Monthly Archives: June 2010

Ming Wong: Life of Imitation

Absurds/excerpts for life

Life of Imitation by Ming Wong. Images with permission from the artist.

We often hear the expression, ‘cinema imitates life’. Ming Wong’s body of works uses the mechanism surrounding cinema – the magical darkened space, editing, narrative, fans, architecture, billboards –  to provide a critical reflection on living, and being lived in films. The body of work shows a deep understanding of the power of the media as well as the actor’s rituals of acting before a camera.

Ming Wong’s work may be described as possessing/revealing the panache of film.  The body of work richly displays various aspects of the cinema, pushing our understanding of society embodied within the culture of cinema. The works include three video interventions,  3 commissioned videos by Sherman Ong, movie billboards canvases by painter Neo Chon Teck, Wong Han Min’s cinema memorabilia collection,  2 sculptural pieces, lush red walls, Shaw cinema seats and accompanying cinematic exhibition signs. The breadth, no doubt, engages with our personal connections with ‘cinema’. If films ‘projected’ aspirations or reflections of society, preserving local film preserves an aspect of our collective national heritage.

In the ‘video interventions’, the familiar narratives from In the Mood for Love (2000) et al, are suspended and intervened for poetic effect. The cheesy title, In Love for the Mood (2009) hints at the artist’s fascination with parodies, humour that punctuates life on screen and off screen. This work is presented with 3 flat screens, with 3 different (foreign) language subtitles. Each screen shows a particular take, and by comparing the three, we realise they are different shots of the same scene. The central idea for the work is apparent in very nuanced facial expressions, hand gestures or voice intonation; the difference in mood reveals itself. The work is more complex when the actress is made to speak in (foreign) Cantonese instead of the nasty voice-overs.

The pastiche is complete by replacing the lead Chinese character with a Caucasian actress. Race, skin colour, identity become entwined with our own stereo-types of owners of voice, and authenticity to ‘real’ life. Reel life is measured against real life.  We might laugh as the actress struggles with a dialect dialogue. But we can’t help feeling the actress’ discomfort too. The subtitles on 3 screens in 3 different written languages, accentuate the alienation language has on the viewer. The only comfort we have and can understand, is the body language. Some say that alone, communicates 80% of the intended message. That, body language is the soul of acting.

The subterfuge of cinema is again seen in Life of Imitation (2010), after Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), a hollywood drama that addresses racial identity. 3 male actors switch roles repeatedly to act out a scene involving 2 female actresses. We are left bemused and affected by the role-switching and simple screen dialogue that hints racial discrimination and shame/guilt. The installation includes 2 large screen sized mirrors that reflect the opposite-facing projected images – what we see from any angle in the room is effectively a full screen, and a partially obscured reflection.

The inclusion of Sherman Ong’s ‘creative documentaries’ reinforces the wile of cinema. They are cleverly put together in the style of mockumentaries or pseudo-documentaries. The viewer plays sleuth to the interviews of the billboard painter, the private memorabilia collector and movie-ticket seller, picking up nuances that suggests fictionalisation by actors.

The exhibition served as excerpts of a bygone cinema boom of the 1950/60s. The beauty of cinema is sees us embracing the absurdity of reel life, even if it is sometimes a reflection of real life. Film is very much part of life of our generation.  Not everyone will agree with this, or agree with the function of art/film. Especially if you abhor television or any form of big screen entertainment.  As “Alfredo” (Phillpe Noiret) puts it in Cinema Paradiso (1988), “life isn’t like it is in the movies, life is harder”. Life is inevitably harder because our real lives are not played in an air-conditioned, cushioned chair theatre of imaginations. But for those of us who are intrigued by the mechanics of film, recalling our first loves of movie,  this sophisticated body of works leads us to ponder on deeper issues of racial identity and equality that we take for granted.

8 of 10 stars for the love of the mood of the curatorial display and concepts of the artworks

curated by Tang Fu Kuen

Singapore Art Museum
22 April to 22 August 2010

Hardcover catalogue Life of Imitation available at S$88.

