Category Archives: Singapore Art Museum

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

A Roof and Four Walls

By Guo Yixiu and Choo Jing Sarah


“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own. “ John Berger

Because this morning, someone told me how “blasphemous” it was.

Inexplicably awesome is what it is.

I walked into a room filled with these videos projected on all sides. “Kitsch!” I thought; the graphics seemed awful at first. There were furniture laid around the room; each piece (a sofa, a dining area and a bed), facing a particular video.

I wanted to walk away. I was not ready to sit myself through what seemed like a disappointment. As I attempted to brisk walk across the room, I could not help but have my eyes fixed upon the fast moving images, and their frequent bursts of neon colors.

Eventually, I sat down, willing for a chance to be surprised. I skipped the bed, (it felt too personal), and sat on the sofa instead. I put on the headpiece and started listening. High pitched sounds flowed into my ears; reminding me of that horrible Akon song, “Lonely”.  The voices were half singing, half speaking. I realized that I was in some teenage girl’s room. ‘Yikes’. There was no central character. Just these girls in conversation (they were often scolding one another or were upset about something). It was like watching one of those Korean dramas mother watches, fused together with an ‘MTV’ video. Everyone within the video wore face paint or a costume of some kind. Graphics were often used to juxtapose to the videos. Basically, Trecartin used almost all and any kinds of graphics possible to obtain. They come in an array of shapes and sizes. They overlay, move and often included texts; sometimes internet lingos if necessary. Metaphors were aplenty! The act of smashing glasses, mirrors, and expelling their anger, wearing wigs, painting their faces, swearing, dancing and pretending.

Basically, all I am attempting to show here is that it is not at all easy to know what he is talking about. And like me, you would probably have forgotten (given a week or two) what the video was about in the first place. However, apart from most of the works in the Biennale, you’ll find yourself reminded of this, frequently.

The truth is, Trecartin is one of the few artists who understands and utilizes the media language amazingly. (Forget Pop Art and Andy Warhol; those are now high art). He is able to create a language that is current and relatable to our current day.  His video utilizes the strength of current music, and are highly kinetic; bombarding the viewers with a frenzy of images in a rhythmic fashion. What is so significant is that the visuals work so well with the sounds. It works! It works because this is exactly the kind of environment which people relate to today, as we all lead our fast paced lifes. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times once wrote an article entitled “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus” . As the title suggests, Kimmelman noticed the trend where the experience of going to a museum, has been transformed into a quick, snap and go. Whether this is good or bad is not important to our discussion of the artwork here. But in relevance to Trecartin’s work, it definitely supports his work with the demand of a new language that speaks to the people.

In being able to connect to a viewer through the language of the medium (see how I sat down, though I had intended to move on). The viewer then begins to absorb certain parts of the work. Trecartin again, succeeds here by ensuring that metaphors stand out more than the storyline itself, so the first and most important thing you’ll leave with are those metaphors. In doing so, one does not simply absorb the visuals, but rather, easily retains them as well.

I could be discussing Trecartin’s work in greater depth here. But I do not think it is important to refer to those ideas here (family, society, individualism mass media etc.) After all, how much can anyone ever know about a work? How much time would an average person, holding a full time job etc., be able to look into it? Has the Biennale not always been about “impressions”? If the artist were to be able to implant strong impressions, would it not thus be more effective? Trecartin had said himself “time is altered to enhance and encourage felt experience”. People need not get his work. Perhaps he could be the only person in this “Whole Wide World” to really understand it. There’s nothing wrong with that. Works can and should be personal. Yet to be able to leave a room, feeling as though you had an immensely tense, but queer experience that leaves you lingering thinking about it for days; now that’s something.

On top of that, like many other great works out there, it utilizes the strategy of subjectivity. You cannot be objective with his work. It is so personal to an extent that you would either love or hate his work. Either way, you leave with a thought and a feeling.


Because this morning, someone told me it was ‘inexplicably awesome’.


I was jolted awake by rapidly moving images and bizarre characters attacking from all four corners of the room. Watching from the doorway, reflections from several pairs of glazed eyes exposed Ghoulish characters trapped within a mass of static and blurs. Their faces stained; their bodies distorted. The thick application of dirty white and gawdy pink paints was smeared on their faces; like that of Picasso’s unwashed palette. Like ‘oh-my-god-save-me-now’. I was trying hard not to look at the screen.  Strained and exhausted, I focused on getting past this room filled with flashes of neon pink and dirty yellow. The subtle yet lingering nag of the repetitive musical instrumental aggravated the intense throbbing in my head. Hysteria.

The only thing inviting amidst this disorientated cluster of moving images was represented in the form of furniture. Yes, couches, chairs and even a bed. Succumbing to the enticing and possible satisfaction which this couch could bring, I acceded to watch this visual mass in hope of finding some form of epiphany which might change my perception of what seemed to be a self indulgent film. And yet, the minute I put on my headphones and looked ahead, I was confronted with a sensory assault.

It is the theatre of the absurd and cruelty. Not my cup of tea.

By now, I had forced myself to watch the disturbing, and “visually narrative time sculptures”, at least three times. And whilst I felt as if I had been run over by about 40 trucks, hammered on the head 27 times and stabbed in the stomach 12 times; I am no where nearer to understanding the reason behind such a disconcerting production.

Gaudy pinks and greens were discomforting.  It was perhaps the combination of such De Kooning hued makeup on attention-demanding youths that leads one to relate his work to that of an amateur. The experimental nature of Trecartin’s works puts one’s opinions to the extreme. I cannot deny that there might have been moments of illusive proficiency; where the peculiarity of his cast and their improvisatory abilities made for utter brilliance. However, there were just as many, if not more moments that came off as mannered and exasperating; like the persistent and jarring antics of an overindulged and over stimulated child.

Throughout the repetitive videos, I saw the same motifs and style present in all of them. Perhaps this dread and revulsion one experiences is the desired effect; to exemplify contemporary culture’s ludicrous aspects through the combination, into one “loathsome beast”.  I’d rather, however, Trecartin tell me something which I don’t already know.

About a third into the second video, it finally dawned upon me that the type of seating complimented the length of his video works. Indeed, the furniture brings about different intensities of comfort according to the duration of suffering which one has to endure. From bleachers in front of the shortest film to a consoling Queen Sized bed in front of a 40 minute video.

Sprawled across the bed, I found this all too familiar. One’s begging mind and struggling limbs desperately trying to break free amidst this fully conscious experience. Like my first encounter with sleep paralysis.

Whilst I appreciate the subtle nuances in the layering of his videos, I was rather appalled by the display of Trecartin’s films in a museum. The overlaying tunes and distorted, fast paced voices speaking what might be interpreted as Gibberish, served to be entertaining on a certain level; like that of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” which proved to be a big hit.  Yet, I find myself questioning the value of art in his videos. Perhaps his works should remain on online spaces such as Youtube, instead of being brought to an exhibition space. In addition, one observes that a rather spacious area has been dedicated for these jittering moving images accompanied by shrill voices and high pitched laughter. This unique combination of Duchamp and Warhol taking up such a generous amount of space thus provokes much controversy.

Indeed Trecartin’s work tests the boundaries of creative practice. I am sure he applies a dense and precise focus on editing and the meaning generated by those edits. Hence, I shall not compare his work with fellow video artists Kalup Linzy  and Pipilotti Rist. Trecartin’s intent for his work to have a ‘lack of distinction in binary terms’ , certainly proved to be successful. The ‘ride-like digestion of the story’(according to Mr Trecartin himself) exemplifies his ability in achieving his intent. Yet in effectively conveying his message, I would say his language ‘so does not work for me’. It is really not all that fantastic and I am only relieved to not have to go through this experience all over again.

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Filed under Artists in the News, Open House Notebook, Ryan Trecartin, 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

A Three-Way Mirror

By Vivien Sham

For most of us, meeting a pair of twins would elicit an exclamation (or at least mild feelings) of intrigue and curiosity or warmth and adoration or a permutation thereof. Candice Breitz’ Factum plays to this fascination in exhibiting seven pairs of identical twins and one set of triplets in multiple-channel video portraits. Each twin or triplet is dressed similarly and filmed against the same backdrop. They address the audience directly and share personal stories of their lives. Through this entertaining and accessible format, Breitz probes into the issue of identity and its uniqueness in every individual.

Being amidst the Factum installation is like being a kid in a candy shop, with many colourful and enticing goodies clamouring for our attention. Breitz exhibits variety in the selection of the subjects; they originate from diverse backgrounds and are of different demographic profiles and each provides a ‘singular’ experience of being twins. The youthful and attractive Tangs triplets are concerned about issues of self-image while the McNamara twins, are pre-occupied with fatherhood and the upbringing of their children. Each set of twins is highly charismatic and provides a deep well of experiences the audience can dig into.

