Posts Tagged ‘cultural theory’
Pictured above: local artist Mark T.’s Untitled (2011), shown in July last year at the Dream: borderlands and other territories exhibition at the Goodman Arts Center.
At first glance, it resembles nothing so much as a film of gluey black ashes littering the floor … which I blithely assumed it was. A brief chat with the artist – and a second look – informed me otherwise.
That’s actually (a representation of) the human body.
Along with the opening-day performances (which made my top ten list of the year), it turned out to be my favourite piece in an otherwise fairly humdrum show. Or at least the one that made the longest-lasting impression. It came to mind again the other day, as I was describing it to someone who was curious about T.’s practice. There wasn’t much I could tell him. He doesn’t exactly maintain a high profile: there’s no personal website, he almost never makes an appearance at openings or other events where local arty-farty types gather to fraternize, and, aside from a residency and a show or two at the Post-Museum last year, this one piece of his is pretty much the extent of my knowledge of what he does as an artist.
Yes, you can say Mark’s a little on the reclusive side.
And, judging from this work, it would seem to be a pity that he doesn’t show more.
Materialized from a mash of paper, dye and glue, and coated over a wire armature, Untitled is apparently a reference to the “nebulous interstices of hypnagogia”, to quote the show’s self-characterization. It reifies, in other words, the sensations of the artist’s body suspended at the threshold between sleep and wakefulness, that liminal moment of blissful quasi-corporeality when the soma begins the surrender of its embodied sentience to the blandishments of Hypnos.
I don’t get why the figure looks the way it does – though, once Mark pointed it out to me, I could vaguely make out a snout-like visage (or is that a drooping head?), and two lower appendages. Beyond issues of mimesis and representionalism however, what’s particularly fascinating here is the way in which the human body, in a particular state of consciousness, has been rendered – or how the anatomical entity has been inflected to indicate a psychosomatic phenomenology. Elsewhere, art historian and critic Rosalind Krauss, discussing Constantin Brancusi’s Beginning of the World (below), a tapered bronze teardrop reminiscent of a somnolent head, remarks of the play of light and shadow on the upper- and undersides of the work’s highly polished surface: “It is this differential … that recalls the feeling of the back of one’s head, resting heavily on a pillow, while the face floats, weightless and unencumbered, toward sleep.” (See her Passages in Modern Sculpture [Viking Press, 1977].) Thia’s piece, in similar fashion, transposes the otherwise individuated, inarticulated sensations of the state of half-sleep into the visual register, inscribing the impulses of our embodied awareness onto a modulated representation of the soma: the seeming openness of the peripheries, mimicking the raw edges of torn material and evoking the drifting feeling of falling into sleep, rehearses the instability, the blurred perceptual boundaries, of the liminal quality of the latter condition; the “thickness” of the lived body is here reduced to an attenuated ‘skin’ of little more than sensorimotor sensitivity (the first characterization is Jonathan Crary’s; see his Techniques of the Observer), the negation of the physicality of the flesh gesturing at the predominance of the role of the derma in exteroception as mental consciousness begins to dissipate …
Its that second association which strikes a chord: the work as skin, rather than body. The rough, textured, tactile look of the the piece, put together from a pulp of paper and adhesive and wire, performs a dual function: it simultaneously embodies a particular perceptual state, and serves as an index of Mark’s hand (below) – i.e. it both materializes the artist’s body as he imagines it in half-sleep (as representation), and bears the material traces of its creator’s originary body (as tangible mark-marking). To borrow a phrase from film scholar Vivian Sobchak on what she characterizes as the amorphous “cinesthetic subject”: “… being both “here” and “there” … being able both to sense and be sensible, to be both the subject and the object of tactile desire …… Furthermore, these bodies [onscreen and offscreen] also subvert their own fixity from within, commingling flesh and consciousness … so that meaning, and where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction.” (See “What My Fingers Knew” in Sobchak’s Carnal Thoughts.)
So does signification in T.’s Untitled reside in a heterogeneous space between the spectatorial subject, and the object incarnate.
Some other images from the Dream: borderlands show below. Better late than never.
Zeng’s nominated piece is Parliament House (below). On its own, it doesn’t immediately grab the viewer, but it was exhibited in July this year at the Substation as part of a larger series of photographic works titled An Exile Revisits the City - which, as a cohesive unit, was compelling, poignant, and absolutely apposite. In a year which saw the general elections of May 7 marking a watershed moment of sorts in local politics, as well as the continuation of a trend involving memoirs put out by ex-political detainees, one of the most talked about being Teo Soh Lung’s Beyond the Blue Gate (who, by the way, happens to be the sister of ‘paperdyesculpt’ artist Teo Eng Seng), Zeng’s elliptical visual narrative was a cogent statement about the silences and the gaps inscribed into official accounts of Singapore’s post-war history … and their often unremarked human cost. His pictures of a geriatric man, presumably a victim of the PAP’s leftist purges of the 1960s, revisiting various sites of interest such as – yes – Parliament House (no more unambiguous a symbol of power), the Nantah arches, the former Supreme Court, and the old University of Malaya campus, represent an interrogation of the complicity between political hegemony and historical amnesia embodied by many of these locales, craftily foregrounding their emplotment, as sites of official exaltation or collective loss, in the annals of the Singapore Story.
While it did make my Top Ten list for the year, An Exile was a worthy show that deserves better than the ‘non-review’ I’m belatedly giving it. In lieu of what my flagging energies might otherwise have accomplished, here is critic David Spalding on the figure of the ghost in its character as a revenant, i.e. a remnant of the past that haunts the present moment, a spectral reminder of that which has been consigned to (deliberate) oblivion:
To believe in ghosts is to admit that we cannot escape the past. When bygone events are willfully ignored, voided, or otherwise rendered imperceptible, they give rise to ghosts—spectral figures that attempt to reveal what has been excised from collective memory. Ghosts are not simply human spirits who continue to roam the earth after their bodies have decayed. Rather, they are forces whose presence disturbs our temporal and empirical expectations in order to remind us of earlier disasters and injustices that live beneath the thin skin of the present.
Yet a ghost’s enchanted history lessons are never straightforward. Instead, they flicker in the dark corners of our minds, operating outside the laws of logic, often broadcasting scrambled transmissions. Though they can be comforting, afﬁrming what we’ve suspected all along, ghosts seldom bring good news: One is never haunted by pleasant events, unless they dissemble an unknown undertow fraught with terror. Still, without these haunting confrontations, the wounds of the past can never be redressed.
The term haunting best names the ways that certain historical moments—and the forgotten faces and demolished places that comprise them—return to puncture the present. Understanding haunting in this way helps us to detach the ﬁgure of the ghost from visions of a ravaged, reanimated corpse, wreaking vengeance and havoc. Instead, haunting points to visitations from something more mysterious and, sometimes, more frightening. As sociologist Avery Gordon has written:
If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities, the ghost is just the sign, or the empirical evidence if you like, that tells you a haunting is going on … The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well trained eye, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course.
