Naima Morelli

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Lim Tzay-Chuen’s elliptical approach

It’s a matter of fact that when a concept is so deeply embedded in a society, often artists tackle it not as a separate topic, but in its many manifestations. As Tan Boon Hui Calvin, Vice President, Global Arts & Cultural Programs and Director, Asia Society Museum, NY, à Asia Society, puts it : “The best work engaging with the concept of bureaucracy is the elliptical in approach. I honestly do not think it will be as blunt as ‘bureaucracy’.” One example of this elliptical approach is the work of Lim Tzay Chuen.

The artist describes his work as being concerned with “offering” solutions to possible problems, becoming about administration and organisation – aspects that are an integral part of the art world, but are usually left out from the official narrative. For the Biennale of Sydney, he designed and coordinated an open proposition to the public: “Enterprising” persons who got hold of certain pages from the 2004 Biennale catalogues would enjoy the privilege of using the Artspace Gallery 1, AUD $4000, 4 nights of hotel accommodation and official inclusion as one of the invited “artists” to the Biennale.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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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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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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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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