Posts Tagged ‘politics’
So apparently she got picked up by the cops yesterday.
Who ? The “Press until shiok” sticker lady. Don’t know who that is ? See this abbreviated ST article.
The guerrilla art scene in Singapore gets slapped in the face.
Happy Int’l Workers’ Day !
Image of the day: Frida Kahlo’s El Marxismo Dará Salud a los Enfermos (Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick), a late work from 1954, on display at the Museo Frida Kahlo (better known as The Blue House, or La Casa Azul) in Mexico City.
I’m not generally a fan of her work, but workers everywhere deserve the consolations of Marxism: “But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour. Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Chap. 10.)
A shoutout also to the pioneers of the labour movement, especially those good folk whose sacrifice bequeathed us the eight-hour workday. (“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”)
The May 1, 1977 celebrations in Istanbul, which resulted in the Taksim Square massacre.
I’ll admit it: I’m suffering from Wiki withdrawal symptoms something bad.
It does help though that I find their blackout page utterly breathtaking (above).
I think there’s something to be said for the incongruous yoking of an urgent political statement to sublime aesthetic form.
THE HUGO BOSS PRIZE 2010: Hans-Peter Feldmann at the Guggenheim Museum. Image from an article on freshome.
So a long-awaited review on local ministerial pay is finally out.
A couple of days ago, TODAYonline reported the following:
The committee set up to review ministerial salaries has submitted its report to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and the Government is now studying the recommendations.
Channel NewsAsia understands that the report is expected to be made public early next month.
It also understands from several Members of Parliament (MPs) that the report is expected to be debated in Parliament soon. Next month could see two sessions of Parliament- one on Jan 9 as announced by the Clerk of Parliament – and a second sitting on Jan 16.
However, committee chairman Gerard Ee had said earlier that, with regard to how and when the report will be made public, the committee will stand guided by the Prime Minister.
The report comes after nearly seven months of consultations with the public, politicians and human resource experts. The review was announced by Mr Lee at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Cabinet at the Istana on May 21 this year, following the General Election.
Political salaries are currently pegged to top private sector pay.
Analysts say the report will likely go through a first run with Cabinet ministers before details are released to People’s Action Party MPs, possibly at the party caucus on Jan 3. They will have to decide whether to accept the report, or if they would go even further than what have been recommended.
They may even consider whether the recommendations will set the tone for top public sector pay.
Once these issues have been discussed, the report will be made public and debated in Parliament.
Analysts say it is important that the report is clear on the rationale for its recommendations, and that the new formula is seen as fair and acceptable.
The new wages will be backdated to May 21.
(Read the original here.)
Image from freshome.
Just to put into perspective that claim about managerial … sorry, ministerial salaries being “pegged to top private sector pay”, this is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
In April 2007, the Prime Minister’s annual salary increased to S$3.1 million (US$2.05 million), about five times that of the then President of the United StatesGeorge W. Bush who earned US$400,000. The annual entry-level salary for ministers increased from $1.2 million to $1.6 million, and was projected to rise to 88% of the private sector benchmark by the end of 2008. Almost half of ministers’ pay packages was made up of an individual performance bonus decided by the Prime Minister, and a variable bonus component based on the country’s prevailing gross domestic product and capped at eight months of each minister’s annual salary. The pay increases were justified by the Government on the grounds that the salaries had to keep pace with those in the private sector to attract the best talent and to avoid corruption ……
In 2008, the annual salary for entry-level ministers was $1,924,300. In view of the worsening economic crisis in 2008–2009, as of January 2009 the Prime Minister’s salary was cut to $3.04 million, while the pay of ministerial-grade officers was reduced by 18% to $1.57 million. In November 2009 the Public Service Division announced that pay increments would be deferred for a second time in 2010 because of the uncertain economic recovery. A minister’s 2009 salary of $1,494,700 per year was therefore 22% lower than what he or she received in 2008.
(The relevant article here.)
The artist and his money. I mean, art. Image from T Magazine’s blog.
In anticipation of this momentous event (the findings of the report have yet to be made public), I’ve included pictures of Hans-Peter Feldmann’s installation last year at the Guggenheim, where he tacked a hundred thousand used dollar bills to the wall of a gallery. Feldmann had won the 2010 Hugo Boss Prize – and the prize money, unsurprisingly, was a hundred grand.
From a write-up on the Guggenheim’s site:
The installation, which uses money that has previously been in circulation, extends the artist’s lifelong obsession with collecting familiar material into simple groupings that reveal a nuanced play of similarity and difference. Throughout his practice, Feldmann has frequently divided an apparent whole into separate components; he has photographed every item in a woman’s wardrobe (All the clothes of a woman, 1973), presented individual images of the strawberries that make up a pound of fruit (One Pound Strawberries, 2005), and created a sequence of 100 portraits showing individuals of every age in a collective lifespan of a century (100 Years, 2001).
Feldmann also has a history of resisting the art world’s commercial structures, issuing his work in unsigned, unlimited editions and retiring from art making altogether for nearly a decade in the 1980s, at which point he gave away or destroyed the works remaining in his possession. Bank notes, like artworks, are objects that have no inherent worth beyond what society agrees to invest them with, and in using them as his medium, Feldmann raises questions about notions of value in art. But his primary interest in the serial display of currency lies less in its status as a symbol of capitalist excess than in its ubiquity as a mass-produced image and a material with which we come into contact every day. At its core, this formal experiment presents an opportunity to experience an abstract concept—a numerical figure and the economic possibilities it entails—as a visual object and an immersive physical environment.
All that green – and still but a fraction of what Singapore’s ministers earn.
When you take quantities out of its numerical abstraction and into the reified realm of money’s material reality, the immediacy of it can be … overwhelming.
Image from freshome.
Dialogue 对话 (1989), Xiao Lu. One print is in the collection of the MoMA.
Translation: “I fell in love with the man, but he fell in love this one gunshot of mine.”
That’s Chinese artist Xiao Lu 肖鲁 on the incident that changed her life – and secured her a position in the story of contemporary Chinese art.
