Posts Tagged ‘Singaporean art’
Study of 3 Thermos Flasks (1991/2), Faizal Fadil. Included in Intersecting Histories. Image courtesy of Postcolonial Web.
The inaugural show at the newly revived Gallery of the School of Art, Design and Media at NTU is Intersecting Histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art.
An exhibition of postwar Southeast Asian art ? Okay, pretty interesting.
One curated by T. K. Sabapathy ? I’m there.
I’m still trying to make up my mind about the show, but in the meantime, the art reviewer for The Straits Times had a couple of pretty interesting opinions about it. In response, a pal – newly befriended, through sheer serendipity – had a response to her piece. Both review and rejoinder are reproduced below.
(Full disclosure: Letter-writer Yvonne Low, a PhD candidate in the Dept. of Art History & Theory at the Uni. of Sydney, is currently researching female artists of Singapore and Indonesia. She is also the author of various articles on SE Asian art, one of which is included in the catalogue for the present show.)
Review, Huang Lijie
History that is skimpy on details
(Huang Lijie, 9 October 2012)
NTU’s exhibition on the turning points in the region’s contemporary art offers little illumination on its choices
The Nanyang Technological University recently announced its ambition to be a major player in South-east Asia’s burgeoning arts scene at the re- opening of its gallery and launch of a new exhibition.
The renovated School of Art, Design and Media gallery was inaugurated with the show, Intersecting Histories. The exhibition sets out to spotlight works of art that mark turning points in the rise and development of contemporary art in the region. The curator is well-known art historian T.K. Sabapathy.
It features 28 artists and 37 works, spanning four decades to the present, from collections such as the Singapore Art Museum and National University of Singapore Museum.
The aspiration of the university and curator to participate in the writing of contemporary art history through the show befits their callings. The university will run the Centre for Contemporary Art, which opens next year at Gillman Barracks and aims to be a world- renowned centre for art residency, research and exhibition. Mr Sabapathy, meanwhile, is co-chair of the advisory committee for the programme at next year’s Singapore Biennale.
Such clarity of vision on ambition, however, is not always evident in the show.
It opens purposefully with works by five artists that date from the 1970s but exude a remarkable sense of the here-and-now in form and content.
It includes Cheo Chai Hiang’s assembly of a found piece of log and a hinged wooden washing board that swings open to reveal in red the repeated phrase, “and miles to go before I sleep”. There is also Redza Piyadasa’s tall coffin-shaped box painted with the Malaysian flag and mirrored on the floor, and Jim Supangkat’s bust of a legendary Javanese queen placed on a plinth with the drawing of a naked female torso and a lower body clad in unzipped jeans that exposes pubic hair.
The curator asserts in the wall text that the works, which also include a painting by Benedicto Cabrera and five photo-etchings by Sulaiman Esa, show qualities of nascent contemporary art practice in South-east Asia.
Yet the reason they qualify as icons and why they were picked can be gleaned only from two oblique sentences in the text. The absence of labels for individual works that explain why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history does the show no favour.
The diligent viewer, though, will be rewarded if he reads the curator’s 32-page essay in the show’s catalogue, which is being printed. The curator posits the works as hallmarks because they are by artists who either individually or as part of a collective, voiced early-on at crucial moments the need for art to stop being a purely aesthetic object defined by rigid artistic principles. The works were also made using alternative mediums and techniques, and they engaged critically with the milieu of the times, traits that distinguish it from previous art.
Works embodying these contemporary concerns are seen in a section focusing on the female body. Nindityo Adipurnomo’s wooden sculptures of traditional hair pieces worn by Javanese women as status symbols open up like jewellery boxes with mirrors under the lids to reveal an assemblage of icons that critique social obsession with sex, superstition and intoxication.
This invitation to peek and ponder is echoed in the mirrors of nearby works by Amanda Heng and Julie Lluch. The gaze that meets Lluch’s wearied, naked female sculpture, however, is introspective while Heng’s mirror on a table under a pair of red divination blocks and dish cover has a more gender-charged view.
