Posts Tagged ‘Japanese art’
The Gillman Barracks opens in September.
For those who can’t wait, a detailed write-up in The Straits Times today.
The final price tag ? – ten million big ones. Gotta love Singapore.
ENGINEERED FOR THE ARTS
Will the planning of Gillman Barracks arts hub by the government stifle or help the arts in Singapore?
By Adeline Chia. Published February 16, 2012.
The vision for the Gillman Barracks is a brave and ambitious one: a cluster of top art galleries from around the world, housed in quaint historical buildings nestled in leafy surrounds.
The art on show is a mixture of the cutting edge and the established, including A-list artists such as Takeshi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Annie Leibovitz.
It aims to draw visitors from the jetsetting art collector to the window- shopping man on the street. In other words: ‘an iconic international destination for contemporary art in Asia’, according to the official literature.
Gillman Barracks is the bold new step in Singapore’s continuous march to become a global arts city – by building an arts district akin to Beijing’s 798 Art District, South Korea’s Heyri Art Village or New York’s Chelsea.
The difference is that these art districts abroad have sprung up naturally while Gillman is a government-led project. Its development is planned by the Economic Development Board, Jurong Town Corporation and the National Arts Council at a cost of about $10 million.
In the past few years, Singapore has grown pretty serious about contemporary visual art.
Two international art fairs, the high-end Art Stage Singapore and the mid-priced Affordable Art Fair, have taken off. International galleries have also started moving in, such as Art Plural Gallery opened by Swiss art dealer Frederic De Senarclens.
In terms of arts infrastructure, things are buoyed by the development of the $80-million Singapore Freeport, a storage space for art, with international auction house Christie’s as the main tenant.
In 2015, there is another biggie: the much-anticipated opening of The National Art Gallery, a 60,000 sq m gallery that will be housed in the City Hall and the former Supreme Court buildings. The institution will focus on South-east Asian art and its renovations will cost an estimated $530 million.
With Gillman Barracks, scheduled to open with a bang in September with all the galleries ready for business, Singapore’s art race goes into turbo mode. But even before the cluster throws open its doors, sceptics are asking if it is possible to engineer an arts hub, Singapore-style, by using a committee to choose a winning combination of tenants.
Thirteen galleries form the first wave of tenants in the former colonial army barracks located off Alexandra Road.
They include Ota Fine Arts, representing Japanese superstar artist Yayoi ‘polka dot’ Kusama; Sundaram Tagore Gallery, carrying the works of Leibovitz and American abstract painter Frank Stella; and ShanghART Gallery, representing top Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi.
The galleries are supposed to pay commercial rates and those approached by Life! said they have not been given discounts or other monetary incentives to set up shop here. In a call for applicants released by the Economic Development Board last year, rental rates were cited as between $31.50 and $35.50 a sq m a month.
Most arts observers welcome the list of galleries in Gillman. Mr Wang Zineng, 30, a South-east Asian specialist at Christie’s, calls it ‘an exciting mix that promotes inter-Asian interactions and conversations’.
But he is worried about the ‘long-term sustainability of the project’. ‘In any such project, there is seed money. After that money is spent, what happens? The commercial viability remains a question.’
A challenge is overcoming the ‘saturation of the art market in Asia’, including Hong Kong’s buzzing commercial art scene and the India Art Fair. ‘There are a lot of art fairs and auctions around. How do you sustain the interest of collectors?’ he adds.
Prominent Malaysian gallerist Valentine Willie, 57, is blunt in his assessment: ‘In a sense, Gillman has already failed.’
He owns four galleries in South-east Asia under the Valentine Willie Fine Art name.
‘Places such as Chelsea and 798 grew as a result of a need or a demand. Here, the Government is manufacturing the demand,’ he says.
He points to Hong Kong, where rents are exorbitant and yet the city attracts top-shelf international galleries such as London’s White Cube, whose roster includes well-known British contemporary artists Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and Gagosian Gallery, a supergallery chain owned by influential American dealer Larry Gagosian.
Mr Willie says: ‘No government was there to give you some nice old buildings. Hong Kong is just where the action is. You can’t manufacture that. EDB of all agencies should understand basic economics: you can’t manufacture demand.’
He adds that the Economic Development Board should instead help existing arts clusters such as Artspace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark, a 70,000 sq ft warehouse space owned by Helutrans, an arts handling firm.
The Singapore branch of Mr Willie’s gallery is situated there, together with three other galleries: Galerie Steph, Ikkan Art International and ReDot Fine Art Gallery.
He says: ‘Instead of trying to harness the energy of an existing hub and helping it, they are trying to kill it. It’s unfair competition.’
Another Artspace@Helutrans tenant has a different view. Japanese art dealer and gallerist Ikkan Sanada, 61, who moved his long-standing New York base to Singapore, says: ‘I don’t believe in government intervention, especially in art.’
But he says that sometimes some initial help can ‘kick off arts activity’.
He opened his gallery in May last year and shows works by top names such as photographer Cindy Sherman, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and British ‘bad boy’ Damien Hirst.
He says: ‘I welcome the Gillman Barracks. It provides a diversity of galleries, which is good for the arts community.’
He says that the next two to three years will be crucial in testing the commercial viability of the cluster.
‘While the market can be influenced and improved by initial investment, you can’t control or force the public to start buying art. If the buyers don’t come and sales don’t materialise, then some galleries may have to leave. We have to wait and see.’
An EDB spokeman says that the Gillman Barracks was chosen as a venue because, according to industry feedback, ‘a successful arts cluster should have unique architectural and/or historical characteristics’.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority then proposed the Gillman site because of its 14 low-rise military-style buildings and lush green surroundings. The entire development will yield 9,000 sq m of space for lease, with a tenancy term of three years with an option to extend for another three years.
Dr Eugene Tan, 38, programme director of EDB’s Lifestyle Programme Office who is overseeing the Gillman Barracks’ development, says that it was necessary for the Government to step in to ‘address the failures of the open market’ to develop a successful arts cluster.
‘Many arts clusters which have been left to develop freely by private developers have succumbed to short-term pressures to lease spaces to the highest bidder,’ he says.
As a result, art businesses are priced out by high-end bars and restaurants.
‘This issue is particularly pressing in land-scarce Singapore. As many commercial tenants compete aggressively on price, there are limited options for emerging clusters of art businesses to grow organically over the long term.’
He adds that Gillman Barracks is not modelled after any particular arts cluster abroad.
The Gillman galleries certainly buy into his dream. Many of them say that they have chosen Singapore to be closer to their South-east Asian clients, and because Singapore is an emerging centre for the thriving art market in Asia.
Mr Ota Hidenori, 52, whose Tokyo- based Ota Fine Arts is opening its first 108 sq m outpost in Singapore, says: ‘Singapore is just starting out and I want to be one of the first players here.’
His gallery carries the work of artists such as Kusama and video artist Hiraki Sawa.
He says Singapore is a good base to tap into the booming art market in Asia, given its multi-cultural identity and the quality of its public museums and arts professionals.
New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore, who owns an eponymous chain of galleries in New York, Beverly Hills and Hong Kong, also believes in Singapore as an emerging arts hub. Its central location in Asia leaves it well-poised to tap into his collector base from Dubai to Australia. His gallery space in Gillman is about 4,500 sq ft.
The 52-year-old says that his gallery was not given any financial incentive, but the power of EDB ‘collectively marketing’ the Gillman Barracks as a serious arts cluster with a strong roster of galleries is attractive to him.
As for the place being master planned, he says: ‘Singapore doesn’t have the benefit of history, unlike the great centres of art such as New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo. When you are trying to create things speedily, you need a stimulus. Here it happens to be the Government. If you wait for organic development, you could be waiting forever.’
