An open letter to Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister, Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts (Singapore)

Dear Dr Yaacob Ibrahim,

The Venice Biennale is unequivocally the most highly visible and important international stage for contemporary artists at work today. Since 2001, the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been an important platform for Singaporean artists to introduce and share their diverse and multifaceted practices to the world. An opportunity to present their work in Venice has spurred our artists to challenge themselves into conceptualising, developing and executing artworks of enduring critical, historical and global significance.

We, the undersigned, are therefore writing to you to express our utter disappointment in the National Arts Council’s (NAC) decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and to formally request that this decision be reconsidered.

Each subsequent edition of the Singapore Pavilion has borne witness to ever greater sensibility and sophistication in the quality of works that our artists have produced. Also of significance and no less important is the way in which Singaporean curators have learned to navigate and negotiate the process of communicating the work to a wider audience. While we recognise that Singapore’s participation in Venice need not be the determination of artistic worth for Singaporean artists, the fact remains that it is one of the most important and invaluable channels through which Singaporean artists can connect with the international art world on our terms.

There are also other important issues at stake beyond that of artistic excellence. While a country’s participation in an international event like Venice need not and must not be reduced to a matter of cultural representation, the visibility of participation in such a significant international art event affords us an indispensable channel through which to negotiate issues of how we represent ourselves to the world – something vital to our on-going national conversation about the direction and development of Singaporean identity. Just as we cannot afford to be parochial in our economic development, so too must we not allow culture and community to be interpreted in narrow provincial terms that preclude the engagement of Singaporean art with global movements and discourses. Indeed, greater community involvement in the arts does not, should not – and need not – be at the expense of artistic excellence.

While we respect the NAC’s decision to “critically re-assess Singapore’s long-term participation at this event to ensure optimal benefits to visual arts development”, we are alarmed and perturbed by the sudden decision to withdraw from participation as a means of exercising this critical review. We seek to understand how the NAC arrived at this conclusion. The NAC has stated recently that it intends to pursue greater dialogue and engagement with artists, curators and the arts community in Singapore; this abrupt and unilateral decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 55th Venice Biennale is very much contrary to the spirit of consensus and engagement. It should be reconsidered.

1. Suzann Victor, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2001)
2. Heman Chong, Artist, Curator and Writer (Singapore Pavilion 2003)
3. Francis Ng, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2003)
4. Tang Da Wu, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
5. Vincent Leow, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
6. Zul Mahmod, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
7. Ming Wong, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2009)
8. Ho Tzu Nyen, Artist and Filmmaker (Singapore Pavilion 2011)
9. Lindy Poh, Curator of Singapore Pavilion 2007, Venice Biennale
10. Tang Fukuen, Curator of Singapore Pavilion 2009, Venice Biennale
11. Emi Eu, Director, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
12. Ong Keng Sen, Artistic Director, Theatreworks
13. Tay Tong, Managing Director, TheatreWorks
14. Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Artistic Director, The Substation
15. Chew Kheng Chuan,  Chairman, The Substation Limited.
16. Graham Berry, Board Member, The Substation
17. Sabapathy Thiagarajan, Lecturer, History of Art
18. Peter Schoppert, Member, International Association of Art Critcs (AICA); Member of the Board, The Substation
19. Joselina Cruz, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2008
20. Russell Storer, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2011
21. Trevor Smith, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2011
22. Rudy Tseng, Collector
23. T. Sasitharan, Director, Intercultural Theatre Institute
24. Chong Tze Chien, Company Director, The Finger Players
25. Sean Tobin, Head of Theatre, School of the Arts, Singapore
26. Tan Wee Lit, Head of Visual Arts, School of the Arts, Singapore
27. Jacquelyn Soo, Artist and Chairperson, Singapore Contemporary Young Artists (SCYA)
28. Woon Tai Ho, Founder & Creative Director, The Green Orange
29. Aun Koh, Co-founder, The Ate Group; formerly Deputy Director Visual and Literary Arts, National Arts Council Singapore
30. Lim Qinyi, Curator, Para/site
31. Karen Lim Li-Ching, Asst. Director (Curatorial), NUS Museum
32. Lonce Wyse, Director, IDMI Arts and Creativity Lab, National University of Singapore
33. Dr Charles Merewether, Curator and writer
34. Professor Tony Godfrey, Director, Equator Art Projects
35. Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-chief, Asymptote Journal
36. Suzzana Chew, Owner of Artitute.com
37. Amelia Abdullahsani, Gallery Owner, Lu Magnus
38. Valentine Willie, Gallery Owner, Valentine Willie Fine Art
39. Benjamin Hampe, Gallery Owner, Chan Hampe Galleries
40. Audrey Phng, Art Consultant, Asian Art Options
41. Wahyuni A. Hadi, Objectifs Centre for Photography & Filmmaking
42. Woon Tien Wei, Director, post-museum
43. Jennifer Teo, Director, post-museum
44. Amanda Heng Liang Ngim, Artist
45. Milenko Prvacki, Artist
46. Delia Prvacki, Artist
47. Ana Prvacki, Artist
48. Jimmy Ong, Artist
49. Michael Lee, Artist and Curator
50. Ang Song Ming, Artist
51. Charles Lim, Artist
52. Genevieve Chua, Artist
53. Ho Rui An, Artist and Writer
54. Alvin Pang, Writer
55. Choy Ka Fai , Artist
56. Robert Zhao Renhui, Artist
57. Donna Ong, Artist
58. Tan Kai Syng, Artist
59. John Clang, Artist
60. Erika Tan, Artist
61. Dana Lam, Artist
62. Tara Tan, Creative
63. Sherman Ong, Artist and Filmmaker (Singapore Pavilion 2009)
64. Tan Pin Pin, Filmmaker
65. Wee Li Lin, Filmmaker
66. Fran Borgia, Filmmaker
67. Jeremy Chua, filmmaker
68. Yeo Siew Hua, Filmmaker
69. Adelene Kwan, Producer
70. Sylvia Tan, Producer
71. Melanie Chua, Editor
72. Yuen Chee Wai, Musician
73. Susie Lingham, Writer and Artist
74. Alan Oei, Artist and Curator
75. Dr Lynn Lu, Artist and art educator
76. Tang Ling Nah, Artist, Curator and art Educator
77. Hazel Lim, Artist and art educator
78. Urich Lau, Artist and art educator
79. Debbie Ding, Artist, Archivist and Writer
80. Susie Wong, Artist
81. Vivian Lee, Artist
82. Yvonne Leow-Lee, Artist
83. Gilles Massot, Artist
84. Melinda Lauw, Artist
85. Jying Tan, Artist
86. Joel Ong, Artist
87. Lynette Tan, Artist
88. Brendan Goh, Artist
89. Tan Guo-Liang, Artist
90. Ang Song Nian, Artist
91. Kah Kit, Artist
92. Tay Bee Aye, Artist
93. Weixin Chong, Artist
94. Godwin Koay, Artist
95. Geralding Kang, artist
96. Samantha Tio, Artist
97. Cheong Sze-Yenn, Artist
98. Ho Zhen Ming, Artist
99. Kin Chui, Artist
100. Yen Phang, Artist
101. Regina De Rozario, Artist
102. Bruce Quek, Artist
103. Joshua Yang, Artist
104. Alecia Neo, Artist
105. Chan Sze-Wei, Artist
106. Vladimir Todorovic, Artist
107. Mike HJ Chang, Artist
108. George Wong Yung Choon, Artist
109. Liana Yang, Artist
110. Valerie Oliveiro, Artist
111. Kent Chan, Artist and Filmmaker
112. Daniel Kok Yik Leng, Choreographer and dancer
113. Joavien Ng, Choreographer and art educator
114. Lim How Ngean, Dramaturge
115. Lok Meng Chue, Theatre practitioner
116. Michelle Tan, Theatre practitioner
117. Jason Wee, Artist, Curator and Writer
118. Shubigi Rao, Visual artist and writer
119. Seah Sze Yunn, Artist and Designer
120. Jackson Tan, Artist and Designer
121. Sean Lee, Photographer
122. Jing Quek, Photographer
123. Ian Woo, Artist and Art Educator
124. Adeline Kueh, Artist and Art Educator
125. Jeremy Sharma, Artist and Art Educator
126. Betty Susiarjo, Art Educator
127. Karen Mitchell, Art Educator
128. Tan Peiling, Art Educator
129. Karen Yeh, Educator
130. Philip Holden, Educator
131. Shirley Soh, Art Educator
132. Ng Yun Sian, Educator
132. Dr C.J.W.-L. Wee, Academic
133. Dr Warren Liew, Academic
134. Dr Lilian Chee, Assistant Professor
135. Dr Margaret Tan, Fellow, Tembusu College, National University of Singapore
136. Jeremy Fernando, Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School
137. Jay Koh, Founding director, international Forum for InterMedia Art
138. Chu Chu Yuan, co-director, international Forum for InterMedia Art
139. Isabella Chen, Media Co-coordinator, United Nations
140. Jeremy Tiang
141. Jeannine Tang, Art historian, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College
142. Paul Khoo, Art Historian
143. Syed Muhd Hafiz Bin Syed Nasir, Curator and Writer
144. Joleen Loh, Curator and writer
145. Daniela Beltrani, Curator and artist
146. Eliza Tan, Curator
147. Josef Ng, Curator and Writer
148. Loredana Paracciani, Curator
149. Nurul Huda Binte Abdul Rashid, Assistant Curator, NUS Museum
150. Eva Ella McGovern, Curator, Valentine Willie Fine Art
151. Traslin Ong, Arts Administrator & Program curator
152. Ben Slater, Writer
153. Justin Zhuang, Writer
154. Teh Su Ching, Writer
155. Darryl Wee, Art Writer and Translator
156. Louis Ho, Writer and Critic
157. Raksha M., Writer and Editor
158. Joycelyn Ng, Producer and Writer
159. Yishan Lam, Design Researcher
160. Angelia Poon, Academic
161. Amanda Lee, Editor
162. Nazry Bahrawi, Critic
163. Apple Lee, Gallery manager, Valentine Willie Fine Art
164. Teng Yen Hui, Gallery assistant, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
165. Richard Lim, Registrar assistant, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
166. Mervyn Quek, Arts Manager, TheatreWorks
167. Hafiz Osman, Exhibition officer
168. Tan Li-Jen, Manager, Museum Programmes & Outreach, NUS Museum
169. Aishah Abu Bakar, Programming Manager, Moving Images, The Substation
170. Annabelle Felise Aw, Programme Manager, Visual Art, The Substation
171. Chelsea Chua, Marketing Manager, The Substation
172. Nur Khairiyah Bte Ramli, Programme Manager, The Substation
173. Chris Ong, Programme Manager, The Substation
174. Ann Mui Ling, Museum docent and art collector
175. Clifford D. Mallory
176. Kay Vasey
177. Jeremiah Choy
178. Meena Mylvaganam, Collector
179. Oon Shu An, Actor
180. Madelyn Yeo, Designer
181. Darel Seow, Illustrator
182. Jessica Anne Rahardjo, Arts Publications Executive
183. Tiara Johari, Arts Manager
184. Teresa Fu, Arts Manager
185. Nicole Ho, Arts manager
186. Low Zheng Yi, Admin Coordinator
187. Joyce Teo, Arts educator
188. Seah Tzi Yan, Arts organiser
189. Wirashery Fangiono, Arts freelancer
190. Jo-Anne Lee, Health Administrator
191. Jolovan Wham, Social Worker
192. Chris Williams, Manager
193. John Solomon, Graduate Student
194. Nigel Jon Sing, Student
195. Sarah Lee, Student
196. Au Yeong Yeen, Student
197. Kim Tay, Student
198. Wong Binghao, Student
199. Elvis Wang, Art Student
200. Ang Siew Ching, Student
201. Debrah Jiang, Student
202. Hajar Abdullah-Anjong, Student
203. Wesley Aroozoo, Student
204. Loe Chek Siang Kenneth
205. Joanna Ng Shuhui
206. Sarah Yap
207. Joscelin Chew
208. Justin Lebrun