This dynamic interplay between works continues in an open-ended segment, which the wall text proposes, explores various themes including the human figure as a symbol of a person’s pained inner psyche and global strife.
A more satisfying approach perhaps, might be to see the works as a myriad of responses to structures of power such as in politics, the art canon and personal desires. This would place Donna Ong’s sublime dioramas in serendipitous conversation with Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s fierce metal scrap warrior. In Ong’s piece, personal desires succumb to fantastical landscapes while Bayu’s sculpture stoicly resists the siege of Westernisation on indigenous identity.
Resonance persists in a standalone section of the gallery, which looks at how artists such as Niranjan Rajah and Ho Tzu Nyen become power brokers through narratives on art and history in their video works.
These intersecting discourses among the many works, which overcrowd the main gallery, highlight ideas in contemporary art. They also show how contemporary art, which is rooted in history, continually redefines itself in creative ways to respond to the present. But it offers little illumination on why themes raised, such as the female body, are pivotal to the development of contemporary art in the region and why the other works, besides those in the opening section, mark critical moments in contemporary art.
The scant wall texts are mum and the essay is not explicit. It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why or how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History And Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
Response, Yvonne Low
A response to review, “History that is skimpy on details”
(Yvonne Low, 17 November 2012)
The following article is written in response to Huang Lijie’s review of the exhibition, Intersecting histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art, held at ADM Gallery, Nanyang Technological University, which was published on 9 October 2012 in the Life! Arts section, The Straits Times.
I read with genuine surprise at the author’s appraisal of the exhibition that opened at the School of Art, Design and Media gallery on 27 September 2012 and guest curated by art historian, T.K. Sabapathy. In her write-up, Huang provided a well-composed and critical description of the exhibition, including an interesting reading of selected works. Her main contention, however, was the lack of clarity in the exhibition’s curatorial design, specifically that there were inadequate content within the signposts – by way of wall-text and labels – to explain why the selected works “qualify as icons and why they were picked” and “why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history”. Though the author referred to the curatorial essay and subsequently proceeded to provide the reasons for the works’ selection as discerned from the text, she insisted that even the essay “is not explicit”:
It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why and how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum, such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History and Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
My encounter with the exhibition turned out to be quite different from the author’s – unsurprisingly, one might say, given my somewhat privileged position where I have not only contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue discussing three of the works on display but also had several opportunities to speak with the curator when the exhibition was still being developed. That said, such “privileges” could hardly have robbed me of my ability to look at the exhibition in its entirety with all the works installed as they are now and to think for myself what to make of it all.
It is quite difficult to not consider the works in a new light given that no two exhibition can be the same; every show will be different in intent if not in configuration. It matters not if seven or seventeen of the works had in fact been shown elsewhere, but it is of how they have been exhibited in relation to other works and how they can be read in the given contexts that should matter.
Even on the outset, it is clear – without needing to read the exhibition catalogue – that this exhibition has a strong pedagogical tenor that undoubtedly sets it apart from all preceding exhibitions on Southeast Asian contemporary art. The exhibition is conceived as a project within an academic institution – a platform, far more conducive than the museum, to encourage if not foster deep and critical thinking on, especially those things that are “problematic”. The limitations of the recently renovated ADM gallery – to hold and show the scale and scope desired of a subject as expansive as Southeast Asian contemporary art – were plain to see. Huang was right about the overcrowded state of the main gallery; what she overlooked was the valiant effort that went in working with the limitations of the gallery and other institutional constraints (the works are afterall borrowed) to give to the audience as inclusive a selection as possible – or at least enough of a selection to generate some meaningful discussion and exploration of the theme and subject “intersecting histories”.
With the exception of two new site-specific creations by Koh Nguang How and Tang Da Wu (works that too were based on previous artworks), all the works on show have in some form or another been exhibited before in the last 40 years in Singapore or elsewhere in the region. Many of them acquired seminal status when they were collected by prominent institutions (and sometimes even before they were collected); these works have been rarified throughout history and in the course of their exhibition and re-exhibition. Yet, rarely have their consecration been subjected to study or examination in this manner.
