By Zhou Yibo
At the entrance of the room where artist Simon Fujiwara’s installation, Welcome to Hotel Munber is housed, is a sign that reads “Exhibition temporarily closed”. Beyond that grey rope which cordons off the corridor that once led the viewer into the pseudo bar, the lights are off and the wooden swing door is firmly closed, the only clue to what is displayed inside.
After inquiring about the situation from the museum staff, I found out that SAM had previously removed gay pornographic magazines from Fujiwara’s installation without his consent. The artist then decided to close his installation altogether as he and the Biennale management could not reach a consensus on how to display his installation without breaching Singapore’s censorship laws. I believe the sign means more than is indicated – it is another euphemism for censorship of the arts.
Censorship of an artwork in Singapore can mean several things. The artwork either encourages what might be deemed by some as immoral behaviour or itis highly controversial, or both. It may go against the doctrines of the government, something that the authorities feel will destabilize society and critique their policies. It may also reveal a taboo aspect of the society that some would prefer remains under the carpet.
According to The Straits Times, Simon Fujiwara’s installation contains graphic homosexual imagery, to the extent that it may seem to be obscene to certain viewers – gay pornographic magazines are displayed prominently and within reach of the viewers. As entrance to the Biennale imposes no age limit, children are viewed as susceptible to harmful contents presented in the installation. Thus, SAM argues that it sought to protect the well-being of the public by removing offending articles from the installation, making its action justifiable. But what I see is simply blatant censorship of art in a contemporary art event organised to position as an international centre and regional thought-leader in the field of visual art. Get the irony? SAM’s act of censorship demeans the philosophy behind the Singapore Biennale!
In an interview for the Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheetmagazine, Matthew Ngui, the artistic director of the Singapore Biennale 2011 said that he intends to “shape a biennale that is insightful, sharp and fresh, and part of this also means showing work that challenges the viewer enough to raise questions about life and art. This is recognised by the various boards, committees and those within the civil service, even if some are particularly conservative.” So, if the organizers have given the nod to controversial artwork being displayed in the biennale, why are they censoring it now?
A number of artworks which I’ve seen during the biennale contain disturbing contents but have not been censored. This brings me to another question: where does one draw the line between obscenity and art? Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation, the German Barn, proves to be a favourite among viewers. Hidden in a corner of the barn, besides a hanging apron, is a calender depicting nude farmers carrying out tasks such as driving a tractor and stacking hay. The artist duo’s employment of scantily clothed farm boys to be part of the barn suggests the homosexual content underlining their installation. However, the careful concealment of that calendar has sneaked past the eyes of censorship (and it isn’t sexually explicit anyway). Ryan Trecartin’s video installations at SAM show disoriented teenagers scream and slur their words at the camera. Saturated images and vulgarities collide to confront viewers with a disturbing reality of today’s fragmented society and media hungry youths. Although the videos are fraught with coarse language, Trecartin’s installation is let off only with a barely visible sign that warns parents of the explicit language. , Welcome to Hotel Munber too direct in its messages.
Having said that, Welcome to Hotel Munber contains multiple meanings. Some viewers believe Fujiwara is exploring the issue of homosexuality while others reckon that he not so much on sexuality but politics. Fujiwara supposedly juxtaposes the Spanish dictator Franco’s portraits with items that allude to homosexual behaviour, forcing the dictator to share a space with the very thing he supposedly detested and condemned. Fujiwara is challenging the extent of portraying taboo subjects in a society that shuns it. I am amused to note that SAM’s actions (as the artist himself pointed out) help to exemplify the intention of Fujiwara’s artwork: the control of freedom of expression through heavy censorship and right wing politics. It can almost be seen as an extension of his installation.
In Displays of Power: controversy in the American Museum from Enola Gay to Sensation, Steven C. Dubin examines censorship issues regarding Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary controversial exhibitions in the ‘90s. coined a phrase Homo Censoriousto describe the insistence on a single interpretation of an artwork. Those who would censor a work of art hold the work to a single meaning, and believe their interpretation of it to be the right interpretation and the only one. Conversely, multiple interpretations of Simon Fujiwara’s artwork can slow the impulse to censor it. By introducing alternative meanings, the viewer can arrive at different judgements and hence, have different ways to approach this controversy. The sexual imageries in Fujiwara’s artwork may be viewed from other perspectives and a solution can be derived for its resolution. Censorship is not the best answer to resolve conflicts over works of art.
I wholly believe that no one has the authority to censor art. Censorship undermines the integrity of the artist and his artwork, and restricts freedom of expression – the fundamentals of art making. Art is about the idea and artist questions doctrines. Censorship of the idea acts as a deterrent to future creative processes and kills any goal of nurturing creative minds in Singapore. Besides, art is supposed to be evocative, it ought to provoke and an artwork that leaves the viewer questioning its intention and the societal issue at large is an effective piece of art. Although displaying pornographic materials to the public is illegal here, if one is to consider them to be a form of art in this case, Fujiwara’s installation may not have been censored.
The Singapore Art Museum’s aim is to promote awareness and appreciation of contemporary art. By censoring Fujiwara’s artwork, it has failed to live up to its mission. Furthermore, poor communication among the organisers with the artist has resulted in this embarrassing incident. While the artist apparently chose to close his installation, we can only mourn the fact that it is actually censorship that killed the artwork.
Censorship ultimately reacts against itself. It encourages more interest in the censored artwork as opposed to condemning it. SAM’s censorship has helped to promote Fujiwara’s artwork and hopefully opened up our censorship laws for discussion. If SAM is truly acting in line with public morals and our pursuit to be a contemporary arts hub, it should approve of Welcome to Hotel Munber.The writer has not seen Simon Fujiwara’s installation and this critique is written based on various articles found online and her own interpretation of the sign at the entrance of the room.