Posts Tagged ‘Chinese art’
Image of the day: Carl Van Vechten’s 1935 portrait of Mai-mai Sze (above), the subject poised against a backdrop of concentric squares, the wavy, undulating shapes seeming to emanate in a dance of geometric distortion from her head …
Sze, or 施美美, as her Chinese name goes, was the daughter of one of Republican China’s most important political dynasties. She was born to Alfred S.K. Sze, who represented the fledgling republic at the League of Nations and the Court of St. James; he later became the country’s first ambassador to the U.S.A. (According to his Wiki entry, he was also the first Chinese student to graduate from Cornell.) Mai-mai’s maternal uncle was Tang Shaoyi, the first Prime Minister – albeit briefly – of post-Qing China.
Sze was a woman of many talents, it seems. Painter, writer, activist, sometime Broadway actress. However, to me, at least, the name is recognizable primarily for her translation of the famous Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual, or 芥子園畫傳 – still the version most commonly used today. Art lovers may also be interested in this little factoid: her grand-niece is American artist Sarah Sze, who has a solo show on right now at the Asia Society in New York, Infinite Line.
Ms. Mai-mai was a little-known pioneer in one other respect: long before the era of the equality movement and identity politics, she was a gay woman of colour. (Born in Peking, she was educated at Wellesley, and lived out her life in the U.S.) Her longtime companion was costume designer and 5-time Oscar recipient, Irene Sharaff, who was honoured for her work on cinematic classics such as The King and I, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and West Side Story. Late in life, the couple donated money towards the building of the Music and Meditation Pavilion of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University, on the grounds of which they are buried today.
Daughter, niece, aunt, lover – and seldom the star of her own life. Yet it’s clear that Mai-mai Sze was an individual possessed of intellect and creativity, a fact which Van Vechten’s image of her alludes to in wittily elegant fashion.
The photograph is in the collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library.
Below is another striking portrait of Sze, this one by George Platt Lynes. Dressed in a slender, streamlined sliver of silken fabric from Fortuny, balanced between a blank expanse of wall and an abstract object, she resembles nothing so much as a Brancusi sculpture.
The Gillman Barracks opens in September.
For those who can’t wait, a detailed write-up in The Straits Times today.
The final price tag ? – ten million big ones. Gotta love Singapore.
ENGINEERED FOR THE ARTS
Will the planning of Gillman Barracks arts hub by the government stifle or help the arts in Singapore?
By Adeline Chia. Published February 16, 2012.
The vision for the Gillman Barracks is a brave and ambitious one: a cluster of top art galleries from around the world, housed in quaint historical buildings nestled in leafy surrounds.
The art on show is a mixture of the cutting edge and the established, including A-list artists such as Takeshi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Annie Leibovitz.
It aims to draw visitors from the jetsetting art collector to the window- shopping man on the street. In other words: ‘an iconic international destination for contemporary art in Asia’, according to the official literature.
Gillman Barracks is the bold new step in Singapore’s continuous march to become a global arts city – by building an arts district akin to Beijing’s 798 Art District, South Korea’s Heyri Art Village or New York’s Chelsea.
The difference is that these art districts abroad have sprung up naturally while Gillman is a government-led project. Its development is planned by the Economic Development Board, Jurong Town Corporation and the National Arts Council at a cost of about $10 million.
In the past few years, Singapore has grown pretty serious about contemporary visual art.
Two international art fairs, the high-end Art Stage Singapore and the mid-priced Affordable Art Fair, have taken off. International galleries have also started moving in, such as Art Plural Gallery opened by Swiss art dealer Frederic De Senarclens.
In terms of arts infrastructure, things are buoyed by the development of the $80-million Singapore Freeport, a storage space for art, with international auction house Christie’s as the main tenant.
In 2015, there is another biggie: the much-anticipated opening of The National Art Gallery, a 60,000 sq m gallery that will be housed in the City Hall and the former Supreme Court buildings. The institution will focus on South-east Asian art and its renovations will cost an estimated $530 million.
With Gillman Barracks, scheduled to open with a bang in September with all the galleries ready for business, Singapore’s art race goes into turbo mode. But even before the cluster throws open its doors, sceptics are asking if it is possible to engineer an arts hub, Singapore-style, by using a committee to choose a winning combination of tenants.
Thirteen galleries form the first wave of tenants in the former colonial army barracks located off Alexandra Road.
They include Ota Fine Arts, representing Japanese superstar artist Yayoi ‘polka dot’ Kusama; Sundaram Tagore Gallery, carrying the works of Leibovitz and American abstract painter Frank Stella; and ShanghART Gallery, representing top Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi.
The galleries are supposed to pay commercial rates and those approached by Life! said they have not been given discounts or other monetary incentives to set up shop here. In a call for applicants released by the Economic Development Board last year, rental rates were cited as between $31.50 and $35.50 a sq m a month.
Most arts observers welcome the list of galleries in Gillman. Mr Wang Zineng, 30, a South-east Asian specialist at Christie’s, calls it ‘an exciting mix that promotes inter-Asian interactions and conversations’.
But he is worried about the ‘long-term sustainability of the project’. ‘In any such project, there is seed money. After that money is spent, what happens? The commercial viability remains a question.’
A challenge is overcoming the ‘saturation of the art market in Asia’, including Hong Kong’s buzzing commercial art scene and the India Art Fair. ‘There are a lot of art fairs and auctions around. How do you sustain the interest of collectors?’ he adds.
Prominent Malaysian gallerist Valentine Willie, 57, is blunt in his assessment: ‘In a sense, Gillman has already failed.’
He owns four galleries in South-east Asia under the Valentine Willie Fine Art name.
‘Places such as Chelsea and 798 grew as a result of a need or a demand. Here, the Government is manufacturing the demand,’ he says.
He points to Hong Kong, where rents are exorbitant and yet the city attracts top-shelf international galleries such as London’s White Cube, whose roster includes well-known British contemporary artists Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and Gagosian Gallery, a supergallery chain owned by influential American dealer Larry Gagosian.
Mr Willie says: ‘No government was there to give you some nice old buildings. Hong Kong is just where the action is. You can’t manufacture that. EDB of all agencies should understand basic economics: you can’t manufacture demand.’
He adds that the Economic Development Board should instead help existing arts clusters such as Artspace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark, a 70,000 sq ft warehouse space owned by Helutrans, an arts handling firm.
The Singapore branch of Mr Willie’s gallery is situated there, together with three other galleries: Galerie Steph, Ikkan Art International and ReDot Fine Art Gallery.
He says: ‘Instead of trying to harness the energy of an existing hub and helping it, they are trying to kill it. It’s unfair competition.’
