Posts Tagged ‘Malaysian 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.
Image of the day: an advertisement for Malaccan artist Charles Cham’s t-shirt enterprise, The Orangutan House.
Local Sing-Malaysian vernacular is all about the “lah” apparently, nevermind the entire plethora of other er, verbal add-ons.
Life’s like that lor.
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 ?
Worth a check-out: Valentine Willie’s latest show, Wawasan 2020: The Malaysian Dream.
Wawasan takes as its jumping-off point Mahathir’s programmatic vision of Malaysia in the year 2020: a progressive, affluent, unified utopia, no longer “developing” but “developed” – to use an often ill-adjudicated prescription. The show presents a fairly diverse congregation of the country’s emerging generation of artists, a cross-section of imaginaries conjuring “their own future through the lens of the past, present and beyond, taking Malaysia’s plans for modernity as outlined in Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020) … The premise being that by 2020 Malaysia would be a self sufficient industrialised nation that encompasses economic prosperity, social well being, world class education and political stability .” It “seeks to uncover how do [sic] artists feel about where Malaysia is going given the current socio-political landscape of the country. What are the concerns, anxieties, optimisms, and hopes for the future of Malaysia Boleh?”
The de-suturing, in other words, of faultlines running beneath the level of uncritically affirmative public discourse in Malaysia – the political, religious and racial fractures exposed by even the slightest social judders, so close to the surface of the everyday do they operate – constitutes the chief thematic thrust. Immediacy of expression seems to be key to the most compelling articulations here: Jalaini Abu Hassan’s imbrication of various gestures, materialities and referential orbits in The Prince and the Pauper; the excavation of social invisibility sedimented in squatter sub-culture by Eiffel Chong; Gan Chin Lee’s disrupted tableau limning the contours of various alterities; Anurendra Jegadeva’s iconographic mash-up of personal narratives and marginalized historical and political motifs; Sharon Chin’s installation dealing with outlawed texts, which invites the viewer’s participation and subsequently emits a flashing light and screeching noise, the resultant sensorial trauma evoking in a very visceral way the public histrionics attending the censored object and its perceived transgressions.
Other works seemed less cogent – or remained inadequately contextualized – but the show’s inspiration is laudable.
Wawasan 2020 runs at Valentine Willie Fine Art till 22 April.
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.
An old piece from the Asian edition of The WSJ. A couple of years old, but still an interesting read that attempts to contextualize recent developments and draw specific connections.
The original here.
A MATTER OF EXPRESSION
Malaysia’s modern-art scene grows up. By John Krich. Published October 2, 2009.
KUALA LUMPUR — It may have been Malaysia’s art happening of the year, though almost no one saw it. At the swank Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery one June morning, a pair of workers hastily pulled down a single work from a group show: a gigantic image of the head and shoulders of the country’s new prime minister, Najib Razak.
The work’s removal echoed its creation. The image was said to have been cut down from a congratulatory downtown billboard (a YouTube video documents the theft, not very convincingly). Compounding the provocation, black tape had been placed across the politician’s eyes and yellow police-line tape across his mouth, negating him in the manner of the famous Queen Elizabeth II cover art for the 1970s punk-rock anthem “God Save The Queen.”
It was enough to offend at least one gallery visitor — who turned out to be a government aide. Down came “Najib’s Head Stolen From Billboard,” though a gallery manager insisted it had been removed along with other works solely to make room for VIP guests at a book-launch reception. (The prime minister’s image not only ran down the full height of the gallery wall, but covered part of the floor.)
The artist, 32-year-old Fahmi Reza, a ponytailed human-rights activist, clearly relished the controversy he’d stirred, if not the result. “The billboard was trying to brand our new leader, in the manner of a Big Brother, and this was just my rebranding,” he says. “I don’t think I was doing anything wrong, but they always try to make us feel afraid.”
It seems contemporary art, an elite and minute corner of Malaysian culture, is starting to feel the same watchful eye that’s applied to more popular expression like film and the press. The intrusion of civil society into the rarefied gallery world sparked a wave of debate on arterimalaysia.com, a Web site begun in February this year that’s devoted entirely to Malaysian contemporary art.
“In the past, no one paid attention if we mocked politicians,” says Ahmad Fuad Osman, founder of the artists’ collective Matahati. “But we’re not seen as weirdos anymore.”
