Monthly Archives: December 2011

3 Singapore artists to look out for in the SB2011

Singapore Biennale 2011 at Old Kallang Airport

Old Kallang Airport, for those old enough to remember, was Singapore’s first civilian airport, decommission in 1955. It then served as part of an expressway, headquarters to People’s Association, used-car sale rooms, racetracks for weekend Radio-controlled car rallies, recreation venue until sometime in 2009, and a venue for the Singapore Biennale 2011. Old Kallang Airport is an icon of Singapore’s geographical, cultural and urban landscape. In its heydays, it connects Singapore’s sky to faraway places; as the head office for people’s association it provided numerous subsidized venues for Singapore’s amateur cultural groups; it remains an architectural feature, announcing the prominent, once fashionable Art Deco style of the 1920s and 30s.  In its current state, it reminds me of a broken toy, too precious to discard, too broken to be played with satisfactorily. The installation work by Michael Lee, Office Orchitect: K.S. Wong (2011) is most apt and best describes urban planners’ intense love-hate relationship with relic or derelict buildings, balancing Singapore’s past, present and future constructed architectural environment.

When K.S. Wong, the persona of artist Michael Lee, remarked that “Buildings are made of piles of butter” , he meant it as a critique of buildings in Singapore – buildings in Singapore are demolished as quickly as butter appears to melt. Just as paper as a building material suggests disposability/recycling, impermanence, experimentation, perhaps so are buildings not protected by conservation in Singapore. While the politics and narrative of space remain to be played out, the absence of detailed client briefs, creature comforts of commercial offices prevent us from plunging into the make-believe completely. What we can admire, from the onset and with untrained architect eye,  are the incredulous architectural models that stretch our imaginations about living spaces those lived or conceptual architectural spaces.

The body of work, in the form of a make-believe studio-office-home, surpasses Psychotaxonomy (2009), a solo exhibition at the Baba House, and works shown at Art Stage (2011).  It culminates his enduring interests in using paper and its derivatives (e.g. cardboard, carton etc) as materials for art, allure of polarity or ambiguity between fact & fiction, his fascination for monuments and architecture, and his attention to using concept maps to replace what words find difficult to relate and illustrate.

Another work that relates to Old Kallang Airport, is John Low‘s curiously titled installation, I’ve been Skying (2011). Inspired by and a tribute to the iconic Singapore River, the installation consists of fragments, artifacts, books, articles, sketches, borrowed artworks and parts from earlier artworks. John Low’s installation is constructed to resemble a lived space, and is akin to John Constable’s process of observing clouds. Like clouds, the meaning of the installation transmutes across the span of the installation – a research and inspiration space filled with book cases, a thinking space, a painting space, a writing space and an exhibition space. It alternates between a serious contemplation on the authenticity of art, and a play of meaning and purpose of art. To this end, the title of the work might well be “I’ve been skylarking”, playing tricks or puns like how Duchamp did with Étant Donnés (c.1969).

This installation displays in parts, and relate to John Low’s  earlier works, Ghost Stories (2009) series and Landscape (1997). Ghost Stories (2009) series consists of large, plan size, enlarged photocopies of newspaper archive articles, reporting on ghost sightings in Singapore. Fact, fiction and myth are confused in this age where documents are easily digitally manipulated and doctored, and these article’s authenticity are doubted. These photocopies are also displayed in the installation, along side floor arrangements of burnt charcoal or charred spherical objects. Owing to the proximity to these oversized newspaper articles, one can almost imagine the burnt objects have spontaneously combusted by uncanny forces. Like Landscape (1997), charcoal as a substance, signifies the basic element of life (carbon), birth, ‘re-birth’ or regeneration and death. Perhaps the artist wanted art to function like the uncanny and magical, transforming minds and lives like religious transubstantiation.

Like the Singapore River, the muse for many artists, the concept of ‘waterways’ and ‘island’ remain central to Singapore’s sovereignty and identity. Another modern magical facility, forgotten and underrated are Singapore’s reservoirs, storm drainage and sewage. Charles Lim’s All Lines Flow Out (2011) consists of a video and two nets hanging from the ceiling, droplet-like only magnified, filled with dead leaves. Relating to Singapore’s waterways  – canals and our beloved Singapore River – a romantic interpretation would be to see them as tear drops, symbolic of nostalgia. An environmental interpretation would be to see them as a reminder of the price of continual land reclamation at the cost of nature, or in this case, marine life.

The video shown navigates these forgotten waterways presenting an augmented viewing experience in an elegant, unusual high-definition and uber-landscape format. This video is fantasy, documentary and abstract rolled into one. One part fantasy, it unfolds a narrative of a young man who possibly works cleaning the canals. In the magical realism tradition, with a meta-narrative of a narrator or cinematographer, we are taken on a journey through the canals and waterways, seeking the sea and metaphorical freedom. One part documentary,  it is a celebration of our water-ways like Venice, only under explored.  Bits of the video probably featured the Kallang River, near the Old Kallang Airport. One part abstract, the pictorial contrast between light and dark, beaming night cityscape and construction sites, picture rivers and drains as ‘drawn’ lines in our landscape. Physical space is ultimately condensed, digitized and re-presented.