The pieces of the past that return to haunt us are precisely those which have been pushed off the margins and over memory’s edge. The time lines, neat narratives, and illustrations that comprise our accounts of the past can only tell us part of the story. In fact, historical records—in both our psychological and institutional archives—often operate under the logic of exclusion, which tries to discard whatever cannot be easily assimilated. What remains are history’s remains, its forgotten subjects still stirring in the shadows, whispering incessantly and eager to take possession of the present. Though missing from our textbooks and collective memories, these ghosts will not be ignored. They will not be laid to rest anytime soon because they still have something they need to communicate, and we need to pay attention. Perhaps they’ve been exiled from their homes, murdered, or enslaved. “All the departed may return,” writes Nicolas Abraham, “but some are predestined to haunt: the dead who have been shamed during their lifetimes or those who took unspeakable secrets to their grave.”
Ghosts often come to us in the form of sightings, their shapes vaguely outlined in the shadowy half-light that lies between the visible and the invisible. Sometimes we need the aid of a seer to establish contact. Other times, they make their presence known through a striking absence, carving their outlines onto the present in a kind of intaglio that urgently tells us that something is missing. “Visibility,” writes Laura Kipnis, “is a complex system of permission and prohibition, of presence and absence, punctuated by apparitions and hysterical blindness.” In fact, haunting is inextricably linked to seeing, to the revelations of our phantasmatic visions and to the blind spots that sometimes shroud the past in dark obscurity. Accordingly, visual artists are in a unique position to give form to the specters of the past that still shape our present. Such hauntings, whether staged or sighted by visual artists, channeled through the myriad media of contemporary art, have become my preoccupation.
(See here for a full pdf version of Spalding’s text.)
A friend was going on about Goya’s Disasters of War series over dinner and beer a while ago. I think it was in the context of Filipino artist Geraldine Javier’s work – I don’t remember exactly – but listening to her brought back some happy memories of a class I took my last summer in school, and the great time I had writing a short paper on a couple of Goya prints …
I’m probably in a tiny, tiny minority on this one, but summer class rocked: long days, warm nights, empty libraries, chicken rice stands. School should always be that good.
Violence as Spectacle in Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’
“War is not a spectacle”, Susan Sontag declares in Regarding the Pain of Others. At least not as it is represented, she remarks, in Francisco Goya’s series of prints concerning Napoleon’s Iberian campaign, The Disasters of War (1810-20): “Goya’s images move the viewer closer to the horror. All the trappings of the spectacular have been eliminated: the landscape is an atmosphere, a darkness, barely sketched in … And Goya’s print series is not a narrative: each image, captioned with a brief phrase lamenting the wickedness of the invaders and the monstrousness of the suffering they inflicted, stands independently of the others. The cumulative effect is devastating”. Goya had intended to “awaken, shock, wound” the viewer, the calculated emotional resonance of his images a denial of the voyeuristic impulse, a solicitation of a genuinely humane response. Compare this to Michel Foucault’s famously graphic portrayal of a public execution in the 18th century: “… on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs, and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand … burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes …”
Foucault’s condemned criminal (patricide was his crime) and Goya’s hapless civilian occupy at first glance opposing moral ground, one seemingly deserving of his punishment, the other caught up in the senseless atrocities of armed conflict. It is, however, in the spectacle of the deliberate barbarity of their agony, the sheer visibility of their physical torment, that both fulfill the function for which they were intended: a reminder of the penalties of transgression. The spectacle of suffering is, as such, an ideologically informed performance, and contra Sontag’s rather hasty judgment, it is those qualities of Goya’s prints that she identifies—their status as abbreviated, fragmented objects, both visually and ontologically, the occlusion of a larger narrative enacted in the accompanying captions as well as the formal characteristics of the images—which assures them their specularity. According to Guy Debord, in the industrial age of mass production, “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”; the spectacle is an image “detached from every aspect of life”, “in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished.” It is a simulacrum of the experiential that is removed from the flux of experiential reality: “reality considered partially unfolds … as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.” The spectacle, then, emerging from the phenomenal sphere and viewed in isolation from its originary circumstances, becomes the site of a directed, circumscribed visual perception, the materialization of a particular “Weltanschauung” from the stream of everyday consciousness.
A collection of 82 separate prints, Disasters of War remains a loosely-connected series that falls short of the contours of a narrative; each image is its own self-contained moment that gestures at a number of different possibilities of convergence, an aggregation of autonomous spectacles. What Courage! (no. 7) seems to allude to the exploits of one Maria Augustin, who, during the siege of Saragossa, single-handedly defended the city’s walls against the French with a cannon: she fired the gun till Spanish reinforcements arrived. Goya’s rendering of the episode—which was celebrated even outside Spain’s borders—is a typically enigmatic affair: the heroine turns her back to the viewer; we do not have the privilege of her visage. She stands atop a heap of corpses that likewise lie facedown, over an enormous cannon standing ready to be lit. The rest of the picture is left as an empty expanse of space. Apart from a triangular knoll of rather ambiguous aspect in the midground, which could be interpreted as a hill or a partial extension of the sloping landscape, no enemy troops are in sight, nor any object that might constitute a target—indeed, there is no background to speak of, and the tableau in all its frozen stillness, the heroine’s posture conveying the sole suggestion of dynamism, is comprehensible only with the aid of its caption. The figures are trapped in a faceless, nameless anonymity, the terms of their relationship imprecise; the narrative ambivalence of the scene is underscored by the lack of visual signifiers, and evoked in the effacement of topographical clarity, which serves to situate the chief point of interest in the picture more firmly within the optical field, the reification of the ideal of feminine valour through visual emphasis.
Great Courage! Against Corpses! (Grande Hazaña! Con Muertos!) (no. 39) rehearses on an iconographic level the trope of fragmentation that marks the series as a whole, and the significance of the events that inspired them: the image of the dismembered human body and its severed parts, the site of violent rupture and dislocation, indexes at once both a real-life occurrence (though, unlike Goya’s The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, no specific incident is referred to) and the rending of the socio-political fabric caused by the French invasion and subsequent occupation, the body polity of the Spanish monarchy and their subjects as brutally interrupted as the unfortunate man who has had his head and arms cut off, his stump of a torso left hanging upside down on a tree and his head impaled on a branch next to it. Not unlike Théodore Géricault’s beautifully eerie paintings of severed human heads and limbs, which are often read in connection with the horrors of the French Revolution and the specter of the guillotine, the fragmented body, or the bodily fragment, is a potent symbol of a lost unity and the various processes, violent or otherwise, which gave rise to its disruption. Like What Courage! too, this print rejects the structuring armature of linear perspective: the ground is implied by areas of shading, but no more; the background is, again, left bare. The composition is centered on the ghastly sight of the tree and its ill-fated inhabitants, another of which seems to have had his genitals removed. As much as the discourse on the Disasters of War engages Goya’s need to “bear witness to the fundamental nature of man’s eternal warfare against himself”, to record the atrocity of what he has seen, these images—or spectacles—are but detached representations in which life is imperfectly refracted. After all, the fact “that there is such a thing as an exclusively, purely visual medium” has been denounced as a myth; all media are mixed media, and the “reification of media around a single sensory organ (or a single sign-type, or material vehicle)” is, as regards the spectacle, an unwarranted hegemony of the visual that denies the importance of multi-sensorial experience. One does not merely witness a mutilated corpse—one smells the spreading pools of blood as much as one see them, or hears the slow, staccato, ceaseless dripping, an engagement, however horrific, of the entire sensory mechanism, and not merely the specular.
[Part two of a two-part review. Part One here.]