ShanghART’s Swiss director Lorenz Helbling, who is in his 50s, says that he decided to come into Singapore because it is an ‘emerging, interesting place’.
‘So many cultures come together here. As a market, I don’t know how bright it is. Who knows? But most of the time, we don’t do things for commercial interest. It’s difficult to know what collectors want. We just do our bit and hope that collectors follow.’
ShanghART is one of the most influential galleries in China devoted to contemporary art, and it was chosen as one of the top 75 galleries of the 20th century by Taschen, the German art and design publisher.
Singapore is its first gallery outside Shanghai and its repertoire features some of the biggest names in Chinese art such as Zeng, Chen Xiaoyun and Ding Yi. Its space in Gillman is just over 100 sq m.
Mr Helbling did not consider Hong Kong as an option because ‘there’s too much shopping’.
‘In Singapore, I feel that you can develop an artistic kind of feeling, it doesn’t feel too commercial.’
Most arts observers say that it is early days yet, but agree that this is a high-stakes game that requires careful management.
Curator and art consultant Lindy Poh, 41, acknowledges that government agencies face a ‘double bind’ when engineering arts clusters.
She says that art clusters such as Soho and 798 had a strong indie vibe (‘an X factor’) at certain points of their development, which ran counter to state intervention, which suggests bureaucracy and surveillance.
She says: ‘Our art market is very small and benefits from certain boosts, and government agencies have their own pressures to deliver on key performance indicators.
‘But if agencies are perceived as engineering the creative sector excessively, they are also seen as stripping it of its aura of independence.’
Dr Tan has a delicate task ahead, but he has grand plans for Gillman Barracks. He says: ‘Apart from making it an international destination and marketplace for contemporary art in Asia, I want it to be the place where you can see and experience the best and most innovative art of your times.’
Is this a beautiful dream or the prophecy for a brave, new chapter in Singapore’s arts development? Only time can tell. But Mr Jasdeep Sandhu, 45, owner of Gajah Gallery, says that government support gives the Gillman galleries ‘a bit of a tail wind’.
He adds: ‘It’s a business decision that these guys are making to come here. They are sharp business people who see its potential. It means they have confidence in Singapore as a spot for art.’
‘Places such as Chelsea and 798 grew as a result of a need or a demand. Here, the Government is manufacturing the demand. Instead of trying to harness the energy of an existing hub and helping it, they are trying to kill it’
Malaysian gallerist Valentine Willie
‘Singapore doesn’t have the benefit of history, unlike the great centres of art such as New York, Tokyo. When you are trying to create things speedily, you need a stimulus… If you wait for organic development, you could be waiting forever’
New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore
Galleries at Gillman
EQUATOR ART PROJECTS (Indonesia)
Gallery directors: Deddy Irianto and Tony Godfrey
Artists: Agus Suwage, Arahmaiani, Ay Tjoe Christine
FOST GALLERY (Singapore)
Gallery director: Stephanie Fong
Artists: Chun Kai Feng, Chun Kai Qun, Tang Ling Nah, Namiko Chan Takahashi
KAIKAI KIKI GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Takashi Murakami
Artists: Takashi Murakami, Anri Sala, Aya Takano, Mr.
FUTURE PERFECT (Australia)
Gallery directors: David Teh and Jasper Knight
Artists: Adam Cullen, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ho Tzu Nyen
MIZUMA GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Mizuma Sueo
Artists: Makoto Aida, Konoike Tomoko, Ikeda Manabu
OTA FINE ARTS (Japan)
Gallery director: Ota Hidenori
Artists: Yayoi Kusama, Hiraki Sawa and Tomoko Kashiki
PEARL LAM GALLERIES (China)
Gallery director: Pearl Lam
Artists: Zhang Huan, Zhu Jinshi, Li Tianbing
SHANGHART GALLERY (China)
Gallery director: Lorenz Helbling
Artists: Zeng Fanzhi, Chen Xiaoyun, Ding Yi
SILVERLENS (The Philippines)
Gallery directors: Isa Lorenzo and Neli Go
Artists: Patricia Eustaquio, Frank Callaghan, Wawi Navarroza
SPACE COTTONSEED (Korea)
Gallery director: Janice Kim
Artists: Moon Kyungwon, Lee Seahyun, Choi Hochul
SUNDARAM TAGORE GALLERY (US)
Gallery director: Sundaram Tagore
Artists: Annie Leibovitz, Robert Polidori, Frank Stella
THE DRAWING ROOM (The Philippines)
Gallery director: Cesar Villalon Jr
Artists: Jose Legaspi, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Kawayan De Guia
TOMIO KOYAMA GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Tomio Koyama
Artists: Yoshitomo Nara, Franz Ackermann, Mika Ninagawa
Here is scholar of the sartorial, Anne Hollander, on the material existence of clothes:
Dress has not only no social but also no significant aesthetic existence unless it is actually being worn. Western sartorial relics on display simply do not have the artistic status of antique vases and cabinets. Half their beauty is obviously missing. This is true not just if they are displayed unworn, but always, simply because they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners …… Concepts of design and feats of workmanship survive, along with indications of social attitudes, economic conditions, and so on. But a vase in a museum has a completeness to offer the eye that a dress never has, though both may be breathtakingly made according to artistic standards of equal altitude.
(From Hollander’s classic study, Seeing Through Clothes.)
Unworn clothing, or dress, then, as an inert physicality, un-activated as social or aesthetic fact by the animating force of a body.
Now these – at the SAM’s latest offering, The Collectors Show: Chimera - bodies missing, effaced, obscured, abstracted:
First, Filipino artist Patricia Eustaquio’s Psychogenic Fugue (below), on loan from collector Marcel Crespo (son of former Filipino Congressman, Mark Jimenez). A piano cover, an expanse of cream-coloured lace, is set over a missing piano, its evacuated, vacant interior illuminated by several spotlights. The armature of the piece is provided by the simple means of a hardened thermoplastic resin, which moulds the fabric from beneath into a phantasmal non-presence – evoked, named, but always already displaced. As the label observes: “Delicate in detail and haunting in its hollowness, this ghostly shroud calls attention to its absent object, poignantly emphasising its loss.”
Another contribution by a Filipino artist: Yasmin Sison’s Orange Madonna (below), from the collection of one Dr. George Soo. The painting’s central figures are, literally, dis-figured. The minor iconographic tradition of the Virgin and Holy Infant in a grove of orange trees – one of the more famous examples of which remains Cima de Conegliano’s late 15th century treatment of the subject – is here given an update by the clearly visible contemporary wear. More to the point, however, is the salient effacement of the figures, the painted surface where their faces should be reduced to a muddied soup of chaotic brushstrokes and chromatic confusion, explicitly negating the dimensions of mimesis and iconicity.
The title of Yayoi Kusama’s installation, Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets 2/10 (below), speaks for itself. Courtesy of Lito and Kim Camacho, a replica of the Venus de Milo is set against a flat background, both rendered in Kusama’s trademark “infinity nets” (a pattern of reiterated dots), binding object and setting in a virtually indistinguishable homogeneity. To quote theorist Roger Caillois on what he termed “legendary psychasthenia”, or the phenomenon of a subject psychologically identifying with or becoming absorbed into a physical space:
It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself …… The feeling of personality, considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these circumstances to be seriously undermined; one then enters into the psychology of psychasthenia, and more specifically legendary psychasthenia, if we agree to use this name for the disturbance in the above relations between personality and space.
(Qtd. in Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny.)
The body is here, the artist flatly states, obliterated, the object visually subsumed as an image of the subject in a state of destabilizing psycho-spatial collapse.