We are left uncertain if the protagonist is the narrator/owner of the abandoned house by the sea, the young man in the film, or artist himself. Fitted into Charles Lim’s larger interest, Sea Stories, they form a cogent and beautiful statement about the price of land, sea and a nation built by sea trade.

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This text was edited and posted much later than intended. Originally conceived as comments to accompany a special tour on Singapore Artists at Old Kallang Airport site, they have since been reorganized and redeveloped as a written piece. These 3 artworks were selected because they display strong unique aesthetics decisions; they convey sentiments in relation to space and identity or relate to Old Kallang Airport and notions of site-specificity.

Further reading:

Singapore Biennale 2011 artists: http://www.singaporebiennale.org/artists.php
Young Art Writer’s Programme, SB2011: http://blogs.todayonline.com/forartssake/tag/young-art-writers-programme/
Michael Lee: http://michaellee.sg/ and http://www3.ntu.edu.sg/chronicle/archives/vol17no09.pdf
John Low: http://www.myartspace.com.sg/Pages/artists_in_residence/John_low.html
Charles Lim: http://charleslim.org/

The Burning Gaze by Hyung Koo Kang

Hyung Koo Kang: The Burning Gaze

The human face appears to be the obsession of Korean artist Hyung Koo Kang, whose exhibited paintings are mostly portraits depicting this particular body part. Each canvas is a close-up of a face rendered in a photorealistic manner, and the faces painted include those of Hyung himself, and of well-known figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Princess Diana and Mao Zedong, just to name a few.

One of Hyung’s quotes printed on the wall of the museum reveals Hyung’s opinions of the human face, seeing it “… As the single body part that most effectively represents a human being, the face is unique, without a double and serves as the primary means to identify a person’s identity apart from another” (extract from wall text). What is the identity of a person then? Is it merely how he or she looks, or something more? Does it include his or her experiences and life stories? Hyung’s portraits are perhaps an exploration of this idea of identity, that of famous personalities, common people and himself.

Many of us may know bits and pieces of the lives of well-known people we so often see and hear about, whether through conversations with others, the media, or in books. Viewing Hyung’s portraits of those familiar faces, it is inevitable that various facts or stories concerning the subject matter come to mind. In Vincent van Gogh in Blue (2006), for example, Van Gogh’s mutilated ear portion is stitched back, a detail that prompts one to think of Van Gogh’s life. Van Gogh resembles a brooding movie character captured under a blue filter in the painting, and his cold, steely gaze, intensified by the dominant use of blue, is reminiscent of the piercing gaze of van Gogh in his own self portraits.

Several portraits, such as Old Woman (2003) and man (2004), depicts unnamed people, probably a representation of the common man and woman, who are outside the realm of fame. Confronted with the portrait of a stranger, with knowledge of only how he or she looks like, several questions may surface in one’s mind. Who are these people and are they real, or simply a figment of the artist’s imagination? What kind of life do they lead, what stories do they have?

​Hyung’s self portraits depict the artist in various states of emotion, with each painting bathed in a different colour. The composition of the paintings is tightly cropped, isolating the face from the rest of the body. One can imagine how the artist has probably spent much time observing the details of his face, perhaps staring into the mirror or taking photographs to familiarize himself with every inch of his face, while translating what he has observed onto the canvas. In Self Portrait (2010), an enormous painting made up of 3 canvases with Hyung depicted in bright red against a yellow background, the words ‘only one’ are faintly visible above Hyung’s signature at the bottom of the painting. Perhaps, his self portraits are painted to establish his own unique identity, a reminder that there is only one of every single human on earth, each with his or her own features and stories.

​Hyung’s refreshing use of a dominant, monochromatic colour render the faces in several paintings like photographs captured with coloured cellophane stuck over camera lens. One is invited to think about the possible meanings of the colours chosen, and how it relates to the subject matter being portrayed. For instance, is purple a reference to royalty and nobility or a certain deprivation in Diana (2010)?

The use of aluminium as the painting surface for several paintings is something I have never seen before, since canvases or wood seem to be more conventional, so this is an eye-opener for me. The material allows each strand of hair to come to life with its silvery quality, as can be seen in Monroe in the night sky (2010), where the wind-blown hair complements Monroe’s playful expression in the painting.

The Burning Gaze, while prompting one to think about what the human face can represent, is also a feast for the eyes. The photorealism of the paintings are impressive, inviting one to take in the details of each painting slowly and admire its beauty. The large size of the paintings commands one’s attention, and the imposing presence increases the impact the paintings have on the viewer. Both qualities contribute to the beautiful paintings that are worth several visits and are hard to forget.

Singapore Art Museum
14 October to 25 December 2011

Review by Ngiam Li Yi