Posts Tagged ‘exhibitions’
First, anonymity as a regulatory force, socio-political instrumentalism at its bluntest: “ … an effect of actions taken against a subject by one invested with greater authority or power. This is anonymity as something done to the subject, acts that take what is most recognizable or objectionable about the subject and diffuse or nullify those parts.”
Now, anonymity as a radical response, a re-direction of the otherwise negational act of erasure: “What I am suggesting in this exhibition is a counter possibility, that when faced with this force the subject as glimpsed in this exhibition could take on that anonymity toward altogether different ends. When the anonymity maintains the trace of individuality rather than erase it, for one, or when anonymity is a sign that the subject is not completely whole or human, and therefore not quite within reach of any attempts to normalize it.”
That’s local artist Jason Wee, who curated Subject Shall Remain Anonymous, on his theme of choice. It’s a suasive thesis. The resonances here are varied and urgent: the revelation of intersecting power structures; the expression of subalternity (especially immediate within the context of Southeast Asia, where autocratic regimes of one sort or another are the norm rather than the exception); the possibilities of aesthetic resistance. The title, as a matter of fact, pretty much sums it up. The use of the imperative – the voice of decree – establishes a differential of authority between speaker and audience, and the omission of an article, whether definite or indefinite, functions as a grammatical elision invoking the contingent status of the “subject”. Interposed, then,between the denial of individual agency by oligarchic systems, and the appropriation of such gestures as, antithetically, acts of ownership and self-determination, are the multifarious strategies serving to occlude the artistic object, the effacement, abstraction, deracination, dispersal, withdrawal, material inflection and iconographic negotiation shrouding it in layers of eloquent hidden-ness.
Perhaps the most direct measure here of anonymity and its modalities is the distance from naturalistic representations of the human body – i.e. how the somatic complex, as the consequence of long-held traditions and discourses of verisimilar portraiture, is simultaneously evoked and erased. Take Maya Munoz’s paintings (above, top), for instance: incognito personalities posed against equally unrecognizable backdrops, both figure and ground constituted by trickles, streaks, blotches, and whirling eddies of paint, the legibility of their subject matter receding beneath the barrage of conspicuous mark-making. Or Jeremy Sharma’s rather derivative contributions (above, bottom). While likewise appropriating the idiom of gestural abstraction, their surfaces submitted to an imbroglio of conspicuous brushstrokes and bleeding drips (de Kooning, anyone?), these works extend the trope of anonymity by a doubled act of obfuscation: the subjects, an astronaut and a racer, are individuals masked – literally – by their respective occupations, any suggestion of subjectivity buried by livery, equipment, signs of corporate sponsorship. The person inhabiting the suit is removed twice over from the spectator’s gaze, rendered ambivalent by both attribute (what they wear) and style (how they’re depicted).
Portraiture is often adduced as that most iconic of signs (along with photography, though not without howls of protest in the latter’s case), a system of corporeal representation foregrounding physical and social semblance – i.e. likeness. C. S. Peirce’s semiotic triad of icon-index-symbol has been discussed elsewhere on the pages of this blog, but just by way of a quick recap: the iconic sign-type is largely premised on verisimilitude, the degree of proximity to its real-life referent. Of the icon, Peirce had this to say: “Most icons, if not all, are likenesses of their objects.” Or: “… firstly, Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves …” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) He would go on to qualify this definition – and categorize three different sorts of icons – but more on that later. The point here is, at its most basic (and reductive), Peircean iconicity is established on similitude.
The second sign-type, the index, is predicated on existential contiguities between sign and object. As commonly understood by art historians, the painterly gesture, qua index, is a trace of the artist’s hand that emphasizes its own processual or constitutive nature, rather than being an image grounded in naturalism (unlike the index). Elsewhere, Rosalind Krauss has said of the index: “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents … Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects …” (Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths [MIT Press, 1986].) As signs that exist “along the axis of a physical relationship”, indices are marks (like footprints) that act as material indicators of their origins (the foot that made it). One of the primary mechanisms of the semiotic process here, then – Peirce identified several more – is that of cause and effect.
Harold Rosenberg, c. 1950. Image from Archives of American Art.
Clement Greenberg, in 1978. Image from this UW-Milwaukee site.
It is in the break between the iconic (representational mimesis) and the indexical (a-referential action-ism) that the works of Munoz and Sharma locate their various configurations of dis-identification. As Wee notes, anonymity, as a response to the depredations of hegemonic networks rather than being a mere effect of said incursions, operates most cogently when it “maintains the trace of individuality rather than [completely] eras-[ing] it.” Put another way: these paintings of rubbed-out individuals, clad in everyday attire like jeans or veiled behind helmets and buried in hi-tech gear, may seem to proscribe the sort of subjective, iconic specificity afforded by realist portraiture, the departure from verisimilitude dovetailing with notions of social marginalization. Yet the sort of pictorial delineations here function also in the way of indexicality: while retaining the broad contours of figural description, they also employ the sort of vigorous, assertive, dynamic brushwork associated with action painting.* Or, in Harold Rosenberg’s words: “The innovation of Action Painting was to dispense with the representation of the state in favor of enacting it in physical movement. The action on the canvas became its own representation.” (Italics mine.) The self-evident, self-defining gestures of the Abstract Expressionists – to use the label appropriated by Greenberg, who, famously, disagreed with Rosenberg’s characterization – channeled by the present paintings belie the understanding of facelessness as powerlessness, anonymity as anomie. Quite simply, the energy and the authority conveyed by the brushstrokes (as indexical signs) contradict the impression of invisibility (in the iconic register), restoring to the otherwise obliterated, undistinguished subject on the surface of the canvas a sense of puissance.
