The President’s Young Talents: Art and its Contemporaries

This post comes a little belatedly, given that the voting for this year’s President’s Young Talents has just ended. This means of employing the popular vote to determine the winner of the People’s Choice Award is a first for the biennial event since its inauguration in 2001. Incidentally, this year’s exhibition also marks the first time a single artist or collective will be identified as an official winner of the showcase and leave with a bag of cash and a sponsored overseas residency.

Lifeblood (2009), Twardzik Ching, Acrylic tank, PVC pipes, wooden staircase and Singapore River water

Lifeblood (2009), Twardzik Ching, Acrylic tank, PVC pipes, wooden staircase and Singapore River water (Image courtesy of SAM)

I’ve always been a little perturbed by the introduction of competitive elements in an exhibition of contemporary art. And the notion of designating a singular, absolute winner becomes all the more unsettling given the context of a national, state-endorsed artistic talent showcase. The President’s Young Talents (PYT) Exhibition, fortunately or unfortunately, is not the Singaporean equivalent of Britain’s Turner Prize. Affixed to its name is the austere regality of the presidential label, which has also made its cameos at other high-profile national awards and events. The risk here, naturally, is the creation of a national prescription for cultural tastes which is in essence antithetical to the nature of contemporary art in which alterity, criticality and multiplicity are its defining hallmarks.

Such concerns can be said to be the result of my slightly overwrought imagination, since PYT, despite the state endorsement, thankfully does not wield that much influence as a legislator of cultural taste. And if we are to put aside our prejudices towards state-supported artistic fanfare, the works at this year’s PYT are really not as commercialised and ostentatious as feared. In fact, the works by Donna Ong, Felicia Low, Twardzik Ching and Vertical Submarine collectively form a respectable sample of contemporary art in Singapore that reflect and enrich the established discourses surrounding “contemporaneity” in Singapore art.

Locating the Contemporary in Singapore Art

In Contemporary Art in Singapore, the seminal publication by Gunalan Nadarajan, Russell Storer and Eugene Tan, a particular comment on the unique contemporary nature of Singapore by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is highlighted.

Almost all of Singapore is less than 30 years old; the city represents the ideological production of the past three decades in its pure form, uncontaminated by surviving contextual remnants. It is managed by a regime that has excluded accident and randomness: even its nature is entirely remade. It is pure intention: if there is chaos, it is authored chaos; if it is ugly, it is designed ugliness; if it is absurd, it is willed absurdity. Singapore represents a unique ecology of the contemporary.

There is much truth that holds in Koolhaas’ observations of our neatly pruned bonsai city. For authored chaos, check out the Swing Singapore mass parties. For designed ugliness, there’s our national mutant, the Merlion. And as for willed absurdity, we have bar-top dancing. But even within a tightly controlled cultural climate where the vagaries of spontaneity are quickly suppressed, a sense of the contemporary can emerge. As Eugene Tan elaborates, art in Singapore rarely presents itself as “overt forms of political protests”, but functions primarily through the adoption of “conceptualist strategies” and “institutional critique”.

These dual strategies of conceptualism and institutional critique are strikingly visible in the works of the represented artists at this year’s PYT. The fact that some of the artists also exhibit their previous works within their gallery spaces, creating a miniature retrospective of their works, also help largely in creating a broader conciousness of the kind of artistic frameworks they, as well as their contemporaries, are working within.

A Localised Conceptualism

Conceptualism in the West in the 1970s had left an indelible mark upon Singapore contemporary art and its influence persists till today. Evolving within the stranglehold of a culture averse to uncertainty and adventurism, as well as a lack of official funding, conceptualism in Singapore has emerged out of an economy of means and developed via the strategies of dematerialisation, deformalisation and improvisation. It keeps itself understated, unstructured and unspectacular, modelling itself based on everyday activities of walking, chatting, eating, drinking, reading and… stacking.

Conceptualism in Singapore: (from top) Amanda Heng walks the chair, Lynn Lu practises fortune-telling by reading from the I Ching and Heman Chong attempts the art of stacking

Conceptualism in Singapore: (from top) Amanda Heng walks the chair in Let's Walk (1999), Lynn Lu practises fortune-telling by reading from the I Ching in A Guide to Life's Turning Points (2009) and Heman Chong attempts the art of stacking in Stacking (2009)

Felicia Low’s performance workshops in The Stimulus and the Conversation has its local roots in the workshops of performance artists such as Tang Da Wu during the infancy of contemporary art in Singapore. The conceptualist positioning of these artworks as “workshops”, or as innocuous everyday events were effective strategies at their deformalisation, as a means to avoid the unnecessary state intervention and sensationalistic press coverage that the official designation of “performance art” invites.

