Posts Tagged ‘Singapore art’
Maimed, melancholic, meta-textual.
A portrait of a young boy missing a limb, the dismembered stump dissipating into polychromatic, painterly wisps where skin and flesh should be – like so many of his fellows. A child sits with a paper-bag over his head; another is poised before what looks to be a row of Japanese soldiers in hachimaki headbands. A boy in a sailor suit and a girl perched atop a tiger-skin rug strike poses — in two different paintings — before renderings of Friedrich’s Rocky Reef on the Seashore. A seemingly unfinished triple portrait includes a re-presentation of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (the Borghese version), with a filmic projection placed squarely over Goliath’s head, introducing a constant glare of shifting, flickering disruptions into the visual field.
Such is the iconography of enigmatic, near anonymous Singaporean painter Huang Wei.
According to local gallery owner Alan Oei (the man behind Evil Empire and the annual OH! Open House event), who also curated the present show at Valentine Willie’s space in Kuala Lumpur, the story of the discovery of Huang runs like this:
In mid 2009, my [Oei’s] friend Nora Samosir called me. She said her uncle-contractor had found rolls and rolls of old paintings. At that time, I was deeply interested in the Equator Art Society – a group of Chinese Social Realist painters who were largely forgotten. To come across an outsider artist who didn’t even make it into our art history – was an incredible find !
The paintings of strange and maimed children were just completely at odds with everything I knew about Singapore. Me and Nora, and a few others decided to organize a lecture-performance. Nora is a veteran actress so she presented it while I helped with the research about the artist and restoration of the paintings. Part of the attraction was that there was so little material about him – one trunk of personal effects – and I’m not exactly an archivist researcher, so there was a fair amount of conjecture. I became obsessed with this romantic archetype of the melancholic artist painting in his own warped universe.
Of what little is known about Huang:
Huang Wei is a Singaporean artist born in 1914. He worked in his family photography studio even while he was in school. My guess is that his first love was art not photography. He won an art scholarship for instance, and also studied with the famous Richard Walker, art superintendent of Singapore. But his paintings are all heavily influenced by photography.
(From an interview published in the show’s accompanying pamphlet.)
In a nutshell, that’s pretty much it for facts.
And the significance of Velázquez, so tellingly namechecked in the title ?
Cue Huang’s triumvirate from the early ‘60s: The boy in the arch, The boy with the glacier, The girl with the tiger. (See above.) That the three paintings belong in a series of sorts is clear at first glance: Arch and Tiger both feature the back of a large canvas as a salient motif, the first on the right side of the composition, the second on its left, as if the same canvas – visual details also correspond in both works – had been stretched across the interstitial gap. And a rendition of Caspar David Friedrich’s Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore (c. 1824) appears in Tiger and in Glacier: mounted on the wall in the former, as a surreally large copy in the latter. The motific parallels to Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) are unmissable, if somewhat ambiguous: the canvas with it’s back to viewer, of course; the slant of sunlight moving in from the right of the space in Glacier (Las Meninas is similarly lit); the painting of a painting (like the del Mazo renditions of Reubens in the background of Meninas, themselves depictions of copies, or paintings of copies of paintings); the pendant around the necks of the girl in Tiger and the figure of doña Isabel de Velasco (standing to the right of the princess in Meninas), as well as the tiger’s head in the former, and the dog in Velázquez.
Many of these parallels are perhaps oblique visual references, and less by way of outright similarities, but the fact remains that Huang seems to have been greatly taken with the work of the Spanish master:
When I [Oei] saw Huang’s paintings with these bizarre motifs that present the back-of-canvas, I could only think of Las Meninas. And true enough, Huang was inspired by that painting. I don’t know exactly what inspired him, but he made at least 30 drawings and paintings around this iconic work …… Michel Foucault, the French theorist, suggested that Las Meninas was the first history painting to recognize and embody the idea of representation. The world that exists within paintings (and texts) is not the same as reality. Representation organizes signs and information within different systems.
(From the interview.)
Oei is of course referring to Foucault’s famous disquisition on the painting – far too detailed and extensive to reproduce in its entirety here – which concludes along these lines:
Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velázquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements … indicated compellingly from every side: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.
(See the chapter “Las Meninas” in Foucault, The Order of Things.)
You’ll have to read the essay for that to make sense, but the bottomline is this: Las Meninas is a representation of representation, a painting in which the praxis of two-dimensional depiction, in all its strategic methods, manipulations and craft, is depicted two-dimensionally – the gaps in the narrative, such as it were, foregrounding the artifice of an aesthetic construction.
And it is that sense of the performative, of a painter painting a deliberately painterly painting, an art historical art, which leaps out at the viewer. The nexus of cross-gazes and semantic lacunae which Foucault identifies in Las Meninas is missing here, but Huang’s work remains imbricated in various layers of citational self-reflexivity, of discursive canniness, of teasing, ambiguous hints and half-truths, of occluded, private spheres of meaning. What, in other words, does one make of the tiger’s head in Girl with the tiger, the feline motif also recurring in The boy with the tiger (c. 1960; below) ? The latter seems to be a self-portrait of a young Huang, if the photographs uncovered by Oei, and included in the show (below), are anything to go by; the juxtaposition of boy and tiger may be an expression of personal preference, or it may be personal in another way altogether (1914, the purported year of the artist’s birth, being a Year of the Tiger). As a creature slaughtered and skinned, lying at the feet of a winsome, comely young thing, does it assume yet another channel of significance we are not privy to ? (A lost love maybe ?) And the allusion to Friedrich ? Rocky Reef is not one of the German painter’s better-known works – what of its inclusion not once, but twice, in two different paintings ? In Boy with glacier, the work has been enlarged almost to the point of taking on the character of a realistic backdrop; the choice of a work sans Friedrich’s trademark Rückenfigur may or may not be of import. Is the boy then to be read as a reversal, of the absent “back figure” (literally) contemplating the sublimity of a romantic topography – here conspicuously turned to face the viewer, acutely aware of the “burning gaze” (as Oei puts it) of the reality beyond the canvas ? And the reduction of Friedrich’s painting to its original dimensions, firmly embedded within a domestic interior, in Girl with tiger ? The wildness of the landscape, in this case a murkily visible presence contained in a frame, a controlled sublimity; the ostensible ferocity of the tiger’s head, in actuality no more than a rug beneath the subject’s feet; even the flowers, resembling rather a naturally-blooming branch, is as carefully cultivated as a pot of bonsai, as aesthetically appealing as a still-life (the geometric angularity of the pot measured against the biomorphic shapes of the plant, the profusion of foliage and flora tapering into a slender stem) – the disparity between the tamed nature which characterizes the girl’s domestic milieu, and the deliberate verisimilitude of Rocky Reef as a backdrop for the boy, seems to gesture at some form of gendered asymmetry at work. Finally, how does one imagine the relationship between the tiger girl and the boy beneath the arch, if indeed the depicted canvas unites the pair ? And the boy with the glacier ? What is his relationship to his fellows ? How does one account for the triangulated iconography suturing the three works ?
