Posts Tagged ‘social theory’
Gallery view, Master Plan. Image from Chan Hampe Galleries.
Jason Wee’s solo show, Master Plan, currently on view at the Raffles Hotel outpost of Chan Hampe Galleries, is his first in a couple of years.
And it’s good too.
A labyrinth of baleful, pitch-black edifices crowds out the narrow space: mountainous pyramids, crowned by Saturnian rings, loom up next to self-contained cylinders, topped by planar shapes. The play of pure geometric forms here retreats from a contemplation of linear abstraction into immediate, visceral evocations; indeed, first impressions imply a topography of spiked steeples and closed towers, inscrutably shut to human habitation, inimically hostile to human advance, a dystopic terrain of silently minatory entities straight out of a Brothers Grimm narrative. And, save for slender slivers of standing room tenuously maintained at the entrance to the gallery and out back, the only concession to the human body is a narrow path of open space eked out through the mass of structures, its negative ontology – the absence of presence – fraught at every turn by the encroaching host, in the manner of a landscape overrun.
One has to swivel, and pivot, and turn, and tread with wary step down the open concrete road, an interloper dwarfed by the intransigence of monumentality.
Master Plan represents a confluence of several interests on Wee’s part: in urban landscapes, in architectural drawing, in set design. Those concerns, while shaping the formal configurations of the piece, seem less urgent in the face of the experiential – the sheer perceptual immediacy, the impression of looming menace, which the work imposes, and the bodily manipulations to which the viewer is obliged to acquiesce. One is overwhelmed by the profusion of dark, alarming presences, that seem to bear down like the beloved of the Song of Songs, “terrible as an army with banners”; and one is physically coerced into observing, with trepidatious footfall, the attenuated margin of space grudgingly allocated to the viewing body, a person’s movements through the forest of objects reduced to a series of gestural negotiations and corporeal accommodation.
If indeed the installation re-imagines the shape and the life of a city, then it isn’t too difficult to imagine which city that is.
As Michel de Certeau remarks:
The panorama-city is a ‘theoretical’ (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices.
The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below’, below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk – an elementary form of this experience: they are walkers, Wandersmanner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write ……
Thirdly and finally, the creation of a universal and anonymous subject which is the city itself: it gradually becomes possible to attribute to it, as to its political model, Hobbes’s State, all the functions and predicates that were previously scattered and assigned to many different real subjects …
(See the section, “Walking in the City”, in de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.)
On the one hand, the walker – hardly Baudelaire’s flaneur – as subjugated denizen, inhabiting the embodied down below, rather than occupying a panoptic up there. On the other, the city itself as subject, the calculating, hegemonic materiality of a built-up space compelling submission, or adaptation, to its concrete determinations.
In other words, if it can be claimed that, in its spatial format, Wee’s piece imagines a displacement of human agentiality by an architectural order of power, then the city – here distilled into a materiality of manipulation – instantiates what Gayatri Spivak famously identified as the “subject-effect”:
… that which seems to operate as a subject may be part of an immense discontinuous network … of strands that may be termed politics, ideology, economics, history, sexuality, language, and so on. … Different knottings and configurations of these strands, determined by heterogeneous determinations which are themselves dependent upon myriad circumstances, produce the effect of an operating subject. Yet the continuist and homogenist deliberative consciousness symptomatically requires a continuous and homogeneous cause for this effect and thus posits a sovereign and determining subject.
(See Spivak’s In Other Worlds.)
The city as “sovereign and determining subject”, then, a placeholder for the “immense and discontinuous network” that operates behind contemporary urban experience, becomes clearly legible in Wee’s Master Plan: the regulation of bodies, movements and flows inscribed into the rationalized cityscape of Singapore (let’s just come out and say it), transposed into a hegemonic topography that imposes its spatial organization onto the abjected agentiality of the viewer – the city-subject as subject-effect, and the viewer as city-walker as, irrevocably, the subaltern. (Which is a whole other discussion …)
The exhibition runs till 18 February.
Ok, I was planning on writing a thorough review of the Amanda Heng show at 8Q – which closed yesterday – but it was going nowhere. I started off just penning a critique of her Let’s Chat piece, and, three pages later, still wasn’t done.
This will have to be it.
Heng is a local pioneer, one of the first female artists, beginning in the late ’80s, to brave the then little-charted waters of conceptual and performance art in Singapore. (So we aren’t New York.) While they’re considered seminal figures by the local arts community, folks like her and Tang Da Wu and Cheo Chai Hiang and The Artists Village crowd remain, even today, on the peripheries of official approbation and wider recognition, a historical footnote to the supposed trailblazing artistic experiments of the Nanyang School painters – as if visual art hereabouts hasn’t progressed since then ..
This has to be said though: some artists just aren’t very museum-friendly.
Spotted at the 8Q show was the latest enactment of Let’s Chat (above). Set around the dim, cavernous gallery were a number of tables, and sitting on each was a small pile of beansprouts – or towgay in the local lingo – along with several chairs. On the walls were pictures of previous stagings of the work, showing visitors enjoying a light-hearted moment or two over the shared experience of towgay-plucking. Refreshments were even provided; a small pantry with cups, tea bags and hot water stood in one corner of the room.
If the set-up – or the photographs on the walls – didn’t immediately suggest how the piece should be approached, then the label made no bones about it:
The work recreates the familiar experience of preparing bean sprouts for a meal, a customary practice in Asian households. This traditional chore is one that many homemakers and children would recall, as conversations are exchanged during the course of this domestic task. By bringing this activity to the public domain in locations like galleries or shopping arcades, Heng encourages audiences to participate and recall the communal spirit of sharing and conversing, which may have been forgotten, due to the fast pace of contemporary life.
Let’s Chat is both an installation and a social space facilitated by the artist for engaging audiences in the public discussion on issues related to the art and everyday life.
Fair enough. It’s all here: the tables and chairs; a ready supply of sprouts; drinks; even photographic documentation of how the work allows its audience to “participate and recall the communal spirit of sharing and conversing.”
Well, except for the most essential ingredient really: an audience willing to participate.
I visited the exhibition twice. On neither occasion was I alone in the gallery for any significant amount of time: there were always a handful of other individuals milling about, and not once did I witness anyone sitting down at the table and going at it, or availing themselves of the refreshments.
Actually interacting with the work, in other words.
To be fair, we’re talking weekday afternoons here, and perhaps the situation is different with the weekend crowd; nonetheless, Let’s Chat, in the present instance, simply comes across as being more form than function. In my case at least, the reason for the reticence was clear: despite the wall text and the pictures, I wasn’t aware that audience participation was allowed, or in any sense encouraged. Who would, in this context ? – The darkened, silent space, almost forbiddingly reverent in its evocation of the sacred, not unlike a sanctum sanctorum where one comes to worship (the gods of Asian food preparation perhaps?); the neat little piles of produce positioned exactly in the centre of each tabletop, sans any of the necessary, makeshift apparatus one would need for the task of plucking towgay; the literally untouched cups sitting upturned on their individual saucers, looking for all the world like they were there to contribute to a sense of verisimilitude, rather than being actually utilitarian in purpose. To transgress that wall of ordered, self-contained aloofness without explicit permission seemed pretty unthinkable.
Growing up, I’ve had a fair share of beansprouts pass through my fingers, so it’s from a position of authoritative experience that I say: no one plucks towgay like this. If it doesn’t happen in a public area – say, a void deck, or at a kopitiam over a cuppa with friends, as some housewives prefer to do – then it takes place in a kitchen, surrounded by the smells and the bustle of cooking in progress, while some bossy female relative higher up on the familial hierarchy inevitably tells you to speed it up – or “Kin lah!” The tweaked-off ends generally go into a plastic bag or onto a spread-out sheet of newspaper placed within easy reach, all the better to simply transfer into the bin with a single scoop and toss after one is done; it doesn’t happen on pristine surfaces like the ones at 8Q, with the sprouts arranged to maximum aesthetic effect, the pile in the centre of the table and a token few strands, already plucked, laid down next to it, calling to mind perhaps the (sometimes contrived) Japanese sense of mono no aware. The entire process of towgay preparation – like so much of Chinese cooking – is a smorgasbord of sensory assaults and gestural reiterations, from the tender crispness of the sprouts in one’s hands, to the repeated act of pressing down with the thumb on the index finger to separate tip from sprout, to the buzz and hum of dinnertime kitchen activity in the background, to the heat and fumes and aroma of food being fried up in the wok, teasing the palate with the promise of gustatory gratification in the very, very near future … Nothing could be further from that memory of multi-sensorial engagement than the empty, spotless tables of detached-looking produce, sitting around seemingly untouched in the gloomy hush of the gallery, lacking the usual accompaniments – like plastic bags and newspaper and the stray end or two that escaped those receptacles – that signal the mess and the embodied physicality of the process.
