It’s Not What It Seems, Or Is It?

By Candice Choong

It was a sign that brought me to an abrupt halt. Not an avid reader when it comes to viewing art, I prefer to let the pictures or objects do the talking. However, this was an exception. Boldly lit in neon orange and in capitalised font, there was no way I could resist the attention this sign warranted. Not wanting to waste too much time on words, I hurriedly skimmed the phrase, half anticipating it to be information about the exhibit. But I was wrong.

“THE WORK YOU ARE ABOUT TO VIEW IS OF A SPIRITUAL NATURE AND MAY BE UNCOMFORTABLE FOR SOME VIEWERS”.

Irony clouded the scene as I tried to reread and digest the warning. It puzzled me to think which artist would risk a decline in visitors for his work after numerous hours of painstaking effort. Then again, it could be a gesture of kindness to preempt what lies ahead, which may pose discomfort to some, given the ‘unorthodox’ genre he decided to venture into.

Scepticism stirred within. For a moment, I tried deciphering the message embedded in the sign. Surely it was merely harmless teasing on the artist’s attempt to elicit unnecessary fear for his audience. Moreover, the bright blue sky outside made a clear note. Like in many movies, it was almost impossible for the dwelling of spiritual beings in such conditions. I strode forward, silently accepting the challenge proposed by the artist.

A little further down, hung another sign, similar to its predecessor. This time, the words read: “ENERGY HAS BEEN CHANNELLED. FOR BETTER RESULTS SPRAY FOREHEAD.”

Two transparent bottles intricately decorated with motifs of gold-silver combination stood below. As I internalized the image that greeted me, any remnants of doubt vanished. The tinge of confidence I initially clung onto had morphed into apprehension. Perhaps malevolent spirits can exist in broad daylight. I shudder at the thought and immediately heeded the advice before entering the room. At that time, I had strayed from my group of friends and there was nobody else around. Heaving a deep breath and ensuring I was properly covered in the ‘protective’ fluid, I slowly inched past the edge of the room. It was not an easy movement, especially having to bear the unsettledness of the prior advice. My eyes were opened to allow glimpses of light through. It was a pose of ‘flight’, lest I became the innocent brunt of any aggressive blows thrown by those supernatural forces. If there was anything I have learnt when it comes to dealing with creatures of non-human origins, they only attack when provoked or offended.

To my huge surprise, the room was radically different to my imagination. There were no floating species. Neither were there any decorations to make the place look like the ‘House of Horrors’. Instead, lying flatly on the ground was an angular structure supported with metal tubes. From an aerial angle, it was a map depicting the artist’s star sign. At a more distant area, a peculiarly shaped glass sculpture stood atop two thin wooden planks. A black stone was placed at the centre of the entire geometric construction. Outside the ornamental setup was 108 neatly arranged translucent plastic bottles, all filled with water hitting the three-quarter meniscus. Red thread was the tangible connection tying together the aforementioned items.

Dane Mitchell has indeed understood, and succeeded in manipulating the human psyche of his visitors. The human driving force behind this installation titled The Dragon, The Purple Forbidden Enclosure has also evidently reflected his calibre in the art of language. It was the whole emotional roller-coaster, the silent struggles between head and heart, and the anti-climactic finality that rendered his work memorable, and worthy of lauding. This was albeit the simplistic arrangement and his choice of engaging common, ordinary objects. I marvelled at the cleverly strung phrases. It was indeed a controversial method, unlike most typical works that angled towards explaining the rationale or the content itself. It dawned on me the essential quality of language in the presentation and ‘packaging’ of art works. Somehow, it cannot be secondary to the creation, although we are extremely familiar with the cliché the latter (the ‘picture’ if you will) equates to a thousand words.

In addition, the Kiwi artist’s ingeniously planned layout enforced a certain route for visitors. This enhanced the illusion that the room was rather cluttered despite the minimal object presence. Red thread, as applied in the bounding, held a symbolic connotation. It’s frequently associated with birth and death in Chinese traditions.

But in the installation’s context, it suggested a different intention in engaging the viewers to explore the paradigm of relationships between people and within self. And there was no better portrayal than Mitchell’s piece. His play on the idea of relationships was elucidated by the dilemma viewers were trapped in as they deliberated whether to approach or withdraw. It’s also illustrated in the artefacts where some are rigid and others are fluid. Lastly, the use of space toys with the contrast of emptiness and capacity.

The room, as Mitchell claims, was assembled under the assistance of a local spiritual medium. However, knowledge of this is delegated below a refreshing revelation involving language and concept of tapping into the spiritual realm. Upon a second glance, it does lead one to wonder if the so-called energies he forewarned harboured a figurative meaning. It’s nothing beyond the emotional conundrums and conflicts built on the prior conceived idea.

Through the adoption of this provocative approach, the exhibit achieved its attempt to interact with the viewers. Those who tended to exercise caution, like me, would pause to deliberate if it was wise to continue the journey albeit the preamble. Others of the braver calibre may be challenged to uncover the authenticity of the signs. It may be possible that they relish in the thought of living to tell their first-hand encounters with the spiritual realm. All these responses, unbeknownst to us, were a communication between the exhibit and ourselves, and within ourselves. Snippets of elucidation include our deliberation for retreat or advancement, to attain psychological security with the ‘holy water’ or left to our humanly devices for defence, as well as the sudden plunge after discovering the truth.

The Dragon, The Purple Forbidden Enclosure is also a protype in marrying images and language. As mentioned earlier, the atmosphere takes on a more mundane note in the absence of the two attention-seeking signs. Inside the seemingly dilapitated building of the Old Kallang Airport lies a treasure of creative works. Some may be more conspicuous, as they have the advantage of size, texture, interaction. Such elements would, in a way, make them hard to ignore. But there are those which lurk on corners, staircase edges and walls. These works can be found if the viewer metciulously notices them (they were by the artist Nedko Solakov, through his local ‘medium’ Liao Jiekai). And to erase any mistaken conceptions, they are not acts of vandalism, but scribblings coated with a sense of humour and puns. “Cable car for little people”, one might read, placed neatly below two ‘stick people’ perched on a slightly portruding surface.“The Noose”, another said, accompanied by a picture of a hanging man.

But there was only one I sincerely lauded with an immense burst of silent applause.

Written in black marker ink on the not-so-pristine surfaces was the phrase “Liquid containing many minerals you need”. If I could freeze time and dichotamise the reactions that bubbled upon registering the message, the first thought flitting past my mind began with the word “What?”. It was curiosity, on my part, to solve the mystery, to find out the nutritious liquid. There was a transient switch to the urge to perhaps, scour supermarkets and pharmacies for the beverage too (a desire I have innately as a health-conscious person).

My eyes peered up to the object seated majestically before the phrase and my lips curved to a smile. It was something available almost everywhere, accessible to almost everyone, and it may be considered the most economical fluid. Yet, the benefits swimming in the liquid cannot really stand as a contentious point. After all, it was a commodity we need it everyday, while taking it for granted at times too.

A plastic bottle of water.

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Filed under Dane Mitchell, Open House Notebook

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