Monthly Archives: January 2012

We Who Saw Signs

from vision to perception

We Who Saw Signs

We Who Saw Signs is a group exhibition that explores doubt by focusing on the transitional…The exhibition proposes the possibility of transversing the boundaries of signification and experience, of the real and the imagined amidst ambiguity and humour. It is an invitation to question authenticity and a declaration to favor uncertainty over coherence, fiction over truth” (curatorial text).

In Gombrich’s concluding remarks of his chapter ‘The Analysis of Vision in Art’ in Art and Illusion (1956, p.264), he suggested that ‘the world really looks like a flat picture, but because some flat pictures really look like the world’. Gombrich was pointing out the intricate relationship between representation in art – art that looks like something that exists – and the world around us;  we measure the beauty of our environment, not just by our personal experiences, but also by what is depicted in art. For example, a first visit to Stonehenge will allow a comparison with experiences of visits to historical ruins, but also images of Stonehenge on travel brochures and websites. To Gombrich, artists, conscious or not, make their art look like or relate to art that have been produced. In addition, we are attuned to seeing the world as constructed two dimensional images: we crop, view-find what we find interesting and more desirable. To traject Gombrich’s thoughts, we over rely on two dimensional images to gather visual information and see the world. Perhaps our insatiable desire and curiosity has led us to simplify experiences into postcard-like two dimensional images like a mental short-hand.

In a similar way, this exhibition suggests occasions and situations that question reality, and how seeing should not really be believing. This exhibitions succeeds in doing so and also stirs our curiosity for the artists’ varied subjects, but also concepts of aesthetics by which we can use to evaluate them.  For example, we may investigate the works against a theoretical concept of mimesis, or imitation of what is real or truthful. The arrangement of the artworks were thoughtful, giving each work the space they deserve; it also juxtaposes similarities and offers contrasts. For example, the works by Adad Hannah and Tan Wee Lit are common because they suggest momento mori – remember your mortality – by the suggestion of a skull image in Hannah’s and obituaries for unknown people in Wee Lit’s. As a result, the viewer may read the same suggestion in Nipan Oranniwesna’s monumental white ‘gravestone’ placed on the floor, or Ho Tzu Nyen’s dark, ambiguous, apocalyptic video. Or Yoca Muta’s video as an environmental warning of our over-stretched consumption of natural resources. Yet the artworks are different in medium and context and were made with very different intents.

The title of an exhibition determines the flavour of the exhibition. To explain the title We Who Saw Signs, we can relate it to the concept of semiotics in linguistics, and human beings’ desire to understand language and how it means what it means. Language, written or verbal, become carriers of meanings or signs in place of natural phenomena, objects and action. For meaning to be constructed, a sign consists of a signifier and signified – the form which the sign takes, and the concept the sign represents, respectively. A sign, say a written word ‘saw‘, may have more than one signified: it can have multiple meanings. This exhibition explores signifiers and the signified, or the suggestion of signs in its various guise: written language and pictograms (Nipan Oranniwesna’s Silent Voice) names (Tan Wee Lit’s The Missed), objects and photographs (Ola Vasiljeva’s Alchimie du Verbe), action (Ola Vasiljeva’s Alchimie du Verbe, Grieve Perspective’s The Heavens Belong To Everyone But The View Above Is Ours Alone) and images (Adad Hannah’s All Is Vanity, Ho Tzu Nyen’s Earth, Institute of Critical Zoologists’ The Great Pretenders, and Yoca Muta’s Mountain). To add to this, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition can be regarded as the tenth artwork. Pursuing an explanation of semiotics, we can conclude that everything must be a sign, if we intend or read it as such.

