Posts Tagged ‘Singapore Biennale ’11’
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
That’s the million-dollar question – literally, considering the obscene amounts that art goes for these days on the auction block …
Straits Times writer Stephanie Yap, whose initials may not be entirely unfamiliar to sharp-eyed readers of this blog, has a piece in today’s Life! considering the debate.
That particular discussion came out of an evening of post-Biennale beers at The Cider Pit, and, boy, was it a hard-fought battle for all involved ! While it shouldn’t come as any surprise which side of the lines I have my tent pretty firmly pitched on, I think Steph’s opinions deserve to be taken seriously – if only because she is hardly the only person who feels that way, the sentiments of a large number of practicing artists and certain art critics these days constituting an informal backlash of sorts against the theoretification of the art world and the sidelining of aesthetic affect.
The glut of literature dealing with the topic is copious and, in many cases, incomprehensible – though W. J. T. Mitchell‘s writings are a good place to start for a lucid introduction. However, for a caustic, deliberately provocative, infuriating war-cry on behalf of beauty in the visual arts, nothing beats Dave Hickey’s slim volume of essays, The Invisible Dragon.
A preview of Hickey is available on Google Books.
FINDING THE ART AMONG THE JUNK
Visual art should be attractive and engaging or risk getting cast aside as a piece of garbage. By Stephanie Yap.
On a recent weekend, I visited the Old Kallang Airport, one of the four sites of the ongoing Singapore Biennale 2011. As in the case of most trips to art exhibitions or the museum, I liked some of the artworks and disliked others.
This time though, my reaction was more heavily weighted towards the latter than it usually is. This is not a condemnation of the artists, curators and other personnel involved in staging the biennale: I’m the first to admit that I have a very uncompromising, even narrow-minded attitude towards visual art that does not lend itself well to many exhibitions of contemporary art.
You see, I have come up with a personal litmus test as to whether something is a work of art or not: If you saw it in a garbage dump, would you go, “Oh no, there’s a work of art in the garbage dump!” or would you pass it by, not even noticing that the so-called artwork is out of place?
In his 1967 book The Medium Is The Message, Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote: “Art is anything you can get away with.” [Too, too true …]
An early practitioner of this philosophy was French artist Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 acquired an ordinary porcelain urinal, gave it the title “Fountain”, and signed it “R. Mutt”. (Interestingly, while replicas of “Fountain” are on display at various museums worldwide, the original is lost, believed to have been thrown away. Obviously, no one thought of saving it from the rubbish dump.)
The idea behind Fountain takes the subjectivity of value to the extreme: If one treats an object as art, it then becomes art.
This is an idea I feel, in more ways than one, is full of crap. Yes, it is liberating to embrace a wide definition of art rather than sticking to specific mediums or traditions. But if anything can be art, then the term itself becomes so nebulous that it loses all definition and becomes meaningless. And that’s even before you start appending adjectives like “good”, “bad”, or “complex”.
It is understandable in this high-tech age, where cameras can capture reality more easily and accurately than any paintbrush or chisel, artists might want to avoid being made redundant by eschewing craftsmanship in favour of context, representation in favour of abstraction, accompanied by chunks of wall text explaining what they were trying to achieve in the first place.
Often, the intent described in the text is so exciting, brimming with artistic manifestos and claims to significance, that the actual execution inescapably feels rather underwhelming in contrast – indeed, the artist might have been better off not making the work and just publishing the description, letting readers’ imaginations do a better job than he ever could and saving money, space and the environment in the bargain.
So, which works did I dislike at Old Kallang Airport? The last work I saw before closing time was Imminent Departure by American artist Lisi Raskin, a site-specific work that takes material from the crumbling airport and puts them together to create a new, rather haphazard space, complete with garish colours. According to her bio on the biennale website, Raskin “creates stage-like installations that play on fears engendered by the threat of war”.
Perhaps because I am a sheltered Singaporean, the threat of war has failed to engender any fears in myself for her installation to play on. I must agree with the “stage-like” aspect though – the installation did look like a set for a B-grade science-fiction movie set in a dystopian future with 1970s aesthetic sensibilities. But if I wanted to see such a set, I would be better off watching a B-grade science-fiction movie, which might at least raise questions about the meaning of life, the nature of humanity or feature aliens.
Compare this with Singaporean artist Michael Lee’s Office Orchitect installation, which introduces the viewer to a fictitious 20th-century architect called K. S. Wong, complete with a timeline charting his influences and cardboard models of his unbuilt designs. The architectural models are exquisitely rendered and gorgeously surreal. It also helped that I was caught up in the narrative of this brilliant man whose genius went unrewarded during his lifetime.
Call me old-fashioned, but I do think that visual art should look, if not necessarily attractive, then at least engaging, its physical form being its prime mode of communication with the viewer.
Otherwise, to the rubbish dump it should go – and stay.
Oh, P.S. My response to Steph’s rubbish-dump test can be found here.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
Seeing as how Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munber, the artist’s contribution to the Singapore Biennale, has now been shut down – albeit for the time being – perhaps an individual review might prove timely.
I was fortunate enough to have seen the installation, in its edited form, in the two weeks between the initial opening, and its closing sometime at the end of March.