The point here was precisely to explore the works’ significance and histories – this includes its exhibition history – in the context of Southeast Asian art and art historiography. The sub-themes (the explication of the human form as one example) – some of which Huang herself has shrewdly identified – reflect the investigative concerns that are deeply rooted in the discipline of art history. What the exhibition has shown is that by employing interpretive models (iconography, the study of technique and media, history etc), one may still arrive at multiple, intersecting and insightful perspectives of the contemporary.
Whether this opportunity can be fully appreciated by the Singaporean public is itself a separate issue altogether. If the exhibition has not cast new light to the works, then it would only be because the viewers have chosen to stay in the dark.
Here is scholar of the sartorial, Anne Hollander, on the material existence of clothes:
Dress has not only no social but also no significant aesthetic existence unless it is actually being worn. Western sartorial relics on display simply do not have the artistic status of antique vases and cabinets. Half their beauty is obviously missing. This is true not just if they are displayed unworn, but always, simply because they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners …… Concepts of design and feats of workmanship survive, along with indications of social attitudes, economic conditions, and so on. But a vase in a museum has a completeness to offer the eye that a dress never has, though both may be breathtakingly made according to artistic standards of equal altitude.
(From Hollander’s classic study, Seeing Through Clothes.)
Unworn clothing, or dress, then, as an inert physicality, un-activated as social or aesthetic fact by the animating force of a body.
Now these – at the SAM’s latest offering, The Collectors Show: Chimera - bodies missing, effaced, obscured, abstracted:
First, Filipino artist Patricia Eustaquio’s Psychogenic Fugue (below), on loan from collector Marcel Crespo (son of former Filipino Congressman, Mark Jimenez). A piano cover, an expanse of cream-coloured lace, is set over a missing piano, its evacuated, vacant interior illuminated by several spotlights. The armature of the piece is provided by the simple means of a hardened thermoplastic resin, which moulds the fabric from beneath into a phantasmal non-presence – evoked, named, but always already displaced. As the label observes: “Delicate in detail and haunting in its hollowness, this ghostly shroud calls attention to its absent object, poignantly emphasising its loss.”
Another contribution by a Filipino artist: Yasmin Sison’s Orange Madonna (below), from the collection of one Dr. George Soo. The painting’s central figures are, literally, dis-figured. The minor iconographic tradition of the Virgin and Holy Infant in a grove of orange trees – one of the more famous examples of which remains Cima de Conegliano’s late 15th century treatment of the subject – is here given an update by the clearly visible contemporary wear. More to the point, however, is the salient effacement of the figures, the painted surface where their faces should be reduced to a muddied soup of chaotic brushstrokes and chromatic confusion, explicitly negating the dimensions of mimesis and iconicity.
The title of Yayoi Kusama’s installation, Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets 2/10 (below), speaks for itself. Courtesy of Lito and Kim Camacho, a replica of the Venus de Milo is set against a flat background, both rendered in Kusama’s trademark “infinity nets” (a pattern of reiterated dots), binding object and setting in a virtually indistinguishable homogeneity. To quote theorist Roger Caillois on what he termed “legendary psychasthenia”, or the phenomenon of a subject psychologically identifying with or becoming absorbed into a physical space:
It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself …… The feeling of personality, considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these circumstances to be seriously undermined; one then enters into the psychology of psychasthenia, and more specifically legendary psychasthenia, if we agree to use this name for the disturbance in the above relations between personality and space.
(Qtd. in Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny.)
The body is here, the artist flatly states, obliterated, the object visually subsumed as an image of the subject in a state of destabilizing psycho-spatial collapse.
