Naima Morelli

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Tag "singapore"

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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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Ruben Pang

“Wait! Is it allowed to talk about incest on the Singapore metro?” I abruptly asked with an alarmed note in my voice to the scrawny guy in front of me, holding onto the bar of the red line. I looked for a reaction in the faces of the people on the metro. Nothing. Someone told me that Singaporeans don’t complain to your face. In their heads though, they had probably already labelled me as a loud-speaking Italian as soon as I opened my mouth.

“We can talk about whatever we want!” replied Ruben Pang in a stubborn tone which implied than yes, it was not advisable to talk about incest on the Singapore metro, but rules didn’t apply to us free-thinkers.

Ah, the fleeting camaraderie you establish for a few hours with some of the artists you interview! I really liked Ruben Pang, but I was wary. In three hours, he had already told me three times that he is a person who gets easily bored. The thing with these ultra-nice people is that they never say what they truly want. They endure boredom, endure struggles, and they act as if everything is fine. On top of that, Ruben also declared to passionately admire the stoics, especially Seneca. He finds their endurance in the face of sufferings and the fact they never complain, totally badass.

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Gerald Leow

“Why should the government pay you to have fun?”

Yeah, right, why? Gerald Leow was the first person who phrased the question in this way. It shows that the kind of questions you ask, and the way you ask it, can result in overturning an entire vision, or perhaps making some hidden dynamics come to the surface.

This very simple question is one which artists from other countries would have asked themselves visiting Singapore, but a question that perhaps not many Singaporeans are asking themselves, perhaps not in this way. Gerald is aware of it: “I have very controversial views. I think as an artist…”, he hesitates as he ponders the words. “That’s the only thing that makes you special. It’s your mojo, you know? And then instead of protecting this thing and having full autonomy over it, you give it to someone else and say, “Here: how about you dictate what kind of work should I do?” To me it sounds ridiculous.”

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Godalisation

 

I reviewed for Cobo Teng Jee Hum’s second book on collecting, focused on history of Singapore. The book offers insight into the history of contemporary art in the city-state.

Here is the link to the review

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Zihan Loo

At the end of 2015, I was wandering around SAM8Q looking for the proverbial exit through the gift shop — as Banksy would put it. I wanted to buy some books to bring back home with me. At the ground floor of the building there was something that appeared to be what I was looking for. Shelves of interesting books, and a few on exhibition. I was thrilled. When I walked in, something was not quite right. I asked the person at the desk: “I’m sorry, this is not the museum bookshop, it is an artwork.”

Damn! This is precisely what I’m talking about when I speak of the problem with contemporary art. The work, he explained, was done by artist Zihan Loo, and was called “Of Public Interest: The Singapore Art Museum Resource Room”. The artist moved 4,500 volumes from the Singapore Art Museum’s resource room — currently not available to public — into the space of a gallery. The public were invited to shape the collection for the duration of the exhibition from August 2015 to March 2016. The conditions were that each visitor was allowed to withdraw one book from the collection, restricting the public access to this book for the duration of the exhibition. These books were shrink-wrapped and placed in a separate area of the installation.

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Brother Cane and the Josef Ng Affair

Given the big scandal his case provoked, you would imagine Josef Ng holding resentment to his country Singapore in one way or another. This is not at all the case. After two decades of auto-exile, working as a curator in Bangkok and Shanghai as gallery director, in December 2015 the artist and curator went back to Singapore, hired by the gallery Pearl Lam. As a young man, Josef was part of the Artist Village. It was a time when, as we saw earlier, there was almost no funding for art, and artists were making art for their own pleasure, with a particular focus on performance. Over time, the performers started carving some space for self-expression, and became bolder and bolder, eliciting some reactions. A pioneer of subversion in Singapore was Vincent Leow, who made an operation à la Manzoni, without even knowing of the precent, bottling his urine.
However strange all of those performances looked for the Singaporean public at the time (and I suspect even today), the real deal happened during the performance “Brother Cane” by Josef Ng in 1994, at Parkway Parade. The performance was conceived as a protest against the arrest and caning of twelve homosexual men, and consisted of caning slabs of tofu. Then the artist turned his back to the audience and snipped off some pubic hair. Here is the recollection of Professor of Live Art and Performance Studies Ray Langenbach:

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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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