Monthly Archives: April 2006

I M Breather by Jeremy Hiah

Aren’t we all in need of a little fresh air too? 

This is probably the only art-gallery-exhibition in Singapore that attempts to change the works for a single artist. Perhaps inspired by Barbara Kruger’s talk, part of the encounter series under the auspices of the Singapore Biennale 2006, the curators at p-10 have offered permutations of Jeremy Hiah’s work to some success. These included sculptures and video (from earlier years), installations, photographic works and collaborative works. These span from his college days at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, residencies in Europe, exhibits from previous shows.  

Jeremy’s works draw a mixture of responses. The works were quoted to be ‘terrorist art attacks’ by Ong Su Bin (ST, Feb 18, 2006), but are perhaps more cheeky than taboo. 

I think Jeremy’s work could be read in a simpler context. He is simply an artist stating the simple in his own poetic way; it’d good to be alive and breathing. In the context of world terrorism (incidentally an influence on the artist’s works), natural disasters and potential epidemics, art seems trivial, if not a mechanism for coping with emotional doldrums.  

They could be perceived as intellectually twisted, quirky with the aesthetics of Vincent Leow, Tang Mun Kit and the Artists Village.  The discussion of installation art, art brut (for painters), naïve art, Paul Klee can be quoted in reference to Jeremy’s work. 

 Vincent Leow, a prominent local artist was a major influence for Jeremy both in terms of providing opportunities to exhibit, as well as a stylistic impetus to draw and paint. An immediate response from a more traditional audience will be ‘these are not paintings, but doodles’ or ‘you got to be kidding right?’ Objects and subject matter, imaginary-nice-drawings were juxtaposed with text in barely discernible syntaxes, a symptom of Singlish at its best, and painted often in child-like demeanor. There is an element of randomness, and surprises in Jeremy’s work, a characteristic shared by perhaps other young artists like Benjamin Puah (Ben the Rat), Erzan Adam. Some have gone further to describe these works as ‘kinky manifestations of the post-modern condition’, whatever that means. These works, perhaps made fashionable by Vincent Leow and Tang Mun Kit, pride process over product, with little concern for the nanyang style that Singapore Art stems from, or at least says the book “Channels and Confluences” by Kwok Kian Chow. If Liu Kang, a teacher can inspire and influence a generation of local artists (Singapore Artists Directory. [Singapore] : Published by Prime Prints Pte. Ltd. with the assistance of the Ministry of Community Development, c1987), Vincent Leow is a key to understanding the style of these younger artists.

 The first installment of the ‘series’ of exhibits at p-10 are crude. But only if you regard Louise Bourgeois’ works as crude.  I can’t help but feel sympathetic about artists, with the image of Vincent Van Gogh painting feverish at his canvas. Is this the image of an artist most of us associate artists with? The early series of Jeremy, such as ‘painting with a vacuum cleaner’ or Mona Lisa with buttons as nipples, when depressed emit a pre-recorded mechanical laughter are antagonistic against the system of art. The purpose was probably not to shock, but a reaction against his art training and society’s perception of art. You could paint how ever you wanted; if Jackson Pollock could paint with drips and drops in a tin can with a hole in the bottom, surely painting with a vacuum cleaner would be acceptable. The Mona Lisa represents the priceless quality of art and if it’s the only artwork that comes to mind when asked to name ‘a good piece of art’, we should be concern with who and what determines good art and art that’s worth a laugh. The artist has obviously decided to be that determinant.  

The second installment “Paradise/Terrorise” at p-10 are more sophisticated and layered in meaning. These large prints feature masked characters indulging in activities in a make-believe garden. Two compositions strike me. One of the ‘Dogs playing cards’[1], by a painter unfamiliar to me, and Henri Matisse’s ‘The Dance’. The defiance of reality or realism, and reliance on canons adds complexities to reading his work. They are no doubt funny and hilarious to view, but yet sinister. the masked figures, not so much suggest anonymity but suggest the intention to conceal, adding to the myth of these photographs. Who are these figures? Are they part of a cult? Are they celebrating a boy’s world of make believe, filled with sweet bearing angels and guns? The large prints enable the viewer to pour over the details and muse over the perfections and imperfections of the photograph. These prints resemble studio shots, exuding a professional quality and resolute sharpness of grain. These ring like the cash register in my head, and give the impression that they cost so much more to produce compared with the earlier DIY works.  Perhaps the resolution of the artist was more than breathing fresh air, to produce brilliant works that are about the product and about the process; works that step beyond the shadow of low-craftsmanship ‘kinky manifestations’ as criticized by others. 

P-10, 9 Feb to May 4. 

