The Artist, the Book and the Crowd

playing with words–a healthy slice of rewrites

The Artist, The Book and the Crowd

Evident in this exhibition, artists find inspiration from texts–those that are “performed upon, around and through the written and spoken word”.Texts are constructed with fixed words in a given language, yet their meaning changes depending on the context they were used and the circumstances they are comprehended by the reader. The manner in which they are analysed and understood is often taken for granted. Texts, placed in the hands of artists, spur our imagination quite differently then the hands of the book authors. Fluency becomes less of a concern, as the work then seems to be made for a select, privileged audience. Yet, The artworks seen here is also akin to reading short stories. The shorter they are, they provide more room for imagination, and require the reader to work hard to grapple with each word worth its weight in gold. The shortest story I’d ever read was Double Negativeby Lydia Davis, consisting of one sentence.

Artists might read books for various reasons. Getting the audience to use white gloves to handle the books might reveal the relationship artists have with their books. Similarly, a smile, a frown, the use of gloves yet flipping the books nonchalantly, handling the books with care or the sign of irritation on a viewer’s face might reveal their relationship to books too.

Texts surround us and can take many forms. In this exhibition, texts could take the form of literature epics, non-fiction reference books dealing with psychology, scientific journals or graphic novels. Like most prescribed literature in English textbooks, the artworks here explore the human condition and expound on a range of issues that are moral, ethical, social, psychological, or signifying conflict. Mounted on aluminium and hinged like a book, each artist text takes a physical form and sits perched on a shelf, overlooking proud displays of published books. Each text in its most abstract interpretation resemble a restaurant menu of sorts, waiting to be decoded, knowledge ordered and consumed.

According to Samuel Johnson, “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it”. Often omitted is the follow-on sentences: “When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries”. Books are precious commodity for the knowledge they contain and represent. Books represent artists’ voracious appetite for knowledge, a source of inspiration for art making or an escape from time and physical space. the sampling of participating artists, we might conclude artists are intellectuals and they read a wide spectrum of books. Additionally, by analysing the type of books they are reading at the moment, we might conclude their conceptual interests in relation to their current body of work.

Pictures are used sparingly in this exhibition; the gallery space is punctuated by the existing book covers. Arguably, pictures form ‘texts’ too, because they can be ‘read’. For instance, the title of this exhibition possibly sprung from a description of the subject matter in Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya (1955): a Chinese man captivating a young Chinese audience about an ideal (Malaya), signified by the book in his hand. Texts form narratives. And so do many other visual images–movies, TV commercials, design posters, paintings and photographs—if we let them. Fundamentally, this exhibition allowed the artists to deconstruct their current reads and rekindle our Southeast Asian oratory tradition: social events that accompany the exhibition bring the audience closer to the artworks, the books, the artists and arguably other like-minded readers.

It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that the curators of this exhibition simply wanted to spread the joy of reading, and provide an opportunity for the audience to theories how and why artists make conceptual artworks by displaying the source of inspiration.

2 to 11 August 2013, 12pm – 9pm
The Substation Gallery

For more information, visit:

Suggested further reading:
Stonard, JP,. Stone, R. (ed.) (2013). The Books that Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss. Thames and Hudson.
Sabapathy, T.K. (2010). Road to Nowhere. The Quick Rise and Long Fall of Singapore Art History. Art Gallery at National Institute of Education.


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