It was all so tidy, and unfamiliar.
Cultural anthropologist Allen Feldman relates the following anecdote about his participation in a conference on violence in 1992. A Croatian academic had also been invited to speak:
… the local ethnologists and historians attending the meeting [the conference was held in Sweden] had difficulty conceptualizing political violence as a routinized element of everyday life; a concept without which it is impossible to grasp what has been happening in Northern Ireland for the last two decades, and more recently in ex-Yugoslavia. In discussion it became clear that for most of the scholars violence, like the geographies it had disordered, occupied the verges of civilizational process and European modernity ……
This tacit ghettoization was momentarily shaken as the Croatian folklorist delivered a paper punctuated, in the white space between her words, by barely concealed emotional disorder approaching public mourning. This was not her after-shock from living in a war zone, nor the catharsis of having momentarily exited. Rather her distress exposed the frustration, risk and uncertainty of communicating local terror to an audience at a historical and experiential remove. I was thrown back to the enforced spaces of silent fear I had encountered, doing fieldwork in Belfast, among those who were intimate with the regularity of random violence and who could not trust me with this intimacy of which, at that time, I had no bodily experience. How does one transport the experience of everyday terror that is almost inexpressible outside the sensory encompassment of violence ? The Croatian did not speak explicitly of the sensory alterity she had made tangible in that conference room, rather it was borne in her body and voice. Incarnate sensory difference was the gulf where explicit theoretical communication hesitated. The Croatian’s tensions was about speaking, without guarantee of perceptual connection, to an audience who inhaled different cultural givens, touched different material realities, and who did not have to sniff out imminent death from once familiar surrounds.
(“On Cultural Anaesthesia”, Allen Feldman, in C. Nadia Seremetakis, ed., The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity.)
The point of the rather lengthy anecdote is this: speaking across sensorial and material differentials is a tricky business. While war, violence and death are far more, shall we say, pressing issues than food preparation, the unexpected cognitive shock registered by Feldman as a result of his fellow speaker’s very personal, very visceral, very vivid disruption of the mediated matrices structuring the intellectualized atmosphere of the conference underscores in this instance just what is missing from the deracinated re-enactment of Heng’s work at 8Q – save in reverse. As Feldman relates it, the gut reaction from the Croatian scholar, erupting into the “white space” gridding her speech, made all too manifest the sort of “incarnate sensory difference” otherwise banished from the realm of abstract intellection and its languages, an articulation of inarticulate, instinctual reactions. Let’s Chat, as a sort of antinomian counterpoint, presupposes its own stated aims of communal participation and bodily engagement, but, as it took shape in this particular incarnation (I use that word purposively), seemed for all the world to be performing an act of self-negation, a nullification of its own artistic gestures, by pre-empting precisely those sorts of responses. The work may invite the viewer’s participation, but by decontextualizing and defamiliarizing the process it purportedly performs, it remains simply inert, inactivated by the crucial element of user interaction, a hollow gesture.
Elsewhere, art historian Douglas Crimp adduces Adorno as a jumping-off point for his dissection of the mummificatory consequences of museology: “The German word museal [museumlike] has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present. Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are the family sepulchers of works of art.” (Italics mine; see Crimp, “On The Museum’s Ruins” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture.) Indeed. And it is precisely the loss of that vital relationship that is at stake here - encapsulating the often problematic transposition of everyday praxis, with its largely untranslatable sensorial, corporeal nuances, into the realm of Art. The explicitly stated aims of participation and communality and “social space” place Heng’s piece firmly in the school of what has been termed relational aesthetics. The relational paradigm was the defining ‘-ism’ of the ‘90s, so well-worn now that it probably doesn’t bear explication at too much length, but just as a brief précis: with relational art, certain forms of interpersonal engagement have become the desired ends; Bourriaud, who coined the term, uses terms like “sociability” and “conviviality” in his book. “In our post-industrial societies, the most pressing thing is no longer the emancipation of individuals, but the freeing-up of inter-human communications, the dimensional emancipation of existence.”* Unlike the scripted nature of a Happening, the generation of a “community effect” is the point: “The aura of art no longer lies in the hinter-world represented by the work, nor in form itself, but in front of it, within the temporary collective form that it produces by being put on show.”* In other words, it is the staging of a forum wherein relations between viewers – rather than simply a relation between the audience and the artwork – which is held out as the chief site of interest, the instituting of an arena or an open system under the auspices of art enabling the sort of communality that Bourriaud envisioned.
(In fact, there’s an entire essay on the relational aspect of Amanda Heng’s work in the exhibition catalogue, which looks like a well-conceived tome. I haven’t gotten round to most of it yet, save an essay or two – but it’ll happen. Soon.)
The museum as mausoleum – embalming, entombing, asphyxiating. The work as living, breathing entity, necessitating forms of engagement beyond the mere spectatorial to activate it as experience - contemporary, intelligible, communal.
The two did not sit well together here.
This review was born of numerous conversations about the work in question: shoutouts to SY, MY and AO.
Local artist Bruce Quek was this year’s winner of The Substation’s Open Call competition, in the Visual Art category, and his installation, The Hall of Mirrors, is on view in the Sub’s gallery till 30th Sept.
The piece is comprised of some 20+ clocks (? – not sure if I got that number right), each pre-set to the rate of occurrence of a particular statistic, e.g. assault, rape, desertification, death by malaria, just to name a few. The connection between each individual timepiece and its statistic is literally inscribed into the face of the object (below), which explains the tempo of the clock’s hand – a rapid pace suggests higher incidence, a slower momentum a lower rate. Or at least that’d the impression I got. The various clocks also seemed to be chiming at regular intervals, though, as someone pointed out, exactly when and why they did so isn’t made clear. (I’ve since been given to understand that each clock chimes upon one full rotation of its single hand.) Finally, when the visitor leaves the gallery, s/he is given a short printout tabulating all the stats represented in the work – a mechanically-generated tally of just how many deaths from cancer, female genital mutilations etc. occurred in the time that was spent in the gallery.
I was there for the opening last week with SY. When we exited, our little slip (below) informed us that we had entered at 7.13 p.m., and left at 7.22. In the nine minutes that we’d spent in the gallery, apparently the following happened:
DEATH, CANCER: 129.047619048
DEATH, CHOLERA: 2
DEATH, EXECUTION: 0
DEATH, HIV: 30.9714285714
DEATH, HUNGER (CHILD): 90
DEATH, INTENTIONAL HOMICIDE: 7
DEATH, MALARIA (CHILD): 18
DEATH, MATERNAL: 6
DEATH, NEONATAL: 68.6075949367
DEATH, OCCUPATIONAL: 40.447761194
DEATH, SHIGELLOSIS (Bacterium found mostly in animal feces): 18.8650174216
DEATH, SUICIDE: 13
DEATH, TUBERCULOSIS: 29.1397849462
DEATH, VEHICULAR: 20
DEATH, WAR: 0
DEFORESTATION (HA): 216.8
DESERTIFICATION (HA): 208.461538463
DESTRUCTION, GLACIER (MT): 6.90445859873
DESTRUCTION, ICE SHEET (MT): 6.18265060241
DESTRUCTION, SEABED (HA): 903.333333333
EMISSION, CO2 (KT): 492.727272727
EMISSION, METHANE (KT): 7.39427012278
EMISSION, NO2 (T): 216.8
EXTINCTION, SPECIES: 1
INFECTION, HIV: 45
MUTILATION, FEMALE GENITAL: 36
TRAFFICKING, HUMAN: 17.2065492063
WASTE, GENERAL (KT): 17.3162930297
First things first – I liked the piece. The varied yet pre-determined regularity of the aural textures created by the differentiated tickings and chimings agreed with me: a staccato, stentorian salvo of reverberations amplified to inescapable auditory hegemony within the gallery, the methodical dings and peals, sounding at recurrent, rhythmic instants, interwoven into an almost tactile wall of patterned sound (below). The embodied experientiality of the tick-tocking clocks instantiated a clear counterpoint to the disembodied abstraction of statistical numbers; the rupture between deracinated information and compulsory white noise structures the central tension here, a pair of dialectical drives imbricated.