More information on the artist may be found here: http://www.mingwong.org/

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(Con)Front by John Clang

interrogating the self and medium

(Con)front by John Clang 

Images taken with permission from 2902 Gallery

Before you shout “United Colours of Benetton inspired!“, I beg you to take a closer look.

In the age of Digital Imaging (or some might call it DI for short), photography is often more than meets the eye. Why limit an image (of advertising) to be taken with a camera, when you can manipulate the composition and the subject matter? You can splice time, splice space, splice subject matter. Some might say photography that has been through the process of Digital Imaging is a con; some say it has pushed the limits of the medium. The twin thresholds of photography would thus arguably be Representation – how real is an image of the depicted subject matter, time and space; The other elusive threshold of our imagination in composition and dumb-ass luck in pressing the shutter is Zeitgeist – capturing the spirit of the moment, and spirit of the age.

The body of work presented by John Clang crosses both thresholds, in a reflexive manner that will intrigue traditionalists that marvel at Henri Cartier-Bressonian or serious DI artists on Deviant art. As Gwen from 2902 explained, the 45 pieces spanning 11 series from 9 years were selected to be representational of John Clang’s style and interests in strangers, the city and spontaneous juxtaposition of ‘windows’ – tears, holes, scenes, inlets. Not unlike Jeff Wall, his images make us uneasy: the photograph as an object is interrogated more than we can imagine.

In the earliest series, Open Wound (2001), projections of unknown landscapes are projected over tears in the canvases/screen. Perhaps inspired by artist Lucio Fontana,  these slashes are like ‘rifts’, reminding us of the banality of the image or reminding us that it’s just an image of an image. Very often we forget that when we read art books or the newspaper.

The surface of the photograph becomes evident again, in Time (2009) series, where multiple photographs taken at the same place are reduced to vertical stripes with passerbys. These are then laid out, and rephotographed, resulting in a hypnotic image of people weaving in or out of the edge of each stripe. An arm disappears, and a leg sticks out of thin air. The photos’ physical edge are not hidden, nor the shadows of the vertical stripes obscured. Like David Hockney, time is compressed poetically onto a singular image where strangers surreptitiously meet.

Me and Friends (2009) are treated similarly, resembling numerous passport-like portrait photographs of friends passed through a shredder and reassembled into a recognisable face. Like long litmus strips, they test our divided attention span for details and clarity. The flash, the fading of colours once again remind us the fragility of the image, the reality of handshakes, real imperfections that advertising photography hides. The flesh and skin deteriorates, just like a polaroid.

The most shaking series is titled Guilt (2010), where heads are blanked with correction fluid and words of apology mask the faces. The setting of the photograph is obviously homely. In the brother’s room, the shelves feel the weight of the comic books in the background, with a feet massager in the foreground.  A personal narrative lines the bottom of the print, citing instances the artist felt extreme emotions for his family. This series, a catharsis from guilt, echoes in all viewers. We relate to the personal narratives of misadventures, insensitivity and pure rudeness; we are shaken, but envious of the honesty.

The contemporary masterpiece of the exhibition is a series of family portraits, Being Together (2010). The projection of family members, a simulacra are like solidified thoughts. Elaborately staged with Skype, or iChat, the artist poses with a projection from the video chat, of his family members in Singapore while in New York. The result, an uncanny image with his harsh shadow towering behind, contrast with the pure affection we see in the smiles and little awkwardness of staring at a (web) camera. An image of the ‘photographer’ is placed carefully in the bottom left of the image, much like a screen grab of a video chat will reveal. The tenderness of the moment is perhaps more personal to the artist than the viewer. By placing himself as the subject matter, the artist has allowed us to reflect and muse on ourselves – our relationship with our family.  The significance of the work may best be understood by those who have been separated from their loved ones by time and space. The method, the crew involved are revealed in a video projection documenting the process. In a simple gesture of wanting to take a photograph together, and not digitally stitched allows a consistent interrogation of the Image. Through the artist, we search for our own zeitgeist in our own lives.

