Monthly Archives: December 2011

Intimacy

closeness enclosed

Intimacy

This was my first visit to Yavuz Fine Art Gallery, on the 3rd floor of the former Catholic High School building on Waterloo Street, near the Singapore Art Museum. Singapore has more than one instance of converting former school buildings into art spaces. For example, Telok Kurau Studios, The Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Asian Civilisation Museum on Armenian Street, Old School at Mount Sophia Road, and SAM at 8Q on Queen Street. Perhaps these conversions are viable for economic reasons and urban regeneration. Additionally, the aura and connotations of a school suggest an ambient of learning, respect and authority – useful qualities for art spaces to inherit.

The title and theme of the exhibition is intimacy. Featuring 9 artists, the works range from video, photography, paintings, drawings, assemblages and ceramics. Judging from the year of production, it is very likely that the works were identified or made first, and then curated together. Despite the diverse art forms, the theme and title holds the show well, if not brilliantly. The placement of the works were thoughtful, ensuring that visual elements were echoed or bounced off neighboring artworks; they were well spaced to allow sufficient viewing distance to ‘take in’ the work as it extends, and expand in meaning.

I shall extend in writing my thoughts on three artworks which intrigued me in relation to an expanded definition of ‘intimacy’. Intimacy, most commonly refers to familiarity, closeness, private, an euphemism for a sexual relationship and detailed and thorough knowledge. From the last definition, and the latin root words, intimate or intimare, it also means ‘to tell’, or ‘make known’.

Tang Ling Nah’s Study for Contemplating Waterloo Scene (2011) expresses ‘familiarity and closeness’ through ordinary buildings, rendered beautifully in charcoal. One may not usually associate public spaces as intimate because they are often portrayed as uniform, ugly, cold, corporate, or distant. Ambiguity and ubiquity of public and private spaces are often depicted in her iconic, black and white drawings. Even though they usually represent actual architectural spaces, Tang Ling Nah often tricks our mind, altering and inventing some – they are really her mindscapes – an ordinary vacant scene reprised and immortalized. The psychological effects of space on us, is illustrated and made known in Tang’s work: this artwork lightly captures the bizarre and mixed-feeling we have for arts spaces1.

Stellah Lim’s Never (2010-2011) consists of miniature portraits. Successfully arranged and placed in antique-like cast iron (or plastic imitation?) frames, they resemble pairs of earrings on display. From far, they resemble rorschach ink drawings, inviting the viewer to analyze and interpret them. The small-scale, and choice of material compels the viewer to examine them closely. On closer inspection, hair is used like thread in embroidery, to create an image; the missing facial features suggest hair is an unyielding material and its inflexibility to be used on small details is unresolved. Nonetheless, the faceless portraits – never identified, never completed – suggests that platonic relationships are sometimes vague, and the character and actions of people are never fully understood. On the other hand, the facelessness may symbolize that the people depicted, or their relationships to the artist, were never intimate. A warning perhaps, of the vulnerability of human relationships.

Taking metaphors to another extreme, Sia Hua Kuan’s arc of multi-plugs resemble a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, but with very different found-objects. Like a rainbow, the multi-plugs spill and extend from a socket on the floor. Interpreting the work using the theme of the exhibition, the work could suggest the intimate relationships electrical appliances have with each other. If we have read Philip K. Dick’s (1968) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or seen Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie adaptation, Blade Runner, we may sympathize with this interpretation. Seeing the work in another light, we may also say we are over over-sold on electricity and gadgetry, that we are bending our backs from the humble, simple uses of appliances. Read anti-aesthetically, the artist has found a pretty way to display and store those unwanted multi-plugs which have yet found themselves recycled.

On balance, the works in the exhibition illustrated various definitions of intimacy, and artists’ diverse interests in materials and subject matter. While not particularly racy, sensational or controversial, the exhibition is sensible and the artworks here genuinely deserve to be collected and appreciated by their befitting, tasteful aficionado.

6.0 of 10 stars.