It all happened at the opening of the monumental China/Avant-Garde exhibition of 1989, which stands, then as now, as the definitive artistic event of that year … in fact, of the decade. (Well, before the events of June 4th overshadowed almost everything else, that is.)
A brief prelude: the advent of avant-garde art in China, post-Mao, was in many ways cemented by the emergence of the ’85 New Wave movement ’85 美术运动. It marked another stage in the evolution of art in the reform era: unlike previous incarnations of experimental sensibility, like the Stars group 星星画会, the No Name-rs 无名画会, or the April Photographic Society 四月影会, this new generation of artists were younger, better-schooled – many were students at noted Chinese art academies, as opposed to being self-taught like so many of their predecessors – and, most importantly, better informed about the latest developments in 20th century Western art. (A seminal moment was Robert Rauschenberg’s solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Beijing in 1985, the “first officially sanctioned American art show to visit China in fifty years.”) Many informal art groups began springing up all over China at this time – some eighty in twenty-three different provinces and cities, by one reckoning. These included the Southwest Art Group 西南艺术群体, based in Kunming, Yunnan; the Pool Society 池社 in Hangzhou; and – one of the most fascinating of the lot – the Xiamen Dada 厦门达达 in Xiamen, Fujian.
The key figure of the latter movement, Huang Yongping 黄永砯, borrowed a healthy dose of iconoclasm from his chief influence, Marcel Duchamp. The title of his most enduring work, The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (below), is self-explanatory: Huang put two texts of art history, Wang Bomin’s History of Chinese Painting 中国绘画史 and Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting, into a washing machine, reducing the two books to a messy pulp and demolishing the idea of a pure, uncontaminated cultural history in one gesture; according to critic Fei Dawei, Read’s text was “one of the few introductory modern Western art books to be translated into Chinese, and one that at the time had an enormous influence in avant-garde art circles”. In a further demonstration of their artistic creed – manifested in slogans like “anti-formalism 反形式主义” , “anti-art history 反艺术史” and “anti-self-expression 反自我表现” - the Xiamen Dada-ists held their first exhibition in 1986, at the end of which all artworks involved were consigned to a blazing bonfire (below). They represented a particular turn in the evolution of artistic autonomy: their nihilistic gestures, framed within a series of negational ideologies, marked a shift from the humanism of the earlier period. While eschewing the sort of paradigms which were centered on the individual creativity and vision of the artist-figure, they nonetheless – paradoxically – signified a specific form of self-expressivity, the act of self-negation being predicated on the reality of individualized liberty to begin with. In other words, the antics of the Xiamen Dada-ists were very much a product of their socio-historical moment, their espousal of an artistic ideology imported from the West signaling the expansion of an earlier period of avant-garde experimentation, as well as being a reflection of the permissive atmosphere of the 1980s in general.
The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987), Huang Yongping. Image from Asia Art Archive.
The bonfire at the Xiamen Dada’s first group show in Xiamen, Nov 1986. Image from Asia Art Archive.
The culmination of these various developments that had been fermenting since the early 80s was the unveiling of the momentous China/Avant-garde show at the National Art Gallery in February 1989. A large-scale group show involving 297 works from some 186 artists, it was the first nationwide exhibition of avant-garde art in China. The building was transformed into a mausoleum-like affair, with three long, black banners extending from the façade of the structure bearing the show’s trademark symbol, a “No U-Turn” traffic sign, indicating that there was to be no turning back from that point forth (below). In the spirit of the radical, open experimentation of the decade, the exhibition marked a profound departure from the Stars show, which took place only a mere ten years before: replacing the wood sculptures and ink paintings of the previous exhibition were a veritable smorgasbord of new forms, formats and media, including a number of installation and performance pieces. In fact, it was one of these performances – Xiao Lu’s – which would result in the closing of the show mere hours after its grand opening, the first of two closures during its brief existence.
Curator and critic Gao Minglu, the organizer of the exhibition and the chief force driving the operation, published his massive tome, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art, last year (*the* book we students of contemporary Chinese art were waiting for). In it he recounts the tale of Xiao Lu, her lover Tang Song, and the events of Feb 5, 1989:
Three hours after the opening of the exhibition, Xiao Lu, a young woman artist from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art, fired two gunshots, which shocked the National Art Museum. Xiao Lu suddenly pulled out a gun and fired two shots at her installation, Dialogue; or more precisely, at a mirror between two telephone booths in which stood full-length pictures of a male and a female student talking to each other on the phone. The president of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, who was on the spot, immediately seized Tang Song, a friend of Xiao, who was standing near the installation, and ordered me [Gao] to close the exhibition. The reason given was that the scene of the gunshot had to be preserved intact in order to trace the cause of the incident. (Actually the Public Security Bureau had long been suspicious of the organizational work of the exhibition.) immediately after the shooting, several police cars fully loaded with armed personnel arrived in the square in front of the National Art Museum ……
The Beijing Public Security Bureau stated that both Xiao Lu and Tang Song had violated this law [against private gun ownership] and had to be detained. At four o’clock in the afternoon, encouraged by her uncle, Xiao Lu surrendered herself to the authorities. After being detained for two and a half days, both people were released because there was no evidence that the two artists had plotted a murder. However, because of the shooting and other events, the exhibition was forced to close for three days. The government authorities still believed that this incident held political meaning, and most of the foreign news media reported it as a political event. According to the claims of the two artists, their shooting was nothing more than a celebration of finishing the installation work, no matter what the public thought about it. After the two artists were released; [sic[ they gave me a declaration in person, asking me to make a public announcement on their behalf. The declaration is as follows:
As parties to the shooting incident on the day of the opening of the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition, we consider it a purely artistic incident. We consider that in art, there may be artists with different understandings of society, but as artists we are not interested in politics. We are interested in the values of art as such, and in its social value, and in using the right form with which to create, in order to carry out the process of deepening that understand.