I have to admit though, I didn’t ‘get it.’
Here’s what the wall text said:
Describing himself as a ‘closet expressionist’ [that’s pretty witty], Simon Fujiwara makes work that questions the way certain histories have been scripted. Fujiwara constructs narratives that merge family stories, history, and contemporary projections of himself. Establishing characters from the past and the present, Fujiwara’s installations remind us that identity is itself a construction. Welcome to the Hotel Munber reconstructs the bar of the hotel that Fujiwara’s parents ran in the 1970s in Spain during the repressive Franco dictatorship as seen through the lens of an erotic tale that blurs fact and fiction.
At first glance the piece just seemed a recreation of what the label said it was – a ’70s era Spanish watering hole – which rather inexplicably featured a cornucopia of cured meats. I strolled around the space, looking at the decor and the furnishings and the replicas of food products … and none of it seemed to square with what I’d just read. Sure, there were images of Franco adorning the wall (above), as well as some text explaining the Spanish strongman’s er, uni-testicular condition, strategically placed beneath the massive head of an ox. Along with the gigante legs of ham, the cumulative effect was an atmosphere of aggressive, overweening machismo, the violence of the Franco years slyly signalled by the cruelty of meat-eating and taxidermy. Ok, so much for the history and the meat. Where though was the narrative, the eroticism, “characters from the past and the present’, the “contemporary projections” of the artist ? Sure, Fujiwara’s name was embossed on a set of thick, heavy-looking tomes sitting on a shelf (above), but was that it ? And the phallic-looking sausages did exude a sort of crude, suggestive ribaldry, but the only other hint of sensuality came from several framed prints of Tom of Finland-ish pornography hanging on the wall, boasting nude men brandishing judiciously positioned Japanese fans – a fact rendered supremely ironic by the recent brouhaha over the exclusion of lewd gay elements in the piece.
Those pictures are visible in the image below. (Click on it for a larger view.)
So little seemed to make sense.
I was puzzled, so I came home and did some fingerwork online. Here are snippets from an interview with the artist, where he describes the impulse behind his work:
What is the Hotel Munber? Why did you start writing erotic stories set in that place?
The Hotel Munber was a touristy hotel in Catalunya that my parents owned and ran in the 70’s during the last years of the Franco dictatorship. My parents told endless tales of violence and oppression, set against a backdrop of sangria and flamenco. I always imagined it like a novel, the characters, the setting – it was exotic and vibrant to me. When I started to seriously think about what kind of book I could write, I placed myself in that time, I tried to imagine how a gay, mixed-race young man would feel about life in a homogenously white dictatorship. I looked for authors who were writing erotica from Franco Catalunya and I found almost nothing for the obvious reason that it was censored to oblivion. It was then I knew that the novel I wanted to write was an explicit erotic story set in the Hotel Munber, a story that could never have been published at that time. Well, then came the hard part – as soon as I started to write I got frustrated and confused because on the one hand I had this unique political story that I felt an urgency and responsibility to tell and on the other hand I would have to use and “abuse” my parents’ personal life story to do so. It’s this conflict that drove the project underground for some years, where I would only print sections of the erotic novel secretly in gay porn magazines, using my father’s name as a pseudonym.
In Welcome to the Hotel Munber, sexuality and desire are set in contrast to the repressive authoritarian system. Conflict and oppression seem to be important themes in your practice…
This is explored in the novel through the main character – my father – who is so oppressed by Franco’s intolerance of gays that he is forced to find other solutions to satisfy himself, sexually. This solution comes in the form of “substitution”, a process where he begins to use objects that more or less represent the men he is lusting after, in erotic rituals. Gradually the architecture of the entire hotel building becomes erotically charged, it becomes clear that he has created his very own mini-dictatorship. This is intended to mirror Franco’s obscene control over the nation, making the victim now the perpetrator, the repressed the oppressor. History repeats itself…
As for sexuality, well, I tend to confront absurdly large themes in my work as a kind of challenge to find a personal voice among the things that are important to most of us, be it family, history, our environment or, of course, sex. I often use sex as a pretext to explore other topics, a way in to less populist fields such as archaeology or architecture, subjects that may not be as instantly juicy for the viewer. Many of my projects are explicitly sexual or homoerotic which is a privilege of living in a relatively liberal social context, more than many other places in the world and times in history. Liberty can be snatched away at any moment – I’ve seen it happen. I was living in California when they retracted gay marriage rights last year.
(Read the interview in full at Mousse Magazine.)
Ok, so the piece was part of a larger, overarching narrative, involving a novel about a gay man and a hotel in Francoist Spain. Things got a little clearer. And then the fracas over the SAM’s removal of gay porno from the installation erupted, and it became perfectly obvious that a lot of my bodoh-ness stemmed from the simple fact that the work as it stood was incomplete – and in more than one way.