As with so much concerning Huang Wei, answers – or even leads – seem to be in short supply at this stage.
Another reiterated motif in Huang’s oeuvre is that of the maimed child: often missing an arm, sometimes an eye. And – again, in the absence of the displaced artist, who cannot or will not speak out of the silence to which history has relegated him – we have only Oei’s word to go on: Alan Oei, who willy-nilly seems to have become a posthumous alter-ego of sorts for Huang, speaking for, or channeling, if you will, in the manner of a conjuration or a possession*, the dead man, the ghostly overtones of that process evoking the no less eerie, spectral entities of Huang’s paintings, haunting the present moment like so many anomalous apparitions. In any case, here is Oei on the topic of Huang’s malformed children:
Huang lost his family – his two children and his wife – at the start of the Second World War when the bombs fell. I don’t know if he was specifically trying to express or sublimate that trauma onto the canvas, but it certainly feels that way. It’s hard not to relate this to the violence of war. However, I do think there is much more than that. Perhaps it’s also the futility of making paintings in a time of photography, of new ways of looking at the world.
(See his interview.)
* Although it has to pointed out, perhaps, that in this case the line between the roles of possessor and possessed are far from clear.
It may be a little difficult perhaps to make a case for Huang’s aesthetics of negation and transformation vis-à-vis photographic technology – the “the futility of making paintings in a time of photography, of new ways of looking at the world” – almost a century after the advent of Impressionism, which emerged in part at least as a response to the new scopic regime of the photograph. Most of his paintings on display here date to the 1950s and 1960s, only a short while, one notes, before the relationship between the autographic and photographic arts was reconfigured again by the photorealist movement, which took flight in the late ‘60s. If anything, Huang’s work seems deliberately anachronistic: harking back to an earlier era of the studio photograph-portrait, adopting a citational idiom teased out from the work of the Baroque masters – at a time when his peers, like the Nanyang school folk, were still indebted to the visual vocabulary of the various Modernist -isms.
Yet, at the same time, Huang also strikes the one as being more … oddly contemporary than many of his contemporaries. (Though ‘contemporary’ in this case may be something of a relative term.) Take The boy with the golden collar (above), the figure quite visibly wanting a left limb. Despite the conventions of portrait painting which informs so much of Huang’s vision, the point at which the human body is disrupted here – the boundary between broken arm and exteriority – is rendered destabilized, ambivalent, heteroclitic. The departure from the nominally naturalistic idiom of the painting is striking: the child’s coat-sleeve has seemingly vanished along with his phantom limb, leaving in its place an abstract mess of thread-like skeins resembling splinters of ripped-off fabric – or, more significantly, brushstrokes that never quite cohered into a recognizable form. The phenomenon becomes even more pronounced in The boy with the emerald sleeve (above): where the rest of the figure’s right arm should be is instead a kaleidoscopic complex of painterly gestures in bejeweled hues, a complex of dripping, bleeding runnels of surreal chromaticism. The motif of the fractured body, then, of the breakdown of bodily integrity, dovetails, at both visual and conceptual levels, with an inflected, irregular mode of mimesis, a grammar of naturalism interrupted by hints of the sort of Pollock-ian painterliness that came to dominate the Ab Ex school – as if, at the very point where the mimetically-depicted human body surrendered its fleshly unity, the means of representation itself relinquished any claims to verisimilitude, assuming instead the abstraction of process-oriented actionism, with the conceptual shift occurring spatially at the site of a corporeal distortion.
Untitled (unknown date), Huang Wei. Oil on linen (and video projection).
Perhaps no other work in the show encapsulates, or crystallizes, the issues concerning the Huang Wei myth better than the untitled piece (above), a seemingly unfinished, undated/undateable canvas featuring a troika of figures including two unidentified personages – although one of those bears a rather uncanny likeness to Singapore’s eminent Minister Mentor – as well as a reproduction of Caravaggio’s version of David with the Head of Goliath in the Borghese gallery. The curator – I think – decided to augment the piece, such as it were: Oei projected video footage of the head of Goliath, said to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, over its painted counterpart, a projection which assumed the angular contours of a four-sided canvas, thus imposing onto the real canvas a meta-painting of flickering light, with the subject matter of both – Goliath’s, or the artist’s head – meeting in a precisely calibrated position. One, an actual, three-dimensional object, a work sedimented in numerous layers of contextual, iconographic and semantic uncertainties; the other, a thing of light and shadow, insubstantial as the evacuated meanings behind the first. One, an obscure artist unknown in his time and now dead; the other, a curator-archeologist whose personal presence at the site of the first seems in equal parts excavation and intervention.
It’s all almost delectably confused.