Yavuz Fine Art Gallery, 2 – 25 Sep 2011
http://www.yavuzfineart.com/past_exhibitions/intimacy.html
Note: If anyone is visiting the gallery for the first time, enter from Waterloo Street. Even though it appears to be a singular compound for the former Catholic High School, it is divided into two parts, with separate entrances from Queen Street and Waterloo Street.

Further Reading:
The Wall Street Journal Blog, Singapore Artists Fight for ‘Old School’ Landmark, http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2011/11/23/singapore-artists-fight-for-old-school-landmark/

Endnote:
1. Art spaces is used loosely in this review, to mean a space where artists work and show art. In the text Study of Art Spaces, Chang and Lee suggests arts spaces adopt “ideological rather than (mere) material manifestations”. They elaborate:“‘Spaces with the arts’ refers to spaces that not only accommodate the arts but also embrace them. Within such an environment, the arts are supported and encouraged to develop organically. Simply put, ‘spaces with the arts’ refers to socioscapes wherein the arts reside… ‘spaces of the arts’ are more private, exclusive and individualistic. These are places where ideas are conceived and germinated – the mindscapes of the artists limited only by their imagination and socio-political restrictions.” Chang, T.C. and Lee, W.K. (2003). Renaissance City Singapore: A Study of Arts Spaces. Area, 35(2), (Jun., 2003), 128-141

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Following Breadcrumbs by Julie Heather Liew

Rene Magritte meets Adolescence

Following Breadcrumbs by Julie Heather Liew

“The nature of my work tends to bring out the ‘child’ in all of us – that inquisitive, fidgety creature that we often suppress in order to enter adulthood in a socially-acceptable state of mind. The Upper Gallery provides such a personal and intimate environment for viewers to appreciate art in, I decided to use that to enhance the overall experience of viewing my installations and sculptures” (press release).

When the Brothers Grimm wrote Hansel and Gretel in German, they did not predict that their stories would be translated and told in different languages around the world. And neither did concepts of intellectual property exist in the early 1800s. Taking this children’s story at face value, it is a clever and gripping story that perhaps, impart morals:  1) don’t be a glutton; 2) don’t waste food; 2.5) don’t eat food that falls on the table, let alone the floor;  3) siblings stick together.

Fortunately, the young artist Julie Heather Liew has not interpreted or used a similar reading of Hansel and Gretel morals as subject matter for her body of work; instead, she has used a safer ‘growing up’ theme. The artworks reflect several uncertainties, camouflaged by her careful selection of objects and materials used to signify personal meaning. The cliched image of the pointed roof house is repeated as receptacles for objects (and memories) in several works. For example, peering into a wooden house structure in the middle of the gallery, one would find as eggs on hay. In different corners of the gallery, a miniature globe is nested in a concrete pillow; random objects are placed on a horizontal blackboard; alphabet pasta rests on a Children’s Ikea table and chair set; plinths with altered objects stuck on the side and top. Curiously, the “fidgety creature” mentioned in the artist statement (reproduced above) can not be found. Are they the fictitious inhabitants of the said houses or invented authors of the artworks? Would the witch or stepmother in Hansel and Gretel, be likely candidates for the role of the fidgety creature? How about casting Hansel and Gretel as the fidgety creatures? Like Rene Magritte in Personal Values (1951), objects taken out of context will seem absurd. Only to the most determined and imaginative viewer, these become magical.

For her intrepid, experimental body of work, and perhaps first solo show, the artist has been rather productive.  To be blunt, any artist who decides to make art that is memorable, and to survive as a practitioner must consider pursuing a stronger element of craftsmanship and weighted choice of subject matter. Whether the artist sees herself as the victim or the creator of the tale when the breadcrumbs trail ends, now depends on her. Even so, I grudgingly admit that career choices sometimes depends on extraneous factors and tremendous opportunities.

To end, not all grim stories are only for children, are they?  Because, as pointed out by the artist, there is an inner child in all of us. Sculpted carefully and managed correctly, even artworks with a child-like theme would have their appeal and audience.

Sculpture Square, Upper Gallery, 10 – 26 Sep 2011
http://www.sculpturesq.com.sg/Events/Entries/2011/9/9_Following_Breadcrumbs.html

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This text was edited and posted much later than intended. The author apologizes for the lateness.

