Category Archives: Artists in the News

A Roof and Four Walls

By Guo Yixiu and Choo Jing Sarah


“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own. “ John Berger

Because this morning, someone told me how “blasphemous” it was.

Inexplicably awesome is what it is.

I walked into a room filled with these videos projected on all sides. “Kitsch!” I thought; the graphics seemed awful at first. There were furniture laid around the room; each piece (a sofa, a dining area and a bed), facing a particular video.

I wanted to walk away. I was not ready to sit myself through what seemed like a disappointment. As I attempted to brisk walk across the room, I could not help but have my eyes fixed upon the fast moving images, and their frequent bursts of neon colors.

Eventually, I sat down, willing for a chance to be surprised. I skipped the bed, (it felt too personal), and sat on the sofa instead. I put on the headpiece and started listening. High pitched sounds flowed into my ears; reminding me of that horrible Akon song, “Lonely”.  The voices were half singing, half speaking. I realized that I was in some teenage girl’s room. ‘Yikes’. There was no central character. Just these girls in conversation (they were often scolding one another or were upset about something). It was like watching one of those Korean dramas mother watches, fused together with an ‘MTV’ video. Everyone within the video wore face paint or a costume of some kind. Graphics were often used to juxtapose to the videos. Basically, Trecartin used almost all and any kinds of graphics possible to obtain. They come in an array of shapes and sizes. They overlay, move and often included texts; sometimes internet lingos if necessary. Metaphors were aplenty! The act of smashing glasses, mirrors, and expelling their anger, wearing wigs, painting their faces, swearing, dancing and pretending.

Basically, all I am attempting to show here is that it is not at all easy to know what he is talking about. And like me, you would probably have forgotten (given a week or two) what the video was about in the first place. However, apart from most of the works in the Biennale, you’ll find yourself reminded of this, frequently.

The truth is, Trecartin is one of the few artists who understands and utilizes the media language amazingly. (Forget Pop Art and Andy Warhol; those are now high art). He is able to create a language that is current and relatable to our current day.  His video utilizes the strength of current music, and are highly kinetic; bombarding the viewers with a frenzy of images in a rhythmic fashion. What is so significant is that the visuals work so well with the sounds. It works! It works because this is exactly the kind of environment which people relate to today, as we all lead our fast paced lifes. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times once wrote an article entitled “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus” . As the title suggests, Kimmelman noticed the trend where the experience of going to a museum, has been transformed into a quick, snap and go. Whether this is good or bad is not important to our discussion of the artwork here. But in relevance to Trecartin’s work, it definitely supports his work with the demand of a new language that speaks to the people.

In being able to connect to a viewer through the language of the medium (see how I sat down, though I had intended to move on). The viewer then begins to absorb certain parts of the work. Trecartin again, succeeds here by ensuring that metaphors stand out more than the storyline itself, so the first and most important thing you’ll leave with are those metaphors. In doing so, one does not simply absorb the visuals, but rather, easily retains them as well.

I could be discussing Trecartin’s work in greater depth here. But I do not think it is important to refer to those ideas here (family, society, individualism mass media etc.) After all, how much can anyone ever know about a work? How much time would an average person, holding a full time job etc., be able to look into it? Has the Biennale not always been about “impressions”? If the artist were to be able to implant strong impressions, would it not thus be more effective? Trecartin had said himself “time is altered to enhance and encourage felt experience”. People need not get his work. Perhaps he could be the only person in this “Whole Wide World” to really understand it. There’s nothing wrong with that. Works can and should be personal. Yet to be able to leave a room, feeling as though you had an immensely tense, but queer experience that leaves you lingering thinking about it for days; now that’s something.

On top of that, like many other great works out there, it utilizes the strategy of subjectivity. You cannot be objective with his work. It is so personal to an extent that you would either love or hate his work. Either way, you leave with a thought and a feeling.


Because this morning, someone told me it was ‘inexplicably awesome’.


I was jolted awake by rapidly moving images and bizarre characters attacking from all four corners of the room. Watching from the doorway, reflections from several pairs of glazed eyes exposed Ghoulish characters trapped within a mass of static and blurs. Their faces stained; their bodies distorted. The thick application of dirty white and gawdy pink paints was smeared on their faces; like that of Picasso’s unwashed palette. Like ‘oh-my-god-save-me-now’. I was trying hard not to look at the screen.  Strained and exhausted, I focused on getting past this room filled with flashes of neon pink and dirty yellow. The subtle yet lingering nag of the repetitive musical instrumental aggravated the intense throbbing in my head. Hysteria.