Finally, Indonesian Entang Wiharso’s The Unspeakable Victim – The Story Behind Superhero and Black Goat Colony (#3) (below), from the collection of Hugh Young. The work is one in a series of similar metal-plate sculptures, resembling, in their broad figural contours, paper cutouts, or the cast shadows of wayang kulit puppets. The rather obscure narratives conjured by the artist aren’t the point here; what is apropos is the evocation of the wayang: “… you have to understand the wayang – the scared shadow play … Their shadows are souls, and the screen is heaven. You must watch the shadows, not the puppets.” (A quote from Peter Weir’s 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, based on C. J. Koch’s novel of the same name.) Orientalist melodrama aside, the wayang in its performative dimension indeed provides a ready analogue for the abstracted corporeal complex as Wiharso envisions it. The appropriation of the silhouette as a formal strategy, rather than the puppets themselves, in all their intricate detail, suggests a double dislocation here: the shadow as a Platonic un-reality, a cave of fleeting illusions, which the art of the wayang encodes into its very praxis; and Wiharso’s spare, bare forms, the body submitted to a specific mode of erasure.
A return to where we started from: Hollander’s claim that the unworn dress is an incomplete prosthesis of the wearer. If that notion may be analogized to accommodate the artwork-collector complex – the effaced body, so prevalent here, as an intimation of the missing, crucial, animating force that supposedly provides the conceptual glue which brings together the various strands of contemporary art praxis on display, or, in other words, the individual collector and the determining aesthetics of particular collections and tastes – then the shortcomings of the show become glaringly obvious, “simply because”, as Hollander puts it, “they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners.”
After all, Chimera bills itself as “a tribute to the art patrons of today, the exhibition offers an insight into the breadth and richness of private art collections, introducing visitors to the personal visions and passions that shape them.”
Where, then, are these ‘personal visions and passions”, beyond the parade of names that mean little to general art-viewing public – Crespo, Soo, Camacho, Young, among so many others that soon begin to blur one into another ? Those function here simply as a placeholder for the act of semantic truancy, the organizing principle claimed but, for all effective purpose, occluded. Or to reiterate the abovementioned – “evoked, named, but always already displaced.”
The artwork as static and inert as an article of dress removed from the absent anatomy; the gesture of the hollowed-out body as an analogue of that missing element which serves as the ersatz foundation of the exhibition, a presence alluded to but ceaselessly deferred – the Collector.
It was all so .. deracinated.
A tribute of sorts this show certainly is, but what to ? The power of individual collectors possessed of the necessary resources ? The readiness of an institution to genuflect ? The ingenuity of the curator ? The cosy network of connections which sutures the art industry and the socio-economic elite ? Or perhaps the creed of convenience, the exhibition as an easy, fail-safe showcase of the snazziest examplars of contemporary Asian art, a blatantly transparent attempt to wow both collector and peasant alike, the latter especially who should be grateful for the opportunity to view such remarkable pieces accessible otherwise only to the privilege of (superfluous) capital and private property.
Consider me grateful.
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.
The constant rain hereabouts the last couple of weeks hasn’t done much for the spirits.
It makes one remember people – absent people. And think sad thoughts …
And what are melancholic moods without melodramatic verse, lol ?
Give me the green gloom of a lofty tree,
Leaf and bough to shutter and bar
My dream of the world that ought to be
From the drifting ghosts of the things that are.
- Yuan Mei, “The Secret Land.” (Translated by L. Cranmer-Byng.)
On that note, Hokusai’s series of prints, Hyaku Monogatari (first published in 1831), of things that go bump in the night:
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, best known hereabouts for her contribution to the inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006 (below), her signature dotscapes wrapped around several trees along Orchard Rd., is back.
Pop and Contemporary Fine Art is currently staging a mini-retrospective of her work in the ION Art Gallery space, on the fourth floor of the mall.
I’m not sure how I feel about her work exactly.
On the one hand, her obsessive repetition of dots and lines strike a chord with me. She utilizes the former to build up graphs of pictorial forms like pumpkins (well-represented in the show), animals, and landscapes. Otherwise, entire canvases are simply subjected to an abstract design of dots which retreats from any semblance of mimesis. On the other, Kusama’s oeuvre is quite inextricably tied to her personal mythology: her abusive, deeply unhappy childhood; her escape to New York and her exploits there; her history of mental disturbance and hallucinations; her return to Japan and voluntary confinement in a mental institution since. The most frequent explanation of the artist’s obsessive-compulsive fascination with dots, webs and chronic repetition of these patterns is that they originate in hallucinatory states she suffers – as the title of the exhibition suggests – and that their recitation in her art represents an exorcism of sorts. Beyond the paradigm of the artist as privileged originary point though, with all lines of explication converging on the crux of artistic personality, is there much to say about Kusama’s stuff ? …
The show runs till 2nd Oct.
Ascension of Polkadots on Trees (2006), Yayoi Kusama. Image from call me shortySTK.
Its kinda odd to think that a warehouse space in Tanjong Pagar Distripark – a cargo storage and shipment complex next to the Keppel docks – is now playing host to limited edition Warhols and multi-million-dollar pieces by Pollock, Hirst and Jasper Johns.
But, thanks to blue chip art dealer Ikkan Sanada, that’s the delightful reality.
Sanada recently relocated the base of Ikkan Art International from NYC to Singapore (read about it here); he joins a growing number of art spaces sprouting up in the Keppel warehouse neighbourhood, which include Valentine Willie, Fortune Cookie Projects and L2 Space. Are we seeing our own meatpacking district in the making ? – albeit with storage depots instead of disused slaughterhouses, industrial containers and cranes taking the place of transgender prostitutes and cobblestoned streets. In any case, the new kid on the block represents the arrival of an international player on the local visual arts scene, which can only be good news.
Sanada’s inaugural show is titled Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol. As the name-dropping suggests, the exhibition features work from a range of 20th century luminaries, both Western and Asian: Warhol, Ai, Matisse, Pollock, Hirst, Johns, Richter, Oldenburg, Stella, Tracy Emin, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Yasumasa Morimura, among others. Johns, in particular, is represented here by a series of original prints produced in the last two decades, including a number apparently never before shown. Those prints, however, were the least interesting things I saw – if only because I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. Johns made his name back in the ‘50s with his richly textured, vividly coloured encaustic canvases that called into question the iconicity of common images, like the American flag; these recent pieces seem to indicate a 180-degree turn in sensibility, being most black-and-white or thinly tinted intaglio prints of indecipherable patterns, silhouettes and abstractions. Johns’ work seems to have made a detour into the personal, which I think is the only – if overly convenient – way of accounting for some of these pictures, and titles like Shrinky Dink (below).
In other news, the show itself came across as something of a hodgepodge of the greatest postwar hits. It is called Surfaces of Everyday Life, but that thematic framework really encompasses two different theoretical concerns: materiality (surfaces), and the everyday. While those ideas have been brought to bear on each other – in very interesting ways – by certain academics and thinkers*, they are still necessarily separate concepts. And at times it seemed like the pieces in the exhibition either fell into one category or the other, only rarely demonstrating discernable links to both. Admittedly, though, Sanada has been pretty candid about the rationale, or lack of one, behind some of these inclusions – “I am not pretending to be a museum curator. The works you see in this exhibition are a reflection of my personal taste” – so perhaps the connective tissue there, between the notion of materiality and the prosaic, was supplied by his own predilections. Charles Merewhether of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, though, provides a different take. In a brief but incisive essay for the exhibition, he explicitly adduces mass production and consumerism as the glue between the everyday and the material: “Critical to the transformation of the “everyday” was the process of modernization, most notably industrialization and mass production. … What emerges from this period is a number of artistic practices that critically engage the ethos of consumerism within the development of industrial modernization—practices seeking not just to understand the logic of consumerism, but to harness and appropriate the energies of consumerism … Materiality was of primary importance ……” (Read excerpts here.)
