Monthly Archives: August 2009

A Story of the Image: Old & New Masters From Antwerp

“A Story of the Image: Old & New Masters From Antwerp is an ambitious exhibition which surveys historical and contemporary works of art to look at the evolution of the image and its commercialisation…This exhibition of 150 works features 13 paintings by old Flemish masters from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp (KMSKA), 25 prints from the Museum of Plantin-Moretus/Printroom and 112 contemporary Flemish artworks from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MuHKA)””

There is a strong distillation of what an image is, percolated from hundreds of years of experience of displaying art in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Belgium at the heart of the exhibition, claiming to be the oldest birthplace, before Amsterdam, of the commerce of art for merchants. Belgium, best known for Tin Tin comics and beer now has another point of interest. The exhibition forces one to reconsider the means in which artists made images, why they made images in response to societal and economic concerns. 

The concept of commercial galleries possibly came from Belgium, and art fairs still run strongly in Brussels. While the reason to trade in art isn’t explained in the exhibition, one can postulate the following plausible reasons.

Firstly, the rise of strong nation states since the Renaissance, meant that inter-nation trade could make merchants wealthy. These merchants could now afford what the aristocrats could afford – the access to commission artists to create works of art for churches, their large homes or guilds. Secondly, the numerous murals and paintings found in churches across Europe, meant that church goers were able to gain exposure to paintings that were rich in symbolism, and illusionary in realistic representation. They could feel the heavens move, and stories from the bible come alive.

Thirdly, the development of printing technology which meant that new learning could be spread further and faster. Oil paintings could be reproduced in etching and distributed to the middle classes at a fraction of the cost of commissioning. A merchant in Antwerp could purchase a German print of a painting. Owning a piece of art was perhaps a means of proving one’s social status. Fourthly, printing fueled the appetite for knowledge and ancient philosophy. Concepts and philosophies of beauty and art could now be distributed across borders.  

The exhibition tries to do the impossible, to separate the image from its carrier (painting, photography, object conveying an idea). This separation is best explained by what art historian E.H. Gombrich calls schema. Images are very much grounded in schema. Schema is an outline, a cultural, logical, scientific lens the artist might have to view the world. The idea of the world preludes the creation of an object, in this case a broader classification of an image. What the artist sees, thinks, understands is then mediated socially, culturally and scientifically to produce the object. The schema, or european aesthetics in creating an image is perhaps what the exhibition expounds critically and eloquently.

The creation of smaller galleries, juxtapositioning contemporary art with old masters heighten this schema. As the concept of time and history is flattened in this arrangement, and the viewer gets lost within, we are allowed to ponder the essence of image and imagination. The experience of getting lost, liken a visit to the grand Lourve museum or the National Gallery in London, means opportunities for discoveries. One of these discovery is the painting by Old Masters Peter Paul Reubens, may not be the best work by the artist.  The painting and wall text suggests that it was done by his workshop of apprentice, but endorsed by him. Similarly, the work When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) by Belgium artist Francis Alys involved thousands of participants, and the master’s hand is hard to distinguish in the mountain of materials. The legitimacy, scale and involvement in which artists make art are thus allowed to be examined too.

The prominent styles of representational art from Antwerp and how it varies from old and new may not be adequately explained. The selection of the new and old masters may require more explanation to the local audience. The viewer who is there to search for an example of linearity of stylistic development of art, ‘from representation to abstract, to conceptual’, will find none. Art, when appropriate cross sectional studies across the ages, in various media will reveal, is non-linear, jumping from ideas to discoveries, or re-discoveries. The birth of the Renaissance in the 15th century (though some argue that the science of painting perspective began earlier with Giotto in the 14th Century), and the examination of Greek and Roman art in the Renaissance is but one example of such non-linearity.

What makes an image successful, or what elevates an image to the status of art, the idea of the spectacle, or ‘shock of the new’ would be the next logical story. What eventually stands out, the stories of the images is strongly tied to the stories of the artists, or at least the stories told by these artists. 

 

National Museum of Singapore (http://www.nationalmuseum.sg)
from August 14 through October 4, 2009.

