A different kind of Deviant Art
One context to see the value of art in society is to probe how the arts enhance human understanding.
‘Art not only as a way of creating images, but a way of creating our lives and satisfying our quest for meaning’ (Elliot Eisner).
Deviant was cast in some limelight (reviewed by Straits Times Life! Journalist, Mar 11, 2006) and is perhaps the most appropriate exhibition dealing with art and education in Singapore, or in John Dewey and Eisner terms, Art as Experience. The exhibition consists of works by Felicia and her students, providing glimpse of how teachers and students may see Education in Singapore. Education is often regarded as the cure to poverty traps, solution to world conflicts and technological advances. Education, it seems to us all, is the way to a better world.
The previous two exhibitions by art educators, held in 2004 addressed similar issues of artist/educator and art-making. Bond (September 2004) at Plastique Kinetique Worms (PKW) Gallery, while the latter, titled appropriately Teachers as artists/artists as teachers (October 2004) at the National Institute of Education (NIE) Gallery. The former exhibition was more eclectic in its choice of works, where works fitted together by perhaps two broad themes ‘inquiry’ and ‘constructed narratives’.  All the artists knew each other from their studies in London. The latter exhibition, as suggested in the catalogue, dealt only with art practices that drew inspiration from the experience of art teaching. Both exhibitions ignored the complex relationship of the student, teacher and the subject of art. These 2 exhibitions chose to avoid mention of the collaboration when a student attempts to understand the environment and the world through art making, facilitated by the teacher. Maybe this is because art-making for Secondary Schools and Junior Colleges culminate in an exam, where any mention of ‘teacher assistance’ is taboo. The works in Deviant on the other hand, seem to be about a certain kind of collaboration or what the artist calls conversations.
The exhibition on the opening night was crowded with people walking between upside-down 38 yellow chairs (and two desks), avoiding 6 helium bags floating around the space, darting between 6 framed photographs with wall texts. The space was brightly lit with yellowing fluorescent and 5 white fluorescent light boxes. The exhibition came across as a lot more subtle than the title ‘deviant’ suggested. ‘Deviant’ here, is almost portrayed positively. The subversive element of the work almost becomes a legitimate teenage rebellion, a phase in Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s developmental stages. ‘Deviant’ here, is almost celebrated like the web portal Deviant Art which feature amateur and professional digital paintings and effects (http://www.deviantart.com/). It is clearly not outright defiant but an informed choice to be different.
The Cow, (5 lightboxes photographs by Shireen Abdullah) in this context, worked really well. It summed up the attitudes of some of our youths of today, akin Barbara Kruger with inventiveness and wit.
For some strange reason, I was expecting a live action art performance by Felicia, screaming at a blackboard. The performance element of evident in Felicia’s other repertoire of work remains seen in the photographic images on the light boxes. In these 5 photographs, Felicia stands beside the blackboard, with texts in chalk inscribed on the board as if she was screaming the following:
Teach me to fish and I desire the ocean
Waste all want not.
My Bite is worse than your bark.
Wit is the only wall between you and me.
With the centre photograph of Felicia tearing up and eating the pages of school textbooks.
The 38 chairs implied a classroom setting. The work, titled “The Distracted Duo”, with two television screens peeping from two holes etched into two school desks aptly portrays the image of two students frisked away in their own imaginary worlds, oblivious to the surrounding. One screen shows an animation-like image of a girl in pinafore uniform dragging what appears to be a sling bag around a surreal-flat landscape. Conceivably that object could signify the personal baggage of the school girl. This screen is buried and framed in the desk, by pages torn from the classic book The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The pages perhaps suggest the irony of Dostoevsky portraying the perfectly beautiful man, in this less than perfect world. Is this a hint of deeper darkness in the installation, of wasted youth? The second screen shows a noisy image, similar to a poor television transmission, surrounded by plaster on the desk that seemed gnawed at the edges by some beast. This hint of violence could suggest the attack of the ‘Z monster’, or the verbal reprimands of the classroom teacher. The residue of plaster powder on the floor adds to the presence of the work, giving it a immediacy as if the act was just committed. The poor transmission suggests the wearing away of consciousness as one’s vision of the blackboard blurs and slumber kicks in. The day-dreamscape of the duo is entirely possible and not totally unreasonable for the students of today. Day dreaming is their only escape, and some even if they are unconscious of it, are dreaming of a better world.
The helium balloons titled “The Stakeholders Who are Somewhere Around But Seldom Home” (illustrated by Jolene Lai) possibly symbolised the ‘floating’ feeling or perception of aloof-ness of these other stakeholders in Education give to the students. Stakeholders of education typically refer to Parents, Educators and the Students themselves. These illustrations of parents and teachers, accompanied by text implying the imbalance or varying responsibilities of stakeholders, reveal the discomfort students may have towards their parents and teachers, and the discomfort of parents, for whatever reasons, who feel ill-equipped to handle their child’s emotional and physical needs.
Two comments that stood out, that probably seemed ambivalent to the emotional rifts a student may have between home and school are:
“I’ll go to your school tomorrow and ask the teacher why she’s picking on you”
“Hai Yoh, I told your right? We should have put him in a better school. Our son is so smart, this school isn’t good enough for him!” (sic)
The ambivalence lies in the possibility that the school and the parents are at fault; the child misguided, moulded and modelled by both.
The illustrations are rather generic and suggest that they could come from children’s illustration books. This somewhat diffuses the tension and seriousness of the artwork as a sombre critique of ideological dysfunctions in the over-dependence on schools to provide a 10-12 hour total education package, pushing the role of the educator to one parent/guardian, or the belief in rote learning and exam-smart regurgitation of knowledge.
The photo document titled “Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want” (photographs by Genevieve Chua) in contrast seems an overstatement, and one can almost feel the impossibility of revealing what teenagers really want, with only 6 interviews. As photographic portraits, they are nicely taken, printed and framed. If this was a documentation of what teenagers wear in the streets of Orchard, it isn’t encompassing as they only show medium shots. The text accompanying the photographs, for example “School is fun” and “It could be more fun” in answer to the photographer’s question, only reveals how limited one may respond to a stranger asking to take a portrait photograph.
From the underlying tone of this exhibition, nurturing the individual is all that matters. Deviant or not, these are works that stand for themselves in the context of art. Felicia has done a brilliant job of reminding art educators and educators of their arduous task of moulding the future of the nation, and not making the nation’s future mouldy.
4 Stars of 5
Mar 14 – 24, 2006, The Substation Gallery
 Keywords extracted from the exhibition text, curated by Wil-kie Tan
Upon checking with the artist, 8 books were used to create the pile surrounding the screen, and Dostoevsky’s pages were on top