* It’s perhaps not uninteresting that, apropos of artists working in the year 2012, explicatory recourse is still being had to paradigms established 60 years ago. (Rosenberg’s piece, “The American Action Painters”, was first published in 1952.) Failure of critical response (mine), or artistic imagination (theirs) ?
Yet, even within the conceptual framework of the show – of anonymity as criticality – works like Munoz’s and Sharma’s seem … the least compelling.
The interruption of a mimetic pictorial syntax by the sort of gestural inflections discussed above are utilized to similar effect by various other pieces as well: Mella Jaarsma’s melding of synthetic Cubist forms and Orientalist motifs (Protectors of Candi Suku III; above, top); Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s depiction of a man’s back, the enclosing space thick with a mesh of charcoal pencil-lines (Reclining Figure #13; above, middle); the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t faces of Vincent Leow’s figures (above, bottom). Deviating from the tropes of iconic representationalism seems the most straightforward process of constituting the anonymous – and, by dint of that fact, the most unexciting as well. If anything, those inclusions here which lend themselves less immediately to claims of visual anonymity offer precisely the richest examples of that very proposition. The show, in fact, opens with a classic instance of traditional portraiture, a painting of a nameless young woman (below, top) being the first work in the gallery the viewer encounters:
This exhibition started with a mystery. The gallerist Tolla Sloane showed me a painting by Doris Duke, a commercial portraitist who worked in Malaya and died in Singapore in 1967, who was also Tolla’s grandmother. The portrait ‘Girl in Pink’ was finished in 1955 for an exhibition for the Women Artists of Malaya group, which included Georgette Chen among others. The Malay girl in the painting was not named in any of the exhibition documents in Tolla’s possession, and though we suspected that some of the other artists in that exhibition may have painted the same teenage model, we could not find her likeness elsewhere, at least not in what we saw of Chen’s and her contemporaries’ paintings from those years. She remained a nameless cipher for the ambitions of others …
(Jason Wee, “Subject Shall Remain Anonymous”, in the accompanying catalogue.)
Duke’s Girl in Pink, at first glance, is that which many of its fellows in the show are not: an expressive, suggestive depiction of an individual, rendered with the specificity of detail appropriate to the work of a professional portrait painter ? (Which Duke was, according to the brief bio in the exhibition booklet.) The figure’s softly-limned features, the coy, downcast gaze and ever-so-slightly parted lips; her quaint braids, and the pink ribbons, and the wispy peach-hued blouse with its snow-white collar; the edge of a painting behind her set into an edge of the painting – the cumulative effect is one of class and culture, gentle breeding and gracious manners. So much for the immediately expressive. What the painting suggests, while less discernable, is no less interesting nor significant: a girl of her race and (presumably) religion in 1950s Malaya – the fledgling federation then a mere two years away from full independence – with uncovered head and open neck, sitting for a portrait. The question, of course, is one of wider social mores, of the particular historico-geographical moment in which the image is moored: did Malay-Muslim girls of her age and class, in 1955, wear these things, do these things ? If it’s fair to assume that they generally did not, what sort of inferences may be drawn about the sitter ? Does the deliberate aura of refinement and breeding – of a certain socio-economic class and its prerogatives, in other words – serve to set her apart in more ways than one, and what, if anything, does that say about social differentiation and the practice of Islam in the Merdeka era ?
Grand-sounding claims. The litany of issues above, though, ultimately fails to take into account a crucial point: whether the painting was a commissioned portrait, or posed for by a hired model (as Wee suggests). And it is in that sense, of a fundamental ontological instability, that the girl in pink remains as much an enigma to us as, say, Munoz’s obscured bodies. The portrait may situate itself within a discourse of representational image-making, of pictures as signs that resemble their real-world referents, but, imbricated as it is within a web of contextual uncertainties, the unanswered questions of just who the girl was, and the circumstances of Duke’s painting of her, render the work a deracinated likeness of no one, a signifier of anonymity rather than identity. To return to the idea of the icon: Peirce would go on qualified the concept in a more specific fashion, noting that “An icon is a sign which would possess the character which renders it significant, even though its object had no existence; such as a lead-pencil streak as representing a geometrical line.” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) In other words, likeness, as it concerns iconicity, is not predicated on actual existence; rather, the resemblance may relate to completely imaginary objects or to ideas (e.g. geometry) instead. An icon, then, may operate along the lines of visual similitude without gesturing at any particular object existing in reality – as, of course, Duke’s girl in pink does here, a nomadic sign anchored to an indeterminate, evacuated entity.
I like the idea of recuperating the anonymous underside of portraiture – itself a kind of intellectual agency. The issue perhaps becomes particularly acute at the intersection of History (with the capital ‘H’) and subjectivity, as is the case here. I think T. J. Clark put it best: “Class is a name, I take it, for that complex and determinate place we are given in the social body; it is the name for everything which signifies that a certain history lives us, lends us our individuality.” (Italics mine; see The Painting of Modern Life [Knopf, 1985].)
Ang Sookoon’s Love is like a chunk of gold (below, bottom), the sole sculptural piece included in the show, makes for a wonderfully apropos note on which to end. The artist introduced a solution of phosphoric acid into a loaf of bread, causing crystals to sprout, and then encased the entire object in resin. The final product looks rather like a mutant cephalopod.
It just sits in its little plastic case, coolly, calmly, self-possessed; it is also the one work here which simply jettisons any form of reference to the human body at all. Non-existence – the most radical form of anonymity ?
Ok, I know I’ve taken the piss out of the ArtScience Museum on the pages of this blog before, but the travelling Warhol retrospective which opened there over the weekend, 15 Minutes Eternal, is a coherent, well-put together effort. (The gallery design got a bit cheesy in bits though …)
Generally I find ASM “exhibitions” to be dismal affairs – too many damned replicas – but this one’s worth the 15 bucks for the price of admission. Or 13, if you’re a Singapore resident.