Xiao Lu, Tang Song
Although Xiao Lu was named as the author of the installation, and she was also the person who opened fire, the media and art circles widely took both Xiao Lu and Tang Song to be the initiators and performers of the two gunshots because Tang was the first one arrested … No one doubted the coauthorship of the two gunshots until, fifteen years later, Xiao Lu openly declared that she was the only author of the gunshot as well as of the installation. The gunshots were part of the installation as a whole. Xiao was silent about her work and never mentioned the question of authorship until the end of her fifteen-year relationship with Tang Song in 2004.
The declaration of her sole authorship of the Dialogue and the gunshots began with five letters Xiao wrote to me in the period between February 4, 2004, and March 23, 2004 … The ambiguity that disturbed Xiao Lu’s emotions eventually broke out fifteen years after her two gunshots in the National Art Museum of China. In another performance work, she made fifteen gunshots on photos with her own image as a metaphor for her hidden anger at herself. Although the fifteen shots were made in 2003, the title of the work is Fifteen Shots – From 1989 to 2003. The shots in 2003 were a bitter memory as well as a farewell to the past.
Xiao Lu and Tang Song shortly after their release in 1989. Image from Asia Art Archive.
A detail of Fifteen Shots – From 1989 to 2003 (2003), Xiao Lu. Image from the artblog.
The love affair began with two bullets in 1989, and ended with fifteen, fifteen years later.
In the intervening decade and a half, the world changed – for both China and its artists.
As critic Huang Zhan noted: “The moment the exhibition was over, another storm of passion swept the whole country. When that storm died down, it was already the 1990s. Then, the exhibition was just like an answer to a curtain call. After the 1990s, the entire world had changed, changed to a time of pursuing material comforts and a time of consumption. And the previous avant-garde artists all scattered about: some went abroad; some changed their lines; some began to live in seclusion. It’s just like a dream, stopped abruptly. The modern art in the 1980s had disappeared almost overnight, without any trace.” (Quote taken from this Artzine article.)
The 1980s are remembered in China as an era of utopian humanism, and idealistic high-mindedness. Mao Zedong’s death in October 1976 and the subsequent fall of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four marked the effective end of the Cultural Revolution. The return of the reform-minded Deng Xiaoping to political ascendency in the aftermath saw the implementation of the so-called open-door policy, or gaige kaifang 改革开放: at the third Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party’s 11th Central Committee, held in December 1978, Deng’s Four Modernizations 四个现代化 – in the areas of agriculture, industry, science and national defense – were officially launched. Just as importantly, a directive promulgating the ‘liberation of thought and the search for truth in all matters 解放思想实事求是’ was put forth, signaling a process of modernization based on both market liberalization and the recuperation of the cultural and intellectual elite, formerly vilified as ‘rightists’. This period of post-revolutionary fervor, lasting from 1978 to 1989, is generally referred to as the New Era, xin shiqi 新时期. The twin axes of economic and cultural reorganization of this period were bound up in the policy of reform and opening, which was understood to be the shared project of the state and its educated classes. It was responsible for moving country and society towards the ideals of a free market (grounded nevertheless in Maoist thought, or “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”), and a more enlightened attitude towards the arts and intellectual activity. Broadly speaking, the chief index of the creative emancipation of that epoch was the rise of individualized subjectivities, perhaps most succinctly summed up in the deliberately provocative declaration of author Liu Xinwu 刘心武, that “I am myself, wo shi wo ziji 我是我自己.”
The trajectory of experimental artistic praxis in post-revolutionary China, as outlined by scholar and critic Wu Hung*, may essentially be classified into four main phases: the rise of an unofficial avant-garde art from 1979 to 1984, particularly with regards to the Stars group 星星画会; the ’85 Art New Wave art movement, 85 新潮艺术, culminating in the China/Avant-garde Exhibition 中国现代艺术展 in 1989; the post-Tiananmen period, in the early 1990s, when Chinese experimental art exploded onto the international art market and into the global consciousness; and, finally, a “domestic turn”, beginning around the mid-90s and lasting till the present day, which saw a new diversity of visual forms and engagements that were no longer reacting against the Cultural Revolution and thus, finally, abandoning the “post-Cultural Revolution” phase.
* See his Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (2005).
The China/Avant-garde show thus marked the climax of the proliferation of experimental art in China in the 1980s, which ran parallel to an ever-intensifying pro-democracy movement that, as is well-known, finally met its savage, crushing conclusion on June 4th in Tiananmen Square. The events of Tiananmen – demonstrating all too clearly to the country’s students, intelligentsia and cultural elite that market liberalization and social liberties were not necessarily welded together – effectively snuffed out the utopian, humanist high-mindedness of the New Era. In the words of one commentator: “The post-New Era witnesses the rise of consumerism, the commercialization of cultural production, and the expansion of the mass media and popular culture … The ponderous, self-reflexive cultural critique … in the style of the 1980s is largely over.”* The ‘post-New Era’ 后新时期 of the 1990s, in other words, with all its attendant forms of materialism and globalization, had arrived, bringing with it profound implications for artistic praxis in China. Gone was the relatively indulgent era of open experimentation, tied to a sense of political possibility and urgency; in its place were feelings of shock, disillusionment, and helplessness, a moment of reckoning when “artists came to a sudden realization of their impotence in the face of real politics. The idealism and utopian enthusiasm so typical of new art in the 1980s met its nemesis in the gun barrels in Tiananmen.”**
* According to Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu. See his “Art, Culture, and Cultural Criticism in Post-New China”, in New Literary History, vol.28, no.1. ** In the words of In Chang Tsong-zung; qtd. in Wu Hung’s Transience.
Huang Zhan, once more: “When that storm died down, it was already the 1990s.”
So this is really a tale of two lost loves: Xiao Lu’s, and the utopia of China’s all too brief yesterday.
