Category Archives: Deutsche Scheune/German Barn

Deutsche Scheune (German Barn)

Deutsche Scheune (German Barn), Elmgreen and Dragset, SB2011. Photo Credit: Muhammad Fareez Bin Ahmad

By Jacqueline Ambrose

As we approach the hanger, we immediately take notice of its sheer size. We know hangars to be big, of course, since they house planes. But for that reason it makes the barn look small… or does the barn make the hangar look big? It’s merely a matter of perspective. The deliberate placing of an irrelevant object like the barn inside a huge hangar makes one slight the barn at first. Unintentionally of course, because what is big will always capture the attention of the audience first.

We can’t help but let a guilty pleasure wash over us. The artworks viewed in the main building, the East wing and the West wing of the Old Kallang Airport are all next to each other, neatly packed, organized and orderly. It builds up a kind of tension within, a tension that causes you shortness of breath. It’s subtly suffocating, but one doesn’t notice because she’s too busy looking at all the art, it was as though she forgot to breathe. Suddenly, this tension is released with the overwhelming space of the hangar. It feels like freedom, the refreshing sort. One can finally draw a deep breath, and after sighing in relief, return to the real reason for our entering the hangar in the first place.

And there it is, standing in the midst of spaciousness.

The placement of the barn strikes as an oddity in a hangar. Of all places, of all things even, why? It’s unnatural. Just as the hangar gives us a sense of awe, the barn gives us a sense of curiousness, at an equal depth. And the synergy of these two elements heightens the entire experience. You feel caught between the space of these two elements that are the opposite of each other yet equal. Caught between wonder at the hangar the desire to see the barn, but to enter the barn means ‘leaving’ the hangar, the newfound freedom, only to be contained by a barn. It would that seem at this point, however impossible we know it in our minds to be, the hangar has now become a part of the artwork, and in truth, the space it stored.

The curious space created between the hangar and the barn also provides respite. It seems highly likely that the barn is be one of the last pieces to be seen on the site. It is important to have a space of quiet, unadulterated peace to clear ones mind of past things and really get absorbed into the art. When ready, enter the barn and awaken the senses with the smell of hay and the sight of live subjects lounging around.

Just before entering the barn, the angle that the doors are opened to reveals another telling point, that placement is critical in this piece and deserves to be thought about. The half opened doors don’t let you see what’s inside from far away, only by getting close enough (that’s about one foot from the barn) would one be able to see what was in the barn. A clever ploy to prevent misconceptions of any kind till one saw it directly.

According to the ‘Youth Text’ on the wall, it’s black and white design symbolizes the colonial houses still in Singapore and it questions the validity of its existence. The colours of the German barn certainly create the colonial look, and the artists want to explore how the previous power has become irrelevant, just like the barn in the hangar. The clash of a historical idea with modern context is just as jarring as a German barn in an abandoned Singaporean hangar.  They simply do not belong. And yet in both not belonging, in not having a real purpose, they begin to resonate with each other. This fluid creation of similarity and difference is all the more poignant with the curious space acting like a viscous liquid separating the two elements.

And all the while we enter the barn wondering what the sheep would have sounded and smelled like if it was actually alive. Something else stirs, it’s the realisation of the living mixed with dead. On the hay are living Asian boys, no more than teenagers, dressed up in traditional German farmer outfits, and then you have the goat, frozen in motion, chewing hay. The barn was so artificial yet the smell of hay was so real, and then of course the living boys who sat there. The rest of the things certainly were real, in the sense that they were tangible, and yet they made no sense in Singapore, and therefore it feels fake. If however, this barn were visited in Germany, one wouldn’t think twice about it being real or authentic.

The real issue here is that placing an authentic German barn in another context, renders it artificial and it loses its original meaning. It creates an alternate meaning however, and one that flows with purposes in Singapore.

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Homoerotic Imagery in the German Barn

Deutsche Scheune/German Barn (detail), Elmgreen and Dragset, 2011

By Kelvin Atmadibrata

Dressed in lederhosen, bare-footed and lying on a huge heap of hay, three other boys and I became German farm boys for an installation piece by artists Elmgreen and Dragset, entitled Deutsche Scheune or German Barn, in the Singapore Biennale 2011.

Two evenings before the Biennale’s opening at the Old Kallang Airport, Ingar Dragset, one half of the duo, was in town and had booked us for a photo and video session. This was largely unknown to most visitors despite the performers being present every weekend during the biennale.

On the surface, the German Barn is described as a cultural response to the black and white villas in Singapore. However, when perceived with greater sensitivity, this installation projects a commentary on homophobia. There are three main aspects in Elmgreen and Dragset’s work that insinuate the underlying erotic references of the piece; the physical and cultural context of the barn itself, references to animal imagery, and lastly, the German farm boys.