Another Artspace@Helutrans tenant has a different view. Japanese art dealer and gallerist Ikkan Sanada, 61, who moved his long-standing New York base to Singapore, says: ‘I don’t believe in government intervention, especially in art.’
But he says that sometimes some initial help can ‘kick off arts activity’.
He opened his gallery in May last year and shows works by top names such as photographer Cindy Sherman, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and British ‘bad boy’ Damien Hirst.
He says: ‘I welcome the Gillman Barracks. It provides a diversity of galleries, which is good for the arts community.’
He says that the next two to three years will be crucial in testing the commercial viability of the cluster.
‘While the market can be influenced and improved by initial investment, you can’t control or force the public to start buying art. If the buyers don’t come and sales don’t materialise, then some galleries may have to leave. We have to wait and see.’
An EDB spokeman says that the Gillman Barracks was chosen as a venue because, according to industry feedback, ‘a successful arts cluster should have unique architectural and/or historical characteristics’.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority then proposed the Gillman site because of its 14 low-rise military-style buildings and lush green surroundings. The entire development will yield 9,000 sq m of space for lease, with a tenancy term of three years with an option to extend for another three years.
Dr Eugene Tan, 38, programme director of EDB’s Lifestyle Programme Office who is overseeing the Gillman Barracks’ development, says that it was necessary for the Government to step in to ‘address the failures of the open market’ to develop a successful arts cluster.
‘Many arts clusters which have been left to develop freely by private developers have succumbed to short-term pressures to lease spaces to the highest bidder,’ he says.
As a result, art businesses are priced out by high-end bars and restaurants.
‘This issue is particularly pressing in land-scarce Singapore. As many commercial tenants compete aggressively on price, there are limited options for emerging clusters of art businesses to grow organically over the long term.’
He adds that Gillman Barracks is not modelled after any particular arts cluster abroad.
The Gillman galleries certainly buy into his dream. Many of them say that they have chosen Singapore to be closer to their South-east Asian clients, and because Singapore is an emerging centre for the thriving art market in Asia.
Mr Ota Hidenori, 52, whose Tokyo- based Ota Fine Arts is opening its first 108 sq m outpost in Singapore, says: ‘Singapore is just starting out and I want to be one of the first players here.’
His gallery carries the work of artists such as Kusama and video artist Hiraki Sawa.
He says Singapore is a good base to tap into the booming art market in Asia, given its multi-cultural identity and the quality of its public museums and arts professionals.
New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore, who owns an eponymous chain of galleries in New York, Beverly Hills and Hong Kong, also believes in Singapore as an emerging arts hub. Its central location in Asia leaves it well-poised to tap into his collector base from Dubai to Australia. His gallery space in Gillman is about 4,500 sq ft.
The 52-year-old says that his gallery was not given any financial incentive, but the power of EDB ‘collectively marketing’ the Gillman Barracks as a serious arts cluster with a strong roster of galleries is attractive to him.
As for the place being master planned, he says: ‘Singapore doesn’t have the benefit of history, unlike the great centres of art such as New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo. When you are trying to create things speedily, you need a stimulus. Here it happens to be the Government. If you wait for organic development, you could be waiting forever.’
ShanghART’s Swiss director Lorenz Helbling, who is in his 50s, says that he decided to come into Singapore because it is an ‘emerging, interesting place’.
‘So many cultures come together here. As a market, I don’t know how bright it is. Who knows? But most of the time, we don’t do things for commercial interest. It’s difficult to know what collectors want. We just do our bit and hope that collectors follow.’
ShanghART is one of the most influential galleries in China devoted to contemporary art, and it was chosen as one of the top 75 galleries of the 20th century by Taschen, the German art and design publisher.
Singapore is its first gallery outside Shanghai and its repertoire features some of the biggest names in Chinese art such as Zeng, Chen Xiaoyun and Ding Yi. Its space in Gillman is just over 100 sq m.
Mr Helbling did not consider Hong Kong as an option because ‘there’s too much shopping’.
‘In Singapore, I feel that you can develop an artistic kind of feeling, it doesn’t feel too commercial.’
Most arts observers say that it is early days yet, but agree that this is a high-stakes game that requires careful management.
Curator and art consultant Lindy Poh, 41, acknowledges that government agencies face a ‘double bind’ when engineering arts clusters.
She says that art clusters such as Soho and 798 had a strong indie vibe (‘an X factor’) at certain points of their development, which ran counter to state intervention, which suggests bureaucracy and surveillance.
She says: ‘Our art market is very small and benefits from certain boosts, and government agencies have their own pressures to deliver on key performance indicators.
‘But if agencies are perceived as engineering the creative sector excessively, they are also seen as stripping it of its aura of independence.’
Dr Tan has a delicate task ahead, but he has grand plans for Gillman Barracks. He says: ‘Apart from making it an international destination and marketplace for contemporary art in Asia, I want it to be the place where you can see and experience the best and most innovative art of your times.’
Is this a beautiful dream or the prophecy for a brave, new chapter in Singapore’s arts development? Only time can tell. But Mr Jasdeep Sandhu, 45, owner of Gajah Gallery, says that government support gives the Gillman galleries ‘a bit of a tail wind’.
He adds: ‘It’s a business decision that these guys are making to come here. They are sharp business people who see its potential. It means they have confidence in Singapore as a spot for art.’
‘Places such as Chelsea and 798 grew as a result of a need or a demand. Here, the Government is manufacturing the demand. Instead of trying to harness the energy of an existing hub and helping it, they are trying to kill it’
Malaysian gallerist Valentine Willie
‘Singapore doesn’t have the benefit of history, unlike the great centres of art such as New York, Tokyo. When you are trying to create things speedily, you need a stimulus… If you wait for organic development, you could be waiting forever’
New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore
Galleries at Gillman
EQUATOR ART PROJECTS (Indonesia)
Gallery directors: Deddy Irianto and Tony Godfrey
Artists: Agus Suwage, Arahmaiani, Ay Tjoe Christine
FOST GALLERY (Singapore)
Gallery director: Stephanie Fong
Artists: Chun Kai Feng, Chun Kai Qun, Tang Ling Nah, Namiko Chan Takahashi
KAIKAI KIKI GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Takashi Murakami
Artists: Takashi Murakami, Anri Sala, Aya Takano, Mr.
