Adjacent to Curating Lab‘s gallery is another exhibition that similarly assembles existing local art within the same curatorial space. But beyond this general and superficial similitude, Valentine Willie’s The Air Conditioned Recession serves almost as an antithesis to its physical neighbour in terms of its curatorial direction. While Curating Lab involves irreverent play with institutional constructs, gaily deconstructing established templates and formula, Valentine Willie’s show is a conscious attempt at constructing an understanding of the prevailing character of Singaporean art in the present socio-economic climate of a recession. After all, it positions itself as a survey, a primarily investigative and interpretative endeavour.
The physical proximity of the two exhibitions makes comparisons inevitable but nonetheless constructive to our understanding of varying curatorial strategies. In Curating Lab, the Singapore story is a heterogeneous amalgamation of multiplicitous narratives. In a stark contrast, The Air Conditioned Recession employs a more conservative and less exciting approach, by sampling a selection of Singapore contemporary art to arrive at a conclusion of an overarching temperament of our artistic output.
The borrowed title seems suggestive of a conclusion that has already been reached. The title of the exhibition comes from political commentator Cherian George’s book of essays entitled The Air-Conditioned Nation. The writer employs the metaphor of the air conditioner with trenchant wit and accuracy, rightly identifying local politics as one governed by the mechanisms of comfort and control. The government of an air-conditioned nation focuses primarily on the creation of prosaic material comforts. Economic imperatives take precedence over high-minded ideological aspirations. The government is a custodian that centrally controls the sanitisation of a nation, ensuring an insulated political climate alongside an open economy, leaving no room for rambunctious politics that would heat things up beyond the comfort level. To take a quote from the book itself, Singapore is “the Air-conditioned Nation – a society with a unique blend of comfort and control, where people have mastered their environment, but at the cost of individual autonomy, and at the risk of unsustainability.”
The inevitable question then is, does the range of works on exhibition support such an assessment of Singapore?
Many of the exhibited works appear to manifest an awareness of the local institutional paradigm they are working within and respond to it through different means of resistance to the politics of comfort and control. (However, it must be noted that while most the works here can be understood in terms of the larger socio-cultural concerns particular to Singapore, many of the works, notably those by Jason Lim and Jimmy Ong are also broad thematic examinations of the human condition.)
Subversion is one of the most apparent forms of resistance employed. While a subversive streak is identifiable in a number of the exhibited works, it is one that is tamer and less stridently anti-establishment as their counterparts in more liberal cultural climates of the West. Most works restrain themselves to an ambiguous defamiliarisation of the iconic and banal that straddles between derisive cheekiness and cynical satire, at times appearing a little reminiscent of the kind of satirical self-mockery in a Jack Neo movie.
Junaidi Wa’ee’s Lalang Field Series features a beleaguered Merlion, our national mutant appearing awkwardly like a subservient beast. Its mermaid tail is gone, instead its enlarged head is balanced upon a feeble human body in various servile and demeaning positions – hands over crotch, arms widely outstretched like a child being punished and crawling on the ground like a subdued and humiliated beast. The beast appears like a personification of the social predicaments of people of different social strata in Singapore, particularly with the sculptures individually named as The Blue Collar, The White Collar and The Untouchable. Like many such Singaporean artworks, it is never really clear whether the work is playful self-mockery or a poignant lamentation.
Jing Quek’s photography series is entitled Food Porn and aptly so. The work consists of highly saturated, large photographic prints of close-up images of half-eaten food. Like pornography, the revelatory explicitness excites a degree of disgust, almost compelling us to demand the images to clothe themselves decently. But the intense, bright colours and the defamiliarised imagery simultaneously seduces our hyperactive imaginations. These grotesque landscapes are a subversion of the image of Singapore as a food paradise, replacing the polished sheen of embellished food photography with the lurid exposure of the camera at its intrusive close-up distance.
Similarly, veteran artist Amanda Heng plays the game of subversion by defamiliarising the image of the nubile SIA girl with her own aged body in Singapore Girl. Meanwhile, Tan Seow Wei’s Topographical Map of LKY defamiliarises the founder of First World Singapore, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who to the younger generation, appears more like an icon than a political leader. Her transfiguration of Lee Kuan Yew into a landscape points both at his omnipresence as well as the cult of personality surrounding the man. Jason Wee’s Christ Is Always Right is deeply reminiscent of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms series and invokes the global problem of religious fundamentalism which can possibly divide a nation where differences have so often been described as “fault lines” in national rhetoric. The glow of the neon lights satirizes the omnipotent mystique surrounding God while the commercial kitsch associated with neon lighting trivalises the religious aphorism.
