Naima Morelli

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Nature in Singapore

The garden city utopia was conceived well before Singapore would reclaim this title for itself. The term was first created in 1898 by utopian thinker Ebenezer Howard. The concept of having housing outside the city, providing to each house its own garden, was made possible by the brand new railroad, which made transportation possible. Again, it was a way to go home, away from the industrial pollution. This idea was successfully implemented in Anglo-Saxon countries. In the US especially, this sort of nuclear family solution came to correspond with the American dream.

As we mentioned earlier, suburbia proved problematic not only on a social level. There are also other problems involving a shortage of horizontal space, and most importantly, the transportation which made possible the idea of garden city must today be reduced for environmental reasons. Today’s transportation calls for a different conception of the garden city, a garden city that is mainly vertical, and that is what has been implemented by Singapore. In its modern idea of the Garden City, Singapore wants to show that nature and business can be integrated. The western division between leisure and work doesn’t have to be so sharp. Business life doesn’t have to necessarily happen away from nature, and be balanced by it. This corresponds, on a wider scale, to the dismantling of the idea of work-life balance, as if work and life would be two separate entities. What is valid for the individual is valid also for the wider community. It is true that there is a place to sleep, a place to work, a place to relax, but we must keep in mind that in our mind and life the boundaries are not so strict as walls.

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Daylight dystopia

In our worse dystopian imagination, brought to fruition by filmmakers and artists, we imagine the cities of the future being an endless continuation of buildings and city lights, from the steamy Metropolis to – moving to the ‘80s – the cities of Ghost in The Shell, or Neon Tokyo from Akira. Asian mega-cities provided a good model in this respect. The urban landscape of Blade Runner for example was inspired by a particular part of Kwaloon, also known as the Walled City. This was an area of incredible density, a human anthill, picturesque and inhuman at the same time. In 1994, Kwaloon was demolished. Visitors eager to see the ruins of this mythical place will instead find a park with gardens, floral walks, ponds and pavilions. The future was not as we imagined, if not only for the lack of flying cars which many of us lamented, but also because it doesn’t look as evil as we thought. Then came the daylight dystopia. As a child, I remember approaching this slightly less suffocating concept in the Disney PK comics. This was a superhero series of Donald Duck set in a futuristic future. In a particular episode, PK travelled to the future to find that instead of the tower he operated from – the Ducklair tower created by a tech genius – there was a garden. Our beloved flying cars came in handy in that comic in order to reach the heights of that vertical city, whose buildings have gardens on top, another idea which is being implemented in the green architectural world. An idea that has been developed by many architectural firms reimagining the future of the urban landscape as we will see. The palaces of the old city will be pillars, or comprised into other buildings, and of course we have plenty of examples of this as well. The final look of this city is a green aspirational environment which will preserve history and won’t look as dingy and ugly as we imagined dystopian cities to be.

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The work of Geraldine Kang

For Geraldine Kang, art-making has the functions of helping her process her thoughts and feelings and to get herself out of her head. In the awarded series ‘In the Raw’, she depicted her family members in surreal situations dealing with nudity, aging and death. The artist defines In the Raw as a “shock treatment” to introduce her parents to her art practice, which in the beginning they didn’t understand. In an iconic picture of her series, she is in bed with her parents, just like a little child would do, but with a photographic book showing breasts. The photographs encapsulate the lack of intimacy and the difficulty of maturing and dealing with desire where you share the same living space with your family.

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How space influences the art

The visitors of the Louvre museum are often upset when they see the Monalisa for the first time. Most of them, seeing it on catalogues, posters and mugs alike, they imagine it to be much bigger. Indeed, bigger than life. In a world where art and art history is experienced through the internet and catalogues, and perhaps less in real life, the size of an artwork is something that counts when it comes to the art market, but it is not really an indicator for art critics. And yet, if we take a sociological look on art, we come to realise that the size of a work tells us volumes about the conditions in which the artist works: it informs about the modes and the values of an entire art system. As mundane as it is, practical circumstances end up weighting on the final artwork more than we would like to think. Contemporary art is seldom made in poetic studios in warehouses, although in some countries that is the norm. In many other places it is done in subscales, a bedroom in your parent’s house or in tiny rented studio-apartments.

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HDB

“Yearning is the dominant theme that runs through all of my work,” said the outstanding photographer Nguan to The Straits Times. “Singaporeans are restless by nature – we have wandering hearts. This picture describes the longing to be in a different place or time.” Nguan is probably the artist who best caught the poetic, ineffable, paster colour heat of Singapore. In his delicate photographs, depicting mundane moments, suspended in silence, he is able to capture the soft alienation of his own city.

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URBAN/NATURE

In this book, I used opposite categories not as parallel dichotomies or binaries that never touch each other, but rather as two extremes of a spectrum. This also goes for one of the core themes that many Singaporean artists measure themselves with: that of the urban space and the natural space. Again, we will examine the matter from different angles. At the level of the artwork, city and nature are themes many artists muse on. Then we will look at the space itself and the way the physical structure and size of artist studios, art spaces, galleries, houses and where they are located in the city have an effect on the art production. On top of that, we will look at the idea of nature as a way to go – quite literally – back to the roots. Indeed, the attitudes of Singaporeans towards nature and art are very similar, so it is almost inevitable to draw parallels. As something that is supposed to grow organically and spontaneously, art has always been seen as something “natural” to humans. This goes for the whole art ecosystem. Precisely an ecosystem, as we can’t help using a nature-related terminology here.

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Manit
It has been more than 10 years now I have started to see my articles published on magazines, and  I’m still full of joy and wonder every time one is out. Especially if they are particularly satisfying conversations, like this one with none other than the great Thai artist Manit Sriwanichpoom.

The piece has just been published on CoBo Social it is also linked with the webmagazine’s current focus on Art and Politics. This article is part of my reportage on the Thai contemporary art scene I completed a month ago.

Here is the link to the interview

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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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