The Curatorial Playground

Riot (1955), Lim Hak Tai, Oil on board

Riot (1955), Lim Hak Tai, Oil on board

The lexicon of written texts on the postmodern world features an array of descriptors that denote a certain terminal point in the development of the world. Francis Fukuyama wrote about “the end of history” and posited a “posthuman future”. Performance artist Allan Kaprow devised the term, “postart”. In media studies, there have been talks about a “postmedia” age, where distinctions between media have collapsed, with disparate media converging and conflating on the virtual spaces of the world wide web. All these almost spell of an implicit death wish for the contemporary world.

And there’s Arthur C. Danto’s After the End of Art, which title itself is a big riddle. What exactly happens after a terminal point? Does “the end” not connote a final declaration of extinction? To answer this, Danto quotes Hans Belting, who wrote that “contemporary art manifests an awareness of a history of art but no longer carries it forward.” What has ended was the narrative and not its subject.

alpha 3.5 CRUSH (2002), tsunamii.net, DVD Video

alpha 3.5 CRUSH (2002), tsunamii.net, DVD Video

The art world today is decidedly ahistorical. It has disengaged from its historical trajectory and is developing in a boundless universe that resists linearity. And it is this context of a boundless, unregulated universe of art objects that heightens the necessity of engaging curatorial activity. Curating Lab: 100 Objects (Remixed), curated by Ahmad Mashadi, Heman Chong and Lim Qinyi is a curatorial experiment and pedagogical programme that highlights the importance of inventive curatorship as much as it challenges the norms that prescribe curatorial activity and transform it into a monolithic institution.

A work of contemporary art is often meaningless without the curator’s essential gesture of isolating and situating the art object in particular contexts upon which different significations can be negotiated. And this gesture of framing is by its very nature, a highly political activity. The sheer amount of vested interests involved has made the curator less of an authorial or creative agent, but more of an administrator, working according to the norms that govern the domain. Ironically, such institutional constrictions have flattened and simplified the ahistorical, postart world into a narrative that adheres to traditional notions of linearity, chronology and categorical classification.

Let's Chat (1996-2000), Amanda Heng, Performance

Let's Chat (1996-2000), Amanda Heng, Performance

More particularly, can the story of Singapore art even fit into a linear, historical narrative? Or in the words of the curators themselves, can we begin to conceive the story of Singapore art without anchoring it to a fixed originary? In the spirit of play and experiment, Curating Labs specifically subverts the curatorial obligation of framing, by breaking down existing frames that exist in the curatorial institution. Collapsing categorical distinctions, it displays traditional paintings, contemporary art, performance art, documentary photography, art house film, historical artifacts, architectural constructs and books in a single gallery space. It is practically impossible to fit the works into a cogent, historical, linear narrative as each work arises from a history of a different institution altogether, or alternatively, bears no consciousness of its own history. The convention of displaying the title and artist of the work beside it is abandoned. Instead, the works are numbered. They are objects with their own autonomy, freed from institutional framing. In their act of daring abandon, the curators of Curating Labs have opened the frames and the space for a more experimental, subjective and reflexive curatorial style, which they explore in their concomitant workshops held with tertiary students.

Ghost Stories (2002), John Low, Xerox print on paper

Ghost Stories (2002), John Low, Xerox print on paper

The exhibition catalogue itself raises eye brows at first look. What is William Farquhar, Eric Khoo and tsunamii.net doing together? The collection of works themselves exist as a bewildering smorgasbord of curios with their own eccentricities.

European Man in a Malay Dress Reproduction (1900), G.R Lambert & Co.

European Man in a Malay Dress Reproduction (1900), G.R Lambert & Co.

There are those which exist on the very peripheries of the institution of art. John Low’s Ghost Stories belongs tentatively in both the realms of art and the archives of national history. As a historical artifact, it stands outside the margins of official history. A series of Xerox prints featuring supernatural reports in the news in the particularly spooked year of 1960, the work documents an underground history unrepresented in the official Singapore narrative. It presents the Singapore counterpart to the American Fear, a localised edition of UFO sightings, witch hunts and alien invasions. As an art work, it aligns itself with the artists of photocopy art in the realm of new media art. Meanwhile, in European Man in a Malay Dress Reproduction, the eponymous man stares stolidly out of the black-and-white photograph that encases him. A collection of the National Museum of Singapore, it undeniably possesses immense cultural value. But the big question is, is it art?