Street vs. Art

Spray painting on road allegedly by street artist SKL0

Spray painting on road allegedly by street artist SKL0

Over the past few months, pedestrians in Singapore may have stumbled upon one or more curious round stickers pasted above buttons at traffic lights, featuring captions that include instructions to “PRESS TO TIME TRAVEL” and cheeky admonishments of “PRESS ONCE CAN ALREADY”. Most have responded in delight to the stickers, variously calling them “witty” and “thought-provoking”. The artist behind these interventions, who goes by the tag of SKL0, is apparently also responsible for spray-painting the words “MY GRANDFATHER ROAD” on several streets in Singapore. On 4 June 2012, the said artist was arrested on suspicions of vandalism. As reports of the arrest poured in, the reaction online was almost immediate, with netizens both within and outside the arts community responding with outrage at what was perceived as a draconian measure crushing a seemingly harmless act of creativity. A petition was launched within hours of the news and digital stickers in the style of SKL0’s creations were springing up by the dozens across social media, sporting messages that expressed solidarity with the young artist. Such a vehement reaction can be seen as just one of the many expressions of resentment against a technocratic state perceived to be governed by automaton-bureaucrats with no appreciation for humour or creativity. In the words of one netizen, “CREATIVITY SHOULDN’T BE PUNISHED!” Indeed, creativity is important for society, and so is wit, but amidst the clarion calls for “creativity”, “freedom”, “spontaneity” and “humour”, rearing its bloated, cumbersome head is another word that has not received an audience of such size for quite some time now: “art”.

“But is it art?” was the question raised almost over a decade ago in light of the controversial 1993 performance by artist Josef Ng, in which the artist snipped off his pubic hair in protest of the police entrapment of gay men in Singapore. The question, asked then with raised eyebrows and looks of incredulity, at times disgust, has most fascinatingly resurfaced today in the paraphrased form of the indignant proclamation, “THIS IS ART”, uttered in a near-unequivocal chorus, no less. But while it would be most desirable to be able to read this as a sign of progress, of the public’s increased enlightenment towards the arts, the reality is far from the case, showing instead that artistic discourse in Singapore still builds itself upon an outmoded and essentialist rubric that draws arbitrary lines between art and non-art, or in this instance, between art and vandalism. Indeed as the debate rages on, the untenability of the argument reveals itself, with the slippages between the terms becoming too obvious to ignore.

Spray painting on wall allegedly by street artist SKL0

Spray painting on wall allegedly by street artist SKL0

For instance, a number of supporters point to how SKL0’s works are “aesthetically pleasing” and “not unsightly”, referring plausibly to their clean-cut aesthetics. But this argument ignores the fact that both historically and in contemporary times, much of street art has never aspired towards aesthetic appeal. Street art, having emerged from the sixties to seventies counterculture movements in New York, has for most part of history served as an instrument for political resistance, with imagery meant to provoke rather than “to bring a smile to one’s face”. The works produced in protest of the 2003 Iraq War and the wider War on Terror by street artists worldwide is an exemplar of this, and it bears mention that Singapore was in a small but significant way a part of this movement, with the garden wall of the Substation, an independent arts centre by Armenian Street, used as an “approved” graffiti wall. The messy scrawls of angst-ridden messages accompanied by strident anti-war motifs often seen in such instances of street art are a far cry from SKL0’s crisp aesthetics, thus rendering the criterion of visual appeal used to justify SKL0’s works as art spurious. In one notable instance, one particular netizen posted on Facebook a photograph of “MY GRANDFATHER BUILDING” sprayed in a noticeably hasty fashion across a wall, claiming that the police should be catching the person who did this instead, unbeknownst to the fact that the very same artist he was supporting, SKL0, is also behind this very work. Herein lies the absurdity: the method for discerning between art and vandalism rests solely upon the choice of font.