Finally, Indonesian Entang Wiharso’s The Unspeakable Victim – The Story Behind Superhero and Black Goat Colony (#3) (below), from the collection of Hugh Young. The work is one in a series of similar metal-plate sculptures, resembling, in their broad figural contours, paper cutouts, or the cast shadows of wayang kulit puppets. The rather obscure narratives conjured by the artist aren’t the point here; what is apropos is the evocation of the wayang: “… you have to understand the wayang – the scared shadow play … Their shadows are souls, and the screen is heaven. You must watch the shadows, not the puppets.” (A quote from Peter Weir’s 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, based on C. J. Koch’s novel of the same name.) Orientalist melodrama aside, the wayang in its performative dimension indeed provides a ready analogue for the abstracted corporeal complex as Wiharso envisions it. The appropriation of the silhouette as a formal strategy, rather than the puppets themselves, in all their intricate detail, suggests a double dislocation here: the shadow as a Platonic un-reality, a cave of fleeting illusions, which the art of the wayang encodes into its very praxis; and Wiharso’s spare, bare forms, the body submitted to a specific mode of erasure.
A return to where we started from: Hollander’s claim that the unworn dress is an incomplete prosthesis of the wearer. If that notion may be analogized to accommodate the artwork-collector complex – the effaced body, so prevalent here, as an intimation of the missing, crucial, animating force that supposedly provides the conceptual glue which brings together the various strands of contemporary art praxis on display, or, in other words, the individual collector and the determining aesthetics of particular collections and tastes – then the shortcomings of the show become glaringly obvious, “simply because”, as Hollander puts it, “they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners.”
After all, Chimera bills itself as “a tribute to the art patrons of today, the exhibition offers an insight into the breadth and richness of private art collections, introducing visitors to the personal visions and passions that shape them.”
Where, then, are these ‘personal visions and passions”, beyond the parade of names that mean little to general art-viewing public – Crespo, Soo, Camacho, Young, among so many others that soon begin to blur one into another ? Those function here simply as a placeholder for the act of semantic truancy, the organizing principle claimed but, for all effective purpose, occluded. Or to reiterate the abovementioned – “evoked, named, but always already displaced.”
The artwork as static and inert as an article of dress removed from the absent anatomy; the gesture of the hollowed-out body as an analogue of that missing element which serves as the ersatz foundation of the exhibition, a presence alluded to but ceaselessly deferred – the Collector.
It was all so .. deracinated.
A tribute of sorts this show certainly is, but what to ? The power of individual collectors possessed of the necessary resources ? The readiness of an institution to genuflect ? The ingenuity of the curator ? The cosy network of connections which sutures the art industry and the socio-economic elite ? Or perhaps the creed of convenience, the exhibition as an easy, fail-safe showcase of the snazziest examplars of contemporary Asian art, a blatantly transparent attempt to wow both collector and peasant alike, the latter especially who should be grateful for the opportunity to view such remarkable pieces accessible otherwise only to the privilege of (superfluous) capital and private property.
Consider me grateful.
An interview with Eugene Tan – formerly of ICAS – in today’s Straits Times.
Local artist Ho Tzu Nyen is on record as saying: “In Singapore, where a habit of anti-intellectualism is unfortunately pervasive in the cultural sphere and judgment about art is often determined solely by the market, Eugene’s knowledge and integrity are extremely significant.”
By Adeline Chia. Published: 30 January 2012.
It is a blisteringly hot day at Gillman Barracks. The leafy area, which contains several old colonial-type buildings, is quiet and deserted but for several contractors.
Dr Eugene Tan is taking Life! on a short tour of the area, which he seems to know like the back of his hand.
We stop at Block 7 and inside, the temperature drops by a few degrees. The room has gigantic black beams running along the ceiling and windows that open up to a scene of tropical wilderness.
In about six months’ time, the space will be home to Kaikai Kiki, the art gallery owned by Japanese A-list artist Takashi Murakami of Louis Vuitton handbag fame.
