Category Archives: Open House Notebook

Space at the Old Kallang Airport

By Goh Chay Teng

The grounds of the Old Kallang Airport are open and spacious, they consist of a large ‘garden’ between three main buildings. The site conspicuously lacks signage telling visitors which is the ‘right’ building to visit first. Unlike a history museum type of exhibition space, where there is an authoritative ‘flow’ be it thematic or chronological, there is no systematic way I could view the artworks at the Old Kallang Airport. I felt a little lost. Timidly, I made my way to the middle building first, because the centre is traditionally the main attraction.

When I entered the middle block, again I noticed a lack of signs.  Even worse, the art installations are arranged in a circle (well, technically a rectangle), with no obvious beginning and no obvious end. It’s a three-storey building and staircases are all over the place with no discernable flow. It was like a game of snakes and ladders: if I go up the stairs now, will I miss something amazing behind that stairwell? The lack of an orderly way to view the exhibits was overwhelming, especially in the beginning. In hindsight, this set-up was more interesting. It was a blast to explore and find bits and pieces of art in a deserted nook or cranny.

Space can be functional. Kitchens are usually adjacent to dining areas and bathrooms are usually in an easily accessible space. At the Old Kallang Airport, one installation that used functional space very well was Ming Wong’s video installation.

The arrangement was so that the five videos were housed in five separate rooms but all entrances led to a common atrium. If visitors walked in a circle, they would be able to look into all of the rooms. The open concept of the rooms also meant that the sound of the five different videos could be heard everywhere within the exhibit. This showcased an interesting mix of music and dialogue as the five different films were projected simultaneously. The set-up allowed visitors to find overall similarities and differences in the five films, but also gave visitors the space to take in one film at a time.

The effect of geographical space is something that is often taken for granted and overlooked. But it is a very powerful tool. Small tight spaces evoke tension; wide open spaces provide calmness. Yet, on the other hand, small places can provide a sense of warmth and coziness while large places could represent emptiness.

Vietnamese artist Danh Vo’s space created tension in the viewer. Part of his installation includes a collection of cardboard with gold-leafed letters (except the letter J) appliquéd on, which he left in an orderly stack against a white wall. My first instinct was to pull the cardboard stack apart just to check if there was really no ‘J’. Alas, there was a placard near the exhibit that said no touching. The stack is so constricting that it was really uncomfortable to not be able to touch it to pull them apart.

It is often difficult to critique an artist’s use of space because their intention for the space is not implicitly stated. The cardboard represented a person’s living space. He had collected it from a street merchant who used it as a shelter. The gold-leaf added material value to something someone already viewed as priceless. In hindsight, a viewer’s discomfort at not being able to touch the cardboard could be intentional. After all, it is not social protocol to go into a stranger’s house and rearrange it as you wish.

Arin Rungjang’s art installation was reminiscence of an IKEA showroom, with its use of colours and plush sofas (as well as other knick-knacks the artist got from IKEA). The artist actually invited Thai migrant workers to perform an exchange: they could take anything they wanted in the room and leave their old, unwanted stuff behind. The only condition was that the exchange had to be like for like. Yet, at this early stage of the Biennale, most of the furniture was untouched, still in the uniform lines that the artist left them in. Even if the space was very comfortable, there was unease. I felt like a bit of a creep in another person’s ‘private’ space without the host with me. His work looked so much like a normal living room that it was unnatural to go around touching and moving things around.

Clocks at Arin Rungjang's installation

Both Arin Rungjang and Danh Vo’s works dealt with the value of seemingly “cheap” items. Both of them recognized that old did not mean valueless and that new was not always better. Arin Rungjang wrote it in his artist’s text while Danh Vo mentioned that the street merchant had to be persuaded to give up his shelter. For me, the artists’ display of sensitivity to where a person finds value made a difference to how they, as well as, their art installations, were viewed.

The best spaces at the Old Kallang Airport were the ones that blended with the environment. Their inconspicuousness is non-threatening and allows the visitor to take in the atmosphere at their own pace. It is something that is difficult to do: how can it be done so that it fits with the environment it’s in but is still clear as an artwork?

I missed Nedko Solakov’s work because it worked too well with the natural environment. Tucked in a spiral staircase, in the middle of the main building at the Old Kallang Airport, the art installation consisted of witty remarks about the state of certain things in the stairwell, written on the infrastructure. I started at the bottom of the stairs, and while exploring, went to the empty space at the bottom of the stairwell to find rags and seemingly unwanted goods discarded on the floor. I left and thought nothing of it. I was only after I saw photos online that I realised it was part of the installation.

