Psychotaxonomy by Michael Lee

Perseverance in paper

Psychotaxonomy 

Images with the kind permission of
the artist

The recent works by Michael Lee pulls no punches, flourishing elaborate paper cuts inspired by the Baba House, a new peranakan museum located on Neil Road. Following the methodology of a researcher, and art as an instrument, the artist unpacks and picks at the rich heritage of motifs and symbolism of the Peranakan heritage. As the title suggests, the artist tries to interpret and classify these motifs, making sense of this unique personal collection that became the foundation of the museum. The series of works on show question the domesticity of the interior of a building that houses the exclusive museum, the value of heirlooms and once everyday objects. Paper, an obvious choice to suggest the fragility and threat of erosion facing the Peranakan culture  in Singapore, and indeed of any culture with the persuasive invasion of Globalism. Peranakan culture, faced a minor revival with the popular Mediacorp (Singapore) Mandarin TV series Little Nyonya.

In a manner befitting of a continuation of his earlier book art installation, Documents: The $100,000 gallery of art, the familiar twists with architectural interior spaces, and play with lighting are resurfaced with paper cuts on scores of paper. The first work that greets the viewer in the gallery is a large free standing arch that resembles a paper version of a mirror, casting a motif-decorated shadow. On closer inspection, the rear reveals tiny rooms with overturned chairs, much like the aftermath of an interrogation. The work is successful by making subtle interjections (within the context of the museum) with the overturned chairs both suggesting abandonment or ‘fierce’ interrogation, perhaps of one’s culture.

In The Big Sweep, the sweeping aid in Peranakan households is convincingly created using paper, caught in action with motifs of urns, vessels trapped in between the stems of the broom. The placement of this broom is spot on, near the large ‘mirror’ and challenging the viewer when they enter the space. Culture, represented by iconic silhouettes of Peranakan objects is being swept away, disposed. The confrontation also reveals our perception of the material paper and it’s often relegated status as material in folk craft, and our equanimity of another person’s culture.

The large ‘mindmap’ or taxonomy of symbols and meanings, An Almost Natural History of Social Relations, reminds me of the babelfish in Douglas Adam’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Both tries to make sense of the unknown, translation them into something understandable; both are fictional, and both entertaining to ‘see’. It resembles the work by the conceptual artists Art & Language from the 60s, in the important use of ‘words’, signs and signifiers, the mind-mapping, sometimes seen in their work. The scale of this is impressive, telling of the rigor of diagram making and ordering thinking.

Mail Order: Gift from Heaven is exploitative of the space available, but less impressive of the design of individual creatures, lacking the aesthetics and proportion deserving of the mythical creatures. They are literally, quite flat.

Will the Real Phoenix Please stand Up? is conceptually interesting, but less promising in the final details. The piece is lost in it’s translation from idea to title, and again, off course when intricacies were omitted from paper cuts. Though not exactly resembling fowls, they did add a different deceptive subterfuge to the work.

The exhibition describes the artists perseverance and obsession with paper, this time with the tinge of cultural sensitivity and historical intervention. While the hyperbolic and humorous title works for some, it may detract from the visual form, and aesthetics of white on white (white paper in a white gallery). With a great force of personality in the earlier two works, the latter two appeared weaker and contrived to interpret an aspect of Peranakan motifs.

6.0 of 10 stars

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2 responses to “Psychotaxonomy by Michael Lee

  1. Wow, this is a very interesting show. Is it still on?

    I like how muted and ordered it is given the penchant for peranakan aesthetic to be a little indulgent and baroque. it’s almost as if everything is filtered and abstracted through a conceptual lens (and I like your reference to Art and Language) to create a whole different mapping body that gets under the skin of peranakan culture, and also, more importantly, the weight of it as a heritage.

  2. Pingback: 3 Singapore artists to look out for in the SB2011 |

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