Skip to content

Fragmentary responses to the third Singapore Biennale: Zow Zing!

March 16, 2011

8Q: Triage/Accumulation

Taking as its point of departure the accumulation of material possessions – specifically, food, Roslisham Ismail’s Secret Affair links the domains of cold, transactional consumption with hot, carnal consumption; that within the context of the home space, this accumulation is one of many which serve to define us. Despite beginning from the concept of accumulation, the material of the work demonstrates great simplicity in being composed of two parts – refrigerators, and food. This formal austerity itself is in turn generated by an elegantly parsimonious process, perhaps to the extent of wu wei, which I might summarise as, “There are people. They buy food. I put it here.”

This stands in contrast to certain works, in which extravagant masturbatory fantasies are enacted via an obscene glut of concepts, associations, materials and forms – a hypothetical example of which might be summarised as, “This half-painted rubber ducky is the Oedipal complex of the Hanged Man; its rotation of twenty four degrees renders it tangent to the hypersurface of the thirty-third confabulatory instance of the Akashic records as hidden by the pact of Rosalind Franklin and John Wayne, which we see in this twig. This mango symbolises the moral turpitude of the crony-capitalist media-complex. The Hanged Man is fucking it. And… this little piggy went wee! wee! wee! all the way home.” Which is not to say that parsimony itself has no obscenity, or is somehow purer.

Arranged, facing outwards in a ring, the refrigerators seem to recall a tokamak, or some other humming, crystalline dream of engineering prowess, which belies their humble (yet miraculous) function of chilling food. As functional containers divorced of their domestic context (itself, it is alleged, composed primarily of material accumulation) the function of containing is free to assume delirious heights, perhaps as sarcophagus, reliquary, server farm, or nuclear waste containment vessel. However, once their contents are laid bare, it is curiously poignant to conceive of intimate gustatory pleasures as the product of these chilled, neatly filed and packaged objects, which suggest the laid tables of the Mary Celeste as described by Arthur Conan Doyle. Still, too, we wonder if these curated collections of food were crafted to project specific images of the absent eaters.

Koh Nguang How’s vast, thirty-year accumulation of newspaper mentions of local art, on the other hand, is arranged as if constituting a container in its own right, enveloping and overwhelming the visitor. One might be tempted to seek out various organising principles, occluded or not, though such a project might well exceed the duration of the Biennale. Insofar as one tends to imagine archives as stable, enduring structures – a columbarium, or the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – the notion of such a transient archive seems audaciously intriguing. As I’ve not fully plumbed the depths here, I’ll not say more.

As a combination of both an accumulative process and the deliberate staging of the presentation of film/video works, Candice Breitz’s Factum, at least in terms of its infrastructural elements, forms a synthesis of these directions which seem to underlie many of the works in the Singapore Art Museum and 8Q. The layout is rational enough, but in its dimness and central organisation, cannot avoid possessing a sense of decorous splendour, altogether at odds with the candid interviews and the clever artifice of the fluid merger and separation of identities. Still, these accumulated video feeds, saturated with colour and light, recall the indistinguishable, infinite procession of talking heads which have graced the television news since the dawn-days of the medium – of decades spent lavishing an adoringly indifferent public with twenty-second homilies of fear, uncertainty and entertainment. The omnipresence (or so it seems) of that particular snapshot suggests also the various reactions to the Era of the Talking Head – Paul Verhoeven’s brash, scathing mockery, Alan Moore’s sly homage, Lee Wen’s sombre satire, or the vast pseudo-democratisation of the mantle of Talking Head, which has since passed to You – or, at least, you who have access to a flash video site and associated technical paraphenalia.

The Singapore Biennale 2011 is not, in fact, a hummingbird.

Fragmentary responses to the third Singapore Biennale: Ptang Zoo Boing

March 15, 2011

SAM: Sausage Hotel and various things

So I finally got to see the artwork that’s been haunting billboards in the city, which I had (erroneously) taken to be LASALLE adverts – an excerpt of Candice Breitz’s Factum. Considering the layout of the Singapore Art Museum and 8Q, it seems somehow aberrant to jump straight to a sliver of Factum – unlike the (kind of) sprawling extravaganza of the old Kallang Airport, the approach here seems more guided, orderly – so if you would kindly extinguish all cigarettes and return your seats to the upright position, you won’t see Simon Fujiwara’s Hotel Munber, because I forgot to take pictures. Instead, here is a picture of delicious sausage.

