Monthly Archives: June 2006

Supernaturalartificial: contemporary photo-based art from Australia

Smaller than previously exhibited; Understandably composed

A timely photography exhibition, perhaps touted as a follow-up to Singapore Art Museum’s Australasia (2004), Supernaturalartificial celebrates digital manipulation. With the Month of Photography, a French affair imported to Singapore to start by the end of June, fine art photography enthusiasts should find this in good contrast to whatever the French can offer to us at the Arts House, and Alliance Francaise. The gallery space is rather well curated, with good visual flow and spacing of works with moving images. This traveling exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, stashed secretly under the counter and watched over by the security guard.

Photography and its technologies have reached a state that it is no longer bound by ‘truth telling’, and indeed narratives at all. It can be appreciated for its abstract pigment qualities just like painting. It can look like a painting too, like in Tracy Moffatt’s "Invocations". Moffatt’s work does look a bit like traditional ink on paper, in texture, composition and colour. Digital manipulation is here to stay. Digital photography has reached such a consumer level that almost anyone can take pictures, good ones and bad ones. And I suppose bad photographs especially, need that extra special effect that warps the image further. Most of the images in this exhibition fortunately didn't go that far for that extra special effect. The images in this exhibition are surreal and extra ‘not quite right’ when you glare at it for that extra instance. They are incredibly sleek in presentation, something Singapore photographers are not keen to spend on. I have the impression that Singapore photographers take after Wolfgang Tilmans more, preferring to use masking tape, small-head pins and the ubiquitous compressed foam or black frame with windowed mounting card. This exhibition is worth seeing to expect better framing, both conceptually and physically speaking, rather than ranting about a lomo snap shot aesthetics, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment gone awry. If photography arguably brought a ‘certain death’ to painting, then digital imaging must and should push the medium conceptually and physical representation too.

The most natural thing for me was to find the work that best represented the theme. Eliza Hutchinson’s “The Ancestors” came up tops, both in execution and concept. The work featured portraits of a man and woman in an extremely contorted expression, jugular veins almost popping, as if they were hung upside down and forced to smoke at the same time. These corpse-like portraits possibly touched on issues of ancestry, a touchy issue given Australia’s history. The concept of memory recorded through photography is of interest to discuss in relation to the work. A photograph, as Susan Sontag argues in On Photography, is more complicated than simply recording a scene. A successful image evokes emotions, powerful ones too. The photographs rival high fashion photography in sharpness, contrast, uncanny makeup, and lighting. The studio shot is perhaps an example of an artifice to a ‘natural look’ in itself. The title provides the contradiction necessary for the viewer to take a closer look, at the pictures. And they are not death portraits, but possibly actors or the artist and friend.The second interesting work, despite its resemblance to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series, except this time it’s a female protagonist, is Monika Tichacek’s “Lineage of the Divine”. The glossy lipsticks remind me of John Currin’s busty women paintings, a critique of the stereotyping of women. The image is slightly soft in focus creating a surreal feel, like an air stewardess dressed in a pink uniform. The work obviously reels in Kitsch, possibly appealing to a certain male population in Singapore, probably expecting some other arty thing to happen. Nothing other than lip pouting happens.

The title of the exhibition possibly plays on the word “superficial”, inserting the contradictory word “natural”, against the word “artificial”. This should encourage to viewer to consider the processes these works have possibly undertaken, the subject matter they have captured (e.g. Changi Airport’s bonsai orchids) and the final presentation of the work. The rest of the works not mentioned in this text are subtle, and each works quietly in their own way with emphasis on the media or subject matter befitting of the curatorial title. Some of the works have not used digital manipulation, but deliberately used traditional film-based photography to highlight the superficiality of the nature of certain genre of photographs, regardless of the equipment and the carrier of the image. What this exhibition should say to photographers wannabes, is to compose your photographs, both conceptually and physically.

3.0 of 5 stars, despite the smaller exhibition

NAFA Gallery 1

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Migration Addicts

Give sculpture square a pat(ch)

The curatorial text suggested that the exhibition will be about: “migration” and “addiction”…mobility and fluidity of the urban citizen and the “rootlessness” felt by the individual. In reality, the works seem to be threaded together by 7 artists that have had some travel, and dealt with some aspects of alienation. The works are definitely less about 7 days spent infusing in the atmosphere of the Sculpture Square gallery, making site specific work; rather it seems to be reactions to socio-emotions when one thinks about migration, not necessarily par-taking in it. In other words, anyone should be able to relate to the works, if they had been following some current affairs, and have taken public transport. The exhibition mini-catalogue creatively takes the form of a minaturised passport, with Sculpture Square’s logo brazen in gold, and artist’s work description, with images of previous works. This review will make reference to some of the works, those that stick out and not really a critique of how the work relates to the curatorial brief.

The first thing that greets the viewer on entering the space, is a giant platform with what seems to be a whip attached to a mechanical arm. This was under repair at the time of visit. I can imagine the work would have been better if the platform was coloured differently. The din created by the whipping would have created a curious tension of the entire exhibition, and affecting the other works. This anxiety would have allowed other readings into the work, rather than staring at a long, limp black object. It is perhaps the most intimidating work, if it was functional.

Those unfamiliar with the presentation of contemporary art that parodies commerce, will find Jiang Chongwu’s “New East Asia, Made in China” amusing. It resembles Surasi Kusolwong’s “Freedom of Choice (1 pound each)” of 1999 shown at Cities on the Move, where everything within the framework of a shop within the museum or gallery, could be sold for a price, much like a street market. The gallery visitor can exchange Singapore currencies for New East Asia currency and ‘purchase’ or exchange them for toys made in China, in denominations of $5 and $10. What the layman or shrewd business minded will do in front of the work, is guess the profit of the middle man, the artist or the gallerist. Does this reveal the game of the commodity art market, which the art world frequently crosses into? Or does it mock the spiritual aspect of art making? Whatever the case, I do find it hard to part with a tenner for a plastic rifle. The work feeds on the culture and understanding of Kitsch, the global phenomenon of the rising manufacturing super giant, China. If the writer doubts me, just look at the next electrical appliance you see, and guess where it is made. It’s not only New East Asia that is Made in China, the consumer-material world is practically made in China.

Another work that is extremely Kitsch is the work by Jin Shan titled “Shen Zhou 7”, made of flower pattern fabric, in the odd shape of China’s Space Rocket of the same name. Depending on one’s taste, this work could arguably be the 'visual' keystone in the exhibition, or the worse piece of art. The work is not surprisingly phallic, spot lit in the centre of the gallery. It is rather cute, bordering on being vulgar. I think it is more of a practical joke on the adult viewer suppressing a giggle, and the notion that art has to be serious with a theme like “migration”, conjuring up images of forced migration due to natural disasters, wars and economic doldrums, than a serious critique on the Chinese Space exploration efforts, and it’s relation to ‘migration to space’. Nonetheless, the work is great fun to look at, and nostalgic to those that still know what a bolster is.

The work by Zulkifle Mahmod, titled “In My Space”, is a poetic work in concept to block out the noise and enter a neutral space, much like retreating into one’s head and hearing the buzz of ‘silence’; a condition that one appreciates or fears of being alone. Being alone is a situation that most commuters in Singapore indulge or suffer from, witnessed on blank faces on trains and buses. It resembles Korean Artist Lee Bul’s work, where one enters a cushioned capsule to sing Karaoke to the artist’s own MTV. Superficially, it reminded me of Rachel Whiteread’s “Ghost” (1990), the plaster cast interior space of a house that was knocked down, it it’s dichotomy of absence and presence. After discussion with another fellow artist who prides craftsmanship, we came to the conclusion that the work could have been better executed, and with black sponge that will soak up the light and not just the sound. The dodgy white sponge looked unconvincing of its sound-proofness, and walking around the structure worries me. The atrociously trimmed and secured black curtain within tickles and seems redundant other than a curtain of inconvenience, or to mask temporarily the shock of whoever may actually be in it. There are speakers in the corner of room, but no sound was coming from it when I was there.

Ang Soo Koon’s work “Bekerja” wasn’t working, and from the wall text, I’d gathered the Super-8 film work featured her as a factory seamstress, a la American Artist Sophie Calle style. The projectors were placed, with aluminum structures raised high above the antique stained plinths, revealing the Super-8 film instead of using a 400ft film reel. Unfortunately for the audience of Singapore, especially those curious of the glory of 8mm film. Even to the untrained eye, a projected image from a Super-8 film looks starkly different from a LCD projection. To those familiar with projected images, the work would have been able to evoke nostalgia of Singapore’s rapid industrialization years. This work remains a concept in my head, until screened.

Suzanne Winterling’s “Vision of a Diamond City” poses the legitimacy of performance art as sculpture, in the tradition of British Artists, Gilbert and George or Vanessa Beecroft’s exhibition of nudes. The work tries to make a link to the concept of cyberpunk teenagers, a loaded term itself, and fails miserably, even when it is put on a plinth. Unlike the Singing Sculptures and Beecroft’s performances, the work is not controversial at all and show two teenagers standing there, with the change in costume after sometime. I can imagine the feeling of the models, just like Gillian Wearing’s “Sixty Minute Silence” of 3 rows of men and women dressed in police uniform of 1996. For some strange reason, I am reminded of Maid agencies, and the blank look of prospective domestic workers when they gaze out of the shop front, into their future, and perhaps seeing many scenes and things. Some people call this the ‘spaced out look’, a state of mental migration, traveling inwards and nowhere at the same time. I’m tempted to quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but feel talking about the work should stop here.

