Posts Tagged ‘Indonesian art’
Study of 3 Thermos Flasks (1991/2), Faizal Fadil. Included in Intersecting Histories. Image courtesy of Postcolonial Web.
The inaugural show at the newly revived Gallery of the School of Art, Design and Media at NTU is Intersecting Histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art.
An exhibition of postwar Southeast Asian art ? Okay, pretty interesting.
One curated by T. K. Sabapathy ? I’m there.
I’m still trying to make up my mind about the show, but in the meantime, the art reviewer for The Straits Times had a couple of pretty interesting opinions about it. In response, a pal – newly befriended, through sheer serendipity – had a response to her piece. Both review and rejoinder are reproduced below.
(Full disclosure: Letter-writer Yvonne Low, a PhD candidate in the Dept. of Art History & Theory at the Uni. of Sydney, is currently researching female artists of Singapore and Indonesia. She is also the author of various articles on SE Asian art, one of which is included in the catalogue for the present show.)
Review, Huang Lijie
History that is skimpy on details
(Huang Lijie, 9 October 2012)
NTU’s exhibition on the turning points in the region’s contemporary art offers little illumination on its choices
The Nanyang Technological University recently announced its ambition to be a major player in South-east Asia’s burgeoning arts scene at the re- opening of its gallery and launch of a new exhibition.
The renovated School of Art, Design and Media gallery was inaugurated with the show, Intersecting Histories. The exhibition sets out to spotlight works of art that mark turning points in the rise and development of contemporary art in the region. The curator is well-known art historian T.K. Sabapathy.
It features 28 artists and 37 works, spanning four decades to the present, from collections such as the Singapore Art Museum and National University of Singapore Museum.
The aspiration of the university and curator to participate in the writing of contemporary art history through the show befits their callings. The university will run the Centre for Contemporary Art, which opens next year at Gillman Barracks and aims to be a world- renowned centre for art residency, research and exhibition. Mr Sabapathy, meanwhile, is co-chair of the advisory committee for the programme at next year’s Singapore Biennale.
Such clarity of vision on ambition, however, is not always evident in the show.
It opens purposefully with works by five artists that date from the 1970s but exude a remarkable sense of the here-and-now in form and content.
It includes Cheo Chai Hiang’s assembly of a found piece of log and a hinged wooden washing board that swings open to reveal in red the repeated phrase, “and miles to go before I sleep”. There is also Redza Piyadasa’s tall coffin-shaped box painted with the Malaysian flag and mirrored on the floor, and Jim Supangkat’s bust of a legendary Javanese queen placed on a plinth with the drawing of a naked female torso and a lower body clad in unzipped jeans that exposes pubic hair.
The curator asserts in the wall text that the works, which also include a painting by Benedicto Cabrera and five photo-etchings by Sulaiman Esa, show qualities of nascent contemporary art practice in South-east Asia.
Yet the reason they qualify as icons and why they were picked can be gleaned only from two oblique sentences in the text. The absence of labels for individual works that explain why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history does the show no favour.
The diligent viewer, though, will be rewarded if he reads the curator’s 32-page essay in the show’s catalogue, which is being printed. The curator posits the works as hallmarks because they are by artists who either individually or as part of a collective, voiced early-on at crucial moments the need for art to stop being a purely aesthetic object defined by rigid artistic principles. The works were also made using alternative mediums and techniques, and they engaged critically with the milieu of the times, traits that distinguish it from previous art.
Works embodying these contemporary concerns are seen in a section focusing on the female body. Nindityo Adipurnomo’s wooden sculptures of traditional hair pieces worn by Javanese women as status symbols open up like jewellery boxes with mirrors under the lids to reveal an assemblage of icons that critique social obsession with sex, superstition and intoxication.
This invitation to peek and ponder is echoed in the mirrors of nearby works by Amanda Heng and Julie Lluch. The gaze that meets Lluch’s wearied, naked female sculpture, however, is introspective while Heng’s mirror on a table under a pair of red divination blocks and dish cover has a more gender-charged view.
This dynamic interplay between works continues in an open-ended segment, which the wall text proposes, explores various themes including the human figure as a symbol of a person’s pained inner psyche and global strife.
A more satisfying approach perhaps, might be to see the works as a myriad of responses to structures of power such as in politics, the art canon and personal desires. This would place Donna Ong’s sublime dioramas in serendipitous conversation with Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s fierce metal scrap warrior. In Ong’s piece, personal desires succumb to fantastical landscapes while Bayu’s sculpture stoicly resists the siege of Westernisation on indigenous identity.
Resonance persists in a standalone section of the gallery, which looks at how artists such as Niranjan Rajah and Ho Tzu Nyen become power brokers through narratives on art and history in their video works.
These intersecting discourses among the many works, which overcrowd the main gallery, highlight ideas in contemporary art. They also show how contemporary art, which is rooted in history, continually redefines itself in creative ways to respond to the present. But it offers little illumination on why themes raised, such as the female body, are pivotal to the development of contemporary art in the region and why the other works, besides those in the opening section, mark critical moments in contemporary art.
The scant wall texts are mum and the essay is not explicit. It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why or how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History And Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
Response, Yvonne Low
A response to review, “History that is skimpy on details”
(Yvonne Low, 17 November 2012)
The following article is written in response to Huang Lijie’s review of the exhibition, Intersecting histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art, held at ADM Gallery, Nanyang Technological University, which was published on 9 October 2012 in the Life! Arts section, The Straits Times.