A stencil on concrete graffiti piece by the Buenos Aires-based Cam BsAs, created to mark George W. Bush’s visit to the city in 2006

A stencil on concrete graffiti piece by the Buenos Aires-based Cam BsAs, created to mark George W. Bush’s visit to the city in 2006

But why do all these slippages concerning the definition of art matter, some may ask, as long as the intention is to exonerate SKL0? But the fact is that such careless pitting of art against non-art serves not only to rouse the chagrin of art theory pedants, for it does ultimately exert a real-world impact upon the kind of art we are sanctioning as a society. The safeguarding and propagation of carefully defined notions of art would eventually serve only to protect some works under the privileged cover of “art” at the expense of others that fall outside the circumscribed boundaries. Already we are beginning to see such acts of exclusion happening. On 6 June 2012, publichouse.sg posted on its Facebook page a photograph of “legalized graffiti” in Singapore, featuring a large and elaborately rendered male human figure spray-painted onto the walls of the former premises of cultural and social space, Post-Museum. The response by those who commented was lukewarm, with one netizen dismissing it as “nice but [lacking] the local connection”. He was rightly rebuked by another netizen: “if it doesn’t connect with you, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t connect with others”. One naturally wonders if the same statement cannot also be applied to SKL0’s creations. Granted, one can contend that SKL0’s works are widely popular, but surely mass appeal cannot be a definitive criterion for aesthetic judgement? Clearly, using an aesthetic argument to defend the works of SKL0’s is deeply problematic.

The last high-profile case of vandalism or, as some may say, street art, to happen in Singapore was the case of Swiss national Oliver Fricker in 2010, but as the incident involves the contentious issue of a foreign national acting on Singapore soil and the far more serious offence of trespass, it will be difficult to compare it to the case at hand. But slightly over a year before Fricker’s incident was the case of an unemployed, middle-aged Singaporean man by the name of Koh Chan Meng, who was caught red-handed scribbling “Hi Harry Lee. I love you.” on the wall of the Parliament House. On another occasion, Koh had also wrote “Go sue me Lee Kuan Yew Go Gavin Son” and “Shammugan can you play your own orgams” at the same site. From the outset, the acts committed by SKL0 and Koh cannot be more different. The former was a planned project with a thoughtfully designed aesthetic and identifiable by an icon equivalent to that of an artist’s signature and the latter, a putatively spontaneous act, performed by a man either out of vexation or lunacy.

Graffiti by Koh Chan Meng at Parliament House in 2009

Graffiti by Koh Chan Meng at Parliament House in 2009

As it seems, SKL0 is an artist and Koh, a vandal; one should be in a gallery, the other, a prison or an asylum. But are the distinctions really as stark as they appear? Sure, while Koh can hardly be called an artist and I suspect neither did he harbour any intention of being one, his “offence”, like that of SKL0, is in a way also an individual act of expression that has left its marks upon a public site. One of the arguments that has been tossed around lately defends SKL0’s works by claiming that they reflect our culture and society; can the same then not also be said about the scribbles of Koh, which however unthinkingly inscribed, reflect a prevailing sentiment of a certain underclass of Singaporeans saddled with financial and social woes? Can one go even further and claim that as a spontaneous act, Koh’s scribbles, as compared to the works of SKL0’s, bear even greater authenticity as expressions of a current social climate and as such, are more legitimate acts of intervention upon a public space? Granted, given that Koh was later ruled to be mentally unsound, one cannot take his acts so seriously, but scribbles like those of Koh are not uncommon. For instance, a friend once recounted to me how he found scrawled beneath the screen of a TVMobile television the words, “Stop Chinese Shows!!”. Acts like these cannot be written off simply as instances of mischief, but are instead, in their own small but pointed ways, forms of civil resistance that can only find expression through clandestine channels in an authoritarian society, away from the surveying gaze of the state.

Graffiti as seen on a TVMobile television

Graffiti as seen on a TVMobile television

Of the many proposals raised online in response to the episode of the “Sticker Lady”, some have called for “less restriction” to be imposed on street art, which in effect is calling for existing laws on vandalism to make an exceptional case for street art. However, if implemented, such a move would run against the very ethos of the medium itself. Street art, at least that particular strand that we are concerned with here, exists at the margins of society. Through their interventions upon a public space, street artists seek precisely to transgress established orders, either for the purposes of critique, or simply for the sheer kick of doing so. Should laws change and margins shift, street artists will too shift their location of operations, following wherever the margin goes. Street art like those by SKL0 can never exist within the law. To do so is to be simply absorbed into the kitschy fare that dominates much of legalised street art in Singapore, seen in the most cheesy manifestations in state-organised youth festivals and as marketing gimmicks undertaken by opportunistic corporations. As a matter of fact, most street artists around the world recognise the “barely legal” (to use to the title of the 2006 show by British graffiti artist, Banksy) nature of their practice and understand that the onus is upon them to cover their tracks to evade arrest or to work in legal grey areas, as artists who practise “reverse graffiti” do.

As such, if the law on vandalism really ought to be amended, it should be done to protect “vandals” like Koh instead who require such immunity more so than street artists who seek precisely to test the limits of the law. Street art claims the street as a site for art-making, but prior to the legitimisation of street art as a serious form of artistic practice, the street has always been, more generally speaking, a public platform for all forms of personal and cultural expression. In principle, the streets belong not just to artists, but to us all. Whether a piece of graffiti is “creative”, “witty” or “aesthetically pleasing” is besides the point, for the value of the streets as a shared public space is its ability to give visibility to any idea, opinion, sentiment and memory that is being suppressed by the powers that be, especially precious and necessary in a tightly controlled society like ours where most channels of public expression for the everyman – from print to televisual media – are blocked by the hand of the state, and the dominant socio-political climate is one of fear and self-censorship. Hence, street art like SKL0’s are important not because they are art, and certainly not because they “bring a smile to one’s face”, but because they reclaim the street as a site for everyday forms of civil resistance.

Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, also known as the King of Kowloon

Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, also known as the King of Kowloon

But ultimately, tinkering with legal apparatus is inadequate, serving only to draw even more arbitrary parameters, as if we don’t already have enough of that to deal with in existing statutes. How can one definitively distinguish between acts of civil resistance from those that are plainly a social menace – the familiar “O$P$” sprayed by loan sharks, for instance? Can the law possibly draw a clear line between acts of creativity or resistance and those of plain destruction?

Indeed, any attempt at “regulating” graffiti through legal means is bound to be tricky, for graffiti, or any created object or rendered mark, art or otherwise, can be said to possess a life of its own beyond its maker’s, thus rendering the central legal concept of intentionality inapplicable. For one, consider the example of Hong Kong’s Tsang Tsou-choi, otherwise known as the King of Kowloon, a garbageman-turned-vandal-turned-artist whose works have over time grown from being perceived as obnoxious acts of vandalism to being inducted into the canons of “outsider art”. It is important to note that Tsang’s works arose from what can only be described as megalomania; his graffiti, identifiable by their distinctive calligraphic style, are filled with messages that proclaim himself to be the “King of Kowloon”. Yet, over time, his obsessive markings have gained such a ubiquitous presence that they have become part of physical landscape and cultural imaginary of the city, and in 2003, the inclusion of Tsang in the Venice Biennale cemented his status as an art world legend. Evidently, when dealing with a figure like Tsang, any attempt at establishing a satisfactory legal definition of “creative” graffiti against “destructive” ones is completely frustrated.

“FREE STICKER LADY” digital sticker presently being disseminated through social media

“FREE STICKER LADY” digital sticker presently being disseminated through social media

Every society has its laws, but as restrictive as they must necessarily be, spaces for manoeuvre within the law do still exist. In other words, one does not need to change the law for society to recognise the value graffiti can hold for a city. Just like how some street artists circumvent existing laws by seeking alternative tactics of intervention that work not with the law but through it, the public should also find ways to support and embrace street art (and more generally, graffiti) beyond that of seeking legal recourse. In fact, such is the case for most cities with a thriving graffiti scene. In Melbourne, for instance, despite the fact that graffiti continues to be illegal, the city’s graffiti-filled laneways have been heavily promoted as tourist attractions, with calls also having been made to consider them for heritage protection. The current “micro-movement” of sorts of producing and disseminating stickers across social media calling to “FREE STICKER LADY” can also be considered a positive instance of this.

To end, perhaps it is important for me to state clearly my stand on the arrest of SKL0, should any misunderstandings arise. If all the information circulating presently is accurate, then yes, I believe that in the eyes of the law, SKL0 has committed a crime. But of course, as most will know either from experience or history, the law is not always an authority on matters of right and wrong, or in this case, on how we use and share our public space. I concur with the general opinion that leniency should be exercised in her sentencing and chances are that it probably would. (Claims that she faces the maximum three years imprisonment are, it must be said, wildly exaggerated. In fact, as of yesterday at least, SKL0 has not even been formally charged.)