The write-up on the Substation’s website puts it this way:
The Hall of Mirrors is an installation that resembles an echo-chamber. Exploring the relationship between infrastructure and information flow, The Hall of Mirrors explores how conveyed information is often devoid of meaning and personal relevance. Situated in the gap between information and meaning, The Hall of Mirrors constantly changes and highlights the inexorable nature of time and the unpredictability of the environment.
The installation uses publicly available and socially relevant statistics. The occurrence and reoccurrence of these statistics, measured in seconds and in minutes, are synchronised to clocks that constantly alert the viewers of their frequency and reality. The installation aggregates this information and ‘humanises’ these statistics by letting viewers experience them on a personal and individual level. Offering ample opportunity for reflection and self-examination, the work also asks the audience to consider the implications of the ways in which information is packaged and presented.
N.B. I don’t agree with that last bit, by the way, for reasons discussed immediately below. Nothing struck me as being humanising here; if anything, the information presented to viewer seems completely notional, the only appeal to the experiential register functioning within the sensorium.
The Hall of Mirrors, Bruce Quek (2011). [Turn the volume up to watch.]
Now, the issue of those numbers: just how are they being generated, and why those particular stats ?
Questions and problems abound: are these figures theoretical, or real ? As in, did these occurrences actually take place during the timeframe specified (common sense would dictate the unlikelihood of this scenario), or were they calculated according to pre-existing data ? If the latter, just who mined this information, and where and according to what methodology ? Models of information gathering are hardly without their inherent biases, and executional flaws. Also, are these numbers applicable globally ? Or within a circumscribed locale ? I find it hard to believe that in the nine minutes I spent in the gallery only seven instances of rape occurred, or were likely to occur. (See list provided above.) Under what conditions did these purported sexual assaults take place ? Are we talking date rape, domestic rape, institutional rape, rape as a weapon of war, or a random attack by a stranger ? Who was raped: a woman, a man, a child ? What about those HIV transmission rates ? Apparently 45 happened; again, where (in which part of the world, because social conditions under which those occur are vastly different, and due to various factors largely dependent on the victim’s socio-economic status, not just sexual orientation nor gender), and to whom ? Or perhaps, more pertinently, to whom plausibly ? An economically depressed African-American woman who caught it from her partner, or a gay man residing in a so-called high-risk area, practicing unsafe sex ? Or perhaps the two stats here – rape and HIV infection – may be related ?
The logic of including certain, specific stats is also open to interrogation. Death seems to predominate: death by cholera, death by execution, death by war, death by shigellosis. Unsurprisingly, I had to look that last one up. If indeed mortality rates are of abiding concern to the artist – or perhaps he believes these numbers should be of public interest – then why these in particular ? Is shigellosis really up there with HIV and cancer these days, when it comes to public health issues ? By which I mean, does it claim more lives in a certain part of the world ? Where ? And those figures which raise the spectre of environmental degradation: why so many ? Not that the erosion of our natural habitat is unimportant, but does their inclusion here, in such plenitude, reflect a particular socio-political agenda ?
And then there’s the matter of the artist’s own stated views on his work. This is what was given in the little accompanying booklet (which one has to shell out two bucks for), and on the wall of the gallery:
ABOUT THE HALL OF MIRRORS. By Bruce Quek.
I never could resist a ticking clock; or chimes, in this case. It’s been suggested that the measured rhythm of a clock can have a soothing quality, as a psychological prosthesis of our own heartbeats. The rhythm consoles us, preserving the fiction that the long march of entropy can be measured, regulated, and controlled.
This fiction of of time has since changed – horology is now a collector’s sport, while time itself has dispersed, infusing every aspect of our lives. We tell time with our cell phones and other devices; a digital, contextual time, one function embedded amongst a myriad of others. Time is everywhere, yet nowhere, superseded by the instantaneous lockstep of real-time. Our present relationship with time, then, is not one of circadian reassurance, but of an infinite simultaneity merged with an endless sense of mounting tension – a Shepard-Risset glissando of sorts, a continuum of events onto which we attempt to impose patterns and identify connections.
Events which once unfolded as history might be better thought of in terms of trends and tendencies, emergence and virality. We yearn nonetheless for a scale of happenings to which we might relate, in which we are significant, and in which we can recognize ourselves.
Welcome to The Hall of Mirrors.
Quek certainly has a way with words: this is a pretty sumptuous-sounding string of lexical pearls.
Beyond the verbal pyrotechnics, what is particularly appealing here – at least to me – are the critical gestures regarding the idea of time: its historical embodiments (horology), its social imaginaries (cyclicality or “circadian reassurance” vs. “simultaneity”), its theoretical implications (here historiography, or the “continuum of events onto which we attempt to impose patterns and identify connections.”)
Unfortunately, I don’t see the relevance of any of that.
At least not for The Hall of Mirrors.
Like I said, the chief dialectic or tension at work here seems clear enough (but of course the artist, or anyone else, might beg to differ). The slippage between the experience of Quek’s piece in the flesh (the manifestation of the inexorability of mortality and decay as a myriad of ticking clocks in an otherwise silent space, engendering a soundscape of power) and its conceptual engine (the bloodless, faceless anonymity of statistical numbers and abstract categories, of relevance to few but academics, public officials and government functionaries) gives The Hall of Mirrors much of its visceral force. Indeed, it is from the oscillation, the centrifugal pull, between these two conflicting impulses that the work derives its particular cogency – and not, as Quek seems to be implying in rather rambling fashion, the various ideational and historical ramifications of Time, with that capital T …
A personal friend also happened to contribute an essay to the publication. (Really good, by the way, even if I do say so myself. Won’t say which; there are three of ‘em, go read.) S/he shared with me some of the artist’s personal views on the shape that the planned installation would take – this was of course prior to the show itself – and it seemed as if he, Quek, was perfectly cognizant of many of the issues raised above.
Which of course begs the question: why the prolix, almost disingenuous periphrasis, as opposed to a more direct, descriptive approach ? Or, to move away from re-inscribing the artist’s preferred modus operandi into the present enunciation – a self-reflexive rehearsal of circumlocution by the explication thereof – why all the mumbo-jumbo ?
I met SY at the art bloggers’ party the other night; she’s a friend of MY’s. Coincidentally enough, it turns out we both wrote our M.A. theses on the same subject: Chinese artist Yue Minjun (he of the bald, pink, grinning figures). Over a ginormous dish of Korean fried chicken, SY was bemoaning the fact that, in hindsight, there’s so much she would have done differently.
Boy, do I know the feeling …
It got me to thinking about my thesis-writing experience. Mostly I tend to be my own harshest critic, but, oddly enough, those couple of months of my life weren’t all stress and hair-pulling frustration. Don’t me wrong, a lot of it was, but at the end of it I actually … kinda liked the final product.
Anyways. So the ACM is currently hosting Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor and His Legacy, where a small number of the famous terracotta figures from the Emperor Qin’s army are on loan from Xi’an. Eight of them, to be exact. Yue’s work – and that of Fang Lijun‘s, the other artist I wrote about in my thesis – have much in common with the so-called First Emperor’s funerary legions, and I devoted a short portion of my work to exploring these areas of confluence, along with a brief excursus into Peircean semiotics.
Thought I’d give it a bit of an airing out here.