Sculpture in the Park also features two gleaming stainless steel pieces, Chua Boon Kee’s Spring of Life and Untitles [sic] by Baet Yeok Kuan. Chua’s Brancusi-esque work is a streamlined, sinuous curve of a statue, a minimalist take on what the artist calls “a sprouting spring of water column” that “harmoniously creates a contrast to the surrounding tropical landscape.” Baet’s seems less ambitious: tucked away in a corner of the park and obscured by some temporary tentage, it resembles nothing more than a large, indented bean, sitting discreetly, unobtrusively on the ground, and rather perilously secluded; I very nearly missed it, were it not for a map of the exhibition provided by the SSS. Untitled (one assumes Untitles is a typo) looks rather like an overturned version of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, a large piece inhabiting Chicago’s Millennium Park which locals have actually dubbed The Bean. And like Kapoor’s popular work, the significance of Baet’s sculpture – and Chua’s – seems to lie in the fact of their one dominant superficial quality: the glossy, reflective sheen of the polished metal.
Despite Chua’s claim that Spring “creates a contrast” with its environs, an antithetical effect is instead produced: the stainless steel mirrors the lush green foliage of the wall of trees that enclose Fort Canning Park, the landscape becoming inscribed onto the skin of the statue in a constantly shifting impression that registers the subtle changes of environmental and climatic conditions from moment to moment. The body of the sculpture is, as such, visually subsumed into the landscape, almost effacing its own auratic presence and rendering it practically invisible from a distance, the margin between steel and shadow unstabilised by the play of the tropical light. This act of self-negation also characterizes the unassuming Baet piece. Even more so than Spring, which stands upright, Untitled keeps itself close to the ground, and through the gesture of mimicry – reflecting the brown of the earth, the green of the grass – likewise effects an erasure of its already inconspicuous anatomy. What was referred to an “ontology of disappearance” with regards to Victor Tan’s steel-wire animals (see part one of this review) seems to be operative here as well. Chua’s and Baet’s abstract sculptures, chameleonically echoing their surroundings – albeit in distorted form – highlight instead the lush, fecund hegemony of Mother Nature in her own milieu, their inorganic armatures nearly dematerialized into a sea of light and shadow and swimming reflections.
The uneasy coexistence of nature and civilization is also intimated by Lam Fung’s Rule of Harmony and Han Sai Por’s Meditation Space. Han arranged a series of wood-sculpted benches and little stands and tables (above) – which I read somewhere she was responsible for crafting with her own hands – around a small knoll, all for some reason dyed a pitch black. Or at least I think the colour is artificial; hard to imagine any naturally-occurring timber with that saturated hue. In any case, the impulse behind Meditation Space, as the title suggests, is human use: “The natural row wood benches line up and setting at a tranquility space surrounding by greenish, it provides visitor a tempera meditation space to refuse from the restless and noisy working environment [sic].” The reshaping of the natural environment towards utilitarian ends is here accentuated by the tension between biomorphic form and human intervention: the contours and texture of the logs used were left intact in some areas, while other surfaces had clearly been planed to flat, linear precision, angles and sharp edges bound to grainy curves and ridges through the play of inflected morphology. In Han’s vision, the organic origins of our everyday objects return to haunt the omnivorous, all-consuming material culture of contemporary urban life like the retort of conscience. Her composite structures, though, seem suspended between contradictions not just form-wise, but also in terms of function. I tried parking my ass on one end of a long bench, and nearly fell over: as it turned out, the seats of these so-called benches weren’t secured to their bases at all, but simply balanced on top of those little blocks. Now that’s not really kosher, is it ? The whole thing came across as being sly, wink-wink commentary on the ambitions of art itself: artworks masquerading as utilitarian objects revealing themselves to be, after all, rather un-functional art pieces …
I had a good chuckle.
According to artist Lam Fung:
Rule of Harmony presents a sequence of dialogues between the mundane and the phenomenal.
One such dialog is between social mechanism; the aspirations we have and the way in which we struggle to fulfill them become central to these works. ‘Rule of Harmony’ is a series of work which uses organic material complete with native plant species within Singapore’s natural areas. Here, the naked trunk of the coconut leaves processes in white and black lean against the grids of SSS pavilion structure is simultaneously both reassuring and disturbing in the way its awkward presence expresses our frailty.
I’m not sure I see any of that, but I’m going to take his word for it. Looking at the piece from a distance – which, as Lam notes, pretty much consists of several stems of the coconut palm, painted largely white and propped against a grid of metal bars overhead – I was confused at first. I couldn’t tell if those vertical white strips were part of the architectural program of the SSS pavilions, or, well, something else. Even up close, it wasn’t till I located the label nearby that I realized that, ok, this was part of the exhibition. And here was something that adopted a contrary stance to Han Sai Por’s assertion of ecological ontologies: literally whitewashed to blend in with the structures, and insinuating itself into the exchange between vertical and horizontal elements, the beams and bars of the two intertwined pavilions, Rule of Harmony hints not just at the “mundane and the phenomenal”, but actively harmonizes itself with its host, indulging in a game of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t with its audience. Like the gestures of dematerialization initiated by other pieces in the show, Lam’s coconut stalks are transformed and displayed in ways that deflect the premeditated gaze, emerging from its surroundings to announce itself as art only upon close inspection. Contra Han’s Meditation Space, Rule represents a retreat of the organic into the man-made, an act of overt yet incomplete camouflage to challenge the asymmetries of power between viewer and viewed.
One of the few pieces in the show to focus on the human form, Chng Seok Tin’s and Aileen Toh’s Dance, Dance, Dance (above) features a collection of stuffed fabric figures, suspended from trees in poses of balletic grace. Like the title, the short blurb alludes to the cosmic sanguineness that is the artists’ intent: “The beauty of nature is irresistible, let us dance until all the flowers bloom and until the rainbows hang across the gloomy sky. No fighting, distortion, violent [sic], bloodshed, greed, hate and man-made storms, be happy and dance- dance-dance.” The cheery colours and bold patterns of the batik cloth used to make the figures certainly attest to this, lending them an air of whimsical merriment.
But I gotta admit though: they freaked me out.
Chng Seok Tin has earned herself a name locally not only for her print works, but also for the fact of her near total blindness. I don’t want to be one of those schmucks who reduces an artist’s output to one salient biographical detail – e.g. Asian artists have to traffic in er, “Asian” themes to be relevant, or the work of a transgender individual always relates to his/her transgenderism – but one can’t help but wonder if the peculiarities of these figures don’t allude to their creator’s impairment.
How so ? – They lack facial features of any sort (including eyes), their largely digit-less hands and feet ensnared in lengths of satin ribbon like bound feet (even the vaguely triangular shapes of those appendages recall the humpbacked ‘lotus feet‘ of yore), and they’re strung up from trees like eerily lifesized marionettes or, worse, the victims of lynch mobs.
I realize that it sounds ludicrous – assuming an absolute correlation between representation and personal identity – but these bodies seem so … maimed, and deformed, that, in spite of the happy hues and bouncy postures, they seem utterly incapable of sensorial engagement with the world they purportedly celebrate, or the means necessary to effectuate their desires. The faces of Chng’s and Toh’s sculptures, like their bodies, are wrapped up in strips of batik fabric, and resemble nothing so much as mummified corpses, rather than animated bodies in tune with the cosmos. It may not be inappropriate to conjecture that, on some deeply personal level, they perhaps express the travails of their creator’s physical affliction, cut off as they are, like she is, from a very fundamental form of sensorial interaction with their/her world.
