Monthly Archives: August 2012

Singapore Survey 2012 – New Strange Faces

Making the familiar unfamiliar

Singapore Survey 2012 – New Strange Faces

In the fourth year running (the first in 2009), the Singapore Survey has become a signature exhibition staged beautifully by Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery. The selection of artworks have become tighter, and we see some recurring artists, as well as an eclectic range of media and forms all befitting the debate of foreigners. For a country like Singapore, one can imagine the contradiction: a country made up of immigrants just two to three generations ago from China, India and Malayan-Indonesian Archipelago, is now xenophobic. Ultimately, this exhibition has successfully made the familiar unfamiliar, presenting, cropping, re-inventing different perspectives towards materials, identities, tabloid, and local politics.

From these range of works, I will like to pick on a few to comment on.

Near the entrance, Green Zeng’s Sign of the Times (2012) feature a familiar warning sign we would find at construction sites. Evident from recent government measures to curb the ‘foreign’ population – giving out fewer work permits across the board – the phrase “Danger – Keep Out” in the context of this exhibition, perhaps suggests an unspoken, extreme attitude towards foreigners to our tiny, fast overcrowding public transport networked island. Reading deeper, the clinical digital printout contrasts with the stenciled signs we find elsewhere, and everywhere. Perhaps this suggests a larger, global issue that isn’t just confined to Singapore. For instance, foreigners are sometimes called ‘aliens’ if they are not permanent residents. Because of the economic crisis in Greece, and Spain, we may find a larger proportion of emigrants moving to other parts of the European Union seeking employment.

Jimmy Ong’s A Sighting of Singa at Long Men Ya (2012) is an unusual interpretation of Sang Nila Utama’s legendary landing in Singapore. Instead of a chanced meeting with a lion (which we all know is not native to this part of South East Asia), the entourage encountered a native dressed to deter unwelcomed invaders. The drawing is segmented into three parts and well rendered with free flowing lines. The left, shows the prince standing proudly next to the landmark Long Men Ya (a landmark stone in the shape of a dragon’s tooth by Keppel Bay, which a fibreglass replica now stands because of past reclamation and widening works). The middle, the prince’s soldiers taming the struggling ‘beast’. The right, a boat carrying a bevy of women, looking at the capture. While tone and shading is not used to distinguished the background, middle and foreground, the distinct, concise charcoal lines worked magic to unravel the scene.

In a separate room, Ang Soo Koon’s Your Love is Like a Chuck of Gold (2011), shows salt crystal growing on a piece of (semolina) bread. Bread symbolises many things. At the most basic level, it represents food or survival, and hence the phrase, ‘breadwinner’. A breadwinner means “a person who earns money to support their family, typically the sole one” (oxford online dictionary). A marvel to see all round, I wished it was better lit to play with the possibility of glitter and reflection.

I thought the work reminded me of Singapore’s relentless reclamation efforts, and the pursuit of survival in this ever-changing world, by ‘innovating’, crystalling ideas (or cashing in ideas in a knowledge economy) into ‘gold’. The process is ingenious, but the product, a contradiction of beauty and dysfunction. In the context of the title of the exhibition, the crystals grow at the expense of the ‘host’, or so it seems. This, I felt, was the most unconventional and successful work in the exhibition.

7.0 of 10 Stars

10 Aug – 2 Sep 2012
Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery, Helutrans Art Space.

For gallery location and exhibition details, click here.

Lyrical Abstractions: works by Jeremy Sharma and Yeo Shih Yun

well titled and punctuated

Lyrical Abstraction

Lyricism: an artist’s expression of emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way; the quality of being lyrical (oxford online dictionary)

To accompany the Credit Suisse (Innovation In Art Series) blockbuster Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili (2012), the museum has decided to host this modest parallel exhibition featuring one work from Jeremy Sharma and Yeo Shih Yun respectively. The decision to commission these Singaporean artists, it seems, depended on a brief to create monumental scale paintings, in a style different to Chinese artist Jia Aili. Whether these new works are installations, would be debatable. Before we dismiss these as wall fillers for the blockbuster, I would like to discuss the merit of each work.