FUTURE PERFECT (Australia)
Gallery directors: David Teh and Jasper Knight
Artists: Adam Cullen, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ho Tzu Nyen
MIZUMA GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Mizuma Sueo
Artists: Makoto Aida, Konoike Tomoko, Ikeda Manabu
OTA FINE ARTS (Japan)
Gallery director: Ota Hidenori
Artists: Yayoi Kusama, Hiraki Sawa and Tomoko Kashiki
PEARL LAM GALLERIES (China)
Gallery director: Pearl Lam
Artists: Zhang Huan, Zhu Jinshi, Li Tianbing
SHANGHART GALLERY (China)
Gallery director: Lorenz Helbling
Artists: Zeng Fanzhi, Chen Xiaoyun, Ding Yi
SILVERLENS (The Philippines)
Gallery directors: Isa Lorenzo and Neli Go
Artists: Patricia Eustaquio, Frank Callaghan, Wawi Navarroza
SPACE COTTONSEED (Korea)
Gallery director: Janice Kim
Artists: Moon Kyungwon, Lee Seahyun, Choi Hochul
SUNDARAM TAGORE GALLERY (US)
Gallery director: Sundaram Tagore
Artists: Annie Leibovitz, Robert Polidori, Frank Stella
THE DRAWING ROOM (The Philippines)
Gallery director: Cesar Villalon Jr
Artists: Jose Legaspi, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Kawayan De Guia
TOMIO KOYAMA GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Tomio Koyama
Artists: Yoshitomo Nara, Franz Ackermann, Mika Ninagawa
Here is scholar of the sartorial, Anne Hollander, on the material existence of clothes:
Dress has not only no social but also no significant aesthetic existence unless it is actually being worn. Western sartorial relics on display simply do not have the artistic status of antique vases and cabinets. Half their beauty is obviously missing. This is true not just if they are displayed unworn, but always, simply because they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners …… Concepts of design and feats of workmanship survive, along with indications of social attitudes, economic conditions, and so on. But a vase in a museum has a completeness to offer the eye that a dress never has, though both may be breathtakingly made according to artistic standards of equal altitude.
(From Hollander’s classic study, Seeing Through Clothes.)
Unworn clothing, or dress, then, as an inert physicality, un-activated as social or aesthetic fact by the animating force of a body.
Now these – at the SAM’s latest offering, The Collectors Show: Chimera - bodies missing, effaced, obscured, abstracted:
First, Filipino artist Patricia Eustaquio’s Psychogenic Fugue (below), on loan from collector Marcel Crespo (son of former Filipino Congressman, Mark Jimenez). A piano cover, an expanse of cream-coloured lace, is set over a missing piano, its evacuated, vacant interior illuminated by several spotlights. The armature of the piece is provided by the simple means of a hardened thermoplastic resin, which moulds the fabric from beneath into a phantasmal non-presence – evoked, named, but always already displaced. As the label observes: “Delicate in detail and haunting in its hollowness, this ghostly shroud calls attention to its absent object, poignantly emphasising its loss.”
Another contribution by a Filipino artist: Yasmin Sison’s Orange Madonna (below), from the collection of one Dr. George Soo. The painting’s central figures are, literally, dis-figured. The minor iconographic tradition of the Virgin and Holy Infant in a grove of orange trees – one of the more famous examples of which remains Cima de Conegliano’s late 15th century treatment of the subject – is here given an update by the clearly visible contemporary wear. More to the point, however, is the salient effacement of the figures, the painted surface where their faces should be reduced to a muddied soup of chaotic brushstrokes and chromatic confusion, explicitly negating the dimensions of mimesis and iconicity.
The title of Yayoi Kusama’s installation, Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets 2/10 (below), speaks for itself. Courtesy of Lito and Kim Camacho, a replica of the Venus de Milo is set against a flat background, both rendered in Kusama’s trademark “infinity nets” (a pattern of reiterated dots), binding object and setting in a virtually indistinguishable homogeneity. To quote theorist Roger Caillois on what he termed “legendary psychasthenia”, or the phenomenon of a subject psychologically identifying with or becoming absorbed into a physical space:
It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself …… The feeling of personality, considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these circumstances to be seriously undermined; one then enters into the psychology of psychasthenia, and more specifically legendary psychasthenia, if we agree to use this name for the disturbance in the above relations between personality and space.
(Qtd. in Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny.)
The body is here, the artist flatly states, obliterated, the object visually subsumed as an image of the subject in a state of destabilizing psycho-spatial collapse.
Finally, Indonesian Entang Wiharso’s The Unspeakable Victim – The Story Behind Superhero and Black Goat Colony (#3) (below), from the collection of Hugh Young. The work is one in a series of similar metal-plate sculptures, resembling, in their broad figural contours, paper cutouts, or the cast shadows of wayang kulit puppets. The rather obscure narratives conjured by the artist aren’t the point here; what is apropos is the evocation of the wayang: “… you have to understand the wayang – the scared shadow play … Their shadows are souls, and the screen is heaven. You must watch the shadows, not the puppets.” (A quote from Peter Weir’s 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, based on C. J. Koch’s novel of the same name.) Orientalist melodrama aside, the wayang in its performative dimension indeed provides a ready analogue for the abstracted corporeal complex as Wiharso envisions it. The appropriation of the silhouette as a formal strategy, rather than the puppets themselves, in all their intricate detail, suggests a double dislocation here: the shadow as a Platonic un-reality, a cave of fleeting illusions, which the art of the wayang encodes into its very praxis; and Wiharso’s spare, bare forms, the body submitted to a specific mode of erasure.
A return to where we started from: Hollander’s claim that the unworn dress is an incomplete prosthesis of the wearer. If that notion may be analogized to accommodate the artwork-collector complex – the effaced body, so prevalent here, as an intimation of the missing, crucial, animating force that supposedly provides the conceptual glue which brings together the various strands of contemporary art praxis on display, or, in other words, the individual collector and the determining aesthetics of particular collections and tastes – then the shortcomings of the show become glaringly obvious, “simply because”, as Hollander puts it, “they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners.”
After all, Chimera bills itself as “a tribute to the art patrons of today, the exhibition offers an insight into the breadth and richness of private art collections, introducing visitors to the personal visions and passions that shape them.”
Where, then, are these ‘personal visions and passions”, beyond the parade of names that mean little to general art-viewing public – Crespo, Soo, Camacho, Young, among so many others that soon begin to blur one into another ? Those function here simply as a placeholder for the act of semantic truancy, the organizing principle claimed but, for all effective purpose, occluded. Or to reiterate the abovementioned – “evoked, named, but always already displaced.”
The artwork as static and inert as an article of dress removed from the absent anatomy; the gesture of the hollowed-out body as an analogue of that missing element which serves as the ersatz foundation of the exhibition, a presence alluded to but ceaselessly deferred – the Collector.
It was all so .. deracinated.
A tribute of sorts this show certainly is, but what to ? The power of individual collectors possessed of the necessary resources ? The readiness of an institution to genuflect ? The ingenuity of the curator ? The cosy network of connections which sutures the art industry and the socio-economic elite ? Or perhaps the creed of convenience, the exhibition as an easy, fail-safe showcase of the snazziest examplars of contemporary Asian art, a blatantly transparent attempt to wow both collector and peasant alike, the latter especially who should be grateful for the opportunity to view such remarkable pieces accessible otherwise only to the privilege of (superfluous) capital and private property.