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 birthday, Keith Haring !
He would have turned 54 today. (A fact that Google is celebrating with one of their always-entertaining doodles.)
Singaporeans who frequent the Bras Basah neighbourhood may have noticed the Haring-esque mural on the low wall of the walkway leading up to the foodcourt – the work of a local public art enterprise, Social Creatives. The similarities are a little too, ahem, salient to be overlooked.
We’ll consider it a tribute — one especially apt here.
First, anonymity as a regulatory force, socio-political instrumentalism at its bluntest: “ … an effect of actions taken against a subject by one invested with greater authority or power. This is anonymity as something done to the subject, acts that take what is most recognizable or objectionable about the subject and diffuse or nullify those parts.”
Now, anonymity as a radical response, a re-direction of the otherwise negational act of erasure: “What I am suggesting in this exhibition is a counter possibility, that when faced with this force the subject as glimpsed in this exhibition could take on that anonymity toward altogether different ends. When the anonymity maintains the trace of individuality rather than erase it, for one, or when anonymity is a sign that the subject is not completely whole or human, and therefore not quite within reach of any attempts to normalize it.”
That’s local artist Jason Wee, who curated Subject Shall Remain Anonymous, on his theme of choice. It’s a suasive thesis. The resonances here are varied and urgent: the revelation of intersecting power structures; the expression of subalternity (especially immediate within the context of Southeast Asia, where autocratic regimes of one sort or another are the norm rather than the exception); the possibilities of aesthetic resistance. The title, as a matter of fact, pretty much sums it up. The use of the imperative – the voice of decree – establishes a differential of authority between speaker and audience, and the omission of an article, whether definite or indefinite, functions as a grammatical elision invoking the contingent status of the “subject”. Interposed, then,between the denial of individual agency by oligarchic systems, and the appropriation of such gestures as, antithetically, acts of ownership and self-determination, are the multifarious strategies serving to occlude the artistic object, the effacement, abstraction, deracination, dispersal, withdrawal, material inflection and iconographic negotiation shrouding it in layers of eloquent hidden-ness.
Perhaps the most direct measure here of anonymity and its modalities is the distance from naturalistic representations of the human body – i.e. how the somatic complex, as the consequence of long-held traditions and discourses of verisimilar portraiture, is simultaneously evoked and erased. Take Maya Munoz’s paintings (above, top), for instance: incognito personalities posed against equally unrecognizable backdrops, both figure and ground constituted by trickles, streaks, blotches, and whirling eddies of paint, the legibility of their subject matter receding beneath the barrage of conspicuous mark-making. Or Jeremy Sharma’s rather derivative contributions (above, bottom). While likewise appropriating the idiom of gestural abstraction, their surfaces submitted to an imbroglio of conspicuous brushstrokes and bleeding drips (de Kooning, anyone?), these works extend the trope of anonymity by a doubled act of obfuscation: the subjects, an astronaut and a racer, are individuals masked – literally – by their respective occupations, any suggestion of subjectivity buried by livery, equipment, signs of corporate sponsorship. The person inhabiting the suit is removed twice over from the spectator’s gaze, rendered ambivalent by both attribute (what they wear) and style (how they’re depicted).
Portraiture is often adduced as that most iconic of signs (along with photography, though not without howls of protest in the latter’s case), a system of corporeal representation foregrounding physical and social semblance – i.e. likeness. C. S. Peirce’s semiotic triad of icon-index-symbol has been discussed elsewhere on the pages of this blog, but just by way of a quick recap: the iconic sign-type is largely premised on verisimilitude, the degree of proximity to its real-life referent. Of the icon, Peirce had this to say: “Most icons, if not all, are likenesses of their objects.” Or: “… firstly, Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves …” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) He would go on to qualify this definition – and categorize three different sorts of icons – but more on that later. The point here is, at its most basic (and reductive), Peircean iconicity is established on similitude.
The second sign-type, the index, is predicated on existential contiguities between sign and object. As commonly understood by art historians, the painterly gesture, qua index, is a trace of the artist’s hand that emphasizes its own processual or constitutive nature, rather than being an image grounded in naturalism (unlike the index). Elsewhere, Rosalind Krauss has said of the index: “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents … Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects …” (Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths [MIT Press, 1986].) As signs that exist “along the axis of a physical relationship”, indices are marks (like footprints) that act as material indicators of their origins (the foot that made it). One of the primary mechanisms of the semiotic process here, then – Peirce identified several more – is that of cause and effect.
Harold Rosenberg, c. 1950. Image from Archives of American Art.
Clement Greenberg, in 1978. Image from this UW-Milwaukee site.
It is in the break between the iconic (representational mimesis) and the indexical (a-referential action-ism) that the works of Munoz and Sharma locate their various configurations of dis-identification. As Wee notes, anonymity, as a response to the depredations of hegemonic networks rather than being a mere effect of said incursions, operates most cogently when it “maintains the trace of individuality rather than [completely] eras-[ing] it.” Put another way: these paintings of rubbed-out individuals, clad in everyday attire like jeans or veiled behind helmets and buried in hi-tech gear, may seem to proscribe the sort of subjective, iconic specificity afforded by realist portraiture, the departure from verisimilitude dovetailing with notions of social marginalization. Yet the sort of pictorial delineations here function also in the way of indexicality: while retaining the broad contours of figural description, they also employ the sort of vigorous, assertive, dynamic brushwork associated with action painting.* Or, in Harold Rosenberg’s words: “The innovation of Action Painting was to dispense with the representation of the state in favor of enacting it in physical movement. The action on the canvas became its own representation.” (Italics mine.) The self-evident, self-defining gestures of the Abstract Expressionists – to use the label appropriated by Greenberg, who, famously, disagreed with Rosenberg’s characterization – channeled by the present paintings belie the understanding of facelessness as powerlessness, anonymity as anomie. Quite simply, the energy and the authority conveyed by the brushstrokes (as indexical signs) contradict the impression of invisibility (in the iconic register), restoring to the otherwise obliterated, undistinguished subject on the surface of the canvas a sense of puissance.
