Posts Tagged ‘performance art’
Ok, its coming on December: people are preparing to decamp for the hols, the Orchard Rd. belt is now visible from space at night, and top ten lists of the year’s best everybloodything are popping up like OWS sub-movements ..
Time to deck those halls, folks.
This year I thought I’d try sumthin’ new: my own list of top ten art moments. After all, this marks the first full year I’ve spent at home in quite a while, and 2011 – fortuitously – produced quite the bumper crop for art lovers hereabouts. There was the inaugural Art Stage fair; the 3rd Singapore Biennale; the OH! (Open House) event; a whole slew of impressive shows at the SAM, including Its Now or Never II, Negotiating Home, History and Nation, and Video, an Art, a History; as well as the arrival of several major new players on the local gallery scene, such as Art Plural and Ikkan Sanada.
The art gods were working overtime this year.
A couple of preliminary notes: I’ve unfortunately had to restrict the list to pieces either (a) by Singaporean artists, or (b) which spoke to uniquely local issues. Its not an ideal situation, I realize – also, that second one is highly debatable – but the alternative presents too dauntingly wide a field. For instance, I saw certain works by Judd, Oldenburg, Vito Acconci and Pierre Huyghe for the first time this year, which I loved, but it didn’t seem quite .. apropos to put them in a list for 2011 (the Judd piece, say, dated from the ’60s). I also considered expanding the list to include Southeast Asian artists in general, but, again, it made little sense. While what I saw locally by contemporary regional artists was pretty damned good, it represented but a fraction of what was available in their home countries; I’m sure critics there can come up with far more comprehensive and intelligible lists of their own. I know this runs counter to the new spirit of globalized plurality which seems to characterize our little red dot and its burgeoning art scene in the new millennium (the catch-all colloquialism here being “foreign talent”), but this is Singapore after all. I hate to admit this, buuuut … I was afraid that if the parameters got too broad, the final tally might not have erm, included too many Singaporeans. How’s that for xenophobic insecurity eh ? (Notabilia, don’t bite my head off.) Finally, this should be borne in mind: I saw a whole lotta stuff this past year, but there’s plenty I missed, so if there’s something you think should’ve made the cut but didn’t, feel free to drop me a line, or just leave a note on this post. (One caveat: if you’re planning to write in recommending the ArtScience Museum, please don’t bother. It’s absence from the present discussion is both deliberate and, I hope, conspicuous.)
Anyways, enough prattling. Below are my picks – “my” being the operative word. Write-ups supplied where available, otherwise I’ll get round to it when I’m free (or not, which is entirely possible).
In no particular order, here’s the first ever Jusdeananas Annual Singapore Art Roundup:
1. THE MERLION HOTEL (2011), TATZU NISHI. Displayed: Singapore Biennale 2011 Open House.
From an earlier write-up on this blog:
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.
(Read the full version here.)
2. EXPENSE OF SPIRIT IN A WASTE OF SHAME (1994), SUZANN VICTOR. Displayed: Negotiating Home, History and Nation, Singapore Art Museum.
3. TAMAN NEGARA (2011), LOO ZIHAN. Performed: Singapore Survey 2011: Imagine Malaysia, Valentine Willie Fine Art.
From an earlier write-up on this blog:
It consisted of Loo alternately standing stock-still, and moving between two pillars … Accompanied by several chamber pots filled with water, he would, at regular intervals, drink from these pots, or transfer the contents from one to the next …. Apparently the piece … was a reference to (an exorcism of?) an old childhood trauma. The exact intent behind it was not entirely clear to me just from watching, but I loved it. Performance art was proscribed by the authorities after the hijinks of Josef Ng, Shannon Tham and Vincent Leow back in the early ’90s. Ng, as most people might remember, snipped his pubic hair at a public performance in Parkway Parade, and Tham chewed up and threw up a copy of The New Paper … while Leow, a year earlier, had taken a leak in front of his audience — and then guzzled it back down … The consequence of all this was, of course, official disapprobation, and censorship: the National Arts Council condemned Ng’s act, the artist was fined 1,000 SGD, and, most unfortunately, funding for performance art of all stripes was embargoed – a ban lifted only in 2003, nearly a decade later …… Are we now witnessing a return to the sort of in-your-face stunts that performance artists of a previous generation espoused ?
(Read the full version here.)
4. AN EXILE REVISITS THE CITY (2011), GREEN ZENG. (Exhibition.) Displayed: The Substation Gallery.
5. RAW CANVAS (2010), JANE LEE. Displayed: Collectors’ Stage, Singapore Art Museum.
From an earlier write-up on this blog:
The work is phenomenal. As it appeared at the SAM, Raw Canvas was an absolutely mammoth web of thick, solid skeins of paint (I think – other materials/additives were probably involved), which by some trick of the trade were made to adhere to the surface of an entire wall, transforming a simple structural element into a towering, ceiling-to-floor exercise in stereoscopic synesthesia, a play on the perceptual tensions between two-dimensional appearance and resolutely tactile, three-dimensional reality. In that sense, Lee’s work deconstructs, literally, the painting as an object. The interrogation of the traditional medial supports of paint and canvas is effected at the level of their sheer physical facticity: paint moves from being a tool of utility (the means of pictorial creation) to being an obdurately material existence in its own right, insisting on its own auratic presence as a three-dimensional object in space, the shift occurring not merely as aesthetic affect or formal inflection, but as manifest ontological redirection.
