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.
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