Society of the Spectacle: NDP as art

“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
Guy Debord, (trans., 2002) Ken Knabb, The Society of the Spectacle

The observance of National Day not only marks the importance of independence, but celebrates the cultural rights of a nation.

Culture here, is used loosely to represent “the arts and other human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”. The right to brand a nation’s aesthetics and activities, seems most appropriate at National Day, a celebration of national identity. One’s identity is inherent wired into one’s roots. The need to celebrate one nation’s culture might seem trivial in the light of globalisation. Why limit when you can call the world as your own cultural roots? Or is that mistaking the appearance of a strangler fig for deep roots? While a global melting pot of cultures might sound attractive, the celebration of diversity and differences may just be as important.

The arts, as commonly understood refers to the literature, theatre, music, film/video and fine art. Typically, the National Day parade will steer towards a dramatic mass display, mass participation over everything else. The celebration has its roots in military display and marching contingent and has over the years shifted towards cultural representation – cultural might – rather than a overt military representation of national pride.  This year, everything comes together in a mish mash, ‘postmodern’ quick splice of performances, video art, and live action in a carnival of celebration of the arts. You can hardly expect anything less in the hands of Creative Director Ivan Heng, video visuals by Brian Gothong Tan, Script by Alfian Sa’at, and chief choreography by Aaron Khek, familiar and established names in our local arts scene. And in the theatrical, multimedia and multi-modal presentation, it seems a spectacle was staged, perhaps for a deeper reflection of what identity is.

The theatrics unfolded in ‘chapters’ like scenes to a play, but somewhat disjointed to a historical telling of the nation’s history. The myth of Prince Sang Nila Utama was told using giant puppetry, interjected by slapstick humour by the two presenters. Puppets, last seen at Singapore Arts festival performances, usually reminded one of children’s play. Their connotations were more surreal than majestic in this case, and seemed lost in the even larger scale of the Marina floating stage. Video seem to play a very important role in this National day Parade. Even the 9 storey twin towers that resembled Housing Development Board (HDB) flats reminded one of stacked television screens, each repeating similar routines by anonymous performers.

The first simulacra came when a mock news report announced a terrorist attack, and Cheryl Fox the news reporter came on screen. With uncanny likeness to an actual news report, the drama unfolded as a telecast, with unflinching realism. Minutes later, it became apparent that a bluff was called, when Michelle Chong from the TV series, Noose appeared on scene, with the background of perfectly seated crowd and smoke simulation.

The second simulacra was the large eye, an unusual shape for a projection screen. It is a possible homage to Nam Jun Paik, the father of video art, where the screen gazes at the viewer at the same time. We gravitate our vision towards it because of the distance and scale, rather than the actual performers; we hear sound, mediated by sound engineers,pre-recordings before broadcasts reach the viewers. The internet audience had multiple ‘live’ camera angles to choose from.

To some extent, the multi-media glitz drowned the live performance, playing down the provost gun pumping or the pole acrobats, reducing them to organic pixels on a blue stage/screen. The costume designs were perhaps the most synergistic, breaking the human form and recreating a variety of abstract objects and figurines. To television audiences in the comforts of their home, it was most entertaining crossing campy Moulin Rouge with Ge Tai theatrics.

The spectacle was topped by a 8.22 p.m. nation wide appeal to say the National pledge, like a nation wide flash mob or situationist intervention. This National Day was like no other, in our assertion of cultural rights, judging from the unique blend of colloquial arty-ness. The largest most stunning visual effect would arguably be the massive paper-fold boats that came floating to the stage area.

The audience at the grandstand were also the performers for the audience at home. They had star wands, flags to wave, hand shaped clappers to drum with. Without the live crowd, one might have imagined that it was a repeat telecast of the preview. But it did exist, as many who sat through the preview and actual event will testify, and so will the mass of performers who sacrificed weekends and long hours rehearsing.