* It’s perhaps not uninteresting that, apropos of artists working in the year 2012, explicatory recourse is still being had to paradigms established 60 years ago. (Rosenberg’s piece, “The American Action Painters”, was first published in 1952.) Failure of critical response (mine), or artistic imagination (theirs) ?
Yet, even within the conceptual framework of the show – of anonymity as criticality – works like Munoz’s and Sharma’s seem … the least compelling.
The interruption of a mimetic pictorial syntax by the sort of gestural inflections discussed above are utilized to similar effect by various other pieces as well: Mella Jaarsma’s melding of synthetic Cubist forms and Orientalist motifs (Protectors of Candi Suku III; above, top); Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s depiction of a man’s back, the enclosing space thick with a mesh of charcoal pencil-lines (Reclining Figure #13; above, middle); the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t faces of Vincent Leow’s figures (above, bottom). Deviating from the tropes of iconic representationalism seems the most straightforward process of constituting the anonymous – and, by dint of that fact, the most unexciting as well. If anything, those inclusions here which lend themselves less immediately to claims of visual anonymity offer precisely the richest examples of that very proposition. The show, in fact, opens with a classic instance of traditional portraiture, a painting of a nameless young woman (below, top) being the first work in the gallery the viewer encounters:
This exhibition started with a mystery. The gallerist Tolla Sloane showed me a painting by Doris Duke, a commercial portraitist who worked in Malaya and died in Singapore in 1967, who was also Tolla’s grandmother. The portrait ‘Girl in Pink’ was finished in 1955 for an exhibition for the Women Artists of Malaya group, which included Georgette Chen among others. The Malay girl in the painting was not named in any of the exhibition documents in Tolla’s possession, and though we suspected that some of the other artists in that exhibition may have painted the same teenage model, we could not find her likeness elsewhere, at least not in what we saw of Chen’s and her contemporaries’ paintings from those years. She remained a nameless cipher for the ambitions of others …
(Jason Wee, “Subject Shall Remain Anonymous”, in the accompanying catalogue.)
Duke’s Girl in Pink, at first glance, is that which many of its fellows in the show are not: an expressive, suggestive depiction of an individual, rendered with the specificity of detail appropriate to the work of a professional portrait painter ? (Which Duke was, according to the brief bio in the exhibition booklet.) The figure’s softly-limned features, the coy, downcast gaze and ever-so-slightly parted lips; her quaint braids, and the pink ribbons, and the wispy peach-hued blouse with its snow-white collar; the edge of a painting behind her set into an edge of the painting – the cumulative effect is one of class and culture, gentle breeding and gracious manners. So much for the immediately expressive. What the painting suggests, while less discernable, is no less interesting nor significant: a girl of her race and (presumably) religion in 1950s Malaya – the fledgling federation then a mere two years away from full independence – with uncovered head and open neck, sitting for a portrait. The question, of course, is one of wider social mores, of the particular historico-geographical moment in which the image is moored: did Malay-Muslim girls of her age and class, in 1955, wear these things, do these things ? If it’s fair to assume that they generally did not, what sort of inferences may be drawn about the sitter ? Does the deliberate aura of refinement and breeding – of a certain socio-economic class and its prerogatives, in other words – serve to set her apart in more ways than one, and what, if anything, does that say about social differentiation and the practice of Islam in the Merdeka era ?
Grand-sounding claims. The litany of issues above, though, ultimately fails to take into account a crucial point: whether the painting was a commissioned portrait, or posed for by a hired model (as Wee suggests). And it is in that sense, of a fundamental ontological instability, that the girl in pink remains as much an enigma to us as, say, Munoz’s obscured bodies. The portrait may situate itself within a discourse of representational image-making, of pictures as signs that resemble their real-world referents, but, imbricated as it is within a web of contextual uncertainties, the unanswered questions of just who the girl was, and the circumstances of Duke’s painting of her, render the work a deracinated likeness of no one, a signifier of anonymity rather than identity. To return to the idea of the icon: Peirce would go on qualified the concept in a more specific fashion, noting that “An icon is a sign which would possess the character which renders it significant, even though its object had no existence; such as a lead-pencil streak as representing a geometrical line.” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) In other words, likeness, as it concerns iconicity, is not predicated on actual existence; rather, the resemblance may relate to completely imaginary objects or to ideas (e.g. geometry) instead. An icon, then, may operate along the lines of visual similitude without gesturing at any particular object existing in reality – as, of course, Duke’s girl in pink does here, a nomadic sign anchored to an indeterminate, evacuated entity.
I like the idea of recuperating the anonymous underside of portraiture – itself a kind of intellectual agency. The issue perhaps becomes particularly acute at the intersection of History (with the capital ‘H’) and subjectivity, as is the case here. I think T. J. Clark put it best: “Class is a name, I take it, for that complex and determinate place we are given in the social body; it is the name for everything which signifies that a certain history lives us, lends us our individuality.” (Italics mine; see The Painting of Modern Life [Knopf, 1985].)
Ang Sookoon’s Love is like a chunk of gold (below, bottom), the sole sculptural piece included in the show, makes for a wonderfully apropos note on which to end. The artist introduced a solution of phosphoric acid into a loaf of bread, causing crystals to sprout, and then encased the entire object in resin. The final product looks rather like a mutant cephalopod.
It just sits in its little plastic case, coolly, calmly, self-possessed; it is also the one work here which simply jettisons any form of reference to the human body at all. Non-existence – the most radical form of anonymity ?
Local artist Alecia Neo’s Goddess of Mercy is being presented at the Substation Gallery as part of the M1 Fringe Fest. this year.
