By Tan Wen Er
When I first stepped into the Old Kallang Airport (OKA) for the Singapore Biennale 2011, I discovered that the place exudes a lackluster feel that is almost not befitting an international arts exhibition. Brochures and pamphlets provided at the counter by the entrance were used later as makeshift fans, and subconsciously disregarded as anything else. It was appalling for me to realize how little effort had been made to spruce up a place where tourists and art-lovers might go.
The curators might have wanted us to experience the heritage of the site, but they did not necessarily have to torture the visitor with sauna-like conditions, only worsened by industrial fans blowing the heated air around us, everywhere we turn. In the late afternoon heat, the lack of structure in the layout of the exhibits made me feel stifled and confused. One must also not forget the inconsistent placement of the placards and what was written on them. At the top of the placard is the artist’s name and artwork, and below is a paragraph that describes the artist’s style and techniques. However, the curator added an unnecessary and repetitive paragraph below about the artist (the ‘Youth Text’), yet again.
“Should I go this way first? Or that way? Wait, where exactly am I now?”
These are the thoughts that I had when I first entered the exhibition venue at OKA. We’re encountered with columns upon columns of wire-mesh fences covered with paper. In a sense, these columns visually bombard the viewer and the state of the ‘artwork’ lying around appears to suggest that OKA is under construction. Although this is meant to be the first viewer experience upon entering the site, I was more confused than curious about this artwork.
Contemporary Art should be innovative. It must be different, in terms of style or the ideas behind it, not like something that has been done before. When Marcel Duchamp came up with the idea of ‘ready-mades’, that was a new concept, that Art could be an everyday object that no one else (until he ‘found’ it) felt significant enough to warrant it relevant. Also, Art should be unique, whereby not everybody or anyone on the street could do it, and it should stand out from other works once you identify it. One can argue that Jackson Pollock’s artworks could be done by almost anybody. But, it is the idea and his mastery of that unique style of dripping paint that sets him apart from the layman.
I guess Art is really about perception. People can have all sorts of preferences and point of views, that Art can really be indefinable. In the case of Michael Beutler’s paper covered wire-mesh columns, unless you happened upon the card which states the title of the artwork and artist’s name, you might live the rest of your life thinking that that was just a site for renovation. You might argue that this could be the artist’s intention, but the overall state of this exhibit and the purpose behind it was thoroughly disappointing.
Furthermore, there seemed to be no effort to keep the venue clean and tidy. There were hairs and litter of all sorts around, which is frankly an insult to the visitors and to a venue chosen fit by curators and the artistic director to be part of the Singapore Biennale 2011. Although one can argue that all the litter was a by-product of the visitors, hygiene standards should never, ever be compromised. Personally, this gave me a feeling that my presence as an art lover and viewer is not appreciated or respected there at all. This, coupled with Michael Beutler’s confusing ‘is this supposed to be an exhibit or is this place under renovation?’ artwork, further disorientated me.
However, one such exhibit that really captured my attention was by Michael Lin. He filled and set up an entire room with goods sold in a provision store. Fly swatters, outdated models of rice cookers, traditional pots and pans, brooms, stacked up pails of different colours, soup ladles, rattan mats and etc. You name it; Michael Lin’s provision store in OKA has it. What authenticated the experience was that he even added bug-repellent advertisement posters, which could be found in the usual neighbourhood provision store in Singapore. Also, the addition of the old television with antennae attached and static humming brought a realistic feel to the whole exhibit. It was like stepping into a real ‘Mama shop’, and not one that was frozen in time. The viewer would be amazed by the detail and effort into which the artist put into bringing ‘life’ to the shop.
Although this might contradict with my definition of Art that was provided before, that anyone could have set up an exhibit like Michael Lin’s, his efforts into placing each item onto the shelves and space is not to be belittled. You can almost imagine that an old shop owner lovingly tended to his store and placed that pail in a specific location. This work seemed to bring me into another dimension and was not just like any other artwork in the OKA.
Be that as it may, when you leave the room and venture further into Michael Lin’s other works, he showcased old ‘relics’ in so many crates that filled up a few rooms. This reckless use of exhibition space annoyed me. It seemed like he overdid things too much, and destroyed the previous exhibit’s uniqueness by making the rest of it feel monotonous and boring. For all his intents and purposes, Michael Lin might have wanted to come up with an idea of bringing old ‘relics’ from Singapore’s distinct cultures and past into the site, which echoes what an old ‘relic’ the OKA is. However, it seemed like he was too engrossed in bombarding us with objects, which he bought from a real provision shop in an effort to fill up as much space as possible.
This epitomizes some of the problems with the site. The OKA venue for the Singapore Biennale was a potential disappointment to what many art lovers or the average layperson might expect. They might not have understood that the curators may have been intentionally left the venue in this state of disrepair to reflect the theme of transition and movement. I also felt that the artworks didn’t really showcase these links. Overall, the layout and presentation of the exhibits was lacking in coherence and was either overdone or grossly confusing.