Zeng’s nominated piece is Parliament House (below). On its own, it doesn’t immediately grab the viewer, but it was exhibited in July this year at the Substation as part of a larger series of photographic works titled An Exile Revisits the City - which, as a cohesive unit, was compelling, poignant, and absolutely apposite. In a year which saw the general elections of May 7 marking a watershed moment of sorts in local politics, as well as the continuation of a trend involving memoirs put out by ex-political detainees, one of the most talked about being Teo Soh Lung’s Beyond the Blue Gate (who, by the way, happens to be the sister of ‘paperdyesculpt’ artist Teo Eng Seng), Zeng’s elliptical visual narrative was a cogent statement about the silences and the gaps inscribed into official accounts of Singapore’s post-war history … and their often unremarked human cost. His pictures of a geriatric man, presumably a victim of the PAP’s leftist purges of the 1960s, revisiting various sites of interest such as – yes – Parliament House (no more unambiguous a symbol of power), the Nantah arches, the former Supreme Court, and the old University of Malaya campus, represent an interrogation of the complicity between political hegemony and historical amnesia embodied by many of these locales, craftily foregrounding their emplotment, as sites of official exaltation or collective loss, in the annals of the Singapore Story.
While it did make my Top Ten list for the year, An Exile was a worthy show that deserves better than the ‘non-review’ I’m belatedly giving it. In lieu of what my flagging energies might otherwise have accomplished, here is critic David Spalding on the figure of the ghost in its character as a revenant, i.e. a remnant of the past that haunts the present moment, a spectral reminder of that which has been consigned to (deliberate) oblivion:
To believe in ghosts is to admit that we cannot escape the past. When bygone events are willfully ignored, voided, or otherwise rendered imperceptible, they give rise to ghosts—spectral figures that attempt to reveal what has been excised from collective memory. Ghosts are not simply human spirits who continue to roam the earth after their bodies have decayed. Rather, they are forces whose presence disturbs our temporal and empirical expectations in order to remind us of earlier disasters and injustices that live beneath the thin skin of the present.
Yet a ghost’s enchanted history lessons are never straightforward. Instead, they flicker in the dark corners of our minds, operating outside the laws of logic, often broadcasting scrambled transmissions. Though they can be comforting, afﬁrming what we’ve suspected all along, ghosts seldom bring good news: One is never haunted by pleasant events, unless they dissemble an unknown undertow fraught with terror. Still, without these haunting confrontations, the wounds of the past can never be redressed.
The term haunting best names the ways that certain historical moments—and the forgotten faces and demolished places that comprise them—return to puncture the present. Understanding haunting in this way helps us to detach the ﬁgure of the ghost from visions of a ravaged, reanimated corpse, wreaking vengeance and havoc. Instead, haunting points to visitations from something more mysterious and, sometimes, more frightening. As sociologist Avery Gordon has written:
If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities, the ghost is just the sign, or the empirical evidence if you like, that tells you a haunting is going on … The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well trained eye, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course.
The pieces of the past that return to haunt us are precisely those which have been pushed off the margins and over memory’s edge. The time lines, neat narratives, and illustrations that comprise our accounts of the past can only tell us part of the story. In fact, historical records—in both our psychological and institutional archives—often operate under the logic of exclusion, which tries to discard whatever cannot be easily assimilated. What remains are history’s remains, its forgotten subjects still stirring in the shadows, whispering incessantly and eager to take possession of the present. Though missing from our textbooks and collective memories, these ghosts will not be ignored. They will not be laid to rest anytime soon because they still have something they need to communicate, and we need to pay attention. Perhaps they’ve been exiled from their homes, murdered, or enslaved. “All the departed may return,” writes Nicolas Abraham, “but some are predestined to haunt: the dead who have been shamed during their lifetimes or those who took unspeakable secrets to their grave.”
Ghosts often come to us in the form of sightings, their shapes vaguely outlined in the shadowy half-light that lies between the visible and the invisible. Sometimes we need the aid of a seer to establish contact. Other times, they make their presence known through a striking absence, carving their outlines onto the present in a kind of intaglio that urgently tells us that something is missing. “Visibility,” writes Laura Kipnis, “is a complex system of permission and prohibition, of presence and absence, punctuated by apparitions and hysterical blindness.” In fact, haunting is inextricably linked to seeing, to the revelations of our phantasmatic visions and to the blind spots that sometimes shroud the past in dark obscurity. Accordingly, visual artists are in a unique position to give form to the specters of the past that still shape our present. Such hauntings, whether staged or sighted by visual artists, channeled through the myriad media of contemporary art, have become my preoccupation.
(See here for a full pdf version of Spalding’s text.)
Portrait: Hillary Clinton 2008 t-shirt available from Skreened.
Woman of the day (HECK, the year): US Secretary of State Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton – former First Lady, former Senator, former Democratic presidential nominee, and, now, the loudest, proudest gay rights champion out there.
In what the Huffington Post called a “game changing” gesture, Clinton yesterday delivered a stirring speech on LGBT rights at the United Nations, saying “Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do.”
I teared up reading it.
We needed someone of her stature to finally stand up and acknowledge this.
Read the full transcript of her speech on Advocate.com … or below.
(Thanks to Notabilia for the link.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Good evening, and let me express my deep honor and pleasure at being here. I want to thank Director General Tokayev and Ms. Wyden along with other ministers, ambassadors, excellencies, and UN partners. This weekend, we will celebrate Human Rights Day, the anniversary of one of the great accomplishments of the last century.
Beginning in 1947, delegates from six continents devoted themselves to drafting a declaration that would enshrine the fundamental rights and freedoms of people everywhere. In the aftermath of World War II, many nations pressed for a statement of this kind to help ensure that we would prevent future atrocities and protect the inherent humanity and dignity of all people. And so the delegates went to work. They discussed, they wrote, they revisited, revised, rewrote, for thousands of hours. And they incorporated suggestions and revisions from governments, organizations, and individuals around the world.
At three o’clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations voted in favor; eight abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And with the declaration, it was made clear that rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people. It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them.
In the 63 years since the declaration was adopted, many nations have made great progress in making human rights a human reality. Step by step, barriers that once prevented people from enjoying the full measure of liberty, the full experience of dignity, and the full benefits of humanity have fallen away. In many places, racist laws have been repealed, legal and social practices that relegated women to second-class status have been abolished, the ability of religious minorities to practice their faith freely has been secured.