Replete with phallic images of penetration and emasculation, Hotel Munber seems to be an obsessional accretion around the idea that Franco, former dictator of Spain, had one testicle – or some other crippling trauma to his boy-bits. This seems uncannily close to the persistent folk myth that Hitler had similar difficulties – that these figures, in being the self-declared embodiments of power and authority, must have some secret deficiency of symbolically equal magnitude.

In a theme that seems to recur with some frequency in Open House, this obsessional quality fills the extent of a given room, as if a vapour which has sublimated into strange forms. In the case of Hotel Munber, the seed crystal seems to be a hotel run by his parents before his birth, as remixed through some dream-machine of unresolved tensions to include Franco-mania and the anxieties of creative production. However, the physical form of these sublimations allude to the absence of a wealth of non-visual input – it would be nice to sit, smoke and drink in the room, but it seems fitting for a confabulatory ghost of memory to lack these things.

Elsewhere in the Singapore Art Museum, Ryan Trecartin’s Re’Search Wait’S seems oddly reminiscent of the hortatory multimedia installations found in the Singapore Discovery Centre; the geometric starkness of Julian Göthe’s installation nevertheless recalling kinbaku-bi, and the pastel-brightness of Louie Cordero’s karaoke-phantasmagoria evoking a peculiar sort of blandness. Perhaps later fragments will expand on these. The space allocated within the Art Museum itself seems almost nominal, cursory, in that one may explore it without even entering the courtyard or ascending the stairs, an impression further reinforced in both galleries being roughly equidistant from the reception counter.

8Q: Triage/Trilogy

From a random sampling of the neatly-shelved works at 8Q, we may choose to be confronted by a variety of presentations of video/film-based artwork, with each alternate presentation demanding separate responses while also inviting comparisons. For instance, to view the films of Tan Pin Pin, one must first pass through an antechamber (with seating arrangement) rendered claustrophobic by the looming presence of the curtained, raised entrance to the transplanted mini-theatre, like the little steps one must take to go down a slide. In contrast to this association, the interior suggests stiff formality as one walks past aisles of high-backed seats (pews?) washed over by the light of the screen.

This may once again be set in contrast to the absurdities presented in the films of Tan Pin Pin – I did not see them all, but recall only a swimming polar bear with dubbed over splash-tank sounds, two gentlemen whose sole occupation in life appears to be to hose down trucks carrying construction materials (to assuage our pathological avoidance of dirt) and 9th August. A masterpiece of comic timing and surreal imagery – see Lee Kuan Yew give a pained little sigh every time he mounts the podium and surveys the spectacle before him! Synchronised prancing in bee costumes (and worse), gigantic spinning gears, amateur-Boschian dioramas extolling the virtue of thrift and decrying the vice of waste; the strained faces of the marching contingents recalling either constipation or the holy agony-ecstasy in paintings of martyred saints.

Omer Fast offers a far starker experience, with the work being consumed within the context of an essentially bare space. While the swaddling in Tan Pin Pin’s chamber offers a measure of privacy in exchange for restricted mobility, the confines of Omer Fast’s space enacts the opposite – uncertainty, visibility, mobility. Rather than a middle ground between these two defined points, Gülsün Karamustafa’s room strikes out in a different direction, with visual elements from the video itself incorporated into the room, though in a limited fashion – the visual (and tactile) texture in contrast with the smooth, cool walls of the room. Based on a fleeting, superficial and possibly erroneous impression of the content of the video, I might suppose that the visual overload, being gilt rather than gold, demonstrates the limits of its extension from the image-frame.

In our next update, we’ll be looking at a few more works from 8Q, including Factum, which I mentioned at the start of this post and (mysteriously) failed to talk about.

The Singapore Biennale 2011 is on till the 15th of May 2011, at the Old Kallang Airport, Singapore Art Museum, National Museum of Singapore and Merlion Park.


Fragmentary responses to the inaugural Singapore Triennale: OKA! OKA! OKA!