From my encounters with Jeremy’s work, his sensitivity for materials and processes of painting, rejection of figuration and philosophical inquiry into being, comes across strongly. While pouring enamel paint has been employed by other artists to varying effect–artists such as Ian Davenport or Damien Hirst–Jeremy’s effort is very different. This piece appears more film-like, suggested by the ‘cuts’ and ‘truncations’, like the transitions and edits we may find in a film. This interpretation is perhaps the result of the title, a homage to Akira Kurosawa, and his legendary black and white master pieces such as Ran or Seven Samurai. Staring at the panels longer, they remind me of wall stains caused by running rain water and the deposit of dust and dirt, only hundred of times more dense and concentrated. They also remind me of dense Indian ink or Chinese ink that served the purpose of making writing (and therefore ‘culture’ in an abstract sense) visible. Without ink, how else could we have recorded characters, words, or pictures? Could water served the same function, though more transient and fleeting? Thus, Kurosawa (2012) is a refreshing take on a meditative approach to make and view paintings, representing a different development to his other acrylic, chunky doodles on canvases. The only gripe I have is the siting of the piece: the distracting tiled floor mutes the powerful black and white contrast, like watching a cinema screen with the lights on.

Conversations with a Tree (2011-12) by Yeo Shih Yun complements and swings with equal lyricism. No doubt using digital technologies to enlarge, crop, repeat and enhance the marks made by brushes attached to strings that hang from a tree, these are transferred using silkscreen to create a convincing Chinese Ink painting. Like her earlier works, she is interested in mark making (as performance), the ‘flow’ (of ink, water, and the scroll format),  and these are played out in this multi-media trajectory, essentially a tangential and imaginative way to mark-make. The most valuable insight from this artistic exercise is scribbled in pencil on a test piece by the artist, on one of three framed boards.

Three things I learnt from trees:
1. it is important to have roots;
2. be flexible so you won’t break when rough wind blows; (and)
3. grow where you are planted.

The other two boards contained a video screen showing the tree in action, a portrait of the tree (as artist) depicted in multiple, oval-shape framed photographs.

An important feature of this exhibition is the explanation of the processes in which these works were made. For Jeremy, a small screen shows still images of the work in progress against the backdrop of a studio space; For Shih Yun, a large projection shows a close up of the brushes, dancing and scribbling the conversation the tree is having with the wind.

7.0 of 10 stars
6 July 2012 to 23 September 2012
Singapore Art Museum

Artists’ links:

Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili

a caution in the wind of industrialisation

Seeker of Hope by Jia Aili

There is much to admire in the works of Jia Aili: the scale, the realism (rather than romanticism, in my opinion), and the assimilation of of the grand narrative, told through contemporary eyes from the world’s global factory, China. While we cringe at the painting’s imagined destruction and detritus left  from the world’s zealous consumption, we need to think about our own material trail. We  need only to look around us, to find similar disregarded, disused and discarded electrical appliances.

There is also a sense of bleakness in the paintings, a doomed future forewarned. In many paintings, a lone figure treads the surface. The face is deliberately obscured by turning away, or hidden by a helmet or full face mask. The anonymity allows us to sympathize with the figure, and even project ourselves in its shoes.

Yet we are numbed by the bleakness, seen often in contemporary Chinese paintings, such as those by Zeng Fanzhi. These paintings, anchored in their geographical and social contexts, could possibly seem contrived to an unsympathetic and unconvinced audience: art, circulated within its own consumeristic market appears hypocritical if it criticized consumerism without reflecting on it’s own position. What good is art, or what can art do, in the light of industrialization?

While these questions remain unanswered by the artist, presumably the seeker of hope referred by the title of the exhibition,they remind me of Dutch still lifes–vanitas–from the 1600s; as memento mori, these paintings remain as reminders of our mortality, more so than beacons of hope.

7.0 of 10 Stars
6 July to 23 September 2012, Singapore Art Museum


Note: auspicium melioris aevi – Latin for “hope for a better age”, or an omen of a better age; motto of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, incidentally adopted as the school motto of Raffles Institution (Singapore).

Living Stories by S. Chandrasekaran

myth making: composites of Singapore’s iconography and personal folk narratives

Living Stories by S. Chandrasekaran

Those who follow S. Chandrasekaran’s work would find familiar motifs– “creation”, “preservation” and “destruction”–from Trimurti (1988) and Trimurti and Ten Years After (1998). Trimurti refers to “divinity expressed by integrating Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva” (Sabapathy, 1998, p. 24). In Living Stories, the artist has applied creation, preservation and destruction to popular, folk iconography, combining and integrating the kitsch and banal to form semi-abstract, yet figurative paintings. The lion, man, merlion, Marina Bay Sands, blue lightning emblem and hammer are brought together to create new creatures and beings that inhabit an imaginary landscape and city-scape, or dream-scape. Largely personal, they form the artist’s re-interpretation of his own identity through an amalgamation of narratives that he has come across since his return from his doctorate studies. How much has Singaporean’s spirituality/soul changed in the span of 10 years from the perspective of a visual artist? Have we spawned (metaphorical) abominations that are blind to us all?