The artist has recreated two living spaces from real-life referents, belonging to a pair of mother-son couples: the Neos (any relation?), a devoutly Buddhist, cancer-stricken woman living with her hairstylist son, who professes faith in a personal mash-up of various Buddhist and Taoist cults, as well popular Asian folk religion. In the other section, culled from the lives of the Tans, the younger Tan considers himself agnostic, while his mother, a pious Catholic, now suffers from a debilitating case of Alzheimer’s.
Re-imagined domesticity as narrative is nothing new. (Simon Fujiwara’s censored contribution to the local Biennale last year, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, is a case in point.) What was striking about Neo’s piece is her embrace of the olfactory dimension: a small coil of incense was kept burning in one section of the work (the Neos’), and some essence of rosemary in the other. Engaging the sensorium is a big deal in contemporary art these days, but the tactile and the aural senses are the next most common modes of appeal after the visual – and only rarely the olfactory and/or gustatory after that.
Props to Neo, and the Substation as well for being open-minded about their space. It may seem like a trifling touch, but not for nothing is smell considered the most powerfully evocative of the senses – the incense, in particular, activated the display for me in very immediate, visceral ways, evoking the numberless shrines and temples I’ve encountered over the course of my life, the thick, woody scent of joss sticks coating the air almost always an inescapable element …
Goddess of Mercy runs till Feb 26.
The Gillman Barracks opens in September.
For those who can’t wait, a detailed write-up in The Straits Times today.
The final price tag ? – ten million big ones. Gotta love Singapore.
ENGINEERED FOR THE ARTS
Will the planning of Gillman Barracks arts hub by the government stifle or help the arts in Singapore?
By Adeline Chia. Published February 16, 2012.
The vision for the Gillman Barracks is a brave and ambitious one: a cluster of top art galleries from around the world, housed in quaint historical buildings nestled in leafy surrounds.
The art on show is a mixture of the cutting edge and the established, including A-list artists such as Takeshi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Annie Leibovitz.
It aims to draw visitors from the jetsetting art collector to the window- shopping man on the street. In other words: ‘an iconic international destination for contemporary art in Asia’, according to the official literature.
Gillman Barracks is the bold new step in Singapore’s continuous march to become a global arts city – by building an arts district akin to Beijing’s 798 Art District, South Korea’s Heyri Art Village or New York’s Chelsea.
The difference is that these art districts abroad have sprung up naturally while Gillman is a government-led project. Its development is planned by the Economic Development Board, Jurong Town Corporation and the National Arts Council at a cost of about $10 million.
In the past few years, Singapore has grown pretty serious about contemporary visual art.
Two international art fairs, the high-end Art Stage Singapore and the mid-priced Affordable Art Fair, have taken off. International galleries have also started moving in, such as Art Plural Gallery opened by Swiss art dealer Frederic De Senarclens.
In terms of arts infrastructure, things are buoyed by the development of the $80-million Singapore Freeport, a storage space for art, with international auction house Christie’s as the main tenant.
In 2015, there is another biggie: the much-anticipated opening of The National Art Gallery, a 60,000 sq m gallery that will be housed in the City Hall and the former Supreme Court buildings. The institution will focus on South-east Asian art and its renovations will cost an estimated $530 million.
With Gillman Barracks, scheduled to open with a bang in September with all the galleries ready for business, Singapore’s art race goes into turbo mode. But even before the cluster throws open its doors, sceptics are asking if it is possible to engineer an arts hub, Singapore-style, by using a committee to choose a winning combination of tenants.
Thirteen galleries form the first wave of tenants in the former colonial army barracks located off Alexandra Road.
They include Ota Fine Arts, representing Japanese superstar artist Yayoi ‘polka dot’ Kusama; Sundaram Tagore Gallery, carrying the works of Leibovitz and American abstract painter Frank Stella; and ShanghART Gallery, representing top Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi.
The galleries are supposed to pay commercial rates and those approached by Life! said they have not been given discounts or other monetary incentives to set up shop here. In a call for applicants released by the Economic Development Board last year, rental rates were cited as between $31.50 and $35.50 a sq m a month.
Most arts observers welcome the list of galleries in Gillman. Mr Wang Zineng, 30, a South-east Asian specialist at Christie’s, calls it ‘an exciting mix that promotes inter-Asian interactions and conversations’.
But he is worried about the ‘long-term sustainability of the project’. ‘In any such project, there is seed money. After that money is spent, what happens? The commercial viability remains a question.’
A challenge is overcoming the ‘saturation of the art market in Asia’, including Hong Kong’s buzzing commercial art scene and the India Art Fair. ‘There are a lot of art fairs and auctions around. How do you sustain the interest of collectors?’ he adds.
Prominent Malaysian gallerist Valentine Willie, 57, is blunt in his assessment: ‘In a sense, Gillman has already failed.’
He owns four galleries in South-east Asia under the Valentine Willie Fine Art name.
‘Places such as Chelsea and 798 grew as a result of a need or a demand. Here, the Government is manufacturing the demand,’ he says.
He points to Hong Kong, where rents are exorbitant and yet the city attracts top-shelf international galleries such as London’s White Cube, whose roster includes well-known British contemporary artists Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and Gagosian Gallery, a supergallery chain owned by influential American dealer Larry Gagosian.
Mr Willie says: ‘No government was there to give you some nice old buildings. Hong Kong is just where the action is. You can’t manufacture that. EDB of all agencies should understand basic economics: you can’t manufacture demand.’
He adds that the Economic Development Board should instead help existing arts clusters such as Artspace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark, a 70,000 sq ft warehouse space owned by Helutrans, an arts handling firm.
The Singapore branch of Mr Willie’s gallery is situated there, together with three other galleries: Galerie Steph, Ikkan Art International and ReDot Fine Art Gallery.
He says: ‘Instead of trying to harness the energy of an existing hub and helping it, they are trying to kill it. It’s unfair competition.’
