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

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