* See for instance, Bill Brown’s Thing Theory (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 [Autumn, 2001], pp. 1-22).
All that, however, doesn’t explain the presence of works like Frank Stella’s Cinema de Pepsi (below), which is comprised of two squares divided up into geometrical bands of varying shades and hues. This canvas is quintessential Stella: blandly, calmly non-pictorial, denying even the painterly gestures of abstract expressionists like Pollock, Rauschenberg and Johns, and insisting on the primacy of the flat canvas surface and the materiality of the art object. Speaking of his own praxis, he declared that “Its posture is not romantic. Its method is not improvisational. It’s a more classical, more controlled art, that in a certain sense reacted against the “action” conception of abstract expressionism, and against what by the late 50s had come to be a great deal of very bad painting made in abstract expressionism’s name.” (Quote here.) While the alternating strips of colour in Cinema seem to suggest some kind of movement – a sort of optical illusion of advance and recession – I guess the point here would be that, up close, the appearance of hard-edge painting gives way to fine textural nuance; the seemingly defined lines begin to betray tendrils of paint seepage and other surface irregularities.
Which explains “surface”, but not “everyday life”. (Its hard to imagine anything less evocative of the ordinary than Stella’s abstract, meticulously calculated canvases.) What does, however, are, say, Claes Oldenburg’s oversized food objects, or Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds or block of tea, or Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans – all featured in the show. Oldenburg’s Leaning Fork With Meatball and Spaghetti II, in particular (below), produced in collaboration with wife Coosje van Bruggen, was definitely one of the more eye-catching pieces. In a well-known statement of 1961, the artist remarked: “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top … I am for the art of neck-hair and caked teacups, for the art between the tines of restaurant forks, for the odor of boiling dishwater … I am for the art of rust and mold. I am for the art of hearts, funeral hearts or sweetheart hearts, full of nougat. I am for the art of worn meathooks and singing barrels of red, white, blue and yellow meat.”*
In other words, an art of the mundane and the everyday. Duchamp and his Readymades were an acknowledged influence: Oldenburg recalls seeing Duchamp’s work at the latter’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum – and coincidentally, a signed copy of a poster for that now legendary show is on display here (below). As art historian Benjamin Buchloh remarks, Oldenburg was “the first sculptor after Duchamp who uses a kind of iconography that is completely alien to all preceding sculpture, which is the industrially produced, ready-made object.”** The avant-garde Dadaist project, formulated as an overt critique of the separation of art from the praxis of life within bourgeois society, by which the autonomy of the institution of art is understood as a corollary of the rise of the leisured classes and the ensuing social divide,*** finds a re-articulation in Oldenburg’s hands. His oversized foodstuffs, in particular, represent an attempt to recuperate our experience of the familiar, the prosaic, which become embedded in the routine of daily life as so much background noise. These humble things – the things we eat every day – exist for the most part below the threshold of sustained attention and memory because they function as conveniences, their constant repetition and easy availability within the circuits of modern consumer culture serving to mask their ubiquity, to lull and dull us into “social forgetfulness and thereby constitute the sphere of hidden historical otherness.”****
* See Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995).
** See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Three Conversations in 1985: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris”, October 70 (Fall 1994).
*** Peter Bürger discusses this idea at length in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). See the section, “On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society.”
**** C. Nadia Serematakis, ed., The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994).
A Poster Within A Poster (1963), Marcel Duchamp. “Poster for Duchamp’s Retrospective exhibition held at the Pasadena Art Museum, October 8 to November 3, 1963, signed and dedicated by the artist. Edition of 300, only 10 of them were signed by the artist.” (from the wall label)
As subjects of artistic intentionality, Oldenburg’s food objects imply participation in the long, if historically unremarked, genre of the still-life, a tradition that reaches back into antiquity. The category of painting the Romans referred to as xenia stands at the hoary head of a genealogy that is defined largely by its exclusion of the human form, according to Norman Bryson, a denial of the visual dimension of the animate that at the same time “expels the values which human presence imposes on the world.”* While this statement belies the peculiarity of Oldenburg’s anthropomorphized objects – and, indeed, a feature of his modus operandi – Bryson’s distinction between megalography and rhopography presents one of the chief cruces on which turn Oldenburg’s strategies of interruption, dislocation, defamiliarization. Megalography is the stuff of history painting and portraiture, which deal with the grand themes of mythology, religion, literature and history, allegories of the great and good, as well as the invocation of the lives and likenesses of celebrated men and women. Rhopography, stemming from the Greek rhopos (trifling things, or small, inconsequential goods), portrays that which the prescriptions of the class of momentous events and illustrious personages programmatically omit from their range of subject matter: the undramatic material base of life taken for granted in an age of plenty today, a substratum of habitual, habit-forming objects which define the contours of “hidden historical otherness.”
In his appropriation of the trope of rhopos, Oldenburg displays a preference not just for an iconography of the edible, but also for a particular type of fare. A quick survey of objects from his 60s period discloses the predominance of the sort of foods that have come to symbolize a twentieth-century America of the diner, the deli, the fast-food restaurant: burgers, sandwiches, cakes, pies, ice-cream, baked potatoes, breads, and roasts – as choice of meatball and spaghetti, for one, seems to suggest. Despite the claim that his choice of subject is “only an accident, an accident of my surroundings, my landscape, of the objects which in my daily coming and going my consciousness attaches itself to”, Oldenburg’s art, in its foregrounding of gastronomic (all-)Americana, clearly reflects an exclusion of other types of cuisine, perhaps the kind of food that he may have been accustomed to growing up in a privileged Swedish-American household in the 1930s and 40s (his father first served as Swedish Consul in Chicago and, later, as Consul General). More than simply being determined by considerations of cost, taste and custom, however, what people eat is very much an indication of their values. The introduction of the technologies of food preservation and processing radically altered the American diet in the mid-twentieth century, freeing up a whole generation of women for the workforce and shifting the main site of food preparation and consumption from the domestic kitchen to the cheap eating establishment and food retail outlet – originating, ultimately, in the processing line – with their quick, affordable, labour-saving meals, a medley of the “bleached, dyed, sulphured, refined, synthetic, dehydrated, adulterated, and emulsified”**, a celebration of everyday realities that continue to shape our dietary habits and lives.
* See Bryson’s perceptive, valuable study, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990).
** Linda Weintraub, ed., Art What Thou Eat: Images of Food in American Art (Mount Kisco, New York: Moyer Bell Ltd., 1991). Her Foreword contains a brief history of American gastronomic practices.
Donald Judd – a personal favourite – was represented in Surfaces by a stainless steel piece (above), a horizontal bar hung on the wall, and marked along its length by spherical protrusions set apart at gradated intervals. Classic Judd. The piece, like Oldenburg’s Meatball and Spaghetti, sits comfortably at the intersection between concerns with materiality and the everyday – though the artist himself might have begged to differ. Judd was famous, or notorious, for his theoretical pronouncements on his own work, insisting on the abstract, non-associative autonomy of his ‘specific objects’, their essential resistance to any sort of gesture towards a reality external to their particular forms. However, a number of critics, most notably Rosalind Krauss, disagreed. She openly refuted his claim of hermeticism in her well-known essay, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd” (Artforum, vol. 4, no. 9 [May, 1966]). Judd’s sensuously tangible and seductively engaging objects were, for Krauss, the epitome of “the inadequacy of the theoretical line, its failure to measure up (at least in Judd’s case) to the power of the sculptural statement.” His artworks were “insistently meaningful” to her, and that meaning was generated through an embodied experience – meaning denied by a solely optical involvement from a single (frontal) perspective. Krauss saw Judd’s work as “objects of perception, objects that are to be grasped in the experience of looking at them” (italics mine). The impression of tactility, in both a metaphorical and corporeal sense, seemed especially important to her: “the work plays off the illusory quality of the thing itself as it presents itself to vision alone … as against the sensation of being able to grasp it and therefore to know it through touch.”