Another Artspace@Helutrans tenant has a different view. Japanese art dealer and gallerist Ikkan Sanada, 61, who moved his long-standing New York base to Singapore, says: ‘I don’t believe in government intervention, especially in art.’
But he says that sometimes some initial help can ‘kick off arts activity’.
He opened his gallery in May last year and shows works by top names such as photographer Cindy Sherman, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and British ‘bad boy’ Damien Hirst.
He says: ‘I welcome the Gillman Barracks. It provides a diversity of galleries, which is good for the arts community.’
He says that the next two to three years will be crucial in testing the commercial viability of the cluster.
‘While the market can be influenced and improved by initial investment, you can’t control or force the public to start buying art. If the buyers don’t come and sales don’t materialise, then some galleries may have to leave. We have to wait and see.’
An EDB spokeman says that the Gillman Barracks was chosen as a venue because, according to industry feedback, ‘a successful arts cluster should have unique architectural and/or historical characteristics’.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority then proposed the Gillman site because of its 14 low-rise military-style buildings and lush green surroundings. The entire development will yield 9,000 sq m of space for lease, with a tenancy term of three years with an option to extend for another three years.
Dr Eugene Tan, 38, programme director of EDB’s Lifestyle Programme Office who is overseeing the Gillman Barracks’ development, says that it was necessary for the Government to step in to ‘address the failures of the open market’ to develop a successful arts cluster.
‘Many arts clusters which have been left to develop freely by private developers have succumbed to short-term pressures to lease spaces to the highest bidder,’ he says.
As a result, art businesses are priced out by high-end bars and restaurants.
‘This issue is particularly pressing in land-scarce Singapore. As many commercial tenants compete aggressively on price, there are limited options for emerging clusters of art businesses to grow organically over the long term.’
He adds that Gillman Barracks is not modelled after any particular arts cluster abroad.
The Gillman galleries certainly buy into his dream. Many of them say that they have chosen Singapore to be closer to their South-east Asian clients, and because Singapore is an emerging centre for the thriving art market in Asia.
Mr Ota Hidenori, 52, whose Tokyo- based Ota Fine Arts is opening its first 108 sq m outpost in Singapore, says: ‘Singapore is just starting out and I want to be one of the first players here.’
His gallery carries the work of artists such as Kusama and video artist Hiraki Sawa.
He says Singapore is a good base to tap into the booming art market in Asia, given its multi-cultural identity and the quality of its public museums and arts professionals.
New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore, who owns an eponymous chain of galleries in New York, Beverly Hills and Hong Kong, also believes in Singapore as an emerging arts hub. Its central location in Asia leaves it well-poised to tap into his collector base from Dubai to Australia. His gallery space in Gillman is about 4,500 sq ft.
The 52-year-old says that his gallery was not given any financial incentive, but the power of EDB ‘collectively marketing’ the Gillman Barracks as a serious arts cluster with a strong roster of galleries is attractive to him.
As for the place being master planned, he says: ‘Singapore doesn’t have the benefit of history, unlike the great centres of art such as New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo. When you are trying to create things speedily, you need a stimulus. Here it happens to be the Government. If you wait for organic development, you could be waiting forever.’
ShanghART’s Swiss director Lorenz Helbling, who is in his 50s, says that he decided to come into Singapore because it is an ‘emerging, interesting place’.
‘So many cultures come together here. As a market, I don’t know how bright it is. Who knows? But most of the time, we don’t do things for commercial interest. It’s difficult to know what collectors want. We just do our bit and hope that collectors follow.’
ShanghART is one of the most influential galleries in China devoted to contemporary art, and it was chosen as one of the top 75 galleries of the 20th century by Taschen, the German art and design publisher.
Singapore is its first gallery outside Shanghai and its repertoire features some of the biggest names in Chinese art such as Zeng, Chen Xiaoyun and Ding Yi. Its space in Gillman is just over 100 sq m.
Mr Helbling did not consider Hong Kong as an option because ‘there’s too much shopping’.
‘In Singapore, I feel that you can develop an artistic kind of feeling, it doesn’t feel too commercial.’
Most arts observers say that it is early days yet, but agree that this is a high-stakes game that requires careful management.
Curator and art consultant Lindy Poh, 41, acknowledges that government agencies face a ‘double bind’ when engineering arts clusters.
She says that art clusters such as Soho and 798 had a strong indie vibe (‘an X factor’) at certain points of their development, which ran counter to state intervention, which suggests bureaucracy and surveillance.
She says: ‘Our art market is very small and benefits from certain boosts, and government agencies have their own pressures to deliver on key performance indicators.
‘But if agencies are perceived as engineering the creative sector excessively, they are also seen as stripping it of its aura of independence.’
Dr Tan has a delicate task ahead, but he has grand plans for Gillman Barracks. He says: ‘Apart from making it an international destination and marketplace for contemporary art in Asia, I want it to be the place where you can see and experience the best and most innovative art of your times.’
Is this a beautiful dream or the prophecy for a brave, new chapter in Singapore’s arts development? Only time can tell. But Mr Jasdeep Sandhu, 45, owner of Gajah Gallery, says that government support gives the Gillman galleries ‘a bit of a tail wind’.
He adds: ‘It’s a business decision that these guys are making to come here. They are sharp business people who see its potential. It means they have confidence in Singapore as a spot for art.’