There are those that exist outside the official culture of art entirely, for instance, the white-handed gibbon in William Farquhar’s watercolour painting, obtained from his collection of natural history. There is also Eric Khoo’s short film, Symphony 92.4 FM, displaced from its cosy sanctum of art house cinema, although this is now becoming an increasingly common practice in the art world. And there’s the set of FOCAS (Forum on Contemporary Art and Society) books, edited Lucy Davies, displayed neatly on a desk, inviting perusal by its passing audience. And of course, there is the terrain of ambivalence that is documentary photography, the art world’s nemesis-turned-accomplice, obtained from personal collections as well as the National Archives of Singapore.

Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), Chua Mia Tee, Oil on canvas

Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), Chua Mia Tee, Oil on canvas

There are also those stalwart fixtures of the artistic tradition of which they are also its vanguard. There’s Lim Hak Tai’s oil on board, Riot, Tan Tee Chie’s woodblock print, Persuading, social realist Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya and pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi’s In the Museum.

Meal Series (2000-ongoing), Lim Kok Boon, 35mm slides

Meal Series (2000-ongoing), Lim Kok Boon, 35mm slides

And of course, there’s the everyday that is the staple of contemporary art. In Lim Kok Boon’s 35mm slide projections, we become audiences to the banal activity of eating. The candid photographs documents the artist’s every meal since 2000. Interestingly, the lurid exposure of flash photography negates the tastefulness associated with the edible, but not yet to the extent of full-blown disgust. The meals, as presented in the images, exist in a pre-disgusting state, patiently awaiting entrance into the artist’s intestinal chambers and their conversion to indiscernible mush. The amplified clicks of the slide projections add to this spectacle of banality. Similarly, in Chua Chye Teck’s Wonderland, an entire wall of still life photographs, each with an object proudly posing for the camera, the everyday becomes spectacular. All of Chua’s objects are collectible, ornamental kitsch. But more importantly, they are embodiments of signs invested by culture and society, as seen in how the corpulent, gold-plated, Chinese ornaments are symbols of prosperity.

Wonderland (2007-2008), Chua Chye Teck, C-type prints

Wonderland (2007-2008), Chua Chye Teck, C-type prints

In fact, Chua’s wonderland of objects is a microcosm of the larger playground the 100 objects of Curating Lab inhabit. While we only see a quarter of them on exhibition, they are all unified by the one commonality that is their object status. As objects, they are inherently embodied with their own associative network of signs and freed of the institutional prescriptions of “art”, “film” or “photography”. In fact, such labels, particularly in the appropriationist strategies of today’s contemporary artists, may seem redundant and even obstructive. Do we really need to designate an object as art in order to engage with the autonomous universe of signs, meanings and values within it?

Index (Down) (2009), Heman Chong, 3000 self adhesive stickers on wall

Index (Down) (2009), Heman Chong, 3000 self adhesive stickers on wall

By setting our sights farther afield from the demarcated boundaries of art into the wider realm of created objects, we expose ourselves to an even larger network of signs, from which we construct new narratives. But, as Curating Lab shows, the creation of narrativity need not necessarily impose a linear reading of the Singapore story. The show opens the space for an attempt at a Singapore story, a shared identity that is expressed in multiplicities. This multiplicitous narrative can only be achieved by resisting institutional formula and espousing self-reflexive, subjectified readings of cultural production, as interpreted by the instincts that inform the curatorial self. The project culminates in the publication of a 280-page book which will contain the exhibition proposals by participants of the curating workshop.

White-handed Gibbon Reproduction (1803-1818), William Farquhar, Watercolour on paper

White-handed Gibbon Reproduction (1803-1818), William Farquhar, Watercolour on paper

But truly, how realistic is this notion of the curator as a free, creative agent resisting established models? Is self-reflexive curatorship viable in the larger capitalist structures that govern the domain of cultural production and reproduction? Perhaps this conundrum surrounding curatorship is best exemplified by the phenomenon of the international biennale, one of the most profoundly political arena of curatorial activity. In the cosmopolitan climate of today, the ideal biennale is an exercise at mass appeasement. It is a massive touristic spectacle, a bewildering concatenation of works and places, both lacking in contextual material and floating disparately in a transnational utopia. In Julian Stallabrass’ Art Incorporated, a specific comment on the Liverpool Biennial expresses how the experience of visiting the biennale was “primarily an aesthetic exercise in seeing work against an architectural setting”. This carnivalesque mish mash that is the contemporary biennale reflects the instrumentalisation not only of art but of curatorship, a commercialisation of curatorial activity to project a certain communal facade or to hit the high score on the Bohemian index, Richard Florida’s objective measure for the vibrancy of the creative class.

