In the previous article, I’ve touched briefly on some of the works of the artists featured at this year’s President’s Young Talents (PYT) exhibition, largely in relation to the institutional context of contemporary art in Singapore. I think it’s only appropriate to devote a separate piece to the review and discussion of the exhibited works in their own terms, to do justice to the totality of ideas that is examined by the artists.
I did not mention much about the works of Donna Ong in my commentary as her works are not particularly political, whether in relation to the politics of art or contemporary society. Her works engage with broader philosophical concerns and universal human impulses, particularly, the impulse to collect.
The artist’s oeuvre reflect her sensibility as a collector. Ong’s works are effectively collections of everyday objects, assembled into an installation to convey particular narratives. A collector’s preoccupations are starkly different from that of a keeper of historical archives or a social documentarian, as seen more in the case of Felicia Low, another artist featured at this year’s PYT.
There is an exacting obsessiveness inherent to the seemingly benign act of collecting, which arises out of the intensely private nature of this practice. The collector is often torn by the conflicting impulses to claim her finds as her exclusive possessions and to disclose the magnitude of her collections to the awe of her audience. Through the act of exhibition, the collector embellishes and illuminates her works, attempting to elevate her fortuitous discoveries as mystified beholders of a truth that lies beyond their material exteriors. Through that gesture, she allows stories and anecdotes to emerge organically from the abyss of the thingness of each object.
In Landscape Portraits (In A Beautiful Place Nearby), Ong displays two rows of miniature, intricate metallic objects that flank the visitor walking into the long corridor of peculiar artifacts. The metallic creatures, assembled from screws, bolts, nuts and other hardware appear curiously organic, like sea urchins buoyant with a latent sense of life. Arranged according to scale, they diminish in scale towards the entrance of the corridor, eventually reduced to nothingness, which relates to the spiritual concept of nothingness as examined in Zen Buddhism. The work essentially reflects the artist’s overarching concern on looking at everyday objects with a greater sense of imagination, to conceive an organic but abstract and spiritual idea of objects that lies beyond their material objecthood.
This exploration into the physical and spiritual states of existing is similarly explored in another similarly titled piece, Landscape Portraits (In A Beautiful City Nearby), displayed in a room opposite to the abovementioned work. In the work, an array of glassware is arranged to form a sparkling diorama placed amidst the flickering luminance of the surrounding miniature lights and hypnotic sounds of bells. The translucency of the material and their disappearance and reemergence seem to connote the tenuous fragility inherent to the state of the physical.
The centrepiece of Ong’s gallery space is Dissolution, an elaborate installation which layers several acrylic sheets, each incorporating cutouts of found Chinese ink paintings, to form a composite image of a “three-dimensional” Chinese landscape painting. Ong draws her inspiration from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, where multiple narratives are occurring within the same two-dimensional pictorial space. While the assorted characters in the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel exist within the same pictorial world, they are mostly absorbed in the perceived solipsism of each of their insular, private realms. Their physical proximity to one another, exaggerated by the densely constructed composition, further highlights their mutual indifference. To each of the denizens, “other minds” do not exist.
Ong’s Dissolution espouses this ontological conception of perspective as explored in the works of Bosch and Bruegel. Particularly, the artist literalises and materialises the notion of separate worlds unfolding in different planes within the same space through the layering of multiple acrylic sheets to assemble a complete, composite world. Furthermore, she complicates the notion of perspective through an examination of the differentiation between Eastern and Western perspectives.
Located in front of the acrylic block are surveillance cameras that project the footage captured on the television screens opposite the set-up. The two-dimensional realm of Chinese landscape painting is reformatted into a “Western” optical space of three-dimensionality via the layering of acrylic sheets, which are subsequently conflated into a flat image via the lenses of the camera which has a distinctively Western originary. In this light, Dissolution illustrates the contemporary conundrum of ontological confusion that arises as a corollary of cultural mingling. This “dissolving” of cultural parameters jeopardises our worldview that emerges directly from our cultural originaries.