(Read the full version here.)
6. ALL LINES FLOW OUT (2011), CHARLES LIM. Displayed: Singapore Biennale 2011 Open House.
From an earlier write-up on this blog:
The video in particular was engrossing, especially when the camera tracks slowly down the length of various canals and rivers at the level of the water’s surface (below). The effect is compelling and creepy all at once, providing an alien, bottom-up perspective on the island’s urban landscape, literally capturing a worm’s eye view of everyday terrain most people are otherwise unaccustomed to …… The process of defamiliarization was echoed in the two installations nearby, which hung from the ceiling like a couple of supersized beehives, left there by mutant insects as a testament to their existence …… The act of repression and return, then, may be located in Lim’s excavation of “often unseen part[s] of Singapore”: the uninhabited waterways, canals and storm drains of our city-state, rendered from a distinctly unsettling perspective, the slowly gliding camera seeming closer to the experience of some form of marine species, rather than the thrashing movements of a human being in the water; the stuffed drainage socks suspended in the middle of a gallery space, an item of utility that most people may be unfamiliar with, and taking on an even more eerie aspect for their mode of display.
(Read the full version here.)
7. MULTIPLE PERFORMANCES (2011), MARK WONG, KAI LAM, ZAI TANG & YUZURU MAEDA. Performed: dream: borderlands and other territories, Goodman Arts Centre.
8. ADINANDRA BELUKAR (2011), GENEVIEVE CHUA. Displayed: Singapore Biennale 2011 Open House.
9. ? (?), ?. Displayed: privately.
From an earlier write-up on this blog (the painting in question is the one on the left):
In that sense, the painting is, above all, citational. It quotes from the trans-spatial archive that is the contemporary discipline of art history; it references repositories of localized memory in the inscription of those narratives — teasingly, ambivalently — into its iconographic negotiations. But the main locus of referentiality, of course, is the inclusion of Titian’s painting, a nod to the forces of globalization as much as the art historical archive. The nebulous space of the composition, anterior to the painting within a painting, reproduces the reproduction: the presence of a dog and the tiled grid of the floor in both; the slant of a shadow across the wall gestures at the bisection of Titian’s work, by the partition draped in green fabric; even the samfoo-ed getup of the young girl, though ostensibly standing in stark contrast to the nudity of the Venus figure, alludes, in its pristine whiteness, to the smooth, creamy expanse of flesh that is the goddess at her erotic best. That the position of the young girl’s head also, coincidentally or otherwise, obscures Venus’ obscuration of her own pudenda with her hand — a gesture notorious in the annals of art history for its risque titillation — also perhaps further sediments the two spaces in the painting in a mutually constitutive embrace.
(Read the full version here.)
10. ARTISTS IN THE NEWS (2011), KOH NGUANG HOW. Displayed: Singapore Biennale 2011 Open House.
11. (The honorary spot.) HE IS SATISFIED FROM MONDAY TO FRIDAY AND ON SUNDAY HE LOVES TO CRY (2009), CHUN KAIFENG. Displayed: It’s Now or Never II, Singapore Art Museum.
Spotted last night at the opening of the Singapore Survey 2011: Imagine Malaysia show at Valentine Willie Fine Art: local artist and actor Loo Zihan’s performance of a piece he called Taman Negara (or National Park). It consisted of Loo alternately standing stock-still, and moving between two pillars, which were adorned with his old family pictures — perhaps taken in the Taman Negara in Malaysia – a tape recorder, and a screen displaying video footage of the artist and his father (I think). Accompanied by several chamber pots filled with water, he would, at regular intervals, drink from these pots, or transfer the contents from one to the next.
And when he felt the need to pee, he would. Right there in the gallery, standing motionless in front of a crowd of gawkers.
By the time I arrived, the front of his pants already showed large, dark, damp patches running down in between the legs, and small puddles were visible on the floor.
Apparently the piece, as someone explained it to me — but she was pretty sloshed*, so I dunno — was a reference to (an exorcism of?) an old childhood trauma. The exact intent behind it was not entirely clear to me just from watching, but I loved it. Performance art was proscribed by the authorities after the hijinks of Josef Ng, Shannon Tham and Vincent Leow back in the early ’90s. Ng, as most people might remember, snipped his pubic hair at a public performance in Parkway Parade, and Tham chewed up and threw up a copy of The New Paper (see here), while Leow, a year earlier, had taken a leak in front of his audience — and then guzzled it back down (here). The consequence of all this was, of course, official disapprobation, and censorship: the National Arts Council condemned Ng’s act, the artist was fined 1,000 SGD, and, most unfortunately, funding for performance art of all stripes was embargoed – a ban lifted only in 2003, nearly a decade later.
* The individual has since written in to protest my suggestion that she was doling out wrong information (see comments); I stand corrected.
Are we now witnessing a return to the sort of in-your-face stunts that performance artists of a previous generation espoused ?