1. According to an article in The Straits Times, the work comprised a performative aspect as well: “As part of the artwork, Mr Fujiwara gave a lecture performance at the museum during the Biennale’s opening weekend where he read extracts of erotica and used props such as photograph, newspaper clippings and original objects from his parents’ hotel. Audience members described the performance as a conflation of sexuality, family values and political history.” All the claims made by the wall text now began to seem like more than misplaced abstractions. Apparently the lecture slash reading forms a regular component of Welcome to the Hotel Munber, as a write-up in Frieze Magazine notes:
Part of ‘Welcome to the Hotel Munber’ takes the form of a lecture in which Fujiwara describes this awkward conflation of political and family history, reading extracts of erotica and illustrating the talk with a number of props arrayed on a desk in front of him. These include snapshots of and original relics from his parents’ hotel, newspaper clippings, flags, a copy of a typewritten manuscript, pornographic images and an ostrich egg inscribed with Franco’s name. Setting up this pseudo-academic environment of accumulated evidence, Fujiwara spins a tale that veers from the touching to the absurd, culminating in the plaintive admission that his erotic novel is incomplete, the artist-as-writer blocked by the improper conflation of family values and deviant sexuality.
With those little scraps of information, the piece started to come together – at least in my mind. The obsessive recreation of his parents’ past, the allusion to the brutality of Franco’s regime, the element of revisionist fantasy inserted into a turbulent political history .. ok, now I get it. Wasn’t just looking at some bizarre diorama.
2. The partial censoring severely toned down the homoeroticism in the work, which by Fujiwara’s own admission is an integral part of it. As it turns out, the museum’s removal of gay porno mags was only a half-measure, since a couple of salacious pictures were retained on the wall. And those pictures were enough to alert the viewer – or this viewer – to possible homosexual dimensions, but definitely not enough to shed light on that facet of the iconography nor to contextualize them within the piece as a whole. It was sort of like Charlton Heston at the end of The Planet of the Apes, stumbling onto the Statue of Liberty and realizing what once was, that buried fragment a metonym of a larger reality now rendered inaccessible …
Image from Talk of the Dog.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The following editorial by Straits Times columnist Ong Sor Fern appeared on Thursday (31 March), two days before notice of the closure of Simon Fujiwara’s Biennale piece, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, appeared in the same section of the paper.
Ong lays out some well-known arguments against the censorship of art by official institutions – a case made more urgent by Singapore’s desire to position itself as an arts hub for the region, as she notes.
Having said that, I do have issues with her article, for reasons which I go into at the end of this post.
Meanwhile, Ong’s piece is reproduced in full below.
SHOCKED BY CENSORS
I was appalled that the Singapore Art Museum had unilaterally amended a work of art. By Ong Sor Fern.
British artist Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munber at the Singapore Art Museum has shocked me.
But it was not the graphic homosexual content which got my attention. By the time I saw the work on Monday, the gay pornographic magazines in the installation had already been removed by the museum. They were taken out after a private preview preview of the show on March 11 and 12.
And it is this action which has appalled me. The museum had done so without first consulting the artist. To me, the move is tantamount to an act of vandalism. To amend a work of art without an artist’s prior knowledge and/or consent is a strict no-no. to draw a parallel, it is akin to putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo’s David.
It is even more shocking that this is done by a museum which is organizing the Singapore Biennale and which is pitching itself as an art institution of repute in the region.
The museum might be concerned that the installation could break the law. As lawyer Samuel Seow pointed out in a Life! report on Monday, under the Undesirable Publications Act, anyone exhibiting “any obscene publication knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the publication to be obscene” can be fined a maximum of $10,000 or sentenced to jail for a maximum of two years, or both.
One might add that this rule applies equally to both straight and gay pornography, so the museum’s action is not so much anti-gay as legally prudent. But the moral morass the museum finds itself in is, to my mind, the result of its bungled handling of the whole episode.
If the work were in breach of the law, then the sensible thing to do would have been to close it and talk to the artist about a possible compromise or even a withdrawal of the piece, explaining in the process that the laws of the land do not permit a display of pornography. The installation takes up one room in a gallery, and closing the exhibit would be a simple matter of cordoning it off.
[N.B. Which the museum actually did, a little before this piece appeared in the press apparently.]
The museum could also, from its position as a home for contemporary art, negotiate with the authorities to make exceptions to the rule. While there have been tussles between artists and censors over what is acceptable in Singapore’s social landscape, artists have won concessions for freedom of expression.
The Singapore International Film Festival, for example, won the hard-fought right to show movies with graphic content by saying the films would be screened to a limited audience who were sophisticated enough to handle the content. And theatre groups here have staged plays dealing with sensitive themes such as gay rights, race relations and politics.
The censors have also conceded that such fare should be accessible to certain audiences. The same principle should be applicable to challenging works of contemporary art. It should be within the purview of the museum as an arts institution and as an arts educator to champion such works and educate both the censors and the public.
For all one knew, the authorities might have been open to the work being shown, with certain limitations to access. There are already two advisories, warning of graphic sexual content, on the walls leading to the exhibit. Parents who do not want their children exposed to such fare can simply skip the exhibit.
The museum could also position a gallery sitter – common practice in museums all over the world – in the installation itself to make sure no one can pick up the pornographic magazines, one of which was displayed on a magazine rack within a visitor’s reach. The other magazines were displayed on a shelf well beyond any curious visitor’s grasp. As an aside, visitors should not be pawing through an exhibit anyway, unless they are specifically invited to interact with the artwork.