The only thing inviting amidst this disorientated cluster of moving images was represented in the form of furniture. Yes, couches, chairs and even a bed. Succumbing to the enticing and possible satisfaction which this couch could bring, I acceded to watch this visual mass in hope of finding some form of epiphany which might change my perception of what seemed to be a self indulgent film. And yet, the minute I put on my headphones and looked ahead, I was confronted with a sensory assault.

It is the theatre of the absurd and cruelty. Not my cup of tea.

By now, I had forced myself to watch the disturbing, and “visually narrative time sculptures”, at least three times. And whilst I felt as if I had been run over by about 40 trucks, hammered on the head 27 times and stabbed in the stomach 12 times; I am no where nearer to understanding the reason behind such a disconcerting production.

Gaudy pinks and greens were discomforting.  It was perhaps the combination of such De Kooning hued makeup on attention-demanding youths that leads one to relate his work to that of an amateur. The experimental nature of Trecartin’s works puts one’s opinions to the extreme. I cannot deny that there might have been moments of illusive proficiency; where the peculiarity of his cast and their improvisatory abilities made for utter brilliance. However, there were just as many, if not more moments that came off as mannered and exasperating; like the persistent and jarring antics of an overindulged and over stimulated child.

Throughout the repetitive videos, I saw the same motifs and style present in all of them. Perhaps this dread and revulsion one experiences is the desired effect; to exemplify contemporary culture’s ludicrous aspects through the combination, into one “loathsome beast”.  I’d rather, however, Trecartin tell me something which I don’t already know.

About a third into the second video, it finally dawned upon me that the type of seating complimented the length of his video works. Indeed, the furniture brings about different intensities of comfort according to the duration of suffering which one has to endure. From bleachers in front of the shortest film to a consoling Queen Sized bed in front of a 40 minute video.

Sprawled across the bed, I found this all too familiar. One’s begging mind and struggling limbs desperately trying to break free amidst this fully conscious experience. Like my first encounter with sleep paralysis.

Whilst I appreciate the subtle nuances in the layering of his videos, I was rather appalled by the display of Trecartin’s films in a museum. The overlaying tunes and distorted, fast paced voices speaking what might be interpreted as Gibberish, served to be entertaining on a certain level; like that of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” which proved to be a big hit.  Yet, I find myself questioning the value of art in his videos. Perhaps his works should remain on online spaces such as Youtube, instead of being brought to an exhibition space. In addition, one observes that a rather spacious area has been dedicated for these jittering moving images accompanied by shrill voices and high pitched laughter. This unique combination of Duchamp and Warhol taking up such a generous amount of space thus provokes much controversy.

Indeed Trecartin’s work tests the boundaries of creative practice. I am sure he applies a dense and precise focus on editing and the meaning generated by those edits. Hence, I shall not compare his work with fellow video artists Kalup Linzy  and Pipilotti Rist. Trecartin’s intent for his work to have a ‘lack of distinction in binary terms’ , certainly proved to be successful. The ‘ride-like digestion of the story’(according to Mr Trecartin himself) exemplifies his ability in achieving his intent. Yet in effectively conveying his message, I would say his language ‘so does not work for me’. It is really not all that fantastic and I am only relieved to not have to go through this experience all over again.


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Filed under Artists in the News, Open House Notebook, Ryan Trecartin, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Biennale 2011

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

Martin Creed and his 39 metronomes

39 Metronomes line-up, Photo By Loh Bi Ying.

by Loh Bi Ying

When the word ‘metronome’ is mentioned, we often would not think about something beautiful, let alone an art work. Yet Martin Creed has effortlessly blended metronomes with music and art. Setting this art work in a particularly interesting environment, he makes something simple stand out amongst the other forms of art work pertaining to music or some element of music in the space.

The uniqueness of the piece is accentuated by that fact that it creates a rustic sound produced by knobs and gears which makes it much more organic compared to an artificially produced sound through electric boards, wires and metals. At the other end of the exhibition space, is an artwork by Rubén Ramos Balsa – in another discrete area – which shows an orchestra of street musicians from different places playing their instruments on small MP3 players. And it really seemed quite empty. While an orchestra is supposed to resonate throughout the space, the notion of the MP3 players with videos doesn’t do justice to the majestic sound that an orchestra produces.

However, the simple sounds of the metronome actually echo throughout the space, and have a unique identity. The presence of the background ‘music’ fused with the surroundings of the Old Kallang Airport, so that one would not notice its existence, is what attracted me to this piece. It accentuates the surrounding sounds like the wind and leaves rustling so that I mistook it’s sound as being part of the natural environment.

It was only when I ventured further into that space and looked below eye level, that I noticed the metronomes, ticking in their own world, swaying in their own space, oblivious to their surroundings, ticking like a clock. As a group of metronomes, as a lone metronome – in different speeds but coming together. It may seem that the different speeds of the metronomes will be somewhat un-unified and initially come across to most visitors as a mass of sounds. Yet, the continuous pace of the ticking soon “dissolves” into a piece of sound that has its own identity – like a rhythm – with the intersection of the beats of a 130BPM metronome with a 50BPM one.