The Semiotics of Repetition: Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and the Qin Terracotta Warriors
Apropos of his work, Yue Minjun has observed:
In the year of 246 BC, the first Emperor of Qing [sic] Dynasty built a huge tomb for himself. Thousands of warrior figures, chariots and other things were buried in this colossal and gloomy underground kingdom. These warriors all wear a similar expression, serious and stiff.
Critics have likewise noted the structural resemblance between Yue’s constantly reiterated figures and the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇:
These soldiers, created according to a standardized criterion and fired from hard clay, were taller than real men. By means of sheer numbers and a rigid, schematic arrangement, they formed a single unit in which each individual member existed solely for the purpose of serving the collective. The critical base of Yue Minjun’s work is founded on this particular Chinese conceptual lineage. (See below.)
Similitude, seriality, quantity—the tropes inherent in the mortuary objects of the Qin emperor, produced over two millennia before, are likewise at work in Yue’s contemporary iconographic negotiations, a fact apparent at first glance. His oeuvre in both painting and in sculpture is visually dominated by the one salient motif that also informs much critical discourse surrounding his art: the relentless, iconic image of the neon pink visage, with its close-cropped head of hair and tightly scrunched-up eyes, mouth wide open to expose two rows of perfectly even white teeth, its expression lodged somewhere between a manic grin and a grimace of pain. Even the most cursory survey of Yue’s output bears this out, from his Idol Series 偶像系列 组图 of 1996, which presents a mass of smiling, laughing pink faces arranged into a grid-like composition on the canvas surface; to The Night Wind 晚风 (1997), featuring a rhythmically calculated line of the same figures queued up in a horizontal column, each and every one hugging his knees and smiling into an unknown distance; to the unruly multitude of forms piled up, helter-skelter like a trash heap, in Garbage Dump 垃圾场 (2003). (See below.) It is Yue’s Contemporary Terracotta Warriors series, 现代兵马俑, however, that brings the historical connections of his work most clearly to the fore, the explicit reference to the subterranean legions of the First Emperor emphasizing the correspondences with the visual culture of an earlier epoch. A veritable phalanx of Yue’s figures – clad in a uniform of white tee and black pants – stand poised like the infantrymen of the terracotta army, ordered into the rigidity of a military formation and seemingly frozen into their postures, positions and ranks for all time. (See figures below.)
Although, unlike Yue, Fang Lijun has never drawn any links between his work and ancient funerary material culture, the visual field generated in his paintings and woodcuts is also produced by the repetition of the single individual to represent a crowd, raising similar issues of similitude and uniformity. His Heads (2002), for instance, an installation piece comprised of some 15,000 small, gilded bronze heads mounted on slender steel rods, immediately calls to mind the massed, ordered profusion of the Qin warriors. It also appropriates the very experience of viewing the army in its underground pits today: laid out like a carpet of gold-tipped needles on the floor, Heads obliges the viewer to look down at its gleaming plenitude, in the same fashion that visitors to the Qin emperor’s mortuary complex in Xi’an today are required to gaze at the sea of subterranean statuary from the height of a platform at ground level. (See below.) Elsewhere, Fang’s Series 2, No. 2 系列 2，第 2 号 (1991 – 2), which features the famous yawn so prominent in his paintings from the early 1990s, positions the main, yawning figure up front and center, against the backdrop of a cerulean-blue sky and a row of identically bald men with heavy-set, simian facial structures, each indistinguishable from the other. (See below.) The same figural complex appears in most of his work from this period: Series 2, No. 4 系列 2，第 4 号 (1991 – 2) reproduces a group of them, clad differently in blue Mao suits or the usual standard ensemble of a white button-down shirt and pants (donned by most urban-dwelling men in China in the 1980s), but otherwise sporting the same close-eyed expression and ponderous, hulking physiognomy. (See below.) Fang’s later work extends this strategy of reiteration to its most surreal limits, where even the most superficial differences of dress are eliminated, retaining only the omnipresent facialities. Untitled, from 2002, jettisons any trace of recognizable space from the composition altogether, instead filling the pictorial surface with a densely-packed agglomeration of bald, squinting heads, the yawn of previous paintings here transformed into gapes of astonishment or slack-jawed howls of dismay, the immediate effect of the piece one of near-hellishness. (See below.)
Both Yue’s and Fang’s creations are generally read as portraits of the artists themselves. Despite their obviously outlandish appearance, characterized by the saturated skin tone, an improbable number of teeth, and the impossibly smooth complexion free of wrinkles and blemishes, the facial peculiarities of Yue’s ubiquitous figures are understood as a form of pictorial autobiography, a self-portrayal. (See below.) On the occasion of Yue’s first museum exhibition in the U.S. in 2007, a New York Times reviewer observed: “Your first reaction upon meeting Yue Minjun might be, yes, it is indeed he! The face with the enigmatic, jaw-breaking grin, perhaps the most recognizable image in contemporary Chinese painting, is a self-portrait.” Fang’s iconography of reiteration gestures in the same manner towards an originary moment in the artist’s physical appearance, particularly in the “entirely personal” fact of his shaved head, according to one commentator. As Fang explains, this resemblance was at least partly true: “[It] … was physiological; I was a compulsive head-shaver …” (See below.) However, as in Yue’s case, the appearance of Fang’s figures reveal a gulf between his own image and those of his paintings, their distinctive semblance approaching caricature rather than being grounded in verisimilitude. The slippage between realistic transcription and inflected representation – between a strict sense of fidelity to nature and an adapted or modified rendering – foregrounds issues of individuality and collectivity. This dynamic was anticipated in the terracotta army of the so-called First Emperor more than two millennia ago, and by conflictual opinions of their ontology and function. The means of production allowed for synchronized corporeal articulations across the range of figural categories, from the standing to the genuflecting, both charioteer and foot soldier alike, while including at the same time more particularized representational modes. (See below.) The statues were assembled from a selection of prefabricated body parts crafted in molds, including the head; torso; legs (below the garment); arms and hands; feet; the plinth. Details of facial physiognomy, such as the eyebrows, moustache and lips, were reworked by hand after the bodies were put together, as were the joints between the constituent parts. Those components, while conforming to a limited number of shapes – 8 different varieties of heads have been distinguished, for instance – could be, and were, combined with great diversity. (See below.) Warriors were also equipped with real weapons made from bronze, thus further contributing an aura of absolute lifelikeness. The cumulative effect is the oft-noted uniqueness of each separate statue, an assessment that, however, belies the extent of the modular process of manufacture. The figures, as such, were caught in a tension between these various representational modes, from structural uniformity (mass-produced components) to individual authenticity (hand-worked particulars) to actual reality (genuine weapons, as opposed to representations) – and it is precisely this interplay that finds resonance in the dialectic between the individual and the crowd one sees at work in Yue and Fang.
Scholarly opinion has traditionally assigned these soldiers the role of posthumous protectors of the monarch, surrogates for the people who served him while he was alive, but more recent scholarship has indicated that the so-called individuality of the figures might instead be secondary to their social or ritual role in the grouping, a “notation of the specific segment of reality to which the figural image refers … sustaining distinctness of entity within a given context, without necessarily having to contain any qualities of individual personality.” The American philosopher C. S. Peirce proposed a semiotic system based on a classification of different sign-types: a tripartite typology of icon, index and symbol. It is the first two sign-types, the icon and the index, which concern us here. Of iconicity, Peirce had this to say: “Most icons, if not all, are likenesses of their objects.” Or: “… firstly, Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves …” Later, he qualified the concept in a more specific fashion: “An icon is a sign which would possess the character which renders it significant, even though its object had no existence; such as a lead-pencil streak as representing a geometrical line.” In other words, likeness, as it concerns iconicity, is not predicated on actual existence; rather, the resemblance may relate to completely imaginary objects or to ideas (e.g. geometry) instead. An icon, then, may operate along the lines of visual similitude without gesturing at any particular object existing in reality. To return to the case of the terracotta army: any one statue may seem uniquely verismilar, distinguished from its fellows in myriad details (thus leading to claims that each soldier was a portrayal of a real human being), but it retains an undeniable, underlying structural resemblance to the rest of the group, being crafted from the same molds and parts. Like Yue’s and Fang’s figures – who, though changing clothes, are engaged in different activities, embody shifting performative roles, and inhabit different compositional settings and scenarios from one canvas to the next, are nonetheless comprised of the same figure over and over – the terracotta warriors are predicated on a structural likeness which serves as a basis for exterior difference, understood to be iconic signs without necessarily being portraits.
