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.