What is amazing about this site-specific work was that Solakov was not physically present to create the artwork. He had a well-known fear of flying and flew Singaporean artist, Liao Jiekai, to Sofia to teach him what to do.

Solakov is an artist that takes space seriously. In the video that was shown near the installation, he was discussing space with Singaporean artist Liao. Liao had brought photos of the many sites of the Singapore Biennale to show Solakov. In the end, he settled on the stairwell by the Old Kallang Airport.

Another work that used the environment very naturally was Martha Rosler’s Garden Home. I found her work by accident while walking into the Old Kallang Airport. Looking at the beautiful plants, white-washed benches and wind-catchers, I was mentally debating if it was an art installation. And it was.

Part of the Garden Home installation by Marta Rosler

The most beautiful thing about this installation was that it was not in-your-face: the plants were hiding quirky, out-of-place objects like suitcases and books, and an outline of Singapore. It is in these quiet, unassuming installations that amusement is found, like in a scavenger hunt. Things are discovered slowly and every object found adds another layer of meaning.

The non-confrontational nature of this piece allows new viewers to take it in at its own pace. More explicit artworks like Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munbar, which included displays of gay pornographic magazines, might embarrass the public (this installation was censored in the end). When private issues like sex are brought out to the public, viewers might move on hurriedly, instead of taking their time to look and appreciate it (or not).

However, the censorship of Simon Fujiwara’s work was met with public uproar, which begs the question: Are Singaporeans really conservative or are the authorities too sensitive?

But that is a question for another time.

Nevertheless, this style of using the natural environment also makes art more accessible to the general public. How Solakov and Rosler used the environment, gave general audiences space and allowed them to get used to the idea of art: which seems to be the point of the theme of Open House.

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The Journey Towards Appreciation: Louis Cordero’s ‘My We’

By Cindy Yeo

Walking from one screen to another in Ryan Trecartin’s installation, I hear faint strains of a familiar song. Initially, I attribute it to the various headphones around the room, or the speaker in the corner. Further observation denies both hypotheses; the speakers play softly sounds of explosion while the headphones emanate the nasal, modified pitch of the characters’ voices in the Trecartin videos. The music must be from another work then. The curator should really note the sound contamination, I think to myself before wandering towards the other room, like a snake under the hypnotic spell of my charmer. The strangely familiar music—what song is this? I know I know it—has managed to pique my curiosity.

A short, narrow hallway separates the two rooms. A warning that the exhibit is graphic in nature and the text that precedes it give me certain expectations. Yet, drawing closer to the doorway, the outline of a human figure standing before a garish hot pink wall gives me an increasing sense of foreboding. No text or warning can prepare me for what I am about to see upon entering the room.

My first reaction is one of shock and horror. Barely three steps into the room and I am surrounded by three sculptures of male human figures with what could possibly be hundreds of weapons stuck into their bodies, and wounds with flesh and bones sticking out (and is that a part of brain I see?). I physically recoil in disgust and horror, immediately exiting the room to re-read the text (I was always the squeamish type). Upon the second reading, the pieces appear to fit, and I bravely take the plunge again, with the company of a friend. I am almost tempted to just walk away and forgo this installation, but the spell of the charmer is not broken, merely disturbed. More than often, we find ourselves drawn towards what disturbs us the most.

The horror does not go away upon my second entry. Careful to keep my distance from the sculptures, as if afraid one of them might come to life and attack me, I examine the room. Paintings hang on the walls; a videoke machine stands towards the far corner. One of the ‘men’, whom I didn’t notice immediately, looks like he’s been flung against the wall; another is flat on his back; another stands defiantly in the middle of the room; the last—and the nearest to the entrance—is on all fours, with a hand outstretched, as if reaching out to me for help. Every one of them has a variety of objects stuck into (or sticking out of) their bodies, as well as multitudes of lacerations. They appear to be either in the throes of death, or zombies come back to life to seek redress for a brutal injustice. Clearly, the concept of zombies is not surprising as nothing evokes horror more effectively than things that refuse to be killed. As the text suggests, they represent the victims of the “My Way” killings.