In neighbouring buildings, other top international galleries will march proudly into this former British army barracks off Alexandra Road. They include Shanghai’s ShanghART Gallery, one of China’s most influential galleries carrying the work of top artist Zeng Fanzhi; Japan’s Ota Fine Arts, representing the work of Yayoi ‘polka dot’ Kusama; and New York’s Sundaram Tagore Gallery, which carries works by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz and abstract American painter Frank Stella.
Later in the year when these galleries open, the space will become a vibrant arts cluster, a place drawing collectors and interested browsers.
Well, that is the plan anyway. And the man executing this vision is none other than the soft-spoken, unassuming Dr Tan.
Although he operates under the radar, the 38-year-old is an influential player in Singapore’s art scene. His official position is programme director of the Lifestyle Programme Office at the Economic Development Board. His actual job? To spearhead the Gillman Barracks project.
That means he is helping to write the next chapter of Singapore’s cultural policy. The plans for Gillman, together with high-profile contemporary art fair Art Stage, are part of Singapore’s bid to be a centre for contemporary art in the region.
In his short career, Dr Tan, who has a PhD in art history and archaeology from the University of Manchester, has made an impact on the local contemporary art scene in several high-level jobs.
He was founding director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Lasalle College of the Arts, refreshing its dated programming to reflect cutting-edge trends; programme director for Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, where he set up the master’s programme for contemporary art; and exhibitions director for prominent Osage Gallery, which has branches in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.
He was also co-curator of the inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006 and curator for the Singapore Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale.
He is one of the most well-liked people in the Singapore visual arts scene, both for his knowledge of contemporary art and his gentle, polite manner.
Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen, 35, who has known him for seven years, says the arts administrator is a ‘true soldier of contemporary art’. Dr Tan has included Ho’s works in several group shows and was the artist’s gallerist during his Osage stint.
Ho says: ‘In Singapore, where a habit of anti-intellectualism is unfortunately pervasive in the cultural sphere and judgment about art is often determined solely by the market, Eugene’s knowledge and integrity are extremely significant.’
He adds that because not everyone can understand contemporary art at first encounter, it is important to have ‘mediators who can ensure that these new ideas are diffused into the public sphere’.
‘Eugene has the perfect set of knowledge, skills and personality to fulfil this crucial task.’
Indeed, when Dr Tan curated Singapore conceptual artist Lim Tzay Chuen in 2005′s Venice Biennale, he handled all media queries on behalf of the artist.
Lim, known for his aggressively conceptual art, proposed to move the Merlion to Venice for the Singapore booth. The Singapore Tourism Board, which owned the 70-tonne half-lion, half-fish statue, declined to give permission. Lim’s exhibition ended up being a documentation of his failure to move the Singapore icon to the prestigious Italian art show.
It was a controversial and bold submission. The ‘Is this art?’ type of questions were lobbied around by the public and journalists, but Dr Tan took them in his stride.
He says: ‘Singapore is still very young in terms of its understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. I don’t think people here really understood why this was art, trying to move a big public monument all the way across to the other side of the world. In time, the work may be appreciated much more.’
Life! meets him for an interview at the Economic Development Board’s headquarters on the 28th floor of Raffles City Tower.
Dr Tan, in his black shirt, dark blue jeans and black sneakers, does not look like your typical bureaucrat. He admits that like many people working in art, he is ‘not a morning person’ and his mostly black wardrobe attests to that. ‘It’s out of convenience. I don’t have to decide what to wear. It simplifies things when everything’s the same colour.’
In master-planning Gillman Barracks, which is developed at a cost of less than $10 million, he adds that while many other art gallery clusters in the world develop organically, some degree of central planning in land-scarce Singapore is essential.
He says: ‘Every little bit of land in Singapore is accounted for. Where land is highly regulated, it’s very difficult for such a project to grow organically.’
There is some scepticism that the Gillman project would work – only one Singapore gallery, Fost, has taken up a space although many others have been approached. But he says things are slowly changing: ‘A lot of people don’t naturally see Singapore as an arts centre.’