I read with genuine surprise at the author’s appraisal of the exhibition that opened at the School of Art, Design and Media gallery on 27 September 2012 and guest curated by art historian, T.K. Sabapathy. In her write-up, Huang provided a well-composed and critical description of the exhibition, including an interesting reading of selected works. Her main contention, however, was the lack of clarity in the exhibition’s curatorial design, specifically that there were inadequate content within the signposts – by way of wall-text and labels – to explain why the selected works “qualify as icons and why they were picked” and “why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history”. Though the author referred to the curatorial essay and subsequently proceeded to provide the reasons for the works’ selection as discerned from the text, she insisted that even the essay “is not explicit”:
It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why and how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum, such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History and Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
My encounter with the exhibition turned out to be quite different from the author’s – unsurprisingly, one might say, given my somewhat privileged position where I have not only contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue discussing three of the works on display but also had several opportunities to speak with the curator when the exhibition was still being developed. That said, such “privileges” could hardly have robbed me of my ability to look at the exhibition in its entirety with all the works installed as they are now and to think for myself what to make of it all.
It is quite difficult to not consider the works in a new light given that no two exhibition can be the same; every show will be different in intent if not in configuration. It matters not if seven or seventeen of the works had in fact been shown elsewhere, but it is of how they have been exhibited in relation to other works and how they can be read in the given contexts that should matter.
Even on the outset, it is clear – without needing to read the exhibition catalogue – that this exhibition has a strong pedagogical tenor that undoubtedly sets it apart from all preceding exhibitions on Southeast Asian contemporary art. The exhibition is conceived as a project within an academic institution – a platform, far more conducive than the museum, to encourage if not foster deep and critical thinking on, especially those things that are “problematic”. The limitations of the recently renovated ADM gallery – to hold and show the scale and scope desired of a subject as expansive as Southeast Asian contemporary art – were plain to see. Huang was right about the overcrowded state of the main gallery; what she overlooked was the valiant effort that went in working with the limitations of the gallery and other institutional constraints (the works are afterall borrowed) to give to the audience as inclusive a selection as possible – or at least enough of a selection to generate some meaningful discussion and exploration of the theme and subject “intersecting histories”.
With the exception of two new site-specific creations by Koh Nguang How and Tang Da Wu (works that too were based on previous artworks), all the works on show have in some form or another been exhibited before in the last 40 years in Singapore or elsewhere in the region. Many of them acquired seminal status when they were collected by prominent institutions (and sometimes even before they were collected); these works have been rarified throughout history and in the course of their exhibition and re-exhibition. Yet, rarely have their consecration been subjected to study or examination in this manner.
The point here was precisely to explore the works’ significance and histories – this includes its exhibition history – in the context of Southeast Asian art and art historiography. The sub-themes (the explication of the human form as one example) – some of which Huang herself has shrewdly identified – reflect the investigative concerns that are deeply rooted in the discipline of art history. What the exhibition has shown is that by employing interpretive models (iconography, the study of technique and media, history etc), one may still arrive at multiple, intersecting and insightful perspectives of the contemporary.
Whether this opportunity can be fully appreciated by the Singaporean public is itself a separate issue altogether. If the exhibition has not cast new light to the works, then it would only be because the viewers have chosen to stay in the dark.
The cab ride there, which included two spins down the length of Jalan Cempaka and a couple of mini-tours of the surrounding housing estates, cost me 30 RM. Matching up addresses and topographical reality can be a hazardous business in Kuala Lumpur.
Well worth it though, all things considered.
The House of Matahati, which evolved out of the Matahati collective founded by a group of young Malaysian artists in the late ’80s, is definitely one of the highlights on the KL art circuit (the latter, unfortunately, a rather nondescript one). Its current offering, Drawing a Distance: Drawings from 3 cities, boasts quite a few gems: works from Filipino Victor Balanon’s Dream of the Nameless Hundred series; Indonesian Maryanto’s etchings on photographic paper; Nurrachmat Widyasena’s Each One Was a Hero; Malaysian Lim Keh Soon’s whimsical, macabre little figures, in the spirit of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies perhaps.
Pictures below; enjoy.
Works by Poodien. [left] Brave Old World: Raya Untuk Ravana (2012), charcoal, acrylic & ink on canvas. [right] Brave Old World: Langkapuri Yang Lain, Melarut ufuk, Berpasak Alih (2012), shadow puppet & charcoal on paper.
First, anonymity as a regulatory force, socio-political instrumentalism at its bluntest: “ … an effect of actions taken against a subject by one invested with greater authority or power. This is anonymity as something done to the subject, acts that take what is most recognizable or objectionable about the subject and diffuse or nullify those parts.”
Now, anonymity as a radical response, a re-direction of the otherwise negational act of erasure: “What I am suggesting in this exhibition is a counter possibility, that when faced with this force the subject as glimpsed in this exhibition could take on that anonymity toward altogether different ends. When the anonymity maintains the trace of individuality rather than erase it, for one, or when anonymity is a sign that the subject is not completely whole or human, and therefore not quite within reach of any attempts to normalize it.”
