Art for learning, more than appreciation

By Quek Jia Liang

Artists in the news by Koh Nguang How is one of the best pieces in the Singapore Biennale. Local in its origin, it highlights the state of art in Singapore, while challenging notions of where art exists. More than a pure appreciation of beauty Koh presents to us an art that is both an expression as well as a tool to highlight the knowledge that is forgotten in our world. Here is an art for learning, more than appreciation.
How can one understand this piece of work? Stepping into the exhibition one will be astounded by the spectacle before you, here is a room with newspaper lining every wall, stacked upon the floor, a bewildering amount of printed information which we mostly fail to confront in our daily routines. Showing how much our experience with the printed medium has dwindled in this digital age. The knowledge here is almost boundless and presented to us like a spectacle of our ignorance, of the things we throw away and only fragmentarily remember, to be left on print, permanently inscribed in the history of words printed, seen but forgotten.
On closer inspection one realizes that here presented before us is not just a barrage of fragmented ideas but specifically the many newspapers that mention art, from the 1980 to our current day. News of the art that coexists with news of poltical agendas, news of budgets, entertainment, news of an absurd tabloid nature, news that deserve a mention, news that doesn’t.
So art is not so foreign from life after all. But why do we know so little? Is it just entertainment? Or are there critical ideas and notions charting our growth as a nation? So much news was written about the art, but how little do we know? How much of our history of art in Singapore have we forgotten? To be buried in the incredible pace of life; though the media overwhelms us but how often can we see it being unraveled?
In this gallery space, in the form of an installation, Koh Nguang How presents to us an altar of his wish for us to learn and remember. We circumambulate it absorbing the words. Here is an expression of artistic obsession manifested through the relentless collection and archiving of news; not selectively chosen but raw newspaper left uncut.
He transforms the mundane found pieces of information into forms of personal expression; stepping deeper into his space, flowers bloom upon the floor, constructed of newspaper, pencils, markers, of all colours. Strange objects constructed of paper.  A mushroom cloud cascading as it falls upon the floor with news of disasters and earthquakes. A strange bipedal creature with a wheel for legs; surfing across the room, carrying news of animals and news of art upon its back. Leaves of paper falls in between cracks, growing with time, transforming.
Here is a utopian world, Koh’s personal garden of Eden, where the art and news flower and grow. He is not the master of this world, but its gardener, plucking and trimming the parts and pieces that are out of place, giving a purpose to these newspaper forms, lending them meaning for us to understand each creature’s form and purpose. The news are not just information but a source of deep historical knowledge that is so often forgotten. The preciousness of such knowledge is manifested into a visual form. We are but the invited guests to harvest this rich bounty that he has farmed. He shows us that in these words lies the signifiers and clues to understand not just the art objects he present to us, but also clues to understand our contemporary world in Singapore as well. He yearns to make art come alive. Art is like nature to him. A reflection of our need to speak not purely through words, but in a visual form
At the end of one wall lies an old steel rack, on it is an opened monthly publication; a page of a newspaper dated from the 1980 “Art for learning more than appreciation” is its headline, a piece about Tang Da Wu’s Earthworks. A work lost in the history of time. Beside the rack are two large Chinese letter “工 地”,  a flip of the original title to “work earth” or a construction site. This changes the whole context at which one understand this work, no longer are we but innocent harvesters of such knowledge but participants in a construction process of putting together knowledge into a cohesive whole with which one starts to ponder about the nature of art portrayed in the media. Is art truly seen as a tool for learning? Do we even try to learn something from works of art? How do we as viewers harvest this bounty and keep it growing?
This is a work of an intensely private nature, where the abundance of ideas are derived from the intricate details within the news. Here our naivety is made obvious, and so is our lacking of a cohesive canon in Singapore art. It critiques the media portrayal of art itself.  Such is the intricate web which Koh Nguang How has woven among the many pieces of information. Therefore it takes a viewer time and patience to unravel the many fragments of this work to see his underlying intentions, and meanings. For me I see his presence in the gallery space as being part of a performative act of art. He becomes part and parcel of his art object, where the depth of ideas and thought processes can only be further brought to light by the gardener of the space itself. Though one may not be able to unravel the meanings and significance, one can stand in awe at the amount and obsession his passion creates. The little signifiers he derives from the mundane words on paper, still does give the keen observer all the clues to make sense of the immensity of the spectacle.
One leaves this installation, half overwhelmed, half in awe, deeply pondering upon the little elements of our daily world that we take for granted, knowledge left forgotten amidst the piles sent to the karung guni. Koh has succeeded in many ways to provoke thought in us not just in the visual beauty that he has leant to mundane objects but in the idea that such mundane timeless knowledge deserves to be relooked and contemplated upon.

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Filed under Artists in the News, Open House Notebook

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