Also of interest is the communal and collaborative nature of Low’s art-making process, which aligns her works with the social sculptures of Joseph Beuys as well as the do-it-yourself installations of Sol LeWitt, in which the artist leaves a set of written prosaic instructions for his audience to create the artwork. But Low’s approach is pedagogical, not instructional. Her background in arts education enables her to work more collaboratively with her audiences without any differentiation in status between the artist and her audience. The sense of experimentation, spontaneity and diversity is consequently more evident in the creative products that emerge from her workshops.

Like the conceptualist artists of the West, the informal, time-specific and site-specific nature of the works also mean that the public can only know about them through documentation in the form of photographs, written texts, recordings or performance artifacts. Low’s works also manifests such a symptom, as her gallery space is effectively a showcase of the physical remnants of her performances.

The issues explored by some of the represented artists, remarkably, also reflect that most of them, whether consciously or unconsciously, are largely operating within a conceptualist paradigm. Issues of the artifactual nature of the art object, as explored by Low, as well as the relationship between text, image and object as examined by Vertical Submarine’s A View with a Room, are notably the constant fixations of the conceptual art movement between the 1960s to 80s.

Inevitably, it does seem to me that the conceptual art movement as well as its subsequent manifestations has been deeply ingrained into local art and subsequently led to the emergence of a localised variant under a particular socio-political landscape. Initial manifestations of this local variant continue to resurface today, in forms such as Low’s performance workshops, in which authored banality, designed informality and willed simplicity are its defining characteristics. But evidently the field today has largely diversified with the nation’s cautious and gradual liberalisation, creating room for conceptual works such as Vertical Submarine’s elaborate installations, which are undeniably louder, bolder and much more complex.

Institutional Critique as Political Gesture

Alongside with conceptualist strategies, institutional critique, defined as a work’s engagement with the institutional structures of art and power that governs it, has become representative of local contemporary art. Given that explicit forms of political protests are bound to raise the alarm for state intervention, political discontent is often expressed as an undercurrent, securely under the guise of the meta-discourse of institutional critique.

Twardzik Ching’s ambitious endeavour in Lifeblood to pump water directly from Singapore river to her gallery at 8Q is immediately reminiscent of one of Singapore’s most emblematic works of institutional critique – Lim Tzay Chuen’s audacious and foolhardy proposal to relocate the eight-metre tall, 70-tonne Merlion sculpture to the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. What a storm it would have started if he had aimed for the bigger fish at Sentosa.

The bureaucratic obstacles faced by Lim is mirrored in the case of Ching’s work and both artists failed to achieve their original intentions. The eventual work that is exhibited at 8Q is a compromise – the water is not pumped directly from the river, but instead transported from the river by vehicles that deposit it into a water tank installation at the 8Q courtyard to be piped up to the gallery. The artist laments that the entire project took six months to materialise, a result not of the work’s physical complexity, but of the impenetrable layers of bureaucracy imposed by the government’s network of statutory boards.

Mike (2005), Lim Tzay Chuen, Singapore Pavillion at the 51st Venice Biennale

Mike (2005), Lim Tzay Chuen, Singapore Pavillion at the 51st Venice Biennale

In comparison, Lim’s attempt to take our national icon on a holiday did not even result in a compromise. Represented at the biennial instead was a sign that deadpans, “I wanted to bring Mike over”. It may appear a little appalling how this apparent debasing of a state-created national icon can gain the official support to be exhibited at one of the most prestigious international art events. The comparative ease with which Lim sneaked in political commentary into the Venice Biennale can be attributed to the positioning of the work as a form of institutional critique.

Lim’s works have been known to engage in the most questionable and absurd forms of institutional critique even prior to Mike. In an earlier project, Lim presented an eventually rejected proposal to UOB to slightly rotate Salvador Dali’s Homage to Newton, located in front of the UOB building, and subsequently rotate it back to its original position a year later as an artistic “intervention”. Likewise, Mike was positioned as an institutional critique into the workings of biennales and the associated issues of national representation at such events.

Essentially, institutional critique is a profoundly political gesture. But it manages to evade the grip of the censorial society by apparently confining its politics to that of the art world. By positioning itself as a self-reflexive meta-discourse, concerned with the seemingly parochial issues exclusive to the realm of art, it appears less of a threat to the national order as compared to explicit and specific political works. But of course, the reality is that the politics of the art realm can never be divorced from the politics of government and society. Works that are positioned as examinations into the systems of the art world inevitably reflect that tensions and anxieties that characterise the larger society.