Stern critics  might label the event as embracing the excess in the light of economic recovery.  The optimists would add that it feeds the dreams of many, telling the tale that the country has come far and we have seen far worse. Indulgence in the nation’s birthday bash, excessive garishness or sentimentality comes but once a year. But anxiety lingers after the 4 minutes of fireworks. One might even go as far to suggest that reality pours out from the television screens and computer screens. This anxiety stems from tension between reality of GDP negative growth, and the image of televised hope. But if nothing transpired from art that evening, propaganda or not, the string of action, music, song and dance stirred feelings for home, for family and touched the minds and hearts of many that evening.

http://www.ndp.org.sg

Being Found, Being Lost by Lim Shengen

Between the ephemeral and timelessness

Being Found, Being Lost by Lim Shengen, Images with the kind permission of the artist

The pyramid has perhaps had it’s fair share of publicity over the ages, not just in the recent Transformers: revenge of the fallen (2009). In the Transformer 2 movie, the Giza pyramids (the 3 kings) pointed, like the constellation Orion, to the direction of the tomb of the Primes. The pyramids built around 3000-2500 B.C. remain today, one of the 7 wonders of the world. The pyramids, emblems of gateways to enternity, feature strongly in a photographic series, titled Being Found, Being Lost by Lim Shengen. Each pyramid appear amongst a wide angle shot taken by the artist, possibly digitally manipulated such that it sits surreptitiously in the surrounding, like an alien structure. The soft projection from the overhead projector (OHP), a presentation optical device seldom seen today creates a certain peculiar aura of the work. A fan of Disney’s WALL-E (2008) might imagine that the OHPs also resemble construction cranes, or mechanical ‘heads’ peering out to catch a glimpse, or to cast the images. Placed strategically so that it opens up the space, there is a vague illusion of floating projection screens, befitting of the enigma of the siting and sighting of the pyramids. Is it simply an investigation of the para-normal, or a critique of the ‘permanence’ of the image, intransigent to acknowledge the fallible human memory?

The second component of the exhibition features inkjet prints of different personalities, with their identities masked by wearing printing paper carton boxes. While the viewer’s immediate reaction may be humour, by screening the face of the person, we are forced to scrutinise the surround to get an idea of the identity of these portraits. Perhaps this examines how much our surrounding environment define us, our social identities. This facelessness is uncomfortable, both for the viewer, and imaginably for the sitters. Like Simryn Gill’s Malaysia portrait series A small town at the turn of the century (2001) where the Port Dickson residents’ identities are obscured by bunches of tropical fruit, Lim Shengen’s reference point is the origin of the paper carton boxes: Indonesia. With reference to his own part ancestry, a puzzling dialogue places his family portraiture into context. What might sit out of place, are those photographs of sitters that are not from Indonesia, and the box a mere visual object.

The latter photographs sit quite uncomfortably with the pyramids, and fail to convince the sense of timelessness the artist possibly wanted. Any photograph, arguably are both timeless – freezing a moment in time and space – or transient; our visual translation to memory decides the ephemeral nature of that seeing, and the object continues with it’s own physical slow decay, unless preserved. What these two series presents then, is perhaps better interpreted at face value of the title of the exhibition, the pyramids being found, and the identities being lost.

24th July 2009 to 8th August 2009
SG Private Banking Gallery, Alliance Française de Singapour
2nd Level, 1 Sarkies Road Singapore 258130
Gallery hours: Mon – Fri 11am to 7pm, Sat 11am to 5pm.

Drawing as Form

from motion to emotion, and back

“Drawing as Form” is a re-visit of the “Drawing Show”, one of the early TAV projects that was held at the Jalan Ulu Sembawang space in 1989. Moving away from the physicality of drawing and the drawing as a medium, focusing on the fundamental basis of ‘a dot… a line… a mark to a form’ – drawing does not necessarily sit on a 2-dimensional platform, rather it pushes one to explore beyond the confines that limit creative autonomy in individual artistic practices.