Other than their attention-grabbing function, twins are also the perfect subjects through which to explore the issue of identity, arguably the main purpose of this art piece. Listening and watching them, we realize that these twins have it hard in terms of the amount of scrutiny they naturally subject themselves to.  A heightened self-awareness develops whereby in every action, a refrain of “What is my other twin doing” runs in the back of their minds. In Factum Kang, Laurie relates how she used to model herself after her twin Hanna and look for “life strategies”. As they grew up and Laurie sought to be different, Hanna followed suit. They never really escape the condition of being a twin, as Hanna shares “when Laurie steps away from me I step away from her”, a move ostensibly to create distance but paradoxically strengthening their ties, as they obey the mechanics of a mirror. Having a closely similar ‘other’, which one uses as a point of reference, makes the study of identity in twins so pertinent.

As we look at these identical twins positioned mirror-image style beside each other, we suddenly see ourselves and our struggles with identity reflected on the screen as well. It is like a three-way mirror. Extrapolating to normal ‘untwinned’ people, there is a contention between ‘me’ and the ‘I’, the socially compliant side and impulsive character. As an audience we understand the futility of trying to base ourselves on societal expectations, but realize it is still needed for forging our identity – a social construct, a performance.

The inclusion of the triplets adds another dimension in the exhibition and complicates our concept of identity. The exuberant Tang triplets all love shoes, but dress differently, work as models, but at different places, look alike, but are of different heights. We realize how multi-faceted the process of identity negotiation is, especially when the triplets share their experience of being models in an image-centred industry.

While the rich discourse and complex personalities are the stars of the show, Breitz’s filming technique and conceptualizing of the space also made the piece work. Factum is tremendously accessible as everything about it is so clearly spelt out. All one has to do was sit down, put on the headphones and be enraptured by the sharp, clear images of the twins on large screens. We are watching them talk frankly about their lives, with nothing hidden or mysterious. That does not mean Factum shuns complexity. In Factum Tremblay, the controversial question of identity construction is overlaid with the issue of nature vs nurture, given the twins homosexual orientation. I was interested to watch the Tremblay video because of their funky dress sense and was shocked by their feminine voices. Thus Breitz’s natural and unceremonious presentation of these people’s lives invites the audience in and implicitly touches upon serious themes existing in society.

In addition, Breitz takes great care in dressing the twins in matching outfits and placing them in an exact setting, down to the Kang twins’ pink toenails. It is an artistic arrangement that fits neatly into our view of identical twins and creates a sense of harmony. Twins forever fascinate us and the placement of two human portraits directly opposite each other simply lures us into observing them. Breitz’s shrewd mirror image portrayal actually de-emphasizes the twin-ness between them as we became aware of first the minor physical differences, followed by their mannerisms, and then their character; getting caught up in the (often) juicy gossip of their private lives.

This appeal to the voyeur in each of us may cause some to label Factum as frivolous entertainment rather than art. But I would argue that Breitz’s work fulfills all the aesthetic and realistic criteria of art. If art is supposed to bring pleasure, Factum certainly does so for me, as I flitted between videos drinking in their entertaining stories. For Tolstoy who questions “What is Art?” and decides that art must create a specific emotional link between artist and audience, it is certainly easy to empathize and relate to these modern human subjects.

Factum isn’t a documentary, it’s an interactive piece. The very design of the space has the audience moving around and watching short snippets of the videos, like viewing pictures in a gallery- an experience more dynamic than watching it on the TV screen from the sofa. Furthermore, unlike the mass-produced feel of TV, watching these videos has an intimate feel to it, like sitting in on a sharing session with these people. Each person’s experience in the gallery is also different, as they watch different segments of the video and choose which twin to spend time with.

Another reason the artwork was so effective was that the videos were edited and arranged with a clear purpose at every moment, both conversationally and visually. Breitz freezes a twin in a particular position, just as the other twin gestures she might go through the same motion. Although each twin was filmed separately, a dialogue is created between them in Breitz’s arrangement of the clips. In Factum Kang, Laurie says “I appreciate having a best friend, a soul mate” and is abruptly cut off by Hannah who interjects “That’s intimacy”. This is not your typical uncensored, messy confessional; it is a video art installation with a strong authorial presence and a seamless and natural quality.

That said, we also have to question the veracity in what we are seeing, as the sophisticated use of technology may have been used to manipulate the twins’ stories into an artistic narrative sympathetic to Breitz’s personal viewpoint. Granted, art is under no moral compunction to be politically correct and totally accurate. It is not a documentary after all. But acknowledging the indivisibility between form and content makes us aware that what is presented may not be the truth.