Consider me grateful.
Currently on view at MOCA Loewen: Sui Jianguo’s Imprisonment and Power, curated by legendary Chinese critic Li Xianting.
The show though is really just Sui’s latest commissioned piece, Restrained Power (below): an iron ball, some 2 meters in diameter, rolls back and forth in an industrial crate – creating the most god almighty racket while doing it. Even in the open, it would have sounded like metallic peals of thunder; in an enclosed space, where the uproar had the privilege of er, reverberation, it sounded like the world was coming to an ear-splitting end. (See the clip below.)
The official write-up:
Sui Jianguo’s large scale installation Restrained Power hefts eight tons and consisted of a metal container – 15 meters in length, 2.5 meters in height, and 2.5 meters in width – and an iron ball (5mm thickness and 2 meters in diameter) as well as related power devices. On display, the huge and covered metal container occupies considerable space in the museum. The ball, driven by some power source, rolls inside and collides with the container to make a deafening sound. The audiences can only see a huge metal container from the outside without being able to see what and how the sounds come about: They can hear the continuous rattle and every 27 second [sic] a deafening sound comes out of the metal container.
The metal container creates an impression of iron curtain [sic] or black box – strong and cold. The container, the ball and the power source inside the container form a relationship of constrain [sic] and collision. Restrained Power thus is a metaphorical installation about imprisonment and struggle. It is Sui Jianguo’s expression of his inner feelings and certainly could also be read as an implied meaning of the living environment.
Image (bottom) from CAFA’s site.
Sui Jianguo’s Restrained Power. (It’s too dark to discern much, but turn the sound up.)
The sheer visceral impact of the piece is worth schlepping out to the Dempsey area for. If one doesn’t appreciate the sensorial terror, then perhaps Restrained Power can be viewed as an exercise in nerve: the ball comes straight at the peephole, and the viewer. It would take a spine of steel to keep one’s eye there while it was barrelling thunderously towards you – like the wrath of god.
Maybe Sui took a cue from the Indy Jones flick with the giant ball in the temple.
Three more days till the water dragon comes roaring in – here’s wishing all my readers a great long nian, or dragon year, ahead !
Images here: a couple of Chen Rong’s absolutely sublime dragons. Chen Rong 陳容 was a Southern Song painter, famed for his portrayal of these mythological beasties, and the Nine Dragons 九龍圖 scroll, currently in the collection of the MFA Boston, is considered his masterpiece. According to one description:
This long handscroll depicts, as indicated by the title, nine dragons, which appear among clouds, waves, wind, and cliffs, executed in monochrome ink on paper with some subtle touches of red color.
The handscroll displays a great variety and creativity in painting technique, a combination of seemingly random and spontaneous application of ink with highly controlled and articulated brush technique. For example, some areas of the painting display the use a piece of cloth to apply ink or ink splashes, whereas rock surfaces or dragons’ scales are executed with a more controlled brush. These observable features match with descriptions of Chen Rong’s painting practice, which report that he painted spontaneously when drunk and used his cap to smear ink on the painting surface. Chen Rong himself refers to this practice in his inscription as well.
The overall effect of the painting is one of continuous movement and energy throughout the scroll, from which the dragons emerge and into which they disappear.
Dragons have been a motif in Chinese art and visual culture from early times onward carrying a variety of meanings, such as embodying the male Yang principle, controlling rain and weather, or as a symbol of the emperor.
Chen Rong’s handscroll can be placed into a Daoist context of depicting dragons as implied in his own inscription and in the colophons added to the scroll by Daoist priests from the 12th to the 14th century. The emphasis is on the power and transformative character of the dragons, while the motifs of rain and thunder appear throughout the painting and the colophons.
(The write-up is from UChicago’s Center for the Art of East Asia. For an awesome online scroll viewer of the entire 11-metre long painting, see their page here.)
In other news, our regular arts bloggers’ meetup is back ! It’s happening on Feb 1, at 8 pm. (That’s a Wednesday evening.)
As usual, we’re being hosted by the nice folk at The Pigeonhole cafe, who deserve a big coo-out for their continued hospitality.
And no worries – co-host and meetup regular (and, now, new mum!) Notabilia will be there. It won’t be just me making people introduce themselves ten times over …
1. February 1st.
2. 8 pm.
3. The Pigeonhole. 52/53 Duxton Rd.
4. Don’t bring any mandarin oranges, ’cause everyone will be sick of them.
Part three coming up soon. (That’s the interesting one.)
Watch this space.
There should be a review of sorts where this post is.
Unfortunately, the second edition of Art Stage Singapore is so huge – and good – that I’m probably going to have go back a couple more times just to see everything.
Previews were yesterday. As usual, it was a total booze-schmooze fest.
My general reaction after eight f*cking hours there:
That’s Chinese artist He Xiangyu’s The Death of Marat, a sculpture so life-like that when it was exhibited in the town of Bad Ems, Germany, the local cops received several calls reporting a death. According to an article in The Washington Post:
The sculpture is called “The Death of Marat” — an art-historical nod to the famous neoclassical painting of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, painted by Jacques-Louis David . It depicts Weiwei, who was detained by the Chinese government earlier this year, as lying face down on the gallery floor, deceased. [He] Xiangyu said that he used real human hair, plastic and fiberglass to create the extremely realistic statue. In cribbing the title from David, Xiangyu elevates Weiwei’s status to that of a tragic hero.
A special shoutout to local artist Michael Lee, who was showing his installation piece, Revision as Exercise (below), which premiered earlier in a two-man show at the National Museum. Mike, in a stroke of *utter genius*, put a couch right there in the space – which ensured that everyone was going to show up at some point or other. Bodily Relief as Relational Aesthetic: two thumbs up.
And Zhao Renhui has a booth there too:
Dialogue 对话 (1989), Xiao Lu. One print is in the collection of the MoMA.
Translation: “I fell in love with the man, but he fell in love this one gunshot of mine.”
That’s Chinese artist Xiao Lu 肖鲁 on the incident that changed her life – and secured her a position in the story of contemporary Chinese art.
It all happened at the opening of the monumental China/Avant-Garde exhibition of 1989, which stands, then as now, as the definitive artistic event of that year … in fact, of the decade. (Well, before the events of June 4th overshadowed almost everything else, that is.)