That’s local artist Jason Wee, who curated Subject Shall Remain Anonymous, on his theme of choice. It’s a suasive thesis. The resonances here are varied and urgent: the revelation of intersecting power structures; the expression of subalternity (especially immediate within the context of Southeast Asia, where autocratic regimes of one sort or another are the norm rather than the exception); the possibilities of aesthetic resistance. The title, as a matter of fact, pretty much sums it up. The use of the imperative – the voice of decree – establishes a differential of authority between speaker and audience, and the omission of an article, whether definite or indefinite, functions as a grammatical elision invoking the contingent status of the “subject”. Interposed, then,between the denial of individual agency by oligarchic systems, and the appropriation of such gestures as, antithetically, acts of ownership and self-determination, are the multifarious strategies serving to occlude the artistic object, the effacement, abstraction, deracination, dispersal, withdrawal, material inflection and iconographic negotiation shrouding it in layers of eloquent hidden-ness.
Perhaps the most direct measure here of anonymity and its modalities is the distance from naturalistic representations of the human body – i.e. how the somatic complex, as the consequence of long-held traditions and discourses of verisimilar portraiture, is simultaneously evoked and erased. Take Maya Munoz’s paintings (above, top), for instance: incognito personalities posed against equally unrecognizable backdrops, both figure and ground constituted by trickles, streaks, blotches, and whirling eddies of paint, the legibility of their subject matter receding beneath the barrage of conspicuous mark-making. Or Jeremy Sharma’s rather derivative contributions (above, bottom). While likewise appropriating the idiom of gestural abstraction, their surfaces submitted to an imbroglio of conspicuous brushstrokes and bleeding drips (de Kooning, anyone?), these works extend the trope of anonymity by a doubled act of obfuscation: the subjects, an astronaut and a racer, are individuals masked – literally – by their respective occupations, any suggestion of subjectivity buried by livery, equipment, signs of corporate sponsorship. The person inhabiting the suit is removed twice over from the spectator’s gaze, rendered ambivalent by both attribute (what they wear) and style (how they’re depicted).
Portraiture is often adduced as that most iconic of signs (along with photography, though not without howls of protest in the latter’s case), a system of corporeal representation foregrounding physical and social semblance – i.e. likeness. C. S. Peirce’s semiotic triad of icon-index-symbol has been discussed elsewhere on the pages of this blog, but just by way of a quick recap: the iconic sign-type is largely premised on verisimilitude, the degree of proximity to its real-life referent. Of the icon, Peirce had this to say: “Most icons, if not all, are likenesses of their objects.” Or: “… firstly, Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves …” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) He would go on to qualify this definition – and categorize three different sorts of icons – but more on that later. The point here is, at its most basic (and reductive), Peircean iconicity is established on similitude.
The second sign-type, the index, is predicated on existential contiguities between sign and object. As commonly understood by art historians, the painterly gesture, qua index, is a trace of the artist’s hand that emphasizes its own processual or constitutive nature, rather than being an image grounded in naturalism (unlike the index). Elsewhere, Rosalind Krauss has said of the index: “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents … Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects …” (Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths [MIT Press, 1986].) As signs that exist “along the axis of a physical relationship”, indices are marks (like footprints) that act as material indicators of their origins (the foot that made it). One of the primary mechanisms of the semiotic process here, then – Peirce identified several more – is that of cause and effect.
Harold Rosenberg, c. 1950. Image from Archives of American Art.
Clement Greenberg, in 1978. Image from this UW-Milwaukee site.
It is in the break between the iconic (representational mimesis) and the indexical (a-referential action-ism) that the works of Munoz and Sharma locate their various configurations of dis-identification. As Wee notes, anonymity, as a response to the depredations of hegemonic networks rather than being a mere effect of said incursions, operates most cogently when it “maintains the trace of individuality rather than [completely] eras-[ing] it.” Put another way: these paintings of rubbed-out individuals, clad in everyday attire like jeans or veiled behind helmets and buried in hi-tech gear, may seem to proscribe the sort of subjective, iconic specificity afforded by realist portraiture, the departure from verisimilitude dovetailing with notions of social marginalization. Yet the sort of pictorial delineations here function also in the way of indexicality: while retaining the broad contours of figural description, they also employ the sort of vigorous, assertive, dynamic brushwork associated with action painting.* Or, in Harold Rosenberg’s words: “The innovation of Action Painting was to dispense with the representation of the state in favor of enacting it in physical movement. The action on the canvas became its own representation.” (Italics mine.) The self-evident, self-defining gestures of the Abstract Expressionists – to use the label appropriated by Greenberg, who, famously, disagreed with Rosenberg’s characterization – channeled by the present paintings belie the understanding of facelessness as powerlessness, anonymity as anomie. Quite simply, the energy and the authority conveyed by the brushstrokes (as indexical signs) contradict the impression of invisibility (in the iconic register), restoring to the otherwise obliterated, undistinguished subject on the surface of the canvas a sense of puissance.
* It’s perhaps not uninteresting that, apropos of artists working in the year 2012, explicatory recourse is still being had to paradigms established 60 years ago. (Rosenberg’s piece, “The American Action Painters”, was first published in 1952.) Failure of critical response (mine), or artistic imagination (theirs) ?
Yet, even within the conceptual framework of the show – of anonymity as criticality – works like Munoz’s and Sharma’s seem … the least compelling.