In most cases, this progress was not easily won. People fought and organized and campaigned in public squares and private spaces to change not only laws, but hearts and minds. And thanks to that work of generations, for millions of individuals whose lives were once narrowed by injustice, they are now able to live more freely and to participate more fully in the political, economic, and social lives of their communities.
Now, there is still, as you all know, much more to be done to secure that commitment, that reality, and progress for all people. Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.
I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time. I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.
Now, raising this issue, I know, is sensitive for many people and that the obstacles standing in the way of protecting the human rights of LGBT people rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs. So I come here before you with respect, understanding, and humility. Even though progress on this front is not easy, we cannot delay acting. So in that spirit, I want to talk about the difficult and important issues we must address together to reach a global consensus that recognizes the human rights of LGBT citizens everywhere.
The first issue goes to the heart of the matter. Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same. Now, of course, 60 years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how it applied to the LGBT community. They also weren’t thinking about how it applied to indigenous people or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups. Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity.
This recognition did not occur all at once. It evolved over time. And as it did, we understood that we were honoring rights that people always had, rather than creating new or special rights for them. Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.
It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. It is a violation of human rights when lesbian or transgendered women are subjected to so-called corrective rape, or forcibly subjected to hormone treatments, or when people are murdered after public calls for violence toward gays, or when they are forced to flee their nations and seek asylum in other lands to save their lives. And it is a violation of human rights when life-saving care is withheld from people because they are gay, or equal access to justice is denied to people because they are gay, or public spaces are out of bounds to people because they are gay. No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are, we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity.
The second issue is a question of whether homosexuality arises from a particular part of the world. Some seem to believe it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.
Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The Government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.
Now, some worry that protecting the human rights of the LGBT community is a luxury that only wealthy nations can afford. But in fact, in all countries, there are costs to not protecting these rights, in both gay and straight lives lost to disease and violence, and the silencing of voices and views that would strengthen communities, in ideas never pursued by entrepreneurs who happen to be gay. Costs are incurred whenever any group is treated as lesser or the other, whether they are women, racial, or religious minorities, or the LGBT. Former President Mogae of Botswana pointed out recently that for as long as LGBT people are kept in the shadows, there cannot be an effective public health program to tackle HIV and AIDS. Well, that holds true for other challenges as well.
The third, and perhaps most challenging, issue arises when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens. This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.
In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.
Of course, it bears noting that rarely are cultural and religious traditions and teachings actually in conflict with the protection of human rights. Indeed, our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. It was not only those who’ve justified slavery who leaned on religion, it was also those who sought to abolish it. And let us keep in mind that our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity. And caring for others is an expression of what it means to be fully human. It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.
The fourth issue is what history teaches us about how we make progress towards rights for all. Progress starts with honest discussion. Now, there are some who say and believe that all gay people are pedophiles, that homosexuality is a disease that can be caught or cured, or that gays recruit others to become gay. Well, these notions are simply not true. They are also unlikely to disappear if those who promote or accept them are dismissed out of hand rather than invited to share their fears and concerns. No one has ever abandoned a belief because he was forced to do so.
Universal human rights include freedom of expression and freedom of belief, even if our words or beliefs denigrate the humanity of others. Yet, while we are each free to believe whatever we choose, we cannot do whatever we choose, not in a world where we protect the human rights of all.
Reaching understanding of these issues takes more than speech. It does take a conversation. In fact, it takes a constellation of conversations in places big and small. And it takes a willingness to see stark differences in belief as a reason to begin the conversation, not to avoid it.
But progress comes from changes in laws. In many places, including my own country, legal protections have preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights. Laws have a teaching effect. Laws that discriminate validate other kinds of discrimination. Laws that require equal protections reinforce the moral imperative of equality. And practically speaking, it is often the case that laws must change before fears about change dissipate.
Many in my country thought that President Truman was making a grave error when he ordered the racial desegregation of our military. They argued that it would undermine unit cohesion. And it wasn’t until he went ahead and did it that we saw how it strengthened our social fabric in ways even the supporters of the policy could not foresee. Likewise, some worried in my country that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have a negative effect on our armed forces. Now, the Marine Corps Commandant, who was one of the strongest voices against the repeal, says that his concerns were unfounded and that the Marines have embraced the change.
Finally, progress comes from being willing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. We need to ask ourselves, “How would it feel if it were a crime to love the person I love? How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?” This challenge applies to all of us as we reflect upon deeply held beliefs, as we work to embrace tolerance and respect for the dignity of all persons, and as we engage humbly with those with whom we disagree in the hope of creating greater understanding.
A fifth and final question is how we do our part to bring the world to embrace human rights for all people including LGBT people. Yes, LGBT people must help lead this effort, as so many of you are. Their knowledge and experiences are invaluable and their courage inspirational. We know the names of brave LGBT activists who have literally given their lives for this cause, and there are many more whose names we will never know. But often those who are denied rights are least empowered to bring about the changes they seek. Acting alone, minorities can never achieve the majorities necessary for political change.
So when any part of humanity is sidelined, the rest of us cannot sit on the sidelines. Every time a barrier to progress has fallen, it has taken a cooperative effort from those on both sides of the barrier. In the fight for women’s rights, the support of men remains crucial. The fight for racial equality has relied on contributions from people of all races. Combating Islamaphobia or anti-Semitism is a task for people of all faiths. And the same is true with this struggle for equality.
Conversely, when we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to those deniers and abusers that they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions, and so they carry on. But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message. Right here in Geneva, the international community acted this year to strengthen a global consensus around the human rights of LGBT people. At the Human Rights Council in March, 85 countries from all regions supported a statement calling for an end to criminalization and violence against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
At the following session of the Council in June, South Africa took the lead on a resolution about violence against LGBT people. The delegation from South Africa spoke eloquently about their own experience and struggle for human equality and its indivisibility. When the measure passed, it became the first-ever UN resolution recognizing the human rights of gay people worldwide. In the Organization of American States this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created a unit on the rights of LGBT people, a step toward what we hope will be the creation of a special rapporteur.