But what is more important in the current debate is not how we need to “set art free”, but the more critical issue of how we need to set our streets free. The street is in way the physical counterpart to the Internet, and if the Internet in Singapore has been so hailed as the bastion of democratic expression, the same can be said also of our streets, for they are not just spaces for the traffic of branded cars and Chingay floats, but also nexuses where ideas, opinions, sentiments and memories of the everyday Singaporean converge and are exchanged.

This essay has been revised from an earlier version that was first published on 8 June 2012, the main revision being the addition of a new segment on Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi. The essay has also been published on New Asia Republic.

Foreign Surfaces

Fifth Night (2010), Yang Fudong, HD video installation

Fifth Night (2010), Yang Fudong, HD video installation

A lady, groomed and elegantly dressed, is walking in the middle of a city square reminiscent of an old Shanghai. Her face is inscrutable, vacillating between vacancy and quiet anticipation. Her movements are poised, unhesitant. She ascends a platform and brushes her hand along the railing of a spiral staircase leading to nowhere. Behind her, a man passes; in another screen, he is the focal point. He appears shell-shocked, his face sweaty and blemished, oblivious to the other figures around him who each seem to inhabit a different metaphysical plane. Completing the scene are ricksaws, vintage cars, a crew of mechanics fixing a tramcar – all the humdrum unfolding against a soundtrack of nostalgic music punctuated by the ominous sound of hammering that haunts the space.

Such images, as seen in Fifth Night, a seven-channel video installation shown as part of Yang Fudong’s solo exhibition, One half of August, at Parasol unit, are in many ways characteristic of the Shanghai-based artist’s oeuvre. But beyond these overt resemblances, one can here discern a subtle but nonetheless significant shift in the artist’s approach towards his medium. Particularly when compared with his seminal work, Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, which directly references the historical figures of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, the socio-political specificities in Yang’s recent works are comparatively muted, with the emphasis seemingly placed instead upon the ocular. From the outset, Yang’s retreat into what appears to be a phenomenology of cinema seems like an implicit affirmation of the overriding, and possibly misguided, critical tendency towards reading his works in universalising terms – either in terms of a poetics of ambiguity or a vague existentialism – but such a reading obscures the fact that Yang has not abandoned cultural tropes entirely. As it seems, Yang’s interest lies less in visuality per se than in the act of rendering visible, referring specifically to the operations that make visibility possible on a global scale. Such operations, however, cannot be reduced to those of an Orientalism that has already been outmoded by a decentered postcolonial world. Instead, the Chineseness as seen in Yang’s films is more accurately a synecdoche of that which can be preliminarily called foreignness, and as such, the viewing subject that his films confront must necessarily refer not only to the West, but consumers of that nebulous category of cinema called “World Cinema”.

Since attaining global visibility, Chinese cinema has found itself perpetually embroiled in the politics of spectatorship, often accused of pandering to the Western gaze. This self-fetishisation can be best understood in terms of what Laura Mulvey, in her feminist critique of cinema, calls “to-be-looked-at-ness” – that which offers the viewer a voyeuristic pleasure made possible by the combination of spectacle and narrative. In this light, Yang’s films, with its bold aestheticisation of narrative tropes such as the nubile Chinese damsel and the ancient warlord, may appear less an elucidation than a symptom of this problematic. But yet, any sense of “scopophilia” described by Mulvey[1] is not entirely delivered, or is at least never brought to consummation, for the initial romantic promises of narrative are often, through the prolonged act of spectatorship, diffused in a cloud of ambiguity. In Fifth Night, for instance, the sense of foreboding conjured by the intense theatricality of the choreographed spectacle never culminates in a desired climax. The characters remain, in true Beckettian fashion, to be perpetually waiting, the Orientalist fantasy never allowed to complete itself – pure spectacle without narrative. The film nurtures spectatorship only to disappoint it with an existential impasse – existentialism used here as a means by which scopophilia is disrupted, rather than an end in itself.

But yet, one can never quite situate Yang’s work and practice as whole within the broader postmodern and postcolonial project of deconstruction typified by works like Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989), in which the manipulation of the cinematic structure itself is central to her dissection of Aboriginality. Instead of fragmentation, what one encounters here is a film that despite its absence of narrative, is structurally coherent, for the logic of the montage remains entirely intact; a sustained, unitary gaze persists. Thus, it may be more accurate to say that Yang’s work is less deconstructive than descriptive. His gesture here is not so much a dismantling of an Orientalist gaze than the depiction of an emergent, post-Orientalist gaze that has become the dominant spectatorial mode following the collapse of the Oriental-Occident binary brought about by the reality of globalisation. The nature of this gaze is a peculiar one: without recourse to the sedimented background of meanings that constituted the Orientalist fantasy, it remains distant and panoptical, attentively surveying the foreign in an effort to make it intelligible, or to use a Heideggerian term, to make it “disclose” itself to the outsider-viewer. It is the gaze of the audience of “World Cinema”, embodied here in the film’s camerawork (and by virtue of our passivity, equated to the gaze that we, the audience, take on), which in its adoption of a vast range of angles and depths of field, its careful, measured movements and the austerity of its monochromatic colours, similarly manifests a panoptical nature. Significantly, Yang also foregrounds the inevitably frustrated nature of this gaze, by first encouraging it on with its enticements of “worldliness”[2], conjured by the seeming facticity of the meandering figures who appear just-there, who despite doing nothing of consequence, appear firmly settled in a self-contained, putatively undisclosed constellation of significations, before upsetting it through the viewer’s eventual realisation that everything is a mere semblance.

Ye Jiang (The night man cometh) (2011), Yang Fudong, HD video installation

Ye Jiang (The night man cometh) (2011), Yang Fudong, HD video installation

What Yang seems to have achieved here is the capturing of the transitional moment of Chinese, and by extension, global cinema today as it departs from the myths perpetuated by Orientalism towards an uncertain future, a movement that can be explained through Roland Barthes’ theories on myth as semiology. In Mythologies, Barthes speaks of “myth” as a “second-order semiological system” that is built upon the first – that of language. What is the final term (sign) in language becomes the first term (signifier) in myth. He elaborates that in this transformation, the linguistic sign “empties itself”, its history evaporated as it prepares itself to “receive its signified” in its new function as the mythical signifier. This transitional stage from one semiological chain to the next is seen in Yang’s Ye Jiang (The night man cometh), a single-channel video set in a snowy landscape with a bizarre ensemble consisting of a vanquished warlord, a pensive-looking maiden, a white-suited man, another maiden in white, a hawk and a family of deers. As signs, these are images already laden with meaning, “a whole system of values: a history, a geography, a morality, a zoology, a Literature”[3] – values that have, however, been eroded by their recontextualisation, replaced instead by an anticipatory void. But this void is never filled, for the mythical signified never arrives to fill it: the film reads like a prologue that never ends. In place of myth, all we have is a mere mythic mise-en-scène – a stage devoid of narrative. It is a mere surface, a topos of myth.

Pushing this retreat to the surface to an extreme is the last and titular piece of the exhibition, an eight-channel video installation in which Yang projects scenes from his earlier films onto various architecture and furniture and films them. The work marks a strange turn in our experience of the exhibition, for suddenly we are wrenched out of the diegetic universe of cinema, confronting the mise-en-scène we have been dwelling as a mise-en-abyme. But while the entire idea of making a film of a film may sound trite in this day and age, this instrumentalisation of the artist’s own work for such a purpose renders it a profoundly self-reflexive act. In fact, there is something self-negating in Yang’s act of reducing his entire oeuvre to literal surfaces, which results in the collapse of figure and ground and by extension, that of cinema as a signifying system. While in Fifth Night and Ye Jiang, there is still an effort to reel the audience in with the promise of a world, a myth, the surfaces here cannot even accommodate the illusion of penetration. All we are left with is a pure materiality, the skin of film: figures brushing across the contours of a classical statue, warping as they pass over the edge of a shelf…

What is one to make of this nihilistic gesture – this complete upending of a gaze that has nonetheless already lost its ontological bearings? Does it, somewhat obliquely, point towards a gaze that is soon to be no longer tenable as a mode of grasping the foreign? If so, what else can we turn to? How else can we look? To this, the works of Yang proffers no answer. In their universe, there is only the gaze, and gazing alone, however pointless, must suffice.

Yang Fudong: One half of August was held at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art from 13 October to 6 November 2011.