Cheo Chai-Hiang, 5′ x 5′ (Ao Tou, Another Source), June 2005, enacted in Tong An, Fujian province, China. Image from Asia Art Archive.
The year is 1972.
Singaporean artist Cheo Chai Hiang, then a student at Birmingham Polytechnic, submits the following for consideration to the local Modern Art Society’s annual show: instructions, via mail, to draw a square measuring 5′ by 5′ at the juncture between a wall and the ground, with the inscribed figure resting partially on each surface. The work was to be titled Singapore River.
It was rejected.
Art historiography, like other forms of narratives, has its heroes and its privileged moments, and Cheo’s instructional painting is frequently cited as one of the first examples of conceptual art by a local artist — a gesture of “emptying out”, as one commentator puts it, a common iconographic motif, an act of exhumation for a subject increasingly seen as sedimented in layers of uncritical reiteration and pictorial cliche.
Singapore River (2006), Cheo Chai-Hiang, at the Telah Terbit show at the Singapore Art Museum. Image from Universes in Universe.
Of the iconic stature of the Singapore River as an artistic subject, Kwok Kian Chow writes in Channels and Confluences:
The Singapore River was a favourite subject for the watercolourists. Gog Sing Hooi noted:
Members of the Society are inclined to paint with realism and local flavour. The Singapore River once played an important role during the days of entrepot trade. Not only has it economic value, it is also an excellent subject for the artists’ drawing board. The busy tongkang traffic, the old terrace houses lining its shores, combined with the characteristic bridges spanning the river, all culminate in a picturesque Singapore landscape. This scene is also a source of inspiration to many an artist. Alongside th river which bustled with activity, there are shady passageways and a sparkling clean food centre. It is an ideal place for sightseeing and a place where artists gather; members of the Singapore Watercolour Society are its regular visitors. Come Sundays and members would be seen setting up their easels along its banks. By mid-day, the majority would have shuttled back to the river-side. After lunch, they would produced their newly completed works for their fellow members’ appraisal. At this time, a group of young watercolour enthusiasts would turn up and quietly observe these experienced artists at their work and discussion.
By the 1980s, painting the river had become such a convention for the watercolourists that they took offence at an exhibition entitled Not the Singapore River organized by Arbour Fine Arts, a private gallery which showcased younger artists. The exhibition fea-tured [sic] the works of Goh Ee Choo, Oh Chai Hoo, Yeo Saik Goon, Peter Tow and Katherine Ho. “Not another painting of the Singapore River, please; Or Chinatown in watercolour, or shades of old Singapore; You can’t tell one artist from the next because they all use the same theme,” Lim jen Howe of Arbour Fine Arts was paraphrased and quoted as saying in The Sunday Times. Watercolourist Ong Kim Seng … responded to the exhibition:
It is an effective title, but I am very concerned if it indicates that we are getting tired of our source of nationhood, the Singapore River, and that artists, especially the younger ones, are discouraged or refrain (sic) from painting it … Many artists, including those who have taught some of the artists who will be on show, have painted the river, depicting it in a style that is distinctly Singaporean … Riverside houses, the bridges that span the river, and the tongkang, now resettled to brave the wind and wave at Pasir Panjang, form scenes that amount to emblems of our country – they have appeared in our postcards, tourist posters and even our currency notes … If the clever title is there because the artists need a change in expression, a change in their publicity – then I ask, why at the expense of the Singapore River?
Responding to the Singapore River versus Not the Singapore River debate, Teo Eng Seng created The Net: Most Definitely the Singapore River … in the same year (1986). The work is an installation comprising a net with “paperdyesculpt” sculptural elements. Teo’s work is a powerful proclamation that, with deep respect to the social and historical significance of the Singapore River, the responsibility of the artist in portraying and manifesting the spirit and life of the Singapore River must include innovation in the very medium of representation itself.
(Kwok Kian Chow, Channels & Confluences: a history of Singapore art [Singapore Art Museum, 1996].)
Cheo’s piece was not realized till recent years, remaining for some time entirely in the realm of the notional. In other words, conceptualism in Singapore may be traced to a postulatory work of art, conveyed by proxy from a foreign country — and a former colonial power, no less.
Perhaps an apt analogy for the local visual arts scene in a pre-Tang Da Wu era ?
Originary moment no. 2: at an outdoor exhibition of his own work organized by artist Tan Teng Kee, he sets a sculptural piece alight, an act which, according to some, inaugurated in a single gesture performance art in Singapore.
Or did it ?
According to T. K. Sabapathy:
In 1979, Tan Teng Kee organized a “picnic” in the grounds of his premises. It was in effect an exhibition of his paintings and three-dimensional works; he decided to present them in an informal manner. Among the paintings was one titled The Lonely Road which was 100 meters long; it entailed twenty-four hours of continuous work before being completed. Tan offered to cut The Lonely Road into manageable pieces in accordance with the wishes and needs of prospective owners. The climax of the picnic was the incineration of one of his three-dimensional constructions; this was a surprise. Hitherto, Tan’s practice had been directed towards the production of works which were tangible and durable; in this instance he embarked upon an action which completely undermined and obliterated the existence of a work as an object. As a phenomenon it is singular in Tan’s artistic career and unique in the story of art in Singapore.