An oft-cited observation that Singapore is losing its edge as an arts hub is that Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the two international auction houses, stopped holding auctions here in 2007 and in 2002 respectively, though both still have offices here.
Dr Tan says things are changing with the introduction of the Singapore Biennale and the high-end art fair Art Stage, as well as Singapore’s arts infrastructure in the development of the Singapore Freeport, a storage space for art, arts logistics firms and art insurance.
In fact, he drops a tantalising hint that he has had ‘some very productive meetings with big companies and organisations’ during Art Stage, which ended two weeks ago.
He adds that he met Mr Francois Curiel, president of Christie’s Asia, who was ‘impressed by the potential here’ – though he keeps mum about whether this means that Christie’s will start holding auctions in Singapore again.
Also, prominent Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye, who moved to China after the Belgian authorities ruled that his pig tattoo art projects were illegal, is considering setting up shop here.
There is a lot of speculation about the amount of the Economic Development Board’s investment in Art Stage, which has received mixed reactions this year. Dr Tan refuses to be drawn into revealing a figure, ‘but I can say that it’s not a lot’.
He says Art Stage is ‘totally Lorenzo’s project’, referring to the fair director and Swiss national Lorenzo Rudolf.
He is happier talking about how he began his love affair with art. His father worked in financial services – he last was a management consultant in a financial firm – and his mother was a nurse. They sent their children, Eugene, then 13, and his older sister, 14, to England to attend Concord College, a well-known boarding school.
In 1989, he enrolled at Queen Mary College in the University of London to pursue a degree in Economics and Politics, a safe choice because he was unsure of what he wanted to do in the future.
It was in the British capital that he encountered art in museums and galleries. He was hooked. He took art electives in university, read up on art history and even took painting lessons.
‘But I soon realised that I was better at writing and thinking about art than I was in making it,’ he says.
He also met his Taiwanese wife there in 1991. She was studying fashion design and a friend of his sister. They eventually got married in Singapore in 2003.
He and his wife Heather, formerly a specialist in modern Chinese art in Taipei’s Sotheby’s and now a housewife, have one daughter aged seven. He declined to reveal his wife’s age.
He did his master’s in post-war and contemporary art, and later, a PhD in art history and archaelogy at the University of Manchester.
His tastes lay firmly in conceptual art, in which an artist’s ideas take precedence over what was traditionally considered aesthetic, such as the ability to paint realistically or sculpt beautiful forms.
He juggled his studies with arts writing and curating, but decided at the end of 2003 to return to Singapore. ‘Life was getting hard in London. Things were really expensive there. It was very crowded, the weather was very bad and the food was very bad. I was ready to explore something new.’
He applied successfully for the job of director of Lasalle’s Earl Lu Gallery and returned to Singapore. One of the first things he did was to rename the gallery the Institute of Contemporary Arts to reflect its new programming slant.
In 2008, he hopped over to Sotheby’s Institute of Art when it opened its Singapore campus. He helped set up its contemporary art master’s programme, with Western and Asian canons in its syllabus.
He was there for about a year before he joined Osage as exhibitions director in 2009 and had to move to its headquarters in Hong Kong.
That was when his wife decided to move to Taipei with their daughter as she did not want to live in crowded Hong Kong, but Taipei was still close enough.
She and their daughter will both move back to Singapore later this year.
Tan lives with his retired parents in a condominium in Tanjong Rhu when his family is away and he flies to Taipei often to visit them.
He speaks fondly of his daughter, Nathalie, who is getting an artistic upbringing, following her father to art openings and dabbling in drawing.
He relates a funny story of how, in kindergarten, she had to say what she wanted to be when she grew up. She first said ‘princess’ but after some years, her answer has become ‘curator’.
In a sense, he hopes that the Gillman project – despite its glitz, the money thrown at it and its place in Singapore’s high-stakes bid to be an arts destination – will be an educational space which inspires the young to see that there is a future in the arts.
He says: ‘As a child, there was not much art for me to see. It’s not something my generation was easily exposed to.