The exhibition title suggests that the artists are observers, researchers and masters of signs. The title also encourages the reader/viewer to understand the works by carefully examining the ‘flaws’ or hints of deception; cut apart the visual elements to find meaning of the work. But reading signs, signified, and signifier in every work may be an overtly intellectual exercise, neglecting the aesthetic experience conveyed by the work. What is a sign without emotions and feelings? What is a sign without context or the spring of experiences for our rich imaginations to tap on? Therefore semiotics should be an optional seasoning, to supplement our sensory perception in the company of clever, great works of art.

ICA Gallery , LASALLE, 3 Aug – 4 Sep 2011
The limited edition catalogue might still be available from the ICA gallery. Do write to them directly for enquiries.


A crude example of how a sign/symbol is meaningful:
Signifier + Signified  = sign
Rose        + Passion     = Meaningful sign
Chandler, Daniel (2009). Semiotics for Beginners. Accessed 24 Jan 2012 from

Tan, Guoliang. (2011). We Who Saw Signs. Singapore: The Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore

Splendid Memory Still Flows Back Into Cosmos… Wow Really

tangential. visual. eye. true. space

Splendid Memory Still Flows Back Into Cosmos… Wow Really

The title of this exhibition is derived, in part, from an exquisite corpse exercise. Exquisite Corpse, refers to ” a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled”. In this instance, an artist thinks of a word, another chips in a second word (or work) in relation and this goes on before the title is coined.

In the same experimental spirit, I thought I will pen my thoughts of this exhibition in relation to a sequence chosen in an equally erratic manner. I begin with the first word that comes to my head when I re-viewed the photographs taken of the exhibition. Then, I opened Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception (1954) and in quick successions picked up ‘random’ words, guided by my subconscious, or sub-conscience. I started with a word (adj.) tangential, because I thought this titling methodology is rather similar to the physical arrangement of the artworks. Certain visual elements (scale, colour, treatment of texture, subject matter) resonate, when the artworks are placed together.  The subject matters  dealt here are eclectic, but yet somewhat related. The works are all different in nature and appearance, each taking different lines of thought. However, they remain central to a hidden set of themes or agenda. For instance, I can identify history/memory, institution, humor and structure in the body of works, or at least a tangent of these. What I assume as ‘themes’ might well be off-tangent to the artists’ intent.

tangential, visual eye. true space.

Visual eye here “refer to someone’s power of vision and indescriptions of the manner or direction of someone’s gaze”. For example, “I have an eye for beauty”, suggests the owner of such a statement can identify beauty because he or she has the ability to judge and evaluate it. In Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception (1954), he states ten principles, or psychology of the creative eye, that artists adhere, to follow or disrupt. Balance, shape, form, growth, space, light, color, movement, dynamics, expression are sometimes called elements of art. But what Arnheim really did was explain the ten most basic art vocabulary words from a psychological examination. Besides a thematic analysis of the institutional context of a premier (and premium) art institution, the works are references for the visual eye – set pieces where elements of art can be exemplified, talked about, critiqued and internalised.

True space refers to both the physical space and imaginary and experimental space artists create. It also reflects the importance of art practices being faithful to an artistic vision, message or intent. I will pick a few to explain that the largest imaginary space belongs to the viewer, where different interpretations of the artists’ works are allowed. Sia Joo Hiang’s illustrations are hilarious and play with hopes, fears of anyone and everyone. In Spring Can Always Be Here (2010-11), a row of boys queue up, as if for exercise; two phrases “some are called” and “some are too lazy” are reminisce of school where boys are afraid to try a particular exercise and they are accused of being lazy. Like David Shringley, playful, surreal, bizarre and funny, the work can be a critique of social behavior or our subconscious thoughts. The distinction between fine art and illustration is difficult. Like Elizabeth Peyton, or Quentin Blake the distinction is not as important as the artist’s own style, voice and what drives them. In Peyton’s case, it is people and their personalities, idealized portraits and popular culture; In Blake’s case, it is the love of children’s books and imagination and his popularity proven by more than 300 illustrated books spanning his entire career.

