Erased, Mislaid, Rejected, Revisited

Not all marks can be erased.

The exhibition probably will make little sense to a lot of people, especially if you are unfamiliar with the discourse of conceptual art or unfamiliar with reading Chinese characters – seven gold painted classical frames of painted ‘kiddy’ Chinese characters, four huge wall-size canvases with traced Chinese characters, some broken furniture, a television with running Chinese text that must be viewed with a truck mirror, and a wall projection of other past projects. The aptly named exhibition will make sense if you have:

(1) been following the development of art in Singapore, or
(2) attempted to find the missing link between image and text, or
(3) interested in visual and literary puns.

Without duplicating some of the comments about Cheo Chai-Hiang’s work written and argued cogently in the exhibition catalogue, or some of the implicit information that a reader can gather from his extensive and impressive artistic practice resume, I shall attempt to write my appreciation or criticism about the exhibition.

If one is familiar with the Lu Xun graphic image-installation, titled Celebrating Little Thoughts, at old Nanyang Institute of Education Bukit Timah Campus, and LA-SALLE SIA College of the Arts, the familiar image of Lu Xun, now with neon smoke, brazen onto the façade of Sculpture Square seems like a calling-card of something intellectual, perhaps a little kitsch. Perhaps Lu Xun has become a symbol of the Modernity, the new ‘old’. Chai-Hiang has timely surfaced his contribution to Singapore’s art history with the conceptual and controversial proposal 5’ x 5’ for a modern art exhibition, chaired by Ho Ho Ying in the seventies, shortly after Ho Tzu Nyen’s Arts Central Commission 4×4, an artwork appropriating and quoting famous artists in Singapore. Yes, it seems there were interests in art forms other than the Impressionists or propagating the Nanyang Style in the seventies. It is timely because 2005 had witnessed several international-scaled art symposiums seeing speakers from Pompidou, Long Ying Tai (ex-cultural Minister and writer from Taiwan) and talks of varying levels of discourse, with a renewed interest and curiousity in art of the fifties through to the seventies.

To comprehend and appreciate the works that laid within Sculpture Square Erased, Mislaid, Rejected, Revisited, one had to be comfortable with the in-difference between text (written or painted words) and the mental image that it allows us to create. Chai-Hiang had glorified the position of the poet, and distilled the very essence of poetry to Chinese Characters, painted within rigid, possibly traced pencil guidelines with textural strokes in black. White impasto strokes dance and surround these pencil marks. The canvas is framed in gold painted classical frames one will find in the Lourve Museum, and hung carefully and spaciously within the gallery. The work reminds us of Art & Language, or how text implies and challenges one’s imagination. I recall reading about this painting that depicted the back of the stretcher – wood, canvas and label – and the title was something like “the best painting you have ever seen”. The empty space surrounding the gestural strokes is reminisce of Chinese paintings, where the emptiness expands and contracts visually, giving the subject matter breathing space. Perhaps Chai-Hiang being the fierce night-bird (sic, read here as devil’s advocate) by drawing our attention to the gestural strokes – that made abstract paintings so interesting to look at – and con-text – which tickles the left-side of our brains. One should be amused to read a note by the artist, near the projection wall, that a group of kindergarten children could not ‘read’ or recite the words of the paintings Shi Ren (The Poet) and E Niao (The Fierce Night Bird). This obviously signified something interesting to the artist, otherwise it wouldn’t be up as an ‘afterword’. Because Chai-Hiang’s modus operandi methodology engages the audience by the use of carefully selected ‘words’ like a poet, and they were likely to appeal to a naïve audience that was happy ‘just’ to read it; an innocence that appreciated simple things. It is exactly abstract concepts like poet and The Fierce Night Bird that separate adults from appreciating simple things.

The work You Liang Zhu Shu (There are two trees), reminded one of works by the arte povera movement in its use of materials and assemblage. This work possibly should be seen together with the television screen facing out of the gallery that requires the viewer to stay in the gallery to read the text that appears in large font size. Here, the de-constructed or dis-functional use of ‘chairs’ perhaps pays homage to Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) and the challenge to re-consider meaning and image-making, intended function and creative or destructive usage. The title of the work connects in a grammatical sentence in Chinese, to a square running LED display placed on a stool, much like American artist Jenny Holzer who explores truism, and public psyche when her works are placed in very public spaces. The LED display reads “one is a money tree, the other is also a money tree” (trans. by the writer). In the context of the art galley in sculpture square, one find private and quiet space to consider this work, against the backdrop of moving traffic outside the gallery main street, and roadside planted trees. Perhaps this is a metaphor to how some artists may see particular art forms ‘like trees’ as ‘money trees’, in the context of how art in Singapore can be rather commercial at times.

The set pieces in this exhibition, measured by presence and scale, seem to be the four wall size canvases titled Dear Cai Xiong (A letter from Ho Ho Ying, 1972), with Chinese text pencil-traced from perhaps the original reply that Chai-Hiang received from Ho Ho Ying, regarding his controversial proposal for the piece 5’x5’, an installation of a ‘empty’ square measuring 5 x 5 feet, half on the wall and half on the floor, to represent the Singapore River. The pencil-traced marks reminds the viewer that this work could potentially be ‘erased’; but experienced users of the pencil will also realise that pencil marks will still leave traces after attempts to erase it. Perhaps the significance of this work prompts us to re-examine some of the neglected art criticism and writings, which essentially is the content of Ho Ho Ying’s reply, in the history of Singapore Art. Some other art critics may see this as too much of an ego message to lay claim to conceptualist art in Singapore.

Singapore art history is indeed in a precarious position, because much of the pre-Eighties art writing are in Chinese and seldom referred to by art educators today; it has the danger of being ‘erased’, sitting uncomfortably like the half-formed, outlined text in this work, fighting for attention in a generation that favours new media. The presence and monument of these four canvases with their deliberate blemishes, traced-scotch-tape marks is a tremendous effort by one artist to re-visit, albeit nostalgically but nonetheless thoroughly critical of his own works. It should be recorded here, that the exhibition was accompanied by artist talks, artist’s conversations with Ho Ho Ying, and even a book launch of Re-connecting: Selected Writings on Singapore Art and Art Criticism, translated by the artist. If Lim Tzay Chuen’s work, a proposal to ship the beloved Merlion to Venice Art Biennale was misunderstood to be a failure, and not about failures, Chai-Hiang’s work runs the risk of being incomprehensible to the techno-savvy and impatient viewer. The show is however, comfortable to a privileged art audience – those that shift comfortably between Chinese text and English text.

Chai-hiang’s contribution to the local art scene extends beyond the 5’ x 5’. This exhibit still stirs thoughts on what art today should be about (subject matter), use (media), be contextualised (curated). It is about time we seek out the roots of a local art practice, and surface canonical works and writing from the seventies. His playfulness with language and image extends beyond the surface of the exhibition, into the memories of an art audience that laments the lack of acknowledgement for art that is witty.

4.5 of 5 stars

Erased, Mislaid, Rejected, Revisited: Cheo Chai-Hiang’s Works 1972 – 2005
Till 4 Dec, 2005

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