Within 140 Characters By Bin (Kian-Peng Ong)

random + twitter + noise

Within 140 Characters

Next to the Substation Gallery, lies a random room. The sound installation Within 140 Characters went well with the name of the room quite nicely.

140 characters, refers to the the format allowed for posting by Twitter, a hugely successful social media application used to: tell people what you are doing (status update), or a concise and abridged piece of information. It is essentially an effective broadcast media, born from the familiarity of sending Short Message Service (SMS) through our phone’s alphanumeric keypads – a keypad that allows one to enter both numbers and alphabets by keystrokes.

In Bin’s case, twitter, plus a few gadgets, is used to sample and lift twitter posts, and using them (the frequencies of posts and keywords) to control pre-recorded sound. Sound in this case, is audibly noise. Pump these through 5 speakers, you have a bizarre, semi-interactive soundscape. It is semi-interactive because the sounds are pre-recorded and the viewer merely ‘selects’ twitter keywords, and the sampling is automated by software and hardware. Some of these keywords were more relevant to Singapore’s context, such as National Service (NS), others were more ubiquitous (e.g.  the) and related to the internet (e.g. http://).  At face value, the sounds, unfortunately, do not relate to the keywords, and the viewer can only wish for a more subliminal or surreptitious  mechanical intervention.

Nonetheless, with some pretty cool technology used in this installation, notwithstanding the fact that this is an experimental open call, this installation had tremendous potential, if it went beyond the Twitter phenomena and examined a less random sound aesthetics.

5.0 of 10 stars

Substation, Random Room, 2 – 19 Sep 2011
http://www.substation.org/within-140-characters/

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This text was edited and posted much later than intended. The author apologizes for the lateness.

The Hall of Mirrors by Bruce Quek

reality is distorted like ‘clockwork orgy’

The Hall of Mirrors by Bruce Quek

The Hall of Mirrors is an installation that resembles an echo-chamber. Exploring the relationship between infrastructure and information flow, The Hall of Mirrors explores how conveyed information is often devoid of meaning and personal relevance. Situated in the gap between information and meaning, The Hall of Mirrors constantly changes and highlights the inexorable nature of time and the unpredictability of the environment. The installation uses publicly available and socially relevant statistics. The occurrence and reoccurrence of these statistics, measured in seconds and in minutes, are synchronised to clocks that constantly alert the viewers of their frequency and reality” (exhibition text).

Reality is distorted in the Hall of Mirrors. Time stops, like a scene in Alice in Wonderland, where the clocks stop telling time. As I entered the gallery, the artist/gallery sitter handed me a receipt with a barcode number. The gallery is filled with clocks, each clock-hand turning and signifying the accumulation of crimes, pollution, human action with each full rotation. Instead of an expected ‘tick, tick, tick’, I seem to be able to hear a continuous ‘fizz, fizz, fizz’, a pause, registering a heart beat paused and a breath held, before the fizzing, low hum buzz continues. Part sublime and part Ikea-like tacky, the cacophony of fizzing clock faces could be quite intimidating. Perhaps because time slipping by, represented by any turning of clock-hands, means I am getting restless, tired and older. ‘Expiring’. Just before I left, my barcode was scanned, and a second receipt indicating my time spent viewing the exhibition was smartly presented to me.

Statistics gone viral, and an orgy of ticking clockworks, the installation created by artist Bruce Quek is straightforward, thoughtful and restrained. He has highlighted a moral dilemma when we deal with publicly available statistics. Raw statistics are pure empirical facts and figures and are non-biased. What implicates statistics, is how we interpret, value and compare them. The interpretation of raw statistics are like measurement lines drawn by ‘experts’ that qualifies and quantifies society. Who are we to question what the ‘experts’ tell us?

The Hall of Mirrors possibly points our attention to two things: firstly, like distortion mirrors in fun fairs, we twist and warp facts to necessarily suit arguments (See Darren Huff, How to Lie with Statistics (2nd ed.), Penguin, 1991.) Secondly, we remain as bystanders to alien injustice, nonchalant to the alarming statistics of human violations highlighted in the work.

Despite some truth behind these statistics, they are ‘too far’ away to tug my emotional heartstrings. The project was perhaps too ambitious, ambivalent when it included disjointed, unrelated numbers. Some trivial localized empirical statistics, anything relevant to the viewers, may mean more, compared with something that is happening inconsequentially on the other side of the world. Some amount of site specificity, or meaningful context would have made a stronger impact. For example, the number of people made bankrupt from stock market speculations, would have had an entirely different impact.

While the technical aspect of the installation worked well on this scale, a deeper science is missing. Finding, using related statistics, according to some scientific, quasi-scientific, if not anti-scientific concept may better relate to the artist’s intent, highlighting”the relationship between infrastructure and information flow”. There could be some underlying theory, social science or physics which could be used to make sense of this statistics. For example some scientific material could be found in Philip Ball’s (2005) Critical Mass: How One Thing leads to Another, where the author applies physics theories to explain human interaction.

But not all statistics on foreign soil is distant. Statistics on carbon emissions, featured in this exhibition, warrant a thoughtful pause. Surely this provokes some action? On the topic of climate change, Lord Martin Rees in his lecture titled What challenges does the future hold for the relationship between science and policy?, admits that the issue for government isn’t as simply as taking environmental scientists recommendations and making policies out of them. Government and politics is far more complex then that. Implementing the policies, without resolution on ‘equity’, ‘way of life’ on this diverse planet is a real issue. The onus, Lord Rees feels, is for scientists make information available to governments and engaging with the public/voters early. As environmental scientists implore governments to take global action, we cannot simply take sides. A call for global action begins with the local and taking small leads with our individual lives. And perhaps, artists (or their professional counterparts) are also responsible to engage with the public/voters, to explain and show how art fits in the grand scheme of things.

7.0 of 10 stars

Substation Gallery, 9 – 30 Sep 2011

Further reading:
http://www.substation.org/the-hall-of-mirrors/
Substation’s reminder: “Click here listen to the audio accompaniment to an experimental essay written for the catalogue of Hall of Mirrors.”

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This text was edited and posted much later than intended. The author apologizes for the lateness.

First Art Council by Tang Da Wu

For the children, our pride, our future

I have seen the evocative new works by Tang Da Wu twice, once at Valentine Willie Gallery at Tanjong Pagar and again at Goodman Arts centre galley. The first, at the opening and witnessing artist Ben Puah as an unusual candidate for Guest-of-honour, giving his short but heart-felt speech and second, over a cup of coffee with the artist, surrounded by the works.  In the space between the two visits, I brooded over the significance of several ‘gestures’ in the installation. I call elements in his installation ‘gestures’ because they resemble actions in his performances, each with specific meaning and intentions.  The second visit yielded much insight, which filters into my description of the artist’s intent behind gestures of the installation.

First Art Council, may first seem odd and cryptic to those unfamiliar with Tang Da Wu’s enigmatic, magician’s flourish. Why hang slanted paintings, display a monumental painting that refuses to be hung, hang an upside down chair, crowd a room within a room (a transparent ship-like room structure with thick, perspex sheet walls), reference cliches of Van Gogh and dedicate the entire installation to all art teachers and the Singapore Teachers’ Academy for the Arts? The answer may well lie in the chalk scribbles, child-figure plaster sculptures, and figure of artistic influence (and he will deny this), the artist is.

Beginning by decrypting the title,”first art council” possibly refers to a fictitious or mythologized return to a blank slate, a challenge to policy makers to re-examine their arts policy not from an adult economical perspectives, but from an educational perspective – stealing a slogan from the Ministry of Education, a perspective that is ‘best for our children, best for Singapore’. Historically, artists such as Joan Miro, Jean Debuffet like Tang Da Wu and many others,  believed that Children are natural artists. From an educational standpoint (unaware to the artist), philosophers like John Dewey have advocated for Creative Self-Expression, and some educators led mistakenly to believe that children are best left unguided by any formal schooling. Children’s art, innocence and naivety were regarded, or mistaken by some, for pure aesthetic and Art. However, what Dewey meant was children can harness their experiences, putting themselves entirely in the process of making.  Children naturally exude creativity, knowing no biggie rules to break, and expressed themselves freely through doodles if they are permitted and guided to do so constructively. The large ink paintings represents the formation of creative selves, illuminated by facial features that form from the seemingly random ink splotches. From another angle, they resemble magnificent waves, not unlike those depicted by Hokusai. Gazing at these canvases or papers are gratifying in a mysterious way, like peering out the window on a pouring day, barely making out the silhouettes. The starring dragon and phoenix hidden in one of these large paintings, represents the guardians of children. Similarly, the “Jaga Anak Baik-Baik” (loving and caring) portrait paintings by Jeremy Hiah serve as  images of deified bovine door guardians to the exhibition,  protecting the exhibits and watching peacefully over the visitors.

The yellow iron structure intentionally resembles a ship and a room. It is an exhibit for our examination. One child figure intentionally resembles Degas Ballerina figurine, staring defiantly or perhaps longingly at the hand-made paper costume; the other continues to play, scribbling chalk which vaguely reads “Give me back my future”. Both figures are decidedly ghostly and identity-free, so the viewer may imagine themselves or their children in such a situation, wondering, hoping, sailing somewhere, anywhere. The future, if we live long enough to see it, we would like to believe, are in our adult hands. The paper costume represents play and childhood. We can easily imagine that  children today are scuttled to enrichment classes or cram school for math, english and science because parents who could afford these believe they are giving their children a head-start in a high strung, competitive world. In most cases, the arts become marginalized in a schedule packed with tuition. The wild yam plant is destined to perish or be discarded by the end of the exhibition. Though not intentional, it could symbolize the futility of this arbitrary future, unless something is done about it.

The chair, is similar to the one depicted in Van Gogh’s Chair (1888). The reference to Van Gogh and Impressionism signified the canons of Western Art.  By hanging the iconic chair upside down, the artist wanted the viewer to interrogate these canonical influences, turning them on their head and viewing them with a fresh perspective. Impressionism became the scapegoat because Impressionists artworks are often regarded the most widely reproduced images of Art. Ask any schooling children if they can name any artwork, they would probably name an impressionist artwork.

The dedication of an installation to art educators was no mere coincidence. Herein lies a challenge by the artist, to educators and parents to steer the future of our children, by bringing play and creativity back. A simple task, if only parents ordered our priorities with developing the whole child in mind. But the artist might be preaching to the converted, moreover, art educators are often constrained by their circumstances. But aren’t we all constrained, in one way or another?

An avant-garde artist and inspiration to many, Tang Da Wu’s latest refreshing installation First Art Council, scores a few first – large scale, a wet-on-wet ink technique last seen in the head series; a contemporary artist recognizing the work of art educators in Singapore;  the largest stretcher assembled locally and held by tape. In the second exhibition, the artist took the shrewd decision to banish the canonical Van Gogh chair, and other references to Impressionism. This to me, is already taking matters into our own hands and a step in the right direction to establish our pride, our future in local art.

First Arts Council by Tang Da Wu@VWFA Gallery
Next Chapter: First Arts Council by Tang Da Wu @ Goodman Arts Centre Gallery

Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery, 5 – 28 Aug 2011
‘Jaga anak baik-baik’, Goodman Arts Centre Gallery, 8 – 14 Sep 2011

Recommended Further Reading:
Press Release by VWFA: http://www.vwfa.net/tangdawu

Lee Wen’s article, The Aesthetics of Didacticism on First Art Council: http://republicofdaydreams.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/the-aesthetics-of-didacticism/

An interview with the artist on one of his earlier works: http://www.drawingoutconversations.com/

Kwok Kian-Woon, The Stakes in Contemporary Art: Tang Da Wu’s Artistic Practice as Exemplar, Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings, Vol. 10, No.1, 2010, University of Leeds, http://www.movingworlds.net

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This text was edited and posted much later than intended. The author apologizes for the lateness.