No photography allowed though, boo, so here’s a little-known bit of Warholalia: a letter from the Campbell Soup Company to the artist (above), gushing about how much they admire his work and offering him a couple of cases of his favourite tomato flavour.
Here’s a lesson for all aspiring artists: start painting Volvos, or luxurious condominium developments, or De Beers diamonds – and keep yer fingers crossed.
The Life! section in today’s Straits Times ran a lead article on the attendance woes plaguing the Biennale (reproduced below).
So they finally clued in.
There are several reasons for the low numbers apparently, with the relative inaccessibility of the main site, the Old Kallang Airport, being cited as numero uno. I don’t get this. The OKA is a stone’s throw from Kallang station: one exits from the right, crosses the street (where there’s a ginormous orange sign pointing the way), walks a block, crosses another street (where there’s another sign), and voila! the street leading into the complex is right there. It takes all of three minutes.
If one drives, Google Map it beforehand. If one takes a cab, Google Map it beforehand.
Singaporeans sure are a whiny bunch.
Another reason seems to be the art itself. The major cause of complaint: it’s perceived to be about as accessible as the Kallang Airport site, which is to say not terribly. (See image below.) Is that a bad thing ? Perhaps, from the organizers’ point of view. Avant-garde contemporary art, though, needs to be a. novel, b. difficult, c. controversial or d. all of the above, to get its point across. Or a point anyways. You know, challenge assumptions, push boundaries, explore possibilities – all those tired-sounding cliches that nonetheless hold true. In most cases, head-scratching or outrage on the part of the general viewing public is almost a predetermined corollary to what often turns out to be the most effective stuff. Manet, Turner, Picasso, Duchamp, Fluxus, Warhol – all pioneers, all on the receiving end of vilification in their day.
Perhaps the comparison to established names may be presumptuous, but my point is, incomprehension doesn’t necessarily suggest inadequacy.
Oh, and then of course there’s the Fujiwara scandal – but I’m sure most of us are tired of hearing about it by now.
The third instalment of the Singapore Biennale is attracting fewer visitors this year. By Deepika Shetty.
The third edition of the Singapore Biennale does not seem to be a great crowd-puller.
Over 100,000 people have gone to see the top contemporary art show, which started on March 13 and ends on May 15.
The numbers include visitors to the three main venues – Old Kallang Airport, Singapore Art Museum and SAM at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore – and excludes the outdoor figures for the most popular site, the Merlion Hotel in Marina Bay. The luxurious hotel room created by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi has been drawing over 1,000 visitors a day.
Unless there is a stampede in the next few weeks, the final visitor tally may fall short of the 650,000 target set by the organizers, even though they say they are on track to hit the numbers.
The 100,000 figure is well short of the 325,000 people which the 2008 edition drew by the time it hit the midway mark. Overall, 502,000 people attended the show in 2008, compared to 883,000 in the inaugural edition in 2006.
This year’s biennale was postponed twice, first to avoid clashes with last year’s Youth Olympic Games and Grand Prix Season and then to align with the school holidays.
After it opened, it was mired in controversy over an installation by award-winning British artist Simon Fujiwara titled Welcome To The Hotel Munber. The installation with pornographic gay content was censored by the Singapore Art Museum before being temporarily closed. The museum and artist are still trying to work out hwo to change it. By press time, it remained closed and the museum said it is still in discussion with the artist on how to modify the work.
The low visitorship could be attributed to a few factors. One common complaint by visitors is the location of Old Kallang Airport which artgoers found far removed from the museum venues.
Writer Jams Ong, 38, said: “I felt the last Biennale was better because the locations were closer, making it easier to go from one to the other. I feel Old Kallang Airport is too out of the way and a bit distant from the museums.”
Although there are shuttle services to Old Kallang Airport as well as the Merlion Hotel sites from the Singapore Art Museum and the National Museum, they operate on an hourly loop taking about 15 minutes between each venue.
Another issues which has cropped up is the art, which this year has not resonated as well with both the layman and the more well-informed visitor.
Local art collector Colin Lim, who has attended all three editions of the contemporary art event, says he remembers the previous biennales for their artworks.
“Unfortunately, this one will be remembered for the shortcomings of the curatorial team. From the environment in which the art was displayed, to the selection of the artist and hence the artworks, to the way the Simon Fujiwara installation was (mis)handled, one cannot help but feel that the curators had not been up their task. The spotlight should always be on the art,” he says.
Making art accessible to the public was one of the key considerations of the Biennale but several visitors interviewed by Life! over two weekends found the art too abstract and tough to relate to.
Mr Joseph Estrada [?!], 52, an engineer, felt there were too many video works. “The video installations are just too long. Most people do not have the time to wait for things to happen in the video,” he said.
Student Ng Xiao Yan, 20, found the last edition of the Biennale better. “There were more visually arresting works in 2008,” she said.
Another student Sydney Ho, 23, felt that while the art was interesting, many of the works were very hard to understand.
Led by artistic director Matthew Ngui and his curatorial team, which includes Canadian Trevor Smith and Australian Russell Storer, this Biennale explores artistic journeys in relation to ordinary encounters and activities such as shopping and eating.
Works centered on the latter themes are the ones which have been most appreciated by visitors. Apart form Nishi’s hotel room, other popular artworks are Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail aka Ise’s refrigerator installation titled Secret Affair and Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive installation titled Frequency and Volume: Relational Architecture 9, 2003 (see side stories).
Lecturer Cindy Tan, 33, enjoyed looking at the various media used to create the art. “The use of multimedia shows that the Singapore Biennale is embracing technology and keeping up with the times.”
But some art connoisseurs such as Doctor Lim felt some artforms had been ignored in their entirety.