Spoils of Man, Joel Yuen’s contribution to the show, before and after it’d been wrecked. Image from Stomp.
Finally, Joel Yuen deserves a mention. Unfortunately, when I visited a couple of weeks ago, Yuen’s contribution, Spoils of Man, had apparently been vandalized – before and after pics above – and had to be removed. I don’t know if it’s been repaired since, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed: his work looks promising, combining a conceptually rigorous vision with an overt interest in issues of materiality (see his personal site for some examples), and for a while back there at least he was working on-site at Fort Canning Park, going away at some logs with a diesel-fuelled chainsaw. It was pretty impressive, the unintentionally performative aspect of it providing a dynamic take on the otherwise mute objects that tend to be associated with the environmental art movement. Joel’s also uber friendly, and when I caught him on one of his breaks, was perfectly happy to chat about his work and plans, and even to pose for a picture.
Yeah, ok, so I’m a little too camera-happy sometimes, sue me.
Sculpture in the Park is accompanied by a sister show at the National Library called Sculpturing Singapore, which runs concurrently. I’m not covering it here; the library doesn’t allow photography, and my general rule of thumb is, no pictures = no review. It’s definitely worth a gander though, so if you happen to be in the Bras Basah neighbourhood, do swing by.
Who knew the TripleOne Somerset mall even existed ?
Of course, the structure hadn’t changed – just its name. For generations of Singaporeans, the Brutalist behemoth on Somerset Rd. was always the PUB building, but these days it’s home to the corporate headquarters of Singapore Power, as well as a teeny mall in the basement.
I stopped by yesterday thanks to a notice in The Straits Times: a small exhibition of Japanese artist Ayako Suwa‘s ‘food creations’ is currently on display in the mall. (The article is reproduced at the end of this post.) Suwa, who rose to fame in her native country for “delivering the concept to the stomach” – i.e. making art for the digestive tract – put together a series of her little food-based sculptures using products popular locally, such as chili, ginseng root, vermicelli, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), rock sugar, as well as different varieties of dried seafood, just to name a recognizable few. Each piece is named for an emotion or a sensation, bearing titles like “A Flavour of Irritation” (below), which consists of a dried pod of some kind studded all over with green beans. In the artist’s own words: “I’m presenting a new way to appreciate food, by adding emotion. If it’s a negative feeling I’m trying to express, it may not have a delicious taste. But as long as the person feels something, it’s a success.”
(Readers will have to excuse the images. Cheap plastic display cases in direct sunlight make for pretty lousy pics.)
Suwa will also be presenting two evenings of her so-called guerilla restaurant in Singapore later this month. (Tickets and details available from Sistic.) A write-up on TimeOut Tokyo describes the performance thus:
What Suwa’s guerrilla restaurants offer is not food as such, but art works that can be eaten. Perhaps they would best be referred to as installations. There is always some kind of concept behind her food and she collaborates with corporations and does custom catering with the idea of ‘delivering a concept to your stomach’. Each time there is some message worked into what she does so that although it is catering, it’s also a performance and an installation that you can actually take part in. There have been many locations for her work. There have been art spaces, starting with a gallery, and city spaces, like the Fukuoka underground shopping arcade. There was also the food area in the underground floor of Isetan department store, and the inside of a store for the brand Opening Ceremony. She has even crossed the borders of countries to bring her new and unusual forms of food to Singapore and France.
The staff who serve the food at Suwa’s guerrilla restaurants aren’t known as waiters but as the ‘cast’, and Suwa casts them to fit the theme of each dish. Their backgrounds are varied; they could be anything from dancers to strippers. The members of the cast may not speak at all, or may have the areas around their eyes completely painted black – their staging is organised to suit and enliven the concept of each performance. For example, when diners are served an ‘emotion’ themed dish at the guerrilla restaurant, the cast simply silently present them with a card which says ‘anger’ or ‘emptiness’. There is a great attention to detail in terms of the performance aspect of service. Suwa explains that, ‘The same food can have a completely different feeling depending on the situation. Who brought it to you, and in what conditions, will influence you.’
(Read the full article here.)
Ayako Suwa performances in Hong Kong and Tokyo.
In the meantime, though, a display of her suggestive installation pieces will have to satisfy. I can appreciate that her interactive dinner works indeed represent a multisensorial engagement, but the pieces I saw on display yesterday hardly seemed to “appeal to all the senses.” While they were certainly imaginative, being embalmed in little plastic boxes with a phalanx of “Do not touch” signs around them didn’t exactly encourage much beyond passive ocular consumption, much less speak to the gustatory or tactile senses, or evoke feelings one way or another. It reminded me of the first time I laid eyes on Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna: otherwise a splendid, sumptuous confection of glittery gold enveloping a wraith-like rendering of Bloch-Bauer, literally a portrait of a woman ensnared by her material surroundings, the work when I saw it then was unfortunately hidden under a layer of protective glass, which of course managed to effectively blanch all surface texture and colour.
It looked like crap.
That seemed to be the problem here, with Suwa’s works – or at least their presentation. Visual art definitely appeals to more than just sight: Viennese art historian Alois Riegl, who popularized the idea of haptic and optic modes of vision with respect to antique relief sculpture, thought of the haptic as a delineation of a figure on its ground by “a distinct sculptural contour, treated as an isolated body in space, and, as such, perceived by the beholder as a tactile and individualized entity.” He formulated the binary as one of long-distance, disembodied vision (optic) and close-range tactile perception (haptic). Riegl’s association of the haptic gaze with tactility was not, of course, to claim that the operation of each sense modality could be isolated in practice, but to raise the potentiality of encoding the sense of the tactile in the visual register – a form of looking that he deemed close to the phenomenon of “normal”, or everyday, vision, Normalsicht. The process of an intimate scrutiny of textural complexity, akin to the experience of running one’s hand over a surface, distinguishing every bump and indentation, is central to this notion of a mode of visuality that is able to conjure the sensation of touch:
Optical visuality depends on a separation between the viewing subject and the object. Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. It is more inclined to graze than to gaze.
(Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses [Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000], 162.)
In other words, 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. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it: “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.”
The point of all this is that ocularity gives rise to extra-visual sensations, which is how our eyes function in everyday life – say, artful images of food being quite enough to stimulate the appetite. It’s hard to even try to approximate a fully embodied, multisensorial experience when everything’s tucked away behind layers of glass or plastic. As it is, Suwa’s installation works suffer from the handicap of being an almost purely visual display – they don’t need to have those affects washed out as well.
More unpalatable pictures:
THE TASTE OF ART
Food artist Ayako Suwa evokes emotions with the dishes she makes. By Eunice Quek.
You may not fancy food artist Ayako Suwa’s cooking, but it does not matter to her.
Using food as her medium, the 34-year-old Japanese artist creates art installations and dishes meant to evoke emotions from the viewer and/or diner as it “appeals to all the senses”.
Says Ms Suwa in Japanese, via a translator: “I’m not a chef. It’s not about whether the food is delicious or nutritious. I’m presenting a new way to appreciate food, by adding emotion. If it’s a negative feeling I’m trying to express, it may not have a delicious taste. But as long as the person feels something, it’s a success.”