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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

Perplexing Polarities of Julian Göthe

Julian Göthe, Various Works, Photo credit: May Lim

By May Lim

In a vast room of white, silhouettes of pure black pose against a multitude of converging lines. One, cut with a narrow but sensuously curved torso flaring out into thick planes of shards, appears frozen with a frame of arms as if in a perpetual en haut posture of dance. The other, not unlike a chess piece, stands stoic, stern and hollow-faced, playing audience to the other. Their bodies, so precisely cut, are strikingly unnatural and verge on the grotesque.  Soft forms and sharp shapes alternate, abruptly and aggressively straightening out into space. Like shadows straight out of a cubist drawing, these monolithic creatures appear strangely graphic in a world of form and reality.

Behind them, a black line takes a walk on white walls. Ropes, twined, draped and stretched taut, draw the elaborate space of an imagined beyond, pushing past the physicality of the gallery. Perceived dimensions seem to recede into a more infinite expanse. In cutting the white and dividing it, the ropes create a larger space within the same walls that restrict them.

Julian Göthe, Various Works, Photo credit: May Lim

Julian Göthe’s works incurs an inexplicable undercurrent of caution that could possibly mount into a ridiculous sense of paranoia; we almost expect these static sculptures to twitch, move or react to us. Yet even as they remain motionless and impersonal, there is an otherworldly intrigue to Göthe’s creations that convinces us that we might catch a glimpse of life if we were to only squint hard enough.

Arabesque and at once arresting, Göthe’s works are as beautiful as they are like prima donnas ostentatiously demanding attention from the viewer. The presence imbued in these sculptural forms is undeniable. Their towering size intimidates and the precision of form serves to visually tempt, and looking becomes an act of indulgence. But these glaringly dramatic forms seem to posses a greater appetite than to merely beguile.

Julian Göthe, Various Works, Photo credit: May Lim

Göthe’s Various Works revolves largely around the deliberate and unabashed juxtaposition of polarities. He does this with a surprising ease that is difficult to reconcile. In an animated walkthrough supplementing the installation, heavy architectural forms rest impossibly on soft floating clouds while baroque framed doorways stand on the rigid geometry of square tiles alternating in black and white. For one, it would seem as if he has already achieved the Holy Grail of the artistic ideal, straddling antiquity and modernity effortlessly. Between ornament and function, attraction and repulsion, object and entity–these polarities do not flow into one another gracefully, but rather, brutally alternate between one another like an exquisite corpse of contrast and contradiction.

Ironically though, even as Göthe’s works speak about polarities, the same could be said about the numerous reactions garnered from his exhibition in the Singapore Biennale 2011. While I was one of those who stood in the gallery visibly awed by Göthe’s work and examining his works with the utmost reverence, there were others whose responses left me confused and slightly enraged. Apart from the predictably indifferent and the mildly interested, there were two middle-aged women whose behavior drove me to a state of consternation.

Engaged in their own conversation, these women paid little attention to the black sculptures that loomed above them. They had walked into the gallery like they would to a shopping mall, and it was as if the act of looking at the work had become an offhand gesture. They then proceeded to whip out their compact cameras, posing next to the sculptures and taking snapshots like tourists seeing the Merlion for the first time.

This situation was so singularly strange that I was caught off guard. I was unsure as to how to react because the value and respect that I sought to give Göthe’s work suddenly seemed irrelevant and laughable. For one, these women were hardly perturbed by the bizarreness of Göthe’s sculptures that I felt was unmistakably present. They seemed delighted to say the least, at the opportunity of a good weekend photograph standing next to these unidentifiable but pretty-looking objects. Had they completely missed the point the work, or was I merely reacting like how any academic prude would? Is there such thing as an ‘inappropriate’ way to react to an artwork?

To those who appreciate or belong to the art world, the art gallery has always been a space imbued with a certain sense of sanctity. While there are those who stand by this belief and their unspoken rules, there are others who scoff at or are ignorant to them. If there was one thing that the  ‘Open House’ has revealed, it would be the rift between the differing types of audience it attracts.

This is probably more evident in the case of Göthe’s works, which evidently carry an ambiguous and amorphous aesthetic that can be read as both theatrical and threatening. This opens up the possibility of the work being appreciated differently, be it solemn and academic or breezy and touristic. In combining what is vastly dissimilar, the differing elements of Göthe’s works are in turn emphasized and amplified.

The same can probably be said about how biennales, in attempting to widen its accessibility, only brings to attention the foolishness of that ideal. And while I express my dismay at these two women’s lack of respect towards a piece of work I genuinely favor, I cannot deny the fact that the ‘Open House’ has in a way, achieved its aim in getting anyone and everyone to appreciate art, at least in the case of Göthe’s work.

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Filed under Julian Göthe, Open House Notebook, Singapore Art Museum