Naima Morelli

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Just go to Thailand!

Back in Singapore after my first trip, I participated in a talk at the art space The Substation about the current exhibition in place. The idea of a book about Singapore contemporary art was starting to take shape in my mind. at the time, and I came back for another month-long research. This time around, I wanted to focus on capturing the spirit in which the artists were producing work, as well as understanding the core concerns of curators and art operators. In the long and narrow room of The Substation art space, I recognised a few people coming together to start the talk. One of these was The Substation director Alan Oei, one of the first people I interviewed in Singapore and the person who gave me a comprehensive vision of what was going on.

Alan Oei is the kind of person who attracts polarising feelings because of his clear-cut ideas, critical attitude and strong charisma. This is something quite common in the Italian art world, where art critics and curators like to challenge audiences – think of big personalities like Philippe Daverio, Achille Bonito Oliva or Vittorio Sgarbi – but in Singapore and Southeast Asia, where moderation is the norm and the art world is still too small to overtly create factions. This is quite uncommon. Perhaps because of my background, I personally liked Alan Oei’s attitude a lot (not that I necessarily agreed with his opinions). I liked him the way one can like romantic characters. Those who have real vigour in bringing forward their ideas, and a strong spirit to led them. Believing his own ideas to a fault.

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DanaLanglois
It was February last year that I embarked on a month-long journey to Cambodia for a reportage on the local contemporary art scene. During that time on the field I realized 20 interviews in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh, meet incredible people, and had the privilege to visit artist’s studio and local art spaces.

Among these, Java Arts in Phnom Penh is certainly one of the most important, and the name of its founder and director Dana Langlois was one of the first on my list of the must-interview. A powerhouse in her own right, Dana gave me her perspectives on the Cambodian art scene. CoBo has just published our conversation.

It took one year to publish most of the material, article by article, mostly on CoBo, but also on Culture360 and Art Republik. I love this methodology of work I have established, from gathering the seeds (aka researching on the field), sowing and watering (working on the material and reflecting on it throughout the year) and harvesting (seeing the pieces published on magazines.) It’s a thing of beauty, and I try to be present to each phase of this process. Hopefully, throughout this year I manage to share what I have learned about Cambodian contemporary art, and highlight what’s interesting with it.

And now to Dana’s interview on CoBo, hope you will enjoy it:

Here is the link to the interview

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Sherman Ong: Motherland

In 2013 the now defunct gallery Chan Hampe hosted an important collective show analysing the effect of segregation in the Lion City. This was called ‘Motherland’ and was curated by Christina Arum Sok. The show examined Singapore as the home to people as different as the first generation of coolies arriving to find work, all the way to today’s foreign executives and migrant workers. In the press release, the curator mentioned how Singapore has become home to a wide array of people looking for opportunities and how they tend to not blend as naturally as the state propaganda would led to believe:

“ […] foreigners have largely embraced elements of ‘Singaporeaness,’ adapting or re-inventing themselves like chameleons to wear different hats that embody both their native culture and that of their adopted home. It is not so much assimilating or integrating into a ‘Singaporeaness’, but rather a celebration of multiplicity and a fusion of differences that should be emphasised. Instead of the xenophobic attitudes that shun the ‘infiltration’ of foreigners as well as the preoccupation with a sterilized racial harmony that only gives room for Chinese, Malay, Indian and the ambiguous or all-encompassing ‘Other,’ perhaps it is now the time to unlock the door for the ‘Others’ and adopt a broader, more accepting approach to differences. It is this element of ultra-diversity that gives Singapore the edge, making it a competitive city-state that attracts people from all walks of life.”

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Fyerool Darma: destructing and reconstructing regional history

Fyerool Darma’s world is black and white, sleek and genuine; conceptual yet tied to the peculiarity of materials. If you were in Singapore at the beginning of 2017, you couldn’t help encountering his work everywhere – in very different sectors of the art world. At Art Stage Singapore 2017, he was part of the Yeo Workshop booth with his works ‘After Babelfish (of Shank series)’ and ‘Portrait No. 11 (Puan Saleha, Zaliha or Salihat)’. We saw him performing in the art space Objectifs for the collective show ‘Fantasy Islands’. And if that wasn’t enough, at the Singapore Biennale you can also encounter his work ‘The Most Mild Mannered Man’ – a bust of Sir Stamford Raffles and a bustless pedestal inscribed with the name of Sultan Hussein. His interest in bridging the memory-deprived Singapore of today with the wider history of the region and the many possible narratives that have shaped the island’s past, and continue to shape the island’s future.

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Ho Tzu Nyen: representing the global collective imaginary

There are artists who make objects, and are pretty damn good at their craft. Then there are artists whose production allow them to live and work in the art system. There are also artists whose work is autobiographical and very much tied to their lives. And finally, there are artists whose art is a direct continuation of their philosophical grasp on the world. Technique for them is an extension of their thought.

Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen belongs to the latter category. In his first solo exhibition in Berlin at the gallery Michael Janssen called “No Man II”, he presented a new multimedia installation. This whimsical, interactive, compelling, yet mysterious work looks like a museum of popular imagination of the human figure. We can find here clichéd representation from pop culture, from American soldiers, to characters similar to the movie Tron, all the way to mythology.

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