“I know painting as a medium is somewhat shunned by practitioners and curators of contemporary art but the dearth of paintings in this Biennale – I only spotted the wonderful ‘family’ portrait by Navin Rawanchaikul in the National Museum – makes me wonder if this was done on purpose,” he said.
Organisers say that discussions like these add to the character of the island’s premier visual arts event. Says Mr Tan Boon Hui, director of the Singapore Art Museum: “One of the goals of contemporary art and of a large scale exhibition like the Singapore Biennale is to start conversations and this Biennale has certainly sparked off much discussion on a range of topics, from the debate on the Merlion’s status or significance as a national icon, to what is good art.”
Another un-timely non-review .. although, in this case, Made for SAM is still running.
The show – if one can call it that, since it’s really more by way of an art fair snuck into a museum space – features ordinary, everyday objects aesthetically enlivened and price-augmented by the innovations of contemporary design. The marketing is pretty savvy: borrowing the strategies of the art world, each piece is given a title, much like a work of art, and produced in limited quantities. And the prices certainly reflect those value-added processes – again, much like the role big-name dealers, auction houses and art institutions play in jacking up the prices of contemporary art to astronomical sums.
Take the wooden pencil-case dubbed The Pencil is Mightier than the Keyboard (below). The brainchild of two individuals from the local er, “ideas company”, Asylum, it’s pretty much just that: a wooden pencil-case – though in this case etched with the titles of various literary classics in different fonts, presumably an allusion to the indispensability of mechanical writing tools to the production of some of mankind’s greatest and most cherished works of literature. The price for this insight ? 70 SGD, or roughly 56 USD, or 39 Euros.
Or the Itinerant Chrysanthemum by Ash Yeo (below). A wooden ruler that explodes into undulating tendrils of petals at one end, it is very eye-pleasing, but – like so many of its fellows on display – caught rather awkwardly in the oscillation between functionality and pure aesthetics. I mean, sure, it does look like it works as a rule, but probably not very well, since it’s too short, inconvenient in the hand, and, of course, pretty exorbitant – 28 SGD, to be precise. If anyone’s buying this, it can’t possibly be for utilitarian purposes.
Here’s Sven Lütticken on the progressive erosion of the lines between fine art and everyday objects:
In modern art, the increasing resemblance of art objects to everyday objects raised the threat of eroding of any real difference between works of art and other things. Barnett Newman railed against both Duchamp’s readymades and “Bauhaus screwdriver designers” who were elevated to the ranks of artists by the Museum of Modern Art’s doctrine of “Good Design.”The danger for art was the same in both cases: the dissolving of the dividing line between works of art and everyday objects. Just as ancient art proper should never be confused with the craft of “women basket weavers,” modern art should never be confused with a screwdriver or urinal.In the 1960s, Clement Greenberg would also worry that a blank sheet of paper or a table would become readable as art, that the boundary between artworks and “arbitrary objects” was eroding.While not evincing any Modernist anxieties about readymades, Paul Chan’s recent assertion that “a work of art is both more and less than a thing” shows renewed concerns regarding such an assimilation—in a context marked, until quite recently, by an unprecedented market boom in which works of art seemed to be situated in a continuum of luxury goods spanning from Prada bags to luxury yachts.
(His essay, Art and Thingness, Part One: Breton’s Ball and Duchamp’s Carrot, is available in full in #13 of the e-flux journal, here.)
Elsewhere, Boris Groys has pointed out that the role of the modern museum, in spite of this imbrication of artwork and mundane object, is not diminished, but rather enhanced. I don’t have my copy of Art Power handy, so I’m relying on memory here, but his argument ran something like this: if the difference between art and thing is almost indistinguishable these days, then the museum, rather than being rendered irrelevant, becomes ever more essential in the struggle to maintain what little distinction there still exists.
Clearly the SAM hasn’t received that particular memo.
Made for SAM merchandise is available for purchase at the FARM Online Store.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
Seeing as how Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munber, the artist’s contribution to the Singapore Biennale, has now been shut down – albeit for the time being – perhaps an individual review might prove timely.
I was fortunate enough to have seen the installation, in its edited form, in the two weeks between the initial opening, and its closing sometime at the end of March.
I have to admit though, I didn’t ‘get it.’
Here’s what the wall text said:
Describing himself as a ‘closet expressionist’ [that’s pretty witty], Simon Fujiwara makes work that questions the way certain histories have been scripted. Fujiwara constructs narratives that merge family stories, history, and contemporary projections of himself. Establishing characters from the past and the present, Fujiwara’s installations remind us that identity is itself a construction. Welcome to the Hotel Munber reconstructs the bar of the hotel that Fujiwara’s parents ran in the 1970s in Spain during the repressive Franco dictatorship as seen through the lens of an erotic tale that blurs fact and fiction.
At first glance the piece just seemed a recreation of what the label said it was – a ’70s era Spanish watering hole – which rather inexplicably featured a cornucopia of cured meats. I strolled around the space, looking at the decor and the furnishings and the replicas of food products … and none of it seemed to square with what I’d just read. Sure, there were images of Franco adorning the wall (above), as well as some text explaining the Spanish strongman’s er, uni-testicular condition, strategically placed beneath the massive head of an ox. Along with the gigante legs of ham, the cumulative effect was an atmosphere of aggressive, overweening machismo, the violence of the Franco years slyly signalled by the cruelty of meat-eating and taxidermy. Ok, so much for the history and the meat. Where though was the narrative, the eroticism, “characters from the past and the present’, the “contemporary projections” of the artist ? Sure, Fujiwara’s name was embossed on a set of thick, heavy-looking tomes sitting on a shelf (above), but was that it ? And the phallic-looking sausages did exude a sort of crude, suggestive ribaldry, but the only other hint of sensuality came from several framed prints of Tom of Finland-ish pornography hanging on the wall, boasting nude men brandishing judiciously positioned Japanese fans – a fact rendered supremely ironic by the recent brouhaha over the exclusion of lewd gay elements in the piece.