Don Judd in the 1960s. Image from Mondoblogo.
Other critics have noted that “Claims … that Judd’s art has a discrepancy – or even a falsification – as its heart, have by now long been central …” (David Raskin, “The Shiny Illusionism of Krauss and Judd”, Art Journal, no. 65 [Spring 2006]).The juxtaposition between Judd’s own conceptualization of his work, and the manner in which it has sometimes been received, makes this disjuncture all too clear. Krauss noted the deceptive appearance of his art, of the necessity of an embodied experience with which to grasp it in its actuality, a process that foregrounded the way the materials were “used directly” – in his own words – and, thus, the resultant, insistently tactile quality. Judd’s work appears to deny the possibility of any haptic exchange, by dint of his critical pronouncements as well as their circumscribed status as high art objects, but reception tends to elude those sorts of pre-determined channels. Judd’s objects, as three-dimensional forms in space, as staunchly material presences that incline towards the non-figural and a-referential, can be said to evoke a response beyond the purely visual – i.e. to draw attention not simply to their forms, but to the almost tangible qualities of their surface texture. To return to Krauss’ assessment of Judd’s art as inducing the perception of graspability and a touch-based epistemology, perhaps it should be noted that the haptic entails more than just an appeal to tactility via the mechanism of sight, but implicates the entire sensorium in a synaesthetic act of looking as well. Krauss brings to mind Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of embodied, multisensory experience: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.” Or, to quote Carolee Schneemann on her own performative practice: “Vision is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations.”
Judd’s objects present a façade of finished, flawless, machine manufacture. In other words, their industrial look, or the appearance of being the products of the factory line rather than the artist’s tool, was – and is – very much the initial impression that they left on viewers. Barbara Rose, for one, remarked that they seemed “machine-made, standardized …. easy to copy and not hand-made”; another reviewer spoke of the “slow, determined beat of a stamping machine” (Jane Gollin). And Robert Smithson, in detailing Judd’s preferred materials and the sources he turned to for them, listed a catalogue of obscure-sounding trademarks and industrial locations:
He may go to Long island City and have the Bernstein Brothers, Tinsmiths put “Pittsburgh” seams into some (Bethcon) iron boxes, or he might go to Allied Plastics in Lower Manhattan and have cut-to-size some Rohm-Haas “glowing” pink plexiglass. Judd is always on the lookout for new finishes, like Lavax Wrinkle Finish … Judd likes that combination, and so he might “self” spray one of his “fabricated” boxes with it. Or maybe he will travel to Hackensack, New Jersey to investigate a lead he got on a new kind of zinc based paint called Galvanox, which is comparable to “hot-dip” galvanizing.
(Robert Smithson, “Donald Judd (1965)” in Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996].)
While the stuff of Judd’s art were, literally, heavy-duty substances and materials, the actual execution of those pieces remained a very hands-on process for the artist. Much of his early 60s work were produced manually at a small, family-run piecework shop called Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties Inc., which produced a range of items for industrial purposes, like smoke stacks, general roofing, skylights, ventilation systems etc. The procedure for constructing one of Judd’s pieces at the Bernsteins’ typically involved a high degree of hand operations:
… adapted from the shaping of ventilation ducts and industrial sinks, [the process] involved measuring and cutting the sheet iron, notching it with hand shears, and folding it in a brake die. … the sculpture [was finished] by truing its angles with a rubber mallet and … reaching inside the back to solder its three pieces carefully together.
(Joshua Shannon, The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009].)
Don Judd (right) at the Bernstein Bros. workshop, 1968. Image from DB Artmag.
The appearance of industrial manufacture, then, belied the manual labour that went into the production of Judd’s pieces; their materials, the “adapted” processes, the high degree of finish, and their geometric, modular shapes all went towards suggesting an origin in the factory rather than the studio. And it is precisely this deceptive indexing of industrial means of fabrication and engineering, the assumption of the look of capitalist, technocratic power – by creating objects resembling mass-produced commodities, objects which then enter our everyday lives as items of utility – that engenders the desire to touch. Or, to put it another way: Judd’s objects, in suppressing most visible traces of the artist’s hand*, and approximating the appearance of those ordinary things that we use in our mundane lives, like floor boxes and stacks and bleachers and architectural columns, breaks down the barrier between the visual and the tactile that is part and parcel of the contemporary experience of art – that is to say, the dictum that one can look, but should not touch, is expressly infringed upon.
* See Josiah Mcelheny, “Invisible Hand”, Artforum International, vol. 42, no. 10 (Summer 2004).
By adopting the aspect of everyday articles, Judd’s objects almost seems to invite the viewer to experience them in those embodied ways with which we come into corporeal contact with those familiar things. One handles a box, sits on a bleacher, perhaps unthinkingly runs a stray hand over a row of colonnades in strolling past. And although it is difficult to conceive of actually picking up one of Judd’s box-like sculptures or parking your behind down on his Bleachers piece, it is not too far a stretch to imagine kissing your reflection in a particularly shiny surface, or using it, mirror-like, to peruse the state of your hairdo – which is exactly what critic, Anna Chave, witnessed two girls doing one day in the MoMA. She relates the following incident involving a “gleaming brass floor box” of Judd’s on display in the museum: “… two teenage girls strode over to this pristine work, kicked it, and laughed. They then discovered its reflective surface and used it for a while to arrange their hair until, finally, they bent over to kiss their images on the top of the box” (Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power”, Arts Magazine, vol. 64, no. 1 [Jan, 1990]).
…… Hey, I did say Judd was a favourite.
But enough of the art history and the theoryspeak, I think.
Being at Sanada’s was like New York all over again: the quiet moments of wonderment at MoMA, amidst the throngs of tourists; the endless galleries in Chelsea; the marathon Met walkabouts.
It was nice …
Some of the other stuff in the show:
Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol runs at Ikkan Art from 18 May to 5 June, 2011.
Ikkan Art Gallery, Artspace@Helutrans,
39 Keppel Road #01-05,
Tanjong Pagar Distripark,
11am – 7pm, Monday – Saturday
1pm – 5pm, Sundays and Public Holidays
The following article appeared in the 28 April edition of The Straits Times, announcing the opening of art dealer Ikkan Sanada’s gallery in Singapore. Oh, and a “museum-quality” show of big names to mark the momentous occasion.
P.S. Is the noun “government” usually a proper one ? (In bold below.) Every source I’ve checked suggests otherwise, so why is it capitalized in the article ? And “South-east Asia” – I’ve never seen the word “southeast” hyphenated, either as an adjective or a noun. Among other mistakes.
For an English-language daily, the ST sure is unusually full of grammatical errors …
NYC ART DEALER MOVES TO SINGAPORE
A museum-quality exhibition with works worth $60 million will mark the opening of art dealer Ikkan Sanada’s new base here. By Deepika Shetty.
Art dealer Ikkan Sanada has taken the unusual step of shifting his long-established base from New York, one of the world’s art capitals, to Singapore.
The move was spurred in part by his confidence about the emergence of South-east Asia as a key market for quality art.
He is opening here with a bang on May 18 with a museum-quality exhibition titled Surfaces of Everyday Life, Postwar and Contemporary Masters From Ai Weiwei To Andy Warhol.
The show, which will run till June 5, features 50 artworks worth $60 million.
Among them are works by several international art names such as the late pop artist Andy Warhol and controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
“No one knows me in Singapore, so I wanted to open with a signature show,” says Sanada, who has been based in New York for 30 years.