Readers can get a taste of her work at TripleOne Somerset’s level one atrium. On display are 111 art installations she created using local ingredients such as star anise, rock sugar and curry powder. Her exhibition, which runs till July 24, is part of the shopping mall’s Great Singapore Sale promotion.
Each art piece is named “A Flavour of …”, meant to invite viewers to ponder the emotions associated with each title.
The more adventurous might want to book a seat at her guerilla restaurant, a concept she has presented in Tokyo and Paris. Sales from the dinner event will be donated to the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. At this two-day affair at TripleOne Somerset on June 24 and 25, Ms Suwa, who is trained in visual design, will present a degustation menu of her edible art pieces, once again using local ingredients.
She says: “Once food is eaten, it is gone. It becomes part of your body but remains in your memory. You wonder, was it a dream? That’s why I came up with the guerilla restaurant concept.”
Each dish’s title starts with “A Taste of …” and she insists that diners do not have to feel the emotion mentioned in its name. She says: “Taste is subjective, I created the food with different feelings. You don’t have to feel the same way. If it is a taste of anger and you feel sadness, it’s okay.”
Of her rather avant-garde approach to presenting food as an art form, which has been her career since 2006, she says her main struggle is communicating with chefs when looking for restaurants to collaborate with.
She says: “My point of view and the chef’s point of view may not connect as chefs focus on the food and taste.
“So I have to explain how the emotions work with the food and also learn about each country’s cultures.”
And it has been an interesting culinary journey for her as she has never tasted Singaporean ingredients even though she visited the Republic in 2008 for a private event.
Says the artist: “Two weeks ago, I visited the markets at Chinatown and Little India to source for ingredients, a lot of which are new to me. There were also many herbs that I have never tasted before.”
Despite working with foreign ingredients, she is confident that her food will connect with those who dare to try her cuisine.
She says: “I can’t force people to try my food, so I want to meet those who are curious and courageous, those who can free themselves and have the desire to try something different.”
I began this blog under rather trying circumstances (which have yet to be fully resolved as of today).
Part of the driving impulse, however, was also to explore the fledgling field of what has been dubbed by cultural theory and the social sciences the “everyday.” Or, to put it even more precisely, this blog was, and is, an attempt to see how articulating the particulars of my own life, at its most prosaic, within the framework of certain theories of the ordinary and the quotidian might pan out. Frankly, it didn’t. I’d envisaged sketching out a fragmentary record of the theoretics and the poetics of lived moments, enmeshed in the synaesthetic operations of the sensorium (a.k.a the ‘embodied everyday’) … but I got sidetracked by more mundane stuff like writing exhibition reviews and blogging about meals. Not that those things necessarily detract from my stated aims – since the everyday is the point here – but trying to pass off the rojak approach as an intentional interrogation of a necessarily heterogeneous subject seems facile at best, and hopelessly misguided at worst.
The remaining part was simply sheer boredom.
In any case, I’ve recently started reading Kathleen Stewart‘s Ordinary Affects, ordered off The Book Depository (free international shipping deserves a shoutout here). Stewart, who teaches in the Anthropology department at the University of Texas at Austin, is by her own admission interested in “affect, the ordinary, worlding, the senses, and modes of ethnographic engagement driven by curiosity and attachment.” Ordinary Affects doesn’t purport to be a sustained, theoretical engagement with the prosaic, but its deliberately disjointed presentation of fragments and vignettes of disparate experience is certainly informed by the theoretical literature.
There’s a canny review of the book on Space and Culture.
I think Stewart’s introduction is worth reproducing at some length (minus footnotes and references), if only as a commonsensical mission statement of sorts for the study of everyday life.
(From Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart, pp. 1-6.)
Ordinary Affects is an experiment, not a judgment. Committed not to demystification and uncovered truths that support a well-known picture of the world but to speculation, curiosity and the concrete, it tries to provoke attention to the forces that come into view as habit or shock, resonance or impact. Something throws itself together in a moment as an event and a sensation. A something both animated and inhabitable.
The book is set in a United States caught in a present that began some time ago. But it suggests that the terms neo-liberalism, advanced capitalism and globalization that index this emergent present, and the five or seven or ten characteristics used to summarize and define it in short-hand, do not, in themselves, begin to describe the situation we find ourselves in. The notion of a totalized system of which everything is always already somehow a part, is not helpful (to say the least) in the effort to approach a weighted and reeling present. This is not to say that the forces these systems try to name are not real and literally pressing. On the contrary, I am trying to bring them into view as a scene of immanent force, rather than leave them looking like dead effects imposed on an innocent world.
The ordinary is a shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledges, a scene of both liveness and exhaustion, a dream of escape or of the simple life. Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies and emergences. They’re things that happen. They happen in impulses, sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating, in strategies and their failures, in forms of persuasion, contagion, and compulsion, in modes of attention, attachment, and agency, and in publics and social worlds of all kinds that catch people up in something that feels like something.
Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. Akin to Raymond Williams’s structures of feeling, they are “social experiences in solution;” they “do not have to await definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures.” Like what Roland Barthes calls the “third meaning,” they are immanent, obtuse, and erratic, in contrast to the “obvious meaning” of semantic message and symbolic signification.5 They work not through “meanings” per.se. but in the way that they pick up density and texture as they move through bodies, dreams, dramas and social worldings of all kinds. Their significance lies in the intensities they build and in what thoughts and feelings they make possible. The question they beg is not what they might mean in an order of representations, or whether they are good or bad in an overarching scheme of things, but where they might go what potential modes of knowing, relating and attending to things are already somehow present in them in a state of potentiality and resonance.
Ordinary affects, then, are an animate circuit that conducts force and maps connections, routes and disjunctures. A kind of contact zone where the overdeterminations of circulations, events, conditions, technologies, and flows of power literally take place. To attend to ordinary affects is to trace how the potency of forces lies in their immanence to things that are both flighty and hard-wired, shifty and unsteady but palpable too. At once abstract and concrete, ordinary affects are more directly compelling than ideologies, and more fractious, multiplicitous, and unpredictable than symbolic meanings. They are not the kind of analytic object that can be laid out on a single, static plane of analysis and they don’t lend themselves to a perfect, three-tiered parallelism between analytic subject, concept, and world. They are, instead, a problem or question emergent in disparate scenes and incommensurate forms and registers. A tangle of potential connections. Literally moving things – things that are in motion and that are defined by their capacity to affect and to be affected – they have to be mapped through different, co-existing forms of composition, habituation and event. They can be “seen,” obtusely, in circuits and failed relays, in jumpy moves and the layered textures of a scene. They surge or become submerged. They point to the jump of something coming together for a minute and the spreading lines of resonance and connection that become possible and might snap into sense in some sharp or vague way.
Models of thinking that slide over the live surface of difference at work in the ordinary to bottom line arguments about “bigger” structures and underlying causes obscure the ways inwhich a reeling present is composed out of heterogeneous and non-coherent singularities. They miss how someone’s ordinary can endure, or sag, defeated. How it can shift in the face of events like a shift in the kid’s school schedule or the police at your door. How it can become a vague but compelling sense that something is happening or harden into little mythic kernels. How it can be carefully maintained as a prized possession or left to rot. How it can morph into a cold, dark edge, or give way to something unexpectedly hopeful.