A brief prelude: the advent of avant-garde art in China, post-Mao, was in many ways cemented by the emergence of the ’85 New Wave movement ’85 美术运动. It marked another stage in the evolution of art in the reform era: unlike previous incarnations of experimental sensibility, like the Stars group 星星画会, the No Name-rs 无名画会, or the April Photographic Society 四月影会, this new generation of artists were younger, better-schooled – many were students at noted Chinese art academies, as opposed to being self-taught like so many of their predecessors – and, most importantly, better informed about the latest developments in 20th century Western art. (A seminal moment was Robert Rauschenberg’s solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Beijing in 1985, the “first officially sanctioned American art show to visit China in fifty years.”) Many informal art groups began springing up all over China at this time – some eighty in twenty-three different provinces and cities, by one reckoning. These included the Southwest Art Group 西南艺术群体, based in Kunming, Yunnan; the Pool Society 池社 in Hangzhou; and – one of the most fascinating of the lot – the Xiamen Dada 厦门达达 in Xiamen, Fujian.
The key figure of the latter movement, Huang Yongping 黄永砯, borrowed a healthy dose of iconoclasm from his chief influence, Marcel Duchamp. The title of his most enduring work, The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (below), is self-explanatory: Huang put two texts of art history, Wang Bomin’s History of Chinese Painting 中国绘画史 and Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting, into a washing machine, reducing the two books to a messy pulp and demolishing the idea of a pure, uncontaminated cultural history in one gesture; according to critic Fei Dawei, Read’s text was “one of the few introductory modern Western art books to be translated into Chinese, and one that at the time had an enormous influence in avant-garde art circles”. In a further demonstration of their artistic creed – manifested in slogans like “anti-formalism 反形式主义” , “anti-art history 反艺术史” and “anti-self-expression 反自我表现” - the Xiamen Dada-ists held their first exhibition in 1986, at the end of which all artworks involved were consigned to a blazing bonfire (below). They represented a particular turn in the evolution of artistic autonomy: their nihilistic gestures, framed within a series of negational ideologies, marked a shift from the humanism of the earlier period. While eschewing the sort of paradigms which were centered on the individual creativity and vision of the artist-figure, they nonetheless – paradoxically – signified a specific form of self-expressivity, the act of self-negation being predicated on the reality of individualized liberty to begin with. In other words, the antics of the Xiamen Dada-ists were very much a product of their socio-historical moment, their espousal of an artistic ideology imported from the West signaling the expansion of an earlier period of avant-garde experimentation, as well as being a reflection of the permissive atmosphere of the 1980s in general.
The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987), Huang Yongping. Image from Asia Art Archive.
The bonfire at the Xiamen Dada’s first group show in Xiamen, Nov 1986. Image from Asia Art Archive.
The culmination of these various developments that had been fermenting since the early 80s was the unveiling of the momentous China/Avant-garde show at the National Art Gallery in February 1989. A large-scale group show involving 297 works from some 186 artists, it was the first nationwide exhibition of avant-garde art in China. The building was transformed into a mausoleum-like affair, with three long, black banners extending from the façade of the structure bearing the show’s trademark symbol, a “No U-Turn” traffic sign, indicating that there was to be no turning back from that point forth (below). In the spirit of the radical, open experimentation of the decade, the exhibition marked a profound departure from the Stars show, which took place only a mere ten years before: replacing the wood sculptures and ink paintings of the previous exhibition were a veritable smorgasbord of new forms, formats and media, including a number of installation and performance pieces. In fact, it was one of these performances – Xiao Lu’s – which would result in the closing of the show mere hours after its grand opening, the first of two closures during its brief existence.
Curator and critic Gao Minglu, the organizer of the exhibition and the chief force driving the operation, published his massive tome, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art, last year (*the* book we students of contemporary Chinese art were waiting for). In it he recounts the tale of Xiao Lu, her lover Tang Song, and the events of Feb 5, 1989:
Three hours after the opening of the exhibition, Xiao Lu, a young woman artist from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art, fired two gunshots, which shocked the National Art Museum. Xiao Lu suddenly pulled out a gun and fired two shots at her installation, Dialogue; or more precisely, at a mirror between two telephone booths in which stood full-length pictures of a male and a female student talking to each other on the phone. The president of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, who was on the spot, immediately seized Tang Song, a friend of Xiao, who was standing near the installation, and ordered me [Gao] to close the exhibition. The reason given was that the scene of the gunshot had to be preserved intact in order to trace the cause of the incident. (Actually the Public Security Bureau had long been suspicious of the organizational work of the exhibition.) immediately after the shooting, several police cars fully loaded with armed personnel arrived in the square in front of the National Art Museum ……
The Beijing Public Security Bureau stated that both Xiao Lu and Tang Song had violated this law [against private gun ownership] and had to be detained. At four o’clock in the afternoon, encouraged by her uncle, Xiao Lu surrendered herself to the authorities. After being detained for two and a half days, both people were released because there was no evidence that the two artists had plotted a murder. However, because of the shooting and other events, the exhibition was forced to close for three days. The government authorities still believed that this incident held political meaning, and most of the foreign news media reported it as a political event. According to the claims of the two artists, their shooting was nothing more than a celebration of finishing the installation work, no matter what the public thought about it. After the two artists were released; [sic[ they gave me a declaration in person, asking me to make a public announcement on their behalf. The declaration is as follows:
As parties to the shooting incident on the day of the opening of the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition, we consider it a purely artistic incident. We consider that in art, there may be artists with different understandings of society, but as artists we are not interested in politics. We are interested in the values of art as such, and in its social value, and in using the right form with which to create, in order to carry out the process of deepening that understand.
Xiao Lu, Tang Song
Although Xiao Lu was named as the author of the installation, and she was also the person who opened fire, the media and art circles widely took both Xiao Lu and Tang Song to be the initiators and performers of the two gunshots because Tang was the first one arrested … No one doubted the coauthorship of the two gunshots until, fifteen years later, Xiao Lu openly declared that she was the only author of the gunshot as well as of the installation. The gunshots were part of the installation as a whole. Xiao was silent about her work and never mentioned the question of authorship until the end of her fifteen-year relationship with Tang Song in 2004.
The declaration of her sole authorship of the Dialogue and the gunshots began with five letters Xiao wrote to me in the period between February 4, 2004, and March 23, 2004 … The ambiguity that disturbed Xiao Lu’s emotions eventually broke out fifteen years after her two gunshots in the National Art Museum of China. In another performance work, she made fifteen gunshots on photos with her own image as a metaphor for her hidden anger at herself. Although the fifteen shots were made in 2003, the title of the work is Fifteen Shots – From 1989 to 2003. The shots in 2003 were a bitter memory as well as a farewell to the past.
Xiao Lu and Tang Song shortly after their release in 1989. Image from Asia Art Archive.
A detail of Fifteen Shots – From 1989 to 2003 (2003), Xiao Lu. Image from the artblog.