Notes

[1] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Art in Theory, 1900 to 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (London: Blackwell Publishing. 2009), 984-86.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), 59, 70.

[3] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Vintage Classics, 2009), 141.

In the beginning was the Cloud

The Cloud of Unknowing (2011), Ho Tzu Nyen, Installation with single-channel HD projection, multi-channel audio, lighting, smoke machines and show control system

The Cloud of Unknowing (2011), Ho Tzu Nyen, Installation with single-channel HD projection, multi-channel audio, lighting, smoke machines and show control system

In a decrepit housing estate in a remote corner of Singapore, something is unravelling. Of the denizens enclosed in their private dwellings, some are waiting, others, still absorbed in their revelries. A woman with a mop of curly hair stands by her window, hand heedlessly turning the knobs on her radio. Outside, along the corridor, an older woman opens a door and steps into a foggy room overrun by dense vegetation. In another apartment, a man, wrapped only in a sarong, stands beneath a ceiling of tinkering light bulbs, lost amidst his towering hoard of paraphernalia. Another man retreats to his bed. He lies down, closes his eyes. In a distance, one hears the drummer jamming in his acoustic temple of an apartment washed in the electric hues of spotlights. Then, there is the writer. He sits at his desk, poring over his books and furiously scribbling, driven by the intensity of his ruminations into graphomania.

In Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Cloud of Unknowing, Singapore’s entry to the 54th Venice Biennale, the camera distills presence. Time appears to have been suspended in this world where spaces, objects and characters persist in a state of unmitigated being. But the camera does not penetrate; it doesn’t gaze but graze, picking up and amplifying what is already there: the dented, flaking walls, the maggots squirming on the table top, the dissonant noise of television static, the nakedness of actor Rajagopal’s patchy, Vitiligo-afflicted skin… Through the force of these surfaces – textural, physiognomic, acoustic – emanates the thingness of the world. But the stillness that pervades is not eternal but premonitory. Against the deep bass of the percussion and the drone of domestic life is an ominous sound of heavy breathing, the source of which is eventually revealed as that of the eponymous cloud, embodied in the form of an Albino man – notice again the emphasis upon physiognomy – who is seen rinsing himself in a pool of water. He regards his reflection, following which both body and image dissolve into white fumes. The clouds, radiating with an immanent light, drift into the inhabited rooms. The denizens confront the cloud-as-man, who manifests itself before them in various ways – peeking through the furniture and in one instance, suspended rather ludicrously from the ceiling – but there is no rapture, no shock, only a quietism of recognition. Standing before the microphone in the room of the drummer and decked in a gaudy big wig, the cloud releases its final death growl: “Cloud…”

The cloud releases his death growl.

The cloud releases his death growl.

Undeniably, Cloud presents an arresting and utterly bizarre sequence of images, which can perhaps be made more intelligible (or otherwise, more mystified) by understanding the context of its making. Much of Ho’s past works draw directly from art history, continental philosophy, classical literature and popular culture, and Cloud itself arises from two points of departure: the first, a fourteenth century medieval primer meant to instruct aspiring monastics, in which the doubt experienced in the pursuit of the divine is described metaphorically as “a cloud of unknowing”, the second, Hubert Damisch’s A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, a semiotic study of clouds across the Western art-historical canon. In the latter, Damisch, beginning from an analysis of Correggio’s paintings, pushes for an understanding of the cloud as a “pictorial graph” that serves not just as embellishment, but also as a signifier that due to its formlessness is decidedly polysemic.[1]

Combining the two references, the cloud in Ho’s work, this nebulous matter that separates the earthly from the beyond, can thus be read as a signifier of the divine, or more generally, the transcendental. Returning to the notion of presence and relying upon the classical model of the sign that equates the signified with presence, the thing itself, one can then perhaps construe the incarnation of the cloud in the fleshy form of a man as the arrival of the transcendental signified – the presence that makes possible all presence – which if taken at the most literal level, must simply mean God. One enters topos noetos, that veritable, Platonic realm of pure ideality.

But, alas, Ho is neither a fantasist nor an illusionist. There is resolutely no interest in recreating a religious experience. One must look to that final growl of “Cloud…”, which with all its mock theatricality, marks the crucial turn from an onto-theological logic of presence to the Derridean logic of différance. Nothing is perhaps more ironic than the invocation by the putative thing itself of its signifier – in this case, the word “cloud”, but also its material form – uttered with all the definitiveness of a self-identification no less. With that terminal invocation, what is thought to be the thing itself, the present thing, exposes itself as no more than another signifier, or according to the logic of différance, a (perpetually) deferred presence.[2]

In this light, the figure of the cloud-as-man becomes reminiscent of Maurice Blanchot’s story of the coming of a Messiah that is often recounted by Derrida in his writings. In the tale, the Messiah arrives outside the city of Rome, dressed in rags meant to disguise his identity. Someone, however, recognises him and poses to him the enigmatic question, “When will you come?”[3] Herein lies the aporia: even when the Messiah is here, he must still be yet to come – a presence that exists in an absolute futurity. Here, one may very well replace “Cloud…” with the exhortation “Come.”

The writer confronts the cloud.

The writer confronts the cloud.

It does not end there. In the final shot of the film, the camera withdraws from the interiors of the apartment block onto its façade. Reflected upon the glass of the windows is the camera crew – the film itself exposed as construction, as signification system. The shot continues as a steady, portentous ascent, only to re-enter the dark abyss that lies behind an opened window. Emphatically marking the end of the film is the profuse spewing of smoke by smoke machines behind the screen, as if summoned into being by that last command. The pomp is deliberately bathetic, for the cloud, here manifested in tangible form, is, ironically, pure affect without presence – a simulacrum.

Even after the entire experience, a perusal of the exhibition catalogue only serves to bring the whole self-referential hyper-conceptuality to another level. In the credits, the names of the characters are revealed: the fervent writer is “The Scriptwriter”, the hoarder compulsively arranging his possessions, “The Editor”, the drummer, “The Composer”… and as for the cloud itself, he is, most befittingly, “The Actor”.

To viewers familiar with Ho’s practice, this self-reflexivity will come as no surprise. In the catalogue essay by Lee Weng Choy, Lee notes how it has become a recurrent strategy of the artist “to substitute the making of the thing for the thing itself”. This can be seen in how Ho incorporated footage from his auditioning process into the final film in The Bohemian Rhapsody Project (2006), the artist’s own version of a music video of the iconic Queen song presented at the inaugural Singapore Biennale, and also in one of the episodes of his television documentary, 4 x 4: Episodes of Singapore Art (2005), which features the making of the episode in place of the episode itself. Lee adds, “[n]ot only does the ‘making of’ replace the thing, but the ‘talking about’ replaces the thing too”.[4] For the latter, Lee is referring to The King Lear Project (2008-09), a trilogy of performances written and directed by the artist and co-directed by Ben Slater, each of which is a “staging” of a canonical essay on the Shakespearean classic. Notably, the third chapter of the trilogy, and possibly its most infamous, involved five repetitions of the ending of the play and its scripted post-show dialogue in which cast members played the roles of the audience posing questions.

Clearly, Ho’s works are, by their very nature, citational. A typical description of any of his works almost always begins with an introduction of the original work that the artwork “references” or is “inspired by”. Cloud itself features an abundance of art-historical references beyond the two texts that serve as its primary reference points, playing at times like a montage of canonical works: Caravaggio’s Narcissus, Corregio’s Jupiter and Io, Francisco de Zurbarán’s St. Bonaventure in Prayer, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Beata Ludovica Albertoni... One may easily dismiss Ho’s works as mere reiterations of the canon, but it is precisely this act of reiteration that forms the core of Ho’s “post-critical” criticality. As Gregory L. Ulmer writes, post-criticism “de-motivates” the original object “only to re-motivate them as signifiers in a new system”.[5] In Cloud, however, with that final exposure of the film as film, the artist adds to that movement yet another turn: the rupture of the sign.

Indeed, one can then conceive of Cloud as a series of movements, each taking the viewer farther away from the thing itself. Such movements are, however, fraught with tension, for the viewer is continually reined back into the now by the intense materiality of the imagery, in which every sensation, carefully sculpted, seems to proffer itself as presence which is immediately graspable. One notes also the use of purely diegetic music with the deliberate inclusion of a musician within the cast, thus maintaining the self-contained state of this world of pure presence. Frustratingly, we are caught between two diametrically opposed poles of experience: the first derived from the thing itself, the here and now, the latter, from its absence, in which the work itself is always elusive/allusive, always slipping away, always “to come”.