‘That’s what I really want to change in Singapore, which I think will happen at Gillman. Not only is there a lot of art to see, it’s also something that could become an alternative for families to going to shopping malls on the weekends.
‘With young children becoming used to going to art galleries, hopefully, the next generation would consider the idea of being in the arts, whether as an artist or as an arts professional.’
What does the art connoisseur have in his collection? He says he has only about 40 to 50 pieces and buys when there is ‘something I really like and can afford’. He has the work of some British artists as well as Singaporean ones such as Jane Lee, Donna Ong and Robert Zhao.
His most recent purchase was at Art Stage, a drawing by noted German artist Carsten Nicolai, who is sort of an artist’s artist, exhibited in major shows and in important collections, but a name which is still under the mainstream radar.
It is clear that Dr Tan lives and breathes art. Even during his personal travels, he visits museums and galleries to the point where ‘I don’t know whether it’s work or pleasure’.
So, he has made a resolution to go on ‘real holidays’ with his family. He says: ‘We will go to places with very little art… maybe a deserted island.’
my life so far
‘That was my decision, because of the problems around Old School that we were facing. When Osage first opened there, it was told that it was a gallery cluster, similar to what we are doing in Gillman. But it turns out that Osage was the only gallery there, the rest were creative business offices. There was a lot of uncertainty about the lease, which meant that we could not plan and make improvement to the spaces’
On why he closed Osage Singapore when he was exhibitions director at the gallery
‘If you look at art districts such as Beijing’s 798 or Chelsea in New York, which have grown organically, the artists start moving in there, the galleries come, the restaurants, cafes and eventually the fashion designers come. The galleries all get priced out. So we want to safeguard and ringfence the space at Gillman for galleries’
On why there is a need for masterplanning an art district at Gillman Barracks instead of leaving it to develop naturally
‘I know there has been some speculation in The Straits Times, but no’
On whether he has been approached to be director of The National Art Gallery
‘We have very good artists in Singapore. I don’t think there have been enough galleries here that know how to develop them and promote them internationally. Which is why Ming Wong, one of our most well-known artists, is living in Berlin and not in Singapore’
On why the top galleries in Gillman will force local galleries to up their game
In a word ? – Engaging.
Although I will admit this right now, I enjoy art, film and Singapore history, so I was pretty much predisposed to like this show on all scores. Personal proclivities aside, however, Imitation proved to be an intriguing, compelling exercise in museal creativity: artist Wong (who apparently was the sole Singaporean representative to the Venice Biennale last year, where this exhibition premiered in an abbreviated version), Tang Fu Kuen (the guest curator), and their collaborators – who included the last surviving billboard painter in town, one Neo Chon Teck; a local collector of cinematic memorabilia; and a filmmaker who produced several documentary shorts on these folks – produced a marvelous if somewhat ill-defined visual mash-up of hand-painted billboards, installation and video art, documentary photography, and a social history of local cinema.
If that isn’t bang for your cultural buck, I don’t know what is.
The historical aspect of it was quite a revelation. The items on display here, which ranged from ticket stubs to vintage posters to little blurbs on local movie theaters past and present, including photos of these structures in their glory days way back when, rather nicely encapsulated an overlooked facet of the collective memory now fast fading – like so much else of our urban fabric constantly being lost to material progress and the government’s manic fixation on ‘upgrading’. (Old National Library, anyone?) The film posters and promos in particular were awesomely trippy. Check out the one below (top) for a movie called Crazy Bumpkins in Singapore 阿牛奇遇記: it stars home-grown comic duo Wang Sha 王沙 and Ye Feng 野峯, who might be familiar to Singaporeans of a certain generation from their TV show (here’s a clip). A newspaper article (middle) announces a performance by Chinese songstress Bai Guang 白光, who happens to be a personal favourite. And posters a-plenty from a flourishing Malay movie industry; especially well-represented were horror flicks with titles like Anak Pontianak (bottom).