The love affair began with two bullets in 1989, and ended with fifteen, fifteen years later.
In the intervening decade and a half, the world changed – for both China and its artists.
As critic Huang Zhan noted: “The moment the exhibition was over, another storm of passion swept the whole country. When that storm died down, it was already the 1990s. Then, the exhibition was just like an answer to a curtain call. After the 1990s, the entire world had changed, changed to a time of pursuing material comforts and a time of consumption. And the previous avant-garde artists all scattered about: some went abroad; some changed their lines; some began to live in seclusion. It’s just like a dream, stopped abruptly. The modern art in the 1980s had disappeared almost overnight, without any trace.” (Quote taken from this Artzine article.)
The 1980s are remembered in China as an era of utopian humanism, and idealistic high-mindedness. Mao Zedong’s death in October 1976 and the subsequent fall of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four marked the effective end of the Cultural Revolution. The return of the reform-minded Deng Xiaoping to political ascendency in the aftermath saw the implementation of the so-called open-door policy, or gaige kaifang 改革开放: at the third Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party’s 11th Central Committee, held in December 1978, Deng’s Four Modernizations 四个现代化 – in the areas of agriculture, industry, science and national defense – were officially launched. Just as importantly, a directive promulgating the ‘liberation of thought and the search for truth in all matters 解放思想实事求是’ was put forth, signaling a process of modernization based on both market liberalization and the recuperation of the cultural and intellectual elite, formerly vilified as ‘rightists’. This period of post-revolutionary fervor, lasting from 1978 to 1989, is generally referred to as the New Era, xin shiqi 新时期. The twin axes of economic and cultural reorganization of this period were bound up in the policy of reform and opening, which was understood to be the shared project of the state and its educated classes. It was responsible for moving country and society towards the ideals of a free market (grounded nevertheless in Maoist thought, or “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”), and a more enlightened attitude towards the arts and intellectual activity. Broadly speaking, the chief index of the creative emancipation of that epoch was the rise of individualized subjectivities, perhaps most succinctly summed up in the deliberately provocative declaration of author Liu Xinwu 刘心武, that “I am myself, wo shi wo ziji 我是我自己.”
The trajectory of experimental artistic praxis in post-revolutionary China, as outlined by scholar and critic Wu Hung*, may essentially be classified into four main phases: the rise of an unofficial avant-garde art from 1979 to 1984, particularly with regards to the Stars group 星星画会; the ’85 Art New Wave art movement, 85 新潮艺术, culminating in the China/Avant-garde Exhibition 中国现代艺术展 in 1989; the post-Tiananmen period, in the early 1990s, when Chinese experimental art exploded onto the international art market and into the global consciousness; and, finally, a “domestic turn”, beginning around the mid-90s and lasting till the present day, which saw a new diversity of visual forms and engagements that were no longer reacting against the Cultural Revolution and thus, finally, abandoning the “post-Cultural Revolution” phase.
* See his Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (2005).
The China/Avant-garde show thus marked the climax of the proliferation of experimental art in China in the 1980s, which ran parallel to an ever-intensifying pro-democracy movement that, as is well-known, finally met its savage, crushing conclusion on June 4th in Tiananmen Square. The events of Tiananmen – demonstrating all too clearly to the country’s students, intelligentsia and cultural elite that market liberalization and social liberties were not necessarily welded together – effectively snuffed out the utopian, humanist high-mindedness of the New Era. In the words of one commentator: “The post-New Era witnesses the rise of consumerism, the commercialization of cultural production, and the expansion of the mass media and popular culture … The ponderous, self-reflexive cultural critique … in the style of the 1980s is largely over.”* The ‘post-New Era’ 后新时期 of the 1990s, in other words, with all its attendant forms of materialism and globalization, had arrived, bringing with it profound implications for artistic praxis in China. Gone was the relatively indulgent era of open experimentation, tied to a sense of political possibility and urgency; in its place were feelings of shock, disillusionment, and helplessness, a moment of reckoning when “artists came to a sudden realization of their impotence in the face of real politics. The idealism and utopian enthusiasm so typical of new art in the 1980s met its nemesis in the gun barrels in Tiananmen.”**
* According to Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu. See his “Art, Culture, and Cultural Criticism in Post-New China”, in New Literary History, vol.28, no.1. ** In the words of In Chang Tsong-zung; qtd. in Wu Hung’s Transience.
Huang Zhan, once more: “When that storm died down, it was already the 1990s.”
So this is really a tale of two lost loves: Xiao Lu’s, and the utopia of China’s all too brief yesterday.
Scant days after his release from a Chinese gulag (why do the Chinese authorities make it so easy for people to hate on them ? – as if they didn’t already have major PR issues), artist and mischief-maker extraordinaire Ai Weiwei was back in the news, this time as the subject of a retrospective at the Asia Society in New York, Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983 – 1993.
As the title suggests, the show features a collection of snaps taken by Ai and of Ai when he was living in Manhattan back in the ’80s, when the city had yet to morph into one huge gentrified playground with a Starbucks on every corner. The biggest surprise, though, is the artist as he was then: a svelte, intense presence, with a full head of hair and minus the gut. Quite the dreamboat, really …
Holland Cotter’s review from the NYT reproduced after the images.
A BEIJING BOHEMIAN IN THE EAST VILLAGE
By Holland Cotter. Published July 28, 2011.
The Chinese government did what it set out do with the artist and gadfly Ai Weiwei: silenced him. Or did it? When he was released from detention in June, he was under orders not to discuss the experience, or human rights issues generally, with anyone. Talking about politics nonstop for years via blogs and tweets was what landed him in jail. No one expected to see him back on the Internet anytime soon.
But there he is, as of this week, with a new Google+ account. It comes with a bare-chested photographic self-portrait, a profile describing him as “a suspected pornography enthusiast and tax evader” (a reference to the charges leveled at him during his detention) and scanned lists of items removed from his home by the police.
Also on the site is a file of 227 black-and-white photographs that Mr. Ai took when he lived in New York City some 25 years ago. If the new Google account can be taken as evidence that he is still active as artist-provocateur, the photographs document how he became one.
Online you can view them one by one. But in an exhibition at Asia Society called “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993” you see them panoramically: hung salon style, edge to edge, in large-print format, in a wrap-around installation that puts you in the middle of the social and political action.
Politics was part of his life from the start. His father was a renowned poet who ran afoul of the Maoist government. In 1959, two years after Mr. Ai was born, the family left Beijing for the remote countryside, beginning a forced exile that would last until the end of the Cultural Revolution. In the mid-1970s Mr. Ai moved back to the capital with vague ambitions to be painter. There he became involved with some young avant-garde artists known as the Star Group, who painted in Western styles and railed against the Communist Party.