Perhaps then, the cloud of unknowing, with its indefinite ontological status, is a metaphor for this tension. In face of that which is the harbinger of what is to come, one must make the decision to either remain here or to venture into the absolute elsewhere. The movement, if undertaken, is unidirectional: one can never come back.

The Cloud of Unknowing was an event of the 54th International Biennale of Art, Venice, which took place from 4 June to 27 November 2011. The work was exhibited at the Singapore Pavilion at Museo Diocesano di Venezia, Salone dei Santi Filippo e Giacomo, throughout the duration of the Biennale.


Notes

[1] Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, trans. Janet Lloyd (California: Stanford University Press, 2002), 17.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). 9.

[3] Maurice Blanchot, Writing the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 141-43.

[4] Lee Weng Choy, “On Wanting & Letting Go: Ho Tzu Nyen, the Screen, the Frame and the Edges of Narrative” in The Cloud of Unknowing (Singapore: National Arts Council, 2011), 26-7.

[5] Gregory L. Ulmer, “The Object of Post-Criticism” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Washington: Bay Press, 1993), 92.

Work-in-Process

Frost Drawing for Kallang (2011), Gosia Wlodarczak, Performative drawing, pigment marker on glass

Frost Drawing for Kallang (2011), Gosia Wlodarczak, Performative drawing, pigment marker on glass

Space and process are the two curatorial strands running through the third Singapore Biennale. Conceived around the idea of “Open House” by artistic director Matthew Ngui and curators Russell Storer and Trevor Smith, the Biennale eschews an overtly issue-based approach in favour of probing the conditions that shape art-making, specifically how individual practices negotiate notions of space – both in terms of a physical locality and a contingent sphere of social relations. Underpinning the approach are two simultaneous acts of “opening”: the first referring to that of artistic practice, the second, to that of the city-space, through which the artist-outsider is invited to engage its peculiarities. In considering the albeit simplistic binary that contemporary biennales fall into – either esoteric in its city-specificity or overstretched in its pursuit of a global theme – this gesture of “opening” forms a middle ground, bringing together the local and the cosmopolitan.

The approach reflects a point of maturation for the young Biennale which has previously adopted the vague themes of “Belief” and “Wonder”. The results, however, prove to be rather uneven, for there still remains an overriding tendency for the curatorial formula to defer to the ineluctable obligation to please. Spanning four venues – the National Museum of Singapore (NMS), the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the Old Kallang Airport and Marina Bay – the Biennale features an eclectic albeit modest range of works, of which the more successful are those that move beyond a mere staging of process towards an interpenetration of practice and site.

Exemplifying this is Thai artist Arin Rungjang’s Unequal Exchange/No Exchange Can Be Unequal, an installation at the Old Kallang Airport modeled after an IKEA showroom with an intriguing contract at work: on weekends, Thai migrant workers from the lower socio-economic stratum are invited to swap the urbane furniture with items brought from their homes. The acts of displacement the artist initiates, performed by a group of displaced individuals no less, become a sculptural gesture as the showroom transforms into a vault of personal artifacts over time. As the indexes of consumption are reclaimed by those toiling at the production end of the consumerist chain, we witness a temporal reconfiguration of social relations, a redressing of inequalities – the hallmark of social sculpture.

Nearby, we witness another act of displacement: in German Barn, artists Elmgreen and Dragset implant within the cavernous hangar a mock-Tudor barn – an icon of quaint rusticity incongruous to the metropolitan sprawl of Singapore. Inside, four shirtless boys sit upon haystacks in a display of homoeroticism and unproductive labour: spatial intervention becomes an institutional critique on the existing order.

Artists in the News (2011), Koh Nguang How, Installation with newspaper archive and on-going research

Artists in the News (2011), Koh Nguang How, Installation with newspaper archive and on-going research

Meanwhile, at SAM, local artist-archivist Koh Nguang How’s Artists in the News, an installation-archive of newspaper articles documenting twenty years of local art history, sees space and process fusing into a symbiotic union, for the word “archive” itself connotes both a place and an act. The artist replicates the configuration of his apartment where he stores his collection, through which he highlights how the act of archiving implicates space-based processes of placement and classification – both in terms of the personal space of memory and the public space of history.

Also notable are the works that take a broader outlook of “site”, figuring it not merely in terms of an specified locality, but as nodes within a larger network of shifting geographies and temporalities, with the artist assuming the role of the “nomad”. Taking the term from Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay, “Altermodern”, such artists operate practices that are “vehicular, exchange-based and translative”, transforming ideas and signs as they are being transported from one place to another.[1]

South Korean artist Kyungah Ham’s embroideries, for instance, offer a compelling example of the ways artistic process negotiates and circumvent cross-border geopolitical sensitivities. Her embroideries, some of which include images of nuclear explosions, are designed by the artist and handmade by artisans from North Korea – an arduous process involving the transportation of the designs and completed works in parts to avoid rousing the suspicions of the censorial regime. The resulting work is poignant but decidedly anti-auratic, its presence fragmented and thus all the more precious.

Devo partire. Domani (2010), Ming Wong, Five-channel video installation

Devo partire. Domani (2010), Ming Wong, Five-channel video installation

Apart from space and time, this nomadism of the artist can also occur between signs in a semiological system. A simultaneity of all three movements – spatial, temporal, semiological – can be seen in Ming Wong’s ambitiously conceived video installation, Devo Partire. Domani, a recreation of the Pasolini’s cult classic, Teorema. The work, in an act of deliberate miscasting, features the artist playing all of the characters of the film – a characteristic feature of Wong’s practice which often involves mining the archive of world cinema for images of alterity. Crucially, the reenactments here transcend parody and mere exposures of performativity; they constitute an opening of the structures of performance, cinema and by extension, identity. A crucial move here is the splitting of the video into five channels, each playing in a different room, thus spatialising the cinematic montage and demanding the viewer to reconstitute it temporally by way of his or her physical participation in the installation. The filmic encounter turns both processual and spatial.

However, the curatorial formula falters when the processual becomes processional – a tendency that is understandably difficult to circumvent given how the format of a Biennale naturally lends itself to the building of spectacles. Gosia Wlodarczak’s Frost Drawing for Kallang, for instance, marker drawings on the windows of the airport that trace the shifting vistas, forms pretty constellations that are unfortunately only mere illustrations of process. Similarly, Michael Lin’s What a Difference a Day Made, a recreation of a daily goods store, displayed along with the crates in which the wares were shipped to Singapore and video footage of a performer juggling the various wares, appears like a vacuous charade, with the power relations surrounding these commercial items failing to gain a tangible expression. Most conspicuous is Tatzu Nishi’s overhyped The Merlion Hotel, a luxurious hotel constructed around the emblematic Merlion sculpture. While compelling in its professed intent of collapsing public and private space, the work, like the monument that inspired it, ended up as a disingenuous tourist spectacle. But, as an afterthought: can this degeneration into kitsch possibly be construed as “process”?

White Discharge (Built-up objects #10) (2009), Teppei Kaneuji, Found objects, resin, glue

White Discharge (Built-up objects #10) (2009), Teppei Kaneuji, Found objects, resin, glue

The works at NMS bear the greatest disjuncture from the Biennale’s overall direction. Exhibited within a large, black and minimally partitioned gallery, they inhabit a nebulous void, decontextualised architecturally and curatorially and yoked into a bewildering concatenation. Shao Yinong and Mu Chen’s massive embroideries of obsolete currencies in Spring and Autumn (2004-2010), for one, appear too glossy under the theatrical setting. Compared to Ham’s more understated works, the political overtones here are significantly obscured by spectacle. Likewise, Teppei Kaneuji’s delicate figures in his White Discharge series, created first by amassing numerous consumer items, followed by their pseudo-taxonomic classification and abstraction with carefully dripped white resin, lose their complexity amidst the environmental pressure to see them plainly as visual curios. Outside, artist collective ruangrupa’s mini-exhibition, Singapore Fiction, which displays artifacts, images and anecdotes accumulated by the artists during their sojourn in Singapore, appears superficial in its methods. While entertaining, the postmodern hodgepodge it presents seems symptomatic of a half-hearted anthropological venture devoid of rigour.