Such is his belief in the flourishing art market here that, unlike big galleries such as Opera Gallery which have long had a presence in plush shopping malls, his choice of base is a 10,000 sq ft specially built gallery-space at ArtSpace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark.
His big move comes after his first visit to Singapore at the end of 2009.
Recalling that first visit, the 60-year-old says: “I was very impressed with that I saw, right from the moment I checked out of Changi Airport. During my tiem here, I visited museums and galleries and had a gut feeling this was the place to be. I got the sense that there was a growing market for art here.”
This feeling was boosted by his visit to the Singapore FreePort near Changi Airport which offers a secure duty and tax-free storage space for high-value art, jewellery, gold, antiques and vintage cars.
Then there was the recent, successful high-end art fair, Art Stage Singapore, which turned out to be an international meeting ground for gallerists, art lovers and collectors. All of these factors made him pick Singapore over Hong Kong when deciding on the move to Asia.
“I did consider going to Hong Kong but looking at what Singapore has to offer infrastructure-wise, it made a better choice,” he says. “There is no red tape, setting up a business is seamless and the Government is making a good push to promote art. I feel Hong Kong has developed as a market, while Singapore offers an opportunity to tap into the South-east Asian region.”
On why he did not go the conventional route and opt for a gallery in a mall, he says: “Oh no, I would never pick a space in a mall. It is too predictable. I am not looking at numbers. I am hoping to get a quality audience. I am confident if you present good art, people will find you anyway.”
The Japanese dealer-turned-gallerist says of his upcoming debut: “I am not pretending to be a museum curator. The works you see in this exhibition are a reflection of my personal taste.”
Indeed, browsing through the catalogue, which is going through the final edit, and looking at what is going up on the gallery walls, this Life! reporter got a sense of his eclectic taste.
There is a 1976 installation of mixed media and stuffed fabric by Yayoi Kusama, one of Japan’s most influential female artists. Her works reflect hallucinations she has endured since childhood. She is known for her art installations in which polka dots cover floors and walls and she has even used real-life assistants who were painted all over. This work, priced at $800,000, will be part of a Kusama retrospective at the UK’s prestigious Tate Modern gallery next year.
Then there is an impressive 6m work by Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami, whose famous fantastical characters can be seen in Lots, Lots of Kaikai And Kiki.
An early version of the sunflower seeds theme explored by detained artist activist Ai Weiwei can be seen in Kai Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) which features 1,000 seeds in porcelain, sculpted and painted by hand and stored in a glass jar.
American master Jasper Johns is represented with over 20 original prints including four new editions, which are being exhibited for the first time. Prominent British artist Damien Hirst is there, too, in two works featuring butterflies and household gloss on canvas.
To source the works, he tapped his international network of contacts. Some works are from his won collection, others from private ones and still others were consigned from galleries and private dealers in New York and Switzerland.
With prices ranging from $15,000 for limited-edition prints by Johns to $9.5 million for Warhol’s silkscreen ink on canvas, he knows his appeal may be restricted to well-heeled buyers.
But he is not overly concerned about the sales that the debut will generate and says: “I may or may not sell anything by the end of this exhibition. It does not matter. My intent is to present museum-quality works in a gallery setting which I hope gallerygoers will enjoy.”
Prior to moving to New York, the private art dealer and owner of Ikkan Art International was a partner at Kindai Bijutsu, an art dealership in Tokyo. He also served as director of international trade at Galerie Tamenaga in Paris and Tokyo.
His interest in art was triggered by living in Paris as an arts student. To sustain himself, he did part-time administrative jobs in art galleries. He later studied art history and arts administration at New York University before moving into art dealership.
On the new chapter in his life, he says with a laugh: “At my age, I should be looking at retiring. Here I am, reinventing myself. I am very nervous, of course. But it is really a gut feeling.
“Thirty years ago when I moved from Tokyo to New York, I had a similar feeling. The art market is clearly shifting to Asia and the Middle East.”
SURFACES OF EVERYDAY LIFE, POSTWAR AND CONTEMPORARY MASTERS FROM AI WEIWEI TO ANDY WARHOL
Where: Ikkan Art Gallery, 01-05 ArtSpace@Helutrans, Tanjong Pagar Distripark, 39 Keppel Road
When: 18 May to June 5, 11am to 7pm (Mondays to Saturdays), 1 to 5pm (Sundays and public holidays)
Info: Call 9088-7065 or go to www.ikkan-art.com
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The Merlion Hotel is just brilliant.
The brainchild of Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi, it transforms one of Singapore’s best known national symbols into a luxury hotel room – available for the duration of the Biennale at the rate of 150 SGD per night. (All booked up though, sorry.)
Is it Art ? Commerce ? An “uncanny encounter with a public monument in the intimacy of a hotel room” ? A re-imagining of the connections between citizen and symbol ? A grandiose declaration of Swingin’ Singapore’s new-found fame as a playground for the rich and ritzy ? All of the above ? None of the above ? Who knows ?
Which is why I love it. A stroke of genius on Nishi’s part.
First, a brief history of the Merlion, taken from an article on Singapore Infopedia:
The Merlion logo had been designed by Fraser Brunner, a member of the Souvenir Committee and the curator of Van Kleef Aquarium. It became the emblem of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) on 26 March 1964 and its registration as a trademark was finalised two years later on 20 July 1966. Although by 1997, STB had acquired a new corporate logo, the Merlion is still protected under the STB Act and the use of the Merlion symbol requires permission from STB. ……
The Merlion is an imaginary creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. This half-lion, half-fish sculpture rests on undulating waves. The lion head alludes to the legend of Singapore’s founding by Sang Nila Utama, a Palembang Prince who, on his arrival on the island, saw what he thought to be a lion and thereafter renamed Temasek, Singapura or “Lion City”. The fish-tail represents Singapore’s links to the ancient sea-bound island which was Temasek and its long and successful association with the sea, reflecting how our forefathers traversed the oceans to come to Singapore and our subsequent dependence upon it as a port.
Image from the Biennale site.
And that’s the story of our country’s most visible icon – it started life as a tourist logo. Isn’t it fitting then that it’s commercial origins are in a sense being recuperated and paid tribute to here ?
The work, which has been constructed with scaffolding partly on land and partly in the water to accommodate the Merlion, instantly conjures a series of binaries and hybrid identities: land/water, lion/fish, art/economics, private space/public symbol, fleetingness/permanence, contemporaneity/myth. Somewhere at the nexus of these competing ontologies is the Merlion Hotel, a makeshift structure literally erected around the statue and incorporating its top half into the opulence of the room itself, open to art-gawkers by day and closed for hotel occupants by night, extant for a mere two months during the Biennale and accessible thereafter only in photographs and other forms of documentation. These ambivalences of purpose, which render the significance of Nishi’s piece inherently unstable, suspended in the flux of so many divergent semantic strands, also speak less directly perhaps to Singapore’s status as a perpetual anomaly: an English-speaking, Chinese-majority sovereign nation outside China (discounting Taiwan, of course), a tiny island stuck in an Islamic sea, with Malaysia to the north and the massive Indonesian archipelago to the south. In the words of former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, the man who is generally credited as having transformed post-Independence Singapore into the first world player it is today:
We faced a bleak future. Singapore and Malaya, joined by a causeway across the Straits of Johor, had always been governed as one territory by the British. Malaya was Singapore’s hinterland, as were the territories of Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah. They were all part of the British Empire in Southeast Asia, which had Singapore as its administrative and commercial hub. Now we were on our own, and the Malaysian government was out to teach us a lesson for being difficult, and for not complying with their norms and practices and fitting into their set-up. …… Indeed, how were we to survive ? Even our water came from the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor. ……
We had never sought independence. In a referendum less than three years ago, we had persuaded 70 percent of the electorate to vote in favour of merger with Malaya. Since then, Singapore’s need to be part and parcel of the Federation in one political, economic, and social polity had not changed. Nothing had changed – except that we were out. We had said that an independent Singapore was simply not viable. Now it was our unenviable task to make it work. How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia ?