This intersection intrigues me: Sensitive to sounds and rhythm, I could hear the change in rhythm when some of the metronomes stopped ticking; the metal bar suspended in mid air seemed like someone had pressed a pause button. It happened often and especially to the ones with 200 BPM – ticking the fastest – and when the ‘bunch’ of the faster ones stop, it seems that the time around me slowed down. The only metronomes left ticking are the slower ones – each of their metal bars swaying from left to right slowly, tracing a slow semicircle arc. Surprisingly, the sound ‘melts’ in the atmosphere where it becomes much quieter – the slow tick-tock resonates in the atmosphere like a sharp sound as the metal bar ‘cuts’ through the air.

The thing about metronomes is that they need to be wound up often and the faster ones probably need to be would up every two hours. The slower ones can last as long as 5 hours. That is why most of the time the only tick-tock sounds left are the slow ones. The artwork requires constant winding and this reminded me of grandfather clocks or clockwork toys: time comes to a standstill when the clock stops. Toys stop moving and they seem to be frozen and stuck in a moment of time. The winding up of the metronomes also reminded me of the process of starting over –  accentuated with the action of it being picked up, wound and then put back down again where it ‘unfreezes’ and carries on like nothing happened. It’s also like taking something away from the environment, and giving it a new life. When it is put back down, the whole cycle starts again — but there is something different. The rhythm differs from before. The piece of sound will no longer be the same as what was heard previously.

There is something to look forward to every time the metronome is rewound. It is unpredictable, unexpected and contains an element of surprise that keeps me standing there, staring at the metronomes; expecting one to be suddenly brought to a halt by the mechanism so I can hear  another piece of the ‘composition’. During that moment, I felt compelled to take the metronomes up and reset all of them, just to see what kind of ‘music’ it will produce. Or perhaps, to alter the speed of them. Yet, I was struck with the idea to not disturb the ‘music’ that was created by accident.

Martin Creed probably created this artwork — or I should call it music – because of his past. As a musician, metronomes signify beats and constant pacing in life and it could mean something important to him as a lot of his artworks refer to his past experiences.

Perhaps the metronomes and their beats help us keep track of happenings in our life – like a conductor in a symphony, like a marker that reminds us of certain things that should happen at certain times. Or certain things that should not happen. It serves as a reminder of not losing track of time and oneself – but to be aware of our time, not to be stuck in a moment of time like clockwork, but to keep on moving – similar to the metronomes when they really try to ‘propel’ themselves when they are stuck – waiting for someone to rewind the mechanism to make them start. Perhaps, we just need a push by someone, a motivation to make sure we stay on the right track.

Then again, nobody knows. The point is not about really understanding the artwork, but about feeling it. And that is what Martin’s Creed and his 39 metronomes really gave me. There is something more about it than just an audio-visual artwork. It might sound like exaggeration, but Martin Creed breathes life into the metronomes.

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Filed under Artists in the News, Auditory, Martin Creed, Old Kallang Airport, Open House Notebook

Entering The Archive

Artists in the News, Koh Nguang How, 2011, SB2011. Photo taken by: Lim Woan

By Celene Chia

A nondescript black door with a small plate outside denoting the contents of the room: it wasn’t enough to prepare me for the size of this collection. The moment I pushed past the door, and into the room, I was overwhelmed. Articles decorate the otherwise plain walls of the room, neatly lined up and placed beside each other. How many newspaper clippings could there be in this room? It would be a huge pain to count them all, and an even more trying experience to absorb all the information in them. I just stood there, eyes darting around, not sure of where to start off this visit.

The room is small, slightly split into two, one of which having less articles on its walls. This smaller alcove is also the one that greets the visitors first when they enter the room. Perhaps it is the meaning of the artist to not intimidate casual visitors the moment they enter this unconventional archive. It was from there  I stepped up closer and began to read through the articles.

When had I last taken such care to read through news articles? Global news, current affairs, and last but not least, the comics section. There is no need for me to know about Art in Singapore, it is not important to me, it will not affect my life. But now, with all of these stories placed right before me, there is no choice but to slowly read through them, and understand. Understand what is their purpose here, what stories they seek to tell to ignorant Art-illiterates like me, and what Koh, the artist, is trying to tell through them.

Bilingual pieces, some in English, and some in Chinese. Most of them dated back to the 1980s, the age where I had not existed yet. What was it like back then? Eyes darting from one article to another, I tried to piece together a past that I had never lived through.

In 1980s, budding local artists would have no choice but to learn Chinese ink calligraphy. That was the style that was popular then, and perhaps the style that sold well. Buyers, prompted by the extensive coverage on the papers, rushed to buy such pieces too. There were even guides present to teach them ‘How to Dress up a Chinese Painting’, so the market must have been ripe for it. But what about the western styles of painting? Were they as popular? ‘History Revealed in Art’, France’s history to be exact, believes that such styles could be popular here, as informative pieces. Local artists that picked up such a style would fall into obscurity, having little coverage on the traditional printed media.

Weaving the silent tale, I found an article slightly obscured by another. Shifting it, its pins loosened, causing the article to fall upon stacks of what that had seemed like cardboard from the first glance. Lifting one up, it revealed itself to be a folder of clippings, cut out from the newspapers. These pieces are lonely, amputated from their bodies, and caged up in these cardboard boxes so resembling the table coverings. Would others have noticed them and stop to take look? Would I have stopped to take a look?

In the end, I was distracted. After all, there are too many of such folders lying on the tables. To look through every single one of them, I am sure I would not be able to absorb everything in them. And for someone who seldom reads-

There is a tiny dictionary. A really small and thick one. Hidden under a castle-like structure made of cardboard, with several articles lying on top of it. A Baby’s Dictionary, it claims to be. Perhaps the publisher had high hopes for his children. But what could it be there for? Flipping through it, there seemed not to be anything interesting to it, except for its size and its intended audience, and I placed it back carefully into its place. A dictionary, a treasure amidst newsprint? I can only wonder.

The other, larger section of the room is more crowded. Chairs to sit on, tables to rest on, papers to draw on, and a video installation of arts, although it is made up of pictures and captions. The archive here is also larger, with newspapers pinned on from feet level to way above hair level. If the previous section is still not daunting enough, we have articles staring up at us from our feet, and articles staring down at us from high above. And together with all the articles between them, it is a huge challenge to the reader.

Should I just breeze through the titles of the articles? Do I have the time, and will, to read through every single word in the articles, and understand what they are trying to say? If only reading could be as easy as leaning against the wall and letting the knowledge diffuse into my body. But only with effort would one be rewarded with knowledge. And so I got onto my knees, proposing for the articles at ground level to impart what stories they have, to an utter stranger like me.

At first, there was censorship. And it will always be an issue to all artists, so beware, and tread carefully. Then there was the decision to nurture the Arts scenes, perhaps that is why the Life section of the Straits Times is growing. Well, that very same year, an art gallery closed down due to lack of buyers, but plenty of browsers. The next year, 1993, Tan Pin Pin’s works were judged by one to be ‘not art’. Would these have happened in this day and age; a decade (and more) capable of changing mindsets?

Perhaps I should start paying more attention to arts coverage to know. Next-

The very easily excitable volunteer at the museum told me, the artist of this piece, Koh, is back from his lunch break. A kindly old man, no, perhaps he is just middle aged, he is the one who started this archive. There is a faint resemblance of him to those karang guni men who often wanders by my house, ringing their bells and proclaiming their occupation to others. Pushing those trolleys, they collect bundles after bundles of newspapers and other sellable ‘trash’ from others’ homes for a few pennies. But Koh is different from them. He only collects articles of artists in the news, not merely heaps of newspapers. He puts them in protective transparent folders, and pins them up neatly on the walls, although, he says, it pains him to put holes on his collection. A friendly man, dressed casually in a T-shirt and pants, we began talking about his work.

Koh, the hard working student, had an assignment in Junior College to do a news article write-up about a particular artist in the news. Grumbling, he flipped through the newspapers during breakfast, and chose an article at random.

“Yes, I shall be writing on this artist!” And so he did, clipping up the article neatly, and pasting it beside his writings. Impatiently waiting for the glue to dry, he flipped through the mutilated article again. Another artist caught his eye, and he bent down to read more.

“Hey, Koh, want to join us for football?” And as the energetic youth rushed out to play, the article gets thrown to the back of his mind, and the papers sadly thrown into the bin, forgotten.

Then, came the day when the teacher returned them their assignments. A huge 10/10, together with a ‘Great Work’ stamp greeted Koh as he nonchalantly flipped his book open. In shock and awe he stared at those foreign marks of his. Never had he gotten so high a grade for this kind of assignment, and this historic event marked his loving archive of artists in the news, in hopes of excelling in such a topic again.

Perhaps it was a tale similar to this, perhaps not. But as we parted, my brain aching from the amount of information that I’ve gathered on this day, I know that I will be back again. There are still other stories untold, both the newspapers’ and Koh’s. Before this biennale ends, I hope to learn of them, and perhaps even of that curious little baby dictionary hidden in the room. That curious little book is bugging me. Hmmm…

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Filed under Artists in the News, Koh Nguang How