The exhibition confronts us in two ways. Firstly, his solo show in Singapore marks a maturity in his style, presenting his artwork to his family and us. The most important audience, might just be family. Art is not necessarily a solitary pursuit, as John Clang has showed us in Being Together (2010). Secondly,  photography as an object susceptible to manipulation will require the viewer to question the image more than ever. Only when we acknowledge this, can we look beyond the surface and let ourselves be touched by the art.

8.0 or 10 stars

(Con)Front is on at 2902 Gallery, from 12 Jun 2010 to 3 July 2010. For more information, visit: http://www.2902gallery.com/

Better images of John Clang’s work may be seen at: http://www.johnclang.com/

P.s. Special thanks to John Clang and Elin for bringing back the Stars…

Play – New Art from Myanmar

Po Po’s Terrace: Circumventing the Art World

Po Po, Terrace, 2010

I have recently began domesticating the rice plant, from a styrofoam takeaway box at my HDB flat door step.

This is the work of Myanmar artist, Po Po and a social experiment to circumvent the art world. The art world is big money to investors; it is possibly lonely to a solitary painter in his studio. This humble box holds many contradictions – a statement of yearning for an agricultural landscape that symbolises the artist’s home town against an urban circumstance we find styrofoam boxes; a box that holds cooked rice, is now used to grow rice; otherwise labour intensive neat rows of rice plants against the sporadic untamed growth you see above; the need to sell art, sustenance to live and make art that yet wants to rise above the value of money.

The work is more organic and procedural than other artworks. It consists of 4 phases, revealing the thought processes of the artist. The 1st phase involved the submission of a proposal, to create a site specific work within the gallery. The gallery steps, once audience seats to a humble sports hall immediately stood out. It was an unusual gallery space, with great challenges. We can imagine the idea germinating in the artist’s head, relating the social and political context of Junta-led Myanmar to experiments with growing rice in shallow soil, with the art scene it represents. To aid the struggle with the lack of nutrients and stunted growth, fertilizers will be added.

The 2nd phase involved preparing the vessels, containers despised by environmentalists yet taken by many to mean life’s essential conveniences. Volunteers were recruited through the gallery’s network, grain, soil and fertilizer obtained from our northern neighbour and the roof of the building used as the nursery. 1000 styrofoam boxes were used, each with an estimate of 100 grains tossed like wild rice.

The 3rd phase involved moving the vessels into the viewing gallery, and the steps lined with mud. The halogen lights will simulate daylight, and the plants watered carefully by hand. With careful observation, you will find mud drawings of frogs, birds, crustaceans on the side of the steps. Some boxes made their way to 4 or 5 locations that related to the project. These included plant nurseries, a flower shop, a Burmese restaurant at Peninsula Plaza, Singapore Cricket Club and a Malay food stall that sells Nasi Briyani (Briyani Rice).  These ‘works’ included a short writeup and information on the exhibition.  Back in the gallery, viewers are invited to view the works by paying 3 leaves from one’s garden or house plant. To take home a box of miniature paddy will cost the same. The audience will need to follow the simple instructions on the box and the plant will grow 1cm a day.

The 4th phase will conclude the social experiment with the documentation of the entire project including videos, texts and photographs. The experiment saw the artist infiltrating art into the everyday by using the ubiquitous white styrofoam box and placing them in inconspicuous locations. Its main objective was to generate a conversation (of rice or art) between strangers. The second objective was to see if an alternative exchange system could exist in the art world, where money’s exchange value is replaced or barter-traded with objects/actions valued by the artist.

As much as the work is about the challenges of art making in Myanmar, the rice terrace created by Po Po is as powerful a reference for growing arts in Singapore. Without deep soil, the plant cannot grow deep roots and grow taller to its full potential. While my neighbours might think I have gone mad growing grass, I am seriously considering repotting my rice plant to deeper troughs.

Play: New Art from Myanmar. Images taken with permission from Osage Gallery.