March 14, 2011

Here we are now at that fragile liminal space between hangover recovery and actually having a long, sober look at the Biennale. That’s not to say that nothing can be said, though.

The openings, despite being enormous amounts of fun, were marred by a subtle blend of turgid officialdom and panic-inducing cognitive dissonance, as heard in the hyper-saccharine muzak which played at every conceivable interval between equally interminable speeches. Thankfully, Ng Yi-Sheng’s blindfolded batik drag was a helpful escape, which staved off conclusions too grim to imagine. I suppose that whenever the blousy-shirted apparatchiki are involved, a certain degree of this sort of thing is unavoidable – it’s what they expect and demand, after all. Still, I find it unforgivable for the Old Kallang Airport, replete as it was with interesting, even gorgeous spaces, to have had the chancre of Tentage, White, Official, incl. Chairs, Plastic grafted on, anaesthesia-free. Add to that the pseudo-pasar-malam, family booths and cavernous children’s art section, and I think that’s the smell of multi-committee, agenda-by-attrition, all-out warfare. Oh, and the generic cover bands who played after The Observatory.

Infrastructure aside, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ms Junita Simon for helpfully including a definition of ‘Biennale’ in her opening remarks.

The actual works, as we might expect in such a large show, are a mixed bag. Without going too deeply into it for the time being, situating all of these works within the context of a previously-used space naturally primes us to examine them in terms of that displacement – some, being more suited to the cool, white walls of the infinite gallery of Babylon, suffer in the sultry, stuffy dustiness. Others suffer from the fact that the layout of the space – we do not, after all, spring fully-formed from the mind of Matthew Ngui in any given room; we had to slip and slide past any number of strange encounters.

Tracey Moffatt’s Other seems particularly well-suited to these local conditions, which supply a disjointed physicality as a complement to all those lingering, celluloid gazes, despite not being made as a new commission specific to the Biennale. Similarly, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Frequency and Volume: Relational Architecture 9 merges perfectly with its assigned room, forming a feedback loop between the tentative movements of curious onlookers and the steely response of the unmanned control panel. Despite being entirely specific to the space, however, the scribblings in the spiral staircase of the main building at the Old Kallang Airport fail to arouse anything other than an insatiable desire to smack the person responsible on the nose.

Based on some cursory Googling, it would appear that everyone’s most interested in Elmgreen and Dragset’s barn, which really should be viewed by daylight – bonus points if said daylight is thick, syrupy and heatstroke-inducing. Of course, being the focus of all this attention carries the risk that many a potential visitor might read about it first, and thus rob themselves of that experience of encounter, which seems almost like an unbirthing – from the open space of the old airport, to the preliminary vestibule of the shattered hangar – which overshadows the form of the barn itself, to barn’s dark interior, which features a display of lederhosen-clad Anchorites of the Synthetic Transplantation of Cultural References. No, I made that up – but lederhosen and farming implements are certainly involved. Interestingly, a German of my acquaintance mentioned that these rural scenes are deeply associated with the birth of German pornography.

More surveys to come! Stay tuned.

The Singapore Biennale 2011 is on till the 15th of May 2011, at the Old Kallang Airport, Singapore Art Museum, National Museum of Singapore and Merlion Park.

P.S. According to Mayo Martin, if you’re taking a taxi to the Old Kallang Airport – well, no true taxi-man actually calls it that. Ask for the old People’s Association.

Standing at the Crossroads of Nowhen and Neverwhere

March 11, 2011

Once, it was the province of Fascism to aestheticise politics, and the province of the radical left to politicise aesthetics; but as all melts into air, these simple distinctions have long since ceased to apply. Naturally, a decay of sorts comes into play in observing the methods and mechanics of the 20th century.

In Iwan Wijono’s performance for A Crossroads, it seems altogether fitting that we should begin with the group consumption of callow media which historicises and romanticises the struggles of American upheavals at the turn of the millennium; not quite temporally distant enough to be re-appropriated by the vicious cycles of fashion, the grungy typefaces and pompous narration possess a quaintness which is amplified by the antipodean scale of physical distance – the miracle of the transubstantiation of sound and fury to clinically dissected key signifiers; neutered tropisms.

