Monthly Archives: May 2007

Zeng Fanzhi – Idealism

Idealism awry
entrance from lower gallery

This exhibition of 36 major works includes those from his celebrated series Hospital, Meat, Mask and Portraits. The exhibition also features new works from the Untitled (Night) series that have never been exhibited. Idealism is an exhibition that captures the tension between greatness and emptiness, joyousness and alienation, sentiments echoed in Zeng’s powerful expressionist style. The exhibition departs from the chronological presentation of Zeng’s works at international museums and galleries. Zeng responds to the gallery spaces of SAM and the interplay of the theme of idealism. A retrospective-scaled exhibition, Idealism is site specific to SAM and the exhibition’s curatorial direction for which the artist has created new works.

(extracted from SAM website)

This ‘retrospective-scale’ exhibition is worth visiting, especially if you are a painter. It occupies as much space as Chen Wen Hsi’s retrospective. It is worth visiting if you are interested in large expressionistic paintings, the blend between Frank Auerbach, Jackson Pollock and Gerhard Richter’s works in appearance. It is a draw if you are keen to see what the fuss  Contemporary Chinese painting is all about.

If one is any familiar with contemporary painters from China, we will know that their subject matter often deals with cynicism of the social and political development of China under the older Communist regime, before the sleeping dragon awoke to the whiff of foreign trade and capitalism. China today, is often regarded as a super power, with huge foreign currency surpluses. The ‘idealism’ that is suggested in the title is pure sarcasm or romanticised-beliefs that the artist truly holds. It hides the same dim view of the state of (worldly) affairs, and it would be a over simplistic summary of what happened to immediate post-war China. It seems to suggest that the idealism had gone awry, and bred corruption, inefficiency, contempt, disillusionment and more; that is before the dragon awoke.

A painting titled “fire” in the lower gallery, facing the enterance strikes a match. It illuminated the status of  contemporary Chinese art in Singapore. The chaotic strokes-style, reminisce of Pollock’s action paintings seems to mask the painting, shielding the fire. The fire reminded me of the story of Plato’s cave, except painting has no other subject matter, cave or shadow. Is this the real thing? Art at it’s pinnacle? Maslow’s self-actualisation in the form of a painting? It also rekindled my imagination of Qin Shi Huang (1st Emperor of unified China) burning historic and classic books in circa 213 BCE, and the ashes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  It reminded me of the never before frenzy to buy contemporary Chinese art at Christie’s auction, in recent months.

In the upper gallery, the subject matter seem to ply ‘masks’ or puppet like portraits with large eyes and hands, not unlike Czech Marionettes or Indonesian Wayang Goleks. Like puppets, they seem to suggest a fate beyond their own hands, forced to put on a false pretense. The colour pencil pictures in the upper gallery are worth special mention, detailed and substantial studies to their painted enlargements.

While it is frightening to think that the work is site-specific (see curatorial text extracted above), ranting idealism and it’s dual message in our pristine white gallery space depicting almost grotesque pink “Man and Meat” (1993), it is food for thought. Fanzhi’s paintings are but a trickle representation of the kinds of ‘masks’ people wear for profit and personal gain. While we speak of progress and our elites (not elitists), Singapore Kindness Movement, a step closer to our communitarian idealism which kicks off this week is perhaps a timely reminder for those few whom climb the ladder of success. Spare a thought for others, not just spare change.

8 of 10 stars

April 30 – July 11, 2007

Singapore Art Museum

All pictures with the kind permission of the Singapore Art Museum. All rights reserved by the artist and owners of the works.
Selected pictures, click below:

Zeng Fanzhi – Idealism

Wong Keen A Singapore Abstract Expressionist

Another link in Singapore’s ‘2nd generation’ artist

Panoramic view of Wong Keen’s work
“People wouldn’t reach the future, until they have touched the past”. If you are keen to see another development of Singapore’s abstract art in full bloom Asian Modernity, as opposed to the championed-likes of Thomas Yeo and Anthony Poon, do catch this tiny display of 6-7 paintings, from an impressive donation of 63 works from the 1960s to date.