The artwork is based on a backdrop of violence in the Philippines, specifically an urban myth about a spate of killings sparked off by anger towards poorly-sung renditions of the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way”. It sounds absurd to me at first, but further research will confirm the severity of this issue to a Filipino, especially in a country where karaoke is one of the nation’s favorite pastimes.

Although it is hard to take my eyes off the grotesque figures, I slowly start to take in the surroundings and see the intricacies that lie behind the artwork; this artist does not solely rely on the shock factor to get his message across. I can walk away and choose some other piece to explore more closely, but co-existing with my repulsion is an intense fascination. Many incongruities exist within the artwork, and it soon becomes a pleasure to spot and marvel over them.

The glaring pink walls and bright lights seem almost inappropriate to the brutality presented within the room. Yet, is the very installation not a spectacle? Cordero does very well to make the audience complicit in the horror he presents, and that is what many political commentaries seek to achieve. By deriving pleasure from its aesthetic quality, viewing it as an artwork rather than a real issue to be addressed, we have made ourselves accomplices to the absurdities that go on in Filipino society, despite the geographical distance. This also reflects the subject matter—American pop culture has traversed physical boundaries to poison the minds of the Filipinos.

Cordero’s desire to make us all complicit is apparent. The title of the work, My We is neither just a play on the title of the Sinatra tune, nor merely a mockery of the Filipino accent. It puts the emphasis on community, on “we”. He separates himself from neither killer nor victim, and we are unable to do so as well. Not all the weapons that adorn the bodies of the men are what we consider conventional weapons. They include broomsticks, plungers, toilet brushes… Anyone can be the killer; men, women, rich, poor, there is no distinction.

Other than the graphic treatment of the human figures, traces of aesthetic beauty that are easier on the eyes and mind are visible. Various paintings hang on the wall, a reminder that we are still in a museum, still involved in the whole spectacle, and that even the most grotesque representation of an eyeball hanging out of a socket can be art. Forcing myself to look more closely at the battered men, I realize that my initial disgust was hasty. What the scars and lacerations on the bodies expose is not blood and gore, but bursts of pretty colors. What Cordero, like many great artists through the course of history, challenges is the very subject of beauty itself—can aesthetic beauty reside within (literally in this case) the disturbing, grotesque and downright ugly?

The videoke machine is the most interesting thing about the exhibit. It stands by itself in a corner, yet it is the most essential element. The screen shows Filipinos at a karaoke, singing badly to “My Way”, as one would expect. However, there is one part of the video where we get a karaoke version of the song, with words flashing across the screen. It’s an invitation—we, too, are welcome to sing. Noticing the microphone at the side of the machine and later realizing that it actually works is a fun moment. I am still slightly too discomforted by the exhibit to touch anything, but my friend gamely picks up the microphone and gives it a whirl (try only if you are alone in the room). We dissolve into laughter, and realize how sonorous the room is. Our laughter echoes; perhaps we should not be enjoying ourselves at the expense of such a serious subject. After reading news reports of the killings in retrospect, I realize that it is indeed meant to provoke our thoughts and emotions, as the urban myth has impacted Filipinos so greatly that karaoke bar owners have removed the song from their selections entirely. Yet, in another country, we can easily pick up a microphone in public (an art museum, no less) and massacre a song as cruelly as we wish, without a second thought.

The design of the machine, however, is incongruous with the bits of momentary amusement it might bring. The skulls that adorn the side of it seem more appropriate on the covers of heavy metal albums than on a harmless videoke machine. It reminds us how something we see as innocent and fun can bring about violence and death.

For the ignorant, uninvolved Singaporean student, it is a progressive journey in one artwork. I pass from repulsion to acceptance, to amusement, and then to an understanding and appreciation of its finer details. This one work illustrates the point that art critic Lee Weng Choy made about the Biennale—that it requires from us time; time to fully examine and appreciate it. My We is an artwork through which one can be a part of and gain experiences; it is truly admirable.

Additional link:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/world/asia/07karaoke.html

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“Boomz!” The power of Leopard Prints

By Jessica Lim

Another film. I stared at the time duration and saw “13 minutes and 6 seconds”. I walked in.

The room was barren. A long, white bench was positioned right in the middle and a screen was placed at the front wall, with two curtains, of leopard print design, draped at either side of it. I stared, and turned towards the door.

A melodious, upbeat tune suddenly started floating about in the room, and in a moment I was on the bench.