Inevitably, in 1982, the government cracked down. A year later Mr. Ai left for New York, ostensibly to study art but really to figure out who and what he was supposed to be. He did a desultory stint at Parsons and took odd jobs as a baby sitter, a sidewalk sketcher, an extra in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Turandot.”
Mostly, though, he hung out in the East Village, where his apartment became a crash pad for Chinese friends passing through. The composer Tan Dun stayed there, as did the filmmaker Chen Kaige and the artist Xu Bing (who has an exhibition at the Morgan Library this summer).
The one thing Mr. Ai did consistently, and daily, was to take photographs wherever he went, the way tourists do, as Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg (an East Village neighbor) did too. Mr. Ai’s were just candid snapshots of this and that; nothing special. But he took thousands of them. The 227 examples in the Asia Society show — which originated at Three Shadows Photography Art Center in Beijing — represent a mere fraction of the total.
Still, arranged in chronological sequence, they give a vivid impression of his New York stay. They chart his gradual immersion into the city’s life and his awakening to the idea of art as social action.
Among the early pictures are a few sleepy, sullen-looking self-portraits and shots of his bare-bones apartment packed with Chinese friends. We also see him visiting museums. At the Museum of Modern Art he poses with work by two artist-heroes, Warhol and Marcel Duchamp.
And he was making various kinds of art himself: conceptual, ephemeral, trying-out sorts of things. For one piece, photographed in 1983, he bent a metal coat hanger into the shape of Duchamp’s profile, laid it down on his apartment floor and filled in its contours with sunflower seeds. In effect, he was creating a sketch, way in advance, for his 2010 Tate Modern installation, which consisted of thousands upon thousands of seeds cast in porcelain.
In the early photographs New York is mostly backdrop to images of young people having fun. But by 1987 the city starts to move into the foreground, with shots of homeless people and abandoned buildings. Mr. Ai had arrived near the peak of the East Village art boom. He stayed on as the economy tanked, and as a poor and working-class neighborhood gentrified. In 1988 warfare broke out.
The main battleground was Tompkins Square Park, where community activists, punk anarchists and the homeless repeatedly clashed with the police over use of the park. When a troop of park employees broke up a squatter encampment one day, the violence intensified. Mr. Ai was there in the middle of it, photographing everything. He sold some of the pictures to newspapers but gave most to the American Civil Liberties Union for use as evidence in their lawsuits against the police.
Just a few months later the pro-democracy movement in China was crushed. After the Tiananmen massacre Mr. Ai went on an eight-day hunger strike in protest. If his identity as an artist-activist didn’t exactly originate at this time — it was already there earlier in China — it certainly crystallized and gained force. He became fully who and what he was supposed to be.
The final pictures in the show are subdued. By the 1990s his friends are no longer the harum-scarum newcomers of 10 years earlier, bopping around town or camped out on floors. Tompkins Square Park has changed. It’s cleaned up and filled with elegant young summer picnickers. The show’s final shot, from 1993, is of an all-but-empty apartment. Mr. Ai moved back to China that year to be with his ailing father. The New York sojourn was over.
But not forgotten. He took the essence of it with him. Back in China he found himself cast in the role of adviser and exemplar to a group of radically experimental younger artists who lived in a wasteland area of Beijing that they dubbed East Village.
His own field of activities expanded hugely. But whatever work he did as the years went on — as an architect, a magazine publisher, an entrepreneur, an artist, a blogger — was in some way collaborative, interactive, socially directed.
And he never stopped taking photographs. During the past several years he routinely uploaded hundreds a day onto his Web site. Many of the images, like the blog entries and tweets they illustrated, were blatantly, heedlessly critical of China’s social realities and of its leaders. Outraged by the political negligence that resulted in the deaths of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Mr. Ai photographed shoddily built and flattened school buildings and interviewed distraught parents, posting everything on his Web site, which by then had an international following.
The earthquake was a public relations disaster for the Chinese government, which was doing everything possible to limit coverage in the news media. And here was this artist feeding on-the-ground truths out across the world.
Until that point Mr. Ai had operated within a kind bubble of protection, because of his father’s illustrious reputation within China and his own fame as an artist abroad. But with his persistent antigovernment blogging and tweeting, he finally went too far. He was taken into custody in April, held for nearly three months and released only conditionally.
It would not be wrong to call his Internet activity his most important art so far, his magnum opus. And it appears that it will continue in some form, which means that government pressure on him will be unrelenting. So should the vigilance of his supporters. And it is not too much to say — Mr. Ai has more or less said it — that the seeds for an art of social change, if not planted in New York, certainly took roots there. You see those roots growing in these coming-of-age photographs.
A title that fawning can really only be sardonic, no ? <lol>
The obvious truth is, I don’t much care about, or for, UOB’s Painting of the Year competition.
Which is my way of warning readers that this is going to be one long roast.
The whole idea of one of the nation’s top art prizes being solely for painting is pretty bizarre — not to mention retrogressive. How large is Singapore’s pool of decent artists that UOB feels an award just for painters indeed “encourage[s] local artists to persist in their creative endeavours, and provide[s] recognition for the best creative works” ? (In their own words.) This may or may not be news to a bunch of bankers, but the “best creative work” these days isn’t necessarily produced on canvas. Besides, if the roll call of past winners is anything to go by — the complete list at the end of the post — the organisers and judging committees have had issues with their own categories: the 1987 laureate, for one, was Baet Yeok Kuan’s Man and Environment I (below), a mash-up of various found objects and plaster casts of faces, all tied up with twine like one giant, unwieldy postal package. I mean, Baet’s piece can be considered painting only in the broadest, most generous sense; otherwise, it’s pretty much what it looks like, a Rauschenberg-ian ‘combine’ of the two- and three-dimensional. Then there was the photography debate: for two years running, in 2007 and 2008, the prize was handed out to photographic works, Anatomical Fantasies of Meat by Joel Yuen, and Zhao Renhui’s Space In Between #1, #6, #63, respectively. And last year’s winner, 18-year-old Bai Tian Yuan’s What (below), was based on a photograph, which also raised a furor — apparently by folks who’d never heard of the photorealist movement, or pictorial tools like Durer’s grid (imagine how Raphael would’ve reacted to Durer’s lil’ invention).
Bai Tian Yuan and her winning entry, What (2010). Image from Flickr user ArtSingapore Fair 2010.