So what has changed? For one thing, contemporary art has finally entered the complex fray of Malaysian politics, after decades of staying largely on safe and highly personal territory. As Malaysia struggled to define itself after achieving independence in 1957, artists looked to imitate “fine arts” trends in Britain or the U.S., or drew on Chinese water-color traditions. Even long after in-your-face pop and performance art became the vogue in the West, Malaysia’s better-known practitioners were still mired in murky abstract expressionism — in part to honor Islamic admonitions against the too-literal portrayal of living beings.
Another reason the government may now be noticing art: The market has heated up in recent years. As curator and painter Anurendra Jegadeva puts it, “All kinds of people are paying attention now that art has become a valuable commodity.” Since 2006, prices for the better-known Malaysian modern artists have soared — 100-fold in extreme cases such as the internationally known Ahmad Zakii Anwar — as the general international demand for Asian works has trickled down to one of the least-known markets.
Wealthy local buyers have emerged, as have collectors from China and India, suddenly curious about artists from their respective diasporas, who together make up a large proportion of Malaysia’s population. Malaysian artists are winning more commissions from Japanese and European museums and being invited to prestigious biennales around the world. And the Valentine incident coincided with the first major U.S. show by the Matahati collective, whose five members have long been known as the “rock stars” of the Kuala Lumpur scene. The show, in Los Angeles, was titled “Malaysian Contemporary Art to the World.”
But the artistic surge, which took place under the relatively laid-back government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — once sent a pillow by local artists as symbolic thanks and encouragement for letting watchful governmental eyes stay asleep — may now be on a collision course with a new government. The ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organization) party, needing support from less-tolerant Islamic parties as it fights to hold off an opposition that nearly took power in last year’s elections, could take a harder stance.
It was Malaysia’s political turmoil in 1998 that spurred modernists to openly attempt social commentary and satire. The “reformasi” movement was born that year, and it was also in 1998 that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, UMNO’s leader, sacked Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and had charges, including sodomy, placed against his one-time heir apparent. It was during the period’s turbulence that Mr. Ahmad Fuad, for instance, became known for his pop-style howling faces.
During recent years, with Mr. Anwar first imprisoned, then released to lead a resurgent opposition, and Mr. Abdullah presiding over a period of turmoil in UMNO, younger artists have become less and less cautious about diving into political controversies — or perhaps the country as a whole has simply moved on from hollow imitation of European art forms.
Mr. Ahmad Fuad of Matahati, linking the political with the aesthetic, adds that Malaysian art was all about painting during the years of stability under Mr. Mahathir, but the Anwar protests set the stage for more experimentation in other media.
The jolt of the 2008 elections, threatening to topple the powerful coalition that has ruled the country from its inception, sparked a similar uptick in directly political art. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of independence, this has led to a general trend of historical re-examination, including of the Communist movement wiped from history books during Malaysia’s “Emergency,” the 1948-60 fight against guerrillas.
“It’s still such a young country and we have to break through the coldness of our own history,” says Mr. Ahmad Fuad, whose recent work includes pieces juxtaposing colonial documents and photographs with cellphones and motorcycle racers and playfully showing founding fathers of UMNO with miniskirted disco dancers.
But now artists are worrying. “It seems the elite is going backwards as we’re going forward — turning to Taliban-like people who may put the whole thing on hold,” rues conceptualist Wong Hoy Cheong, the country’s best-known artist internationally. (Young curator and Arteri co-founder Eva McGovern wonders, though, whether it would have been any different if UNMO had lost the election. “Does the current opposition have a different view of the arts?” she asks. “That’s not clear at all.”)
Some see troubling signs everywhere, including the Najib administration’s expunging the word “art” from the name of the former Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism (now Tourism, Culture and Environment). A more ominous and significant development was the mass resignation in March, under pressure, of the team of artist-curators in charge of the Petronas Gallery in the shopping mall of Kuala Lumpur City Centre. The offerings at the country’s most visible exhibit space, backed by its most powerful corporation, the state oil company, had grown ever more adventurous, if not overtly political, over the past several years. Under the banner of “Art for Everyone,” a series of exhibits had won praise and prizes for their mix of popular and elite appeal.