(T. K. Sabapathy, “Sculptors and Sculpture in Singapore; An Introduction” in Sculpture in Singapore [Singapore: National Museum, 1991], pp. 9 – 29. See p. 26.)
Elsewhere though, artist and art historian Ray Langenbach calls this into question:
The exact time of arrival of ‘performance art’ in Singapore is contested. T. K. Sabapathy points to an action by the sculptor, Tan Teng Kee in 1979 in which the artist held an outdoors picnic to sell paintings and sculptures. At the end of the day he incinerated his three-dimensional constructions. Tan’s work, however, was a one-off event. Although it echoed Gutai, Concrete art and ‘happenings’ of the 1950s-70s, no claims for the introduction of a new form were made by the artist, and it was not followed up by other such actions …… The next historical recording of a work which was advertised as a ‘performance art’ event was Five Performances presented by Tang Da Wu at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1982, which most emphatically marked the arrival of performance art and earth art.
(See Langenbach’s as yet unpublished PhD dissertation, Performing the Singapore State 1988 – 1995, available for download from ADT.)
Local artist Lee Wen concurs. In the Future of Imagination 6 catalogue, he remarks that it is the idea of Tan’s undertaking of self-destruction that remains a potent symbol for local performance artists:
Tan Teng Kee’s Picnic event of 1979 was cited by veteran art historian TK Sabapathy as the first evidence of performance art in Singapore …… It is hard to believe these actions amounted to a work of performance art as Tan did not continue his explorations in performance but became known to us as a sculptor. However the image of an artist destroying and burning his own painting and sculptural creations seemed like an appropriate one for the beginning of performance art in Singapore.
(The catalogue is available for download here.)
A more recent interview conducted with the artist by Sabapathy, however, puts paid to those doubts. In his monograph on Tan, published in 2000, Sabapathy specifically addresses those issues, and Tan even uses the term “happening” for the 1979 exhibition and subsequent artistic bonfire:
In 1979 when you were living in Normanton Estate, you held a gathering, or a party, which was unique and which projected art and its reception onto an enlarged environment. You produced a painting which was one hundred metres long; it was cut up and the pieces sold to the requirements of the collector. And then a sculptural form was put to the torch and burnt. I have discussed this in some of my writings. Could you describe your thinking at the time you held this gathering ?
Actually it was not only an exhibition of sculpture but also of painting. It was a happening. I had just moved there and at the back of my house, there was a ground the size of two football fields. I tried to make use of it as my works were getting quite big. I needed a big space. The hundred metre painting could be displayed in this open field. People could walk its entire length and see it. I built a bamboo structure to hang the painting and I had enough space to display the sculpture. At that time, it was customary to open exhibitions at 5 pm, and one hour later, the sky would turn dark. I tried to design a centerpiece for the opening; inside it, I put a torch and wrapped the whole piece with newspaper. Some of my students helped me. the source of the fire could not be seen; the whole sculpture seem [sic] to explode, suddenly, unexpectedly. Nobody knew what was inside the sculpture. The newspaper wrap-around, on its own, was new and very abstract. The whole centerpiece was held together by twenty-foot high poles. I designed it such that when the fire started, the poles would burn and fall backwards and outwards. There was sound, light, and human beings; it was an exciting happening. Everybody gathered around the fire. It was a kind of celebration. The sky turned dark and the people did not want to go home. The fire sculpture turned into another form, radiating light. We got chairs and sat around it and there was a party. That was happening.
What about the hundred-metre long painting ? Did you produce the picture all in one day ?
I did it at another place two to three weeks earlier. When I unrolled and displayed it at the happening, a reported asked me for its price. Of course, nobody would buy it, as it would be impossible to display. So I said that you can cut the length you want. Choose the section you want, whether one or two metres, and I’ll cut it and you pay for the length you have chosen. It was all cut-up and sold.
(See T. K. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee : an overview, 1958-2000 [Singapore: Sculpture Square, 2001].)
Tan’s designation of “happening” may perhaps be a retro-projection, a declaration of intent in hindsight, but Lee Wen’s observation that the relevance of the event lies in its symbolic force hits the nail on the head.
The queues were crazy. Getting our tickets took some 15 minutes, and then waiting for the tour to actually begin – we were herded off in groups of 10 or so – had us in line for an hour and a half. By the end of which I seriously needed a drink ..
Though this year’s Open House was quite a treat, so it was all good. Dubbed an ‘art walkabout’ – the event’s tagline is “Come Walkabout. Art Walkabout.” – it got its participants walking into the heart of Marine Parade for a dose of home-inspired art, and then some. The impulse behind OH! was to bring art out of galleries and museums and to the masses; one of the organizers remarks: “Open House is on a mission to make art a part of our lives, our homes. Most Singaporeans live in HDB flats, that’s where we needed to go.” (Qtd. in Corrie Tan, “Art Invades Homes in HDB Estate”. Straits Times, January 14, 2011.)