The interruption of a mimetic pictorial syntax by the sort of gestural inflections discussed above are utilized to similar effect by various other pieces as well: Mella Jaarsma’s melding of synthetic Cubist forms and Orientalist motifs (Protectors of Candi Suku III; above, top); Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s depiction of a man’s back, the enclosing space thick with a mesh of charcoal pencil-lines (Reclining Figure #13; above, middle); the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t faces of Vincent Leow’s figures (above, bottom). Deviating from the tropes of iconic representationalism seems the most straightforward process of constituting the anonymous – and, by dint of that fact, the most unexciting as well. If anything, those inclusions here which lend themselves less immediately to claims of visual anonymity offer precisely the richest examples of that very proposition. The show, in fact, opens with a classic instance of traditional portraiture, a painting of a nameless young woman (below, top) being the first work in the gallery the viewer encounters:
This exhibition started with a mystery. The gallerist Tolla Sloane showed me a painting by Doris Duke, a commercial portraitist who worked in Malaya and died in Singapore in 1967, who was also Tolla’s grandmother. The portrait ‘Girl in Pink’ was finished in 1955 for an exhibition for the Women Artists of Malaya group, which included Georgette Chen among others. The Malay girl in the painting was not named in any of the exhibition documents in Tolla’s possession, and though we suspected that some of the other artists in that exhibition may have painted the same teenage model, we could not find her likeness elsewhere, at least not in what we saw of Chen’s and her contemporaries’ paintings from those years. She remained a nameless cipher for the ambitions of others …
(Jason Wee, “Subject Shall Remain Anonymous”, in the accompanying catalogue.)
Duke’s Girl in Pink, at first glance, is that which many of its fellows in the show are not: an expressive, suggestive depiction of an individual, rendered with the specificity of detail appropriate to the work of a professional portrait painter ? (Which Duke was, according to the brief bio in the exhibition booklet.) The figure’s softly-limned features, the coy, downcast gaze and ever-so-slightly parted lips; her quaint braids, and the pink ribbons, and the wispy peach-hued blouse with its snow-white collar; the edge of a painting behind her set into an edge of the painting – the cumulative effect is one of class and culture, gentle breeding and gracious manners. So much for the immediately expressive. What the painting suggests, while less discernable, is no less interesting nor significant: a girl of her race and (presumably) religion in 1950s Malaya – the fledgling federation then a mere two years away from full independence – with uncovered head and open neck, sitting for a portrait. The question, of course, is one of wider social mores, of the particular historico-geographical moment in which the image is moored: did Malay-Muslim girls of her age and class, in 1955, wear these things, do these things ? If it’s fair to assume that they generally did not, what sort of inferences may be drawn about the sitter ? Does the deliberate aura of refinement and breeding – of a certain socio-economic class and its prerogatives, in other words – serve to set her apart in more ways than one, and what, if anything, does that say about social differentiation and the practice of Islam in the Merdeka era ?
Grand-sounding claims. The litany of issues above, though, ultimately fails to take into account a crucial point: whether the painting was a commissioned portrait, or posed for by a hired model (as Wee suggests). And it is in that sense, of a fundamental ontological instability, that the girl in pink remains as much an enigma to us as, say, Munoz’s obscured bodies. The portrait may situate itself within a discourse of representational image-making, of pictures as signs that resemble their real-world referents, but, imbricated as it is within a web of contextual uncertainties, the unanswered questions of just who the girl was, and the circumstances of Duke’s painting of her, render the work a deracinated likeness of no one, a signifier of anonymity rather than identity. To return to the idea of the icon: Peirce would go on qualified the concept in a more specific fashion, noting that “An icon is a sign which would possess the character which renders it significant, even though its object had no existence; such as a lead-pencil streak as representing a geometrical line.” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) In other words, likeness, as it concerns iconicity, is not predicated on actual existence; rather, the resemblance may relate to completely imaginary objects or to ideas (e.g. geometry) instead. An icon, then, may operate along the lines of visual similitude without gesturing at any particular object existing in reality – as, of course, Duke’s girl in pink does here, a nomadic sign anchored to an indeterminate, evacuated entity.
I like the idea of recuperating the anonymous underside of portraiture – itself a kind of intellectual agency. The issue perhaps becomes particularly acute at the intersection of History (with the capital ‘H’) and subjectivity, as is the case here. I think T. J. Clark put it best: “Class is a name, I take it, for that complex and determinate place we are given in the social body; it is the name for everything which signifies that a certain history lives us, lends us our individuality.” (Italics mine; see The Painting of Modern Life [Knopf, 1985].)
Ang Sookoon’s Love is like a chunk of gold (below, bottom), the sole sculptural piece included in the show, makes for a wonderfully apropos note on which to end. The artist introduced a solution of phosphoric acid into a loaf of bread, causing crystals to sprout, and then encased the entire object in resin. The final product looks rather like a mutant cephalopod.
It just sits in its little plastic case, coolly, calmly, self-possessed; it is also the one work here which simply jettisons any form of reference to the human body at all. Non-existence – the most radical form of anonymity ?
Here is scholar of the sartorial, Anne Hollander, on the material existence of clothes:
Dress has not only no social but also no significant aesthetic existence unless it is actually being worn. Western sartorial relics on display simply do not have the artistic status of antique vases and cabinets. Half their beauty is obviously missing. This is true not just if they are displayed unworn, but always, simply because they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners …… Concepts of design and feats of workmanship survive, along with indications of social attitudes, economic conditions, and so on. But a vase in a museum has a completeness to offer the eye that a dress never has, though both may be breathtakingly made according to artistic standards of equal altitude.
(From Hollander’s classic study, Seeing Through Clothes.)
Unworn clothing, or dress, then, as an inert physicality, un-activated as social or aesthetic fact by the animating force of a body.