There has been much shadow on Singapore’s art history, when much has not been written or traced effectively. The best account remain’s Ho Ho Ying’s Chinese publication on Art Criticism and Cheo Chai-Hiang’s English translated edition (RE-CONNECTING. Selected Writings on Singapore Art) . Academia seem to be lacking or side-lined, benched by hype about new media and it’s lucrative market. The works of Wong Keen can best be described as Henri Chen in oil, or a more impressive variant of spiritual interest often displayed in master Tan Swie Hian’s works.

The catalogue is ill-suited, with it’s washed out colours pale against the actual works. While much is required to honour this impressive collection than the existing side gallery display, more is required to examine the artistic processes and thought of the artist.

3.0 of 10 stars.

Mar 9 – Jun 24, 2007

Singapore Art Museum

Glare by Julia Roberts (Aus)

 Visual Ode to Eucalyptus trees


The exhibition at the Substation Gallery will probably draw a respectable crowd, with its beautiful paintings of Eucalyptus trees – recognisable by it’s  slightly patchy grey but smooth bark, and bluish-grey leaves. What’s worth noting in this exhibition, is the effective use of panels to make up one painting. They serve as frames to re-consider these swirls and dabs on panels, like windows to the forest of the Australian Blue Mountains.

The paintings are beautiful in the following ways. The brushstrokes that constitute the leaves are slightly ‘watery’ much like glass paint, or oil paint that has a significant amount of oil vehicle to make them translucent and fresh. When lit correctly, perhaps these shimmer as well? One of the works, titled “Twilight” also reminded me of Andy Goldsworthy’s “Stone River“(2001), the meandering site specific installation, because it had an unusually long, curvaceous brushstroke that ran at the bottom of the painting.The panelling here is very effective, mimicking the trunks, appearing more when there is less.


The work can neither be described as ultra realistic, or pure graphic. There is an unusual flatness about the work that makes it slightly graphic. The blueness of the sky is perhaps something Singaporeans seldom enjoy, and may thus seem unnatural. The curious shaped white blobs that occupy the panels, like artificial camouflage patterns, are perhaps the ‘glare’ of the exhibition. They add to the flatness, yet layers the painting, simulating the reflections of the leathery leaves.

Flirt (detail from top right corner)


The brushstrokes also seem to animate the paintings, and I cannot help but wonder what the work would be like, in a cell animation. The use of frames has the significance of  cell animation too.Perhaps when taken in that new media, the work will truly take a life of it’s own.
The ‘glare’ that the artist has in mind, is probably the trees shimmering in the summer sun, and not any subtle reference to ills of society. The work doesn’t ‘glare’ at the art viewer. While the paintings may be a far cry from reflections of contemporary society, they are a stone throw’s away from reflecting nature. While I cannot say that one meditates in front of the paintings, like the Romantics depicting the Sublime and the awesome scale of nature, or the solemn Mark Rothko’s in isolation, there is a certain sense of serenity if one identifies with Blue Mountain, and the firm believe of nature in one’s life.

S o go out, see the exhibition, and take a long nature walk after that.

5 of 10 stars

Substation Gallery

Digital Dualism by Joan Kelly and Philip Baldwin

from Geylang to Second Life, a show stirring with controversy

The space has seen a few alternative or sub-cultural exhibitions including grafitti art or alternative book launches. The exhibition by Joan Kelly and Philip Baldwin feature unassuming, realistic acrylic portrait paintings, neat watercolour sketches and digital inkjet prints of ”skin’ maps, based on real people for virtual characters. The space is not peppered with a lot of works, and the 2 video pieces could be better represented if it had a bigger screen and a bigger screen capture of it’s intended content. The works have enough breathing space, leaving some room for the informed viewer to ponder; otherwise, one may quickly finish viewing the works in less than 5 minutes.


The exhibition at Basheer Gallery is rather understated, and more complex than Straits Time’s ‘review’ dated May 10 (Life! Section) reported. Crucial information is missing, or edited out. If one choses, the concepts of Simulations and Simulacra are called into play, where a painting, is arguably a simulacrum applied by a painter, just as convincing as a virtual character in cyber-space is. There is a certain relationship between a ‘dream for a better life’ portrayed in a painting with attitudes, and science-fiction.