And indeed that’s where MP, SY, their friend MY and I headed to late last Saturday afternoon. After the protracted wait at the community center, where the tour started, we were off to the first and second homes at 32 Marine Crescent, located side by side on the same floor. Our first stop slipped right by me: there were several instances of staged and doctored photographs alluding to (apparently mythological) sightings of dolphins off the Katong coast, as well as a manufactured ‘dolphin bone relic’ (below). I think the artist in this case was Zhao Renhui – at least the bone object was his – but I wasn’t paying much attention; the works would not have looked out of a place in a museum, and didn’t engage much with their very unique domestic setting, which I expected would have been the point of this singular opportunity to display works in not just a quotidian space, but one that is utilized, lived in, indelibly a part of someone’s most intimate everyday experience.
The art in the second home, which belonged to a friendly yoga instructor who was on hand to greet us, proved to be more compelling. Local artist Terence Lin had a piece titled The Perforated Night, which was essentially a piece of black fabric with holes cut out, masquerading as a curtain (below). According to our guide – an amiable young architecture student, whose name unfortunately I didn’t catch – it appropriates the inherent voyeurism of HDB living, where the high-density character of such neighbourhood estates ensures that simply looking out the window means gazing into someone else’s home. What especially struck me about this piece was how it insinuated itself into the very fabric (haha) of the living space, albeit imperfectly of course. Here was what I had come to see: art that interacted with their everyday surroundings, deploying inventive formal strategies to speak cogently to the idea of the ordinary and the familiar. In another part of the apartment, artist Jes Brinch recreated the contents of an entire room, from the furniture to soft toys to books strewn about in supposedly careless fashion, upside down on the ceiling (below). A mirrored floor inverted the upturned space, thus visually righting the imaginary. Only Apparently Real III was a clever, highly amusing installation, although the most interesting thing about it was its site-specificity. I suspect it would seem .. paltry in a traditional display environment. (The flip side: situating this piece in, say, the showroom of a furniture or interior design concern would render it far more witty, even brilliant, no?) Terence Lee contributed another work, Bed, here. The painting of a floral-patterned bed with pillows and bolster was rigged up to resemble a TV screen (below), and hung on the wall of the home owner’s bedroom directly confronting – what else <lol> ? – her bed. This piece functions on a couple of levels. For one, it rehearses one of the most common domestic rituals, TV-watching, both formally and display-wise, approximating the appearance of a television set and being positioned on a wall at eye level, thus bringing together our experience of TV- and art-viewing at once. Bed also reflects its immediate surroundings – an empty bed – through the gesture of quasi-imitation, in what could be construed as an oblique comment on the egocentric act of inscribing our personality into our belongings. In other words, what Lee has done here is to paint a bed, not specifically the owner’s (which looked very different); putting both in a direct encounter within the most intimate of spaces highlights this disjuncture, or what is at stake in our choice of personal objects.
Home No. 3 brought more surprises. In a stairwell next to the apartment, Teng Yen Ling painted anamorphic projections of various objects and animals, ranging from bikes and chairs to a cat to an entire elevator (below). She very helpfully provided vantage points, marked by little X-es on the ground, from which to negate the element of distortion when viewing, but as it turned out people were so charmed by the line renderings that they started interacting with the art as if they were real: sitting on the chair, which was painted on some stairs to allow for an actual occupant; standing in the doorway of the elevator as if just emerging from within. The sheer unexpected whimsy of Teng’s Secret Landing (2010) made it a surefire crowd-pleaser, but also seemed to be the point of the work: located in an otherwise completely utilitarian and often overlooked public space – how many people even take the stairs, unless one’s living on the first couple of floors ?- the paintings defy strict trompe l’oeil representation, yet invite the viewer to interact with them in very practical and prosaic ways by dint of their life-size scale and their appearance in a setting so closely allied with the business of day-to-day living. (You can just imagine actual bicycles and birdcages and a lift lobby being right there on the landing …)
A number of Indonesian artists were featured in the apartment itself, a reflection of the home owners’ tastes, whose personal collection they were. There was In Between by Nurdian Icshan (below), which included a figure of the artist on a flight of brick stairs, with his head up against an imaginary wall. However, it had been positioned against a bookcase, humorously giving a very personal and expressive work of art the character of a bookend. Desziana, one of the few female artists represented in the couple’s collection, had produced three rows of little fabric houses, which when lit up from the inside brought out figures of trees and potted plants otherwise difficult to discern on the surface of the material (below). The diminutive quaintness of the piece was disarming. On the one hand, the tiny structures sans windows and doors reminded me of fellow Indonesian Rudi Mantofani’s Rumah-Rumah Cokolat, one of my favourite paintings (below); on the other, the uplit homes definitely channeled the surreally and enigmatically warm yet remote interiors of Todd Hido’s Homes at Night photographs (below).