Now these – at the SAM’s latest offering, The Collectors Show: Chimera - bodies missing, effaced, obscured, abstracted:
First, Filipino artist Patricia Eustaquio’s Psychogenic Fugue (below), on loan from collector Marcel Crespo (son of former Filipino Congressman, Mark Jimenez). A piano cover, an expanse of cream-coloured lace, is set over a missing piano, its evacuated, vacant interior illuminated by several spotlights. The armature of the piece is provided by the simple means of a hardened thermoplastic resin, which moulds the fabric from beneath into a phantasmal non-presence – evoked, named, but always already displaced. As the label observes: “Delicate in detail and haunting in its hollowness, this ghostly shroud calls attention to its absent object, poignantly emphasising its loss.”
Another contribution by a Filipino artist: Yasmin Sison’s Orange Madonna (below), from the collection of one Dr. George Soo. The painting’s central figures are, literally, dis-figured. The minor iconographic tradition of the Virgin and Holy Infant in a grove of orange trees – one of the more famous examples of which remains Cima de Conegliano’s late 15th century treatment of the subject – is here given an update by the clearly visible contemporary wear. More to the point, however, is the salient effacement of the figures, the painted surface where their faces should be reduced to a muddied soup of chaotic brushstrokes and chromatic confusion, explicitly negating the dimensions of mimesis and iconicity.
The title of Yayoi Kusama’s installation, Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets 2/10 (below), speaks for itself. Courtesy of Lito and Kim Camacho, a replica of the Venus de Milo is set against a flat background, both rendered in Kusama’s trademark “infinity nets” (a pattern of reiterated dots), binding object and setting in a virtually indistinguishable homogeneity. To quote theorist Roger Caillois on what he termed “legendary psychasthenia”, or the phenomenon of a subject psychologically identifying with or becoming absorbed into a physical space:
It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself …… The feeling of personality, considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these circumstances to be seriously undermined; one then enters into the psychology of psychasthenia, and more specifically legendary psychasthenia, if we agree to use this name for the disturbance in the above relations between personality and space.
(Qtd. in Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny.)
The body is here, the artist flatly states, obliterated, the object visually subsumed as an image of the subject in a state of destabilizing psycho-spatial collapse.
Finally, Indonesian Entang Wiharso’s The Unspeakable Victim – The Story Behind Superhero and Black Goat Colony (#3) (below), from the collection of Hugh Young. The work is one in a series of similar metal-plate sculptures, resembling, in their broad figural contours, paper cutouts, or the cast shadows of wayang kulit puppets. The rather obscure narratives conjured by the artist aren’t the point here; what is apropos is the evocation of the wayang: “… you have to understand the wayang – the scared shadow play … Their shadows are souls, and the screen is heaven. You must watch the shadows, not the puppets.” (A quote from Peter Weir’s 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, based on C. J. Koch’s novel of the same name.) Orientalist melodrama aside, the wayang in its performative dimension indeed provides a ready analogue for the abstracted corporeal complex as Wiharso envisions it. The appropriation of the silhouette as a formal strategy, rather than the puppets themselves, in all their intricate detail, suggests a double dislocation here: the shadow as a Platonic un-reality, a cave of fleeting illusions, which the art of the wayang encodes into its very praxis; and Wiharso’s spare, bare forms, the body submitted to a specific mode of erasure.
A return to where we started from: Hollander’s claim that the unworn dress is an incomplete prosthesis of the wearer. If that notion may be analogized to accommodate the artwork-collector complex – the effaced body, so prevalent here, as an intimation of the missing, crucial, animating force that supposedly provides the conceptual glue which brings together the various strands of contemporary art praxis on display, or, in other words, the individual collector and the determining aesthetics of particular collections and tastes – then the shortcomings of the show become glaringly obvious, “simply because”, as Hollander puts it, “they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners.”
After all, Chimera bills itself as “a tribute to the art patrons of today, the exhibition offers an insight into the breadth and richness of private art collections, introducing visitors to the personal visions and passions that shape them.”
Where, then, are these ‘personal visions and passions”, beyond the parade of names that mean little to general art-viewing public – Crespo, Soo, Camacho, Young, among so many others that soon begin to blur one into another ? Those function here simply as a placeholder for the act of semantic truancy, the organizing principle claimed but, for all effective purpose, occluded. Or to reiterate the abovementioned – “evoked, named, but always already displaced.”
The artwork as static and inert as an article of dress removed from the absent anatomy; the gesture of the hollowed-out body as an analogue of that missing element which serves as the ersatz foundation of the exhibition, a presence alluded to but ceaselessly deferred – the Collector.
It was all so .. deracinated.
A tribute of sorts this show certainly is, but what to ? The power of individual collectors possessed of the necessary resources ? The readiness of an institution to genuflect ? The ingenuity of the curator ? The cosy network of connections which sutures the art industry and the socio-economic elite ? Or perhaps the creed of convenience, the exhibition as an easy, fail-safe showcase of the snazziest examplars of contemporary Asian art, a blatantly transparent attempt to wow both collector and peasant alike, the latter especially who should be grateful for the opportunity to view such remarkable pieces accessible otherwise only to the privilege of (superfluous) capital and private property.
Consider me grateful.
Part three coming up soon. (That’s the interesting one.)
Watch this space.
Still trying to finish up my review of the Amanda Heng show at 8Q, and it’s getting long …
Anyways. Artwork of the day: Indonesian artist Samsul Arifin’s You Can See series (2010), a pair of gowns stitched together from numerous little dolls – nude, faceless, vulnerable, seemingly abject.
They’re beautiful and creepy all at once. From afar, they resemble the sort of lavish wedding frocks you see all the time, with ribbons, rosettes, frills and what-have-you; up close, they reveal themselves to be quite another sort of visual experience altogether, their tactile immediacy and motific outlandishness presenting a sly, subversive shock to the system.