This book tries to slow the quick jump to representational thinking and evaluative critique long enough to find ways of approaching the complex and uncertain objects that fascinate because they literally hit us or exert a pull on us. My effort is not to finally “know” them – to collect them into a good enough story of what’s going on – but to fashion some form of address that is adequate to their form. To find something to say about ordinary affects by performing some of the intensity and texture that makes them habitable and animate. This means building an idiosyncratic map of connections between a series of singularities. It means pointing always outward to an ordinary world whose forms of living are now being composed and suffered, rather than seeking the closure or clarity of a book’s interiority or riding a great rush of signs to a satisfying end. I am trying to create a contact zone for analysis.
The writing here has been a continuous, often maddening, effort to approach the intensities of the ordinary through a close ethnographic attention to pressure points and forms of attention and attachment. Ordinary Affects is written as an assemblage of disparate scenes that pull the course of the book into a tangle of trajectories, connections and disjunctures. Each scene begins the approach to the ordinary again, from an angle set off by the scene’s affects. And each scene is a tangent that performs the sensation that something is happening – something that needs attending to. From the perspective of ordinary affects, thought is patchy and material. It does not find magical closure or even seek it, perhaps only because it’s too busy just trying to imagine what’s going on.
I write not as a trusted guide carefully laying out the links between theoretical categories and the real world, but as a point of impact, curiosity, and encounter. I call myself “she” to mark the difference between this writerly identity and the kind of subject that arises as a daydream of simple presence. “She” is not so much a subject position or an agent in hot pursuit of something definitive as a point of contact. She gazes, imagines, senses, takes on, performs, and asserts not a flat and finished truth but some possibilities (and threats) that have come into view in the effort to become attuned to what a particular scene might offer.
From the perspective of ordinary affects, things like narrative and identity become tentative though forceful compositions of disparate and moving elements: the watching and waiting for an event to unfold, the details of scenes, the strange or predictable progression in which one thing leads to another, the still life that gives pause, the resonance that lingers, the lines along which signs rush and form relays, the layering of immanent experience, the dreams of rest or redemption or revenge. Forms of power and meaning become circuits lodged in singularities. They have to be followed through disparate scenes. They can gather themselves into what we think of as stories and selves. But they can also remain, or become again, dispersed, floating, recombining – regardless of what whole or what relay of rushing signs they might find themselves in for a while.
The queues were crazy. Getting our tickets took some 15 minutes, and then waiting for the tour to actually begin – we were herded off in groups of 10 or so – had us in line for an hour and a half. By the end of which I seriously needed a drink ..
Though this year’s Open House was quite a treat, so it was all good. Dubbed an ‘art walkabout’ – the event’s tagline is “Come Walkabout. Art Walkabout.” – it got its participants walking into the heart of Marine Parade for a dose of home-inspired art, and then some. The impulse behind OH! was to bring art out of galleries and museums and to the masses; one of the organizers remarks: “Open House is on a mission to make art a part of our lives, our homes. Most Singaporeans live in HDB flats, that’s where we needed to go.” (Qtd. in Corrie Tan, “Art Invades Homes in HDB Estate”. Straits Times, January 14, 2011.)
And indeed that’s where MP, SY, their friend MY and I headed to late last Saturday afternoon. After the protracted wait at the community center, where the tour started, we were off to the first and second homes at 32 Marine Crescent, located side by side on the same floor. Our first stop slipped right by me: there were several instances of staged and doctored photographs alluding to (apparently mythological) sightings of dolphins off the Katong coast, as well as a manufactured ‘dolphin bone relic’ (below). I think the artist in this case was Zhao Renhui – at least the bone object was his – but I wasn’t paying much attention; the works would not have looked out of a place in a museum, and didn’t engage much with their very unique domestic setting, which I expected would have been the point of this singular opportunity to display works in not just a quotidian space, but one that is utilized, lived in, indelibly a part of someone’s most intimate everyday experience.
The art in the second home, which belonged to a friendly yoga instructor who was on hand to greet us, proved to be more compelling. Local artist Terence Lin had a piece titled The Perforated Night, which was essentially a piece of black fabric with holes cut out, masquerading as a curtain (below). According to our guide – an amiable young architecture student, whose name unfortunately I didn’t catch – it appropriates the inherent voyeurism of HDB living, where the high-density character of such neighbourhood estates ensures that simply looking out the window means gazing into someone else’s home. What especially struck me about this piece was how it insinuated itself into the very fabric (haha) of the living space, albeit imperfectly of course. Here was what I had come to see: art that interacted with their everyday surroundings, deploying inventive formal strategies to speak cogently to the idea of the ordinary and the familiar. In another part of the apartment, artist Jes Brinch recreated the contents of an entire room, from the furniture to soft toys to books strewn about in supposedly careless fashion, upside down on the ceiling (below). A mirrored floor inverted the upturned space, thus visually righting the imaginary. Only Apparently Real III was a clever, highly amusing installation, although the most interesting thing about it was its site-specificity. I suspect it would seem .. paltry in a traditional display environment. (The flip side: situating this piece in, say, the showroom of a furniture or interior design concern would render it far more witty, even brilliant, no?) Terence Lee contributed another work, Bed, here. The painting of a floral-patterned bed with pillows and bolster was rigged up to resemble a TV screen (below), and hung on the wall of the home owner’s bedroom directly confronting – what else <lol> ? – her bed. This piece functions on a couple of levels. For one, it rehearses one of the most common domestic rituals, TV-watching, both formally and display-wise, approximating the appearance of a television set and being positioned on a wall at eye level, thus bringing together our experience of TV- and art-viewing at once. Bed also reflects its immediate surroundings – an empty bed – through the gesture of quasi-imitation, in what could be construed as an oblique comment on the egocentric act of inscribing our personality into our belongings. In other words, what Lee has done here is to paint a bed, not specifically the owner’s (which looked very different); putting both in a direct encounter within the most intimate of spaces highlights this disjuncture, or what is at stake in our choice of personal objects.
Home No. 3 brought more surprises. In a stairwell next to the apartment, Teng Yen Ling painted anamorphic projections of various objects and animals, ranging from bikes and chairs to a cat to an entire elevator (below). She very helpfully provided vantage points, marked by little X-es on the ground, from which to negate the element of distortion when viewing, but as it turned out people were so charmed by the line renderings that they started interacting with the art as if they were real: sitting on the chair, which was painted on some stairs to allow for an actual occupant; standing in the doorway of the elevator as if just emerging from within. The sheer unexpected whimsy of Teng’s Secret Landing (2010) made it a surefire crowd-pleaser, but also seemed to be the point of the work: located in an otherwise completely utilitarian and often overlooked public space – how many people even take the stairs, unless one’s living on the first couple of floors ?- the paintings defy strict trompe l’oeil representation, yet invite the viewer to interact with them in very practical and prosaic ways by dint of their life-size scale and their appearance in a setting so closely allied with the business of day-to-day living. (You can just imagine actual bicycles and birdcages and a lift lobby being right there on the landing …)
A number of Indonesian artists were featured in the apartment itself, a reflection of the home owners’ tastes, whose personal collection they were. There was In Between by Nurdian Icshan (below), which included a figure of the artist on a flight of brick stairs, with his head up against an imaginary wall. However, it had been positioned against a bookcase, humorously giving a very personal and expressive work of art the character of a bookend. Desziana, one of the few female artists represented in the couple’s collection, had produced three rows of little fabric houses, which when lit up from the inside brought out figures of trees and potted plants otherwise difficult to discern on the surface of the material (below). The diminutive quaintness of the piece was disarming. On the one hand, the tiny structures sans windows and doors reminded me of fellow Indonesian Rudi Mantofani’s Rumah-Rumah Cokolat, one of my favourite paintings (below); on the other, the uplit homes definitely channeled the surreally and enigmatically warm yet remote interiors of Todd Hido’s Homes at Night photographs (below).