The Biennale’s examination of space and process is certainly a worthy one, especially when seen against the contemporary surfeit of manufactured imagery, of which the truth of its production is often concealed by inscrutable veneers. One could only hope the endeavour was pursued with greater gumption, giving up some of the sheen to make room for works that are more inchoate, in which the negotiations between space and process are not expressed as mere postures, but actual dialogues that unfold in the encounter between art, spectator and site.

The Singapore Biennale 2011 was held from 13 March to 15 May 2011.


Notes

[1] Nicolas Bourriaud, “Altermodern” in Altermodern: Tate Triennial 2009, ed. Nicolas Bourriaud (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), 23.

The Postcolonial Deadpan

Homeland (2008), Nina Mangalanayagam, Series of 5 C-type photographs

Homeland (2008), Nina Mangalanayagam, Series of 5 C-type photographs

Once the overloaded buzzword of postcolonial discourse, “identity” has of late collapsed into platitude. But at the same time, any attempts at pronouncing identity politics as passé are often readily squashed with charges of intellectual snobbery, even as the truth remains that there is little left to contribute to this already crowded field. Part of this tension arises from the half-formed, dissatisfactory conclusions that the decades of rambunctious debates have left us with, trapping us amid a convoluted mesh of discourses straining to reconcile notions of a utopian cosmopolitanism with those that preach the untranslatability of the cultural other. Clearly, there are loose ends to tie, knots to be undone, but the will to do so is quickly diminishing. The prevailing sentiment is that of a blithe, seemingly enlightened, contentment towards this present state of chaos, or as the exhibition ongoing at the Institute of International Visual Arts would call it, this state of entanglement.

Going by its title, Entanglement: the Ambivalence of Identity is a show that would not be expected to be in any capacity to revitalise the presently stale discourses on identity, hybridity, assimilation and the like, and neither does it promise to. It positions itself more as a mirror of current attitudes towards this troubling and troubled field of discourse. Its gesture is observational, to the point of being utterly apolitical, which in itself embodies the curious nature of identity politics in contemporary art today.

In the works of the five artists featured in the exhibition, no longer can we detect the aggressiveness that marked identity-conscious art of yesteryear. The dominant approach instead is that of clinical detachment, peppered at times with wry humour. This distance only appears all the more imposed when one considers the autobiographical nature of most of the works, for the artists themselves – among them, a South Africa-born Chinese, a gay British-Japanese and a Danish-Tamil born and bred in Sweden – possess amalgamated identities that are the products of intercultural encounters. From the outset, the prognosis is delivered: we live in a strange world where strange things enter into strange relations with one another. There are clear lines of tensions, at times palpably materialised, but there is no attempt made to advance beyond the mere statement of this problematic. The paradoxes are left as they are, identities entangled. We are left feeling quizzical and suitably ambivalent.

Book of Numbers (2011), Anthony Key, Wood, cotton and ink

Book of Numbers (2011), Anthony Key, Wood, cotton and ink

Taking this notion of entanglement literally are the works of Anthony Key, made by fusing together everyday objects belonging to the putatively disparate cultural realms of the East and West. Upon a plinth, we see a Heinz ketchup bottle that has been refilled with soy sauce and beside it, a pair of chopsticks with one of its ends modified to form a minuscule and utterly useless fork and spoon. Sometimes, the objects are the products of painstaking labour: in Book of Numbers, wooden chopsticks, bounded together to form a long scroll, have each been labelled with a handwritten street address that contains telling signs of Chinese-ness, while in Trespassing, strands of noodles have been softened, disentangled and recoiled to assume the semblance of barbed wire. Strangely, while the politics complicit in Keys’ mutation of cultural signs are undeniable, the hybridised forms appear as nothing more than curios – physical facts claiming an innocent, unproblematic objecthood. The tedious labour that is meant to constitute a process of personal and cultural re-invention ends up appearing more as a quaint, almost slavish devotion towards the production (and reproduction) of cultural kitsch; political gesture reduced to the mute facticity that is the sorry state of “hybridity” today.

In Dave Lewis’ Contact Sheet, this observational stance turns anthropological – the common recourse taken by contemporary discourses bent on seeking in relativism a solution to the problem of cultural clash. Through the use of photography, Lewis mines both the ethnographic archives of Britain and everyday communities, uncovering the processes of identity formation and myth construction. His visual research, exhibited in the form of lightboxes, include his personal musings that are scribbled in as footnotes, positioning himself in relation to this pseudo-objective archive. Through the analysis of DNA samples, music singles, video stills taken from a surveillance camera and a bizarre procession in Wales featuring whites in blackface, the all-too-familiar notions of “contingency”, “positionality” and “performativity” are resurfaced. In face of such a thoroughly informed work, one cannot but give a polite, approving nod.

Contact Sheet (2009), Dave Lewis, Photographs and duratrans

Contact Sheet (2009), Dave Lewis, Photographs and duratrans

Then, there’s Nina Mangalanayagam’s photographic series, Homeland. The artist and her Tamil father are seen in a series of comical tableaus, enacting sets of cultural rituals – painting eggs for Easter, decorating a tree for Christmas – attempting to be as Swedish as they can. In one image, the artist and her father stand erect facing the viewer, a ludicrous ring of candles resting upon her head, and in an accompanying silent film, Lacuna, she is trying in vain to master the “Indian Head Nod” as the subtitles relate her relationship with her Indian heritage. Her expression is deadpan; it always is. She doesn’t quite know what to make of the gaudy pastiche that is her intercultural self, and to be honest, neither do we.

Enclosed in a separate room is Navin Rawanchaikul’s installation of works on the Indian diaspora in Chiang Mai, often referred to in local vernacular as khaek, literally meaning “visitor”. Certainly, there is an elegant poetry to be found in the delicate interplay of the personal and the social in the three works presented here, and different mediums used complement one another to great effect: a film featuring the video testimonies of the Indian immigrants is nicely flanked on the left by a long, monochrome painting of the diverse community of Chiang Mai in the classic guise of a civilisational mural, and on the right, by a loving letter written by the artist to his Indian-Japanese daughter living in Fukuoka. But at times, despite the authenticity of the testimonies, they too slip into platitude. The narratives told sound blandly archetypal over time, always beginning from the troubled voyage across the seas and culminating at the immigrant’s social integration into the local community. And as one of the interviewees enthused over how the Thais are so “generous, kind and always happy”, it almost seems as if our suspicions of a pro-assimilationist rhetoric at work are being confirmed. But surely, that cannot be the case, for this is contemporary life presented as it is – a disinterested observation, a fact. As with all facts, we have to accept it as it is.

Hong Rub Khaek (2008), Navin Rawanchaikul, DVD

Hong Rub Khaek (2008), Navin Rawanchaikul, DVD

It may be notable that I’ve thus far abstained form any forthright dismissal or praise of the show, for as mentioned, it leaves me ambivalent. But should that not mean I should applaud it for achieving precisely what it had set out to achieve? Maybe. But perhaps, it would be more worthy to question the value of an exhibition that, in most parts, merely reproduces the present critical consensus (or rather, non-consensus) on the multikulti debate. What we encounter in Entanglement at times amount to nothing more than a litany of observations, presenting the problematics as they are with a zen-like indifference that appears endemic to identity politics as a whole today – and here I’m speaking both in terms of the curatorial framing of the show and the individual works. Whatever happened to the exhibition as platform for making propositions, which however utopian or reductive, could at least serve to rouse the imagination from its present passivity? How often are we able find a show today with the bravura to go beyond the now-easy expression of “ambivalence”, beyond the contrived coexistence of oppositionalities made possible by the illogical logic of the “paradox”, to pursue what Neal Gabler calls in the brilliant New York Times article “the elusive big idea”?