The rationale for the change may have been supposed objections to the recent Liew Kung Yu exhibition, “Proposal for My Country” — though these colorful collages, enlarged post cards breezily re-imagining Kuala Lumpur’s freeways, hardly seemed like a threat to anyone. A year’s worth of coming exhibits have been put in limbo and an interim appointee with little art background is currently heading the gallery. Ms. McGovern calls the Petronas purge “a very sad moment.” Former staff declined comment, seeming baffled by the artistic retrenchment.
Still, there are hopeful signs that contemporary art in Malaysia is here to stay. For one thing, the interest of buyers has hardly been dented by the current world recession. Just this summer, Imcas, a showcase of Malaysian modern art spearheaded by private collectors Farouk and Aliya Khan, occupied more than two floors of a large mall in Johor Bahru, an arts backwater five hours from Kuala Lumpur; it led to sales estimated at $150,000. “Given this was showing younger artists to the public, the response was fantastic and quite motivating,” Farouk Khan says.
While Pakhruddin Sulaiman, a lawyer whose impressive collection is his major passion, rues the lack of any real secondary market or regular auctions to determine true values, he vows that he and his cohorts are decidedly here to stay. “For two years,” he says, “nearly all the work at every Malaysian exhibit in KL was fully bought out.” (His collection, housed on an entire floor above his neighborhood office, may form the core of a modern museum of the future.)
And regional galleries such as Valentine Willie continue to show and promote artists like Sabah-born Yee I-Lann, one of whose photo collages sold for more than $30,000 last year at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
“In the ’90s, museums and academics still set the agenda,” says the conceptualist Mr. Wong. “Now it’s clearly the commercial galleries.”
That doesn’t seem to be forcing a more “commercial” product. Many artists are as wild and iconoclastic as ever, like the corpulent, skinheaded Ise, a/k/a Rosli Sham Ismail, who declares “politics is everywhere” and whose art seems to consist mainly of journals about himself and his friends. Many artists are creating their own underground exhibits, like the Lost Generation Space in a private bungalow. Others, such as the transient Findars Space and Rumah Air Panas, have taken inspiration from Central Market’s Annexe Gallery, a thriving two-year-old experiment in free-access — and so far unfettered — space. In response, official institutions, like the sparsely attended and little-noted National Gallery, are scrambling to regain relevance, and commercial entities are opening their own impressive new exhibit spaces — such as the 10,000-square-meter gallery Bank Negara has slated for its new headquarters.
“Suddenly, the stigma is gone,” says Mr. Jegadeva, the artist and curator. “Everyone wants their kids to be artists, and to hang real canvases, instead of posters, in their homes, developments and office lobbies.”
Most promising of all is the emergence of a younger generation of curators, returned from studies abroad with a determination to bring higher critical standards and greater sophistication to the scene.
“We need to develop the infrastructure and stimulate discussion,” says Beverly Wong, one of the founders of the three-woman team called Rogue Art, which stages period whimsical shows and conferences in rented spaces. “We need to fully plant the idea that contemporary art is as much a part of civil society as NGOs.”
Arteri’s Ms. McGovern, who returned from London to lead the ambitious team on the Web site, calls her home country’s art scene “still in its adolescence — and requiring proper understanding, presentation, cataloguing, a whole culture.” That might mean efforts like those of Shooshie Sulaiman, a conceptual artist who has been shown overseas and who is transforming her small neighborhood workspace into an art archive and resource center.
Malaysian artists are also forging stronger links with other Southeast Asian artists, museums and galleries — reaching out especially to Indonesia, with its far more daring, diverse and well-cataloged
output. “Now we can just hop on a plane to see what’s being produced in Jogjakarta. Or Manila,” says Yee I-Lann. “You might say the greatest influence on Malaysian art has been the cheap fares of Air Asia.”
Ms. Yee even sees a silver lining in the possibility of a political crackdown. “If the space for expression is tightening once again, a little pressure keeps people from getting too comfortable,” she says. “Good art requires some of that social tension.”
An untitled sculpture by Sun Kang Jye at Lost Generation Space. Jimin Lai for The Wall Street Journal.
1st & 2nd floors, Central Market Annexe, Jalan Hang Kasturi
More than an art gallery, the Annexe was launched in 2007 to provide free and rentable space for all kinds of alternative culture and causes.