Two thumbs up.
A review of the APB Prize that I penned for local arts e-zine, The Muse, titled And the Award Goes to the Dullest Painting in the Room.
I mean every word of it.
The Turner Prize has been on my mind, mostly because of the fiasco that was the recent APBF (Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation) Signature Art Prize.
Yes, I’m calling it a fiasco.
I penned a short piece on the topic for a local arts e-zine – I’ll put a link up if and when that appears – but suffice to say that what was probably the most uninspired work in the shortlist ended up walking away with the grand prize, and 45,000 smackeroonies.
I suppose the undeserved win was one thing, but reading the laudatory notices the day after was plenty icky too. (You know who you are.)
In any case, it got me to thinking about the Turner, which prides itself on recognizing the best of cutting-edge contemporary work; in reality, of course, that just ends up causing a whole lot of fuss and noise and, oftentimes, outright fury. There was Martin Creed’s win in 2001 for his empty room where the lights went on and off (painter Jacqueline Crofton was so incensed she egged its walls), and Chris Ofili’s for his elephant dung painting (someone left a heap of manure on the Tate’s steps in protest), and, of course, the annual Stuckist demonstration. Now, I’m not an advocate of controversy for its own sake, but the APBF’s choice this year was simply tragic, a freakish, contrapuntal demonstration of how anodyne and pointless contemporary art can be when stripped of all that it does best – provoking dissent, stirring debate, being irreverent and critical and inscrutable and confrontational all at once …
So I borrowed an idea from the K Foundation: in 1993, these pranksters awarded the anti-Turner Prize prize to the “worst artist of the year”, Rachel Whiteread, who, un-coincidentally, was also that year’s Turner laureate. (Read about the whole hilarious affair here.)
In that spirit, I thought perhaps an Anti-Signature Art Prize Prize was called for.
My pick: Jompet Kuswidananto’s Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria.
Indonesian artist Kuswidananto’s piece made it to the APBF longlist this year, but no further. Earlier, it was featured in the SAM’s show, It’s Now or Never Part II: New Contemporary Art Acquisitions from Southeast Asia. That was a pretty small exhibition, boasting some twelve works by regional artists, but some of it was spectacular. And the most dramatic and dazzling of the lot was Java’s Machine (below). The piece consists of a regiment of phantom soldiers, their existence as corporeal entities constituted solely by attire, implement and gesture. While these spectral presences, plugged into a power grid, banged on their drums and intoned a staccato, rhythmic chorus, footage of what looked to be antiquated machinery in operation, and a man performing a slow dance against a backdrop of sugarcane fields, played on the walls – soundtrack overlapping soundtrack, organic movement juxtaposed with automated action, deferred performativity set against immediate sensorial experience.
Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria, Jompet Kuswidananto.
The effect was quite breathtaking.
According to the wall label:
This installation by an emerging Indonesian artist, Jompet Kuswidananto, leaves an indelible impression on the viewer with its scale and audio-visual experience of an encounter with a phantom Javanese royal army. The phantom soldiers in ceremonial procession are clad in Dutch military headgear and Javanese warrior costume in the style of the early 19th century. Accompanied by western percussion based upon Javanese rhythm, the work comments on the syncretic nature of Javanese culture today.
Multisensorial appeal is big in contemporary art these days; it isn’t just about “visuality” anymore. Jompet’s piece, with its ordered phalanx of absent bodies beating out an incantatory, throbbing beat in the otherwise mute space of the gallery, quite literally overwhelms and enraptures the senses; like the verse in the Song of Songs which sings “Thou art beautiful, O my love … terrible as an army with banners”, it unnerves, transfixes, enthralls – an irresistible, visceral force.
High praise, I know, but I was very taken with it.
So, congrats, Mr. Kuswidananto, on your imaginary prize. It’s just one lone voice out here in the vastness of cyberspace, but still a start, hey ?
Secluded in the hushed, verdant, bug-colonized environs of Fort Canning is the ASEAN Sculpture Garden.
The tiny park, which houses six outdoor works by artists from various SE Asian nations, commemorates a little-remembered slice of regional art history: the ASEAN Sculpture Symposium. It was convened by ASEAN COCI, the organization’s Committee on Culture and Information, in 1981, with the first ever conference taking place that year in Singapore:
ASEAN Sculpture Symposium. With the aim of promoting a sense of community among sculptors of member countries whose works of art will be visible symbols of regional cooperation, COCI held its first symposium in Singapore from March 27 to May 10, 1981. Five distinguished sculptors from the member countries worked under one roof where they discussed, shared and learned from one another to produce a group of five magnificent five-meter tall sculptures displayed at Singapore’s Fort Canning Park. The Indonesian sculptor contributed a copper plate sculpture called “Unity”; Malaysia, a fibreglass work called “Taning Sari” [sic]; the Philippines, a reinforced concrete cast of an unfinished boat called “Fredesvinda”; Thailand, steel plates combination called “Concentration” and Singapore, a rising balance of circular and cylindrical shapes called “Balance”. The entire symposium has been documented on film by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
(Quote from this page.)