By choosing to unilaterally amend a work of art, the Singapore Art Museum damages its own reputation as an arts institution and does harm to its ambition as a curatorial authority. Contemporary artists who create edgy work may now think twice before agreeing to exhibit at the museum, or even at other arts events here. That diminishes not just the museum, but the arts scene here in general.
This is the second time this year that a ruckus has resulted from a contemporary artwork that challenges social mores. As the inaugural international art fair, Art Stage Singapore, in January, Hyderabad artist T. Venkanna caused a stir with his performance piece in which he stripped naked and invited visitors to sit with him for a portrait shot. He sat hidden in a cubicle with a cloth-draped doorway and gallery owner Abhay Maskara was on hand to explain the nature and the concept of the work. still the work attracted press, was yanked from the fair and the artist was questioned by the police.
If Singapore wants to host contemporary art events such as Art Stage and the Biennale, then it had better be prepared to deal with the fallout caused by artists who challenge social norms and unknowingly violate the laws here. Nudity and pornography might seem a big deal today, but I am sure that even edgier works dealing with race and religion will spark an even bigger furore in the future.
Singaporeans here are increasingly curious about contemporary art, as can be seen by the 32,000 visitors who paid $30 a pop to get into Art Stage Singapore.
Granted, the majority of Singaporeans may not care to tell a Botero from a Bencab. But this is where institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum have a vital role to play in nurturing this interest and educating the public. This means also that museums need to refine their processes so that they can handle better any complications that might arise when foreign artists who have no knowledge of local sensitivities present works that violate the laws here.
The museum should lead the way in responding to controversial works with the same care and consideration it extends to the sensibilities of its visitors.
Unfortunately, its actions in this incident only reflect that Singapore is not mature enough to host such art. And that is a loss for all Singaporeans, not just the dedicated artsgoer.
Ok, things I like about this piece:
1. The point about the utterly forseeable consequences of dealing with contemporary art: “If Singapore wants to host contemporary art events such as Art Stage and the Biennale, then it had better be prepared to deal with the fallout …” YES. C’mon folks, even people who don’t exactly keep up with the visual arts scene know that if there’s one thing contemporary art does very well, it’s stirring up controversy, from the mid-century antics of the Neo-Dada school to those of the YBA in more recent years, the culmination of which must surely include Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, which provoked outrage in the U.K. for Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Moors murderer Myra Hindley, and for the resultant withdrawal of public funding for the Brooklyn Museum when it hosted the show in the U.S. On the local end, there was Vince Leow’s public pee-guzzling back in the early ’90s, as well as Josef Ng’s scissor-happy turn …
There’s absolutely no reason why the SAM would not have some sort of plan of action for tackling such issues, much less be caught off-guard when they do arise, which, judging by the way it bungled matters, seems to point to a tragic lack of awareness on its part.
2. Ong’s penultimate observation: “The museum should lead the way in responding to controversial works with the same care and consideration it extends to the sensibilities of its visitors.” Again, a good point, and one that may very easily get lost in the shuffle. Being censored by the censors is one thing, but a museum arrogating to itself the privilege of editing works of art – especially ones they don’t own – is pretty repellent, not to mention legally fraught. The museum’s director is on record as saying that the SAM needs to respect the views of its diverse audience, but what about trying to uphold the rights of the artists it plays host to, or the principle of freedom of expression in general ? Museum goers and children have rights, but artists don’t ? I mean, there didn’t even seem to be much of an attempt made here … Really, for shame.
Now, things I disagree with:
1. The degree of Ong’s reaction, which strikes me as being somewhat disproportionate to the local climate of widespread conformity and censorship – a fact of life that every true blue Singaporean accepts as ineluctable. Yes, she did note that here it was the SAM’s act of self-censorship which rankled, but unfortunately she also expends too much ink retreading old ground – the sanitization of the arts by the local authorities, why that harms rather than helps – for me to take her seriously. I mean, was there much in her argument which even the most casual of arts lovers aren’t already familiar with ? If indeed it was the museum’s actions which made this particular instance of censorship especially egregious, then that should have constituted the main thrust of her article, not all that blather about the ideal role of the museum as an arts institution, the hard fight fought by local artists against the establishment, further instances of how naughty contemporary art can be and why it makes sense for Singapore to go with the flow … Yawn. Get to the point already. She declares it in the first couple of paragraphs, proceeds to ignore it for much of the piece, then resurrects it in the last two lines. And the characterization of her response as “shocked” – unless one’s had their head stuck in the sand for the last four decades or so, how is the act of censorship hereabouts, even self-censorship, even remotely surprising anymore ? Yes, Ms. Ong, we get that you’re a plugged in, liberal, arts-loving soul, so sensitive to the desecration of the artistic voice that you’re “appalled” by a single instance of expurgation, but, to borrow an expression from Gayatri Spivak, that position has become a “meaningless piety” so far as Singapore is concerned. Yes, censorship sucks .. and we all know that. How about something a little less platitudinous next time ?