Those pictures are visible in the image below. (Click on it for a larger view.)
So little seemed to make sense.
I was puzzled, so I came home and did some fingerwork online. Here are snippets from an interview with the artist, where he describes the impulse behind his work:
What is the Hotel Munber? Why did you start writing erotic stories set in that place?
The Hotel Munber was a touristy hotel in Catalunya that my parents owned and ran in the 70’s during the last years of the Franco dictatorship. My parents told endless tales of violence and oppression, set against a backdrop of sangria and flamenco. I always imagined it like a novel, the characters, the setting – it was exotic and vibrant to me. When I started to seriously think about what kind of book I could write, I placed myself in that time, I tried to imagine how a gay, mixed-race young man would feel about life in a homogenously white dictatorship. I looked for authors who were writing erotica from Franco Catalunya and I found almost nothing for the obvious reason that it was censored to oblivion. It was then I knew that the novel I wanted to write was an explicit erotic story set in the Hotel Munber, a story that could never have been published at that time. Well, then came the hard part – as soon as I started to write I got frustrated and confused because on the one hand I had this unique political story that I felt an urgency and responsibility to tell and on the other hand I would have to use and “abuse” my parents’ personal life story to do so. It’s this conflict that drove the project underground for some years, where I would only print sections of the erotic novel secretly in gay porn magazines, using my father’s name as a pseudonym.
In Welcome to the Hotel Munber, sexuality and desire are set in contrast to the repressive authoritarian system. Conflict and oppression seem to be important themes in your practice…
This is explored in the novel through the main character – my father – who is so oppressed by Franco’s intolerance of gays that he is forced to find other solutions to satisfy himself, sexually. This solution comes in the form of “substitution”, a process where he begins to use objects that more or less represent the men he is lusting after, in erotic rituals. Gradually the architecture of the entire hotel building becomes erotically charged, it becomes clear that he has created his very own mini-dictatorship. This is intended to mirror Franco’s obscene control over the nation, making the victim now the perpetrator, the repressed the oppressor. History repeats itself…
As for sexuality, well, I tend to confront absurdly large themes in my work as a kind of challenge to find a personal voice among the things that are important to most of us, be it family, history, our environment or, of course, sex. I often use sex as a pretext to explore other topics, a way in to less populist fields such as archaeology or architecture, subjects that may not be as instantly juicy for the viewer. Many of my projects are explicitly sexual or homoerotic which is a privilege of living in a relatively liberal social context, more than many other places in the world and times in history. Liberty can be snatched away at any moment – I’ve seen it happen. I was living in California when they retracted gay marriage rights last year.
(Read the interview in full at Mousse Magazine.)
Ok, so the piece was part of a larger, overarching narrative, involving a novel about a gay man and a hotel in Francoist Spain. Things got a little clearer. And then the fracas over the SAM’s removal of gay porno from the installation erupted, and it became perfectly obvious that a lot of my bodoh-ness stemmed from the simple fact that the work as it stood was incomplete – and in more than one way.
1. According to an article in The Straits Times, the work comprised a performative aspect as well: “As part of the artwork, Mr Fujiwara gave a lecture performance at the museum during the Biennale’s opening weekend where he read extracts of erotica and used props such as photograph, newspaper clippings and original objects from his parents’ hotel. Audience members described the performance as a conflation of sexuality, family values and political history.” All the claims made by the wall text now began to seem like more than misplaced abstractions. Apparently the lecture slash reading forms a regular component of Welcome to the Hotel Munber, as a write-up in Frieze Magazine notes:
Part of ‘Welcome to the Hotel Munber’ takes the form of a lecture in which Fujiwara describes this awkward conflation of political and family history, reading extracts of erotica and illustrating the talk with a number of props arrayed on a desk in front of him. These include snapshots of and original relics from his parents’ hotel, newspaper clippings, flags, a copy of a typewritten manuscript, pornographic images and an ostrich egg inscribed with Franco’s name. Setting up this pseudo-academic environment of accumulated evidence, Fujiwara spins a tale that veers from the touching to the absurd, culminating in the plaintive admission that his erotic novel is incomplete, the artist-as-writer blocked by the improper conflation of family values and deviant sexuality.
With those little scraps of information, the piece started to come together – at least in my mind. The obsessive recreation of his parents’ past, the allusion to the brutality of Franco’s regime, the element of revisionist fantasy inserted into a turbulent political history .. ok, now I get it. Wasn’t just looking at some bizarre diorama.
2. The partial censoring severely toned down the homoeroticism in the work, which by Fujiwara’s own admission is an integral part of it. As it turns out, the museum’s removal of gay porno mags was only a half-measure, since a couple of salacious pictures were retained on the wall. And those pictures were enough to alert the viewer – or this viewer – to possible homosexual dimensions, but definitely not enough to shed light on that facet of the iconography nor to contextualize them within the piece as a whole. It was sort of like Charlton Heston at the end of The Planet of the Apes, stumbling onto the Statue of Liberty and realizing what once was, that buried fragment a metonym of a larger reality now rendered inaccessible …
Image from Talk of the Dog.
A parallel event of Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The madness is upon us.
Reviews of the Singapore Biennale coming soon. Logistical kinks have been many and exhausting, which has resulted in delays. In the meantime, this is Filippino artist Briccio Santos’ Heritage Tunnel, on display at the SAM as part of Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia, 1991 – 2010 – one of the numerous ancillary shows of the Biennale.
The mise en abyme effect created by placing two mirrors in the structure, one at the top and the other below, was pretty cool, resulting in a seemingly bottomless well of books.