Felicia Low’s gallery space reflects a similar fascination with narratives that emerge out of physical artifacts. But while Donna Ong collects, Low documents and archives. The drawings, writings and other hand-made works seen displayed in the gallery do not constitute Low’s art work, for her piece for the PYT, The Stimulus and the Conversation is a series of performance workshops. The physical artifacts are, instead, the remnants of her art. But as the visible traces of her creative act, they reflect her interests in documenting, coordinating and piecing pieces to form a whole. Unlike the collector, the social documentarian retains the innocence and unassuming quality of her artifacts. They are not prized, exclusive possessions. She does not regard them individually, but instead conceive of each piece as an integral part of a larger tapestry.
In her performance workshops, The Stimulus and the Conversation, Low creates an artwork that she employs as a stimulus for her participant’s art works, engaging participants from varied demographic groups in creating works surrounding the theme of “family”. The stimulus is a light box with photographs of members of the artist’s extended family. Each individual is photographed at frontal full body length. But the family portrait is incomplete, with the missing figures labelled variously as “Estranged”, “Missing”, “Unavailable at the time of shoot”, “Out of town”, “Emigrated” or “Distant”. The unphotographed are represented by black, hollow silhouettes. The labels and silhouettes, while appearing perfunctory and nondescript, add a relatively bleak and dark impression of modern familial relationships.
This positioning of the art object as a “stimulus” is one that deserves further examination. A stimulus is defined as something that “incites to action or exertion or quickens action, feeling, thought, etc”. It is a trigger or a catalyst towards generating a certain desired response. And it does seem that many contemporary art works today serve more to stimulate than to engage, the latter being a process of drawing in the viewer and the former, one of driving in the audience a particular and specific image or message. The latter is often rich in content, lushly detailed and exists almost as an autonomous universe of its own, while the former is usually visually minimal, conceptually compact and asserts itself without embellishment, like a urinal on a plinth or a print of a Campbell soup can. As in the case of Low’s art work stimulus, there is no glut of visual details as we would find in a triptych by Bosch. The essential content that is of the greatest social utility and that provides the food for thought lies in the “conversation” instead. This fact is further reinforced by the sheer buffet of creative products that emerge from the performance workshops.
The collection of amateur works on display includes innocent professions of patriotism (“I like Singapore very much. Singapore is a good country because Singapore have many thinks.”), expressions of ennui and angst towards school (“I want to leave school behind.”) and other enlightening words of wisdom on life. The works actually bring to mind the community mail art project initiated by Frank Warren, PostSecret, where individuals send in anonymous, homemade postcards containing their deeply personal secrets for publishing. While Low’s endeavour here is not as perturbingly confessional and satisfyingly cathartic as Warren’s more ambitious project, the personalised, self-made nature of the products of her workshops bears deep similarities to it.
As a whole, Low’s work can be considered a form of Relational Art, largely regarded as the new “ism” of the art world.
Twardzik Ching Chor Leng
Twardzik Ching’s gallery space for her work, Lifeblood, is indubitably the most barren. Located around the middle of the generally empty space is a tall, algae-stained, cylindrical column of water and beside it, a wooden staircase. A single light bulb illuminates the water from the base of the colour, creating an eerie, green glow.
The set-up appears to resemble a kind of modern shrine, particularly since the water concerned is not anonymous. The water comes from the Singapore River, the primal site where modern Singapore came into being. Ching’s works have always engaged with the material land in her previous works, literally interpreting the notion of “land” as often used in national rhetoric. The materials of the land in Ching’s works are used as a concrete, physical metaphor for the nation that comes directly from nature, in contrast to the self-made, state-endorsed and artificial national icons that emerge as emblems for an imagined community. These natural objects are, unquestionably, the most representative objects of Singapore simply because they are what literally constitute the physicality of this country.
