Monthly Archives: November 2010

Play Dead by Guo Liang

Resonance of Painting Painting

Play Dead by Tan Guo Liang. Images with permission from the artist

The title of this private exhibition made reference to Paul Delaroche’s much quoted remarks  after seeing a Daguerreotype in 1839:” … from today, painting is dead.” Then, Delaroche was concerned with painting as a tool and ‘technology’ to represent the visible world.  Painting straddled the dual purpose of serving as historical markers, bearers of historical events or persons, as well as serving churches, rich merchants and aristocrats, as symbols of authority, wealth and power. With the invention of the Daguerreotype, the predecessor of film photography, and grandfather of digital photography as we know it, Delaroche feared painting would fall from grace, become less ‘useful’ or ‘relevant’ to the world. Like a period pre-revolution drama, Delaroche feared the execution of painting.

The title playfully suggest the opposite. It suggests instead an escape. A tongue in cheek defiance and reprisal of  issues with painting as a media of representation – painting wasn’t simply left for dead, it was freed and no longer constrained. Painting, both the physical act, and as an object never quite left the contemporaneous art scene either. Paintings instead, have become important markers and references for art in itself — art for art sake. As important markers, they often represented the audience, their state of acceptance for what is art more so than what art means to the artist.

The paintings by Guoliang bear a certain resemblance to his source of inspiration, Edouard Manet’s more obscure subject matter, flowers. On closer inspection, the paintings are as much a study on flowers as they are about a study on texture, brush strokes and subtle colour combinations. The controlled brushstrokes appear liberated and adrift. They appear to form, and break away again, held only by our preconception of how an image is constructed. Delivering the essence of painting, flowers are an excuse to paint painting itself.

This private exhibition is significant in two ways. Firstly, it is the first time the series painted over 6 years has seen the light of day collectively. The series never looked better, resonating convincingly the intended demeanor of what it means to practise painting today. Painting today meant embracing the historical baggages of painting, yet taking liberties to circumvent it. Secondly, it challenges the issue of viewership, the inherent need for art to be seen, recognised and appreciated. The series here is intended for a small invited viewership, the information broadcasted to a select audience through email and Facebook. Throngs of spectators were kept out, only participants were invited. This is an intriguing thought, deferring from our regular obsession with viewership numbers.

The status of painting in Singapore have always been perceived as a fad, ebbing within different spheres of influences. In art schools, you could be a painter, but not painting because painting just isn’t hip enough sometimes. In the news,  only record sales of paintings in the millions at overseas auctions hit the headlines. Other art forms will arguably be more sensational and news worthy. But art, at the heart of the matter, isn’t about catching or seizing the fad. For the artist, it is about bringing an intended message through an artwork; to the viewer, it is finding a connection with an artwork, a resonance with themselves.

7.0 of 10 stars

Link to a Quicktime VR movie of the exhibition space. You will need a quicktime plugin to play the file.

The Whiteness of a Whale by Zhao Renhui

Questioning the nature of photography, and photography of landscapes

The Whiteness of a Whale

The title and pictures presented in this exhibition reminded me of a great whale story. The whiteness of a whale conjured a mental image of Japanese whale hunters, in search of the perfect ritualistic catch ala Moby Dick style. The captain of the hunting ship is a bitter old man with a limp. For those who have read  Moby Dick, know how my fantasy ended.  Quite different from Moby Dick, Zhao Renhui has created a legend in its own right set in a fictitious town; the sighting of a white whale and stories of a people who live in the shadows of that sighting.  It resonates perseverance of the protagonist of the legend who continued to seek it, or a fool’s goal.

The exhibition could be described in sets. Those postcard sized images that play ‘where’s Wally’, toying with the viewers’ attention to spot the digital manipulation in the images or the white spot that represents a potential whale. Secondly, the landscape/seascape photographs that juxtaposed human presence against nature. Thirdly, the semi-abstract and abstract aberrations, flushed with blood red red patterns, the green mosaic, multiplied grid and the weird towering stack of white cards/paper.