Part VI: This Is Not A Mushroom
tickleart, citylink mall towards Esplanade
15 April – 14 June

[1] Online search suggests that Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1937) might be the artist of the dog playing cards series. These paintings are often plagiarized and mass-produced into tourist trinkets.

Transit – Transition by Wolfgang Laib

Touching the substance of the matter

I first came across German Artist, Wolfgang Laib’s work in an exhibition catalogue some years back. For me, it drew visual references to the works of Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings, Anish Kapoor’s fascination for pigment and intensity of pure colours, and not forgetting life of Joseph Beuys — breathing the myth of the artist. This exhibition at Institute of Contemporary Art, Singapore (ICAS), Earl Lu Gallery featured some of Wolfgang Laib’s more endearing works that transcend material cultures, and evades a definitive eastern or western philosophy perspective of nature. His works are simple, yet profound if one chose to imbue the reading of his work as such. The simple, un-altered state of the natural matter echo a sense of timelessness as if he merely extended nature’s creative processes into the realm of man-made art.

At the heart of Laib’s work must be the intrinsic qualities of the material used, and the potent symbolism they hold in different cultural contexts and exhibition venues. Milkstone (1977) consists of a slab of marble, a vessel to a thin surface of milk. Milk, could potentially be the universal symbol of life – ranked after water! – a representation of universal motherhood of animals and human beings. The work, I was told, needs to be managed everyday, emptying and refilling with fresh milk. There is no doubt that there is a certain performative aspect of the work, the test of patience and meticulous attention required. One can almost imagine the artist repeating the process of cleaning and refilling the vessel-slab daily; the gallery assistants repeating it the same way; the collector par-taking the same painstaking steps of creating the artwork, day after day. The work potentially echoes Ad Reinhardt’s black canvas, Malevich’s White on White, or a certain ‘natural’ rebellion against the man-made, politics driven art establishment, like Daniel Buren’s stripes are to Museums.

Laib’s work seems to contain deliberated contradictions. In Passageway – Overgoing (1996), 7 chunks of beewax are placed on wooden scaffolds, which the viewer may walk under as they walked through the gallery. The ship-like beewax seem to be heading in one direction, but in reality, heading nowhere. The weight of the beewax is manifested in the spiritual journey it potentially represents and the physical weight the wooden platform is sustaining. The contradiction is necessary. Just like ricehouse (1988-99) made of marble, rice and hazelnut pollen. The piece is not made of rice, but suggests the idea of sustenance, protection given by a house; the piece is obviously not meant to physically feed the hunger of the world. This reading of the work adds a certain sense of poetry, and a fine counter balance in the ‘composition’ of meaning of the work.

The appreciation of Laib’s work seems to built on an aesthetics of Minimalism and Conceptualism, with a hint of performance art in the constructing the installations. It is minimal in it’s choice of material in it’s pure, un-altered form. It is conceptual because it employs conjuring a mental image of the artist hunched in field’s collecting pollen in Pollen from Pine (1999), and the work can be re-constructed by assistants based on a set of instructions dictated by the artist. Pollen, a potent ingredient for creation, summons the feeling of summer – birds, butterflies, bees et al.

I think some will find it hard to appreciate Laib’s seemingly minimal and simple work. The ritual behind his work is easily mistaken as a simple process. The concept of ‘ritual’ may seem to be an over-statement in our eastern cultural context. Our daily lives are so imbued with spiritual ritual – Taoist daily offerings to our ancestors, or Kavadi laden men during Deepavali (Dewali). By considering Laib’s work as a ‘ritual’ almost seems a sacrilege. The aesthetics of this lies in the western existentialist belief that art, in it’s purest act is almost ‘religious’. And the ritual of art seems be a demonstration of our existence – in artefacts of culture that are often hailed as artefacts synonymous with culture itself. The processes that Laib conceals in his work, and only revealed in the video-documentary is almost like a call for us to appreciate simple natural matter. The effort it takes to harvest a jar of pollen by one person, and to scatter it meticulously with a sieve on a totally flat surface! This I suspect may be alien to Singaporeans who live in a concrete jungle, who has probably never fully realised the literal phrase ‘stop to smell the flowers’.

In conversation with June Yap – deputy director and a curator with ICAS – during her guided tour on a Sunday, we concluded that Laib’s work shared certain aesthetics and appeal with Beuys’. In a way, Beuys was the extroverted maker while Laib was the introverted projection of that same artistic concerns and persona. The life of the artists seem important stepping stones to understanding the works. The histories of the artists blend into the understanding of the works. Both believed in the healing nature of the materials and their presentation and context as art. Both participated rituals with the construction of their works. Both, I suppose, will be remembered for using beewax. Laib’s work will also be remembered as being extremely delicate, meditative, fragile, nature-sensitive, transient, peaceful looking, transcendental and remarkably quiet. And that is the truth of the matter.