By placing his actions and movements in the context of the World’s Wildest Anti-Capitalist Protests, Wijono suggests the framework by which we are to read them; that he is part of the stories of struggle projected on the wall. This media-borne contagion, one supposes, is meant to imbue Wijono’s actions with validity and legitimacy; however, the model of contagion also allows for transference in the other direction, introducting the possibility of his actions as the de-legitimisation, not of the actual protests, but the subsequent media packaging.

The violence of the end of the performance, as contextualised by the protest video, seemed altogether rote. Consisting of a sparse selection of standardised tropes, the actions seemed censored in real-time, as if in some diminished reality, underscored by the abrupt jump-cut from shattered glass to polite applause. In a particularly fitting dénouement, the spattered banknotes were promptly (if daintily) collected by the crowd.

Iwan Wijono’s performance is part of A Crossroads, which is on at the Institute of Contemporary Arts till the 26th of March, 2011.

The past’s so pixelated, I’ve got to splice images

March 5, 2011

On one particularly notorious internet forum, there used to be a little game where users would post delicious pornographic images partially scrambled by GMask. The challenge was to unscramble the images, and, well, I’m sure you can figure out the reward. A major motivating factor in the game, of course, was that you could see the worksafe bits of the image – context, which both alludes to the hidden, which one finds alluring. What happens when context is entirely externalised?

In Khai Hori‘s Semerah Padi Revisited, pixelisation holds sway across the entire extent of each image; the regime is a gentle one, though – the subjects of each image remain vaguely recognisable, if rather out of focus. Paradoxically, this apparent focal softness is achieved through the immutable edge of the pixel, and rendered evanescent by stark, colour-saturated luminosity. This weightlessness corresponds to an externalisation of context – the burden of alluring is deferred to the metadata, an expansive gesture which confirms the borders (and immaculate finish) of the image.

Within the rectilinear space of the gallery, one might be tempted to draw a connection between these hovering images and the stained-glass Biblical scenes installed in churches for the edification of the unlettered, with mutable obfuscation taking the place of didactic imprinting. From this point of departure, the images of the other body of work, Reconstructing Sentol, come to resemble a set of reliquaries – the inserted images are the relics of Mat Sentol, enshrined within the contexts selected by Khai Hori.

However, a reliquary may become confused with the relic itself, especially in the case of relics so sacred that no one would dare to dream of opening the reliquary to have a look inside. This risk is less apparent in Reconstructing Sentol – the boundaries are clear, the insertion and alteration obvious to the point that the whole of Reconstructing Sentol is greater than the sum of its parts.

That is to say, the fact of an umbrella-holding man floating above Jerusalem (or a telephone-wielding man in the World Health Organisation) is less significant than the generalised process of re-composing implausible scenes from given sets of sorted images. Even the implausibility does not figure so greatly, if we assume that the dichotomy presented is but sardonic equivocation; an undecidable wavering between interior and exterior, rather than the straightforward relationship of container and contained.

Mat/Ramlee is on at Chan Hampe Galleries @ Raffles Hotel till the of 28th March 2011.

Enter the Void and know Thyself

February 11, 2011

People act strangely around projectors – cameras, too. The body contorts in an effort to avoid disrupting the projected image, or, in the case of the camera, the shot being composed. We scurry past, perhaps with no more than a cursory nod of the head, acknowledging that the image is disrupted without actually doing anything about it – or we go into full invisible limbo mode. These effects tend to be either glossed over or exploited – for instance, Ryoji Ikeda’s Data.matrix at Trans-cool Tokyo unifies it to monolithic effect, in turn requiring the services of a gallery sitter to direct visitors not to walk in front of the projectors.

In the case of Wong Ruyi’s Void deck by the Sea, the cone of light bisects the gallery, inducing a sort of proprioceptive intervention – even in the oblivious, a burst of light in the corner of the eye as a sort of hypnic jerk. This bisection also poses the riddle of where exactly one might stand to view the work – the left, the right? Closer or further? The difference may be slight, but we may not stand head on in a state of bucolic rumination, face to face, one on one, self and work pitted against each other in some titanic epic. Of course, we could simply damn it all and stand in the middle, but that’s another avenue of inquiry.