I would like to make some grand statement about how the semantics and semiotics of contemporary art is really a self-reflexive play of mirrors … but right now I’m too damned tired.
I go to quite a few exhibitions, but I don’t review every show I see. Which makes for a rather unwieldy backlog of pictures.
There are any number of reasons for the filtering process. The time and effort it takes to pen a considered appraisal can exceed my energy and inclination sometimes; sadly enough, photography is prohibited at certain shows – like the recent Cheong Soo Pieng retrospective at the SAM – which tends to defeat the purpose of blogging about it, at least in my opinion; and, frankly, not a lot of what I see actually deserves the exertion of a lengthy write-up.
At the same time, though, that’s the beauty of the blog-form: there are no rules. Some folks use it to give vent to personal feelings, others to explore issues of public interest – and the rest, every variable nuance in between. So betwixt a comprehensive review and no review, is there space for another sort of manifestation?
A non-review, perhaps.
The work of Thai photographer and social activist Manit Sriwanichpoom is nothing if not quirky, as well as being engaged on a global scale. I personally think he deserves more than a perfunctory visual survey, but I’m getting a tad review-ed out – and right now all energies are being reserved for the Singapore Biennale.
Manit Sriwanichpoom: Phenomena and Prophecies ran at 8Q from October 7th to November 7th, 2010.
After the Pyrrhic showiness that was the ArtScience Museum, I think a contrasting perspective is called for.
The Post-Museum is the anti ASM.
Housed in a couple of shoplots on Rowell Rd., in the heart of thosai town, i.e. Little India, the P-M has been quietly serving both the fringes of the local artistic community and the wider public since 2007, earning a reputation as being an egalitarian, arts-oriented space for all.
In their own words, this plucky little institution is
… an independent cultural and social space in Singapore which aims to encourage and support a thinking and pro-active community. It is an open platform for examining contemporary life, promoting the arts and connecting people.
A ground-up project initiated by Singaporean curatorial team p-10, our current premises opened in September 2007. We are located in two 1920s shop-houses in Little India, an exciting and truly historical and multi-cultural area in Singapore. Through its activities, Post-Museum aims to respond to its location and community as well as serve as a hub for local and international cultures.
You can visit their appropriately spartan homepage here.
In addition to staging exhibitions, the P-M organizes a variety of programs, including artist residencies, talks, workshops, classes, music performances and film screenings. Community outreach clearly ranks high on the agenda with them, with some of their non art-related events earning a measure of street cred among members of the local boho crowd: the Singapore Really Really Free Market, the Soup Kitchen Project, as well as regular hosting of SinQSA (Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance) activities. Further marking their commitment to non-profit engagement with the arts, and in the best indie fashion, they’ve planned a series of initiatives to tie in with the Singapore Biennale 2011, which is happening right now (reviews coming soon, promise). OPEN *home, for instance, “offers a cozy and affordable crashpad for artists and other cultural workers who are coming to Singapore to visit the Singapore Biennale … in March. We have a large air-conditioned room which can house up to 8 persons per night (bring your own sleeping bag!). Participation is based on a pay-it-forward system plus contribution of 1 artwork per night stayed.” That’s real nice of these guys, you gotta admit. Read more about OPEN* here.
A review is also especially timely right now because, sadly enough, it seems as if the end is nigh. This communiqué was recently received from the good folk over at the P-M:
We wanted to share with you that the lease for our current premises will
run out in July this year.
After some long discussions and thinking with some of the stakeholders of
our community, we have decided not to continue operating in our current
format. Despite the discounted rent that the landlord has generously
offered us in these three years, we have so far been unable to cover all
our costs. As such, we have decided not to renew the lease of our current
premises and are currently looking at options to continue our cultural and
social work in different locations and formats.
At this moment, we do not have any concrete plans as we are busy with
programming and fundraising efforts at Post-Museum. We are happy that
several people have approached us with suggestions and offers, including
our current landlord who is tying us up with various organisations such as
Spa Esprit Group for free space and other support.
As mentioned, we are looking at the various options and are open to any
suggestions or offers for Post-Museum. Please feel free to contact us if
you have space, funds or other support to offer.
Furthermore, we would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who
supports us. We would also like to publicly thank our landlord for his
continued understanding and support. Without all of you, Post-Museum would
not have been possible.
On this note, we will be launching 2 series of exciting programmes at
Post-Museum from March-July. We hope you will come and continue to support
us in these coming months.
Thanks and look out for more updates soon!
Jennifer Teo & Woon Tien Wei.
Meanwhile the cash registers in the glass-swathed atrium of the ASM are ringing away to the tune of 30 big ones per entry. If any sort of cosmic justice exists, Sheldon‘s Folly will soon collapse under the weight of its own avarice and lameness.
Not that I have anything against money, don’t get me wrong. If anything, good intentions only get you so far, and the P-M I think is the best example of that. The last time I was there was – get this – in August. That’s six months ago. I’ve wanted to return since, but unfortunately shows seem to come and go in the blink of an eye there. The recent “Perspectives from the Ideal City” ran for a mere six days, and, before that, “The Pearly Gates” showed for a week. Missed both of course. Not just that, but their “Show Room” keeps rather unusual hours, being open from 6-10pm Tuesdays to Fridays, and 2-10pm on weekends. It does make it easier to pop by after work, but still, their premises aren’t exactly easy to get to, entailing either an ancillary bus ride or a long-ish trek from the nearest train station. Off the beaten track is good, but it does also ensure that only the most dedicated will make it to your doorstep.
And you gotta be really dedicated to want to make your way out there to look some amateur drawings.