‘Places such as Chelsea and 798 grew as a result of a need or a demand. Here, the Government is manufacturing the demand. Instead of trying to harness the energy of an existing hub and helping it, they are trying to kill it’
Malaysian gallerist Valentine Willie
‘Singapore doesn’t have the benefit of history, unlike the great centres of art such as New York, Tokyo. When you are trying to create things speedily, you need a stimulus… If you wait for organic development, you could be waiting forever’
New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore
Galleries at Gillman
EQUATOR ART PROJECTS (Indonesia)
Gallery directors: Deddy Irianto and Tony Godfrey
Artists: Agus Suwage, Arahmaiani, Ay Tjoe Christine
FOST GALLERY (Singapore)
Gallery director: Stephanie Fong
Artists: Chun Kai Feng, Chun Kai Qun, Tang Ling Nah, Namiko Chan Takahashi
KAIKAI KIKI GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Takashi Murakami
Artists: Takashi Murakami, Anri Sala, Aya Takano, Mr.
FUTURE PERFECT (Australia)
Gallery directors: David Teh and Jasper Knight
Artists: Adam Cullen, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ho Tzu Nyen
MIZUMA GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Mizuma Sueo
Artists: Makoto Aida, Konoike Tomoko, Ikeda Manabu
OTA FINE ARTS (Japan)
Gallery director: Ota Hidenori
Artists: Yayoi Kusama, Hiraki Sawa and Tomoko Kashiki
PEARL LAM GALLERIES (China)
Gallery director: Pearl Lam
Artists: Zhang Huan, Zhu Jinshi, Li Tianbing
SHANGHART GALLERY (China)
Gallery director: Lorenz Helbling
Artists: Zeng Fanzhi, Chen Xiaoyun, Ding Yi
SILVERLENS (The Philippines)
Gallery directors: Isa Lorenzo and Neli Go
Artists: Patricia Eustaquio, Frank Callaghan, Wawi Navarroza
SPACE COTTONSEED (Korea)
Gallery director: Janice Kim
Artists: Moon Kyungwon, Lee Seahyun, Choi Hochul
SUNDARAM TAGORE GALLERY (US)
Gallery director: Sundaram Tagore
Artists: Annie Leibovitz, Robert Polidori, Frank Stella
THE DRAWING ROOM (The Philippines)
Gallery director: Cesar Villalon Jr
Artists: Jose Legaspi, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Kawayan De Guia
TOMIO KOYAMA GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Tomio Koyama
Artists: Yoshitomo Nara, Franz Ackermann, Mika Ninagawa
You know, that commonplace: ““The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
So I guess I’m grateful, in a manner of speaking.
A friend recently brought this to my attention: a simultaneous dissing and out-ing on Facebook. (See screengrab above.)
Curator Tang Fu Kuen clearly is not a fan of my work on this site. This is what he has to say: “An example of a bad sophomoric art blog that imagines it’s contributing intellectually to the SG visual art scene. He calls himself Louis Lardpants!”
I suppose a snarky one-liner is hardly much to get riled about, but that second statement got a little too personal for my taste.
To every critique (although this hardly counts), a rejoinder:
1. Disagreement is perfectly legit. After all, I pull no punches on this blog, so I can hardly expect my readers – and critics – to concur with my opinions, or even my approach. However, this needs to be said: my writing is NEVER about snap judgments, or personal vendettas. (Thank goodness I have few of those.)
It’s about ideas.
The primary impulse behind the direction that this blog has taken in the last year or so derives in large part from what I see as a deficit in critical articulations regarding local art, and local art historical canons: aside from the work of a handful of veteran scholars and foreign academics, there are, sad to say, but a few commentators and critics of Singapore art writing today who are possessed of lucid voices, a tendency to lateral reflection beyond those tired boundaries demarcating the facile notion of autonomy which cloaks the artistic object, and a familiarity with the critical praxis of the Anglo-American academy (since we are hardly heirs to an indigenous tradition of criticality).
In short, I DO view myself as “contributing intellectually to the SG visual art scene”, quote unquote.
That is not a defense, by the way. My work speaks for itself – any claims I muster on its behalf are necessarily inadequate, and the best recourse would simply be to the writing as such. Go read.
In that vein, I invite Mr. Tang – if he, or any acquaintances, happen to be reading this – to an exchange on the pages of this site: a frank, civil discussion of what art criticism and writing in Singapore is, can, and should be, or perhaps regarding any one or more of my reviews on this site, which he may have issues with. Zippy labels like “sophomoric”, while understandably fun, are hardly convincing – unless, of course, as a prelude to a more considered evaluation, which, unfortunately, does not seem to be the case here. I may have deployed a couple of those in my time, but only always as lead-in to careful analysis, and serious commentary.
As I recently mentioned to someone, I believe in reasoned judgment – but, more than that, I believe in dialogue.
The invitation to an exchange is, hopefully, ample demonstration of that fact.
And, hopefully, Mr. Tang, too, knows how to walk the walk. Otherwise his talk may not be worth much.
2. Now this is where the comments rankle. You’ll notice that he makes an allusion to my Facebook handle; indeed, “Louis Lardpants” is how I’m known on FB. (Feel free to look it up, but most of it is accessible only to people in my contact list.) That is quite CLEARLY a reference to – and a deliberate puncture of – the anonymity that I’ve maintained on this site thus far. Now, quite a few regular readers already know who I am, and those with whom I’m not personally acquainted will probably have been clandestinely apprised of the fact by those who are. It doesn’t matter. My identity isn’t a big secret, but the reviewing process being what it is – i.e. not always resulting in a positive verdict – it does save a lot of in-person hassle when I go to shows if I remain faceless. Which explains the continued charade.
I understand that Mr. Tang may have a beef with my opinions as they are expressed here, but surely my choice to remain anonymous should be considered personal, and to be respected as such ? (Even the exclamation mark – “He calls himself Louis Lardpants!” – seems to suggest mockery of that sobriquet, which is, I think, hitting below the belt somewhat.) Again, I stress that writing published on this site, and the critiques contained therein, are directed at (a) publicly expressed opinions, publicly exhibited works of art and publicly accessible exhibitions, and (b) institutions, or individuals as representatives of said institutions or in their capacity as professionals in the art world. In other words, I would NOT look up someone’s Facebook profile and post it on the pages of this blog, or on my own profile – especially not if a preference for anonymity is palpable. (“What bad art! And he/she calls him/herself XXX!”)