I know I sound snarky, but Ong’s tone was really exasperating. I was having lunch with an ex once, in an Indian restaurant – this was in New Jersey – and apparently some woman spotted a roach, screamed, raised a stink, and then left hurriedly with her family. It wasn’t so much the reaction, but the way it was played out – not unlike a hammy, sub-par performance in a low-rated daytime soap. In other words, affected, and it definitely showed.
The incident kept coming back as I was reading Ong’s article. ‘Nuff said.
2. Her suggestion for a compromise: “If the work were in breach of the law, then the sensible thing to do would have been to close it and talk to the artist about a possible compromise or even a withdrawal of the piece, explaining in the process that the laws of the land do not permit a display of pornography.” HOW DULL DOES THAT SOUND ?! This is contemporary art, babe ! Nobody wants to do the “sensible” thing … I say Fujiwara should just run with it, make lemonade out of lemons: leave the work in its bowdlerized form, put up signs saying what’s missing and how and why and by whom, and see what alignments of meaning, power and plurality arise out of this new configuration.
But that’s just me.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The censorship of Simon Fujiwara’s Biennale installation, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, continues to make waves. Hot on the heels of my post yesterday, the following piece appeared in The Straits Times‘ Life! section this morning.
Biennale exhibit which had porn magazines removed without artist’s knowledge is closed. By Adeline Chia.
A controversial art installation with pornographic gay content censored by the Singapore Art Museum is now temporarily closed, while the museum and artist try to work out how to change it.
The installation by award-winning British artist Simon Fujiwara titled Welcome to The Hotel Munber looks like a 1970s Spanish hotel bar with a bar counter, bar stools, wine barrels and legs of ham.
But it also contained with sexual images and innuendos which came in the form of erotic images and text, or in the way the fake sausages were arranged.
The museum had removed some gay pornographic magazines from the installation without informing Fujiwara, causing people to accuse the museum of unprofessionalism and censorship.
Now, the exhibit is closed while the artist and the museum discuss how to modify the installation, which is the artist’s fictionalized re-imagining of his father as a repressed gay man running a hotel under Spain’s fascist dictator General Francisco Franco’s regime.
The artwork is part of the ongoing Singapore Biennale, the island’s premier visual arts event. It had been shown in its entirety for two days at a private viewing for reporters and artists on March 11 and 12.
After the private viewing, the museum removed the pornographic magazines. The reason given was that the graphic material was within easy reach of visitors, and the museum had to protect audiences who did not want such graphic sexual material in their face.
In a letter to Life! Yesterday, Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui gave the background to the work, saying that many of the artworks in the Biennale were site-specific. He defines these as works “created from the constant negotiation and dialogue between the Biennale curators and artists, sometimes right up tot eh final moments of the installation.”
He said that the museum had known that Fujiwara’s work contained graphic and nude images, and so had put in place advisories and hired gallery sitters. But, he added, “given the ongoing creation process, it is not possible to view site-specific contemporary artworks until they are fully installed.”
Fujiwara’s Hotel Munber is an ongoing work that has been exhibited in cities such as Frankfurt in Germany. It won the prestigious Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel, the iconic Swiss art fair, last year.
Mr Tan said: “Contemporary art is unlike films, which are fully completed works and can be viewed ahead of time for rating assessments.”
As a result, he added, the museum was “not aware of the final configuration of Fujiwara’s artwork” until all its artefacts were in place and the installation was completed “just in time for the Biennale private viewing.”
“it was then that we noted that the artefacts took the form of sexually explicit magazines within the larger installation. One of these magazines was within easy reach of the public and the others could be discerned,” he said.
The museum then decided to remove the magazines but to keep the exhibit open, said Mr Tan. At the same time, the curators were informed and were asked to contact the artist.
He added that Fujiwara “has also conveyed his concern” about the installation, including the magazines, which belong to a collector, being handled by the public.
“in view of this and other feedback, the artist has proposed that we reconfigure the exhibit altogether,” said the museum director.
Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen, 34, was one of the people who caught the installation in full during the Biennale opening weekend.
He said that “such issues should have been ironed out way before the show opened, since the institution should be 100 per cent aware of what is showing within its walls.”
“Sexuality and the gay issue are a big part of Simon Fujiwara’s practice, so it’s not like this is something shocking and unexpected. Moreover, Hotel Munbar [sic] is an existing exhibition, it’s not like it came out of nowhere,” he added.
Fujiwara, 28, won the Frieze Art Fair’s prestigious annual Cartier Award for emerging artists last year. The artist, who is of Japanese-British heritage, did not respond to e-mail from Life! this week.
His works often deal with fictional narratives, sexuality and history, and have been exhibited at prestigious platforms such as the Venice Biennale, Manifesta and the Sao Paulo Biennale.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
It’s here !
Picked up a copy of the Singapore Biennale catalogue, a hefty tome consisting of a bright orange binder that comes with its own cardboard slip case.
I love how it feels in the hand. Books are really fantastically tactile experiences, and big ones? – even more so.
Its 60 SGD a pop.
Available at all Biennale venues except the Merlion Hotel.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The Fujiwara saga continues.
Simon Fujiwara’s installation at the Biennale, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, has been getting quite a bit of press lately, primarily for having been censored by the Singapore Art Museum with regards to certain pornographic gay elements. Remember when I said that the piece was still on view at the SAM ?
