Iconoclast Series – Cheo Chai-Hiang’s 5’ x 5’ (Singapore River) (1972)

Deconstructing a personal view of an iconic river

Iconoclast Series – Cheo Chai-Hiang’s 5’ x 5’ (Singapore River) (1972)

I haven’t been to Sculpture Square in a long while since I have returned to Singapore a year ago. From this visit, I can safely say Sculpture Square is having a revival of sorts, under the helm of artistic director and curator, Alan Oei, who was appointed in August 2012. The iconoclast series is perhaps a test and testament to Alan’s intent to transform this contemporary art space—from a laid back almost anything-goes-and-forgotten art space to one that challenges the Singapore viewers’ understanding of Singapore art histories and aesthetics sensibility.

The first of the iconoclast series features Cheo Chai-Hiang’s 5’ x 5’ (Singapore River) (1972) and this is a significant in a few ways. First, as a series it promises to re-appraise artworks that had a significant impact on Singapore art, linking contemporary art to our near past. Second, a point in case to evaluate our own understanding of art before and today, and identifying the urgency to document art and artists. Third, illustrate the complexities of so doing.

5’ x 5’ is often regarded as the first moment in Singapore’s art history where a Singapore artist tackled conceptualism and challenged the status quo definition of art in the 1970s. This was done by submitting a conceptual piece of artwork, containing a set of instructions in a lengthy personal letter by the younger Cheo for an art exhibition by the Modern Art Society. For Cheo and other artists, the Singapore River represented the history, legend, and dilemma for a modernizing, young and small nation. The Singapore River was thus the object of representation of all things Singaporean, and by some small measure, a test piece for painters. A painter who could paint the Singapore River differently, in a captivating and enchanting manner might sell it to locals and tourists. Cheo didn’t want to paint the Singapore River, and he certainly didn’t want to please tourists. By proposing to encapsulate an (imaginary) image of the Singapore River with a blank 5 feet by 5 feet area that straddled the wall and floor, Cheo wanted the audience to feel uncomfortable, curious and be sufficiently wound up for (future) conversations. The art wasn’t just the oddly positioned square, it was the act of submitting the work/idea, the debate that surrounded it, and the conversations that continues. By accepting the work was ‘made’ because it was written and documented, even without exhibiting it in the 1970s, we might begin to understand the appeal of and confusion with conceptual art. Some might sympathise with Cheo when Ho Ho Ying, presumably a curator for the 1972 art exhibition disregarded this conceptual gesture, preferring art that had a physical presence and form; others might applaud Ho for entertaining Cheo’s ideas, which no doubt was a defining moment in Cheo’s artistic career. Ho, a bastion of modern art might have wanted to challenge Cheo’s artistic beliefs, pressing Cheo to fight for his own aesthetic sensibilities. This heroic interpretation perhaps conforms to some art historical interpretation that great art resists, and counters the art before its time. 5’ x 5’ might just be Singapore art history’s point in case.

There are several curatorial decisions in this exhibition worth noting, that challenges our understanding of art before and today. Cheo’s 5’ x 5’ is re-presented in text, as a projected white area of light, and with rope made by the audience, re-shaped, re-made, stepped on, taken home and ultimately remembered. While all art potentially contains a concept, or idea, I would argue that a conceptual piece of artwork escapes (physical) form, as illustrated here. So adding audience interactivity is specific to Cheo’s work, and may not work for all art exhibitions. By laying the artist’s brief biography in text from floor to wall in black vinyl text, it suggests that the biography of the artist and the ‘life of the artwork’ are inextricably linked. Not everyone can call a 5 feet by 5 feet shape an artwork and get away with it. If 5’ x 5’ was a defining moment in Singapore’s art history, as it is re-presented in iconoclast series, what other artworks might we uncover, besides those collected by the National Heritage Board? What do artists and art historians interpret, write and talk of them? For comparison, the curator had presented a few reproductions of paintings of the Singapore River, illustrating what the Singapore River meant (pictorially at least) to different artists.

What is missing from such a complete exhibition, despite the large empty walls, is the viewer’s interpretation of the Singapore River, rather than a re-interpretation of Cheo’s 5’ x 5’. If readers, curators and artists can sympathise with this view, then we can begin to understand why re-presenting the Singapore river, in picture, photograph or in a sonnet, are equally valid. And personal.

7.0 of 10 stars

Sculpture Square
15 August – 16 September 2013

Further Reading:
Dobbs, S. (2003). The Singapore River: A Social History 1819-2002. Singapore University Press

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