In this light, Mike was not just a critique of the politics of national representation at biennales, but of a state’s anxieties towards its own projected image. After all, the Merlion was a deliberately constructed national icon that originated as the logo for the Singapore Tourism Board. It effectively started out as nothing more than an economic apparatus.

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970)

Likewise, while many of Ching’s public land art projects are deliberately designed to contest artistic traditions and to exist beyond the institution of the museum, their concerns also lie beyond the ideologies of the white cube and the art world. Works such as Landing Space, Borrowed Nature as well as Lifeblood may ostensibly bear immediate affiliation to the land art projects of Robert Smithson or Walter De Maria, but they also concern themselves with the broader social-cultural issues of national identity and our emotional estrangement from our physical land, that effectively represents the symbolic nation. Under the guise of institutional critique, Ching has actually managed to put forth a deeply political statement on our national identity crisis. Her works powerfully highlight how our concept of nationhood is so perilously tenuous that it seems impossible to conceive of a notion of “Singapore” beyond its physical land. Is Singapore no more than the sum of its geography?

This can similarly be observed for the projects of Vertical Submarine, particularly with their work created for PYT, A View with a Room. Their installation setup is particularly peculiar as the eponymous room is deliberately concealed from the view of the audience. Instead, the visitor has to open a closet, enter it and walk through a passage covered with paper to reach the installation. The uninformed and unadventurous visitor that dogmatically refrains from touching museum objects would thus never experience the serendipity of discovering the hidden installation. In this light, the work is an intriguing critique of the norms of museum-going, where interactivity and a sense of adventure is suppressed by established codes of conduct.

Moving from one installation into another: (from left) Paper Room (2003) and A View with a Room (2009), both by Vertical Submarine

Moving from one installation into another: (from left) Paper Room (2003) and A View with a Room (2009), both by Vertical Submarine (Image courtesy of SAM)

A View with a Room, aside from its primary concern with regards to the relationship between text and image, is most explicitly a form of institutional critique towards our social conduct within the sanctum of museum spaces. But as with Twardzik Ching’s and Lim Tzay Chuen’s works, the work’s subject of critique extends beyond the realm of art – it is effectively a critique of a socio-political culture that is essentially averse to any forms of subversion, where even the most tacit of social rules have evolved into dogma.

Beyond the Contemporary

Twardzik Ching's previous land art projects include Landing Space (2002) (top) and Borrowed Nature (2003) (bottom).

Twardzik Ching's previous land art projects include Landing Space (2002) (top) and Borrowed Nature (2003) (bottom).

As I’ve attempted to illustrate in relation to the representative sample of contemporary art at this year’s PYT and as previously articulated by Eugene Tan, contemporary art in Singapore today seems to adopt “conceptualist strategies” and “institutional critique” as its defining hallmarks.

These dual strategies appear to be the most viable modes of subversion within a tightly controlled field of cultural production, because they enable artists to avoid the problematic label of being “Political”, with the capital “P”. But of course, these identified strategies are by no means permanent or representative of all forms of contemporary art in Singapore, particularly given the constantly evolving and diversifying state of art and the social and cultural forces that shape it.

Perhaps many artists are uncomfortable with the notion of grouping their works according to specific categories or movements. But the truth is that the artist is never a free vagabond roaming an unpolluted realm of cultural freedom. They are often susceptible to the broader institutional forces that drive the art world, whether or not to their conscious knowledge. Identifying and validating these broad trends in local contemporary art are, in fact, essential to our understanding of the places that art in Singapore is heading towards, or of whether it is actually heading anywhere at all.

The President’s Young Talents Exhibition is currently on display at SAM at 8Q from 15 August to 27 December 2009. Usual admission charges apply.

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3 thoughts on “The President’s Young Talents: Art and its Contemporaries

  1. hello Open Contours, I don’t know how else to get in touch with you and I thought perhaps commenting on a post I thoroughly enjoyed reading is the best way to say hello.

    I run an arts blog ARTERI which you’ve very kindly linked to your website. As we’re always trying to generate awareness of contemporary practices on a regional level, we were wondering if you would interested in cross posting your blog entries on our website?

    One of the ways we’re trying to tap into different art scenes in Southeast Asia is through establishing local contacts who are interested in writing for us. Thus far, the only consistent writer we have is from Hanoi, Vietnam. People join us on and off and because we’re very much a voluntary project, we can’t expect too much when a writer’s professional commitment prevents them from writing for us.

    I just thought since you write really well and have a good grasp of the Singapore art scene, the Malaysian readers on ARTERI might benefit from your insight.

    Okay, I probably wrote too much. Let me know your thoughts. I can be contacted at the email above. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Best wishes,
    Simon Soon

  2. Pingback: The President’s Young Talents: A Review « Open Contours

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