The next stop was dominated by Messy Msxi’s Ten Years in Training series (below). Comprised of paintings, videos and found objects, I found Msxi’s quirky figures a little too derivative of contemporary Japanese visual culture – say, Yoshitomo Nara’s big-eyed people; her moniker was also something of a turnoff, literally screaming cuteness … I guess I’m one of those annoyingly arch postmodernist-wannabes whose idea of acceptable sincerity can only ever be irony. However, an installation set up in a back room (clearly used for storage) was a lot more compelling: a TV had been placed in one corner, playing what looked like footage of the artist’s work, and certain objects pertaining to the theme of athletic training and competition had been inserted into the mess of the home owner’s personal stuff, looking for all intents and purposes like every other article or gewgaw in the room. Even more than Terence Lee’s curtain or television-imitating canvas, here was a work of art that convincingly passed itself off as no more than another everyday object or occurrence, effectively effacing the line between artifice and actuality. While it isn’t hard to figure out which the pieces in question are, it seems as if the employment of the found object has been extended to its logical end here – re-embedded in its natural environment, as simply one more anonymous thing among a jumble of things.
Finally, at the last apartment of the evening, we witnessed the culmination of what I took to be the unspoken theme of this year’s OH!: art both in and of the home. The living room of the apartment was screened off by a white sheet punctuated by little peepholes, behind which an actress, moving among what one assumes is the home owner’s furniture, performed various acts like playing the piano, reading, and toying with a little dog (yes, there was a live one involved; below). I forgot to note the title, but it was the brainchild of two artists, Clare Marie Ryan and Marc Gabriel Loh, in collaboration with the owner. It was also the sole performative piece of the event, involving a human – and canine – body interfacing with a domestic space in all its multifarious dimensions. So far we’d seen a number of works which spoke directly to their unusual settings; here, at our finishing stop, was an actual body inhabiting a lived space, rehearsing household rituals and mundane experience as a means of performance art. To put it another way, by incorporating the human body into the realm of art, art and actual experience were brought a step closer - even more so than the use of found objects, or visual simulation, or the utilization of everyday space ..
Of course, my interest in trying to discern an aesthetics of the domestic probably occluded from view other less dominant themes in the show. For instance, there was also a definite engagement with the larger community of Marine Parade and Katong – or the neighbourhood estate as a form of collective memory. The photographs which posited an ersatz history of marine and social life in the area, for one, as well as Lynn Lu’s Tremor, which consisted of a tray of vibrating crystalware perched on a small table beneath which a device emitting sound on a continual loop had been placed, thus ensuring the constant vibration of the glasses (below); our guide informed us that it reflected the fact that the estate often feels the effects of seismic activity in Indonesia very keenly. Local artist Mark Wong’s numerous sound installations in the various apartments, produced by hidden gadgets and creating an ambient soundscape as part of the art-viewing experience, also deserves greater notice, but that unfortunately is a little beyond the scope of the present review (below).
OH! may be said to fall under rubrics familiar in the contemporary art scene: participation art, happenings, relational aesthetics. This last was a term coined by French curator Nicholas Bourriaud in the 1990s (which admittedly we are a decade away from as of now). Bourriaud’s aim was to describe the means by which forms of conviviality and sociability have become the desired ends in art-making: “In our post-industrial societies, the most pressing thing is no longer the emancipation of individuals, but the freeing-up of inter-human communications, the dimensional emancipation of existence.”* Unlike the scripted nature of a John Cage or Allan Kaprow Happening perhaps, in which the audience is invited to engage with the work of art in a specific, regulatory manner, the generation of a “community effect” is the point which Bourriaud wishes to stress: “The aura of art no longer lies in the hinter-world represented by the work, nor in form itself, but in front of it, within the temporary collective form that it produces by being put on show.”* In other words, it is the staging of a forum wherein relations between viewers – rather than simply a relation between the audience and the artwork – which is held out as the chief site of interest, or the instituting of an arena or an open system under the auspices of art to foster the sorts of communal conviviality that Bourriaud has identified.
I can’t imagine a more apropos instantiation of his ideas. Yes, the participatory element of the show was very much a restricted one: we couldn’t take pictures of the homes themselves, just the art; and of course we weren’t permitted to disrupt the owners’ possessions; their bathrooms were likewise off-limits; the time spent at individual apartments was limited to no more than ten minutes. However, the ambulatory character of the event – combined with the circumscribed relationship between viewer and work, where both time and space are controlled factors – was certainly conducive to communication and interaction between viewers instead. And here, in trying to account for the effects of the art experience rather than just the work itself, a shift from cataloging formal qualities to narrativizing the less tangible elements of art-viewership is desirable – and where perhaps moving into the personal and anecdotal may not be inappropriate. As mentioned, I was there with several friends. MY, whom I was meeting for the first time, was just done with her M.A. thesis, in which she maps urban theory onto military aesthetics (from what little I understood anyways). The point is, as a student and thinker she turned out to be just as keen on critical theory and cultural studies as I was. In between peering at the art, and trekking from one HDB block to another to peer at more art, we found quite a bit to talk about: my work, her work, the vagaries of academia, NUS, Foucault, Debord, the list goes on … It was a pleasant couple of hours, and while to describe it in Bourriaud-ian terms as a “freeing-up of inter-human communications, the dimensional emancipation of existence” may perhaps be something of an overstatement, the event accords, I think, with the general paradigm shift that Bourriaud lays out, in transferring the burden of significance from formal meaning to human terms like conviviality and sociability.
* See Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les Presse Du Reel, 1998), p. 60 & 61.
Strictly for art buffs and/or VL devotees, otherwise you aren’t missing much.