Valentine Willie Fine Art
1/F, 17 Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru
With numerous branches around Southeast Asia, this roost in trendy Bangsar is Malaysia’s top commercial force — also includes a space for new, experimental work.
House of Matahati
6A Jalan Cempaka 16, Taman Cempaka, Ampang
Founded by the country’s groundbreaking collective in contemporary art, this space seeks to encourage emerging talents with shows and a recently instituted prize.
8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields
A small operation in a funky Indian neighborhood, it features a core of serious artists. The gallery also has promoted Malaysian art by taking traveling shows to other countries.
CHAI House (Instant Cafe House of Art & Ideas)
6 Jalan 6/3, off Jalan Templer, Petaling Jaya
Just opened by the country’s leading political theater company, this space plans theme shows, lectures and performances.
Lost Generation Space
54 Jalan Taman Seputeh 3, Taman Seputeh
Run by artists in a private house, this has been a place to see cutting-edge works and performances — when they’re in the mood.
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:
Kedai Runcit No. 12 [Retail Store No. 12], Gallery 12, Malaysia. A stand made up to resemble an old-school candy and toy store – of the sort one would be hard-pressed to find in Singapore these days – featuring young Malaysian artists. Beyond nostalgia, a droll comment on the undeniably commercial and elitist nature of the international art fair ?
The inaugural edition of Art Stage Singapore was a mammoth affair. Occupying an entire basement level in the suitably massive Marina Bay Sands Exhibition and Convention Centre, the event touts itself as “Asia Pacific’s new top international modern and contemporary art fair … a meeting place, a show, a market place, an ‘instant’ museum, and much more.” At least that’s the vision set out by its director, the redoubtable Lorenzo Rudolf – or the man who used to helm the prestigious Art Basel. (Read an interview with him here.) I’d headed down a tad earlier to catch a panel discussion on contemporary Chinese art – involving artist Shen Shaomin*, critic Pi Li, and collector Ulli Sigg, among others – but even then it took me nearly four long hours just to give the place a cursory once-over. Leafing through the catalogue (which cost a surprisingly economical 10 SGD), I realized just how much I’d missed. In that vein, this post adopts a straightforward ‘greatest hits’ approach, listing my three favourite moments of the afternoon.
* Shen’s short slide show, presented as part of the discussion, featured numerous photos taken with scholar and art historian Wu Hung, as well as a selection of Wu’s comments on his (Shen’s) work. Wu is an accomplished academic and a gifted thinker, as well as being my former advisor – something not lost on the artist, who clearly had bromantic feelings going on <lol> ..
A disclaimer, though: some of my choices are going to seem pretty obvious, insofar as works like Ai Weiwei’s large-scale installation, Through, quite literally stood out from the run-of-the-mill offerings; and there were a couple of stops, like the Singapore platform, titled Remaking Art in the Everyday, or the contribution of Malaysian Gallery 12, Kedai Runcit No. 12 (above), that I wished I’d paid more time and attention to … but, alas, I had to rush off for a German dinner at Brotzeit with CH and his delightful friends, KR and IG, who happened to be visiting from Mumbai.
Plus, after a couple of hours I was getting pretty art-ed out already.
Anyways. Bearing that in mind, here we go.
1. Through (2007-8), Ai Weiwei
As mentioned, Ai’s installation was one of the highlights of the event, if only in terms of sheer size. Taking up a space of some 115 sq meters, it involves colossal wooden beams and traditional Chinese furniture (mostly tables) dating from the Qing era, or so the wall label informed us. The objects were all mutually supportive, with niches and holes cut into each to accommodate the other, in effect creating a geometric forest of wooden structures. The artist declares that “certain objects, certain materials, need a certain scale to achieve a clear identity and voice, and that is what large-scale events provide. Artists are not in a position to decide the conditions imposed upon them but they can make statements about those conditions.” Which is well and good, and pretty commensensical as artists’ pronouncements go; the label continues:
Employing materials and techniques embedded in Chinese culture, Ai’s elegant objects can overwhelm viewers who do not fully grasp the conceptual implications of his work; their imposing, meticulous physical presence and massive scale often require considerable teamwork and vast production spaces to realize, and are made possible thanks to the artist’s influence, wealth and sprawling social network.
