Naima Morelli

cover16
Take a guess: what is the opposite of artwork? It is paperwork. Whereas the artwork is open-ended, a spreadsheet is self-contained. In other words, the artwork is an object that dispels the notion of identity of objects; a notion which nonetheless is so useful for us to go around the world. We think about a bottle based on its function of containing and pouring liquid. But try to go to Swanston Street, Melbourne on Saturday night, and you’ll see how that a bottle can become a dangerous weapon. For the same reason, we are always very careful to not let kids pick up objects that are potentially dangerous, because children are oblivious to the categories that us adults create for objects and things.
While living outside the categories in everyday life is potentially dangerous – you’d be called a crazy person – the blurring and crossing over of categories is what allows creativity and imagination to happen. Kids are imaginative because they are ultimately approaching things as they are. Infinite. The truth is that things do offer themselves to ambiguity. Contemporary art is particularly apt to prove that.

While ambiguity is inherent in all objects within our reality, we have countless examples of artists that emphasize that notion in their work. To remain in contemporary Southeast Asia, think about Indonesian artist Wiyoga Muhardanto, whose entire process consists of combining two contrasting meanings – for example merging an Apple computer design to an old typewriter, or fusing a fashionable bag with old saggy skin – thus opening up multiple interpretations for the object. We have of course other examples in the milestones of art history, such as Duchamps’ upside-down urinal or Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Not by chance, Magritte was part of the surrealist movement, which was all about playing around with objects, subverting their meaning. Surrealists were also very keen on studying dreams – that door to our psyche where things happen outside of logic and the rational realm. In that world, the categories crumble. Our way of thinking about things by free association becomes the reality that happens before our eyes, which is a form of truth – as often madness is.

Read More

cover15

Sarah Choo Jing

I love the work of Sarah Choo Jing. It is elegant and she clearly shares a passion for my favourite director, Hong Kar Wai. The artist herself gives me the impression of living in her own imaginary, which is something I can highly empathise with. At the 2017 Venice Biennale show, she was elegant as ever, wearing a blue cheongsam with a pair of silver shoes which looked as if they were right from Grace Kelly’s wardrobe. Her attire made her look like a noble Chinese woman on a visit to the West. Being in Venice, another celebrated city port, this looked like the possible start of a story.

When I interviewed her in Singapore at the end of 2015, she carved out a time to meet me amid the shots of the production of her new video piece called “Four Days”, set in a prestigious hotel near Chinatown. Actually, it was unclear to me if it was the lack of time to dictate the conditions for this meeting, or if it was rather a wise choice to allow me to participate in the production process and get some juice for the story. At one point the artist admitted that the circumstances were quite fortuitous.

Read More

cover14

Vincent Leow

It is June 2018 as I’m writing these lines, and a few days ago, browsing through the internet, some news hit my eye. One drawing of Vincent Leow was removed from an exhibition the Esplanade, a popular alley for the arts in Singapore, with the accusation of “bestiality”. The censored sketch depicted a naked individual sitting astride a giant chicken. According to the conservative Facebook group “Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family” the naked man was having sex with the animal. The general concern revolves around the fact that this was public area, with kids walking past the exhibition to go to the play centre. At first, the Esplanade took a neutral stance and said that everyone could “draw their own interpretations of a drawing that is not a realistic rendering.” Following a discussion with the artist, the art centre decided that it would be best to remove the piece from the exhibition and said that “This is solely Esplanade’s error of judgment”. This caused a big buzz in the artistic community in Singapore, and was seen as an episode of censorship and a sign of an increasingly conservative society.
The author of the sketch, Vincent Leow, would probably be discouraged to see that, since he first started with his provocative works and the society hasn’t opened up since. Quite the contrary. Vincent hailed, like Lee Wen and Amanda Heng, from The Artists Village, the arts collective spearheaded by Tang Da Wu and inspired by Western movements such as conceptual art and Fluxus, which emerged in New York in the ‘60s. The group detached from the idealist watercolours and academic realist style that preceded the late ‘80s, as being really contemporary and bringing international tendencies to the art world, while speaking of the conflicts and tensions of the society at the time.

Read More

cover13
Amanda Heng

Taking a sip of tea in the courtyard sheltered by the white colonial walls of the Singapore Art Museum, I had no doubt. When I get older, I want to be cool like Amanda Heng. This double-braided lady sitting on the other end of the table is an inspiring and yet down-to-earth artist. Despite her friendly nature, she gave a huge contribution to the evolution of Singaporean contemporary art. In the Lion City, economic and technological progress are achieved thanks to a pragmatic government and toiling on the part of citizens. Amanda Heng witnessed the rapid transformation in both the art scene and the society art at large. Her work is a profound comment on this rapid modernisation and a compassionate observation about those who were left behind.