The world of leopard prints, the distinctive feature of this so-called ‘Panther fashion’, is nothing new to Singaporeans, thanks to Ris Low. Moreover, ‘Panther Design’ is a huge fashion trend in the local and global fashion scene. To watch a film about the development of the Leopard-print fashion trend? Seriously no, thank you very much. I am not interested. But my butt would not budge.

So the film started, opening with a foreign scene which seemed like it might be set in Italy. Then I saw the oriental carpets and copper tableware. I was wrong.

Well, the artist, Gülsün Karamustafa, is from Istanbul, Turkey, and the filming was done there. Oh, it is about the fashion scene in Turkey. Or so I thought.

I watched, I marveled. This film is not what I had imagined it to be. It captures and reveals more than what I expected, and impressively, the entire thing is executed without any dialoguesor major, complicated cinematic techniques. Only a few informative texts punctuating the action periodically. I pondered, I understood, and it stuck onto me strongly.

It is a comical tragedy, a fictitious story about three women yearning to indulge themselves in the world of the ‘Panther Fashion’, but their desires have to be hidden and suppressed because of cultural values, rules and societal constraints. These city girls willingly endure anxiety and fear, in exchange for a few precious, ‘illegal’ hours of personal time in a clandestine gathering where they can savor the happiness of indulging themselves in Panther fashion without any restraints. They just want to enjoy something that is not possible in their ‘real life’[1].

The journey towards their destination is fraught with trepidation and uneasiness; their heads turn constantly, their eyes dart about relentlessly as they move in swift, silent paces through the streets and alleys.

They arrive, they enter, and all was worth it.

Serra Gültürk. Photo courtesy of Gülsün Karamustafa

From prim and proper, they transform into unrestrained, ostentatious individuals indulging in cheese, chocolate, wine and clothes, leopard-printed ones obviously. Shedding off their daily uniforms, they put on their ‘wild-cat’ attire, laze on the beds and floors and idle their time away with the accompaniment of booze, canapés and girl-talk. Sadly, at the end of the day, they have to disengage from their fantasy world. They leave, once again in secrecy, and resume their mundane lives.

Well, the subject matter here is quite irrelevant in Singapore’s context but could we not just look at it in a broader perspective?

Now, get the picture?

Everyone has their own perfect, imaginary, little world they yearn to have, where scrutiny and judgments from others do not exist, with no standards to adhere to, no laws and rules to follow. It does not matter how unattainable, chaotic or naïve their illusory worlds are, because it is their world. Right? Yet, as much as one can fantasize, the cruel truth remains: dreams never, almost never, become reality. Wrong?

The exaggeration of the aforementioned state of affairs added that soft, whimsical touch, amidst the tragic reality being highlighted in the short film. Beyond the normality of everyday life, there are actually individuals who are being repressed and forced into their way of living. Although they fulfill their roles and obligations, at the same time, these people want to be freed from the dictation of their tradition and rules. The women in the film are the voices of these people, not only in Turkey, but they speak for all such individuals in the world.

Seriously, I agree with Holland Cotter’s words, I do not think you need a translator to understand that; It is quite a universal language[2]. Thank you Miss Karamustafa. Alright, back to the film.

The show begins at a leisurely pace, conscientiously building up towards the peak, where it reaches a plateau for a while before easing off at the end. The rhythmic structure accentuates the impact of the moving figures. It first hooks the audience, draws them in and then, leads them on further as the plot thickens. The catchy beat produced by the striking of the guitar chords gave that extra punch to the movement of the characters, and helped arouse attention to the otherwise seemingly ordinary film which many would just sweep over and move on.

It did that to me. I admit, maybe it is because I had low, or no expectations to begin with, and thus the impact was so much stronger than it would have been if I had anticipated something. But does that matter? The truth is, I enjoyed it.

The City and the Secret Panther Fashion is neither exciting nor pulse-racing. The performance is also not dramatic or emotional. Yet it kept my eyes glued to the screen. Miss Karamustafa employed a subtle approach to bring forth her stand. The contrast between the simplicity of the work and the intensity of the message felt very refreshing. The flow of the film was so logical and uncomplicated. It just wants to get the idea straight across to the audience without needing much guesswork. It was as if she’s saying, “Do away with all digital enhancements and sound effects, omit the twists and turns, stop the obsession with details! This is about the bigger picture, about real life.”