Deutsche Scheune/ German Barn, Elmgreen and Dragset, 2011

The barn as a physical structure specifically erected for the event reveals erotic impressions. A review by Designboom likens the German Barn to an exotic homosexual paradise. This is apparent in typical gay pornographic films, which utilize a barn or countryside farm as a setting. The stale air and claustrophobic environment of the enclosed barn allude to the sexually charged atmosphere of these films.

During the opening night, a straight couple attempted to bribe us into letting them have the barn to themselves for 15 minutes. They were readily rejected, but we could tell they were turned on by the erotic connotations attributed to the barn. Apart from its ability to arouse, the barn also suggests a basic physiological need for shelter. It takes on the almost patriarchal role of protecting its inhabitants,, highlighting a prominent sense of masculinity.

Then there’s the presence of the animal figure, a stuffed white goat.  Placed within the barn, it references Monogram, the work of another gay artist, Robert Rauchenberg. In Rauchenberg’s piece, the goat is shown with a tyre constraining its belly. Conversely, Dragset portrays the tyre as broken, implying that the goat is now free. If Monogram – created in 1955-1959 prior to the Stonewall riot – was a reflection of sexual suppression, Dragset’s response could be the representation of sexual liberation today.

A similar parallel can be drawn in comparison to the local context. In an interview with art fanzine Mancrush, the duo explained how they came up with the concept of the German Barn.

“Singapore is purely urban and has no agriculture. It is also rather homophobic so we assume there must be a link between homophobia and the lack of farm land”.

In this case, the observation about the lack of agricultural land, which might seem slightly silly at first, points to a lack of sexual openness in Singapore. Done in a tongue-in-cheek manner, Elmgreen and Dragset’s commentary on this issue, which I believe to be intensely personal to them[1],finds its place in a self-declared conventional society through the use of humor and sarcasm.

The barn functions to store and feed animals like horses and steeds, which are at the same time, symbols of masculinity and virility.  Although the representation of the horse is not explicit, the space created within the barn is enough to suggest its presence. This is apparent from the horse saddle hung near the entrance, and the lederhosen that we were made to wear. One of us commented that he felt like a horse, dressed minimally and almost naked. The lederhosen as an article of clothing only covers the lower portion of the body, almost mimicking the horse saddle. This in turn amplifies the homoerotic element within the work of art.

The German farm boys. They are on site every weekend of the Biennale

Finally, there was us, the farm boys.

Dressed in suggestively homoerotic outfits, our role as farm boys became explicitly titillating, not unlike the stereotypical ‘twinky’ farm boys often featured in gay pornography. As part of the documentation process, we were also made to act out scripted scenes that although were not explicitly homoerotic, were suggestive of homoerotic imagery.

During the documentation shoot, Dragset directed the process and created scripts that took on a non-linear narrative. We were told to literally  ‘horse around’ with the hay and rakes. At one point, it became like a competition to see who could throw the most hay at once. These scenarios went on to include playing tricks on a sleeping farm boy and two boys fighting on a cart. It almost felt as if we were participating in the various forms of role-play common to the prelude to most ­­­gay porn.

Elmgreen and Dragset presented to the audience a group of boys belonging to various ethnicities in Singapore. This highlights the contradiction between Singapore’s supposed diversity and the prevalent homophobia that seems to exist in the country. Once again, the duo approached the issue with wit and subversive humor.

The presence of the physical body is an important factor to this work. I feel privileged to have been part of the piece and grew to appreciate it on a more personal level. We not only played the roles of entertainers and living sculptures, but also ultimately enhanced the homoerotic tone of the piece. Truly, the presence of breathing bodies adds movement and life to the otherwise static environment of the barn.

One of the other boys mentioned jokingly that the barn also functions potentially as a brothel. It is indeed funny how a seemingly innocuous text from the artwork caption (which dwells on the strangeness of a barn in Singapore) mischievously belies a homoerotic intention. It is even more fascinating that the work is one of the highlights of the biennale. Whether or not these sexual connotations are well-accepted by both the authority and the public–not forgetting Simon Fujiwara’s controversial Welcome to the Hotel Munber[2]–the German Barn definitely provokes more thought than meets the eye, or mere titillation of the flesh.

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[1]The artist created a permanent memorial installation for the homosexual victims of the Nazi regime. The installation is in Berlin, Germany and erected on May 2008. Source: Connolly, Kate (28 May 2008). “Germany remembers gay victims of the Nazis”. The Guardian (London: Guardian News and Media Limited). Retrieved 2011-04-16
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[2]Simon Fujiwara’s installation titled Welcome to Hotel Munber was censored by the Singapore Art Museum as it contains gay pornographic magazines. Source: Ng, Yi-Sheng (25 March 2011). “Simon Fujiwara: Censored at the Singapore Biennale 2011”. Fridae.com, Singapore. Retrieved 2011-04-16.

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Filed under Deutsche Scheune/German Barn, Elmgreen and Dragset, Open House Notebook