Amanda Heng was one of the early members of the seminal art collective ‘The Artist Village’ and experimented with performance art and installation. When she was a little girl in school, she was always performing on stage. In the school curriculum there were dances, songs, opera, and they were learning Italian songs. “I guess I already had this in me, and it allowed me to feel the beauty of certain things, although I didn’t know what art was about then.”

Read More

cover12

Lee Wen
I first met Lee Wen in Rome, in the courtyard of my very first house in the Eternal City. The place was in the local Chinatown, called Piazza Vittorio. This is not a nice Chinatown. It doesn’t have the fancy portal to mark its main street, nor particularly good restaurants or shops. Indeed, Piazza Vittorio become the go-to establishment for Chinese immigrants only in the late ‘80s, where they set up bare shops selling cheap clothes, where no one ever goes buy anything.

The building where I used to live in had a large courtyard that led into different buildings, and in the middle of the courtyard there was a small gallery, called La Nube di Oort. One day I got an email from the gallery saying that in a few days there would have been a performance called “Un evento piccolo ma significativo” (A Small but Significant Event), featuring artists Lee Wen, Myriam Laplante, and Mike Cooper. The press release explained that Mike Cooper would have recreated a sound performance – which he didn’t attend. His performance was a personal sonic response to a short video clip of part of English musician David Toop’s performance posted on Facebook. Lee Wen would have responded to Mike Cooper’s response and Myriam Laplante would have responded to Lee Wen’s response to Mike Cooper’s response. I thought this process of osmosis, lost in translation and enrichment in translation was quite jarring. In my mind, the artistic device was similar to the American version of Singapore which was Madripoor and my Italian perception of Madripoor. And neither myself or Claremont had ever visited Singapore at that point. The press release went on to say a bit about the artist’s bio. I knew two of the three artists. Mike Cooper was a white-bearded English singer-guitarist forever wearing Hawaiian shirts and a straw hat even in winter. He rose to prominence by innovating the international scene with the explorations of avant-garde sound. Myriam Laplante was a Canadian artist who moved to Italy a while ago. Her work, consisting of performances, installations, sculptures, photographs, and drawings never lacked in dark humour and was heavily parodist, absurd, cynical, sad and disturbing. Being a vernissage-hopper I happened to have seen Cooper and LaPlante in action a few times already. But I had never met Lee Wen. I knew him for being a pioneer of performance art in Singapore since the ‘90s. The press release informed me that his multidisciplinary work, spanning from writing to song, was a constant reflection on society, motivated by strong idealism and a revolutionary impetus.

Read More

cover11

Meanwhile, at the National Gallery of Singapore…


When the National Gallery of Singapore finally opened its doors to the public on the 24th of November 2015 – the year of the Lion City’s 50th birthday year – it was all the rage. The crowd flowed through the majestic stairs leading to the basement ticket hall, in a space whose proportion rivalled those of the Changi Airport. They were all considering whether the building – which was much discussed for the outrageous amount of money that been spent in realising it – lived up to the expectations. There was an open call for architecture studios, and the final project was given to a French studio, Studio Milou, in the typical Singapore fashion of calling foreign talents to deliver excellence. The French design firm looked to the Musée d’Orsay when deciding to build a majestic structure, merging the historical buildings of the former Supreme Court and City Hall. But the references were actually even more varied. For the entrance hall, where the sun poured through the filigree roof, Jean-François Milou was thinking about the lace worn by an old lady perhaps, and the latest Balenciaga collection, guessing the Singaporeans’ soft spot for luxury goods.

Read More

AsiaticaItaloSpinelli

I’m forever passionate about the connections between Europe and Asia through culture. This time, we explore the power of cinematic language across continents with Italo Spinelli, director of Asiatica Film Festival in Rome, Italy, for Culture360.

Here is the link to the interview

Read More

ThaiartistsPolitics

 

As I’m gearing up to leave for a reportage on contemporary art in Thailand in February, I’m gathering all the preliminary research in these pieces for Cobo. These encapsulate my core areas of interest (you might have read already 5 Thai Artists that Connect Us to Spirituality)

I really love to make those articles that gather artists by topic. I see them as so much more than simple listicles. I have the chance to research the practice of an artist in depth, and then distill the essence of their practice in a few paragraphs. In this way I’m also able to see how artists from the same country have different approaches to the same topic. By spotting similarities and differences, I can start grasping some sort of whole and overarching narrative.