No, we stand at an angle, unaligned and unstable, a sense which is amplified in the work itself  – the rough surfaces of the extrusions, the variable line of their edges, the overlap in the two video feeds, and the misregistrations both subtle and obvious. Going closer, we might note the contrast between the fuzzy images and the stark grid of pixels imposed by the projector, their faint flickering and the stillness of the shadowed surfaces. These things could be mistakes, or fortuitous happenstance, but their provenance is irrelevant. The vistas composed of these effects are of relevance – the stages for the interaction between the cat, the void deck and the sea, which have found each other in close at hand.

The scenes resemble each other very closely, providing a quiet sort of visual harmony. However, each scene is either differing in place or deferring in time, presenting slightly different relationships between the principal actors. Xero, Coma and Kline, if we were Traven (or Talbot?) in an endless suburbia, and not Ballard’s America. As opposed to triggering a semiotic apocalypse, our trio proves more enigmatic – aloof, yet warm, much like a cat.

Postscript (Scattered Observations):

The fragmented planes of the balcony-complex immediately adjoining the gallery space at PEEK! was eminently suited to the multiplication of the trio, unlike the interior configuration of the gallery. There is something to be said for it, of course – a slight case of claustrophobia, cloying matte whiteness, the immediate, intimate presence of infrastructural machinery, off-gassing waste heat.

Counterpoint to the cool, airy (well, watery) content of the works, the emancipations depicted in contrast to the mini-labyrinth of sealed and navigable spaces. Glistening, insectile television-carapaces. As opposed to the physical intrusion of the infrastructure found in Gnothi Seauton, which had the character of a slightly scandalous bon mot, the contrast here is harsher, less navigable – by no means a bad thing, but not as accessible.

There was an instant of pure visual magic, but it is almost entirely dependent on not knowing the trick, which would decompose the moment  – pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, after all. It’s in the work with the folding paper.

Wong Ruyi’s Void deck by the Sea is part of Gnothi Seauton, a group show curated by Daniela Beltrani at the Substation, which runs till the 15th of February 2011. It is also featured in The Abstraction of Waves, the artist’s solo show at PEEK! (36 Armenian Street) till the 28th of February.

Do Pigdroids Squeal at Purty Gates?

January 23, 2011

To answer the question posed by the titled of this post: if the closing party of The Pearly Gates is anything to go by, yes they do. The only question is – why?

Just in case you were not aware, Post-Museum recently played host to a collaborative exhibition by Jes Brinch, Marc Gabriel Loh, Clare Marie Ryan and Jon Stahn, titled The Pearly Gates. The closing weekend of the exhibition saw a little visit by the noble protectors of peace and justice. This little tête-à-tête was apparently occasioned by some vague, nebulous complaint, which for some reason was addressed to the men with guns, and not the artists or Post-Museum itself.

For the sake of argument, if we assume that this complaint had merit, and was not simply the mindless, earsplitting bawling of an infant with a shit-filled diaper, we must ask ourselves why the complainant sought recourse in the possibility of force, as opposed to resorting to reasonable discourse. Perhaps the complainant views the threat of force as a reasonable form of speech, in which case we might ask how a dialogue may be conducted in this medium – are the artists or Post-Museum able to dispute the complaint through the Police? At any rate, this seems a poor use of public resources – they should be off catching murderers and embezzlers and so on, not playing go-between in a discussion of art.

Anyway, endless repetitions of “the complainant” seem a little turgid, so let’s call this person… Bob. Another possibility is that Bob is embedded in a system of thought which is radically different from that of contemporary art. Such a hypothetical system of thought might lead to the conclusion that the exhibition was objectively or self-evidently wrong, and that a discussion of the matter would be neither possible nor necessary – that a discussion would only lend a shadow of legitimacy to the exhibition.

More exotically, we might entertain the possibility that Bob avoids discussion for the express purpose of preventing contact between the disparate systems of thought. Such contact, through some principle of contagion, would result in the contamination of Bob’s system of thought. Alternatively, perhaps Bob’s system of thought holds that the exhibition constituted an act of violence, or the threat thereof, thus justifying their response. However, if this theory is to be entertained at all, the nature of this violence must be examined, and its hypothetical victim identified.

