wonderment at MoMA, amidst the throngs of tourists; the endless galleries in Chelsea; the marathon Met walkabouts.
It was nice …
Some of the other stuff in the show:
Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol runs at Ikkan Art from 18 May to 5 June, 2011.
Ikkan Art Gallery, Artspace@Helutrans,
39 Keppel Road #01-05,
Tanjong Pagar Distripark,
11am – 7pm, Monday – Saturday
1pm – 5pm, Sundays and Public Holidays
The following piece appeared in The Straits Times yesterday (May 17), bringing to a conclusion the uproar over the SAM’s censorship of Simon Fujiwara’s contribution to the Singapore Biennale, Welcome to the Hotel Munber.
Having kept silent for the duration of the Biennale, the artist has, at long last, raised his voice on the matter – revealing a couple of interesting nuggets, one of which is the fact that he’d provided “images and detailed descriptions of the finished work many months before the exhibition” (italics mine).
In other words, according to Fujiwara, the SAM knew of the inclusion of pornographic material in the piece beforehand. Which begs the million-dollar question: why was it only an issue two days into the event ? I suppose there are several possibilities: a. no one on the curatorial team was reading those “detailed descriptions” too carefully, and/or b. they assumed they could get away with it (only to be torpedoed by hawk-eyed viewers).
I still say Fujiwara passed up on the perfect opportunity though. If indeed censorship of homosexuality is one of his themes, as noted below, then the SAM’s act of censoring would have been the chance for the work to self-reflexively perform its own thesis – an artwork about censorship itself materially censored. All that was needed was perhaps a sign explaining the absence, in place of the porno mags ? Now that would have made a splash: a work enfolding the experiential terms of its own statement into itself, meta- and ur-levels of being collapsed into one …
ARTIST DECRIES SAM’S ACTIONS
By Adeline Chia.
British-Japanese Simon Fujiwara (right) whose art installation Welcome to the Hotel Munber was closed to the public for much of the Singapore Biennale following a censorship controversy, has finally spoken up.
He had converted a gallery at the Singapore Art Museum into a 1970s Spanish hotel bar, complete with hanging legs of ham, and containing erotic pictures and text.
But just after the opening weekend of the Biennale in March, the museum removed some gay pornographic magazines from the installation, citing legal prohibitions against the display of pornographic material. There were also concerns that the pornographic magazines, which belonged to a collector, could be handled by the public.
A public outcry ensued when it was revealed that the museum had removed the magazines before informing Fujiwara, and the exhibit was closed “temporarily” while the artist and the museum discussed other options. But it ended up shut for most of the two-month biennale.
Last week, two days before the biennale ended, the museum said that the installation would be permanently closed. Speaking for the first time about the controversy, Fujiwara, 28, described the actions of the museum as “unprofessional and unethical”.
In an e-mail statement to Life!, he said: “While I understand the legal prohibition of exhibiting pornographic materials in Singapore was the main cause of this removal, I believe it was both unprofessional and unethical to alter the work without my prior consent.”
He explained that his work “examines the violent oppression of human freedom and the censorship of homosexual literature under General Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship in 1970s Spain”.
It does this by fusing seemingly harmless nationalist symbols such as bulls’ heads, wine barrels and portraits of the leader with banned materials such as pornography and erotic literature.
As the work was conceived partly to raise awareness of censorship and civil liberty, he added that “it would have been both hypocritical and unjust of me to continue to show the work in a censored state”.
The winner of the Frieze Art Fair’s prestigious annual Cartier Award for emerging artists last year, Fujiwara’s works often deal with fictional narratives, sexuality and history, and have been exhibited at prestigious platforms such as the Venice Biennale, Manifesta and the Sao Paolo Biennale.
He added that he had provided “images and detailed descriptions of the finished work many months before the exhibition” and that the sexual imagery had been discussed with the exhibition organisers, and that was why an advisory had been prepared.
He said: “I believe that it was the responsibility of the museum to have made a balanced judgment before the work went on display.”
Yesterday, the museum director Tan Boon Hui said the museum decided to permanently close the work as both sides could not agree “on a solution that will work for all”.
He added that “the complexities and integrity of the work would be lost if any part were altered”.
Despite his strong criticism of the museum, Fujiwara said the Singapore Biennale has been an “important and encouraging experience”.
He said the unsensational journalism and the voices of support in Singapore, Asia, Europe and the United States made it clear that “an important debate has been had and is still in progress”.