Category Archives: National Museum

Gigi Scaria

By Beverly Koh

If a city’s infrastructure is the skeleton, and humans are the blood flowing through it, then we can consider urbanization, with all its complexity, as an organism driven by the dynamic migrations of people into, out of, and within the urban space. In the 1921 documentary film Manhatta by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, early 20th century Manhattan breathes with deep vitality and power as we see the awesome skyscrapers, smoking, powerful machinery and swirling crowds of people. In Manhatta, urbanization is celebrated.

And in Gigi Scaria’s works at the Singapore Biennale 2011, urbanization is also the underlying theme tying together his paintings, video and sculptural installations. Against the background of India’s accelerating economic growth and urbanization, Gigi Scaria constructs imagined cityscapes and addresses the impact of urbanization on India’s communities and social structures.

But unlike Manhatta, the cityscapes in Scaria’s work are void of anything forceful. Scaria’s body of work at the Biennale is ambitious, but for all that his works claim to be about, Scaria has fallen terribly short. His art, like virtually all the art displayed at the Biennale this year, is foremost conceptual, but not understanding his work this time is not due to having fallen into the rut of mistaking one’s inability to comprehend profound conceptual art as a flaw on the part of the artwork. Encountering his work is like facing a wall; it is dead, dull and inaccessible.

Open invitation 1 and 2 presents Scaria’s take on the future landscapes of our cities, and his is a vision where urbanization has expanded beyond our control and has consumed and trapped us within its confines. In his fictitious cityscapes, the buildings are homogenous, meticulously painted in uniform flat washes of color, dull and starkly bare. They are the mere empty skeletons of the urbanization as celebrated in Manhatta, devoid of anything alive which according to the description accompanying the artwork, is deliberate on Scaria’s part for it allows these imagined constructs to “exist for their own benefit” as opposed to “functioning as living environments”.

There is an obvious humorous irony intended, deliberate on Scaria’s part, by naming the paintings Open invitation 1 and 2. Nothing is inviting about the artwork and the sparse barren cityscapes it is presenting to the viewer, and Scaria perhaps intended his artwork to be cold and detached to show how they do not exist to serve as human habitats. And it is this insistence to portray this sterile and empty shell of futuristic urbanized spaces throughout his various artworks at the Biennale that is how the Scaria has managed to create the downfall of his art. The distilled imagery and forms of his artwork are lifeless and static. Scaria is so caught up with manifesting his artistic visions that somewhere along the artistic process he has lost sight of what he wants to say with his artwork. Whatever thought-provoking dialogue he is trying to engage with the viewer in his conceptual art is lost in translation.

His video installation is equally frustrating. I watch as a virtual book turns its pages on the video screen, carrying on the unfolding motif that we get from his paintings of the barren cityscapes; as the ‘book’ turns its pages, different landscapes are revealed to us in the same pop-out card effect of Open invitations 1 and 2. They are depictions of cramped congested urban cities, and similarly, devoid of the human. And as I stand there watching as the ‘book’ closes with an undecipherable phrase, I start to wonder about how I should react to this video work. Should I sniff disdainfully at the crude graphics and amateurish animation, worry that I am not feeling anything for the artwork or start looking around for the description card to reassure myself that there is something being portrayed here in this work that is worth pondering about but I had missed because Scaria’s work is yet again impenetrable and incomprehensible?

Yes, it is nice of him to include the sound of a turning page every time the page of the ‘book’ flipped, but it is a superfluous tidbit and nothing more. It does not serve to make the artwork anymore memorable or aid its aim, and that should be the consideration of anything an artist puts into a work.

With Steps of predicament, Scaria’s sculptural installation which is perhaps his most impressive work at the Biennale, Scaria is inspired by how architecture and city planning dictate social hierarchies. This sense of social structure is portrayed in how the triangular wedges of step-shaped apartment blocks revolve around a central axis, giving rise to a staircase winding from floor to ceiling. The abstract mimicry of windows and doors on the faces of the steps lend the entire sculpture a whimsical humor, which Scaria is fond of injecting into his work.

Displayed in the National Museum, boxed in all around by other Biennale works, Steps of predicament reminds me of a nice brightly colored piece of decoration. It was cheery to view at least, but again I was disappointed. Perhaps logistic issues restricted him in the placement of his sculpture, but ultimately it is only at the disadvantage of his art.

Steps of predicament carried on his work with sculptures that are created to exist within certain environments. Placed in the sprawling industrial landscapes of India, his previous works of his 2009 Settlement series are whimsical structures like the Steps of predicament, but their juxtaposition against the environment immediately establishes a humorous dialogue between the sculpture and their position and purpose. At the Biennale, Steps of predicament suffers as viewers of the artwork interpret the sculpture within its suffocating and unflattering museum space. It is as rousing as the hollow cityscapes Scaria is trying, but failing miserably, to entice the viewer into.

Yet, my main gripe with Gigi Scaria’s work here at the Biennale is not on whether it deserves to be shown or whether it is actually art or not, but on how there was nothing actually intuitive about his work for me. An experience with any form of art should be a rewarding experience for the viewer; it is not to say that we should always expect to leave from our time with any artwork with mini epiphanies, for that would be entirely utopian in ideal. We cannot always expect the artwork to be the active one in reaching out to us, but with his work at the Biennale, the artwork remained passive, unresponsive and made me wonder if all these tenuous connections I was attempting to make actually existed and when do I acknowledge that maybe I am the only one making the conversation in the dialogue between the artwork and the viewer.