In an adjoining gallery was a series of Polaroid snaps of old theatres both in Singapore and Malaysia, taken by Wong himself. Really in the same vein as the stuff above, but one specifically caught my eye: a pic of the old Capitol cinema, tucked away at the corner of North Bridge and Stamford Rds, and today a derelict shell of an edifice just waiting for the URA to do something with it. But the point here isn’t to rhapsodize about old structures. This cinema in particular is significant to yours truly: it was a long-ago day in the early 90s, in the halcyon spring of my misspent youth, when I whiled away an afternoon in a stairwell of the Capitol with my first love HSC – lithesome, winsome SC, of whom another image is now surging to the fore, him on the volleyball court in white tee and blue shorts, the epitome of teenage sexuality … (Although, to be strictly factual about one’s romantic chronology, he was really the second, though one of the greatest. JL rightfully holds the title of First, puppy love though she may have been. That’s right, boys and girls, I used the feminine pronoun.) Details are fuzzy, but I think the exact stairwell we sat in is the one visible in the picture.
That was a good day.
Anyways, enough reminiscing. The other salient aspect of the show, and really what grabs the viewer first, is the metamorphosis of the gallery space and the art objects into an approximation of the movie-going experience. The hand-painted posters, so evocative of a bygone era, were designed by Wong and executed by local billboard artist Neo – who, according to a documentary by filmmaker Sherman Ong, is pretty much the last of his breed. The lurid colours, the misshapen facial features, the grotesquely exaggerated proportions .. I haven’t seen these around since I was a small child, terrified by the mammoth hideousness of their figures. Most of the posters are of faux-movies produced by Wong, parodies of actual films ranging from Malay melodramas to Douglas Sirk – whose Imitation of Life from 1956 provides the title of the exhibition – to Wong Kar Wai’s more recent In The Mood for Love. The galleries were transformed into mini-theaters, complete with seats and curtained-off screening rooms in which Wong’s video pieces were screened; one of the hallways was even equipped with a wall of flashing neon Plexiglass to give one the impression of a lighted marquee (presumably). There were also a couple of strange-looking installations resembling projection devices .. And that’s where the congruity ends and the self-reflexive cleverness begins. Like Wong’s “rehearsals of rehearsals”, his caricatures of actual films featuring himself and other amateur actors, one person often playing several parts simultaneously in a bid to de-suture the viewer from the filmic diegesis, the exhibition itself is set at a remove from experiential reality. While the ostensible effect is one of an old-world theatre, the actual displays seem suspended between kitschy (semi-)recreation and a sense of the Freudian Uncanny. What Freud dubbed unheimliche, or unhomely, relates to “what is familiar and comfortable … [and conversely] what is concealed and kept hidden”; in other words, the uncanny connotes not just what is otherwise obscured from view, but that which was meant to remain veiled and has instead been brought to light. To illustrate his point, Freud read several texts – including, famously, E.T.A Hoffman’s short story, “The Sand-man” – for examples of the uncanny, an exercise which leads him to surmise that the primary mechanism of the phenomenon is the gesture of returning: “… this uncanny element is nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.” The Unheimlich, as such, is marked by the return of the repressed; the once-familiar, in surfacing from the depths of memory or returning from the realm of the forgotten, is what engenders the sensation of uncanniness. Here, then, in the cinematic worlds of yore conjured up in an alien space, we have the familiar embodied in not-quite-recognizable form: the posters announcing known movies with unfamiliar faces; the ‘projection devices’ that broadly resemble real ones, yet are clearly non-functional art installations; the screening rooms where instead of projection screens one finds flat-screen TVs and playfully-angled mirrors; the empty gallery spaces with just a row or two of seats, alluding to real-life movie theaters but falling short of reality in surreal, spectral fashion, rather like returning home only to find that all the furniture has been rearranged or removed, a known quantity rendered otherwise unexpected …
Both nostalgic and novel, and yet sly enough for art snobs like myself – kudos to the organizers.