Which is what I saw there last year. Shape of My Heart was held to celebrate Singapore’s 45th birthday, which happened on August 9th. Like the venue itself, the exhibition certainly looked and felt .. unorthodox. The contributors were a bunch of non-professional artists, who were tasked to produce works about local places that held some significance for them:
The exhibition features artworks created by 25 Singaporeans about places in Singapore which are meaningful to them.
These participants do not work as visual artists but come from all walks of life. Each participant was asked to create an artwork about a place in Singapore which is meaningful to him/her. The participants have created works using a variety of mediums, about places in the past, present and future Singapore.
“Amateur” is definitely the operative phrase there. The works themselves were essentially projects straight out of arts and crafts class, worked on those drawing block sheets that we all had to use back in school. These pieces were just tacked onto the wall, the way Mom and Dad would tape a particularly fetching work of yours on the fridge door – hardly the framed canvases one is used to seeing in a gallery. And neither were there any wall labels, just a xeroxed sheet listing artworks and artists (which got lost pretty quickly – or had to be returned). The improvised nature of the show was clearly deliberate, designed to dovetail with the amateur character of the art. What struck an incongruous note though, the works were laid out on in typical museum fashion – with plenty of wall space to spare, affording each individual piece the auratic tenor of museum displays. The effect was not unlike walking into one of those uppity boutiques that boasts a rack or two of merchandise, only to discover that instead of overpriced designer togs one was browsing factory outlet goods … We – CC and I – were also reminded that photography was not allowed. Its hard to imagine that copyright issues are actually in play here, but I guess even amateur art deserves legal protection.
Which also means that the images below aren’t exactly legit. So hush.
An outline of Singapore had been penciled in onto one wall, over which visitors could stick post-it notes, expressing their feelings about the country.
The evening ended with drinks at Food #03-BenBino’s next door, described as “an artwork by Woon Tien Wei which takes the form of a social enterprise café started in October 2007.” Their mission: “Food #03 is providing a community space where we partner with different groups / NGOS / individuals to share our space/kitchen and to bring about new menu and F&B concept.” The look was one of general electicism; the motive, communal engagement. In the latter at least, Food #03 takes a cue from Gordon Matta-Clark’s seminal art-food project slash restaurant, Food, which he instituted in downtown Manhattan in the early 1970s. (Read about it here.) It’s nice to see that his spirit lives on, even in such a far-flung corner.
I liked the Post-Museum a helluva lot better than the ASM.
My bathroom experience pretty much sums it up: located on the fourth floor of the new ArtScience Museum are individual restrooms, into which, as soon as you step, a clacking sound indicates that an automatic air freshener has kicked into gear, discreetly spritzing a perfumed scent into the air. The facilities are spotless, so gleamingly pristine and antiseptic it puts one in mind of an operating theatre, the only spot of colour deriving from a blooming potted plant – real, by the way, not plastic – positioned next to the taps. And, as soon as you exit, a member of the janitorial crew is on hand to mop, wipe and clean up in there after you, or just to make sure you haven’t disrupted the scrupulous sanitary standards they clearly adhere to. I wished I’d taken a picture, instead of wasting so much of my camera’s battery life on the displays, since it was patently obvious that a not inconsiderable portion of the 30 SGD admission fee was going towards extras like these.
A couple of pertinent facts about the ASM:
1. It doesn’t actually have a permanent collection, seeing itself instead as “a premier destination for major international touring exhibitions from the most renowned collections in the world.” In other words, it functions as little more than a posh display space for itinerant blockbuster shows.
2. It’s a privately run concern. Unlike other private museums in Singapore though – say, Art Retreat, which was started up by Indonesian collector Kwee Swie Teng, or local cosmetic surgeon Woffles Wu’s Museum of Contemporary Chinese Art (read about them here) – the ASM does not reflect the passion of one individual, but rather the commercial interests of a conglomerate. It is owned and managed by the same folks who brought us the Marina Bay Sands resort: the Las Vegas Sands Corp.
If ever one wanted to determine a geographico-temporal moment where the final, brazen triumph of capitalism over art occurs – not to overstate the case, of course – here it is.
Designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the distinctive lotus-shaped structure only adds to the sheer visual impact of the instantly iconic MBS towers, with their peculiar boat-shaped cap, dominating the Marina Bay skyline like an abstract Colossus of Rhodes for the new millennium. It is also merely the latest entry in the resort’s playground of entertainments for the flush and the fancy: soaring hotel blocks; a rooftop ‘infinity’ pool (below); a massive casino; a ritzy mall boasting pricey stores and foreign labels; five-star restaurants helmed by award-winning chefs; and now a 21-gallery, 6,000-sq-metre showcase for the best in international exhibitions, housed in what is probably the island’s only spherical building, curving up conspicuously from the wide expanse of the bay like a large, cracked, snowy-white eggshell. The primary concern here is starkly evident: the wow factor.
The ‘infinity’ pool at MBS. Image from Tete-a’-Tete.
All that wow, though, left an astringent taste in my mouth. For a purported museum, there was little at the ASM that I recognized as the core mission of most such institutions: education, preservation, outreach. The disputed entrance fee, for one: there was no student discount, the only concession being for under-twelves – who had to fork out 17 SGD each to get in. That, by the way, is the price of a movie ticket and a lunch at McDonalds. With probably some change to spare. For a 10 yr old. And there didn’t seem to be any guided tours nor special programs available, aside from a handful of themed performances – e.g. a mini concert of traditional Mongolian music, but that hardly counts – which immediately raises questions about the exorbitant, inflexible admission rates. Just by way of comparison, NYC’s Metropolitan and the MoMA, two of the most expensive museums in the world*, charge 20 USD – or 25.5 SGD by today’s rates. And even that’s just a “recommended” amount at the Met, meaning that really you get to pay whatever you wish. I’ve had pretty unabashed friends who’ve brazened it out at the counter with two quarters (that’s 50 cents), though not, mercifully, whilst in my company. And Europe fares even better than that: all public museums in the U.K. are free, and the Louvre in Paris charges €10/14 USD/17.8 SGD.