Naho Kawabe’s “Tiger, Wake Up”, features the sound loop of a nature reserve setting, and a video loop of a view of a ‘forest’. From the title, we can expect some representation of a tiger, perhaps a metaphor for the close knit relationship Singapore has to Malaysia, or the dodgy history of General Tiger Yamashita from World War II. The viewer anticipates something, but what my gut feeling tells me, will get nothing. The work is rather amateurish, like a boy let loose with a new video camera with night vision.

The show lacks impact with the whip impotent and super-8 projectors indecisively out of action. The works are indeed thought provoking, but not as much as the curatorial writeup and ‘promise’. A very ambitious exhibition deserving better technical support. Sculpture Square deserves a pat on the back for use of the high ceiling and well spaced works, but requires a patch for the poor technical considerations for 3 of 7 works.

2.5 of 5 stars
Sculpture Square

SSS Milestones Project @ library 2006

@National Library, miles away from ideal

I think the exhibit organizers (not curators) have grossly under-estimated the effectiveness of the art works or have ill-consideration to site the sculptures by right in the middle of the ground floor open air plaza at the National Library, dwarfing the sculptures by Michael Ong, Sim Lian Huat, Han Sai Por and Yeo Chee Kiong.

The commissioned works shown in parts at various libraries around Singapore is an ambitious effort to push for a greater understanding of what sculptures are today. Public art is often construed to present a necessary narrative, form and spatial intervention.  Little information, collectively, is available on public sculptures in Singapore; sculptures commissioned to be enjoyed, pondered by Singaporeans for generations to come and not simply a splurge or sign of wealth. Public sculptures have the ability to imbue ‘qi’ into an otherwise lifeless building – it is more likely people will gather at public sculptures to stop, ponder, eat, chat and meet than at a lift lobby hindering human traffic. If the public sculpture is interesting enough, the viewer is motivated to stop, whip out a camera or camera-phone and take a snap shot for whatever personal reasons.

While this exhibit is temporal, and perhaps shouldn’t be classified as public art, maybe it would have been better to site then in the ‘final’ locations, and provide a better printed introduction. With the above mentioned aspirations of what I feel public sculptures should be, I think the exhibit has fallen short of good curatorial practice. Some works seem to have dodgy surfaces which I doubt will stand the test of time in the open, unless the surface were meant to peel and flake! The size of the works presented here, other then Sai Por’s “A Garden City” are more suitable indoors, or at least in a more intimate space, with consideration for natural or superficial light. 

References to good curatorial practice when it comes to locating and commissioning public art can be found in City Art: New York's Percent For Art Program (Paperback) [ISBN: 185894290X], edited by Eleanor Heartney and Adam Gopnik.

1.0    of 5 stars

National Library

The Scenic Eye, Visual Arts and the Theatre

Typically Fluxus re-presented in quiet whispers and a nice big, dark space

The exhibition title is almost baffling. I think the ‘scene’ here refers to the change in scenes of a play in parts. This is not to be confused by a 'scenic landscape' and a photographer's keen perception to capture the 'scenic view'.

Here, the viewer is almost encouraged to consider these artworks in mindful of German theatrical art practices. Brecht, perhaps?The exhibition space is splendid for works that require a dark space – works spanning across disciplines of the visual arts and Theatre. The space is luxurious, standing at “At 1200 square metres, double volume, and totally column free, this is the largest exhibition space of museum standard in Singapore”.

The exhibition’s first impression was the quiet whispers from the speakers of numerous works. For example Hans Peter Kuhn’s “Middle Place” (1996), surrounded by 4 speakers spewing the sound of waves circling the listener who sat on a chair on a platform, watched by other viewers. Or Ute Weiss’s “Walking Down the Street”, captured voices playing through 4 pillar-booths with door viewers, and one-way reflective surfaces. The listener in the booth then becomes on ‘display’ and could be observed by from the outside. The listener feels as if they are eavesdropping on interviews, sharing in on a secret.