Well, I lied.
I was just there, and the display has been shut down (below), at least temporarily. Someone I spoke to at the front counter said that it’d been cordoned off two days ago, and its eventual fate is still anyone’s guess.
Sorry, my bad.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The following article appeared in the Life! section of The Straits Times on 28 March, 2011. Apparently Brit-Jap artist Simon Fujiwara’s contribution to the Biennale, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, was a little too gay-friendly for – get this, not the local authorities – but the Singapore Art Museum itself, which apparently made a decision to modify the piece on their own say-so.
Welcome to the Hotel Munber, in its incomplete form, is currently on view at the SAM.
MUSEUM CENSORS EXPLICIT ART WORK
A Biennale installation had some of its sexual content removed without permission from the artist. By Corrie Tan.
An installation with graphic homosexual content at the ongoing 2011 Singapore Biennale has been altered by the Singapore Art Museum without the artist’s consent.
The installation by award-winning British artist Simon Fujiwara converted a gallery in the museum into a Spanish hotel bar with a bar counter, bar stools, barrels of wine and legs of ham hanging from the ceiling.
But a row of gay pornographic magazines that were placed on top of a cupboard behind the bar counter and a gay pornographic magazine that was placed under a Spanish newspaper at the gallery’s entrance have been removed.
Extracts of erotic text, framed up on the wall and pasted on the legs of fabricated ham, were not removed from the installation.
The changes to the installation, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, were reported last week by Fridae.com, a gay and lesbian Asian news and lifestyle portal.
When asked about the removal of the items, Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui said that while the museum and curators were aware that the installation would contain some graphic sexual material, it was only after the installation was completed for the Biennale’s opening weekend that the museum realised some of the graphic material was within the clear view and easy reach of visitors.
So the museum decided to remove the material after a private preview on March 11 and 12, which was attended by local and international artists and reporters. The Biennale curators were informed as well, and they contacted the artist.
The museum said that during the busy opening weekend of March 11 to 13, it did not have a chance to discuss the work with the Berlin-based Fujiwara before he left the country. At press time, the artist did not answer queries sent by Life!.
Mr Tan did not say why the museum did not contact the artist before removing the items from the installation, but said in an e-mail statement: “Given the diversity of visitors at SAM, including audiences who may not appreciate seeing such material in full view, we made th decision to remove it.
“SAM has a broad base of visitors, ranging from those familiar with the language of contemporary art to new audiences and families with young children who are taking initial steps towards appreciating contemporary art. Hence, the museum will always work with the curators and artists whose works deal with, or contain, potentially sensitive subject matter to determine how to best display their works for our audiences, without altering their artistic content.”
Biennale curator Russell Storer, 40, who contacted Mr. Fujiwara after the changes were made to the installation, said of the artist’s reaction: “The artist was concerned because what happened changes the wrok. We are in the process of working out the next step with the museum and the artist.
“It would have been good to have had the discussion before the Biennale but we are trying to be as pragmatic as possible right now. It’s an issue for all of us, but we understand that there are laws in Singapore to abide by.”
Lawyer Samuel Seow, 37, said that it is an offence under the law to exhibit obscene and/or objectionable publications. He cited Singapore’s Undesirable Publications Act, where anyone who exhibits “any obscene publication knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the publication to be obscene” can be fined a maximum of $10,000 or sentenced to jail for a maximum of two years, or both.
When Life! visited the Singapore Art Museum yesterday, two advisories en route to the exhibition space warned that the gallery that housed Welcome to Hotel Munber contained work of a sexual nature and that parental guidance was recommended.
These signs have been put up since the exhibition began.
The work, a travelling installation, was inspired by the hotel and bar run by the artist’s parents in southern Spain under the military dictatorship of General Franco in the 1970s.
Mr Fujiwara, 28, the winner of the Frieze Art Fair’s prestigious Cartier Award for emerging artists last year and who is known for his creation of fictional narratives, retells his parents’ life as erotic fiction.
The installation explores and is a response to the violent and oppressive climate that his parents experienced under General Franco’s rule. The artist’s mother is British and his father is Japanese.
As part of the artwork, Mr Fujiwara gave a lecture performance at the museum during the Biennale’s opening weekend where he read extracts of erotica and used props such as photograph, newspaper clippings and original objects from his parents’ hotel.
Audience members described the performance as a conflation of sexuality, family values and political history.
This is the second art controversy relating to nudity this year. In January, an Indian artist who stripped naked in the name of art at the inaugural international art fair Art Stage Singapore, stopped his act after newspapers went to town with the story.
Asked about the incident at the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore artist and gallery owner Alan Oei, 34, said: “If an artist’s work is to be altered, you need to inform the artist first or negotiate an outcome. If the artist doesn’t understand why, he or shy might pull out, but that’s how it is.”
Mr Olivier Henry, 38, a Singapore-based photographer and gallery owner, said: “I think it’s entirely unacceptable for a museum to change a work like that. You might change a work’s integrity and message.
“If there are censorship issues, these should have been brought up prior to the work being showcased. I find it extremely alarming that someone else can just take the responsibility and creative freedom to change an artist’s message and work.”