(lifted from exhibition emailer)

Drawing as Form, Images with the kind permission of TAV

The blackboard that greets the viewer is a strange reminder of Koh Nguang How’s Errata (2005). The blackboard suggests the link to the artist group’s history, and the temporal nature of their art practice as critique of society. Marks are made and erased, and new words take shape, like the renewal of membership in this art group. The squiggly handwriting suggest play, more so than a serious annotation on a page of Singapore art history, like Errata. The chalk marks bear the most expressive characteristics, like charcoal a prized drawing medium, rich in tone and range of values. A charcoal drawing is often described as expressive because the broken, half-formed lines carry emotions of the charcoal bearer.

There are more than one charcoal bearers in this exhibition, but they may wield charcoals amongst other drawing implements.

An emotional drawing wants to be ‘felt’ than to be ‘seen’. Drawing as Form invites its viewers to perceive the works within the contexts of the social, the contemplative and the everyday. (extracted from text by Seng Yu Jin & Michelle Ho, that accompanies the exhibition)

There is much to be felt in this current exhibition by members of the Artists Village (TAV). The sense of decoupage, the cutting and pasting of not paper but conceptual aesthetics against it’s historicism/heritage of the Singapore’s most recognised avant garde artists’ group. This aesthetics was last seen at The Artists Village: 20 years on (2008), that highlighted the group’s involvement to promote performance art in Singapore. Here, there is a strong performative element underlying most of the works. Motion is suggested, as we imagine the artists in action to create the works, and what we see are possibly remnants of their performance or live action. Most notably, Lee Wen’s performance “Zen for Head, Clay and Leg” appears to be a parody of Nam June Paik’s 1962 Fluxus performance of a similar name. One can almost imagine and hear the artist dragging his clay-loaded scalp across the paper. It is debatable whether re-enactment of performance art has any value, but perhaps like theatre, each (new) performance carries with it new nuances and expression that is quite lacking in our understanding and appreciation of performance art. Perhaps by ‘scripting’ it, repeating it, re-staging it, we may begin to understand and see value in it. In the context of this exhibition, Lee Wen’s simple action may be an exegesis of how ideas/zen may become form, literally using one’s head (when imagination fails).

The other works are pretty straight forward applications and actions of the chosen materials, evaluating the process and product of drawing as conceptual and abstract. Cheng Guangfeng’s “Draining Energy” features an allegedly 70 metres electrical cable that snakes the corner of the gallery, leading to a bare bulb. Angie Seah’s colourful arrangement of colour pencils suspend on strings, forming a vertical hatching of an ellipse, and it’s curious shadow of pencil silhouettes with the same ellipse. Ezzam Rahman’s “Smudge” is made from cardboards, conical, resembling large-scale altered pencil shavings. Natasha Wei’s canvases are loaded with paper/clay, with crater-like marks and cracks that will continue to crack and make it’s own mark. Bruce Quek’s situationist insertions of mock authorative bookmarks proclaiming almost anything as art with the following text: “This is an artwork. It is made by an artist. He/It is important”.

Works that are less abstract include “TURFF” by Chun Kai Qun, “2”, a work by Juliana Yasin, Ranger Mills and Choo Xinyi, Urich Lau’s “Video Demonstration: Webcam Lucida 1.0” and Joo Choon Lin’s “Drawing Becomes Stills”. These named 4 works however, employ devices – mechanical or electronic – to critique drawing as a mechanical process to divergent ends, rather than it’s strict concept as practice overtones. Surprisingly, Urich Lau’s webcam Lucida 1.0, like David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, tries to uncover the secrets of tracing an image from a camera lucida. Instead, digital means – a tablet and overlay software – are used. There isn’t any secret nor visual investigation I fear.

The experimental nature of drawing is felt in the exhibition, like a shadow to the form – the conceptual framework of the exhibition. The experiments are present in the individual works, but fail to affect each other. The works are thus rather isolated, or under developed against the title of the exhibition. The experiment evidently doesn’t stop here, as each artist is not limited by drawing as a practice. Against the backdrop of their own practices, the individual works push tiny milestones, towards maturity of their own artistic intention and craftsmanship. Take Kai Lam’s duct tape mural of JB Jeyaratnam, it may be ‘political kitsch’, but the choice of duct tape, and it’s affiliation to our horror imagination of gaffer taping one’s mouth to silent a kidnap victim makes tremendous resonance. If price of duct tape was not a concern, short of distributing duct tape to all viewers, or inviting viewers to draw what they would like to have duct tape covering, the work is actually quite powerful but shadowed by other works.