Another form of institutional resistance other works adopt is the confrontational surfacing of the taboo and the hidden social realities that destabilise the image of Singapore as a sanitised utopia. In Alan Oei’s oil on canvas painting, Lee Brother #8 (The Boy with the Purple Sleeve), we see the child as the social freak. The compositional style of an old portrait photograph reinforces his purpose as a form of spectacle, with his missing arm serving as fodder for covert social sadism. While it would be a little harsh to describe Singapore as a sadistic society, it is impossible to disavow the shame and stigma with which we regard the disabled. Meanwhile, Amanda Heng’s Singirl and Dear Mother and Jimmy Ong’s Endless Knot explore the sexual, carnal and bodily. Images of the disrobed body, in its unadorned nakedness, as opposed to aestheticized nudity, is naturally, a threat to Singapore’s image of squeaky clean perfection. With such an attitude towards sexuality, it is no wonder that repressed sexuality features so prominently in Singapore art and cinema. Both Heng and Ong rehabilitates the naked body as a symbol of the complexities of the human self that needs to be engaged and not have its existence be subjected to flagrant disregard.
The other artists articulate their resistance by assuming the role of a documentarian of the tensions surrounding local cultural politics. Such tensions appear to surround the long-standing conflict between nature and nurture, between “natural culture” and one that is engineered as part of the national image enterprise. Alan Oei’s video work, The Park, 3 Mar 2007 – 29 Feb 2008, surfaces this concern in the specific event of a particular vacant field being transformed into a park, in line with Singapore’s “City within a Garden” master plan. In fact, the image of a garden city and the related notion of horticulture are fittingly emblematic of local cultural politics. Here, we have a nation struggling to define its cultural identity not by active conservation of what it naturally possesses but by obliterating it and replacing it with an invented landscape of pruned, well-manicured artificial green. There appears to be a perpetual drive to gentrify, to domesticate and more importantly, to control.
Similarly, in Ghazi Alqudcy and Ezzam Rahman’s film, Forgotten Merlion, we see our fellow citizens singing our national anthem with much difficulties and mistakes, in an embarrassing exposé of the true level of patriotism in the country, as a counterexample to the manufactured images of patriotic fervour so often seen during the period approaching each year’s National Day celebrations.
This vehemence in uncovering the ugly truth is absent in other documentarians, such as in the case of Alecia Neo. Neo is more of an innocuous observer, delving into the private inhabitancies of the residents of Queenstown in her Home Visits photographic series. Each home is populated with abundant personal possessions, each with their own narrative potential and reflective of their owner’s personality. The tender, intimate images, however, do also possess a form of resistance, albeit one that is more subtle and antidotal in nature. As the artist herself expresses, the series hopes to reject the dominant, dismissive image of Singapore as “monotonous” and “operating with clinical dentistry”.
Interestingly, there are works that counter such “clinical dentistry” with a even more unsettling presentation of “clinicality”, most evidently in Tan Seow Wei’s The Petri Dish Series. Tan’s drawings are so microscopically small they occupy a small spot on a petri dish and are only fully visible when seen via a magnifying glass. Through the lenses, we become accidental voyeurs of private activities. Tan’s work can be seen as a witty remark on the increasingly invasive mechanisms of control that the state employs in an attempt to monitor and regulate what happens within the private sphere of the individual.
As a whole, the works of The Air Conditioned Recession seem to possess the underlying intention of unsettling our false sense of security and comfort within the present political, social and economic climate. But there is nothing too alarmist or sensational as the works are generally very, very tame. Apparently, Google and YouTube were the main research tools for this exhibition as the curator mined the internet for “more examples of artists and artworks that question and challenge”. This possibly accounts for the more mainstream appeal the works collectively possess. While this prevents the exhibition from veering into alienating reconditeness, the resulting effect at times appears splashy and insipid.
As a survey, the sample of works were a little too limited to the palatable and crowd-pleasing to be adequately representative of contemporary art in Singapore. For the adventure-seeking gallery hoppers, The Air Conditioned Recession would probably not have challenged you as much as you wished, but was probably still worth a visit for the pretty pictures.
The Air Conditioned Recession was an event of the Singapore Art Show 2009 and was on display at Artspace@ Helutrans from 5 to 30 August 2009.