A parallel event of Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
An earlier review of the P-M appeared on this blog here.
March to May 2011
A series of programmes for the Singapore Biennale period.
OPEN *HOME – OPEN *home offers a cozy and affordable crashpad for artists and other cultural workers who are coming to Singapore to visit the Singapore Biennale (and other cultural events) in March. We have a large air-conditioned room which can house up to 8 persons per night (bring your own sleeping bag!). Participation is based on a pay-it-forward system plus contribution of 1 artwork per night stayed.
OPEN *MEAL – OPEN *meal kicks off with OPEN *meal: Arts Community, held every Thu 7-9pm during March, in Food #03. A volunteer from the arts comm will sit in, listen to and give advice to anyone from the arts comm who wants to talk about any problems or ideas.
OPEN *SHOW – Open call for works and proposals from artists and cultural workers (both local and foreign) doing interesting and meaningful work which we will put together into several exhibitions/projects during the period of the Singapore Biennale.
OPEN *MOVIE – A series of Wed nights when friends share their favourite feature-length films.
OPEN *SWOP – A swop party where everything can be swopped! Bring your pre-loved books, cds, clothes, etc. or offer your services to be swopped. Every item of reasonable condition will be awarded a coupon and you can then select the number of ‘new’ items/services based on the number of coupons you have. There is no limit to the number of items you can swop and you are welcome to stay for the whole duration of the swop party. A fun eco-friendly way to get stuff and meet people, and the small entry fee of $5 goes to the Post-Museum Fund, so it’s a win-win situation for everyone!
OPEN *REVIEW – Open call for articles and criticisms related to the Singapore Biennale for our online publication.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
Recently received from the SAM: notice of free admission to all Biennale events on upcoming Sundays and public holidays.
See below for details.
I wonder if it has anything to do with falling visitor numbers. Over the last couple of weeks I made four separate trips to the old Kallang Airport site, and it was clear to me that the number of attendees was rapidly dwindling. In fact, on the last two visits, staffers/volunteers were lounging about at the entrance of the main building, looking like an orange-clad street gang, eyeballing all who went in and came out … And the ones who were actually on duty at the various displays were either busy reading or perfectly happy ignoring the visitors. AND at the front desk, where I went to inquire about purchasing the catalogue, a bunch of girls were openly enjoying a fast food luncheon and chatting away in between mouthfuls of fries and sips of Coke.
To paraphrase our boys in blue: few visitors doesn’t mean no visitors.
If this is best face forward for us, I wonder how we’re coming across to the rest of the world.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The Merlion Hotel is just brilliant.
The brainchild of Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi, it transforms one of Singapore’s best known national symbols into a luxury hotel room – available for the duration of the Biennale at the rate of 150 SGD per night. (All booked up though, sorry.)
Is it Art ? Commerce ? An “uncanny encounter with a public monument in the intimacy of a hotel room” ? A re-imagining of the connections between citizen and symbol ? A grandiose declaration of Swingin’ Singapore’s new-found fame as a playground for the rich and ritzy ? All of the above ? None of the above ? Who knows ?
Which is why I love it. A stroke of genius on Nishi’s part.
First, a brief history of the Merlion, taken from an article on Singapore Infopedia:
The Merlion logo had been designed by Fraser Brunner, a member of the Souvenir Committee and the curator of Van Kleef Aquarium. It became the emblem of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) on 26 March 1964 and its registration as a trademark was finalised two years later on 20 July 1966. Although by 1997, STB had acquired a new corporate logo, the Merlion is still protected under the STB Act and the use of the Merlion symbol requires permission from STB. ……
The Merlion is an imaginary creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. This half-lion, half-fish sculpture rests on undulating waves. The lion head alludes to the legend of Singapore’s founding by Sang Nila Utama, a Palembang Prince who, on his arrival on the island, saw what he thought to be a lion and thereafter renamed Temasek, Singapura or “Lion City”. The fish-tail represents Singapore’s links to the ancient sea-bound island which was Temasek and its long and successful association with the sea, reflecting how our forefathers traversed the oceans to come to Singapore and our subsequent dependence upon it as a port.
Image from the Biennale site.
And that’s the story of our country’s most visible icon – it started life as a tourist logo. Isn’t it fitting then that it’s commercial origins are in a sense being recuperated and paid tribute to here ?