The driving force behind the phenomenon, the First Emperor Qin, is remembered by posterity for his unification of the Central Plains and the founding of a cohesive Chinese state. Aided and abetted by the Legalist-minded Li Si 李斯, who served as his Chancellor, the monarch founded a polity that boasted a powerful bureaucracy centered on his person, capable of regulating a variety of standardized systems throughout the land as both a means and a reflection of the new central authority. The most salient articulation of this power was the Legalist doctrine 法家, a utilitarian code emphasizing the role of the ruler in politics. One of the key Legalist texts was written by the philosopher Han Fei 韓非 (Li’s fellow student), in which he proposed three foundational tenets of strong, practical kingship: power 勢; strategy 術; and the law 法. The last of these was explicitly wed to a regimen of punitive measures: “Therefore … to unify the folkways of the masses, nothing could match the law. To warn the officials and overawe the people, to rebuke obscenity and danger, and to forbid falsehood and deceit, nothing could match penalty.” Even more pertinently, the exercise of power by a sovereign was considered paramount to the maintenance of law and order. One scholar sums up this position as such: “Whereas the ruler as individual is limited in his capacity to regulate the conduct of others, from the strategically advantageous position of the throne he can use his political status as ruler to amplify his influence over others. It is this political status and its application as a fulcrum for increasing the ruler’s capacity to influence others that constitute his shih [power].” In addition to imposing Legalism as a clear public ideology and the incontrovertible law of land – at the expense of other existing schools of thought, like Confucianism – the Qin emperor, with the help of Li, also standardized the written language, enforcing the small Seal Script 小篆书 as the state-wide norm (see below), and further consolidating systems of measurements and currency.
The modular, mass manufacture of the Qin subterranean army was possible precisely because of the centralization of political power, and the consequent ability of the state to marshal vast amounts of resources: manpower, materials, tools, time. In this sense, the terracotta statuary may be read as indices of the political system that brought about their existence – apropos of which, the Peircean index, as a sign, is premised on existential contiguities between representamen and object. Peirce stated that “an index is a sign which would, at once, lose the character which makes it a sign if its object were removed, but would not lose that character if there were no interpretant.” As commonly understood in art historical circles, the painterly gesture, qua index, is a trace of the artist’s hand that emphasizes its own processual or representational nature, rather than being an image grounded in naturalism. Elsewhere, Rosalind Krauss has said of the index: “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents … Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects …” As signs that exist “along the axis of a physical relationship”, indices are marks (like footprints) that act as material indicators of their origins (the foot that made it). The primary mechanism of the semiotic process here, then, is one of cause and effect. Moving back to the case at hand, the modular, serialized nature of the terracotta warriors not only index the specific methods and processes of their production, allowing archaeologists and art historians to reconstruct those means of fabrication, but allude to the very social forces which allowed for the sorts of large-scale operations involved. By one rough estimate, the workforce responsible for crafting the more than six thousand life-size human figures and horses may have numbered as many as a thousand men, toiling away in the eleven years from the time the emperor conquered various local territories and kingdoms (of the aptly-named Warring States period) in 221 B.C. to establish the empire, to his death in 210 B.C. To churn out an average of some six hundred figures a year, each standing warrior weighing between 150 to 200 kg , and often involving the working of facial details by hand after the assembly of the body, after which the painting of the statue had to be done – those numbers must have been necessary, and it was the centralization of power in the hands of the First Emperor that permitted the forced conscription of laborers, convicts and slaves from the four corners of the realm to begin work at the site. This centralized body politic has been adduced as a socio-historical imperative of the Qin era, indexed by the formal, material and logistical characteristics of the terracotta army:
The Lishan mausoleum … occurs at a critical juncture in the history of Chinese art, at the moment when the coercive power of the ruler was matched with his ability to command vast economic resources and, above all, to exert exclusive authority over forms of visual mediation. Because of such an unparalleled capability … a microcosm could have been created that sustained claims to authenticity.
 “Contemporary Terracotta Warriors”, on Yue’s personal website, The Gallery of 岳敏君. See <http://www.yueminjun.com/en/biography/bio14.html>.
 Sabine Kunz (扎比內.庫蒽茨), “Yue Minjun” (岳敏君) in Song Zhuang: Fang Lijun, Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun, Li Dapeng (Bremen: Städtische Galerie im Buntentor, 2001), p. 45.
English translation my own; the text in Chinese reads: “这些士兵是按统一标准，用硬陶土烧制的，比真人还要高。通过数量和严格的排列，它们体现了一个集体，一个个人必须为全体服务的集体。岳敏君的作品就是批判性地建立在这一个中国传统观念上.”
 Wu Hung, for one, refers to a “profound sense of boredom” expressed by Fang’s yawning figure; Karen Smith calls it “an image of mocking amusement.”
 Bernstein, Richard. “An Artist’s Famous Smile: What Lies Behind It?” New York Times, November 13, 2007. The exhibition, ”Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile”, ran at the Queens Museum from Oct 14th 2007 to Jan 6th2008.
 Karen Smith, “Fang Lijun: Sink or Swim”, p. 151.
 In Jérôme Sans, “Fang Lijun: A Primitive State of Humanity”, p. 17.
 Discussed in Chap. 3 of Lothar Ledderose’s Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 50 – 73.
 Ladislav Kesner, “Likeness of No One: (Re)presenting the First Emperor’s Army.” The Art Bulletin, vol.77, no.1 (March, 1995): 115 –132.
 Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs (Cambridge, U.K. & NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 215.
 Qtd. in Short, p. 215.
 From Chap. VI of the Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu, translated by W. K. Liao. Available online at the University of Virginia portal: <http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/saxon/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=xwomen/texts/hanfei.xml&style=xwomen/xsl/dynaxml.xsl&chunk.id=tpage&doc.view=tocc&doc.lang=bilingual>.
In the original, the passage reads: “故 … 一民之軌，莫如法。屬官威民，退淫殆，止詐偽，莫如刑。”
 Roger T. Ames, The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1983), p. 72.
 Qtd. in Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 2 (June 1991), pp. 174 – 208. See p. 189.
 Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass., and London, U.K.: MIT Press, 1986), pp. 196 – 209. See p. 198.
 See Ledderose, p. 70.
 See Ledderose, p. 70.
 Kesner, p. 131.
[This post is the first part of a two-part review.]
Only mad dogs and Englishmen.
And, well, art lovers.
Go out in the midday sun, that is.
I did. And got eaten alive by mosquitoes – but it was all good. Site Specific Works – Sculpture in the Park, organized by the Singapore Sculpture Society to celebrate their tenth anniversary, runs at Fort Canning from 11 June to 11 September. Some twenty outdoor works are displayed around the remnants of the original fort, where the walls and a gate still stand, tucked away amidst the greenery, the old stone structures, and a couple of very venerable-looking banyan trees. According to the SSS:
The main objective of this event is to celebrate the relation of Art and Environment …… the society has encouraged the residence artists to focus on environmental issues, with the aim to interrogate the environment and public spaces, through a wide range of mediums. Many of the participating artists have used this platform to experiment with new ideas and develop them into actual 3D works …… while others have managed to capture and interpret aspects of the environmental or site-specificity of Fort Canning Park in their projects.
