By Muhammad Faisal
It’s Just A Bar!
I found myself extremely excited visiting SAM, one day. I was looking forward to see Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to Hotel Munber in its censored entirety; never having a chance to see it unvandalized. Correction, I never had a chance to see it; full stop. I was hoping, also, to gain some explanation regarding this art-eration fiasco.
Welcome to Hotel Munber is… well… was an installation by a Japanese-British artist, Simon Fujiwara. It is an erotic novel set in 1970s Spain under the dominion of General Franco; in a reproduction of a bar at the hotel of the artist’s parents. He had realized this “novel” into an experiential installation where the stories are everywhere. Either hidden in subtle sexually connoted imagery or simply the explicit, he managed to imbibe eroticism; both the visual and literary. Sausages hanging in abundance. Penetrating bullhorns. Erotic literature pasted on succulent ham. Homoerotic photographs. Well, so I’ve heard and seen online; for, like I have said before, I have yet to see it. Displayed, also, was a genre of homosexual erotica we so easily brand as Pornography. Those were removed, of course. It was apparently SAM’s decision as stated in the 28 March 2011 Straits Times article, MUSEUM CENSORS EXPLICIT ART WORK.
Ask the artist first? Why should we? What does it matter that he spent sweat and blood to bring to life his possibly Magnum Opus, in which he invested both emotions and nostalgia. Why should we care? As long as the imaginary public is safe and laws are not broken. Ask the artist? Why should we. Apparently that was what SAM (without being too specific) felt.
I had to see it! I pasted my purple I AM MADE FOR SAM sticker and headed straight to the installation: EXHIBIT TEMPORARILY CLOSED
I enquired at the museum’s front desk. The bespectacled lady told me “… Under Maintenance… don’t know anything. It’s the Biennale curator’s decision.”
I continued interrogating this dubious docent. Where could I find out more? The Biennale’s Curator? Or his office? Surely he has people working for him. “He isn’t Singaporean,” she replied. Puzzled and unsure how that was even a reply, I requested on how I could find out when it would be reopened. She responded evasively, “It’s just a bar!”
Then why censor it.
And so I would have to write this piece of criticism without ever having seen the fabled installation.
I walked out, peeled the purple sticker, and trashed it.
Make War Not Sex: Fight Against Erotic Terrorism
It’s officially under maintenance and unofficially closed, while the artist and the museum figure things out. It is ironic how the action of maintenance should involve an attempt to keep things as they are; not changing them. And the fact that the dear docent had, on behalf of the museum, told me that it was closed and “under maintenance” after it had already been altered, is an excuse I can’t help but laugh at; wouldn’t you?
When it was only censored (not yet closed), the “Museum” had expressed that the work would not be appropriate for the public. Yet it was shown, porn and all, during private viewings. Who decides? “They” used the law as their gospel, yet if that is the case, should it not be the same for those private viewings? I mean, I know nothing about law, however, I find this double standard reminiscent of the Pompeii rediscovery and excavation in the 1800s. How the supposed scholars and gentlemen assumed that the lesser minded women and lower classes will not be able to view the erotic works objectively. So they hid all the penetration, penises and pudenda in the “Secret Museum” where only they, the educated, can “study” them. I do not wish for my wild and judgmental mind to fester on that thought; too unsettling. Note that these men eventually gave the word pornography its meaning as we now know it.
My point was to question, who gave them (SAM) the authority to choose for the public. What gives them (who obviously had to have seen the uncensored work first; thinking they have a moral distance from baseness) the right to indulge in unadulterated art and not the public?
And why is this prejudice against images of sexual nature not given also to images of violence? Louie Cordero’s pink murders too have warning signs to prepare viewers for the kitschy massacre. Yet still, it received no cleaning up from the public-conscious museum. And in a second floor gallery, I recall seeing photographs of people being murdered, lynched and hanged. I saw no warning signs for that. Hugh Heffner, the father of Playboy once said, “I think one of the great sadness is the fact that the very notion of obscenity is connected to sex, instead of to violence. Why (are) the most loving part of our nature and images related to them are considered obscene? (This) suggests very strongly that we a have a very cockeyed view of what is really moral.”
We have to protect the public; an argument I’ve heard before. Is Sex the new form of terrorism? Is Fujiwara’s Bar a threat? And I wonder, does the fact that it is gay in content (on top of being explicit) matter in why it was corrected?
Something tells me it does.
The Art Director As The Artist
It’s a strange concept where an art director has the power and control to change any artwork as He or She see fit; a scary notion to artists everywhere. I mean, art criticism is fine. But when the act of criticism involves corrections and possible changes to the work, the “museum” steals the role of the artist.