Liao Jie Kai’s Mini Spectacle (2011) projects a tiny moving image of fireworks on a tall pillar from a cluster of equipment. At this cluster of video camera, projector and computer, a screen shows a desktop background image of a forest with a large video camera gazing at the viewer. As if his mind is elsewhere, the artist is portrayed juggling different projects in addition to teaching. On the other hand, it presents art as a mini spectacle and the theoretical idea that the camera’s gaze is inverted and re-cast only when it is seen seeing – if you don’t show it, it doesn’t yet exist; yet the work is also about the idea of a spectacle – a visually striking performance or display – being relative to different people. Fireworks to some is just smoke and lights and money burning really quickly;  to others, it represents the right to celebrate; to other others, it represents the pride and glory of a Chinese invention not capitalized and eventually usurped by the Westerners, leading to the downfall of the Middle Kingdom.

Tan Wee Lit’s Making History (2011), features a signboard with the name of the institution, in the tradition of 3-dimensional letterings of the signboards from 1950s and 1960s shop fronts. On one hand, it relates to School of the Arts (SOTA) making history as the first art school for young talents; it is a reminder of the heavy responsibility of the staff and students too, and the larger agenda of the state. On the other hand, it is a critique of craft: the signboards from the 1950s and 1960s were hand-cut while this is evidently laser-cut and assembled by hand. Craft, if it does not make itself relevant by reinventing its material or form  (visible shape, function, or aesthetic appeal), it will become dated, like how this sign appears to some of us. In the uncanny blue, red and aluminum (white-like), it looks very British, reminding us of our colonial history, and inheritance of Western art aesthetics.

John Stewart Jackson’s wall of stacked wood, creates a partition in the space of the gallery. The visitor is required to bow and bend through a passageway in the middle of the wall. A stool is placed in the middle of the passageway, beckoning the viewer to sit, reflect or meditate.  From a distance, the wall resembles layers of rock sediments distinguished by layers of subtle earthy colors. Judging from the condition of the wood, they are either wood left over from wood workshops or unused from a different project. The environmentalist will comment that this work is a critique of our reckless use of wood and the need for sustainable resources. The work may also be a critique of our lack of understanding and appreciation of this ancient, natural material; craft in wood is substituted and replaced by man-made, cheap moulded plastic. In a land scarce, urban country like Singapore, the concept of wood lands and living in the countryside are alien.

The idea of an annual staff exhibition is very commendable for two reasons:  (1) it provides an important avenue where students can see their teachers as role-models, artists and practitioners in their respective craft and enjoying the creative process they too use; (2) the exhibition also signals to the school’s management the importance of allowing these special educators the time and space to practice and exhibit. Despite the possibility that the exhibition primarily serves the students and staff of School of the Arts (SOTA), it also serves to educate a wider public audience. This reaffirms the importance the institution (and by a larger gesture, the Ministry and government) places on the arts; this presentation of exciting, varied art forms are encouraging signs that students of SOTA, and elsewhere are exposed to. I can imagine this flourish of contemporaneity will ruffle the feathers of parents, whom I hope, will slowly come to terms with the thrill of art now, and the challenge that art isn’t just about ‘economic viability’ in the individual sense or larger industrial sense. The art needs to be good first, before  people are interested to support it. And artists do need a long time to become good, just like how architects, lawyers, accountants, doctors, farmers start by doing their rounds and errands – the better ones stay. The others, it is anyone’s guess.

I am really impressed by the effort and quality of the works put up, and hope more people have seen it; and, look forward to the next. In a historical context, this exhibition joins the rank of Lasalle-NAFA staff shows, and sporadic art teacher exhibitions (E.g. more recently, selected artworks from Art and Music Education Conference, Bonded (PKW, ), teachers-as-artists (NIE) or Reframing Sculpture (Sculpture Square)). In an educational context, it reinforces the renewed need for practitioners to keep at their craft, or risk losing their touch.

13-27 August 2011, SOTA Gallery
School of the Arts Singapore
list of artists/educators 
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