Those who are new to his work, may think little and find humour in his child-like hieroglyphical scribbles and doodles on large canvases. The raw energy and spontaneity can easily be mistaken for carelessness and misappropriated Egyptian motifs. In sum, we may compare Chandra’s paintings and bronze sculptures  to classical Indian temple carvings or sculptures that have its own unique language for representing the spiritual; yet the merit of Chandra’s work is challenging us to define our own identities and find our own spirituality, even in the secular sense, in this mad, mad city.

6.0 of 10 Stars

3-23 August 2012, The Substation Gallery


Sabapathy, T.K. (Ed.). (1998). Trimurti and Ten Years After. Singapore Art Museum.

For a sense of Chandra’s interest in the ‘cyborg’, which may affect how you see his work in this exhibition, visit:

The Departed by Guo Yixiu

Making or re-making a sense of the self

The Departed by Guo Yixiu

The solo exhibition by Guo Yixiu is better understood as an exercise to make or re-make a sense of the self. The link between national, identity and self is too hard to ignore when we think about the meaning behind the work, as the nation celebrated its 47th birthday on the 9th of August, just two days after the exhibition opens. This link is also evident from the installation, off-centred in the gallery space, consisting of books, wooden clogs, and an intentionally untidy stack of newspaper clippings of Singapore Inc (a term used to describe the clinical, tightly controlled, corporate image of the country) .

The title, the departed, do little justice to explain the personal juxtaposition of found images and found text. While the intention may have been to highlight the artist’s or viewers’ distance from found images, a sense of amnesia for local history or family history, the lack of coherence between the chosen base-images, and chosen text conveyed a different message. There is an element of kitsch, because the comic book styled speech bubbles containing quotes from famous people and anonymous portraits seem oddly placed. This kitsch could well be placed as a social critique strategy, blunting any harsh criticism from the creator and instead, encouraging a more pensive reflection on the part of the viewer. We might see this strategy in the (satirical) works by Zhao Bandi, truisms by Jenny Holzer, or Barbara Kruger’s “I Shop therefore I am”.  Notwithstanding, the stylistic use of black outlines (used in manga comics and American comics) made the pictures uneasy, and overtly punctuated. While the black lines did provide some emphasis to the image, the speech bubbles and text persists and over-dominates the painting unwittingly. The black lines worked better in the paintings that hung in the corridor before entering the gallery space.

Read literally, the departed suggest death, a euphemism for an awkward and inauspicious word that shouldn’t be overtly used, especially in the month of celebration. While the paintings are based on a stack of old found photographs from a curio shop in Chinatown, a claim that the people depicted have ‘departed’ is again uncomfortable.  Of course, departed may mean the slippages of memory, the in-betweens of remembering and forgetting; or in the words of the artist, “contradiction of familiarity and anonymity”.

Read philosophically and historically, the departed suggest the nation’s autonomy from British colonial rule, and subsequent break from Malaysia. The departed, in nationalistic terms, suggest a resolute determination to survive and thrive on the international arena. The country has come quite a way from British outpost to a state studied and marveled by other countries.

The notion of (self) identity is evident in the blurred portraits. Two sets of paintings stick out: first, the diptych with the small, blue, empty speech bubbles; second, the diptych with speech bubbles, depicting icons instead of text: a pair of flat heel shoes and a pair of wooden clogs. The blurring, or out of focus-ness, may suggest uncertainty, or state of metamorphosis. From a psychological perspective, we may agree how we present different self-identities to different people, and perhaps only the closest people will have a sense of who we (really) are. To strangers, these portrait-images, twice removed from their original circumstances, are a decisive blur. While this does not constitute a feminist critique of Singapore’s Patriarchic social order, it is worth questioning the assumptions underlying our own interpretations of these enigmatic images.

Pictures only come alive if the viewer connects with the narrative behind the image. All things considered, perhaps the artist was trying to connect with anonymous personal histories that constitute Singaporean-ness. From this exhibition, we may realise that not all old photographs or personal histories contain grandeur; instead, they  might contain simple hopes and dreams that we may never fully comprehend.

6.0 of 10 stars

7-31 Aug 2012
Galerie Sogan & Art