The artists actually paid most of their sitters $30, and some of these sitters are actually sex workers from the area of Geylang, a sum perhaps they get for their services. Some of the sitters are perhaps frequent visitors to Gelylang, for food or other forms of pleasure. Having their portraits painted by a skilled portraitist has the following implications and readings. It bestows the subject/sitter with a certain status, just as how only the rich could have their portraits painted before the popularization of consumer photography as we know it. Through that sitting, they are forever immortalised in paint, striking a certain relationship to Art, and it’s connotations of civility and ‘culture’. To be painted involves spending time sitting still, not moving and subjected to scrutiny by the artist which many may find uncomfortable. In the case of Joan Kelly’s portraits, the scrutiny extends to a wider audience as she paints in coffee shops along Geylang, with curious onlookers peering over beer glass bottles and coffee mugs. Their anonymity, or separate identity as art ‘patrons’ or sitters are exposed.

Joan Kelly
Having one’s portrait taken, is often a statement of one’s existence. It anchors one’s position in a particular place and time – revealed by the materiality or background portrayed by the painter or photographer. The services of these Gelyang denizens are often shunned mentioning, considered a vice worse then gambling. Yet they continue to serve a particular strata of ‘society’, whoever their clients may be. Here, the artist attempts to remove the stigma of their trade, by ‘shifting’ , neutralising or cleansing their status through art. She tries to portray them as normal people. This however, doesn’t work because we still get the feeling that the work could be seen as exploitative. Ironically, my review is just as guilty, labelling and revoking their new found status, something that leaves me shifting in my seat. Is the attention necessarily beneficial, weighed against this brief encounter with Art?


The work of Philip involves digitizing the sitters faces, and mapping them onto characters placed in the popular virtual world of Second Life. Second Life, is perhaps the epitome of ‘dreaming of a better life’, a parallel world to meet new people without the stigma of your geographical location or appearance. In the videos, he tries to animate these characters by moving them through virtual space. I can only speculate the intent, because the portable Akira DVD player widescreen was a little tiny for viewing and reading. The video is not very clear where these virtual spaces are – there’s a scene where the unknown character flies through the air. These characters, perhaps were suppose to take on very different lives in virtual world. I am skeptical who actually takes control of these virtual characters, as you do need certain hardware and internet connection before the ‘play’ can start. No doubt the simulacra is intriguing, offering infinite ‘stimulated’ possibilities of an alternative identity. Like some criticism about virtual living, there is still a certain distance between this kind of virtual living and real life. By introducing these playthings, what exactly has changed in the real world?

While it is not stated in the exhibition text, I believe that the paintings were also introduced into the virtual world, where other second-life citizens can view the works. That perhaps is what the title of the exhibition suggests, a dualism of existence in virtual and real life. The controversy I speak of here, is the will of the artists over the portrayed, and whether the will of living in virtual space is shared or dictated for arts’ means. I would like to believe, perhaps from Geylang to cyber-space a second life is indeed granted.

5 of 10 stars

Gallery Basheer, 10am-8pm (Mon – Sat), 11am – 6.30pm (Sunday), #04-19 Bras Brasah Complex

till 10 May – 4 June

Me, Myself and ALL by Chun Kai Feng

building a need for space

Me, Myself and ALL by Chun Kai Feng

“Kaifeng is drawn towards notions of private/public space and of territory and structure. He speaks of the need for individuality and freedom along with conflicting desires for security and a relationship with the community.

His assemblage of objects and large scale drawings combined architectural elements, suggestively creating narratives that make references to reality. Imbued with tension and mystery, a seemingly innocent setup is at times dark and strangely humorous.” (curatorial wall text)

The works by Chun Kai Feng, at first sight, seem to be illustrations taken from a parallel world, shy of human presence. Images brimming with the suggestion of faraway horizons, 10 charcoal drawings line the ‘beginning of the tunnel, from City Link, followed by 5 sculptural models, and 3 coloured drawings on the end closer to the Esplanade. The wall after the sculptures are aptly painted grey, adding to an overbearing sense of melancholy and stasis in the work. The tungsten lights warm the works, pulling curious passerbys to take closer looks at the drawings and sculptures.