I like that.

Well, on a side note, here is an interesting point being observed: There are no males in the entire film; not a sign, not a trace of the opposite sex. Another message the film is trying to hint?

You figure it out.

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On Martin Creed and his two pieces in Singapore Biennale

By Li Wenjin

I went to the old Kallang airport site with great anticipation. After seeing the first mjor space-occupier by Michael Beutler, I was slightly discouraged. Then I saw Martin Creed’s Work 112 (YES, he names all his works as numbers) . I have heard about him being a Turner prizewinner creating the utter minimal and conceptual piece Work 127 (The lights going on and off). Which is literally a piece about lights going on and off alternatively every 15 seconds in an empty room. Here the work is slightly richer in its material content. We see 39 identical looking mechanical metronomes spaced evenly and aligned perfectly on concrete floor, spread across the window wall of a room in the Old Airport. As the subtitle of the piece indicates, “Thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed”.

Work 112, Martin Creed Photo courtesy of Loh Bi Ying

Work 112 engages two senses, the visual and the aural. To some installations playing with the same senses, there are usually a priority or a time lag between the engagement of the senses. Here, there is almost no time lag between the arousal of these two senses. That is probably because of the in-built quality of the objects being used (‘ready-mades’ without alterations).  Upon seeing the 39 metronomes, the visual automatically gives you the” image” of the sound.  So without great effort to make the connection, one can get easily immersed in the work.

That to me is the most precious quality of this piece. Amongst often obscure and fragmented contemporary pieces. This is like a fresh breeze through the gallery.

Despite the immediacy of the connection between the visual and the audio, that does not mean the two are coherent. In fact, there is a displacement between the two senses. That is probably why many have felt anxiety from the rather mesmerising looking piece.

Work 112 was first conceptualized by Creed in 1995, what is new here is the number of metronomes chosen. 39 of them, evenly covers the whole north-south spread of the entire room. Because of the totality of the use of space, it limits the possible positions one can take to view the work. In fact, viewers can only see it from up-front.

And then the choice of placement. In a sunshine-filled room rather than a more blank gallery place away from windows. To me personally is not a very crucial decision. The immersive capacity of the work overwhelms you before you can think of the space around it.

His other piece in the same venue is a yellow neon sign that says “Don’t worry” displayed in a relatively darker room (not entirely blackened). Hanging at a corner spread over two walls, placed above eye-level but it does not quite touch the ceiling. More explicitly evoking anxiety than the previous piece. Pranklishly and smartly, Creed once again makes a piece that irritates people.  And at the same time it would probably make you laugh, depending on how serious you are. I’m not particularly a big fan of conceptual works, nevertheless, I find Creed extremely likable. Unlike his Turner prize winning piece, which is pushing conceptual art/minimal art to an extreme by letting the material value of the artwork be nothing. Both of the two pieces here, are at least something.

Don't-worry, Photo courtesy of Nur’ Ain Farizan

 

After a good laugh, or probably some outrage, what is left with you from these two pieces?

That is a question i think even Creed himself asks. He likes to impose questions, but never provides any answer, or even a clue of the answer. Same case here, audiences were confronted by questions, sometimes it can be rather intimidating, and they have no choice but to leave with the questions unsolved. How long it takes for you to let go of the question and stop searching for an answer depends on how much you are disturbed by the artwork.  A bit like a child playing hide and seek with his friends, after his friends are all probably hidden  he then goes home to have dinner. Creed is the child, creating an artwork and leaving it with us with endless possibilities for interpretation, and he knows at some point we will find all those interpretations were pretty useless (like what I am doing now) and give up eventually.  In any case, feel free to have light-hearted interpretations of his two works here, whimsical interpretations are more welcomed than elsewhere.

About the placement of the second piece Work No.291.  When that piece was first shown in 2003, the exhibition space was decorated to make it look more domestic. There was a square table with four chairs, viewers were encouraged to take a seat and let the worrying effects of the sign disturb them a bit longer. However, in the Kallang airport, it was just an empty room with empty walls. Viewers spent a good 10 seconds reading the sign and left (supposing you don’t have dyslexia), and moreover the room does not have a door, thus a number of viewers were just glimpsing it and passing by. Well, one could certainly argue that is the artist’s intention to make even the room as minimal as possible, and thus do not make the viewers feel compelled.