The work, which has been constructed with scaffolding partly on land and partly in the water to accommodate the Merlion, instantly conjures a series of binaries and hybrid identities: land/water, lion/fish, art/economics, private space/public symbol, fleetingness/permanence, contemporaneity/myth. Somewhere at the nexus of these competing ontologies is the Merlion Hotel, a makeshift structure literally erected around the statue and incorporating its top half into the opulence of the room itself, open to art-gawkers by day and closed for hotel occupants by night, extant for a mere two months during the Biennale and accessible thereafter only in photographs and other forms of documentation. These ambivalences of purpose, which render the significance of Nishi’s piece inherently unstable, suspended in the flux of so many divergent semantic strands, also speak less directly perhaps to Singapore’s status as a perpetual anomaly: an English-speaking, Chinese-majority sovereign nation outside China (discounting Taiwan, of course), a tiny island stuck in an Islamic sea, with Malaysia to the north and the massive Indonesian archipelago to the south. In the words of former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, the man who is generally credited as having transformed post-Independence Singapore into the first world player it is today:
We faced a bleak future. Singapore and Malaya, joined by a causeway across the Straits of Johor, had always been governed as one territory by the British. Malaya was Singapore’s hinterland, as were the territories of Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah. They were all part of the British Empire in Southeast Asia, which had Singapore as its administrative and commercial hub. Now we were on our own, and the Malaysian government was out to teach us a lesson for being difficult, and for not complying with their norms and practices and fitting into their set-up. …… Indeed, how were we to survive ? Even our water came from the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor. ……
We had never sought independence. In a referendum less than three years ago, we had persuaded 70 percent of the electorate to vote in favour of merger with Malaya. Since then, Singapore’s need to be part and parcel of the Federation in one political, economic, and social polity had not changed. Nothing had changed – except that we were out. We had said that an independent Singapore was simply not viable. Now it was our unenviable task to make it work. How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia ?
Singapore was a small island of 214 square miles at low tide. It had thrived because it was the heart of the British Empire in Southeast Asia; with separation, it became a heart without a body. Seventy-five percent of our population of two million were Chinese, a tiny minority in an archipelago of 30,000 islands inhabited by more than 100 million Malay or Indonesian Muslims. We were a Chinese island in a Malay sea. How could we survive in such a hostile environment ?
(From Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew [Singapore: Times Editions, 1998], pp. 21-3.)
Dark days indeed. Both the Merlion symbol and the Merlion Hotel, in their hybrid configurations, gesture at the exigencies which gave rise to the heterogeneous contours of modern Singapore – racially diverse, linguistically complex, geographically and historically cut adrift from its age-old moorings. As has been pointed out – on numerous occasions – the template for a national narrative has traditionally been constructed around a core of hybridized identity or “bi-culturalism.” Local historian Derek Heng, for one, echoing LKY’s sentiments, has pointed out that
It is not difficult to extend this model [hybridization] to the post-independence period of Singapore, and to draw similarities between the localized Chinese of Temasik and the Chinese population of the nation-state of Singapore, and between the Chinese traders of old and the present sojourning population of migrant workers in Singapore. Hybridization is therefore a useful approach in understanding and explaining the construction of coherent city-state nations that are open to regional and international forces and groups.
Indeed, hybridization was not ignored in the early political rhetoric in the immediate period before and after 1965. The concept of Malayanism encompassed the acceptance of the localization of immigrant groups in Malaya, and the indigenization of the people of Malaya by adhering to certain shared values that were drawn from the various social groups and the artificial construction of shared socialist values. David Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister, in the 1950s argued for the creation of a coherent social group of Singaporeans that was based on the assimilation of the key charcateristics of the dominant social group in Singapore by the various ethnic groups represented in Singapore, even though it was not apparent which ethnic groups were being referred to … Similarly, in the early post-independence years, Singapore’s political leaders attempted to construct a society based on the eventual combination of various cultural aspects of the social groups represented in Singapore.
(Derek Heng Soon Thiam, “From Political Rhetoric to National Narrative: Bi-Culturalism in the Construction of Singapore’s National History” in Reframing Singapore: Memory – Identity – Trans-Regionalism [Amsterdam University Press, 2009].)
In fact, the Merlion logo, as its very inception, was intended to convey Singapore’s cross-cultural ties, its “links to the ancient sea-bound island which was Temasek … reflecting how our forefathers traversed the oceans to come to Singapore and our subsequent dependence upon it as a port”, which probably accounts for the mutation of Sang Nila Utama’s lion into a bizarre looking feline-fish. Nishi’s stroke of genius consists in his amplification of the fundamental instability at the heart of our national symbol, into the hybrid entity that is the Merlion Hotel – which looks and behaves like neither one thing nor another, partaking of a miscellany of roles, functions and effects.
However, at its most immediate and intelligible, the Merlion Hotel probably serves best as a symptom of the new Singapore. And just what is this new Singapore ? Flush (the world’s fastest growing economy as of 2010), fancy (now boasting two fabulously glitzy resorts with the country’s first casinos), and demographically and sociologically evolving at light speed, the population on the whole growing from some 3 million to 5 in the last two decades –a jump of 66.6% in 20 years – but with the number of resident aliens positively ballooning from 0.3 million in 1990 to 1.3 million in 2010. (See here for figures.) In other words, a playground for the wealthy, both local and foreign. In fact, the iconic Marina Bay Sands resort, located just across the bay, is prominently featured both on the wallpaper – along with the Merlion logo and founding father Sir Stamford Raffles – and as part of the panoramic view from the bathtub. The triple towers, exemplar par excellence of the new, moneyed, swingin’ Singapore, thus become enshrined in the country’s repertoire of emblems, their signalling of new economic trajectories taking its place alongside our most cherished historical images in a gesture of symbolic suturing.
The one sour note ? – Nishi emblazoning his name across the bathroom floor, which I can only imagine remains unavoidably visible the whole time you’re relaxing in the tub or on the can, doing stuff one does in the privacy of one’s own toilet.