The works seem to follow this sequence and direction, as they bear illumination into this parallel world, like what one will get peering out the airplane window, or as the artist puts it, ‘from MRT train windows’. A broken narrative unravels, of a barren city devoid of human presence, with architecture built for simplicity and control, seen in the flat walls and barbed wires depicted. The forms are simple, and the function of these buildings, quirky and unknown. Architectural structures rise, with no ladders or staircases that breach from the ground. They are also remarkably uncanny, comical, Bizarro comic strips made alive. One of the mini-dioramas with loud speakers, actually resembles Van Gogh’s room after the painting “Bedroom in Arles” (1888). One of the mini-dioramas, has a smash glass door, with nothing in it except broken glass, as if someone has looted it all. This particular diorama, pointed out by artist Yeo Chee Kiong, perhaps is the interlude, pause or disruption in the narrative Kai Feng has weaved, because of it’s proximity to real life. It is grounded, and bears the familiar scene of smash glass. Chee Kiong adds that it is perhaps this ‘pause’ that makes the viewer possibly appreciate the other un-damaged sculptures even more. On another level of interpretation, this particular diorama is the set piece of the exhibition, presenting the shock or potential for damage, that adds to the need for security, seen in the drawings and models as fences, raised buildings. These forms of buildings are interesting because we want to acknowledge the psychological impact buildings play on us.

What may be interesting to know, is the charcoal drawings came after the sculptures. Kai Feng feels the drawings “give form to the ideas (in the sculptures) in an other way”, perhaps substantiating the creation of such a parallel world, like how J.R.R. Tolkien, an author of fantasy literature that gave the real world “Lord of the Rings” added maps to his stories. The mix of drawings and sculptures enhances each other, suggesting how ideas can take form in two dimension or more.

The artists also reveals his fascination with the concept of utopia, and how in history these have led to totalitarian rule. The work “the Optimist” (seen above) is the best example for what he said drew ideas from Michel Foucault’s panopticon mentioned in the book “Discipline and Punishment: the birth of the prison“. A long and tall staircase leads to a podium, facing 9 cells, each with a solitary chair. As what fellow artist Michael Lee remarked, it is interesting to note that the element of power could reside in the ‘optimist’ speaker on the lone podium, or the people that could sit in these rooms.

What the work succeeds in doing, is raising issues of private/public spaces and the anxieties we carry about them. It also raises issues of ‘public trust’ or what Singaporean’s refer affectionately to as a subset of Kampong Spirit. It is also perhaps interesting to note that the Sunday Times (May 6, 2007) ran an article of how easily their reporter gained accessed into 3 bedroom flats, on the pretext of using the toilet, than the more ‘affluent’ properties. The article suggested that those in lower income families, have perhaps nothing to lose, hence worry less when opening their front doors to strangers while those that have more valuables, have more to lose, in the event of a break-in.

The works here should raise debate about the meeting of public and private spaces, and the functions and needs which they serve as our society grows increasingly affluent, while the income gaps widen. In the light of the global threat of terrorism, the need for ‘Security’ is even greater. Should we provide concrete parks (third charcoal drawing) built like multi-storey carparks surrounded with fences, benches thrown in, so we may feel safe? Who are we protecting our properties from? Or would the alienation cause a greater reaction, and a greater threat or more targets for terrorism?

While the works also suggest alienation, because of its depressive muted colours, and subtle undertones; they could also be admired for its wits in off the wall logic and humour. While many artists such as Tom Sachs takes dig at capitalism with carefully constructed models, and Singapore artist Tan Wee Lit (Trading Blows, 2003) that uses constructed toys and models to illustrate concepts, Kai Feng has something going, building a strong message for the need for secure spaces – we just have to watch how we get there, and at what or who’s costs.

7.0 of 10 stars

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