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Filed under National Museum, Open House Notebook, Singapore Biennale 2011, Urbanization

Urbanization & its Effects

The National Museum of Singapore

The National Museum of Singapore. Photo by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy

by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy

The large air-conditioned spaces of the National Museum are quite a contrast to the Biennale site at Old Kallang Airport, where one had to travel to hot and humid spaces to experience the art works, and these factors enhance the entire experience and ties in with the theme that is laid upon the National Museum, that is to be like a night market.

With works ranging from China, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, the United States, Switzerland, Japan, etc. it is amazing how the themes and messages are all similar (to a certain degree) even though the origins of the artworks and artists are diverse – almost like a global phenomenon that we humans face as we advance through modernity – and that they are brought together under one roof – very much like a night market where people with a wide array of different, relatively cheap goods for sale (as compared to items sold in Orchard Road for example) are there for one goal, to sell, form a larger entity.  However, the works hold deeper messages and views that can be summed up as a series of takes on rapid growth of countries and the impact on rural or urban social spaces. These are very suitable topics to talk about in the local Singapore context. Perhaps it is a reminder for Singaporeans to pause and look at how this rapid growth has affected communities and individuals.

Compound, Sopheap Pich. Photo by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy

Sopheap Pich’s Compound is the first artwork I see as I step into the National Museum. It immediately grabs our attention with the sheer scale of a unique cityscape surrounded by bomb-like shapes forming the entire sculpture made out of rattan, bamboo and burlap. Like a hint of what is to come in the following artworks, Pich seems to be speaking about the effects of Cambodia’s rapid growth and modernization and its loss of heritage, or things of the past that are being replaced or destroyed to make way for the new.  Rattan, bamboo and burlap have been used in the past to make many different kinds of household furniture and refer to agriculture through traditional weaving. In Singapore rattan has been and is still in used for household items or for punishment (the cane). By mixing the traditional and the modern through woven structures, Pich’s message comes across very well and I cannot help but pick up on the similarities between Cambodia and Singapore on this issue. The bomb-like sculptures that surround the ‘cityscape’ in this artwork suggests destruction of the city or more like a destruction that is happening within the city where buildings are waiting to be destroyed or replaced. In Pich’s words, “Can we build without destroying?” Are countries just focused on growing and gaining more and more despite the effects of these actions taken by government and business?

'Spring and Autumn' series 2004-10, Shao Yinong and Muchen. Photo by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy

In the cavernous exhibition hall downstairs, hanging and swaying with much grandeur, are Shao Yinong and Muchen’s, ‘Spring and Autumn’ series of large-scale embroidery of different currencies, from different times, which are no longer used.  In general, Chinese art seems to be more exaggerated (mostly in performance art or photography), and the artists have a right to do so as the messages (mostly political- due to being under communist rule) hold much significance for them.
For the husband and wife team, their works are highly detailed in the use of a traditional Suzhou embroidery technique – like in Pich’s work where traditional methods are used to make modern day representations and again, addressing the change that countries go through.

'Spring and Autumn' series 2004-10, Shao Yinong and Muchen. Photo by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy

The banknotes hang high in the space and create a path with translucent cloth draping down on each side, shielding people within the path from the influences of the outside. In a slightly far-fetched sense, this is very much how China was, before it slowly opened up to the outside world.

To view the famous faces depicted in them, the viewer would have to tilt and shift our gaze up, almost in reverence toward the once powerful banknotes and move around the space which becomes  a memorial of banknotes, in remembrance of how power and beliefs were once imbued within these banknotes, how money was and is the main driver for many countries these days.

Flooded McDonald's, Superflex. Photo by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy

There’s a very similar tone to the video installation, ‘Flooded McDonald’s’ by Superflex, which shows us the leader in fast-food, making its way to its own destruction. The video features a typical McDonald’s burger joint, a well lit area, heated lamps gleaming, fries still heating up in the trays, a steady drip of soda from the drink machine like a loose tap, everything is in its right place with the exception of half-eaten burgers and toppled French fry containers with their innards strewn on the table. Without a single human being in sight, this is an abandoned McDonald’s awaiting destruction. As the title of the work suggests, the burger joint slowly gets filled up with water and eventually floods the entire vicinity in this strangely mesmerizing, apocalyptic 21-minute film.

Flooded McDonald's, Superflex. Photo by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy

There is a strange allure or beauty to it all, perhaps it is the similar calmness that we feel when we suspend ourselves in a pool of water, in this case, how the chairs, burgers and objects float around the space, together with the slow panning shots and photographic-like compositions to some shots in this film and its ‘watery’ soundtrack, make the pace of the video very calming and tranquil at the start. It then slowly builds up towards a more chaotic scene when the water starts moving objects around. The water even manages to lift a statue of Ronald McDonald’s (an icon of a western culture) off the ground and makes him look like he is waving at us as he bobs up and down in the water and eventually sinks to the bottom with the rest of the objects.

In a strange, cynical sense, the video was very enjoyable . The idea of witnessing and enjoying destruction whilst being afraid of it happening to us is probably why I feel guilty about it.
Perhaps in this case, the destruction of something evil evokes a certain amount of satisfaction as well.

There are many issues that this piece of work addresses, such as mass consumption, large corporations getting bigger and disregarding the environment as they keep up to the demands of the masses and this leads to environmental problems. It all ties down to the ignorance of certain individuals and the priority money takes over ethics, also known as capitalism. McDonald’s, being fully aware and guilty of this, continues to exist even though it is the target of many attacks. In a way, Mcdonald’s flooded itself.

But like McDonald’s, capitalism is a global phenomenon that’s here to stay, and artists all over the world will continue trying to fight it in their own way with more and more interesting works.

Flooded McDonald's, Superflex. Photo by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy

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Filed under National Museum, Open House Notebook, Shao Yinong and Muchen, Sopheap Pich, superflex