Here is the link to the piece

Read More

cover10

Audience anxiety

In 2017, I visited a show a of ceramic artist Iskandar Jalil, in dialogue with the young Singaporean artist Gerald Leow at the National Gallery of Singapore. Gerald’s day job was set design, and it showed from his intervention in the show, which was very subtle. He built a metal structure evoking the traditional house of Inskandar with a simple metal outline. I was looking forward to seeing the show since the artist mentioned that he was doing research from it in our first interview, and I peered out curiously into the room. Before I had the chance to set foot inside, the gallery sitter, gentle as ever, handed me a flyer: “Please find here some information about the show. You will find also the interview of the curator with Gerald Leow and some information about the content of the show. Please proceed to your left to see the exhibition.” Being a Neapolitan, so a rule-breaker by nature, I was about to blurt out: “Well, what if I want to start from the right?” After all, there was no chronology intended in the work, and there were no other people in room. But instead, I shut up and remembered where I was. And yes, I was in a place where the so-called audience anxiety was real.

Read More

cover9

The norm and the individual

My curator friend Roberto D’Onorio and I have very different tastes when it comes to historical figures. I have always been all about the bat shit crazy personalities such as Caligula – which obviously attracted me for their romanticism, their “freedom in their own psychosis”. Conversely, Roberto has always been all about the composed, formal figures, among which his favourite is the Queen Elizabeth II.
He doesn’t just like her. He’s crazy about her to the point that he watched all the documentaries about her, all the series and of course the movie “The Queen”. What he likes about her is that she, unlike her other contemporaries such as Churchill or Margaret Thatcher – who by the way was referred to as having the lips of Marylin Monroe and the eyes of Caligula – was a sane individual in a system which required her to be there.
She didn’t have to make any kind of choice, she just had to follow a protocol which was already laid out for her. She just needed to embody it in the best way possible, and adapt her personality to it. As Roberto pointed out, Elizabeth was a sane individual operating in a system that catered to her. The system itself was something that had no reason to exist other than to keep power structures in place. And that brings us to talk about Singapore and its artists.

Read More

5

This end of the year post has been a tradition for many years, and it’s for me one of the most pleasurable things to write. This one is pretty long, so gear up, or perhaps skip to the section which is of most interest to you.

Looking back at this 2018, I feel bursting with gratitude. I do what I have always wanted to do since I was a child, and I have a huge freedom which I don’t take for granted. For this stage in my life, I’m fully self-actualized, I’m embodying all of my passions. And each one of them leads me to new paths, new learning, new discovering journeys. This unfolding is a beautiful story to tell, and I feel my life is like an artwork. And I can appreciate its dynamism fully, its ups and downs, its clarity and its drama, because I know it’s ultimately all a play. The comedy of life.

Read More

cover8

Economic Agenda for the Arts

In the beginning, when people were talking to me about art in Singapore, I was hearing two parallel stories. In one of these two stories, the art was born from individuals who dared to go against the grain, challenge the status quo, coming together to build a community. The other story was that the government decided they needed art, and so they made it happen. I slowly realised that it wasn’t merely a different point of view. Contemporary art in Singapore was twice born.

The first time it was a natural birth. Grassroots. Tang Da Wu, Lee Wen, Amanda Heng, Vincent Leow, Suzanne Victor were among them. Names inextricably associated with the early days of The Artist Village. The second was more of cesarean section. My midwife housemates explained to me how differently these two worked. In the natural birth, it’s all up to the mother. There is a lot of suffering involved, but that suffering is good, because the mother instinctively knows where to push, which position to take to get the baby out. It’s her bodily knowing, no one else can tell her how to do it. It’s the most natural thing in the world, although it might be dangerous. Back in the day, giving birth could often result in the death of the mother or the baby, or both. But when it was done – my midwife housemates assured me – it was about the most beautiful feeling in the world. The mother could finally take in her arms that ugly purplish sticky thing which is a newborn baby and feel completely happy, serene, fulfilled and relieved on the most existential level. Well, that was The Artist Village. Little money from the government, all going forward with a day job and a lot of opposition from family and society. The first attempts might have looked ugly like a newborn baby, but the love was definitely there, and the satisfaction for creation too. They must have felt that they were really up to something. In hearing about people telling about those pioneer times, you’d feel the quiet heroism.

Read More