Now, we must go further and work here and in every region of the world to galvanize more support for the human rights of the LGBT community. To the leaders of those countries where people are jailed, beaten, or executed for being gay, I ask you to consider this: Leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading your people to do the same. It also means ensuring that all citizens are treated as equals under your laws, because let me be clear – I am not saying that gay people can’t or don’t commit crimes. They can and they do, just like straight people. And when they do, they should be held accountable, but it should never be a crime to be gay.
And to people of all nations, I say supporting human rights is your responsibility too. The lives of gay people are shaped not only by laws, but by the treatment they receive every day from their families, from their neighbors. Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to advance human rights worldwide, said that these rights begin in the small places close to home – the streets where people live, the schools they attend, the factories, farms, and offices where they work. These places are your domain. The actions you take, the ideals that you advocate, can determine whether human rights flourish where you are.
And finally, to LGBT men and women worldwide, let me say this: Wherever you live and whatever the circumstances of your life, whether you are connected to a network of support or feel isolated and vulnerable, please know that you are not alone. People around the globe are working hard to support you and to bring an end to the injustices and dangers you face. That is certainly true for my country. And you have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.
The Obama Administration defends the human rights of LGBT people as part of our comprehensive human rights policy and as a priority of our foreign policy. In our embassies, our diplomats are raising concerns about specific cases and laws, and working with a range of partners to strengthen human rights protections for all. In Washington, we have created a task force at the State Department to support and coordinate this work. And in the coming months, we will provide every embassy with a toolkit to help improve their efforts. And we have created a program that offers emergency support to defenders of human rights for LGBT people.
This morning, back in Washington, President Obama put into place the first U.S. Government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad. Building on efforts already underway at the State Department and across the government, the President has directed all U.S. Government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights, to enlist international organizations in the fight against discrimination, and to respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.
I am also pleased to announce that we are launching a new Global Equality Fund that will support the work of civil society organizations working on these issues around the world. This fund will help them record facts so they can target their advocacy, learn how to use the law as a tool, manage their budgets, train their staffs, and forge partnerships with women’s organizations and other human rights groups. We have committed more than $3 million to start this fund, and we have hope that others will join us in supporting it.
The women and men who advocate for human rights for the LGBT community in hostile places, some of whom are here today with us, are brave and dedicated, and deserve all the help we can give them. We know the road ahead will not be easy. A great deal of work lies before us. But many of us have seen firsthand how quickly change can come. In our lifetimes, attitudes toward gay people in many places have been transformed. Many people, including myself, have experienced a deepening of our own convictions on this topic over the years, as we have devoted more thought to it, engaged in dialogues and debates, and established personal and professional relationships with people who are gay.
This evolution is evident in many places. To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, “If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.” There is little doubt in my mind that support for LGBT human rights will continue to climb. Because for many young people, this is simple: All people deserve to be treated with dignity and have their human rights respected, no matter who they are or whom they love.
There is a phrase that people in the United States invoke when urging others to support human rights: “Be on the right side of history.” The story of the United States is the story of a nation that has repeatedly grappled with intolerance and inequality. We fought a brutal civil war over slavery. People from coast to coast joined in campaigns to recognize the rights of women, indigenous peoples, racial minorities, children, people with disabilities, immigrants, workers, and on and on. And the march toward equality and justice has continued. Those who advocate for expanding the circle of human rights were and are on the right side of history, and history honors them. Those who tried to constrict human rights were wrong, and history reflects that as well.
I know that the thoughts I’ve shared today involve questions on which opinions are still evolving. As it has happened so many times before, opinion will converge once again with the truth, the immutable truth, that all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights. We are called once more to make real the words of the Universal Declaration. Let us answer that call. Let us be on the right side of history, for our people, our nations, and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the work we do today. I come before you with great hope and confidence that no matter how long the road ahead, we will travel it successfully together. Thank you very much.
A friend was going on about Goya’s Disasters of War series over dinner and beer a while ago. I think it was in the context of Filipino artist Geraldine Javier’s work – I don’t remember exactly – but listening to her brought back some happy memories of a class I took my last summer in school, and the great time I had writing a short paper on a couple of Goya prints …
I’m probably in a tiny, tiny minority on this one, but summer class rocked: long days, warm nights, empty libraries, chicken rice stands. School should always be that good.
Violence as Spectacle in Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’
“War is not a spectacle”, Susan Sontag declares in Regarding the Pain of Others. At least not as it is represented, she remarks, in Francisco Goya’s series of prints concerning Napoleon’s Iberian campaign, The Disasters of War (1810-20): “Goya’s images move the viewer closer to the horror. All the trappings of the spectacular have been eliminated: the landscape is an atmosphere, a darkness, barely sketched in … And Goya’s print series is not a narrative: each image, captioned with a brief phrase lamenting the wickedness of the invaders and the monstrousness of the suffering they inflicted, stands independently of the others. The cumulative effect is devastating”. Goya had intended to “awaken, shock, wound” the viewer, the calculated emotional resonance of his images a denial of the voyeuristic impulse, a solicitation of a genuinely humane response. Compare this to Michel Foucault’s famously graphic portrayal of a public execution in the 18th century: “… on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs, and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand … burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes …”
Foucault’s condemned criminal (patricide was his crime) and Goya’s hapless civilian occupy at first glance opposing moral ground, one seemingly deserving of his punishment, the other caught up in the senseless atrocities of armed conflict. It is, however, in the spectacle of the deliberate barbarity of their agony, the sheer visibility of their physical torment, that both fulfill the function for which they were intended: a reminder of the penalties of transgression. The spectacle of suffering is, as such, an ideologically informed performance, and contra Sontag’s rather hasty judgment, it is those qualities of Goya’s prints that she identifies—their status as abbreviated, fragmented objects, both visually and ontologically, the occlusion of a larger narrative enacted in the accompanying captions as well as the formal characteristics of the images—which assures them their specularity. According to Guy Debord, in the industrial age of mass production, “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”; the spectacle is an image “detached from every aspect of life”, “in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished.” It is a simulacrum of the experiential that is removed from the flux of experiential reality: “reality considered partially unfolds … as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.” The spectacle, then, emerging from the phenomenal sphere and viewed in isolation from its originary circumstances, becomes the site of a directed, circumscribed visual perception, the materialization of a particular “Weltanschauung” from the stream of everyday consciousness.