3 stars of 5

Transit – Transition by Wolfgang Laib

Mar 30, 2006 – May 7, 2006

reviews I wish I had written in April

Cubism in Asia: Unbounded Dialogues18 Feb 2006–09 Apr 2006

4 of 5 stars for both shows/events

Future of Imagination

1- – 14 April 2006

SHO – Personal Moments of Truth

the performance, perfections and failure of a single act 

Writing is a privilege and a necessity to record, narrate and remember. The Japanese ‘way of writing’ (shō do) brings writing to life, by imbuing the unique presence of the writer in the writing. What is most revealing about this exhibition is in the small photographs that show the vigorous process of the artist performing the writing of a single character – the facial expression, the tense muscles and poised body. The gesture, is by no means simple. To many, this exhibition may seem a tad of over-indulgent homage to a single calligrapher, but then again, we do have a personal museum dedicated to our own local cultural medallionist, Tan Swie Hian.  The calligrapher, at the heart of the universe, can say so much in one stroke. The unique script on exhibit, is at least a mark of artist, a self-portrait of sorts. 

There are two things we can see from this exhibition.  

Firstly, from a semiotic perspective, the hieroglyphic Chinese characters seem to embody the signified and signifier, and when performed in writing, the essence or truth of an idea is depicted. Perhaps this is why calligraphy is a mental exercise, a meditative search or reflection of a certain truth. Imagine the calligrapher writing the word ‘Ren’ () or crudely translated as ‘endure’ or persevere. Can the sense of endurance be felt by any reader? Or is the cursive text an abstract form – an obstacle to understanding the word through calligraphy?  

Secondly, it allows us to substantiate and perhaps understand the essence of performance art, if we see performance art’s relation to the esteemed learned calligrapher, a narrator brandishing a brush. While many pieces in this exhibition seemed genuine, and indeed somewhat recognizable of representing the signified and the signifier, some are not very coherent by my laymen standards. Perhaps a single thought cannot and shouldn’t be succinctly captured in one act. 

While many of the cursive kanji characters on exhibit in glass frames are almost abstract, they represent the body, the vigorous physical movement of its maker, Yoshio Norizuki. Words in Chinese can be described as ‘hierogyphic’. The root word of each character can be traced to some ancient pictogram, corresponding to an object or idea of an object. For example, the word ‘Shui’ () means water, and the ancient hierogyphic equivalent is three wavy lines.  Such Chinese characters use a symbol for each idea and is universal in its potentiality. A picture of a chicken is a picture of a chicken in Brazil or China, with subtle variations, or at least I believe this to be so. Henri Michaux remarked that ‘the oriental belief that the state of mind and quality of gesture were central to the ability to shape a beautiful script. Calligraphy practiced in this way, was an act of writing that, unlike the West, sought to place the body at the centre of its aesthetics’. The body, and its movement, becomes the measure of this aesthetics, and perhaps could be applied to the performative visual arts – theatre, dance, live art. The body, in ergonomic ways, is a measure of beauty. 

I half suspect Yves Klein would have made a good calligrapher, had he made up his mind to drag his brushes (women) across the paper to write, stating more clearly his authorship of his work. Perhaps even a signature of Yves Klein, like how Piero Manzoni would sign his body of work. Of course, in Klein’s body paintings, or anthropometries, the aesthetics was probably divided between the actual performance and the finished paintings. Just as Pollock never intentionally showed photographs of his act of ‘action painting’ until they were published by Hans Namuth, the actual action of painting formed much of the discourse of the American Abstract Expressionism. It was supposed much later that Pollock saw the works of the Japanese Calligraphers. If Yves Klein or Pollock had made references to Sho, perhaps Western hegemony of performance art would have been more readily contested in the East, against the backdrop of Gutai Group in Japan. The exhibition doesn’t make any protest or reference to live art, which would have changed the perception of calligraphy today, and the piece of work by Tan Swie Hian at the 50th Venice Biennale. Many say they hate the pretentious work, but I rather like it. 

Another argument against the merit of the exhibit is trying to signify too much with only one aspect of Japanese calligraphy, with one calligrapher. But what is special is these are new pieces written specially for the exhibition. I could almost imagine the tiny photographs which intrigued me, to be much bigger and an actual exhibit, rather than some explanation or accompanying wall text.   

This exhibition should be considered together with the performance art festival, Future of Imagination 3. The art of calligraphy, if appreciated and accepted by the traditional audience, can extend the same bodily aesthetics to appreciate performance art, albeit in a different context, syntax and physical surface.  

3 of 5 stars 

SHO – Personal Moments of TruthJapanese Calligraphy by Yoshio Norizuki1 March to 31 August 2006