As much as I appreciate the “imposing, meticulous physical presence” of the piece, in the same way I do Richard Serra‘s steel behemoths, and interesting as the meta-commentary on the role of the contemporary artist is, surely scale can’t be the final word in any act of exegesis here. The vintage of the wooden objects certainly deserve consideration, for one, but the most noteworthy facet of the work, at least for me, is how they fit together as a cohesive whole. The niches cut into the beams of course reference the traditional process of construction for Chinese furniture, where, instead of nails, joints are used to fit the different parts together. This seamless mode of joinage, however, is belied by the disruptive manner in which the vertical beams and the horizontal tables come together: large holes are cut into the tabletops to allow the pillars to pass through. If one is allowed to adduce social factors in attempting to read the work, then perhaps a statement on the supposed cohesion of Chinese society – founded on paternal Confucian strictures and the extended familial unit – and the intrusion into that sphere by the praxis of the modern Communist state, may not be altogether implausible.
Along those lines, could then the solitary pole (below), standing in the midst of the installation and dwarfed by its fellows, be emblematic of the individual, subjugated by overarching socio-political structures ? I’m finding it difficult otherwise to account for its presence …
2. Procession (2009), Paresh Maity
I l-o-v-e-d this piece. 50 metallic ants, put together from used motorcycle parts, including lit-up headlights as Cyclopean eyes, crawl across a bed of twigs. Cue B-grade horror flick featuring the invasion of giant bugs .. Below is a still from Them! (1954), an old black-and-white sci-fi film about the attack of oversized radioactive ants.
Procession also reminds me of other art-animals put together from found materials – Picasso’s Baboon and Young, for instance (below). Both Picasso’s and Maity’s pieces are witty, humorous likenesses, a point of intersection between the industrial and the zoological. Baboon, in its indexing of the goods of the factory line, the commodities of mass production – a jug, toy cars, an automobile spring – reifies the “typically Cubist paradox”* of interrogating the semiotic and material modes of visual representation with these signifiers of daily life, provoking metaphysical uncertainty. It re-directs the aims of both analytic and synthetic Cubism: it does not merely yoke together its various elements, but engages them rather in an active reconstruction of the once fractured subject. Analytic Cubism’s shattering of the human figure into its constitutive planes and dimensions witnessed in, for instance, Ma Jolie, and the figure-ground reversal of, say, Guitar (1912) – where positive and negative spaces are inverted so that the sound hole of the instrument is indicated by an empty can projecting outwards – is here explicitly denied by the re-assembling, or re-imagining, of disparate industrial fragments into a new organic whole. Like Baboon and Young, Maity’s ants, constructed from vehicular parts and re-imagined in their, or a, natural habitat (the bed of twigs), gesture at once at both the realms of nature and society; they are hybrids caught in the flux between two dialectical poles which yet firmly occupies its own semantic space between these variable ontologies.
* See Timothy Hilton, Picasso (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1975), p. 119.
Baboon and Young (1951), Pablo Picasso. Image courtesy of MoMA‘s website.
3. Crystal City (2009), Wu Chi-Tsung
Here’s the scoop on Wu’s piece from the catalogue:
Taiwanese artist Wu Chi-Tsung (吳季璁) presents 水晶城市, or Crystal City (2009). Through a series of installations using a projector, LED lighting and plastic, Wu reveals the invisible city in which modern society resides, made up of electronic equipment, programs, networks, media and information. The artist chose the word “crystal” because this information-dense city grows like one; each component element organically comes together, infinitely expanding and spreading according to a set internal rhythm and logic. it is a city that is transparent, light, and lacking in real physical volume, but it projects a very real experienced world of unparalleled reality. It is this space that the artists considers contemporary society’s spiritual home.
At its most essential, Crystal City is a cluster of transparent boxes assembled in a dark room – with a toy train, bearing a light, making its way back and forth, casting a series of constantly distending and dissolving shadows. Beyond the pure visual pleasure derived from watching the gossamer silhouettes shift and morph and flicker across the surface of the wall, the piece also calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave:
Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see … Such prisoners would mistake appearance for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) were real; they would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
(Summary from a University of Washington page – read it in full here.)
Standing at the entrance to the little room, watching the exquisite dance of shadows from the harsh fluorescent glow outside, its not hard to imagine that Wu is deliberately making claims, contra Plato, for the impalpable realm of shadows as the highest form of “unparalleled reality” – a postmodern idea if ever I heard one.