“The Legend of Colour”, by Qiu Yufen, extends 3 metres above ground with a veil like fabric extending downwards from Mao-style blazers. The blazers are of different colours, reminding me of a colour pencil set. Others built like miniature exhibition booths and the careful spotlighting. Overall, it was a considered viewing space to see the works for the viewer to consider the works, given the nature of the works, and some subtle reference to war and holocaust , example in Jochen Gerz’s “Purple Cross for Absent War” (1979/1996). The work included a tunnel with a television on a plinth with an image of a man''s head. a purple UV light tube was on the floor, and a steel cable ran across the vision of the viewer at the beginning of the tunnel, 'severing' the head. Because of the audio, some of the works seemed like props to a performance, and we are merely watching the documentation. The works now only interact with the audience one-way. Through this exhibition, it was possible to imagine that performance art, or live art was an extension of theatre, and dance in the fashion of Pina Bausch, moving beyond of the physical space of a theatre, and conceptual comforts of narrative. The audience for this extended theatre needs to be constantly working, participating in every movement of the actors and props in the epic theatre to make any sense. I can imagine it to be excruciating to watch German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s plays, like a seven year old watching Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams”. As a result of the dark space, the works, under the careful spotlighting are particularly outstanding, despite some of the work’s inherent familiarity to ‘child’s play’ typical of Fluxus art – paint strewn canvas, paper mache dinosaur egg-like sculptures, naïve-art like automatism drawings. Of course, some works are truly outstanding in its visual impact, like the work by Wolf Vostell “Which Music creates the Mind’s Barrier” or “The Fluxus Harp”, a scaled model tank bolted to a plinth with steel cables, and an uncanny high pitched sound, as if someone was pulling an imaginary bow across these cables. The work probably made reference to the world wars, and seem to suggest that ‘fluxus music will sooth the savage beast’, a catharsis of energy and remembrance of tragic events.

Fluxus art can be defused by humour, if one reads too much into it. I recall seeing Joseph Beuy's "Reading Poetry to a Dead Hare" in a lecture, and the confusion i had in my head. I did find the image funny but nobody was laughing. Was Beuy's making a statement about art not being reciprocated, because we are all stuck up or 'culturally dead'? In a nutshell, this exhibition was a good follow up to the Singapore Art Museum’s presentation on German Art several years back, and a good range of works to work the brain. The relationship of theatre and the visual arts is best mediated by works in the likes of Matthew Barney's Cermaster, that has claimed international recognition and acknowledgement, which sadly are absent from this slightly nationalistic show. But then again, it is in the National Museum, isn't it?

3.0 of 5 stars

National Museum, till July 23

Prop*lematic by Claudia Conducto

Not a problem perhaps

The exhibition consists of a gallery filled with filled with 6 modest paintings, digital prints on canvas and smeared with acrylic paint in abstract expressionist gusto, and another lower gallery filled with scaffolding beams purposefully and meticulously installed. There is that suggestion of a technical and mechanical Sublime when it comes to any discussion of seeing industrial objects used in art. A problem perhaps, there should have been more beams, perhaps extending into the upper gallery. Any repeated word, phrase, sentence or object gains an uncanny beauty that is almost synonymous with the Sublime. The title ‘prop*lematic’ is suggestive of ‘problems with something’ and ‘supported by something’; which I will try to explain in this text.

The exhibition at PKW challenged the structure of a gallery, of the art market perhaps, by placing numerous huge squarish scaffolding extendable beams in space 2, and the unassuming paintings in space 1. Strange but beautiful, if you are into geometry of industrial equipment in any symmetry. It was as if the building was bracing itself for an imaginary earthquake heading to shake the foundation of the building. A problem perhaps. There aren’t any earthquakes in Singapore. Metaphorically, if we were to imagine the coming Singapore Biennale as these scaffolds, it does seem to make poetic sensibility that these scaffolds are indoors, ironically protected by the building, and making the viewer unsure whether they will leave the building in better shape, or ruin the flooring. Perhaps the uncertainty of the art market mechanism is problematic. You are never quite sure of its relation to the artist, just as the relation of these scaffold beams to the building. Who’s supporting who? What’s the role of the non-buyer as viewer? This inverted façade reminded me of Mark Wallinger’s installation of a false giant billboard façade of the United Kingdom pavilion. He was perhaps interested in revealing the superficiality and façade of the Venice Biennale as a huge Public Relations Exercise of the art world and all its representatives.

The paintings bear some relation to the installation work. A problem perhaps. Both are about these mysterious scaffolding beams that you don’t get often in Singapore. The paintings are pretty to look at, with the occasional recognizable shape, even with the underlying images of the scaffolding storage yard .These scaffold parts seem foreign. A problem perhaps? The photographic prints on canvas reveals the artists fascination for Form, depicting repeated patterns of the scaffolding form different angles, each marveling the industrial perfection required to produced these, which in turns help produce other industrial matter – buildings. It distracts the viewer from the visible brush strokes. A problem perhaps. These gestural strokes that plague the surface of the canvas seems to review and reveal the structures of painting — the paint, the primed canvas and wooden stretcher. On closer look, these earthy-coloured strokes are more like meditative calligrapher’s strokes, Tapies light compositions than brutal De Kooning or Julian Schnabel. They also seem incredibly flat, given the ‘gesture’ they represent. While the rhetoric of the death of painting hastened by photography, and a push down a ravine by the invention of video and the internet, this artist isn’t too concerned with traditionalist interpretations of what paintings is (in Singapore) and should be. The subject matter, the props of the exhibition is the main focus of the artist. Not a problem perhaps.

2.5 stars of 5
till end Jun 2006, PKW Gallery