Within the more localised context of Singapore, is there truly room for unbridled curatorial play in a place where particular sensitivities have to be observed with regards to cultural production? There is the unavoidable problem of representativeness in a social landscape as diverse as Singapore. For instance, must a presentation of local cultural production feature a selection of works that are adequately representative of our cultural complexities? If so, by what criterion should we base our notions of representativeness upon? By the colour of our skin? Our political views? Our social backgrounds? These are questions that curators, artists, critics, arts administrators and patrons alike must address.

It is not exactly clear where Curating Lab will take us. But perhaps this uncertain future is precisely the fascinating feature of this adventurous endeavour that strives to create alternative and experimental curatorial strategies. Its approach is open-ended and collaborative, harnessing dialogue to construct new meanings for Singapore art.

Curating Lab: 100 Objects (Remixed) is an event of the Singapore Art Show 2009 and is currently on display at Artspace@ Helutrans from 5 to 30 August 2009. Admission is free.

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4 thoughts on “The Curatorial Playground

  1. I agree with many things you have discussed here — it is difficult to disagree. I think that the intellectual sensitivities you possess is astounding, especially in how cogent your discussion is. I can’t think of much that can augment this discussion, so I shall spew more questions.

    In the exhibition, works bear both obscure and legitimate links to Singapore and art alike. But do tenuous links made to Singapore by an artwork necessarily mean that a critical commentary on Singapore is produced? I found certain works nebulous and difficult to relate to the greater context of Singaporean culture.

    On the other hand of course, do firmly established artworks (such as by Chua Mia Tee) deserve a place where multiplicity of interpretations should reign? I found the oil paintings somewhat jarring against the contemplative ambivalence of the same works I found difficult to read.

    Compared to the exhibition beside it (I cannot remember the name, but only the artworks) 100 Objects (Remixed) seems to pale a little in the active assertions of culture. I remember “Forgotten Merlion” there, where clips of people singing the national anthem were composed to make a whole; telling mistakes in the singing exposed much of Singapore’s patriotism. 100 Objects (Remixed) is by far less heated and more subtle, if not entirely detached from a firm discussion of culture. I am not sure if a less direct manner inspires more cultural engagement.

    One last reservation I do have that may sound unbearably crude — why do Singaporean artists engage so much with this cultural vacuum and the dubious pragmatism associated with our national identity? Is it a necessary rite of passing for our artists to gain greater artistic maturity, or will this angst serve to impediment Singapore’s art scene? (Is this really just a colonial hangover or should I quit undermining meaningful Singaporean art?)

    • I’ve actually just posted a review of the exhibition you’ve mentioned which is actually The Air Conditioned Recession, curated by Valentine Willie. Yes, I do agree that it is the more accessible of the two exhibitions and Curating Lab may come across as a little alienating as its motivations may be more esoteric.

      I think the two exhibitions arise from two different motivations entirely. I would think that Curating Lab was not just a presentation on what local cultural production consists, but more of an experiment asking the fundmental question of how do we actually curate culture. There is a more philosophical motivation behind Curating Lab.

      Curating Lab, above all, I think was designed primarily to challenge, which is probably the reason behind the jarring inclusion of works by the pioneer artists alongside more contemporary works. It is an experiment, as opposed to The Air Conditioned Recession, which positions itself as a survey.

      And about the identity crisis that seem to be a fixture of Singapore art, I think, such a perceived thematic slant is probably not just due solely to the artists’ motivations, but possibly also due to the curatorial and writing strategies often employ to characterise Singapore art. But however, I think that it is also natural for local artists to engage with such broader social cultural issues that are particular to Singapore, just like how an artist in another country will feel more personally for their own indigenous issues. And such engagement does not always manifest itself in angst, in fact I think Singaporeans are a lot less angsty than their counterparts in other countries!

      Instead of considering Singapore as a cultural vacuum, I would prefer to think of it in terms of a metamorphic nebula that evolves as a consistent response to shifting cultural politics. And it’s interesting how our exteriorly-projected identity changes according to pragmatic imperatives. We invoke the Traditional Asian Values rhetoric whenever we go under fire from Western liberals yet embrace Western constructs (in our economy and our education structure etc) when we find ourselves lagging behind them. So the local arts scene is always having this perpetual dialogue and at times conflict with this engineered, projected version of local culture.

      In fact, I think Singaporean artists have to engage with such broader issues concerning our national identity, for isn’t it the role of the artist in every society to think, to question and to challenge?

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