The arrangement of the works tried to narrate a storyline, but ends up distracting the viewer someone, like the reflection resulting from light peering through window louvers. The arrangement of the space may have benefited from ‘abstract’ to narrative, rather than starting with the postcards and sprawling, curving to abstract images tucked at the back. As if  intentional, the white walls of the exhibition echoes the mysterious white whale.

The colour white is very symbolic. To most of the western world, it represents heavenly purity; to the Chinese, it represents mourning and death. In medical terms, it is a congenital disorder, characterised by the absence of skin pigmentation. In racial discourse, for example in Franz Fanon’s text, Black skin, White Masks, white highlights the politics of oppression and difference resulting from colonialism.  In Michael Jackson’s Black or White (1991) hit singles, it represents a larger duality paired with black, a counter point to racial harmony.

The series Whiteness of a Whale, exemplifies an astounding acute understanding of the photographic media, and its effects to mess with your eyes and mind.

Other than formal artistic intentions, questioning the nature of photography – its status as ‘truths’ and ‘fabricated truths’ – Zhao has used these images to comment on something symbolic and universal. The Sublime, human desire to conquer nature, are but some sub-narratives that accompany the work. Human presence is diminutive against the vastness of the ocean, and minuscule against the vastness of the digital information ocean. The poetic images worked really well, suggesting a concerted effort to present the artist’s aesthetics for the sublime, and his augmentation of the digital phenomenology on our understanding of our place in the world.

The whiteness, alluding to light itself, could suggests a grander narrative.  By that lead and metaphor, seeking light, seeking truth, may thus re-adjust our understanding of Zhao’s grander concept.

7.0 of 10 stars
Jul 2010, Jendela, Esplanade; travels to 2902 Gallery 3 -22 Aug, 2010, Images with the permission of the artist.

Relevant link:


The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline by Debbie Ding

reduction – seduction

The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline by Debbie Ding

The Singapore River as a subject matter has riveted Singapore artists. Because it serves as a symbol of the heart and essence of the nation; the Raffles landing site as a place for for contending the nation’s colonial history; a place of significant personal memory, that is edged on/out by progress and urban redevelopment.

Debbie Ding’s work cleverly examine these, illustrated by a large map with ‘tags’, allowing visitors to pen their memories of the river, 20 interpretative doodles of the shape of the river, and an interactive digital map that allows one to ‘mess with the shape’ of the river.

The enlarged, hand-illustrated map served as a reminder of the organic functions of Memory and a counterpoint, a stark contrast to the digital interactive map.  Memories are more malleable than than we desire. This work serves to illustrate that, by allowing the audience to  insert their own interpretations of memories and events surrounding the Singapore River, by writing on a cardboard standing tag. Other viewers who agreed with the statement/narrative could place a green sticker on the same tag. One viewer wrote: “UFO: It was the day I saw it land… (opposite Funan)”, with at least 7 other people agreeing. The digital interactive map responded to fiddling a set of acrylic discs, distorting ever so slightly the projected image of the shape of the river moved by a colossus or eroded by water and time.

The second work “The Shape of the Singapore River: A series of 20 speculative maps” are tongue-in-cheek impressions. As cartographic as they may appear to be, they resemble cartoons, twisted by definitions and caricatures of what the river meant to those who penned them. For example, a stomach-shaped drawing suggests the Singapore River as the belly of a carp, because so many banks are found near Cavenagh bridge, and the Chinese like metaphors of fish because it means ‘abundance’.  The ‘logo’ – two unassuming short parallel lines – of the exhibition bests represents what the river means to many. Reducing cartography to mere graphical representations, two backslashes, is seductive. It conveniently simplifies a memory, compounds history and erodes the rough bits.

The river mentioned in the title of the exhibition isn’t really about a river.  It points us to a clinical, no-nonsense attitude we often take towards history. Just show me the facts/points, not the personal narratives that run parallel to time. As a warning, it signals the apathy we may have towards the place we inhabit. As a conceptual ‘faultline’, it alerts us to the disaster of being overtly detached and rootless.

7.0 of 10 stars

The Substation Gallery, 2 to 26 September 2010.

Related Links:

Debbie Ding’s Documentation of the work:

Substation Open Call 2010 ( , which this resulted in this exhibition.

Other exemplary renditions of the Singapore River: