Posts Tagged ‘Singapore’
Local art concern, Artesan Gallery + Studio, has gleaming, pristine new digs at the Raffles Hotel.
And I do mean gleaming.
Not that their Bukit Timah home was lacking — if anything, the space was both charming and cozy — but in a sense the present move really marks an arrival of sorts.
The inaugural show is a solo presentation of Filipino artist Roldan “Manok” Ventura‘s latest work.
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.
This is one of those randomly topical posts.
Image of the day: photog Franco Rubartelli’s iconic image of ’60s supermodel Veruschka, swaddled in fawn-hued fur and leather straps.
The humidity ’round here has been out of control this past week. (The April-May season is a killer. Killer.) We denizens of the tropics, though, have at least the comforts of casual wear and flip-flops … for this spread for the July ’68 edition of Vogue, shot under the searing sun of Arizona’s Painted Desert, stylist Giorgio di Sant’Angelo (yes, the designer started out as a lowly stylist) swathed Veruschka in a full-body, fur-lined wrap, held together with asphyxiating tightness by bands of brown leather. Rubartelli’s photograph of his then-squeeze made fashion history – it remains one of the most famous images of her – but the combination of sizzling heat and winter wear proved too much: she simply “tipped over like a tree.” (“Lummbeerrrrr !”)
Read an account of the episode here.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, the sun’s been great for getting the brown on, but just looking at this image (and the ones below) is making me slightly dizzy …
Like the good people of PETA, I want to say “NO TO FUR” — but that hardly seems necessary in Singapore’s context.
Image from youthquakers.
Image of the day: American painter Wayne Gonzales’ Seated Crowd, which depicts a movie audience. Gonzales, a native of New Orleans (one of my favourite places in the world, which is saying a lot), recently returned to the city of his birth to stage his first major solo exhibition in the country.
It’s a topical choice.
The following piece appeared in today’s edition of my paper - apparently the proliferation of CCTVs across public space in Singapore has now reached movie theatres as well, with anti-piracy measures being cited as the chief reason behind the move.
In other words, the watchers are now being watched, the subjects of the gaze simultaneously its objects.
Surveillance, in the Foucault-ian sense, has taken interesting new turns.
CCTVS TO KEEP TABS ON FILM PIRATES
By Tong Jia Han. Published: Apr 16, 2012.
Moviegoers, take note: Don’t be surprised to see an announcement flashed on the silver screen just before movies are screened, to inform you that you are being watched.
Cinema operators told my paper that they have begun installing closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras not just in the common spaces of their cineplexes, but in movie halls as well, citing security and movie piracy as reasons for doing so.
Over the last two years, film distributor and movie-theatre chain Shaw Theatres has installed CCTV cameras in all its newly established and renovated multiplexes, such as JCube and Lido.
Lido, located in Shaw House in Orchard Road, re-opened after renovation works in May last year while JCube, a mall in Jurong East where the Cineplex is located, opened on April 5.
Mr Terence ong,Hong, vice-president of media for Shaw Theatres, said that the CCTV cameras are meant mainly for anti-piracy purposes.
“However, we also realized that they allow us to trouble-shoot (in the event of) any disputes involving cinema operators or customers,” he said.
“Only authorised personnel have access to the CCTVs and their footage,” he added.
Mr Heng said there are plans to have CCTV cameras installed at all seven of Shaw’s multiplexes in due course.
The CCTV cameras have also helped in police investigations into one case so far, he said, without providing details.
A spokesman for leisure and entertainment group Cathay Organisation Holdings said that CCTV cameras are installed on their premises, especially at entrances, exits and in projection rooms.
The spokesman added that night-vision binoculars are also used to monitor piracy activities.
The Motion Picture Association (MPA) reported that about 90 per cent of newly released movies that are pirated can be traced to thieves who use digital recording devices in cinemas.
Mr Edward Neubronner, vice-president and regional operations officer of MPA Asia Pacific, said: “Despite measures to inform moviegoers that the use of recording devices is prohibited in cinemas, we still see cases involving students or foreign nationals caught using their mobile phones to record.
“It is of paramount importance to the local film industry that measures to deter illegal camcording remain a priority.”
Some cinema patrons are uneasy over the move.
School teacher Chue Weng Fai, 32, said: “It seems like an invasion of privacy and feels strange knowing that there are cameras watching your every move.”
Secretary Philicia Mok, 38, felt that the use of CCTV cameras to curb piracy would have limited success.
She said: “There are many ways to skin a cat. people will still find a way to steal content if they want to.”
Image from Shaw Online.
The site of Spanish collective Boa Mistura‘s (that’s Portuguese for “good mixture”) latest project: the narrow back alleys of Brasilandia, a favela to the north of Sao Paolo.
These self-proclaimed ‘graffiti rockers’ frame their public works in the language of interventionist and participatory aesthetics: visual transfiguration as agent of social change. Or, as they put it, “ The intervention focuses on “vecos” and “vielas”: winding streets that are the true articulators of the internal life of the community. Sharing with the inhabitants the transformation of their environment.” Luz nas Vielas (“Light in the Side Streets”) engaged the residents of Brasilandia in painting over selected areas of their neighbourhood in screaming, neon-bright hues, and inscribing trompe-l’oeil graffiti on the walls – larger-than-life articulations of concepts like “doçura” (“sweetness” or “honey”), “amor” (“love”), “firmeza” (“steadfastness”) and “beleza” (“beauty”).
I love this.
Here’s the problem, though: the specific viewing position that anamorphic visuals like these demand of its audience. Shift even slightly from that spot, and the unitary illusion is shattered. Not unlike what Martin Jay as referred to as “the perspectivalist scopic regime that was so often identified with vision itself after the Quattrocento.” (See his essay, “Photo-unrealism”, in Vision and Textuality.) What he was referring to, of course, is the one-point perspective perfected by Renaissance painters, which – as some art historians maintain – was later imbricated with claims of so-called evidentiary realism by photographic technology. The sort of anamorphism employed by works like Boa Mistura’s simply re-imports the representation of the perceptual world, with its illusionistic rules and aesthetics, back into experiential reality itself. It’s certainly eye-catching, but for a project that’s explicitly demotic and democratic in nature, the imposition of linear, one-point perspective seems well, self-contradictory – as if the messiness of reality, and the optical perception of such, can be reduced to the conceit of a faux mimesis.
Luz nas Vielas was sponsored in part by our very own Singapore Airlines.
More pictures below; enjoy.
The official rejoinder to ST’s report on dwindling attendance numbers at the Biennale.
SAM’s director, Tan Boon Hui, wrote a rather strange-sounding letter in response to the article, and it appeared in Life! today (23 April).
My comments at the end of the post.
BIENNALE WILL CLOSE WITH FULL HOUSE
We refer to the article (Biennale Blues, Life!, April 21) and would like to thank Life! for its continued wide coverage of and support for the Singapore Biennale 2011.
Since the Biennale opened, we have seen a healthy visitorship of over 100,000 at the main venues: Old Kallang Airport, The Merlion Hotel at Marina Bay, National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Art Museum and SAM at 8Q.
This number tracks only indoor visitorship or venue admissions. It does not include outdoor visitorship at the Merlion Hotel and parallel events, which are still being tabulated. It is not possible to compare this with 2008’s mid-point visitorship of 325,000 which included both indoor and outdoor visitor numbers.
Based on preliminary projections, we are confident this Biennale will come close to meeting its target visitorship.
We also found that many visitors are keen to learn more about the history of the Old Kallang Airport and have arranged a special tour on the topic. Conducted by Mr. S. S. Khaw, president of Flight Science, the tour takes places on May 1, 2 and 15, at 1pm.
As part of the Biennale’s Family Day Out programme, admission into all Biennale venues is free every Sunday and on public holidays.
There are still three weeks left before the Biennale closes.
The House is still Open and everyone is welcome to return, take part in the activities and revisit the works as often as they life and make Singapore Biennale 2011 a Full House.
Tan Boon Hui
Singapore Art Museum
First of all, why no response from Matthew Ngui, Artistic Director of the Biennale and a practicing artist himself, and the individual probably best-placed to answer queries on the curatorial choices made in this year’s Biennale ? Those concerns were as much a part of Deepika Shetty’s article as was the fact of falling visitor numbers, and for Tan to ignore them altogether seems to tacitly warrant public objection to the choice of art – the complaint about the lack of paintings, for one, which really bespeaks the need for wider education with regards to contemporary art and its practice. Of course, many artists today still paint and sculpt and draw and everything in between, but one goes to a biennale to witness the most interesting and cutting edge of contemporary artistic praxis, a category which isn’t necessarily centered on more traditional mediums. Someone needs to point this out, and it sounds like Tan just missed the opportunity.
Secondly, the tone of Tan’s reply strikes a rather bizarre note – not unlike a child stamping his foot and protesting, “No, no, no.” He sounds defensive on the one hand, and without proper justification on the other. His assertion about visitors to the Merlion Hotel, for instance, was already noted by Shetty; according to the figures she cites, the MH draws an average of a thousand visitors a day. Its been almost six weeks since the opening of the Biennale, which makes for some 40,000 visitors. Add that to the 100,000 figure, and it still doesn’t come even close to the 325,000 who apparently made it to the previous biennale by the time it was halfway through. As for the ‘parallel events’, some of them are so small-scale – e.g. the Post-Museum’s OPEN* exhibitions, those on at the NUS museum and Tyler Print Institute – that it seems hard to believe that their numbers could possibly make any substantial dent in the discrepancy. The biggest ancillary show is probably Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia, 1991 – 2010, which is on view at the SAM itself. The museum charges one admission rate for all exhibitions under its roof as well as that of 8Q’s, so how does it differentiate between visitors to Biennale displays and to er, ‘parallel’ shows ?
Nothing personal against Tan here – I’m sure he has the museum’s reputation to see to – but that argument smacks of disingenuousness or corporate PR mumbo jumbo, unconvincing and probably counter-productive on both scores.
His claim that the Biennale will “come close to meeting its target visitorship” doesn’t even come close to being a reasoned argument.
And then he segues into another publicity pitch for the event – don’t forget, folks, it’s only going to be around for another three weeks, and it’s free on Sundays and public holidays, PLUS we now have special tours, so come, come, come ! …
… cue eye-rolling.
The Life! section in today’s Straits Times ran a lead article on the attendance woes plaguing the Biennale (reproduced below).
So they finally clued in.
There are several reasons for the low numbers apparently, with the relative inaccessibility of the main site, the Old Kallang Airport, being cited as numero uno. I don’t get this. The OKA is a stone’s throw from Kallang station: one exits from the right, crosses the street (where there’s a ginormous orange sign pointing the way), walks a block, crosses another street (where there’s another sign), and voila! the street leading into the complex is right there. It takes all of three minutes.
If one drives, Google Map it beforehand. If one takes a cab, Google Map it beforehand.
Singaporeans sure are a whiny bunch.
Another reason seems to be the art itself. The major cause of complaint: it’s perceived to be about as accessible as the Kallang Airport site, which is to say not terribly. (See image below.) Is that a bad thing ? Perhaps, from the organizers’ point of view. Avant-garde contemporary art, though, needs to be a. novel, b. difficult, c. controversial or d. all of the above, to get its point across. Or a point anyways. You know, challenge assumptions, push boundaries, explore possibilities – all those tired-sounding cliches that nonetheless hold true. In most cases, head-scratching or outrage on the part of the general viewing public is almost a predetermined corollary to what often turns out to be the most effective stuff. Manet, Turner, Picasso, Duchamp, Fluxus, Warhol – all pioneers, all on the receiving end of vilification in their day.
Perhaps the comparison to established names may be presumptuous, but my point is, incomprehension doesn’t necessarily suggest inadequacy.
Oh, and then of course there’s the Fujiwara scandal – but I’m sure most of us are tired of hearing about it by now.
The third instalment of the Singapore Biennale is attracting fewer visitors this year. By Deepika Shetty.
The third edition of the Singapore Biennale does not seem to be a great crowd-puller.
Over 100,000 people have gone to see the top contemporary art show, which started on March 13 and ends on May 15.
The numbers include visitors to the three main venues – Old Kallang Airport, Singapore Art Museum and SAM at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore – and excludes the outdoor figures for the most popular site, the Merlion Hotel in Marina Bay. The luxurious hotel room created by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi has been drawing over 1,000 visitors a day.
Unless there is a stampede in the next few weeks, the final visitor tally may fall short of the 650,000 target set by the organizers, even though they say they are on track to hit the numbers.
The 100,000 figure is well short of the 325,000 people which the 2008 edition drew by the time it hit the midway mark. Overall, 502,000 people attended the show in 2008, compared to 883,000 in the inaugural edition in 2006.
This year’s biennale was postponed twice, first to avoid clashes with last year’s Youth Olympic Games and Grand Prix Season and then to align with the school holidays.
After it opened, it was mired in controversy over an installation by award-winning British artist Simon Fujiwara titled Welcome To The Hotel Munber. The installation with pornographic gay content was censored by the Singapore Art Museum before being temporarily closed. The museum and artist are still trying to work out hwo to change it. By press time, it remained closed and the museum said it is still in discussion with the artist on how to modify the work.
The low visitorship could be attributed to a few factors. One common complaint by visitors is the location of Old Kallang Airport which artgoers found far removed from the museum venues.
Writer Jams Ong, 38, said: “I felt the last Biennale was better because the locations were closer, making it easier to go from one to the other. I feel Old Kallang Airport is too out of the way and a bit distant from the museums.”
Although there are shuttle services to Old Kallang Airport as well as the Merlion Hotel sites from the Singapore Art Museum and the National Museum, they operate on an hourly loop taking about 15 minutes between each venue.
Another issues which has cropped up is the art, which this year has not resonated as well with both the layman and the more well-informed visitor.
Local art collector Colin Lim, who has attended all three editions of the contemporary art event, says he remembers the previous biennales for their artworks.
“Unfortunately, this one will be remembered for the shortcomings of the curatorial team. From the environment in which the art was displayed, to the selection of the artist and hence the artworks, to the way the Simon Fujiwara installation was (mis)handled, one cannot help but feel that the curators had not been up their task. The spotlight should always be on the art,” he says.
Making art accessible to the public was one of the key considerations of the Biennale but several visitors interviewed by Life! over two weekends found the art too abstract and tough to relate to.
Mr Joseph Estrada [?!], 52, an engineer, felt there were too many video works. “The video installations are just too long. Most people do not have the time to wait for things to happen in the video,” he said.
Student Ng Xiao Yan, 20, found the last edition of the Biennale better. “There were more visually arresting works in 2008,” she said.
Another student Sydney Ho, 23, felt that while the art was interesting, many of the works were very hard to understand.
Led by artistic director Matthew Ngui and his curatorial team, which includes Canadian Trevor Smith and Australian Russell Storer, this Biennale explores artistic journeys in relation to ordinary encounters and activities such as shopping and eating.
Works centered on the latter themes are the ones which have been most appreciated by visitors. Apart form Nishi’s hotel room, other popular artworks are Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail aka Ise’s refrigerator installation titled Secret Affair and Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive installation titled Frequency and Volume: Relational Architecture 9, 2003 (see side stories).
Lecturer Cindy Tan, 33, enjoyed looking at the various media used to create the art. “The use of multimedia shows that the Singapore Biennale is embracing technology and keeping up with the times.”
But some art connoisseurs such as Doctor Lim felt some artforms had been ignored in their entirety.
“I know painting as a medium is somewhat shunned by practitioners and curators of contemporary art but the dearth of paintings in this Biennale – I only spotted the wonderful ‘family’ portrait by Navin Rawanchaikul in the National Museum – makes me wonder if this was done on purpose,” he said.
Organisers say that discussions like these add to the character of the island’s premier visual arts event. Says Mr Tan Boon Hui, director of the Singapore Art Museum: “One of the goals of contemporary art and of a large scale exhibition like the Singapore Biennale is to start conversations and this Biennale has certainly sparked off much discussion on a range of topics, from the debate on the Merlion’s status or significance as a national icon, to what is good art.”
Another un-timely non-review .. although, in this case, Made for SAM is still running.
The show – if one can call it that, since it’s really more by way of an art fair snuck into a museum space – features ordinary, everyday objects aesthetically enlivened and price-augmented by the innovations of contemporary design. The marketing is pretty savvy: borrowing the strategies of the art world, each piece is given a title, much like a work of art, and produced in limited quantities. And the prices certainly reflect those value-added processes – again, much like the role big-name dealers, auction houses and art institutions play in jacking up the prices of contemporary art to astronomical sums.
Take the wooden pencil-case dubbed The Pencil is Mightier than the Keyboard (below). The brainchild of two individuals from the local er, “ideas company”, Asylum, it’s pretty much just that: a wooden pencil-case – though in this case etched with the titles of various literary classics in different fonts, presumably an allusion to the indispensability of mechanical writing tools to the production of some of mankind’s greatest and most cherished works of literature. The price for this insight ? 70 SGD, or roughly 56 USD, or 39 Euros.
Or the Itinerant Chrysanthemum by Ash Yeo (below). A wooden ruler that explodes into undulating tendrils of petals at one end, it is very eye-pleasing, but – like so many of its fellows on display – caught rather awkwardly in the oscillation between functionality and pure aesthetics. I mean, sure, it does look like it works as a rule, but probably not very well, since it’s too short, inconvenient in the hand, and, of course, pretty exorbitant – 28 SGD, to be precise. If anyone’s buying this, it can’t possibly be for utilitarian purposes.
Here’s Sven Lütticken on the progressive erosion of the lines between fine art and everyday objects:
In modern art, the increasing resemblance of art objects to everyday objects raised the threat of eroding of any real difference between works of art and other things. Barnett Newman railed against both Duchamp’s readymades and “Bauhaus screwdriver designers” who were elevated to the ranks of artists by the Museum of Modern Art’s doctrine of “Good Design.”The danger for art was the same in both cases: the dissolving of the dividing line between works of art and everyday objects. Just as ancient art proper should never be confused with the craft of “women basket weavers,” modern art should never be confused with a screwdriver or urinal.In the 1960s, Clement Greenberg would also worry that a blank sheet of paper or a table would become readable as art, that the boundary between artworks and “arbitrary objects” was eroding.While not evincing any Modernist anxieties about readymades, Paul Chan’s recent assertion that “a work of art is both more and less than a thing” shows renewed concerns regarding such an assimilation—in a context marked, until quite recently, by an unprecedented market boom in which works of art seemed to be situated in a continuum of luxury goods spanning from Prada bags to luxury yachts.
(His essay, Art and Thingness, Part One: Breton’s Ball and Duchamp’s Carrot, is available in full in #13 of the e-flux journal, here.)
Elsewhere, Boris Groys has pointed out that the role of the modern museum, in spite of this imbrication of artwork and mundane object, is not diminished, but rather enhanced. I don’t have my copy of Art Power handy, so I’m relying on memory here, but his argument ran something like this: if the difference between art and thing is almost indistinguishable these days, then the museum, rather than being rendered irrelevant, becomes ever more essential in the struggle to maintain what little distinction there still exists.
Clearly the SAM hasn’t received that particular memo.
Made for SAM merchandise is available for purchase at the FARM Online Store.
Qingming 清明 happened earlier last week.
Wikipedia describes the festival thus:
The Qingming Festival …… Pure Brightness Festival or Clear Bright Festival, Ancestors Day or Tomb Sweeping Day is a traditional Chinese festival on the 104th day after the winter solstice (or the 15th day from the Spring Equinox), usually occurring around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar …… The Qingming festival falls on the first day of the fifth solar term, named Qingming. Its name denotes a time for people to go outside and enjoy the greenery of springtime (踏青 tà qīng, “treading on the greenery”) and tend to the graves of departed ones.
My family, ever thinking ahead, has made a tradition of sweeping our tombs a couple of weeks in advance of the actual date, so as to avoid the prodigious crowds that tend to show up at Choa Chu Kang cemetery around this time. The paternal grandparents are buried in different parts of the site. Grandpa – Hakka immigrant from the village of Dabu in Guangdong, China; opium addict; unseen presence in my life, having passed on in the ’70s – is buried in the older, Chinese section of the cemetery. Grandma – daughter of durian money from Kukup, Johor; pillar of strength; dispenser of two-dollar bills to the grandkids and dearly, dearly missed – was laid to the rest in the Protestant graveyard.
A legion of us headed out with bagfuls of paper offerings to visit the paterfamilias first. His grave (below), like countless others in this part of the cemetery, follows the design of a headstone fronting a burial mound – a departure from the traditional semi-circular ‘armchair’ grave favoured by southern Chinese communities, examples of which can still be found in China, Hong Kong and parts of SE Asia (below, bottom). The history of, and preference for, this particular design has been explained as such:
Nevertheless, most Chinese, especially those in southern China, have regarded the form of an armchair as the ideal shape of the grave … An armchair gives a sense of wealth, comfort and dignity. In historic times, only the elite class or the mandarin Chinese could afford armchairs. Moreover, armchairs symbolise authority and power, for in the olden days the armchair was the seat for the magistrate when he presided in court. By erecting the grave in the armchair shape, people believed that their ancestors in the yin world could enjoy comfort, dignity, and pride. The interaction between the yin and the yang would thus be harmonious and beneficial …… The history of building graves in the armchair shape can be traced to the years of the Northern Song Dynasty, 960-1127 A.D. In pre-modern times … an illustration that first appeared in the 1830s, shows, the grave resembled an armchair in shape, with higher turf protecting its three sides, on its back, as well as to its left and right. The front was left open to the field …… This armchair shape for graves has thus persisted for a long time, reflecting its acceptance by the Chinese as a desirable way for the construction of yin houses [i.e. graves].
(Read the essay in full here.)
An armchair-shaped grave in Kuching, Sarawak. Image from My Thoughts, Stories and Articles.
Unlike the mandarin’s armchair, Grandpa’s mound – appropriately enough – resembles a bed rather more. Appropriately, because he’d spent a large part of life lying on one, puffing away at his opium pipe. I’m not kidding. It sounds like something one reads about in history books, but as recently as the 1970s he was still indulging the habit. God only knows where he managed to procure the stuff. Aunt Nancy, who married into the family shortly before the old man passed on, recalls being shocked at meeting an actual opium smoker … that he was her father-in-law to be probably didn’t help.
The headstone consists of a central column bearing the deceased’s name and place of origin (Dabu county in Guangdong province, China, where the Lee family also trace their roots to), flanked by two shorter columns inscribed with the names of his children, and set before it is an altar space inlaid with cerulean-blue mosaic patterns and boasting an incense burner carved from granite. What surprised me were the features in the low walls emanating from either side of the headstone: images of landscapes painted on ceramic tiles, tranquil, serene vistas of a sea-girded, snow-peaked mountain that I’m assuming is the Mt. Penglai of Chinese fable, an enchanted nirvana where the elixir of immortality was said to be found. Legend has it that the man who first unified China, the Emperor Qin, obsessed with the idea of eternal life, dispatched several missions to locate this magical Never Never Land, but to no avail. (One such delegation reportedly stumbled onto Japan instead.) Penglai also plays a big part in Taoist mythology, being the home of the Eight Immortals. I’m not sure if its representation is common practice in Chinese burial tradition, or more of a local adaptation; in any case, its presence is likely a straightforward reference to the desire for everlasting life. My grandfather’s grave, though, was also decked out like a home, which in essence it is, a yin dwelling 阴府 for the dead: a pair of stone guardian lions (below), with marbles for eyes, stood at attention at both ends of the wall, and at one corner was a small shrine dedicated to the Earth God, or tu di gong 土地公. The lions are an ubiquitous architectural component of grander Chinese structures, their most famous manifestation, of course, being at the Forbidden City; the Earth God is worshipped in many homes, with a small altar located to one side of the main entrance, as the one here is. Perhaps these signifiers of the domestic, along with the conjuration of the immortal playground of Penglai, indicates that the grave itself was intended as a specific abode for the soul’s life after death ?
As anyone who has participated in Qingming knows, quite a few trees have to give up their lives for all the paper that’s involved. Coupled with that fact that most of these offerings are openly burnt, the festival is really one huge middle finger in the environment’s face. Janet Scott Lee’s For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings (Hong Kong University Press, 2007), a scholarly tome entirely devoted to the subject, has this to say of their use in ancestor worship:
Burning paper offerings to the ancestors satisfies the requirements for the sacrifices which are, and were, a significant way to maintain the ongoing relationships between ancestors and descendants … In his edited volume on death ritual, Watson has observed, “A central feature of Chinese funerals and postburial mortuary practices is the transfer of food, money, and goods to the deceased … In return the living expect to receive certain material benefits, including luck, wealth, and progeny” … Individuals who were loved and provided for in life are also provided for when they leave this world, and reciprocal relationships maintained. A common perspective is that the condition of ancestors directly affects the fortunes of their living descendants, for burning funeral goods allows the givers to claim the deceased’s property … or allows the deceased to become a “property-owning spirit, as a person without property cannot conceivably become an ancestor” … Descendants also benefit materially, a theme appearing in studies of Singapore funerals, where mourners, at least privately, understand the benefits:
“I suggest that what is important is not simply the inheritance of the property of the deceased, but also the potential for greater benefits that motivate the descendants to spend so much money. It is believed that by converting the deceased into a rich ancestor, the now well-off ancestor will see fit, and is in fact expected, to return the favour and reward descendants with even more wealth.” …
if this most persuasive and instrumental line of reasoning be true for Hong Kong, then it would add an explanation for the great variety of paper items available, the seemingly endless array of goods that can be offered to the ancestors (and also to the gods and even to the ghosts). In simple terms, it would be an echo of what has been termed the “hardnosed view of the Chinese ancestral cult” … a form of reciprocity in which one gives to receive something in return …… This combination of spiritual conspicuous consumption and an emphasis on egocentric gain should be sufficient to explain all this burning and point to the real meaning behind offerings.