The next stop was dominated by Messy Msxi’s Ten Years in Training series (below). Comprised of paintings, videos and found objects, I found Msxi’s quirky figures a little too derivative of contemporary Japanese visual culture – say, Yoshitomo Nara’s big-eyed people; her moniker was also something of a turnoff, literally screaming cuteness … I guess I’m one of those annoyingly arch postmodernist-wannabes whose idea of acceptable sincerity can only ever be irony. However, an installation set up in a back room (clearly used for storage) was a lot more compelling: a TV had been placed in one corner, playing what looked like footage of the artist’s work, and certain objects pertaining to the theme of athletic training and competition had been inserted into the mess of the home owner’s personal stuff, looking for all intents and purposes like every other article or gewgaw in the room. Even more than Terence Lee’s curtain or television-imitating canvas, here was a work of art that convincingly passed itself off as no more than another everyday object or occurrence, effectively effacing the line between artifice and actuality. While it isn’t hard to figure out which the pieces in question are, it seems as if the employment of the found object has been extended to its logical end here – re-embedded in its natural environment, as simply one more anonymous thing among a jumble of things.
Finally, at the last apartment of the evening, we witnessed the culmination of what I took to be the unspoken theme of this year’s OH!: art both in and of the home. The living room of the apartment was screened off by a white sheet punctuated by little peepholes, behind which an actress, moving among what one assumes is the home owner’s furniture, performed various acts like playing the piano, reading, and toying with a little dog (yes, there was a live one involved; below). I forgot to note the title, but it was the brainchild of two artists, Clare Marie Ryan and Marc Gabriel Loh, in collaboration with the owner. It was also the sole performative piece of the event, involving a human – and canine – body interfacing with a domestic space in all its multifarious dimensions. So far we’d seen a number of works which spoke directly to their unusual settings; here, at our finishing stop, was an actual body inhabiting a lived space, rehearsing household rituals and mundane experience as a means of performance art. To put it another way, by incorporating the human body into the realm of art, art and actual experience were brought a step closer - even more so than the use of found objects, or visual simulation, or the utilization of everyday space ..
Of course, my interest in trying to discern an aesthetics of the domestic probably occluded from view other less dominant themes in the show. For instance, there was also a definite engagement with the larger community of Marine Parade and Katong – or the neighbourhood estate as a form of collective memory. The photographs which posited an ersatz history of marine and social life in the area, for one, as well as Lynn Lu’s Tremor, which consisted of a tray of vibrating crystalware perched on a small table beneath which a device emitting sound on a continual loop had been placed, thus ensuring the constant vibration of the glasses (below); our guide informed us that it reflected the fact that the estate often feels the effects of seismic activity in Indonesia very keenly. Local artist Mark Wong’s numerous sound installations in the various apartments, produced by hidden gadgets and creating an ambient soundscape as part of the art-viewing experience, also deserves greater notice, but that unfortunately is a little beyond the scope of the present review (below).
OH! may be said to fall under rubrics familiar in the contemporary art scene: participation art, happenings, relational aesthetics. This last was a term coined by French curator Nicholas Bourriaud in the 1990s (which admittedly we are a decade away from as of now). Bourriaud’s aim was to describe the means by which forms of conviviality and sociability have become the desired ends in art-making: “In our post-industrial societies, the most pressing thing is no longer the emancipation of individuals, but the freeing-up of inter-human communications, the dimensional emancipation of existence.”* Unlike the scripted nature of a John Cage or Allan Kaprow Happening perhaps, in which the audience is invited to engage with the work of art in a specific, regulatory manner, the generation of a “community effect” is the point which Bourriaud wishes to stress: “The aura of art no longer lies in the hinter-world represented by the work, nor in form itself, but in front of it, within the temporary collective form that it produces by being put on show.”* In other words, it is the staging of a forum wherein relations between viewers – rather than simply a relation between the audience and the artwork – which is held out as the chief site of interest, or the instituting of an arena or an open system under the auspices of art to foster the sorts of communal conviviality that Bourriaud has identified.
I can’t imagine a more apropos instantiation of his ideas. Yes, the participatory element of the show was very much a restricted one: we couldn’t take pictures of the homes themselves, just the art; and of course we weren’t permitted to disrupt the owners’ possessions; their bathrooms were likewise off-limits; the time spent at individual apartments was limited to no more than ten minutes. However, the ambulatory character of the event – combined with the circumscribed relationship between viewer and work, where both time and space are controlled factors – was certainly conducive to communication and interaction between viewers instead. And here, in trying to account for the effects of the art experience rather than just the work itself, a shift from cataloging formal qualities to narrativizing the less tangible elements of art-viewership is desirable – and where perhaps moving into the personal and anecdotal may not be inappropriate. As mentioned, I was there with several friends. MY, whom I was meeting for the first time, was just done with her M.A. thesis, in which she maps urban theory onto military aesthetics (from what little I understood anyways). The point is, as a student and thinker she turned out to be just as keen on critical theory and cultural studies as I was. In between peering at the art, and trekking from one HDB block to another to peer at more art, we found quite a bit to talk about: my work, her work, the vagaries of academia, NUS, Foucault, Debord, the list goes on … It was a pleasant couple of hours, and while to describe it in Bourriaud-ian terms as a “freeing-up of inter-human communications, the dimensional emancipation of existence” may perhaps be something of an overstatement, the event accords, I think, with the general paradigm shift that Bourriaud lays out, in transferring the burden of significance from formal meaning to human terms like conviviality and sociability.
* See Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les Presse Du Reel, 1998), p. 60 & 61.
Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955) hangs, on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, in one of the galleries devoted to both Painting and Sculpture at once –conveniently so. One of the artist’s earliest works executed in the Combine mode, belonging to the same period as the fully three-dimensional pieces like Untitled (Man with White Shoes) (1954), Odalisk (1955-58) and Monogram (1955-59), and pre-dating many of the so-dubbed Combine Paintings—though Rauschenberg himself did not insist on a strict distinction between the two terms1—such as Gloria (1956), Hazard (1957) and Painting with Red Letter S (1957), which by far dominates his oeuvre in this respect, it occupies a saliently singular position with regards to either category.
Bed is, immediately, a bed; such is its physical, visual and conceptual armature. Framed within a shallow wooden structure, a flat, white, sheet-encased surface serves both to indicate the mattress and as the canvas on which the work of art is enacted. A pillow is attached to the top, or head of the bed, and a quilt patterned with a modular design of small red squares and varicolored lines, with a border of three stripes alternating between red and white (or brown – the colors have faded), is covered over a substantial portion of the lower half, wrapped around and pulled flat against the base that holds it up. Here, then, in a coherent and recognizable arrangement of familiar elements, the viewer is presented with the spectacle of the single, readable image2, the bed. Over and on this intimation of the everyday, however, gestural acts of inflection intervene: from the top of the bed to a clearly marked line that runs somewhere through the middle of the pillow occurs a zone of pencil marks, a mass of lines and vague shapes that recalls Cy Twombly’s inscriptional canvases. Running from the pillow over a space of white revealed by where the upper edge of the quilt has been folded back in a draped crease, and over onto the quilt itself, Rauschenberg effects his most arresting and dramatic flourish, splashes of brightly-colored paint applied to the various surfaces of the work—smooth, textured, plain, patterned—in a process of euphoric abandon, contrasting conspicuously with the muted pencil tones.