VL, along with names like Josef Ng and Shannon Tham, evoke an earlier moment of performance-art provocation and daring-do sorely missing these days, even if they were still only noteworthy exceptions back then rather than the rule.
Brief digression slash diatribe: The headlines lately seem to be hogged by misbehaving bloggers rather than artistic controversy. The last couple of years have witnessed prosecutions against members of the online community caught indulging in the most asinine instances of racism, one of whom turned out to be a PSC scholar at Northwestern who had this to say of the non-Chinese members of his school’s Singapore Association: “Ya. I discovered I’m so racist. At the club [under lighting in which everyone is supposed to look good], I still find Indians and Filipinos [dark ones] so repulsive and such a turn-off.” Well. Meanwhile, just this past week, local food blogger Bradley Lau was thrust into the glare of public ire when it turned out that not only did he demand a free meal costing nearly 500 SGD at a Joo Chiat restaurant, he became downright unpleasant with the staff when his request was not fully met. Now, Mr. Lau’s bad manners are one thing, but the reactions to the incident on Yahoo Singapore definitely crossed the line from outrage into inexplicable hate. The language and the personal attacks, ranging from alarming vilifications like “you piece of shit” to deeply personal assaults on his presumed sexuality [“f*cking faggot”] and his appearance [“langah-lorry”], were if anything far more appalling than the blogger’s antics. Nothing like an ugly Singaporean to bring out other ugly Singaporeans eh …
Back to the topic at hand. Before a discussion of VL’s significance in the history of Singapore’s visual arts scene though, a look at the exhibition itself: divided over three levels of the 8Q building, the gallery on the ground floor surveys the first, early phase of his career, comprised in the main of satirical paintings such as the one on the left, called Dumbo (1991, above), which, according to the wall label, represents an experiment with polka dots as a means to “convey the idea of viewing the world through the pixels of a television screen.” The animal is “both an image from childhood memory of the earliest drawing he [VL] did, and marks the beginning of Leow’s use of animal characters in his paintings. Done during the time when the US invaded Iraq, the elephant alludes to the US dominance in the war.” Nothing terribly groundbreaking here, but I do like the grid-like effect imposed by the web of dots on the surface of the work, a recurring motif in VL’s oeuvre (above). The mathematical regularity and visual uniformity – all the more salient for being juxtaposed against a biomorphic image – dovetails pretty nicely with the qualities of similitude and homogeneity inscribed into the figures of a neighbouring display, Big Head, Little People (1999, below), consisting of a group of little look-alike aluminum figures lined up in methodical, quasi-military formation like the terracotta warriors of the Emperor Qin, and literally watched over by a large wooden head. The implications here – both art historical and socio-political – are interesting: this piece seems to have much in common with the work of contemporary Chinese artists like Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun, both of whom are famed for their iconography of repetition. The former, at least, has explicitly adduced the terracotta figures as inspiration in his own oeuvre, while the latter has likewise produced stuff along the same lines (below). The relentless act of reiteration that occurs in such pieces, approximating the appearance of a uniform mass, seems to speak to the phenomenon of a surveillance society – analogous to the inexorable visibility of the Benthamite Panopticon – as delineated by Michel Foucault in his Discipline and Punish. The homogeneous seas of figures conjured up by VL, Yue and Fang resemble the sort of disciplined bodies that Foucault wrote about – and which seem to channel the rigid, hierarchical societies and the corresponding cultures of self-censored conformity that are operative in countries like Singapore and China today. VL, in fact, very pointedly notes this impulse behind Big Head, Little People: “The work originates from the Chinese expression “Someone with a big ego with ill intention”, where identical casts of little men are ruled by a big head that oversees all of them. The work represents the unequal balance of power and ego that exists in our society” (wall label). But more on all that in a later post …
Another Chinese artist with whom VL’s work finds agreement is Zhou Chunya, who obsessively paints and sculpts images of his dead german shepherd, often in startlingly sexualized poses and always in a lurid shade of electric green (below). Like Zhou, one of VL’s favourite themes is his late pet, a dog named Andy. Andy is resurrected in a number of ways, but most often pictured in a hybrid representation with his owner’s caricatured mug substituted for his own (below), resulting in a pretty unnerving amalgamation of homo sapiens and canis lupus. One is vaguely reminded of the monsters of Greek myth, here transplanted into the disquieting realm where the comic and the sexual meet – like watching hentai. Anime fornication has always unsettled me. The supposedly innocuous and the blatantly carnal make for very uneasy bedfellows, pun not intended, and as any hormonal teenage boy can attest to, sh*t gets pretty nasty pretty fast in the world of hentai …… Elsewhere, the trope of death – its originary moment located in Andy’s passing – is again played out in pieces like Conversations with a Femur Bone (2010, below), which deploys replicas of life-sized human bones, piled up on a stainless steel cart one imagines a coroner would utilize, as a particularly eerie memento mori, the sight conjuring up not so much the pictorial theme of vanitas but the grisly mounds of skeletal remains that often serve as evidence of mass slaughter, as at the infamous Tuol Sleng museum slash former torture center in Phnom Penh, for instance (below). (Notwithstanding the opinion of the curator/s, who, according to the wall label, consider the piece to be “injected with Leow’s trademark playfulness.” One bone may perhaps be that, but a whole lot of them on a hospital cart is just creepy ..)