I haven’t seen the SBC docu, nor is it available on Youtube the last time I checked. (<lol> Talk about retro power: I haven’t heard the name SBC since .. well, the days when Duncan Watt used to read the news. Anyone remember him?) In any case, the ASEAN Sculpture Symposium lasted six summits, with the last conference taking place in 1989 at the CCP in Manila. The Singapore sculptures were unveiled the year after the Fort Canning symposium – a sixth piece, Together, by Bruneian artist Osman Bin Mohammad, was added to the flock after the Sultanate’s full independence and subsequent ASEAN membership.
Here’s the question, though: what happened to the Taming Sari sculpture (below), which was Malaysia’s original contribution to the project ? I haven’t been able to discover much about it online — not even the name of the artist.* It seems to have been replaced with the current work, Augury (below), by Anthony Lau, in 1988, at the same time that Osman’s piece was introduced.
* Update: Never mind that. The artist in question is Ariffin Mohammed Ismail. See “Asean Sculptors to Display Their Works”, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 1981 (archived here).
Another one for the history detectives.
Not me, though. <lol> I’m done ferreting around.
The other works in the ASEAN Sculpture Garden:
Politics and History in Recent Southeast Asian Contemporary Art, an article penned by locally-based freelance curator and critic Iola Lenzi, appeared in the November 2010 issue of Asian Art.
Its an interesting piece. While socio-political themes in contemporary SE Asian art is not exactly a phenomenon unheard of, it’s definitely a bit more of a rarity in Singapore’s case – which is why the Beyond LKY show at Valentine Willie Fine Art in August last year raised a couple of eyebrows. Not just for the explicitly irreverent theme, which featured several less-than-hagiographic depictions of Lee Kuan Yew, but for the fact that official reaction was decidedly muted. (That not always having been the case hereabouts …) I missed it, but Lenzi discusses at length the more cogent pieces that were included. Some of her judgments seem a tad off-base to me, but otherwise this piece deals seriously with a topic that doesn’t see the light of day much in local publications.
Works mentioned by Lenzi are reproduced at the end of the post. The original article is archived here.
Politics and History in Recent Southeast Asian Contemporary Art
Singapore is not known for socio-political art, either that of others, or the homegrown variety. Yet much of the most compelling contemporary art coming out of Southeast Asia in recent decades examines society, nation, and history. Despite institutional Singapore’s past resistance to these themes, exhibitions engaging with politics and its various subtexts are now less exceptional in the city-state.
Three recent shows dedicated to political issues were put-up in quick succession last summer. The first, Making History: How Southeast Asian Art Reconquers the Past to Conjure the Future, was a six-country, seven-artist exhibition curated by your correspondent at Singapore’s Esplanade, the state-owned, non-profit performing arts centre. Gallery-goer intervention figured prominently in Making History, a majority of pieces seeking an active response from audiences as a means of reminding them of their ownership of history. Alwin Reamillo’s grand piano installation Mang Emo + Mah-Himo Grand Piano Project (3rd Movement: Manila-Fremantle-Singapore), by begging players, involved audiences in its narrative of national history, personal loss, and renewal. Vietnamese artist Khanh Bui also wove personal experience into the fabric of his site-specific drawing and photography montage The Past Moved. Critiquing Vietnam’s blind drive toward urban modernization, Bui’s charcoal-drawn photographer’s studio backdrop represented an untidy Saigon street slated for demolition to make way for a gleaming tower block. Calling viewers in for a sitting and so co-opting them into the piece’s voyeuristic peek at nostalgia in the making, the work recalled that history, even in politically repressive Vietnam, is about voice and choice. As a foreign-born artist firmly anchored in Java, Yogyakarta-based Mella Jaarsma makes art about shifting socio-cultural perspectives. For Making History she presented a costume installation Dirty Hands that back-lit, used shadow and projection to recount Indonesia’s colonial past from a new perspective, suggesting the violence perpetrated by history after the fact.
Other participants were Thai artist Vasan Sitthiket, Burma’s Nge Lay, and the two Singaporeans Tang Da Wu and Green Zeng. Sitthiket, a political activist as well as visual artist, evoked the bloody confrontations between Thailand’s Red and Yellow shirts and the battle for the Mekong in a new series of mural-sized works, his message that everyone is responsible for history. Veteran contemporary practitioner Tang Da Wu and filmmaker Green Zeng both examined slices of Singapore history. The former, selecting anecdotes and landmarks from Singapore’s past, transposing them into the future as a means of posing a critical eye on the sacrifice of liberty made in the name of Singapore’s post-colonial development. Zeng, in Malayan Exchange, printed Singapore money that in featuring people labeled as subversives by the government ruling 1960s Singapore, elliptically asked viewers to question official histories, seek alternative truths, and form their own judgment about the implications of post-colonial nation-building.
Though seldom included in Southeast Asian surveys, art from Burma appears increasingly on the regional radar. Nge Lay, a young artist living in Rangoon, contributed a new photographic sequence that superimposed her own history onto that of her country. The Relevancy of Restricted Things, with a few rapid frames, depicted groups of masked villagers whose dignity, longing, solidarity, frailty and endurance came to the fore as they faced the physically and psychologically oppressive life that is the lot of the Burmese today.
The exhibition culminated in a symposium that placed artists and curator at the heart of a public debate about the implications of the construction of national identity and history. Well-attended, the symposium demonstrated how these subjects, with their underlying reference to current politics, are losing their taboo status in Singapore.
A second exhibition, openly political and timed to coincide with Singapore’s August 9 National Day – flags appear in their thousands all over the island – was put up by Valentine Willie Fine Art.