But thankfully, in a darkened room at the corner of the gallery, art is reinstated as gesture. It is Artist’s Book Club: Hakuruberri Fuin No Monogatari by the half-British, half-Japanese Simon Fujiwara, who is here working in his characteristic autobiographical-fictive mode. The work is a video recording of a staged talk show in which Fujiwara plays a caricaturised version of himself discussing Mark Twain’s American classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In a faux but amusingly accurate Japanese accent, Fujiwara discusses the controversial language of the novel, in the process bringing up issues such as his mixed parentage and consequent geographical translocation, his black boyfriend and xenophobia in Japan. As the interview shifts unstably between myth and anecdote, Fujiwara becomes a curious expression of queerness that resists all typification, but at the same time, the work never allows itself to rest at the level of the problematic. As with the whole of Fujiwara’s practice, there is always a restlessness, an unsettled energy that takes his works beyond a trite revelation of the artifice of identity construction towards an attempted albeit difficult resolution. The artist seeks not to dismantle fictions but to construct them, to narrativise his own life – narrative figured not as contingency, but ontological necessity.

Artist's Book Club: Hakuruberri Fuin No Monogatari (2010), Simon Fujiwara, Video and mixed media installation

Artist's Book Club: Hakuruberri Fuin No Monogatari (2010), Simon Fujiwara, Video and mixed media installation

There is also another novel gesture that Fujiwara performs: the reclamation of race (and perhaps sexuality) as a worthy subject within the overly culturalist and anthropologically minded paradigm in which postcolonial discourse happens today. The way Fujiwara uses his own body invokes the biopolitical, the phenotypical – crude remnants of an old imperial order that were never quite extinguished before we went on with the culture talk. This harks back to the perhaps still under-examined thesis put forth by Paul Gilroy in After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? that the “postcolonial migrant needs to be recognised as an anachronistic figure bound to the lost imperial past”, and that “it was racism and not diversity that made their arrival into a problem.”[1]

Strangely, it is in this portrait of this utterly demure, interracial gay man that one finally finds a hint of the provocative.

Entanglement: the Ambivalence of Identity is currently running at the Institute of International Visual Arts at Rivington Place from 14 September to 19 November 2011.


Notes

[1] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (London/ New York: Routledge, 2004), 165-66.

Seeing Bodies

Massachusetts Chandelier (2010), Video installation

Massachusetts Chandelier (2010), Video installation

“Eyeball Massage” is the fittingly uncanny title of the Pipilotti Rist retrospective currently running at Hayward Gallery, London. Ostensibly, it points to the overblown sensuality of the works of the Swiss video artist, which are marked by their riot of colours and often installed as part of a larger, immersive environ. The result is often visceral and psychedelic – a sensorium that induces in the viewer a visual orgasm of sorts. But the title also avoids reducing Rist’s oeuvre to a pseudo-utopian project in affirmation of sensual pleasure, for the notion of an eyeball massage also evokes queasiness, or even trauma. I’m reminded of that screaming face with the bloodied eye in Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, from which Bacon took much inspiration. It’s a disconcerting image, in no small part due to the unfathomable sensation that we are made to imagine: that of our perception being ruptured through physical violence, the perception-image a surface shattered by way of brute force. While such violence isn’t explicit in the innocent, at times saccharine works of Rist, a hint of uneasiness persists, for when perception becomes a bodily experience, it becomes vulnerable to pain.

The retrospective is less a collection of works than a total work by itself, a gesamtkunstwerk, a phantasmagoria of otherworldly images seeping into one another. One walks through the gallery arrested by the vividness of the colour, the sheer surfeit of life. Motifs like flowers, grassy fields, deep waters, free-roaming animals and free-floating bodies recur. But it is not a leisurely stroll in Wonderland, for we are made to circumvent obstacles: a maze of diaphanous curtains upon which the videos are projected and on the floor, heaps of body-shaped cushions on which the audience rest as they take in the surrounding spectacle. Our bodies are rarely static – we have to lie, bend, kneel, stick our heads through holes and peer through narrow openings to access the works. Even at rest, fed with the stream of images – of bodies in suspension, expansion, dissolution – we are animated by the presence of the viewed/ viewing other. We desire escape into the screen, to be assimilated into the bodies unfolding in unmitigated splendor.

In Mutaflor, the naked artist looks up at us from a video projected upon the floor. The camera circles around her like a fly, enters the dark cavity of her mouth and in the next moment, emerges from her anus. The cycle continues. We orbit around the video frame as we vicariously penetrate her body time and again. Between our two bodies, a kind of awkward dance takes place. This seems to be the modus operandi for most of Rist’s smaller works, which are often approached with a sense of curiosity and play. But such interactivity can be facile, even gimmicky, if we were to truly speak of the relationship between the filmic and perceiving body, between ocularity and bodyness, and interestingly, we would find that it is in the works which concentrate solely upon the act of looking, which do not belabour this notion of interactivity, that we can find this relationship most profoundly explored.

Lobe Of The Lung (2009), Audio-video installation

Lobe Of The Lung (2009), Audio-video installation

In the theatrical, three-channel installation, Lobe Of The Lung, one is bathed in an alchemy of bright lights and hyper-saturated colours. We glide through a field of gigantic pink tulips, the forms morphing unstably in the interstices between one frame and the next – a serendipitous imperfection of the digitally imposed time stretch. A woman appears, her face so close to the camera one can trace her pores and count her eyelashes, and in her hand, a slimy, wiggling earthworm. Later, a pair of feet walks through puddles of rainwater, litter strewn all around, and in the adjacent screen, there is a garish concoction of green strawberries floating in pink water. There is also a wild boar sniffing its way through the grass, its swollen, glistening snout taking a whiff of the camera. All these images unfold at a languidly slow pace and at the proximity of an extreme close-up. It is in this intimacy that one begins to feel the sense of an assault. These are images pushed to the threshold of visuality, on the edge of becoming pure sensations impressed upon the retina. We no longer see through our eyes, that permeable, untouchable lens through which images of the world outside enters us, but our eyeballs. We are awakened to the frisson of sight, resensitised to seeing as a somatic experience.

Suburb Brain (1999), Audio-video installation

Suburb Brain (1999), Audio-video installation

Rist’s works have been described to induce feelings of weightlessness, but they are clearly more the equivalent of an LSD-induced fantasy. While her works are in many ways, spellbinding, we are never really lulled into quiescence. At most, we may sense the dissolution of our bodily limits, and the tremulous anticipation of the body’s escape from itself, but never do we lose awareness of our own corporeality; in fact, we feel it more acutely than ever. This is most strongly felt in Administrating Eternity, the new commission that takes up a full room, where there is the presence of the bodies of fellow viewers constantly encroaching into our space. As we lounge on the cushions, watching sheep blithely pass us by in the projections on the hanging curtains, our experience is constantly disrupted by passing silhouettes, hurried footsteps, careless ruffling of the curtains. Our body is always placed in constant negotiation with the moving image, the surrounding space and other bodies, caught in a impasse between escape and entrapment, and what results is a renewed sensitivity to the body that we inhabit.

Perhaps it can then be said that the works of Rist presents not so much an affirmation of sensual pleasure than a rupture towards the assumed affinity between sensuality and pleasure. The sensuality of her works is one which incites, which aspires less towards sublimity than provocation. But at the same time, the provocation is rarely explicit, for despite the strident colours, her works are poised and cautiously paced. Her universe is still essentially that of the fairytale – one which, however, becomes too rosy for comfort the longer you fix your eyes upon it.

Detail of Suburb Brain (2009)

Detail of Suburb Brain (2009)

One section of the exhibition, however, stands out rather awkwardly. In the first room, there is a large diorama of a house standing alone in bleak, empty suburbia, as part of the installation, Suburb Brain. On the wall of that perfect family home is a video that hints at the bizarre events unfolding within: a family sitting silently around a table, dumbstruck by their plates that have been set on fire. Nearby, on the gallery wall, another video follows Rist in a car as she delivers an existential monologue on life, relationships, metaphysics, theology and the like. A larger, mural-sized video containing footage of the passing scenery and spanning two adjacent walls is projected over a quirky display of whitened domestic objects. And hanging from the ceiling is the cheeky Massachusetts Chandelier, a chandelier made from underwear donated by the artist’s friends and family. Admittedly, the feminist and socio-political overtones are more apparent in these works, but singling them out in a segregated space appears a misguided move, as if they cannot both lay claim to the sensuality as expressed by the rest of the exhibited works and at the same time deliver their critique.

In fact, the bold sensuality of Rist’s works is what gives them their critical edge. One does not just sit back and see “the things themselves”, for here, the things are looking back at us.

Eyeball Massage is currently running at the Hayward Gallery, London from 28 September 2011 to 8 January 2012.