Bed is explicitly intermedial. It fuses painting, drawing, and found objects into a work that Michael Fried condemned as an “illusion that the barriers between the arts are in the process of crumbling … and that the arts themselves are at last sliding toward some kind of final, implosive, highly desirable synthesis.”3 This synthesis of various media is brought to the fore, deliberately contradicting the work’s iconicity, its rehearsal of the familiar, by a reiteration of variety on a formal level. The division of the surface into distinct fields of visual and tactile experience, from pencil to paint to quilt, signals an interruption of the plenary image, yet simultaneously points to its own arbitrary, synthetic nature by virtue of the blurring of borders between those zones. The bisection of the pillow into areas of inscription and painting seems at first glance to be sharply articulated, but closer inspection reveals a thick wad of white paint—nearly indistinguishable from the pillowcase—applied on the dividing line, right through the middle, dripping runnels of white down into the paint-inflected zone below, bleeding from one category into the next. This particular motif repeats itself throughout the surface of the work, forming a visual complex of rhyming shapes and colors; blue and brown, red and white (the latter two recurring constantly), all seeping in streamlets of solidified paint one into another, making their way down the length of pillow, sheet, quilt.
It is tempting to read the life in, or into, the art. The Bed as a piece of furniture, as Rauschenberg’s piece of furniture or a representation of such, finds its originary impulse in his oft-quoted statement that “Painting relates to both art and life…. (I try to act in that gap between the two) …”4 Leo Steinberg deciphers the Rauschenberg-ian picture plane as a democratic exercise, akin to “any flat documentary surface that tabulates information…”; despite his assertion that it “no more depend(s) on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does”5, Bed cries out for its human occupant. As a vessel intended expressly for the body, it invites one to read the absent body against it. The integral unity of the sign, of the otherwise neatly-made bed, of the ordered layout of its constituents, minus the human, is belied by Rauschenberg’s inflectional gestures. The various medial and intermedial fields find ready analogues in the psychosomatic realm; they coincide with broad zones of corporeal functionality. The location of a decisive break through the pillow, reifying a split in the sphere of the mental and the ideational, serves to trigger a concatenation of associations. Rosalind Krauss, evoking the specter of sleep in discussing Brancusi’s Beginning of the World (1924)—a tapered bronze teardrop reminiscent of a somnolent head— remarks of the play of light and shadow on the upper- and undersides of its highly polished surface: “It is this differential … that recalls the feeling of the back of one’s head, resting heavily on a pillow, while the face floats, weightless and unencumbered, toward sleep.”6 The dichotomy between converging sensory experiences, at the instant between sleep and wakefulness, alludes again to its referent, here the differential between Twombly-esque pencil marks and the vibrant paint splashes that, even if one is only tangentially acquainted with the facts of Rauschenberg’s life, brings immediately to mind his partnership with Jasper Johns, and the latter’s vividly-colored, lavishly-textured encaustic works of the same period.7
The displacement of pencil by paint registers the moment when Rauschenberg’s relationship with Twombly had ended, and his involvement with Johns began. Indeed, the field of paint celebrates the wakeful state of creative productivity and emotional vivification in which he must have found himself, and the conjugal bliss that likely accompanied this new union. The exuberant disorder of the brushstrokes and bright primary hues attest to the buoyancy of this stage in his life – hands and heart both function within this zone. Further down, positioned exactly at the fold that separates bed from quilt, torso from limbs, and zone from zone, is an interstitial space that bears the freight of the largest color splashes, and the brightest. These, in blue, yellow, red, and, most prominently, white, are made to perform the same gesture of dripping that they do elsewhere; here they connote palpably the bodily discharges that emerge during the sexual act, a breach of the epiderm that results in similar motions of exudation: seeping, bleeding, oozing, sweating. White and red suggest, of course, semen and blood, and it is the former that stands out in the starkest contrast against the background of the quilt, trickling downwards in long rivulets, recurring as isolated patches evocative of semen stains.
Rauschenberg’s Combines have been read as a refusal to follow through on their premises to the logical conclusion: a full embrace of three-dimensionality, an evolution from the wall into “environments, displays, or architectural design.” What they do effectuate, according to Branden Joseph, is an insistence on “their hybrid existence between (or as both) painting and sculpture, 2- and 3-D.”8 The trope of hybridity, of categorical ambiguity, operates at several levels in Bed. It is, as Rauschenberg avers, situated in the interstice between art and life. It re-enacts the everyday—“it let(s) the world in again”9—but this unitary view is not only disrupted by the interposition of the gestural mark, but also belied by the break in contiguity between art and life, a lacuna exposed in the gap visible between the wooden frame and the bed itself. This discontinuity, running all around the perimeter of the enframed object, reveals the structural scaffolding erected behind it: the quilt is shown to be tacked on to one side of a surface constructed of wooden supports and a white sheet; it disappears behind the other side at a point where a break between the modular units of its design occurs, obscuring the distinctive three-stripe border pattern, forging and disclosing at once the conceit of a naturalized cessation. Bed clearly reinforces its status as something other than an actual bed, confronting the viewer not with a view of the world, but with a thing (much in the same manner as Johns’ paintings of flags do) of heterogeneous ontology. As a Combine, it likewise bears a unique relationship to its fellows, located somewhere between the three-dimensional pieces and the Combine paintings. Untitled (Man with white Shoes) and Odalisk are not confined to the wall; they stride un-self-consciously into the center of the room, announcing themselves as occupants and possessors of our space. They approximate the resemblance to actual objects, of cupboards and shelves and stuffed fowl, but simply reconfigured in a-referential ways that Bed shies from. Neither does the latter engage the collage method of the two-dimensional Combine paintings—the yoking together of disparate materials on Steinberg’s flatbed picture plane—instead demanding that it be recognized as both a single and singular image, as verisimilitude and authorial comment. Operating at the threshold between media, styles and forms, it is intermedial, interstitial, inflected.
1 Branden Joseph, in his lecture dated October 2nd, 2007.
2 Rosalind Krauss refers to Bed, along with Johns’ flags of the same period, as “single-image painting”. Rosalind Krauss, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image”, in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 38-55.
3 Quoted in Branden Joseph, “The Gap and the Frame”, October 117 (Summer 2006): 44-70.
4 Quoted in Branden Joseph, “The Gap and the Frame”, October 117 (Summer 2006): 44-70.
5 Leo Steinberg, “Reflections on the State of Criticism”, in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 6-37.
6 Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (New York: Viking Press, 1977),
7 As has been noted by Paul Schimmel. See Paul Schimmel, “Autobiography and Self-Portraiture in Rauschenberg’s Combines”, in Robert Rauschenberg: Combines (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, & Steidl Verlag: 2005).
8 Both quotes are from Branden Joseph, “The Gap and the Frame”, October 117 (Summer 2006): 44-70.
9 Leo Steinberg, “Reflections on the State of Criticism”, in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 6-37.