The show, called Singapore Survey 2010: Beyond LKY, included over 30 works by 19 artists and was as lofty in physical scale as it was in suggestion. For anyone familiar with Singapore knows, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew embodies the 45-year-old republic and the mere mention of the man is enough to inspire awe and curiosity in citizens and residents alike. What then of Beyond LKY’s content and what could Singapore artists say about that unmentioned subject, the future of Singapore after MM Lee’s demise?
The show, with its variations in artistic quality, provided an illuminating glimpse of the generational and ideological differences cleaving the Singapore art scene, and went some way to explaining the direction of recent local art history. More compelling than much of the art, and undoubtedly in Willie’s mind when he came up with his survey concept, was the testing of Singapore’s tolerance of taboo as well as of her artists’ ability to think and create outside the clearly drawn boundaries that most have grown up with where home-politics are concerned. In Singapore, still today, though change is palpable, the public airing of critical thinking remains as problematic as the Minister Mentor’s death.
Willie’s theme posed an undeniable challenge with its inherent allusion to unquestioned authority, power, history, nation, future, and morbidity. What transpired was that while some practitioners had the mettle and sophistication required to fully respond to the curatorial premise, others stayed in their comfort zones, shy of tackling a subject that could only be apprehended with a questioning eye and an open and independent mind.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the older and better-travelled participants produced the most satisfying art. Theirs were not the visually facile, mock-subversive pieces that have been spied in Singapore recently, but instead thoughtful, sometimes nearly wistful works mixing an understanding of the weight of history and a genuine engagement with nation, present and future, however critical their message. Not coincidentally, these practitioners tended to be of the generation that remembers Singapore’s art scene before it became a quasi-business, with grants and public patronage the sole trophies of success.
The work of old hands Jimmy Ong, Tang Da Wu, Jason Lim, and Zai Kuning stood out for its acuity and visual command. Jimmy Ong’s 2010 LKY as Mother & Daughter, rendered in the artist’s signature charcoal on paper, was one of the show’s most intelligent and conceptually far-reaching pieces. The drawing, presenting two tussling nude figures, was no different from many Ong studies. But its allusion to gender change – only a superficial reading could reduce its meaning to one of mere sexual orientation – invited viewers to ponder a radical rethink of Singapore from the inside out.Yet if the piece was subversive in its call to change, it did not antagonise, Ong’s placing MM Lee in the role of mother (he is traditionally referred to as the nation’s father) a gesture of tenderness rather than irony. This intimacy between artist and subject went further, LKY also occupying the vulnerable role of fallible daughter. If the daughter is fragile and inexperienced, she is also human, thus suggested the drawing, entitled to be judged with some benevolence by history. More obliquely, and here was the piece’s ambiguously phrased subtext, imperfect as the daughter may be, she represents the future and thus, with all her flaws, liberation from the past. Taking stock of the power of history, Ong also hinted that Singapore might never be free of its past and that LKY, incarnating both mother and daughter, must somehow go on for ever. Jimmy Ong’s LKY as Mother & Daughter, about power, the possibility of change, and the necessity of confronting history-to-be as a direct product of the past, encapsulated the exhibition’s multi-layered concept.
Another stand-out work was Green Zeng’s second version of Malayan Exchange, first shown in grander scale in Making History. Adorning Zeng’s version of Singapore paper currency were images of James Puthucheary and Lim Hok Siew, two Singapore political outcasts of the early 1960s whose voices were suppressed by exile and incarceration under Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP government. Cerebral rather than gratuitously provocative, the work proposed an alternative vision of Singapore, the city-state at last transcending the monolithic political culture that has defined its post-independence years.
Other works were less committed in tone, and though addressing aspects of Singapore life, failed to capture the nuances of the exhibition theme. But with a show such as this one, singular thus far in the context of Singapore and daring in its invitation to use art as a vehicle for testing the socio-political status quo, the question posed was more important than the answers given.
A third exhibition featured recent wood-block prints on fabric by the Javanese Muhamad Yusuf. Also at Valentine Willie Singapore, running in tandem with Beyond LKY, this Indonesian show titled Indonesia and I was testament to the archipelago’s artists’ continuing ability to perfectly mesh socio-political critique and sure expressive command of form and medium.
A founding member of the Yogyakarta-based activist collective Taring Padi, a group established in the late 1990s at the end of the oppressive Suharto regime, Yusuf has remained faithful to art as a motor of social change. At odds with the pictorially slick and conceptually vacuous paintings in all manner of styles currently being churned out of Javanese studios to satisfy auction-house demand, Yusuf’s prints are as thoughtful in narrative as they are virtuous in composition. In the lineage of Yogyakarta’s many decades of politically-committed practices that defend pluralism and individual freedom, Yusuf here examines environmental problems, women’s rights, ethnic diversity, food-chain issues, labour law and much more. Their form springing out of local political-banner and vernacular woodcut tradition, the 20 exhibited pieces, with irony, wit and a good dose of optimism coupled with Yusuf’s critically engaged eye, successfully presented 21st-century Indonesia in all her complexity.
These three exhibitions, though quite different in content and curatorial thrust, all provided snapshots of socio-political reality in Southeast Asia today. In a region where political and social emancipation are gaining momentum, visual art is being used actively as a tool for progress. Staged in Singapore, these shows augur well for a new climate of expressive openness and candour in the city-state.
Making History: How Southeast Asian Art Reconquers the Past to Conjure the Future was from 14 May to 27 June 2010 at Jendela Visual Arts Space, Esplanade, Singapore and Singapore Survey 2010: Beyond LKY Indonesia and I was from 5 to 29 August 2010 at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Singapore.