Category Archives: Censorship

The Open House Cleaning

By Muhammad Faisal

 

The sign before the Welcome To Hotel Munber by Simon Fujiwara, 2011, SB2011. Photo by Muhammaf 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.

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Filed under Censorship, Open House Notebook, Simon Fujiwara, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Biennale 2011

You Are Not Welcome

Sign in front of Welcome to Hotel Munber, 2011, SB2011. Photo taken by: Zhou Yibo

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.

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Filed under Censorship, Open House Notebook, Simon Fujiwara, Singapore Art Museum

Private Affairs of the Sexually Repressed

Welcome to the Hotel Munber, Simon Fujiwara. Photo credit: Foo Danyu

By Florence Sjah

Disclaimer: I saw this work on 26th March 2011 and as far as I know the work had been ‘censored’ by that stage.

Outside the saloon doors of the installation, one’s curiousity is piqued by the sign at the wall, warning the viewer of the explicit content of the work. Hence our expectation is already raised even before we enter Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munber, making us believe that the work will contain strong sexual imagery. As it turns out, the installation looks like a typical Spanish bar. At the first glance, at least. After taking a closer look at it, we realize that among all the relics of Franco’s dictatorship, actually there are a lot of sexual innuendos cleverly hidden within the walls of this bar, for example hanging sausages, horns and broken eggs, and some of them are more obvious than others, such as pornographic images of men covering their naked bodies with Japanese fans. All of it are hinting at homosexual activities hidden behind the doors in this seemingly normal Spanish bar.

According to the artist, this bar was based of a hotel and bar that his Japanese father and British mother owned in Spain during Franco’s dictactorship. The installation was inspired by his parents’ stories about Franco’s opression towards the people of that period, and also by Franco’s right-wing censorship of pornography and homosexuality. Based on these stories, Fujiwara constructed an erotic fiction about a gay man living in that era and he potrayed his father as the main character, even before this installation came into being. Afterwards Fujiwara put pieces of his erotic fiction on some items in the bar, for example on a hanging pork leg. The fiction was written in the main character’s (his ‘father’) point of view as he spies on two men having sex, and this piece of information brings in an uncomfortable mix of politics, sexual repression and family history, bringing into question the artist’s relationship with his father.

Welcome to the Hotel Munber is interesting in the way Fujiwara lets the audience take a guess at his own personal history and biography, particularly because of his exaggerations of his parents’ stories and deliberaltely confuses the audience with combining facts and fiction. The audience is left speculating, how much of the artwork is reality and how much is exaggerated, and at the same still giving us an insight to his personality and sexual identity. He claimed that the main character is his father, and it is known that the artist is openly homosexual, so to picture his own father as the main character in a gay erotica is a brave, yet awkward venture indeed to familial sexuality.

It is interesting to note that in Fujiwara’s previous works, he had often connected architecture, memory and sexuality, and now he used the same themes again in Hotel Munber. The Spanish bar is full of his father character’s memories of suppressing his sexual identity during Franco’s regime, and this suppresion and memory manifest itself within the walls of the architecture. The closed space became the character’s testimony of his hidden sexual desire, and somehow it was futile for him to repress it, even when it was banned by conservative government, because it will just reemerge back to the surface.

Still, we will never know fully how much of this installation is true to reality, and this game of speculation is partly what makes Hotel Munber intriguing, because it is in human nature to be curious of other people. The viewer understands that Hotel Munber is supposed to be a fictional and somewhat intimate insight to the character’s mind, and on top of that the viewer will speculate whether this installation doubles as a private and personal insight to the artist’s own history. Undeniably there is something in this installation that is attractive to human being’s voyeuristic tendencies. Even though we know that the character is fictional, there is something terribly intimate to be given permission to take a look at someone’s private, taboo thoughts, especially since homosexual activity is illegal here in Singapore, whether in public or in private.

While on that topic, it seemed very ironic that this installation was essentially a cheeky prod at the Spanish government’s censorship of homosexuality, and now by a turn of fate, the Singapore Arts Museum (SAM) decided to censure Fujiwara’s work without his permission because it contained explicit sexual and homosexual imagery. Apparently the censorship was done shortly after the Biennale opened when SAM removed gay porn magazines that were tucked away. Fujiwara said the censorship made his installation to look almost like a ‘tribute to Franco’, and now the exhibition is closed, presumably by his request.

It’s very unethical for a museum to alter a work of art without permission of the artist, especially if this action changed the meaning of the work. This whole incident brings up the issue of censorship here in Singapore, and that certain institutions are still not as liberal as they want us to think. There have been a lot of debates between artists and the authorities concerning freedom of expression. If SAM censored because they were afraid of breaking the obscenity laws, they should have handled the case with more care towards the artist concerned, especially if they still want to retain a reputation as a supporter of contemporary art.

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Filed under Censorship, Open House Notebook, Simon Fujiwara, Singapore Art Museum