A collection of 82 separate prints, Disasters of War remains a loosely-connected series that falls short of the contours of a narrative; each image is its own self-contained moment that gestures at a number of different possibilities of convergence, an aggregation of autonomous spectacles. What Courage! (no. 7) seems to allude to the exploits of one Maria Augustin, who, during the siege of Saragossa, single-handedly defended the city’s walls against the French with a cannon: she fired the gun till Spanish reinforcements arrived. Goya’s rendering of the episode—which was celebrated even outside Spain’s borders—is a typically enigmatic affair: the heroine turns her back to the viewer; we do not have the privilege of her visage. She stands atop a heap of corpses that likewise lie facedown, over an enormous cannon standing ready to be lit. The rest of the picture is left as an empty expanse of space. Apart from a triangular knoll of rather ambiguous aspect in the midground, which could be interpreted as a hill or a partial extension of the sloping landscape, no enemy troops are in sight, nor any object that might constitute a target—indeed, there is no background to speak of, and the tableau in all its frozen stillness, the heroine’s posture conveying the sole suggestion of dynamism, is comprehensible only with the aid of its caption. The figures are trapped in a faceless, nameless anonymity, the terms of their relationship imprecise; the narrative ambivalence of the scene is underscored by the lack of visual signifiers, and evoked in the effacement of topographical clarity, which serves to situate the chief point of interest in the picture more firmly within the optical field, the reification of the ideal of feminine valour through visual emphasis.
Great Courage! Against Corpses! (Grande Hazaña! Con Muertos!) (no. 39) rehearses on an iconographic level the trope of fragmentation that marks the series as a whole, and the significance of the events that inspired them: the image of the dismembered human body and its severed parts, the site of violent rupture and dislocation, indexes at once both a real-life occurrence (though, unlike Goya’s The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, no specific incident is referred to) and the rending of the socio-political fabric caused by the French invasion and subsequent occupation, the body polity of the Spanish monarchy and their subjects as brutally interrupted as the unfortunate man who has had his head and arms cut off, his stump of a torso left hanging upside down on a tree and his head impaled on a branch next to it. Not unlike Théodore Géricault’s beautifully eerie paintings of severed human heads and limbs, which are often read in connection with the horrors of the French Revolution and the specter of the guillotine, the fragmented body, or the bodily fragment, is a potent symbol of a lost unity and the various processes, violent or otherwise, which gave rise to its disruption. Like What Courage! too, this print rejects the structuring armature of linear perspective: the ground is implied by areas of shading, but no more; the background is, again, left bare. The composition is centered on the ghastly sight of the tree and its ill-fated inhabitants, another of which seems to have had his genitals removed. As much as the discourse on the Disasters of War engages Goya’s need to “bear witness to the fundamental nature of man’s eternal warfare against himself”, to record the atrocity of what he has seen, these images—or spectacles—are but detached representations in which life is imperfectly refracted. After all, the fact “that there is such a thing as an exclusively, purely visual medium” has been denounced as a myth; all media are mixed media, and the “reification of media around a single sensory organ (or a single sign-type, or material vehicle)” is, as regards the spectacle, an unwarranted hegemony of the visual that denies the importance of multi-sensorial experience. One does not merely witness a mutilated corpse—one smells the spreading pools of blood as much as one see them, or hears the slow, staccato, ceaseless dripping, an engagement, however horrific, of the entire sensory mechanism, and not merely the specular.
Apropos of the Sub’s big milestone – which, as JW remarks, means that the institution has now reached official adulthood – this piece by former NMP and ex-artistic co-director of the Sub, Audrey Wong, has been popping up with clockwork-like regularity on my Facebook feed.
It’s worth the read. Some of it is perhaps a little too personal for me – or I just happen to disagree – but there’s a bit in there about how Singaporeans tend to “unconsciously shackle our own imaginations.’
Truer words were never spoken.
The personal angle does provide a nice counterpoint to Pete Schoppert’s ST piece though.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SUBSTATION !
By Audrey Wong.
So I’ve finally read the article in The Straits Times about The Substation’s 21st anniversary (8 Sept 2011), and the headlines made me sigh – once more, yet another press article about whether The Substation is “relevant” today. The media keeps harping on that. I’m sure Adeline Chia (the reporter) did as much as she could, but I think that our national newspaper could do so much better and come up with more insightful editorial angles. Two other things struck me personally: one, Weng Choy was barely mentioned (not quoted even – perhaps he wasn’t available for an interview, but perhaps the national paper should really go for an in-depth perspective even if it took a little longer to get the story?); and two, my quote (taken from a 20-minute chat with Adeline) was about Timbre. Ha.
But back to the ‘relevance thing’. I’m not so interested in this – I’m really more interested in thinking about ‘what is the art that happens at The Substation and how and why this has connected with people all these years’. And thinking about that took me down the road of thinking about what’s now going on in Singapore’s arts development – not at the level of arts policy, but at the level of the everyday reality of the arts-goer and artists. One clear development that’s taken place since the 2000 Renaissance City Report and the opening of the Esplanade in 2002 was the increasing ‘mainstreaming’ of the arts in Singapore. Once the government said, ‘it’s a go!’ we steamed ahead, and in the top-down fashion of Singapore, it became a game of numbers and hype, in order to win approval – from policy-makers, influencers, the media, and ultimately the masses. The NAC, for instance, always issued a press release after the Singapore Arts Festival which focused on audience numbers and ticket sales, with hardly any discussion of the ‘artistic’ aspect of the festival. Such habits of thought and practice (of looking at numbers, and using numbers as a measure of how much an audience ‘took to’ the artistic work) have become second nature to many Singaporeans and affected how we accept, receive, and perceive the arts. The highly materialistic and results-focused society that’s Singapore has bred a consumerist mentality towards the arts. We’re susceptible to the next big spectacle, the next ‘new’ thing, hype. A lot of present-day culture, especially popular culture, is built on the ‘new’ and the newsworthy: just think of the emphasis in the movie industry and across all the media, of a movie’s opening weekend box office take. When one thinks about it rationally, what’s the actual purpose of this emphasis? It’s not really about whether a movie is good or not, or even whether it’s worth watching; it’s about driving even more ticket sales and grabbing media attention. It’s about pushing the sale of a commodity and driving consumption, and everyone’s bought into this game. But, as Weng Choy reminded us years ago, the ‘new’ had become normal business in contemporary arts in the 1990s. (“The Substation’s Place in Singapore Arts”, http://www.substation.org/about-us/artistic-mission). And sometimes, certain genres of art, artists, places, events, become media darlings because of the spectacle, the money it earns or other reasons, garner the lion’s share of media space and thus, the public mindshare.