Po Po’s Terrace may be seen at Osage Gallery. It is part of a group show curated by Isabel Ching and Yin Ker, featuring many newly commissioned works from Myanmar. Exhibition spans 9 May – 20 June 2010, admission free.

Other Information:
[1] Rice. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice

Encountering Cheong Soo Pieng



I distinctively recall when asked to copy a piece of work by one of the pioneer artists, I had chosen Cheong’s Bali Girls.

As a secondary school student in the Art Elective Programme, I remember being introduced to, looking at and somewhat involuntarily made to study what is now termed as the Nanyang Art Style and the works of our pioneering artists such as Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang, Georgette Chen, Chen Chong Swee and of course Cheong Soo Pieng. Back then, as the girly sort who loved patterns, textures and designs, I was captivated by the long-limbed, sinewy and elongated forms of Cheong’s Bali Girls. Lines dominated the image, creating shapes and form through pattern.

Facing Children 1968, the archetypal figures of Cheong now seem almost wooden, carved in an image of stillness, like a sculpture in a painting. In an exhibition of Cheong’s curated by TK Sabapathy, Ahmad Mashadi and Karen Lim at the NUS Cultural centre, many of the works displayed are ones which I had not seen before, even in print form.[1] I invariably turn to other works.

In Untitled 1957, Cheong depicts a group of 3 labourers taking a break, seated in a tight-knitted triangle, they seem engaged in quiet activity, a game or letter reading perhaps, as suggested by the sheaf of papers and stack of books in the foreground. Their attention wholly on what is laid out in their centre, hidden to the viewer and the young boy who looks on from the left of the painting, included and yet distanced.

Whilst the composition seems to have been adapted a western schema of representation, seemingly like those in the paintings of Kirchner and Picasso. Aside from a focus on the exploration of oil painting there appears to be a distinctive South-East Asian subject matter. A tropical sensibility. Is there anything new about what I am saying? Nothing much, though when closely observed, we notice in the painting evidence of the layering and tacking of paint (almost to impasto) on the clothes of the figures, strokes of oil paint that demonstrate tone on the sleeves of the women, the scratches creating textures of the hats and basket, illuminating their form. The attempt by an artist to create a language of painting, within a new context of nation and home and place within his world. In the simplified gestures of rest we see the implication of the notion of work, of construction, of (nation) building. We cannot take away the realisation that these paintings were made during a not-too-long-ago time when samsui women did exist, when there were cows, sampans, kelongs, goats and chickens on the shores of our now developed nation. That these were part of life makes us aware of the landscape (literal, social and artistic) that has transformed rapidly over the course of less than 2 generations.

By writing this I am not waxing nostalgic about a time that once existed. Rather, by positing my present as the point of departure, Cheong Soo Pieng’s works thus become a sort of lesson in Singapore’s visual history, offering impasto glimpses of a palimpsestic place I have become unsure of; of a country I find difficult to understand; of a home (of my parents and grandparents) that is no longer here (for me to perceive).

Ironically, I suspect if it were not for the inclusion of these artists (and others) within the Ministry Of Education art syllabuses, it is perfectly possible that interest, knowledge and subsequently future understanding of Cheong’s works amongst future generations would fade in time to come. Just recently on Facebook I was smiling to myself, amused at the posts of some former students, excitedly planning a class reunion by going to see this exhibition at NUS Cultural Centre. It makes me wonder, just how many other young people have access, if modest, to these small and colourful pockets of history.

I do not want to forget.

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.[2]

Liping Chan

Encountering Cheong Soo Pieng

Southeast Asian Gallery & NX Gallery, NUS Museum

5 March 2010 – 31 July 2010


[1] As I had not the opportunity to see many of his paintings except in books, catalogues and magazines, this show proved all the more enlightening in understanding/learning more on what I had once ‘studied’, read, and even discussed about with my own art students regarding his work. It is a pity though, that his works (as well as that of other important local artists) are not readily available to viewing and study at our museums, perhaps due to the lack of space. Hopefully the presence of the new National Art Gallery will change that.

[2] The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera