Apt, but Q-rious selection
The 4 month long exhibition opened on Aug 15, 2008, asking visitors to dress up in school uniforms, or to dress up as teachers. while I probably wouldn’t have a problem with the latter instruction, a different kind of school matters kept me away.
While the retrofitting of the school could hardly be classified as architecturally exciting, the new space is functional. The glass encasement of selected portions of the building,consistent with the Singapore Art Museum a stone’s throw distance away. The brightly coloured exterior walls will probably excite children more, as seen in the above picture album taken on children’s day. Familiar with larger spaces for contemporary art, such as the Tate Modern in London or PS1 in New York, 8Q seems more modest, and suited for more intimate installations, paintings and multimedia works. The inclusion of this primary coloured premise, with a Children’s Art Loft to boot, seems to break the stultifying effect suffered by SAM when the reborn sibling sited across the road, the National Museum started offering better spreads of contemporary art – in more exciting and challenging terms, for example the International Symposium of Electronic Arts (ISEA) and the largest living artist retrospective on Matthew Ngui both in 2008.
The opening of the new space is fronted by two exhibitions, 8 Q-Rated: School, and Masriadi: Black is My Last Weapon. While the strengths of each exhibition differs, it does seem, by virtue of the allocated floor space (ie. resources), the Masriadi exhibition topped as the highlight, squaring down the local ‘visual artists’/’designers’.
What 8 Q-Rated: School lacked for space, seems to be made up by the number of curators fronting the exhibition. This exhibition seems as much a legitimate showcase of the curators, and their chosen artists. Since this information cannot be found on the 8Q micro site,it makes sense to list the curators. They are Joyce Toh (for Phunk studio), Sam I-shan (for Jason Wee), Michelle Ho (for Grace Tan), Low Sze Wee (for Ahmad Abu Bakar), Tan Siu Li (for Jahan Loh) Joyce Fan (for Chong Li-chuan), Suenne Megan Tan (for Donna Ong), and Kwok Kian Chow (for Tan Kai Syng). While many would question the role of the curator, as I often do of my own involvement in Drawing Out Conversations, it is not addressed so one will assume the primary default: to organise an exhibition consisting of artworks in accordance to a set theme, and be able to explain the selection.
While the selection of artists and works are apt, and are described in wall labels, they do not all immediately respond to the theme of school or to the building and its histories. Notably out of synchronisation are Grace Tan’s fabric sculptures, in folds and pleats, Ahmad Abu Bakar’s ceramic sculptures.
Nonetheless, the works appeal to me on different levels and to different intensities.
Phunk:studio, a design collective that fronts Singapore in the arena of relatively avant-garde graphics design takes their swipe at the visual arts by presenting a scaled classroom, coated with blackboard paint which allows the viewer to scribble just about anything with the white chalk provided. reminiscent of old school chalk boards, with a hanging white skeleton and world globe, the pristine white classroom offers a mock lesson on Universality, flanked by phunk:studio styled graphics with the words “Chaos” and naughty graphic posters. At most playful, the work is ephemeral as chalk on the blackboard, because it fails to get deeper into any kind of critique about schooling in Singapore or art education, literally stopping viewers at the door.
Jason Wee’s rattan blocks, titled In My School Are Many Rooms resembling paper houses the Chinese might burn at funerals is tongue in cheek, creating an impossible architectural model, shaped like tetris and over-sized playing blocks. A giant puzzle not to be handled by the public, it pales when compared to architectural models and paper funeral houses, deficient in craftsmanship. One suspects the loading bay space which this is situated encroaches the work, which might have been better sited in the middle of the school’s open square, allowing its viewing from a distance and from above. The artist also offers another visual puzzle, Let Us walk Through the Burning House, a second piece on another level, comprising arching rattan sticks, shaped like building archways. Hardly a relic from a performance, what you see is what you get. My perception of the second work, just as it “depends on the space of the gallery for its shape and form, as the canopy is held in place by the walls…” is influenced more by absence than presence – the work depends too much on the museum’s aura and invites sharp criticism, perhaps part of the worksuggests and evokes risk-taking in art.
Grace Tan’s fabrics take sculptural form, and seem to address a growing need to acknowledge the growth of the creative industries in Singapore, apart from the formative years of nation building that saw pride in professions of engineers, accountants, lawyers, bankers and doctors. The appreciation of the works are hampered by the dim lighting, perhaps a dramatic effect compromising the sensual folds and pleats of the different fabrics. The relationship to the theme of school, if I am allowed to take a leap of interpretation, lies in the resemblance of pleats of school skirts and fabrics for uniforms.
Chong Li-chuan’s sound scape is a real hit and miss. Unless you stay for hours, you will likely miss the verbatim rendition of the Catholic High Primary School song, instead hear only a version stretched and manipulated in sustained notes and sounds, becoming noise. While this piece is conceptual, the hypnotic drone of school song, speaks volumes of indoctrination of values and traditions, a function of schools. On hind sight, perhaps the work could have been broadcasted, and audible on selected FM frequencies, or insert these into the audio guides on a separate track, like Spell#7’s work in the Singapore Biennale.
Donna Ong’s enigmatic installation features her usual sensible use of readymades, weaving a tale of dolls exchanged between Japan and America before the second world war. It seems to question naively the values of ‘friendship’, from the perspective of an anonymous collector-character. The work beckons the viewer to indulge in her world of make believe and fascination with life-like dolls. The arrangement is deliberately claustrophobic by arranging the cabinets in a concentric manner, with their doors opened limiting one’s movement when viewing the work.
Tan Kai Syng’s video is oddly arranged, revealing a technical issue to align 3 different projections. The work explores the element of time, when the protagonist of the video work, the artist, appears in all three screens, simultaneously being at 3 places at the same time. The work is more than meets the eye, playing on the notion of margins in exercise books, and the idea of a ‘found corridor’ with a painted red line. The work’s meaning extends to this hidden corridor, accessed via a closed door from the first room, and into a second hidden room.
Jahan Loh’s graffiti work requires little association to the rebellious nature of youths in schools. An escape from reality is treated with florescent pink, light blue paintings and aerosol black-lined mural, peppered with pop cultural images and popular brands such as Nike. The large Chinese wall text 逃学 （escape from school) suggests either a subliminal message, or a dare to break away from norms.
Ahmad Abu Bakar’s pieces reminds one of batman (yes, this is far fetched), and one really needs to get informed of his earlier works to see the consistency in pushing shapes and form, technical competency in his chosen craft type. While placing these objects on the floor allows one to appreciate them from a vantage point, they fail to give any sense of crowdedness one expects from installations utilising sheer numbers to overwhelm. The scale of the individual pieces begs the attention of a more suitable context, and space.The size of one, simply vanishes in the space; the choice of many diminishes the skill of each.
The skill of each artist greatly differs, offering a rich mix where one will surely find a gem to follow in more challenging shows to come at 8Q. The complexity of arranging museum exhibition programmes hangs on tethers, limited by other constraints unimaginable to the average viewer. National Interests might clash, fore-shadowing the importance of art, and its related funding. While we may see artists involved in these other national interests, such as Zulkifle Mahmod’s bewildering F1 trophy design, it would be interesting to see the reverse, when other industries put their stakes in art. Maybe the arts would the next thing worth investing in, that will not make the world poorer but culturally richer.
Tate’s definition of the role of a Curator.
Role of a curator, an exercise for student, source untraced.