Monthly Archives: March 2020

GRAVITAS (2020) by Lee Pheng Guan

Gravity in motion


The faint smell of paraffin wax sticks in this exhibition. It permeates the air in small whiffs and leaves its physical mark in drips and splatters on the floor of the gallery space. It doesn’t make you sick, but you know that you have stepped into a different space.

The flooring feels slightly slippery, and that drew my attention to the difference in surfaces: concrete, green tiles and new pastel tiles at the back. The floor almost looks like an abstract painting in itself, or like peeled layers of paint revealing its layered unspoken histories. I can’t help but think that the artworks were placed with the blemishes of the floor in mind.

Paraffin wax, or petroleum wax, can be found coated to twigs, trunks, and a giant sandy boulder as I looked around the space. These are all curious, enigmatic sculptural objects in this evocative solo exhibition, containing about 4-5 artworks in a humble, re-purposed shophouse turned gallery space. The works co-exist well in the small space, spreading from the entrance to the back of the gallery space. Two pieces stick out: first, the thin tree-like structures that stand around a television monitor, like human figures standing around a coffin; two, the giant, earthly-coloured boulder in the backspace that has left an indelible destructive mark.

The white wax on the thin tree-like structures reminded me of white-painted tree trunks. Apparently, painted tree bark is a traditional method of protecting young trees in orchards or tree farms. Besides repelling pests, white paint also prevents cracking and splitting young bark, almost like ‘sun block’ for trees. In other places, roadside tree trunks might be painted white to make them more visible at night. In this exhibition, the white paraffin wax also reminded me of candles. 

The willowy twigs looked like candles sprouting into trees. Or a bizarre transmogrification: a tree transforming into a candle, or candle into a tree. The tree-like structures might also look like they were floating in mid-air, defying gravity, and bleeding rubbery white sap. Taking to the symbolism of candles, light from a candle might represent hope or truth. Here, the candle-like structures might well represent the opposite: despair. The dim-lighting, dried leaves on twigs and ‘preserved’ tree trunk gave that ambivalence of hope and despair, of preservation and atrophy. 

There were other signs of wood being used as materials for these curious art objects. On one singular tree trunk, wax was used to fit the scab on the tree bark, filling in, blending in. It reminded me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, mending broken pottery with gold seams. Emanating from the art of Kintsugi, it would not far fetch to think of its philosophical implications. If we can mend something broken and transform it into an object with an aesthetic appeal, then we might be able to embrace imperfect selves and situations. Each blemish exists for a reason, and when mended, surreptitiously makes the object whole again. 

The earthly-coloured boulder has grown since the last time I saw it. Made of sand and paraffin wax, a spoonful at a time, and rolled to perfection, the boulder can represent many things. It had always reminded me of the Greek mythology of Sisyphus rolling a huge boulder endlessly up a steep hill, only to have it roll down the next day. The near-perfect sphere also reminded me of patterns in nature, and it is our human nature to be in awe of geometry in geological features. The choice of sand and the fact that the work grows in size remind me of Singapore’s land reclamation effort. The boulder could also represent the seriousness of things that weigh us down: material objects (aka clutter, or simply ‘stuff’), grief, guilt or loss. The boulder could represent artists’ strive for perfection or challenge, in this case, an artist’s impossible task of hand-building this boulder as big as it gets until it collapses from its own weight or else.

This boulder is part of a site-specific installation and probably my favourite artwork in the exhibition. The installation is accompanied by a video showing the boulder rolled across the tiles and cracking under its sheer weight. The audio of the video rumbles you to your core. 

The exhibition’s title is ‘gravitas’, which means ‘dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner’. The exhibition might well be a clever, subversive, indoor Zen garden. Instead of inviting viewers to ponder the essence of nature and thereby calming the mind, it invites them to ponder the essence of human nature, our fears and ‘baggage’. Perhaps the exhibition title foretold the seriousness of the global pandemic. Maybe the exhibition was created to remind artists and viewers we ought to take art seriously. Because art objects or art actions can transcend logic and language, helping us somehow make sense of unconnected ideas and materials if we let them. It can disrupt unproductive mental trajectories, make the ordinary unfamiliar or the unfamiliar familiar, and ultimately help us cope with uncertainty and chaos.

Supernormal, 20 February – 8 March 2020

[Written on Aug 9, 2021, backdated to March 8, 2020]

Consider reading “PG Lee on Simple Gestures, Confronting Mortality and the Futility of Possession” by Claire Wu.