And, indeed, the most cogent pieces in the show were the ones that spoke not just to the uniquely natural setting of their display, but addressed the problem of environmental degradation – a hot-button issue in an increasingly over-populated, hyper-urbanized Singapore. Elsewhere, I’ve written that Mother Nature herself is probably the chief subaltern of our contemporary capitalist condition, cropping up like the Freudian Uncanny to remind the human race of what it once knew, when civilization was but an unimagined dream … It’s a state of affairs which is particularly pertinent for us, a nation of 5.2 million people living cheek by jowl on an island of no more than 700 sq. km (according to the latest figure on Wiki), maintained by scrupulous planning and vigorous policing. Architect Rem Koolhaas has remarked: “Almost all of Singapore is less than 30 years old; the city represents the ideological production of the past three decades in its pure form, uncontaminated by surviving contextual remnants. It is managed by a tight regime that has excluded accident and randomness: even its nature is entirely remade. It is pure intention: if there is chaos, it is authored chaos; if it is ugly, it is designed ugliness; if it is absurd, it is willed absurdity. Singapore represents a unique ecology of the contemporary.”* The hyperbole is a bit much, but Koolhaas was right at least about the plotted intentionality of Singapore’s urban landscape, the existence of even our green spaces dictated by human needs and bureaucratic orchestration – a “remade nature” engineered to merge seamlessly into an “ecology of the contemporary.”
*Qtd. in Eugene Tan, “Singapore: Too Contemporary for Art?” in Nadarajan, Storer & Tan, Contemporary Art in Singapore (Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, 2007).
In Singapore’s context, what is probably the last frontier of subalternity represented by our fast vanishing flora and fauna is foregrounded in Victor Tan’s Creatures (above), which consists of a series of steel-wire sculptures of various animals – the only one of which I could identify was a monkey. The artist writes:
In our busy city life, people often walk fast and are less aware of things happening around them.
It is fascinating to be able to spot creatures in the nature.
And, to be able to do so, one has to be mindful, take time to experience and notice the beauty surrounding us.
The sculptures seek to highlight the joy and fascination of such experience.
The emphasis on a sustained act of attention – “mindful”, “notice” etc. – is I think the crux of the work’s formal strategy. Tan’s animals are perched in various naturalistic poses high above eye level, coiled around a tree trunk, slung between a branch and the roof of a nearby structure. One has to crane the neck to make out their presence, and the creatures’ steel-wire anatomy renders them almost indiscernible amidst the vivid greens, textured browns and cerulean blues of the backdrop, making it a laborious and unrewarding process even attempting to figure out exactly which animals are being depicted. The corporeal dematerialization of the fauna, their reduction to abstract outlines determined only by slender strands of unpainted steel, constitutes an ontology of disappearance that is further inflected by their location in sites not immediately accessible nor congenial to the human gaze.
The allusion here, as Tan points out, is to the peripheral, often invisible role that the zoological plays in our lives. Animals not of the domesticated or caged variety exist only on the fringes of our physical and mental worlds – at least in Singapore – often appearing unannounced and vanishing just as unexpectedly, their brief presence generally provoking responses of annoyance, bewilderment or fear. As John Berger remarks in his classic essay, Why Look at Animals?: “… animals are always the observed …… They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.” This disconnect between modern human experience and animalian life is reenacted by Tan’s Creatures: as works of art, they are displayed in ways that elude the grasp of the gaze, reiterating the tangential positions their real-life counterparts occupy; they hover at the threshold between the abstract and the representational, refusing the viewer the intellectual satisfaction of taxonomy; they are discorporealized entities, a presaging of their ultimate fate should the course of development in Singapore persist to its logical end.
In a similar vein, Priscilla Teoh-Stoute’s work deploys tactics of defamiliarization to refocus attention on the prosaic, that which slips under the radar of our everyday consciousness. She takes as her subject the small fish which inhabit our waterways, the canals, sewers and channels which crisscross the city in a system of utility that also, inconspicuously, plays host to numerous non-human lifeforms: “The “Long Gang” guppies (“long gang” literary [sic] means drain or canal in dialect) are common and unnoticeable …… No rainbow tail or stunning colors. They will never make it to the aquariums. Their beauty might seem invisible, but it is there, right in front of us.” Ordinary Fish in the Net (above) features a school of fish – manufactured from reused clay apparently – caught in a large net strung overhead, between the branches of a tree. As with Victor Tan’s piece, the work here takes perverse pleasure in denying the viewer’s ocular desires: one has to gaze up to look at it, and then the height at which the net is suspended imposes a fundamental physical detachment between artwork and audience – I’m 5’11”, and even I couldn’t quite make out what the heck I was looking at initially, I thought the curved shapes were leaves … Teoh-Stoute, as such, isn’t simply recuperating a half-hidden presence from the realm of social invisibility, as she notes, but going a step further by reversing the structure of power between viewing subject and viewed object: it is the human spectator who now has to make a concerted effort to observe a creature he previously deigned to, relegated to a position of physical and symbolic inferiority, contemplating from below a species otherwise considered to be, ironically, a lower lifeform.
Elsewhere, lower lifeforms also constitute Joyce Loo’s BIG Feast (above). An army of ants crafted from red wire clamber up and along a section of the low stone wall which runs around the park, posed in the act of collective food-gathering. Like Teoh-Stoute, Loo visually de-habituates these creatures from familiar regard, rendering them far larger than life and mutating their natural proportions almost to the point of monstrosity. According to the artist, anthropomorphism is the point here: “Ants are small and tiny individually, they could achieve big and huge success when they work together as a group. The spirit of cooperation, sharing and persistence that man shall learn from. [sic]” (Ok, so these write-ups could’ve been written up better.) I get that, but personally I thought Loo’s piece was quite astute in a whole other way: there I stood in the environs of Fort Canning Park, having my veins drained by mosquitoes and my shins bitten by ants, altogether having a rotten time of it thanks to some lousy bugs, and in front of me – of all things – were the very agents of my physical discomfort morphed into gigantic, all-too-visible realities, served up as art.
It seemed like the ultimate farce. Sort of like making Michael Fay look at a huge model of a rotan while he got his ass whipped.
Lots has been said about synaesthesia and the role of the senses in the arts, but here I thought was a pretty fresh take on an old problem: an artwork situated out-of-doors that – either on purpose or otherwise – transposed the unusual experiential conditions of its display into the visual register, presenting to the spectator a reflexive loop that runs through embodied sensation to visual object and back again. To conjure another analogous scenario: imagine looking at, say, pictures of food while simultaneously stuffing your face with whatever object of gastronomic desire is also being presented for your visual delectation, a synchronous satiation of the ocular, tactile, olfactory and gustatory senses … Awesome, no ? Now just replace that rapture with numerous pricking, itching sensations, enough to drive one batty, and you’ll have the state I was in while trying my best to contemplate Loo’s big, red, angry-looking ants.
[Continued in a second part here.]
A couple of weeks ago, KE and I signed up for a curator’s tour of Collectors’ Stage: Asian Contemporary Art From Private Collections at the SAM. Or, well, I prodded him into it …… Anyways, it was an opportunity to view a couple of incredible pieces (including a personal favourite I’d only ever seen in reproductions before), listen to the show’s curator recite from the wall labels (which she’d clearly either written herself or committed to memory), and experience what being in a museum after hours was like (awesome). I didn’t have time for a more leisurely walkthrough on my own though, or photographs, so before a screening at 8Q yesterday of Ai Weiwei: Fairytale, a film on the making of the artist’s 1001-man-strong contribution to the 2007 Documenta festival, I swung by Collectors’ Stage for a second look.
I’ve long been a fan of Indonesian artist Rudi Mantofani’s Rumah Rumah Coklat (above). Currently in the possession of prominent Jakarta-based collector and real estate tycoon Deddy Kusuma (there’s a profile of him here), it was a spine-tingling experience, finally getting to see the piece in the flesh. The label does a great job – surprisingly for the SAM – of gesturing at its visual impact and socio-cultural implications:
Rumah Rumah Coklat (‘Chocolate Houses’) appears on first sight to be an abstract painting, its brown, speckled surface evocative perhaps of the texture of cracked, dry earth. On closer inspection however, the painting reveals itself to be a landscape of comprising hundreds of brown rooftops, punctuated by the occasional green shrubbery of trees.
The artistry of this work lies in Mantofani’s ability to capture the undulating rhythm of the rooftop through the use of varying shades of brown, while simultaneously delineating, with great precision, each individual dwelling. The viewer is therefore led from a bird’s eye view that surveys the landscape below and discerns an indistinguishable sprawl of brown shapes, to a more grounded perspective where one finds oneself in the middle of a scene teeming with humanity.