The ASM is definitely no Louvre nor MoMA. It doesn’t possess a collection of its own, so most of the stuff within its walls is basically on loan, and even the shows that I saw there last week … well, overwhelming would be the word, and hardly in a good way. The main attraction currently on view is Genghis Khan: The Exhibition. Y’know, like Batman: The Movie. (Say that with an exclamation mark.) Spread out over an entire floor, it was divided into thematic sections: an Intro, ‘Genghis Khan’s Roots’, ‘Rise of the Mongols’, ‘Building An Empire’, “Genghis Statesman’, ‘After Genghis’, ‘The Empire Divided’, ‘Mongolia Today’. It was certainly comprehensive, and while the nature of the show may be said to be educational if nothing else, here the concern with showiness took over to the extent that it became an excuse for very unsatisfactory museological praxis. By which I mean the organizers probably had so much space to contend with at the ASM that a large number of displays were simply gimmicks: multimedia presentations; large wall labels positioned in the middle of the gallery; far too many dioramas, installations and tacky, manufactured displays; seemingly genuine archaeological artifacts which upon closer inspection turned out to be replicas. In other words, there weren’t enough actual historical objects to occupy all that room, and it showed. The impressive looking models of Mongol warriors, traditional gers, or tents, and large-scale weaponry to illustrate the often detailed wall texts and audiovisual displays were so distracting, in fact, that they obscured the
main business of the exhibition – the relics.
There were admittedly a couple of real delights, like the mummy of the so-called “giant princess” and her grave goods, ornately adorned Tibetan Buddhist scrolls, and a genealogical chart of the Great Khan (all below). Sadly, those were few and far in between, lost amidst some very insidious inclusions. The statue of a Mongol aristocrat (below), for instance, which from afar looked for all intents and purposes to be a time-weathered piece of stone sculpture, turned out to be a “reproduction” of a 13th century original. Ditto the stone stele of Mongke Khan (Genghis’ grandson) – a model of the real thing (below). I imagine this is what it feels like to fork out a pretty penny for, say, a Madonna concert, only to be stuck with a Maddie impersonator instead. A miss is as good as a mile, especially when it comes to antiques. Which is why I’m so reluctant to describe the ASM as an education-friendly institution, despite the explicitly pedagogical character of the show. The kitschy, cheap installations, the lack of public programs, the prohibitive rates, the refusal to give students a break cost-wise … None of it makes sense, and coming as they do in one disappointing package, even less so. The Straits Times, in fact, recently ran a story on the matter. To the suggestion that they reduce admission charges for children or come up with discounted packages, MBS had this to say: “Since our opening, we have hosted members of the public, teachers, students, celebrities and tour groups and received positive feedback overall. We appreciate feedback from the public as part of our ongoing commitment to deliver quality entertainment to people of all ages.” (Qtd. in Corrie Tan, “Museum Fees Draw Flak”, Straits Times, March 10, 2011.)
Read: We’ve given out a couple of free passes already, so stop whining.
The Princess Giant (13th – 14th cent.). “The exceptionally large-sized items of clothing on display here were found along with other artifacts in a tomb containing the mummified body of an unusually tall Mongol woman nicknamed “The Princess Giant.” (From the wall text.)
Eight Thousand Verses (17th cent.). “This 17th century Mongolian manuscript is a translation of the ancient Buddhist text known as the Prajnaparamita Sutra or “The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses,” an important element in Buddhist religious tradition. The continued practice of Buddhism by many Mongolians is a direct result of the religious tolerance implemented by Genghis Khan centuries earlier.” (From the wall label.)
Detail of above. A small painting of the Buddha as an aniconic presence, a tradition begun millennia ago at the site of Sanchi.
The one thing that the ASM does very well, of course, is making an impression. The awe factor didn’t stop at the glass-wrapped atrium, which looks out onto a lotus pond all around, and, beyond that, the rippled surface of Marina Bay stretching away, creating the effect of cascading terraces of wine-dark waters (due acknowledgment to Leonard Sciascia); nor at the glass elevators which, as it bears one up to the upper levels, affords a panoramic view of the surrouding vista, from the glimmering MBS towers, to the sleek latticework of the Helix Bridge, to the Singapore Flyer and the rainbow-hued grandstand of the Float. As a piece of architecture that mythologizes its own ascendancy, its hard to outdo Safdie’s design: the strictly delimited route from the lobby to the elevator and thence to the gallery floors, with little opportunity for deviation, marks out a path where the gaze is allowed – nay, obliged – to assume a position of unrelenting dominance, surveying the landscape from a position of ocular privilege, able to ‘take it all in’ at once. What’s even more amazing is that when those positions are reversed, the structure still retains its supremacy, now adopting a far more unequivocal posture of power over its human occupant instead. The only other spot in the building with an extensive view is in the basement, where glass walls around a central courtyard permit one to peer up along an interior well of support structures towards the skylight, high above, which imposes a worm’s eye vantage point on the viewer. (The building is otherwise pretty much a self-contained, self-regarding cocoon, with little connection to its environment outside.) The commanding perspective in the entrance hall and the elevators is here reversed, yet conveys no less an impression of authority – except of course the architecture has slipped from being complicit in constructing a scopic power play privileging the gaze, to effecting one which subordinates the human factor to the building’s structural guile and sense of self.
One last point: if the museum was a bit lacking in goodwill towards the public, it more than made up for that by proffering a panoply of merchandise for sale in not one, not two, but three gift stores.
There are definitely better ways of spending those 30 smackeroos. Perhaps at an actual museum.
Final verdict ? The image below sez it all.