Guardians of our museums must remember their roles; respect the art, respect the artist. You are not the creator but the exhibitor; an equally and undeniably important responsibility. Put up your signs. Brand the works with warnings. Let people decide for themselves whether to love or hate the artwork.
There was clearly some fickleness as well, the fact that this issue did not happen from the very beginning, whatever the reason may be; morality or pressure. Should the museum have a clear stand from the start? Or is indecisiveness simply its virtue?
Open House Warming… Not Burning
Here, I implore anyone who cares to listen for a bit. Fujiwara, like many artists, invested his history into this one piece of work, in an attempt to tell us who he is; hoping that some people would connect with it. I am a student of the homosexual erotica genre; art and literature. I have been made to believe that it was immoral. Art that attacks us at the most basic of our nature, sexual arousal, I believe is wonderful. It is a direct connection to the viewer. Fujiwara’s work reminded me that sex is a beautiful human experience; we have forgotten that. The subtle and the explicit play together, letting your mind titillate itself in the process of decoding secret erotic messages; you are the naughty little child again.
And he was probably a child when he was at that bar in Spain. And before that, many other young men and women, while under General Franco’s reigned; told that sex and their sexuality were wrong. How many forms of erotic expression were condemned? And now, our youths, some of whom are scared being homosexuals and in need of self expression; reading and listening about how we so easily muzzle and burn what we effortlessly brand as indecent to the public. Think. Think before we allow them to hate their own voices.
They are listening.
We should listen too.
The Closed Open House
Ironically, this very act of censorship seems to be publicity for the work. It is all everyone talks about when it comes to the Biennale; taking all the attention from the other works and, in a way, censoring them from the public subconsciously. I recently spoke to one of my professors who gave a lecture once regarding multimedia and alternative writing. I told her about Fujiwara’s approach to writing in his Hotel Munber. She admitted that, due to her lack of knowledge regarding the Arts scene, she had not heard of him or his works. Then I said, “He got censored though.”
And her eyes widened as she grinned, “Oh! That art work!”
Also, it is undeniably apt, for the Fujiwara exhibit to be censored, for it tells of a time when erotica was banned during the Fascist regime. And so, the censorship added a depth to the meaning of the work; the tyrannical act of suppression still lives… here. However, one could also argue: what if you do not know the work was censored and you see it in its altered form? The added meaning might have been lost to you.
Well, of course, that was when it was simply censored. Now it had been totally closed and this development would undoubtedly “transform” the work. As someone who has yet to see it, I can admit that I am unsure of how the work is “truly” like; only second hand whispers and glimpses. The artist might have decided to close the work till a conclusion to this issue is found; an attempt to save his darling. Yet, this Invisible Work seems to have evolved; almost mythologized. It becomes infused with so much meaning and significance, even the political; me writing this is evidence enough. And all because it cannot be seen. When something is barred from the public, a fantasy will gild the work; like a Biennale Martyrdom. Whether that was the effect originally intended when the action was taken, does not seem to make difference. The work had still “grown” behind its closed doors.
The Hotel Munber by Simon Fujiwara is still closed. I called to check… everyday. That same “It’s-Just-A-Bar” lady picks up every time. However, I have been assured that it will be resolved soon; whether a green or red light is a different matter. Still doubting it, though.
Still, I’ve sadly yet to see it.
I am starting to think, for an Open House, it’s pretty Closed.
Post Cleaning: An Afterword
Writing this piece has been a little complicated for me. The main problem lies in discussing an art work I have not even seen. The closing of the Hotel Munber left a vacuum; a nothingness that saps attention away from the entire Biennale. And in its absence, people still address it. An irony, I have yet to settle.
It also makes you ponder on the transformative nature of an artwork; capable of changes over time and, of course, with actions acted upon it. This could probably be the only saving grace of what has happened.
So yes, how does one address the mentioned artwork when it has disappeared from access and from the Biennale? And in my case, how do you do it when you have not even seen it, censored or otherwise? Are the limitless libraries of photographs online sufficient? I tried to do it. I found myself investing my thoughts on what was happening to the work, instead of the work itself. Then, after laboriously writing “OPEN HOUSE CLEANING” I found myself asking, “Do I really like the Hotel Munber?” I couldn’t answer this. My affections for the piece, it seemed, stem from my disapproval of the injustice that it had been submitted to; not the work itself. I laughed at that notion. Could this absent artwork or any other censored, banned or “temporarily closed” work be at risk, being valued for what happened to them and, dare I say it, their scandal? And that it is less about the direct emotional reaction to the works and their meanings?
It made me think about whether we can criticise art that we have not seen in person; that the being in the presence of the work is a necessity. And if we focus too much attention on fighting censorship with pen on paper, we might not be fair to the work. We too might be glazing over it.
The open house might be closed. However, talking about the iron fences is not nearly close enough to talking about the masterpieces they protect us from.