Vincent Leow, Conversations with a Femur Bone (2010)
The making of Conversations also forms the basis of the sole performative piece included in the show (below). A short video of the artist assembling the various elements that come to constitute the display, it’s pretty much as dull as it sounds. On the benches, however, was the most interesting object in the gallery (below): a photocopied booklet of newspaper and magazine articles concerning the scandal that cemented VL’s reputation in the annals of local art history, his no-holds-barred act of public pee-guzzling, as well as the equally notorious shenanigans of fellow artists Josef Ng and Shannon Tham the following year. Back in 1992, during the first flush of the liberalized, post-LKY years, VL was a relatively young art student just back from a stint at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, and running with the boho-ier-than-thou Artist Village (TAV) crowd. At the annual Artists’ General Assembly, a week-long interdisciplinary festival of the arts organized by TAV and 5th Passage Artists and held over New Year’s at the Parkway Parade mall, VL performed a piece he dubbed “Coffee Talk”: on stage in front of an audience of about 60, he urinated into a mug and then downed the whole thing (below). Et voila ! – instant infamy. The point, as he remarked, was to make a statement, “like slamming a table with your fist. People listen after you do that … It made people think.” Mission accomplished. And hot on his heels at the 1993/94 AGA, Ng and Tham, in protest against a recent spate of entrapment-based arrests of gay men, raised the stakes even higher:
A group of Singapore performance artists named 5th Passage stirred controversy and government ire for their activities in a rent-free studio in at Parkway Parade. …… First, performance artist Vincent Leow drank his own urine before an audience. Two performances at the shopping center early on New Year’s Day 1994 ensued [sic] the controversy. Performance artist Josef Ng, then 22, cut his pubic hair and presented it on a plate before an audience. Performance artist Shannon Tham, then 20, vomited into a bucket as part of his performance. The “performances” protested the arrests of 12 men for homosexual solicitation and protested the perceived imbalances in the news coverage of the arrests. ……Commentary writers Lee Weng Choy and Ray Langebach defended Ng’s public pubic clipping as contemporary art. Lee Weng Choy said Josef Ng arranged 12 tiles, representing the arrested men, on stage in front of the audience. He placed a block of white tofu (flesh) and a plastic pack of red paint (blood) on each tile. Josef Ng, dressed in a black robe and black swimming trunks, picked up a rattan cane and danced and hopped around a bit. Then he lashed the tofu blocks and paint bags with the cane, splattering the art asunder. After caning the tofu and paint bags, Ng went to a corner of the stage, faced away from the audience, dropped his trunks, and started clipping.”No one actually observed him cut his pubic hair. The audience only became aware of what appeared to be cut hair when Ng placed it on a plate before us. “He received enthusiastic applause from the audience. He requested help in cleaning up the tofu. A few members of the audience assisted in the process,” Ray Langebach commented.
(From an article on Ng at the Singapore Art website.)
VL got the ball rolling. And Josef Ng – to this day a household name among Singaporeans of a certain generation (including mine), thanks to a sensationalized cover story of the event in The New Paper – pretty much smacked it right in the faces of his countrymen, still unused to the wacky stunts of contemporary performance art. Needless to say, the result was an immediate public furor. The National Arts Council condemned the act, Ng was charged and fined 1,000 SGD, and, most unfortunately, funding for performance art of all stripes was proscribed – a ban lifted only in 2003, nearly a decade later.
All of this history, however, was relegated to a xerox-ed pamphlet in an empty screening room.
It was at this point, I think, in the last gallery of the exhibition, that the murmur buzzing at the back of my brain the whole time finally piped up: that’s IT, no more, nada, zip, boh liao, if you came looking for the Vincent Leow who gulped down a cupful of his own urine “to force his audience to pay attention” and to demonstrate the idea of the cyclicality of nature, that “what comes from you will eventually come back to you”, then sorry – better luck next time. That chap belongs to the heady era of the Goh Chok Tong 90s, now quite indubitably part and parcel of the endlessly rehearsed, and utterly irrecoverable, past.
Vincent Leow, Making of Conversations with a Femur Bone
Straits Times article on Vincent Leow’s Coffee Talk (1992)
August 2nd, 2010, interview with Vincent Leow in The Straits Times’ Life section
An addendum: Turns out VL’s personal gesture of artistic SOS slash liquid reclamation was way ahead of its time, anticipating the Singapore government’s development of NEWater. About a decade or so ago, largely to curtail the nation’s dependence on external sources of drinking water – i.e. Malaysia – the powers-that-be introduced NEWater: clean, potable, recycled wastewater treated with some fancy new technology to supplement the traditional desalination process. Now I’m sure we all know what that means: Singaporeans are now quaffing their own pee (among other unmentionables). So, really, VL wasn’t doing anything the rest of us aren’t already, he was just one step ahead. Now isn’t that all the more reason to celebrate this clairvoyant model citizen ?
(Note: This piece was NOT included in Tags and Treats, but in the 2008 show on TAV at the SAM, The Artists Village: 20 Years On. Image from Wikicommons.)