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There are a lot of emotions attached to the name TAV. Held against time, it pioneered conceptual art, pushing boundaries of how art is perceived and made in Singapore. One may fear however, that this exhibition is a shadow of the 1989 exhibition bearing the same title (37 artists and 3 staff members of NUS Architecture, displayed 400 pieces of works), and Drawing as Form (2009) is a mere motion, than a real investigation into one’s own practice and the essence of drawing that energizes, observes and reweaves the fabric of society and the everyday.

The Air Conditioned Recession: A Singapore Survey

Survey: to view or consider comprehensively

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As the nation celebrates independence day, if we consider ourselves Singaporean enough, 2 concurrent art exhibitions are worth catching just to provide another take on national identity.

It was announced in The Straits Times (The Sunday Times, “Economy better, but tests ahead, says PM”, Aug 9, 2009, page 1) that the economy will contract between 4-6%.  With the sombre image of a recession in mind, art or any celebration may not be on everyone’s minds. For many, August 9 is the reason to celebrate ‘being’ – ‘being grateful’ for the hard work and sacrifice of our forefathers. For others, August 9 a Sunday is another day and opportunity to work to earn a living, to survive. Buses and trains continue to run; eateries remain open. For some, it is a day of ‘being able to rest’, more than a festive celebration.

The Air Conditioned Recession: A Singapore Survey consists of an eclectic mix of artworks from a range of Singapore artists. More mixed than you can call rojak, they present diverse views, macro or microscopic on facets of Singaporean-ness. They come across as pretty, slightly sensational in their own ways, and pushed together in a visual display. These include Jing Quek‘s Food Porn close-up of food, near Jason Wee’s Christ is always RIGHT, a neon light tube in the truism style of Jenny Holzer.

Straddling in the adjacent gallery, a different Curating Lab: 100 Objects (Remixed) offers a more sophisticated rendition of art and artefacts that represent the Singapore identity, sprawling over time and genre, providing visual resonance and conceptual depth to notions of identity and culture. Part 1 of 2 exhibitions, An imprint of a William Farquhar water colour of a monkey hangs between a Chen Wen Hsi cubist-like painting of the Raffles Museum, and Chua Chye Teck’s matrix of extra-ordinary objects Wonderland. The concept of placing and considering artworks with historical documents represents an honest examination of visual culture, but may appear strange to many. While the idea of selecting 100 objects remind one of Theatreworks’ 120,  experimenting with ‘lasting impressions’ and to some extend, lasting art is engaging. As sparse as the display may look in comparison to The Air Conditioned Recession, it is less pretentious in the curation/arrangement of works. The former visually pleasing, diverse and well placed with several established names in the art scene. The latter, a curious mix unless one looks hard.

To some, the three gallery spaces are seamless, it was less important than it made curatorial sense. And for those who were there for the opening party, “all looked pretty Singaporean” was perhaps good enough. It could perhaps be compared to fireworks, where the first impression was more than impressive. For the discerning viewer, The survey is less comprehensive or cerebral than promised, but nonetheless sensational enough to warrant a visit.

The Air Conditioned Recession, 5 of 10 stars
Curating Lab: 100 Objects (Remixed), unrated as yet

Note: Click on the thumbnails below for more pictures.

The Air Conditioned Recession: A Singapore Survey
Curating Labs

The Air Conditioned Recession: A Singapore Survey

5 – 30 August, 2009 VWFA Singapore, ARTSPACE@HELUTRANS, 39 Keppel Road, Tg. Pagar Distrpark, #02-04, S(089065)

Curating Lab: 100 Objects (Remixed)

5 – 30 August Artspace @ Helutrans,

39 Keppel Road #02-04, Tanjong Pagar Distripark 9am – 6pm (Monday to Friday), 9am – 1pm (Saturday)