This attention to the strictly material and physical that Ching displays is one of particular fascination to me. In an artistic and literary tradition where the discourses on “self” often concern themselves with the abstract, psychological and philosophical, the notion of the self as a physical body and the importance of acknowledging and coming to terms with our physicality has been comparatively neglected. Likewise, while so much have been said about nations as imagined communities, there has been less exploration into the concept of the nation as a physical entity. As compared to the Jordan River and the Ganges, in which their physical bodies are vested with a profound, spiritual value, the Singapore River lies on the peripheries of our national consciousness. Nationhood is instead feebly conceived through constructing an artificial communal iconography.
At the top of the flight of stairs is a tap that controls the pipe from with the water flows out from. Above the tap are the words, “You are in control”. The viewer is encouraged to step up and control the flow of water. But despite this element of interactivity, I remain rather alienated from the work. The water remain as it is – a body of liquid without any sense of social or cultural history. Despite the shrine, there is nothing particularly mystical or sacrosanct about that algae-stained cylinder. But perhaps, this is telling of my personal estrangement and our collective apathy towards our nation’s material land and a reflection of the way we conceive of Singapore – a purely abstract, esoteric and imagined entity.
As mentioned in my previous article, the initial plan to pump the water directly from the Singapore River, with the pipes forming a kind of umbilical cord from the womb of the nation, did not materialise. Water from the river was instead transported to an installation of acrylic tanks at the 8Q courtyard to be piped up to the gallery. Interestingly, the tank installation appears like a satire of the bureaucracy that made the realisation of the work so problematic. The water is compartmentalised into a large system of tanks, symbolically representing the bureaucratic machine of the state and its uncompromising systems of hierarchy and control.
Subversion is a game for the artist collective, Vertical Submarine, who sees themselves as pranksters, instead of anti-establishment activists. Their works are delightfully comical plays with language and part of the amusement arises from the deliberate attempt at stoic seriousness.
The separation between text, image and reality is the key concern of Vertical Submarine’s work, A View with a Room. The title itself is an inversion of the popular phrase, “a room with a view”. A long, wordy paragraph of text describing a room is imprinted on the wall. Located discreetly among the letters is a peephole that would probably not be noticed by the casual viewer. Through the peephole, we see an image of a room. A view with a room indeed. A walk through a closet would bring us to a physical installation of a room. The room and every object within it is painted in complete monochrome. The communist emblem of the hammer and sickle pattern the entire floor. The clock hands are moving in reverse. A Milo can and a bottle of Borges olive oil can be seen on a grey cabinet. Only a part of a sofa and a television playing Lenin in October, a version which is dubbed in Mandarin, are visible, as the remainders have been swallowed by the walls. Like in a photograph, the sofa and television are, literally, cropped.
What a strange, anachronistic communion of puzzling objects of such varied cultural and historical origins! The room screams of Gothic excess and looks as if it could only be the residence of an eccentric cultural polymath from the macabre works of Edgar Allan Poe.
The complex installation by the artist collective is a provocative examination of the relationship between text, image and reality and the autonomy of each of these separate worlds. The eponymous room of Vertical Submarine’s installation represents a reality adulterated by the prescriptive influences of image and text. Text and image are never adequate surrogates of reality.
Notably, the image seen through the peephole is not that of the actual installation – it is merely a photograph. The image is an artificial reality constructed through the act of framing. What exists outside the frame, like the other half of the television set, does not exist within the universe of the image. Similarly, the room is painted in black and white as a symbol of the adulteration of reality by the black and white realm of text. The work does seem to propose that words have the most control over the way we perceive a space, particularly with the lengthy paragraph imprinted on the gallery wall that bombards the viewer with a string of adjectives. Words, after all, are signs that have been in existence for centuries. Each word is a loaded repository of cultural significations accumulated over the lengthy passage of history. In that light, describing a place in words involves not just mere description, but the constitution of a new space pieced together by the universe of signs each word carries as its baggage.
As the audience, we emerge from our magical ride into the closet with a renewed consciousness, skepticism as well as a playful sense of imagination towards the reality that confronts us each day.
And there we have it – a comprehensive review of the works of the artists at this year’s PYT. Perhaps, I’ve been a little verbose in detailing my experience of the works at this year’s PYT. And that is usually a sign of a show with substance.
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.