The Pearly Gates was a deliriously vivacious, hyperkinetic, colour-saturated smörgåsbord of fuck, accompanied by bright lights and happy, happy tunes – but wait, there’s more! Gleeful emancipation through fantastic combinations of naughty bits and the exuberant frolicsomeness of interactions between the owners of said naughty bits, rendered in a sort of R. Crumb/Shintaro Kago mashup – but wait, there’s… no, that’s a fair summary of the exhibition. There are, of course, specific scenes and objects which may be subject to further analysis, but my impression was that The Pearly Gates was presented as an overall situation, an encompassing sensorium, rather than a collection of works for display. If this is correct, there would seem to be little point in, say, counting the number of phallic sculptures.

Maybe Bob thinks that any visual representation of naughty bits is intrinsically obscene, an attitude which would only seem to be tenable through the attribution of terrible symbolic significance to the flesh, and its exposure and concealment. This would be consistent with the possibility that Bob’s system of thought is wildly incompatible with the artists’, insofar as we assume that the artists approached their project from the point of view of some sort of semiotic combinatorics. Maybe it’s the fucking, which explores dalliances far beyond consensual heterosexual sex in the missionary position under the covers with the lights out for the sole purpose of procreation within the institution of religiously sanctioned marriage, which so inflames Bob’s righteous ire.

Both objections, however, completely ignore the context and presentation, which lends greater weight to the idea that Bob is enmeshed in a symbolic universe of some sort. The lights, the colours, the sounds, the stylisation – these things say nothing to Bob, whose attention remains fixed on the exposure alone. I wonder if Bob blushes furiously at the sight of Greek heroic nudes? To say nothing of Leda and the Swan, or the Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.

Or perhaps Bob is not so blind to context as one might suppose – that it is not so much the bits and fucking which offends Bob, but these things viewed in the context of the title. The term “Pearly gates” has long been associated with the entryway of the Christian heaven, as derived from the description of New Jerusalem found in the Bible, which speaks of twelve gates, each gate being made of a single pearl. Thus, we might suppose that Bob is convinced that the artists (and, by association, Post-Museum) are a band of base blasphemers, with villainy in their hearts, intent on storming the gates of Heaven, or something. This would fit nicely with the supposition that Bob views the exhibition as an act of violence, and thus responds in kind.

That being said, can any one religion lay exclusive claim to specific words, or turns of phrase, especially in the sensitive context of a religiously diverse society? Bob might as well file suit against the Golden Street of Shinjuku, Tokyo, for offending his sensibilities, since the very next sentence in the passage which refers to gates of pearl also speaks of main street of New Jerusalem being made of pure gold. If speech were to be curtailed for fear of offense, we’d soon have no mouths for all we might want to scream.

Even if the exhibition’s title was a religious reference, Bob would do well to think before reaching for a pitchfork – does the representation of these figures necessarily imply prurience? In their endless variegation and profusion, it seems to me that the figures have been evacuated of erotic potential, stripped of chthonian gravitas and thrust into a new light. If there is obscenity here, it’s of a totally different order, incompatible with the symbolic universe, and undeserving of cheap vitriol.

As a general tendency, this evacuation of the erotic is not limited to The Pearly Gates, though the exhibition explores this tendency with a savagery both cynical and, well, cheerful. Less cheerful variations might include, say, Andrew Repasky McElhinney’s attempt to read Bataille, in which transgression was omitted in favour of blithe posturing and familiar, well-established pornographic tropes, which could in turn be read as an admission of the impossibility of transgression. We might also consider Camille Paglia’s recent vivisection of Lady Gaga, which, whatever faults it might have, invites us to consider the implications of a world after the death of sex.

It’s sometimes said (especially in the recent context of filesharing and the publishers of entertainment) that an industry which depends on litigation to survive might as well be dead, as all its efforts will only prolong its suffering. Corollary to this, I might propose that any point of view which must cloak itself behind the machinery of violence likewise endures a crawling undeath – that turning to the Police, or drafting new laws as opposed to engaging in debate only serves to firmly discredit that point of view. Sorry, Bob – you’ve just fucked yourself in the arse. I wonder if such a thing was depicted in The Pearly Gates?

The Pearly Gates were open from the 8th to the 16th of January 2011 at Post-Museum.