Singapore was a small island of 214 square miles at low tide. It had thrived because it was the heart of the British Empire in Southeast Asia; with separation, it became a heart without a body. Seventy-five percent of our population of two million were Chinese, a tiny minority in an archipelago of 30,000 islands inhabited by more than 100 million Malay or Indonesian Muslims. We were a Chinese island in a Malay sea. How could we survive in such a hostile environment ?
(From Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew [Singapore: Times Editions, 1998], pp. 21-3.)
Dark days indeed. Both the Merlion symbol and the Merlion Hotel, in their hybrid configurations, gesture at the exigencies which gave rise to the heterogeneous contours of modern Singapore – racially diverse, linguistically complex, geographically and historically cut adrift from its age-old moorings. As has been pointed out – on numerous occasions – the template for a national narrative has traditionally been constructed around a core of hybridized identity or “bi-culturalism.” Local historian Derek Heng, for one, echoing LKY’s sentiments, has pointed out that
It is not difficult to extend this model [hybridization] to the post-independence period of Singapore, and to draw similarities between the localized Chinese of Temasik and the Chinese population of the nation-state of Singapore, and between the Chinese traders of old and the present sojourning population of migrant workers in Singapore. Hybridization is therefore a useful approach in understanding and explaining the construction of coherent city-state nations that are open to regional and international forces and groups.
Indeed, hybridization was not ignored in the early political rhetoric in the immediate period before and after 1965. The concept of Malayanism encompassed the acceptance of the localization of immigrant groups in Malaya, and the indigenization of the people of Malaya by adhering to certain shared values that were drawn from the various social groups and the artificial construction of shared socialist values. David Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister, in the 1950s argued for the creation of a coherent social group of Singaporeans that was based on the assimilation of the key charcateristics of the dominant social group in Singapore by the various ethnic groups represented in Singapore, even though it was not apparent which ethnic groups were being referred to … Similarly, in the early post-independence years, Singapore’s political leaders attempted to construct a society based on the eventual combination of various cultural aspects of the social groups represented in Singapore.
(Derek Heng Soon Thiam, “From Political Rhetoric to National Narrative: Bi-Culturalism in the Construction of Singapore’s National History” in Reframing Singapore: Memory – Identity – Trans-Regionalism [Amsterdam University Press, 2009].)
In fact, the Merlion logo, as its very inception, was intended to convey Singapore’s cross-cultural ties, its “links to the ancient sea-bound island which was Temasek … reflecting how our forefathers traversed the oceans to come to Singapore and our subsequent dependence upon it as a port”, which probably accounts for the mutation of Sang Nila Utama’s lion into a bizarre looking feline-fish. Nishi’s stroke of genius consists in his amplification of the fundamental instability at the heart of our national symbol, into the hybrid entity that is the Merlion Hotel – which looks and behaves like neither one thing nor another, partaking of a miscellany of roles, functions and effects.
However, at its most immediate and intelligible, the Merlion Hotel probably serves best as a symptom of the new Singapore. And just what is this new Singapore ? Flush (the world’s fastest growing economy as of 2010), fancy (now boasting two fabulously glitzy resorts with the country’s first casinos), and demographically and sociologically evolving at light speed, the population on the whole growing from some 3 million to 5 in the last two decades –a jump of 66.6% in 20 years – but with the number of resident aliens positively ballooning from 0.3 million in 1990 to 1.3 million in 2010. (See here for figures.) In other words, a playground for the wealthy, both local and foreign. In fact, the iconic Marina Bay Sands resort, located just across the bay, is prominently featured both on the wallpaper – along with the Merlion logo and founding father Sir Stamford Raffles – and as part of the panoramic view from the bathtub. The triple towers, exemplar par excellence of the new, moneyed, swingin’ Singapore, thus become enshrined in the country’s repertoire of emblems, their signalling of new economic trajectories taking its place alongside our most cherished historical images in a gesture of symbolic suturing.
The one sour note ? – Nishi emblazoning his name across the bathroom floor, which I can only imagine remains unavoidably visible the whole time you’re relaxing in the tub or on the can, doing stuff one does in the privacy of one’s own toilet.
That’s the clarion call of the über-hipness that is Trans-Cool Tokyo, now on at 8Q – a tasting platter of things artsy, groovy and Nipponese, which makes you want to hop on the next plane for the world capital of Cool.
And then, of course, there’s Murakami: reigning doyen of the Japanese commercial art world. His signature motifs, ranging from the Mickey-esque Mr. Dob to a variety of menacing, fanged shrooms, are well-represented in Trans-Cool. All that was missing, perhaps, was one of his oh-so-coveted Murakami-ized Vuitton bags … I was also reminded of a paper I wrote on the connections between the artist’s pop-inflected visuality and the Freudian implications of the atom bomb for contemporary Japanese culture. (Clearly I’ve been recycling Freud’s notion of the Uncanny one too many times ..) In any case, I think parts of it are worth reproducing here:
Mr. Dob is a strange creature. Not unfamiliar, but strange, and not least because at present, by his creator’s own account, there exists some 100 versions of him, most of which differ each from the other in the minutest of details as well as in the most arresting and inexplicable of fashions. There is Dob in an early incarnation, as a beaming, wide-eyed, bi-coloured head, the epitome of kawai’i, the ubiquitous Japanese concept of cute, with two oversized ears that makes perfectly plain his descent from Walt Disney’s famous animated mouse. There is 727, in which a monstrous Dob, sporting an array of eyes and a mouthful of pointed, razor-sharp incisors, drifts across a distressed surface on tendrils of wispy cloud. There is a garish, technicolour Dob, recast as Tan Tan Bo. Then there is Dob in the Strange Forest, a massive sculpture of resin, fiberglass and iron that sets the chameleonic creature amidst a number of multi-hued, multi-eyed mushrooms of various shapes and sizes that, like Dob himself, will take on an iconic, metamorphic life of their own elsewhere.
The creations of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who in recent years has enjoyed a tremendous surge of popularity both at home and abroad, particularly in the United States—he has curated several shows here, including one at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2001, as well as Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture in New York City in 2005—Mr. Dob and his fungal friends and their dizzying variety of types embody Murakami’s self-professed project of the “Superflat” (which lent its name to the MOCA exhibition), an interpretation of the traditional flatness and linearity of Japanese surfaces in a contemporary context where “society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional”, which finds a “visual correspondence in the reception mechanisms … of a screen-oriented generation …”
Beneath the deliberately depthless veneers of Murakami’s work, however, lurks a sense of something … more. It is a feeling of uneasiness, for instance, not an exclamation of “How cute!”, that the sight of Dob in the Strange Forest evokes: the immediate reference, at least for a Western viewer, is the enchanted world of the fairy tale, and one is reminded of the ambiguous nature of magic in those stories, of its capacity to heal or to harm in equal measure, by the expression of consternation that Dob wears, and by his hand held up in a gesture of defence as if to ward off the ring of silent, staring, mushrooms. Freud, in his 1919 essay The Uncanny, arrives, through a semantic interrogation of the terms heimlich and unheimlich, at the conclusion that the former, which commonly functions in the sense of “familiar” and “native”, “is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich.”He quotes from the 1877 dictionary of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm: “From the idea of “homelike”, “belonging to the house”, the further idea is developed of something withdrawn from the eyes of others, something concealed, secret … The notion of something hidden and dangerous … is still further developed, so that “heimlich” comes to have the meaning usually ascribed to “unheimlich”.Murakami, in an interview, has alluded to the role that the Shinto religion, and its concept of kami, plays in his art: “It is base don a belief in the existence of a multitude of divinities, in which “multitude” is metaphorically referred to by the expression yaoyorozu no kami—literally, “eight million gods”. These are pantheistic beliefs with connections to the fantastical world of specters and ghosts. In this view, any natural element, any object, has its own life—a soul.”He goes on to contrast this concept of the supernatural with the cute: “The notion of kawaii is extremely positive. It expresses the luminous side of an enchanted world. The ghosts, as divinities, are fairly close to its dark side.”The Janus-like merging of binary opposites that Freud identifies in the workings of the terms heimlich and unheimlich finds an analogue in the dual nature of Dob in the Strange Forest, the central dichotomy around which the image is structured being that of the cute, as represented by the figure of Dob, vs. the supernatural, as manifested in the eerie, anthropomorphic forms of the mushrooms, endowed, such as it were, with “souls”, and the spherical and ovular shapes that dominate the compositions of both find an echo in the large, round iron disc that serves as a base, which supports, encircles, and unifies, albeit in an alliance marked by uncertainty and tension.