However, to me, in a big show like the Biennale where there are just too many things going on demanding your attention. It is good to have a strategise about your space, to maximize people’s time spent with your artwork.

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Do they really mirror each other?

Candice Breitz-Factum Kang

By Michelle Yap

Video installations dominated this year’s Singapore Biennale, some not too impressive, maybe just because I am not able to relate to them, or they were too lengthy, my attention starts drifting away when I am not even five minutes into the pieces.  Not that being lengthy is a bad thing, but it should be long for a reason, if not it just ends up losing the audience’s interest. The artist may have had a really interesting concept to present, but somehow failed to deliver.

It’s ironic to be saying this, but the piece that caught my attention and drew me in is possibly the lengthiest piece in the Biennale, Factum by Candice Breitz. The artist conducted several interviews with seven pairs of identical twins and a single set of triplets in and around Toronto, during the summer of 2009. The intimate placement of the videos of the twins, which seem like a “split image”, already appealed to me. Especially when the twins are wearing identical clothes and placed in identical backgrounds, most of them very domesticated. I was curious to know why would an artist place an almost identical image beside another. Aesthetically it gives the viewer an impression of something identical, but not exactly identical. This complex relationship between the two images draws curiosity.

So, what exactly is a ‘factum’? By definition, it is supposed to mean, a statement of the facts of a case. Somehow this definition drew me to more of a “court case” scenario instead of an interview, a criminal or victim giving their statement to the police. So now, trying to make sense out of this piece, I interpret it as a “documentary” about having to live with a twin, and a “confession” of internal conflict, psychological and emotional, an identity crisis, and even a statement about what the twins enjoy about having a twin. We see their relationship on a really superficial level, and never expect so much to come out of the work. I have often thought about what it is like to have to see yourself, in someone else everyday. Do twins ever crave for individuality or do they like, to a certain extent having someone identical around. The Misericordia twins mention how their husbands coped with having to deal with seeing someone who looks like their wife. And I would feel kind of disgusted having to put myself in the situation, or maybe confused to think about someone else having a similar looking husband or wife as mine. It is disturbing. It does not feel “special” anymore in a sense there is someone similar to someone else that you love, and almost identical. It is a tough issue to address, in the end; it might end up being so complex that you question yourself, who is “The One”.

I find the fact that, perhaps this video is somehow “documentary-like”, and that Breitz “invades” into the documentation of their real life account. She takes complete control of how she wants the video to look by requesting to have them dressed identically, and they are filmed in their desired background. Breitz reiterated that if they were not comfortable with the questions posed to them, they could choose to keep quiet and let the other twin speak, and this is evident during the installation when one twin speaks and the other just keeps quiet or the screen even goes blank, just to emphasize the presence of that twin, himself or herself. The artist possesses power and is in very firm control of the image. The isolation of the twins during the interview, definitely helps them to break through the barriers of having to be the “same”, bringing out the different personalities, giving them each their own character.

The concept of the video feels like an “open-close circuit”, blanking out at certain stage, when one video disappears and then occasionally recovering the connection and syncing back with each other again when both screens come back to life. I see the duality and repetition as a form of consistency and confirmation, just as how both twins actually start repeating what they have said, is like a form of reassurance and confirmation for each other. It suddenly makes them conscious of what they have been feeling, and so used to keeping it within themselves that they are unaware of what the other party is thinking about.

To have to speak and expose your personal life to an audience is a difficult condition to embrace, but even so when I see them wipe off their tears, it is as if they managed to break free from something that has been pulling them back from living their life to the fullest. Breitz has successfully put the audience in this intimate space that we were never in, in our lives. It is like in a sense being “them”, entering their personal “space”. There are some things that I believe are not easy to be expressed in words.

And lastly, Breitz instructed the twins to be filmed against a similar backdrop, as if stylized and customized to suit their individual characters, the kind of person or background that both twins have in general. For example the triplets who are models are put against a white plain background, similar to those of a photo shoot studio, probably juxtaposing their jobs, their background with their character. The two images force us to see them as a whole, but eventually forces us not to see them as one due to the conflicting ideologies and behavior.

However, (after the Simon Fujiwara incident) now everyone is talking about censorship, what we can show and what we should censor from audiences. Censorship is everywhere. The artist herself definitely removed a whole lot of content from what she recorded and now we question if that means that the content of the video becomes Breitz’s own story or even her own opinion rather then the twins’.

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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

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