Rumah Rumah Coklat is a poetic tribute to the landscape of Mantofani’s home country. At the same time, the artist touches on very real social and urban issues confronting Indonesia’s cities and towns, where houses are packed close to each other in suburban sprawls without any breathing space, privacy, or proper planning.
Despite the glib pronouncements, like the comparison to an abstract picture – you’d have to be standing pretty far away for that to work out, plus they’d put Mantofani’s painting next to an actual abstract canvas and the differences were all too clear – a lot of the above does ring true, especially the allusion to Indonesia’s population woes. Indeed, the composition, in its hermetic, airless profusion of almost identical brown-roofed homes, seems to foreground the central problematic of any collective: the tension that exists between the individual and the crowd. The homogeneous sea of structures here connotes of course the idea of the multitude while simultaneously “delineating, with great precision” the solitary, discrete dwelling, emphasizing the auratic presence of the individual component while repeating it almost ceaselessly to approximate the aspect of indistinguishable commonality. The lack of either discernible windows or doors, especially, belies any claim about these houses being representations of functional domiciles, and indicates perhaps the possibility of a more generalized reading. Caught in the slippage between a near uniform mass (“the bird’s eye view”) and clearly defined individual units (“a more grounded perspective”), the polarity then between the inexorable constraints of civilization and collective existence, and the centrifugal pull of individual psychology and personal exigencies, seems suggested by the iconography of repetition which Mantofani deploys here. An analogous example – or a filmic illustration of this dialectic – may be found in the opening sequence to the 1973 sci-fi flick, Soylent Green (below). The montage moves from black-and-white snaps of 19th century folk happily at leisure, only to move through the passing of time and the rise of urbanity and technology to finally arrive at teeming rows of standardized vehicles, developments, factories and, yes, people, all semblance of that vital legacy of the Enlightenment – individual humanity – irrevocably ensnared in homogenizing, monolithic corporate networks.
Along those lines, Ai Weiwei: Fairytale was an eye-opener. As I said to MY, whom I caught the film with, I wished I’d seen this before I’d embarked on my M.A. project. So much, so relevant …
The artist’s Wiki entry describes the work thus:
Fairytale is the title of Ai Weiwei’s contribution for Documenta 12 in 2007. For this project Ai Weiwei brought 1001 people from all over China to a small town in Germany called Kassel. They were chosen through an open invitation he posted on his blog. Ai even designed clothes, luggage and a temporary home in an old textile factory. He let them wander around the city during the exhibition time of three months. The participants were divided into five groups that each stayed in Kassel for eight days. According to Philip Tinari the primary design object here is not the clothing or suitcases but the participants’ experiences, even their spirits.
Ai Weiwei posing with a portion of the 1,001-strong Chinese contingent who travelled to Kassel, Germany, under the auspices of his Fairytale project in 2007. Image courtesy of Sinopop.org.
Improvised sleeping arrangements for Fairytale participants at Documenta, Kassel. Image taken from ArtZineChina.com.
The film itself, an extensive 2 1/2 hour affair, documented the process that was involved in getting a thousand and one Chinese citizens to Germany. The logistics of it all was mind-boggling: the planning, the production, the paperwork, the large-scale accommodation and food preparation made necessary in Kassel. (Even the simplest task seems daunting when multiplied a thousand times, let alone arranging a vacation for a thousand people.) A goodish amount of screen time, though, was given over to recounting individual participants’ stories, in particular those from smaller industrial cities and rural communities in the hinterlands. We witness a village family sitting around in their wood-constructed abode, discussing their guileless visions and naive hopes of what going abroad entails (i.e. marrying foreigners and the like); a young, impoverished boy who dreams of attaining wealth through selling socks, but whose immediate reality is army enlistment; a vocal policeman who gets fired for expressing himself too openly in the local papers, and has a hard time thereafter trying to apply for a passport. These are just some of the intensely personal tales which the film brings to life for us, but as the narrative shifts to Kassel and the art festival, all sense of particularity is lost in the logistical rush to quarter and feed the hordes of Chinese tourists. Village farmer, university student, unemployed city dweller – selfhood becomes subsumed in a blur of uniform luggage, mass lodgings (above), factory-line culinary production, interchangeable identities. Transposed from their home country to a context where they become part of a large-scale “presentation” (as a Kassel local puts it) of China and the Chinese character, otherwise distinct personages with diverse backgrounds and histories are merged into an uneasy collective, thus enacting again the dialectical oscillation between the individual and the mass.
But back to the exhibition. A number of pieces were on loan from corporate or foundation collections; these were the more sizable installations, such as Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s Yogya Bintang House Mini, or Pesawat Terbangku (“Flying Machine’) by Indonesian Yudi Sulistyo (above), just to cite the more salient works. Another striking contribution is Shen Shaomin’s Summit (below), which, rather morbidly, consists of Tussaud-like models of the twentieth century’s best-known Communist leaders – Mao, Lenin, Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung – either entombed in glass coffins or on their deathbeds (in Fidel’s case). The piece is purportedly a response to the recent global financial crisis, a contrarian insistence on the “failures and death of socialist ideology” and the continued relevance of capitalism. Despite the grandiose claims, and the sight of those corpse-like figures in the darkened silence of the gallery, Shen’s work seems .. oddly unconvincing. If anything, ‘deracinated’ is the first adjective that leaps to mind here. Prophesying the death of Communism to the capitalist world is rather like lugging coal to Newcastle; we’re most of us already hopers, if not believers. One can only imagine, though, that displaying a duplicate of Mao’s cadaver in, say, China itself, where the real deal still lies in state, would be a fantastically subversive mode of declaring the end of Socialism vis-à-vis the reverence accorded the Dear Leader’s wax-ified remains.
Summit (Castro). The model of Castro, the sole figure of the group still alive as of 2011, was rigged up with internal gadgetry to make it seem as if he were breathing.
Generally I’m not a fan of Yoshitomo Nara’s infantile portraits, but this work, produced in collaboration with Japanese design unit graf, is pretty interesting. It emerged from the artist’s time in residency at the Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta; the wall label notes that
Made from reclaimed wood from Indonesia, Yogya Bintang House Mini breaks down barriers and inhibitions with its playful approach, inviting us to experience once again – and hold on to – the sense of curiosity and wonderment that pervaded our childhoods.
Which begs the question: how many children these days, raised on a diet of Facebook and anime and Miley Cyrus, would want to waste more than a minute or two of their short attention spans on a dilapidated-looking wooden structure? Sure, the charming, quirky windows look in on a furnished interior boasting the artist’s signature drawings (below), but this is no dollhouse nor princess castle – it’s a run-down building made from recycled materials, with a billboard for beer on its roof … Of course, the point may be that the piece is directed at adults, but I personally wasn’t reliving “the sense of curiosity and wonderment that pervaded” my childhood so much as I was very aware that I was looking at a replica of a beat-up wooden kampung house passing itself off as seni in a museum.