Those couple of admirable blips aside, the favoured UOB strategy has mostly been one of safe, static picture-making. And this year’s honour roll, now on display at the Jendela gallery at the Esplanade, doesn’t buck the trend. Granted, the actual winning entry is pretty good: Gong Yao Min – who now joins Kit Tan Juat Lee as one of two two-time winners – used Chinese ink on rice paper to depict a dense cityscape of skyscrapers and colonial structures, which rise like a phantasmagoric megalopolis above scenes of local roads and traffic (below). Titled My Dream Land, the combination of craftsmanship, traditional Chinese materials, a modern sensibility, and patriotic fervour on the part of an immigrant (Gong moved here from China in the ’90s) probably proved too potent a mix for the judges. The other winning works though, were, well … let’s just say it — pedestrian. Ong Jie Yi’s Old Haunt (below), for one, which won a Platinum award and 10,000 SGD, was about as insipid as it gets. A torn poster of the Haunted Changi movie — which also sucked, by the way — and close-ups of peeling paint and shadows of leaves were intended to convey a sense of dereliction and eeriness. And that’s all there is to it: cliched imagery and banal sentiment. Lester Lee’s The Idea of Great Success (below) received a Highly Commended Award, and 2,500 SGD; as the monetary aspect suggests, it was even less interesting than Ong’s work. An amateurish portrait of some hybrid creature, along with symbols gesturing at conventional notions of personal success, it too married idea, image, and execution in one uninspired chain of epic blandness.
I always knew the UOB laureates weren’t terribly compelling, but this was beyond the pale.
I wonder if UOB realizes that stuff like this is just reinforcing every negative stereotype out there about how démodé it is. On the economic front, a hyper-aggressive, rapidly expanding Citibank is pretty much giving it a run for its market share, and it’s continued efforts at corporate sponsorship of the arts in such an .. unenlightened manner isn’t doing it any favours in the public eye. If it wasn’t for the 30 grand in cash they were doling out, I wonder if anyone would care about the award at all …
Artist Gong Yao Min with his work, My Dream Land. Image from TODAYonline.
Old Haunt, Ong Jie Yi. Image from thinking, reflecting.
The Idea of Great Success, Lester Lee. Image from For Art’s Sake! (The scorecard reflects the grade that the painting received from one of Martin’s readers – which was 1 out of 5.)
A companion exhibition, titled Beyond A Prize, is currently showing at the ION Art gallery, located on the fourth floor of the mall. It features their winners from 1982 — when the award was first given out — to 2000, the more recent entries having had their own show last year, which I missed. (A pity — it would’ve been great to see Yuen’s piece in the flesh, or Namiko Chan Takahashi’s Charisse, a nude portrait which looks amazing even in reproduction.) Nonetheless, the work of several of the older laureates definitely still held their own. The highlight of the afternoon for me was Anthony Poon’s Waves (below) from 1983, a large, aquamarine-coloured canvas featuring his signature motif, punctiliously plotted on a grid, its patterning and colour scheme of cool hues clearly calculated to rhyme and dance and pulsate. Wee Shoo Leong’s Yuen (Affinity) (below) was also a revelation — why haven’t we heard or seen more from him lately ? — a calm, phlegmatic, carefully delineated still-life of various objects on a desktop, the most salient of which is an empty birdcage, posed before an expansive wall of blank space.
Those, however, were few and far in between. True to form, the show was mostly a display of UOB’s utter lack of imagination when it comes to being a corporate collector. Chng Chin Kang’s She Loves Me But She’s Not My Mummy (below), which was awarded the prize in 1998, deserves the lion’s share of brickbats here. It’s not a bad work, really, the artist’s choice of floral fabric as canvas even demonstrating a certain flair, but as far as being “Painting of the Year” goes, it’s dismal. The theme is obvious to a fault — yes, being raised largely by foreign domestic help is causing an emotional disconnect between parents and children these days, everyone knows that, it’s like saying “How awful it is that there’s war in this world” — but, even worse, the figures simply had no life to them. A quick comparison with Fan Shao Hua’s 2000 winner, They (below), hung on a wall nearby, which also depicts the sundering of familial bonds, throws the limitations of Chng’s vision into relief: Fan borrows a couple of Post-Impressionist techniques from Degas, employing a telling use of compositional space and unexpected figural cropping to drive his message home. Next to it, Chng’s figures just look sterile, and the work hackneyed. Likewise, Hong Zhu An’s Yi-Er-San (One, Two, Three) (below), which, according to the label, features the prominence of the calligraphic line as a means of conveying “the mystique of a transcendental world”, was pretty unimaginative, despite a couple of original touches, like the lopping off of the line midway, or the use of calligraphy on a near-abstract background of oil paint. Chua Ek Kay’s My Haunt (below), the 1991 laureate, which perhaps is a more traditional use of Chinese ink, manages to convey the serene sense of place and wistful nostalgia that his works are known for, yet comes across as simply being more dynamic than Hong’s hippie-ish pictorial platitudes and threadbare sentiments.
And the less said about stinkers like Soh Chee Hui’s Blue Balloon (1992′s winner), Kit Tan’s Endless Love (her first win from 1997) and Lim Poh Teck’s City (1990), the better.
Again, this should be stressed: these aren’t bad works per se, but to valorize them as the cream of the local crop by handing out undeserved laurels and moolah just seems like utter mockery, or ignorance — or both.
UOB Painting of the Year winners
1982 – Goh Beng Kwan, The Dune
1983 – Anthony Poon, Waves
1984 – Wee Shoo Leong, Yuen (Affinity)
1985 – Ng Keng Seng, Steps
1986 – Sandy Wong, Exhibit ‘86
1987 – Baet Yeok Kuan, Man and Environment I
1988 – Ang Yian Sann, One’s Habitat
1989 – Lim Tiong Ghee, From the Turtledove
1990 – Lim Poh Teck, City
1991 – Chua Ek Kay, My Haunt
1992 – Soh Chee Hui, Blue Balloon
1993 – Raymond Lau, Echoes of the Window (I)
1994 – Hong Zhu An, Yi-Er-San (One, Two, Three)
1995 – Tan Chin Chin, The Statue of Gods, 1995
1996 – Chen Shi Jin, Root
1997 – Kit Tan, Endless Love
1998 – Chng Chin Kang, She Loves Me But She’s Not My Mummy
1999 – Tan Kay Nguan, Trifling Matter
2000 – Fan Shao Hua, They
2001 – Erzan B Adam, It’s Hip 2 B Square
2002 – Gong Yao Min, The Impression of Singapore, Series Three
2003 – Luis Lee, Packed
2004 – Kit Tan, The World of Xi You Ji
2005 – Alvin Ong, The Window
2006 – Namiko Chan Takahashi, Charisse
2007 – Hong Sek Chern, Aspects of the City II
2008 – Joel Yuen, Anatomical Fantasies of Meat
2009 – Zhao Renhui, Space In Between #1, #6, #63
2010 – Bai Tian Yuan, What
2011 – Gong Yao Min, My Dream Land