I don’t do that … but apparently others do.
Some of you are going to say that Mr. Tang’s comments were made on Facebook, and – privacy settings aside – only for the eyes of his contacts. I do wish to point out that if limited visibility was indeed a consideration here, these remarks would have been made using the Message function, or put on some form of limited setting – not out in the open on the wall of a profile, where word of it got back to me within an hour or so.
I suppose the only conclusion is that Mr. Tang intended for me to be publicly out-ed.
Which is why I decided to put this up here. If he does not wish to respect another’s privacy, then I guess I should feel no qualms about a direct address on an open forum like the present one: Mr. Tang, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.
I definitely welcome a candid conversation about art matters, or my writing, or specifically regarding The Longue Duree … blog – but everything else is pretty much off limits.
I hope that much at least is taken to heart.
Image from The Substation site.
The facade of the Substation is currently swathed in a screen of black and white PVC slats. The installation is the brainchild of a local architect and a designer, Randy Chan and Grace Tan, titled Building as a Body. The work, as that moniker suggests, imagines architecture as anatomy. According to Tan:
The façade becomes bare and neutral, but powerful and dynamic beyond the surface. Subsequently, Randy and I started talking about the parallel between the body and architecture. Over the course of our dialogue, the notion of constructing a layer/skin to cover the façade came naturally to us.
By shrouding the façade, we are removing and masking the ‘face’ of the building, which is the most critical, visual, and symbolic physical representation of The Substation.
(See an interview with Tan here.)
The correlation between built structures and somatic structures is not a new one:
… Renaissance building owed its special qualities as an “architecture of humanism” to its analogies, in theory and physical presence, to the human body. A confessed Wolfflinian himself, Rowe would seem to agree with the ascription of a corporeal psychology to the experience of architecture, a response of the human body to a building that, for the building to be successful, would have, so to speak, to be matched and instigated by the building itself. We sense an echo of Wolfflin’s conclusion that “we judge every object by analogy with our own bodies.” Wolfflin wrote of the “creature”-like nature of the building, “with head and foot, back and front” ……
For Geoffrey Scott, the building’s “body” acted as a referent for “the body’s favorable state,” the “moods of the spirit … power and laughter, strength and terror and calm.” Translating the long tradition of Renaissance bodily analogy into psychological terms, Scott identified two complementary principles at work: the one, founded on the response we have to the appearance of stability or instability in a building, is our identification with the building itself: “we have transcribed ourselves into terms of architecture.” The other was founded on the fact that with this initial transcription we unconsciously invest the building itself with human movement and human moods: “we transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves.” Together, these two principles formed, he asserted, “the humanism of architecture.” … Thence Scott’s impassioned plea for the body in architecture: “architecture, to communicate the vital values of the spirit must appear organic, like the body.”
(Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny [1992, MIT Press].)
Comparisons to the large-scale outdoor projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude aside, Building as a Body strikes one as an informed intervention in the urban streetscape: cloaking the physical presence of a well-established local institution in a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t play of shifting chromaticism, the work perhaps functions as an oblique comment on the Substation’s diminished influence in the arts scene hereabouts, a game of optical hide-and-seek to mirror its vicissitudinous wax and wane in the public eye …
A write-up in The Straits Times last week, reproduced below.
VEIL FOR SUBSTATION
Artists turn the arts centre into an art installation for its 20th anniversary.
By Denise Cheong. Published: 3 February 2012.
One of Singapore’s landmark arts centres has itself been turned into a work of art.
Take a stroll along Armenian Street and you will find The Substation shrouded in interwoven black and cream plastic strips.
The arts centre-turned-art-installation was commissioned by the National Heritage Board and the Singapore Art Museum.
Singapore artists Grace Tan, 32, and Randy Chan, 41, created it to celebrate The Substation’s 20th anniversary. Their work, quite an artistic and architectural feat, is titled Building As A Body.
It is a 15m-tall and 10m-wide matrix of 471 PVC strips, each between 5m and 9m in length and 3cm in width. These strips are connected to steel poles using square rings and conceals the entire facade of The Substation building.
The 80kg structure was completed on Jan 10 and is on display till March 28. It is supported by steel scaffolding clamped to the building’s pillars, and took three days and 10 construction workers to build.
On why the artists concealed the arts centre, Chan said he was disappointed that since the National Library and a well- known char kway teow stall (Armenian Street Char Kway Teow, now at Block 303, Anchorvale Link Coffeshop in Sengkang) were relocated, the area was now often deserted.
‘The idea was to personify the building. If you look at it one way, the veil represents a woman’s coming of age as a young bride. However, it can also stand for something more morbid, as a veil is also used to cover a corpse,’ he said.
Tan added: ‘This is why we chose the monochromatic colour scheme instead of something more striking. The polarity is very symbolic.
‘The image of a veil in itself is very elusive and mysterious. This can be paralleled to how The Substation means different things to different people.’
The Substation artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, 38, said: ‘I hope the installation will activate a new imagination of The Substation, not only as a home for the arts but also as a platform for design and sculpture.’
He added: ‘The Substation already stands out in gentrified Armenian Street. This installation disrupts the clean lines of this neighbourhood. I like it and I think it’s an important statement.’
On the use of PVC strips, Chan said: ‘As this is a public art installation, we were very strategic about the materials used. Instead of just draping a big cloth over the building, which will eventually get wet and heavy, we went for this idea of weaving so that wind can flow through it.
‘PVC material is water-resistant and also very light, making the veil structurally sound.’
This is Chan and Tan’s first time collaborating on an art project of this scale.
He is an architect by profession, and she is an associate artist of The Substation’s research programme and the founder of kwodrent, an inter-disciplinary practice specialising in design and fabric works.