What is it that drives people to seek out alternatives to mainstream entertainment? I think it’s something intangible that unfortunately, we don’t discuss a lot in the public sphere. Not in Singapore. But, artists and arts groups might see it through audience responses and feedback forms. What’s this intangible thing? At the risk of sounding overly romantic, it’s about any of these: it takes us out of our narrow banal everyday concerns and our selfish concerns; it provokes us to think about the world; and it just gets us beneath the surface of life and its glittering temptations. I was very moved when one of my students told me about what was recently, his first experience of ‘serious’ theatre in Singapore. He was someone who had always focused on bread-and-butter issues, but he attended the “Remembering William Teo” event at The Substation and subsequently went to see TheatreStrays’ performance, “What the Dog Knows”. He responded to the performance directly, emotionally and intellectually, and developed an interest in and admiration for William Teo and other practitioners who passionately dedicated themselves to the craft of theatre without consideration of material rewards. In short, it was a deeper experience of life.
“Unless artists are capable of grappling with the full and unmitigated force of the complications of history, the dilemmas of modernity, the complexities of life as it is lived collectively by men, women and children, they will never be capable of making great art … There can be no great art, no living culture, without great lives, at least lives lived not just expansively but also more deeply.”
Living deeply, perhaps, is what attracts us to the arts. And maybe we Singaporeans could do with a reminder about this, every so often. Earlier this week, during consultations for first-year BA Arts Management students at LASALLE, one student told me that she enjoyed reading an article about how the media’s depiction of women affects social norms and influences the self-image of young women and girls. She had not seriously thought about these issues before, she said, and she was glad to have gone beyond the surface, and glad that it showed her truly what it meant “not to judge a book by its cover”.
Another aspect of living meaningfully has to be about making connections with our deeper selves, humanity, and others. I think of the artists who continue to gravitate towards The Substation even after 20 years. Although Keng Sen said in the Straits Times article that The Substation hadn’t maintained its relationships with artists who were there at the start in the 1990s, there are actually artists from the old days who continue to do work with The Substation … Effendy being one of them, some others being Lee Wen (who was an Associate Artist in the first decade of the 2000s) and Amanda Heng (who presented “I Remember” in 2005 for SeptFest and presented another in her “Let’s Walk” series with The Substation in 2009). As for why some artists stopped being / working at The Substation, well, I can offer three reasons: not enough space to accommodate all; some artists getting bigger and better stages, or their very own space; and – something else which we might call an artistic director’s prerogative, or an artistic direction. More recent artists who are “still there” include Raka Maitra, Sherman Ong, Daniel Kok, Elizabeth de Roza …and hopefully the newest ‘additions’ like Bani Haykal continue the relationship.
I’d venture to say that one aspect of this ‘relationship thing’ is that it’s not merely transactional. Many artists do not go to The Substation just to get something back; if anything, the “getting back” has to do with the artists’ work … the work of constantly making, trying, failing, reflecting, persisting … There was a conversation among the programming team a couple of years ago about the selection criteria for Open Call, which concluded with the thought that the artist(s) selected should not look upon the programme as simply a chance to get exhibition space or get funding. It was about a deeper engagement, with the work, with The Substation as a space, with the ideas, with the public.
Another aspect of the relationship, and perhaps this has to do with the value of an alternative space, I can only explain this way: some years ago, a theatre artist I met talked about the image of stray dogs and why they matter and where there can be space for them. That struck me. You never know how a stray dog might turn out. It’s a life after all, and life should matter. There will always be those who, by choice or circumstance, are left out of mainstream culture and arts, and society has to make spaces where they can be heard, where they can gather. They’re not lesser because they are strays; they might be more interesting.
Maybe what bugs me most about our consumerist mentality, is that we Singaporeans often unconsciously shackle our own imaginations. I’ve begun to understand this a little better, as I’ve met young people who have been trained to conform to the certainty of fixed structures, and habituated to repeating what the teacher wants. Unfortunately, as we train young people not to stray from a prescribed frame, we also train them in self-limitation. This isn’t about censorship; it’s really the shackles we ourselves put on our imaginations out of habit, we don’t permit ourselves to reflect deeply or to play.
“Expectations, memories, nostalgia, frustrations, a potential in real limitations. Our resources are very limited. And to a large degree, our imagination – the Substation’s , everybody’s — has been kind of battered, with the loss of the garden, funding, cultural policies… In a way our imagination becomes restricted, reduced. The challenge now is to recognize the physical limitations and really see how small the space is, and at the same time find the potential of that space that has not been tapped yet.” – Noor Effendy Ibrahim.
Ultimately, the arts can’t be a hegemonic thing, prescribed to us by the powers-that-be or those who just happen to have money and social influence. It’s about the “more” in all of us, perhaps it’s the “more” that keeps me awake at 2am typing this out after a 12-hour workday and a late night trip to the supermarket – because this matters to me, and I want to share it with others. Out of these little “more” moments that we carve out of our lives, perhaps, we find “the potential” of the untapped, the chink in the shutters of our minds.
Remarkably, I see that I’ve managed to write about The Substation without quoting Kuo Pao Kun! Perhaps that’s what he’d have wanted – if The Substation can go on without him, that’s probably proof enough that it’s needed?