(Disclaimer: Going back to it now after some 4 years, I’m not so sure of that preceding bit anymore ..)
In Super Nova, executed the same year (1999), Murakami subjects the motif of the mushroom, sans Dob, to multiplication and mutation. Sprouting in a line across several panels joined together to form a long mural, the fungi seem more creature-like than ever. Their individual palettes have been intensified, and the number of their eyes increased (indeed, as one commentator has observed, the sight-organs come across as having a personality of their own); some feature gills hanging from the underside of the cap, which the artist has rendered in the shape of jagged, barracuda-like teeth, much in the manner of Dob’s own sharp-toothed alter-ego. In the centre of the long row, towering above its fellows like an implacable, demoniac growth, like a kaleidoscopic spectre of the atomic decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, is the largest mushroom of all, the super nova. Resemblance to the now-iconic image of the atomic mushroom cloud does not bear repeating, a fact that the artist himself has acknowledged,but it is interesting to note his comments about the collective amnesia of the Japanese regarding the A-bomb, and, as a corollary, that of Japanese Imperialist aggression during the war. Apropos of the recurrent theme of the devastation of Tokyo by a weapon of mass destruction, which surfaces time and again in manga and anime narratives—a classic example of which would be Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira—Arthur Lubow, in a New York Times Magazine article, reports that Murakami “concluded that otaku raised a “mirror” to a reality that the larger culture preferred to ignore. Like many other Japanese intellectuals of his generation, he deplores both his country’s militarist past and what he sees as its acquiescent present.”Freud, in his theory of the uncanny, locates the driving impulse of the phenomenon in the act of repression: “…the uncanny is nothing else than a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it…”What Murakami has effected with Super Nova, in Freudian terms, is the disruption of mainstream societal discourse via the return of a suppressed memory from the subcultural realm of the otaku, where it has been kept alive, so to speak: the trope of mutation here serves to defamiliarize the (once-)familiar, to render it bizarre, alarming, and menacing, as witnessed in the metamorphosis of the mushroom from round-eyed forest waif, to be understood in a relational context which includes Dob as the focus of attention (all eyeballs are oriented towards his person), to a gaudy, grossly oversized apparition with blade-like appendages for teeth, and a lidded gaze which directly and unabashedly engages the viewer and, at the same time, exudes a self-sufficiency of being and purpose, one that entices and resists all at once.
Freud, however, admits that while “a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it” is uncanny, and that “everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition”, the reverse is far from true: “Not everything that fulfils this condition … is therefore uncanny.”18 He cites the case of fairy tales, in which strange occurrences and supernatural incidents abound, but which he yet “cannot think of any genuine fairy-story which has anything uncanny about it”;despite that fact that “it is in the highest degree uncanny when inanimate objects—a picture or a doll—come to life; nevertheless in Hans Anderson’s stories the household utensils, furniture and tin soldiers are alive and nothing could perhaps be more remote from the uncanny.”Freud attributes this to what Coleridge termed the “suspension of disbelief”, since “in fairy-tales, for instance, the world of reality is left behind from the very start, and the animistic system of beliefs is frankly adopted”, and that “there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.”It is, in other words, context (here a literary or imaginative one) from which the uncanny may be said to derive much of its meaning, a framework in which the necessary circumstances may be articulated to generate the desired effect. Super Nova, as such, seeks to be understood within a particular discursive space, or within a set of discursive terms—if the image of the mushroom may be read as anthropomorphic, then the point/s of departure against which it is to be measured are not merely its counterparts of Dob in the Strange Forest, but the normative human body as well. The mutated appearance of the large mushroom, limbless, sinister and menacing—a dark red fluid of some sort may be seen to ooze from behind the creature’s fangs—reflects the fear of disfigurement, dismemberment, and of death, embodied in images of the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced by survivors. Most of these drawings emphasize not just the annihilation of the landscape, its transformation into a charred, blackened wasteland, but, to a greater extent, graphic depictions of the extreme violence enacted on the human body predominate, pictures of victims both dead and (barely) alive, a visual inventory of severed body parts, missing appendages, gruesome disfigurations: in one may be seen a woman “with her jaw missing and her tongue hanging out of her mouth”; another portrays “a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeball in his palm”;there is a watercolour of a single hand, missing the tips of 4 fingers: “… (it) was lifted to the sky and the fingers were burning with blue flames. The fingers were shortened to one-third and distorted. A dark liquid was running to the ground …” A drawing of the corpse of his wife as he found her on the morning of August 11, 1945, by one Fusataro Tanimine, both describes and itemizes the condition she was in: “1. She looked just like a ghost because her eyelids were badly burned and swollen. 2. Her lips, swollen and protruding, made her mouth look like a monkey’s. 3. Although she was under mosquito netting, the skin of her whole burned body on which maggots were breeding had the appearance of the crust of a crab.”One sketch simply shows the bloodied figure of an old (or bald) man dressed in a white robe wandering about a corpse-strewn scene, arms hanging limply down in front, in the manner of a revenant.
Takashi Murakami, Puka Puka
It is in these grotesque, mutilated figures that one may perhaps locate the seeds of the “uncanny” in Super Nova, for, to quote Freud quoting his predecessor in this area, E. Jentsch, “(he) has taken as a very good instance “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate”… Jentsch says: “In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton …”The “ghost”-ly, or otherwise un-human, aspect of the representations is worth nothing in this regard, and Freud, in Totem and Taboo, offers numerous explanations as to the cause of the belief, both among “primitive” and “civilized” races, of the demonization of the dead, why the deceased are often perceived to be antagonistic towards their living brethren, returning in various unearthly guises to harass and harm. Freud writes: “…originally, however, the dead were all vampires who bore ill-will to the living, and strove to harm them and deprive them of life. It was the corpse that first furnished the conception of an evil spirit (italics mine).”His recognition of a visual source for the belief in demons and the undead strike a particular chord here, a belief encoded in the distinctly dehumanized figures of the zombified man, the jaw-less woman with her red, lolling tongue, the man with his eyeball in his palm, the crab-skinned corpse with the monkey lips and lidless, blood-shot eyes, and, in the same vein, the mutated image of Super Nova—the eyed, toothed, frighteningly large mushroom-form, with blood perhaps dripping from its maw, an almost convincing portrait of otherworldly voracity.
Ryuji Ikeda, Data.matrix (no. 1-10) [snippet]
Kiichiro Adachi, e.e.no.24 [snippet]