…… [However] Worshippers interviewed saw no automatic link between the quantity or quality of offerings and ancestral blessings. At least, they did not have the conscious intention to benefit materially. Some respondents said that, while they vaguely remembered hearing of that benefits could be gained in this way (although they could not recall just when or where they had heard about it) they did not believe it to be true, while others said that they saw no direct relationship between burning to the ancestors and obtaining any benefits whatsoever; they had separated the two concepts … The reasons respondents provided for giving paper offerings included providing for the ancestors expressed one’s devotion and respect, giving offerings reflected one’s sincerity, gave psychological comfort, and eased one’s heart. What is significant, as one lady expressed it, is that, “Offerings are necessary to show our sincerity and devoutness and the ancestors need them. We must respect them and help them to have a better life” … In short, worshippers did benefit from giving offerings, but in a spiritual way far removed from the concrete rewards of this world.
(Lee, pp. 228 – 31.)
I dunno if I agree with that last bit, especially where my family is concerned. Sure, reverence for Grandpa definitely played a part, but er, requests for good fortune, good grades (where necessary) and winning lottery numbers also got bandied about – even if only half-jokingly. The variety of offerings did not include anything so elaborate as miniature houses and cars, but money there was a-plenty, ranging from imitations of silver and gold taels, to paper notes featuring Yama, the King of Hell, to Buddhist paper charms folded into the shape of ingots (below). That day we certainly made millionaires of Grandpa, Grandma and First Aunt – though where the latter was buried no one seemed to be able to recall …
The personal touch, though, cannot be denied. The food offerings were real (below), and apparently included some of Grandpa’s favourite makan. I asked about a small dish of salt place among the plates of sticky rice 糯米饭 and buns and fruit, and was told, “Ah Kung (Grandfather) likes it salty.” Okay. So now I know where I get that from. And cousin Chris actually lit a cigarette on one of the candles and left it there, smoking away, as an offering – opium and excessive salt intake weren’t the only vices Grandpa enjoyed.
Oh, and before I forget, here’s Lee on the Chinese practice of burning offerings, the reason for which has always puzzled me (aside from the practicable fact that paper burns very well):
Burning changes the nature of the offerings, for in their original form they cannot go anywhere; burning accomplishes the vital transformation which sends the items to the ancestors, the gods, or the ghosts. as Sangren explained for the burning of incense, also an integral part of worship, “A tarnsformative process is represented, and it is fire that possesses transformative power” …This transformative process is even more pronounced for paper offerings, for example, funeral offerings. “Effigies made of coloured paper are burnt at the graveside in the hope that they will be translated into the spirit world for the assistance of the manes of the dead” … Even earlier, De Groot noted that silver money for the ancestors, “These sheets … are, according to the prevailing conviction, turned by the process of fire into real silver currency available in the world of darkness, and sent there through the smoke to the soul …” … paper offerings possess a shape and a form within the world of the living, and can be handled, measured and recorded using the same methods as are other artifacts and items of material culture …… However, these same offerings are only tentative, replicas in a state of becoming, and it is burning which transforms them into real objects as their destination in other worlds.
(Lee, p. 20.)
In other words, alchemy for the dead.
One last point: furthering the intertwining of grave and home, death and domesticity, I’m sure the parallels between the crowded, cramped nature of CCK cemetery and the almost indistinguishable likenesses of the graves themselves, and the high-density nature of public housing hereabouts and the modular, standardized look and layout of HDB blocks, have been noted. If one considers the columbaria that are increasingly taking the place of burials in land-scarce Singapore, with its individual niches divided up into ‘blocks’ not unlike apartment buildings, then the correspondences between accommodation for the dead and the living really begin to take on eerie – even erm, uncanny – resemblance. (See this blog, for one.) Similarities aside, however, housing estates for the dead are shared with wild fauna in a way that has been eradicated by the nation’s post-Independence urbanization, situated as they are in the largely uninhabited regions near the island’s Western water catchment area. The balance between Man and Nature seems in some ways to have been restored by the open, lush, unperturbed landscape of CCK cemetery and its reversal of humanity’s dominance over our animalian fellows, resulting – literally – in a heterotopic idyll, as Foucault imagined it …
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.