There was one aspect of the piece that did speak to the experience of being a child though – or what the curator referred to as the home’s “secret.” Tucked into an occluded room at the front of the structure was the figure of a small, downcast dog (below), which was only visible through cracks between the wooden boards. These little peepholes were positioned at waist-level, thus ensuring that unless one were really scrupulous in investigating the piece, it was a child who stood the likeliest chance of stumbling onto the hidden surprise. Regular readers of this blog may probably see where I’m heading with this: yes, the Freudian Uncanny. (I tend to abuse it somewhat, but a useful idea is a useful idea.) Freud, in his eponymous essay, arrives, through a semantic interrogation of the terms heimlich and unheimlich, at the conclusion that the former, which commonly functions in the sense of “familiar” and “native”, “is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich.”He quotes from the 1877 dictionary of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm: “From the idea of “homelike”, “belonging to the house”, the further idea is developed of something withdrawn from the eyes of others, something concealed, secret … The notion of something hidden and dangerous … is still further developed, so that “heimlich” comes to have the meaning usually ascribed to “unheimlich”. Freud’s point, of course, was the the unheimlich is marked by the return of the repressed, surfacing from the depths of memory or returning from the unconscious; Nara’s piece, featuring an occluded presence embedded within the realm of the domestic, conflates quite neatly the idea of the home as an analogue of the Uncanny, and the existence of the Uncanny, in the form of a childhood memory, hidden in the home.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF AN IMPRESSION
Claude Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond (c. 1920) is a magisterial affair. The occupant of an entire wall in a gallery in the Museum of Modern Art, it is a triptych comprised of 3 large canvases measuring some 6.6 by 14 feet each, stretching to a full length of nearly 42 feet across. As the title suggests, its ostensible subject matter is the reflection of clouds on the surface of a water-lily pond, in the garden of the artist’s home at Giverny; the painting presents itself to the viewer as an abstract play of blue, green and cream-coloured tones, each chromatic field blending one into the other to result in a spatial ambiguity where the realms of water and air are indistinguishable, the clusters of water-lilies seeming to drift in mid-air along with the clouds, as much as the clouds appear as soft, hazy images in the water beneath the lily pads, a vertiginous intersection of cloud, plant, pond, and shadow. Each element remains articulated only by broad strokes of the brush, the semiotic integrity of the whole fracturing, upon closer inspection, into a tactile plane of painterly gestures.
Reflections, as with Monet’s other canvases of water-lilies executed on a grand scale, is an extraordinary feat. It purportedly captures an ephemeral moment glimpsed on the fluid, shifting surface of a body of water, merging with other components into one single, indistinct perceptual field; however, it exceeds simultaneously this particular visual paradigm, that of a evanescent optical experience seized and fixed, in the manner of a taxonomist, with a set of material practices. This idea is exemplified in the popular myth of Monet (bruited abroad by the artist himself) working en plein air to realize this “direct and unmediated ‘impression”(1), leading a critic to remark: “If one wants to characterize them with a single word that defines their efforts, then one would have to create the new term of Impressionist. They are impressionists in the sense that they render not a landscape but the sensation produced by a landscape.”(2) A painting like Reflections belies this view of direct sensory transcription: its sheer size, inverting the usual vertical orientation that is aligned with, and accommodates, the human scale, spreading out horizontally instead to swathe the whole length of a wall, confounds the ability of the viewer to recreate the experience of an instantaneous vision. It requires repeated acts of looking, at different parts of the composition all through its extensive range, to make of it some semblance of sense. The paradox between spontaneity on the one hand, and deliberative meditation and execution on the other, a tension that reverberates through most of Monet’s oeuvre, was alluded to by the artist himself: “I am becoming a slow worker, which depresses me, but the further I go, the more I see that a great deal of work is needed to achieve what I seek – “instantaneity”, above all the “envelope”, the same light spread everywhere. And more than ever, the things that come easily in a single stroke disgust me. In short, I am keener than ever on the need to render what I feel.”(3)
Embedded within this matrix of competing ontological modes—the painting as an index of natural human vision, an impression, and as a premeditated work of art, a composition—is the specter of the subject matter, oscillating between the poles of perception and appearance, suspended between still-life and landscape. By refusing to conform to the limits of a naturalized opticality, the painting affects a dimension beyond the human: the clouds (or their reflection), the water-lilies, and the shadows in the water are elevated from their humble station within the everyday—the objects of a fleeting glance, often retained as no more than a retinal after-image—into monumental entities, confronting the viewer with the sheer materiality of their presence and demanding an exercise of attention. Monet’s rehearsal of the prosaic as such may be read as a disruption of the cognitive structure which both creates and naturalizes the dichotomy between the domain of public, narrated discourse and the sphere of private, individual experience(4); his voluntary seclusion at Giverny from the socio-industrial upheavals that accompanied the Haussmannization of Paris, his “withdrawal … into his private garden … in a mood of general disenchantment with political life”(5), provided the setting in which the artist could recuperate the forms of ordinary things and events ensnared in the realm of the mundane and sensorial, a zone of “privatized, inaccessible memory and experience that operate as spaces of social amnesia and anaesthesia.”(6) Just as Gustav Courbet rendered his lowly labourers and villagers on an epic scale, rescuing them from social invisibility and ennobling them as subjects worthy of history painting, he eschewed at the same time the politesse of academic technique: “for he used knife and thumb, worked from jars, rubbed and scraped, improvising directly from memory, without applying the learned devices of the school.”(7) Similarly, the visual framework of Reflections is interrupted by the traces of its origins: the surface of the painting is a web of indelible brush marks, the paint applied in ever-thickening layers into a swirling impasto of modulated colour, the canvas thus emerging from the beneath the network of visual signs to assert itself as the site of physical processes, a thing irreducible to its mere superficial iconicity. The reflection of clouds on a water-lily pond, then, is transformed from a scene of momentary beauty, a delicate mesh of wispy tendrils that approximates the complexion of a water surface fluted by ripples, into a salient, massive (re)construction of an optical experience, otherwise occurring beneath the threshold of conscious narrativity and representation, that both suggests and surpasses at once the operations of human sight.
1. Carla Rachman, Monet (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997), p. 114.
2. Qtd. in Rachman, p. 110-11.
3. Qtd. in Belinda Thomson, Impressionism: Origins, Practice, Reception (London & New York; Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2000), p. 249.
4. See C. Nadia Serematakis, ed., The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 19-22.
5. Rachman, p. 224.
6. Serematakis, p. 19.
7. See Meyer Schapiro, “Courbet and Popular Imagery: An Essay on Realism and Naiveté”, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: George Braziller, 1978), pp. 47-85. The quote is from p. 53.
Inaugural post. The title of this blog dovetails rather neatly I think – both in a semantic and syntactic sense – with Dan O’Bannon’s The Long Tomorrow (drawn by French artist Moebius), which as some may know was an inspiration for Scott Ridley’s 1982 classic, Blade Runner.
But, more to the point, here’s something from C. Nadia Seremetakis’ The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity (phew, that’s a mouthful …):
Everyday life is experienced as a seamless continuum, an ongoing flow of ahistorical time, i.e., largely unnarrated temporality that surpasses individual and collective consciousness and language.
Braudel popularized the notion of the longue duree which functions in his histories almost as a historical unconscious. The longue duree is constituted by the protracted economic, ecological, biological processes and anonymous social practices of daily life that elude intentionality and conscious experience and which invisibly deliver social orders to unavoidable historical junctures and consequences. The longue duree is both an analytic tool and an empirical description of historical experience in everyday life. As such it is also a passageway into the social unconscious and the historical structure of inattention. The longue duree may have been Braudel’s symptomatic response, at the level of theory, to the anonymity, immensity and complexity of everyday experience in modernity … The longue duree permeates all historical experience with an amorphous determinism that hinders any account of how it is replicated in time and space, particularly at the level of personal practice and experience and socially constructed inattention.
Now I’ll be the first to admit I’ve only ever flipped through Braudel, and pretty quickly at that, but Serematakis’ deployment of the longue duree as a theoretical construct of “amorphous determinism” inscribed into the experience of the historical unconscious – i.e. the realm of the everyday, the prosaic, and the quotidian, the unnarrated and often unnarratable residue beyond public memory – sounds like a commensensical description, at least to me. Which provides a jumping-off point for this blog. Right now I’m looking at several months (at least) of relative leisure back home on the sunny isle of Singapura, and as any local can tell you, boredom, or “socially constructed inattention”, is a big part of daily life in the Lion City. Is it the overwhelming mugginess ? The political disengagement ? The general air of consumerist-driven apathy ? I’m taking votes …
In any case, I’m guessing this is going to be my outlet for the time being, both an articulation of the random flotsam and jetsam of la longue duree and an indexical symptom of the monotonous continuum – i.e. a “space of social amnesia and anaesthesia” (more Seremetakis).
What do the bored do ? They blog.
One last quote, from the redoubtable Walter Benjamin: “Boredom is a warm gray fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colorful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at home then in the arabesques of its lining.” (From The Arcades Project)
And on we dream …