by Chua Ju Wei Jeremy
The large air-conditioned spaces of the National Museum are quite a contrast to the Biennale site at Old Kallang Airport, where one had to travel to hot and humid spaces to experience the art works, and these factors enhance the entire experience and ties in with the theme that is laid upon the National Museum, that is to be like a night market.
With works ranging from China, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, the United States, Switzerland, Japan, etc. it is amazing how the themes and messages are all similar (to a certain degree) even though the origins of the artworks and artists are diverse – almost like a global phenomenon that we humans face as we advance through modernity – and that they are brought together under one roof – very much like a night market where people with a wide array of different, relatively cheap goods for sale (as compared to items sold in Orchard Road for example) are there for one goal, to sell, form a larger entity. However, the works hold deeper messages and views that can be summed up as a series of takes on rapid growth of countries and the impact on rural or urban social spaces. These are very suitable topics to talk about in the local Singapore context. Perhaps it is a reminder for Singaporeans to pause and look at how this rapid growth has affected communities and individuals.
Sopheap Pich’s Compound is the first artwork I see as I step into the National Museum. It immediately grabs our attention with the sheer scale of a unique cityscape surrounded by bomb-like shapes forming the entire sculpture made out of rattan, bamboo and burlap. Like a hint of what is to come in the following artworks, Pich seems to be speaking about the effects of Cambodia’s rapid growth and modernization and its loss of heritage, or things of the past that are being replaced or destroyed to make way for the new. Rattan, bamboo and burlap have been used in the past to make many different kinds of household furniture and refer to agriculture through traditional weaving. In Singapore rattan has been and is still in used for household items or for punishment (the cane). By mixing the traditional and the modern through woven structures, Pich’s message comes across very well and I cannot help but pick up on the similarities between Cambodia and Singapore on this issue. The bomb-like sculptures that surround the ‘cityscape’ in this artwork suggests destruction of the city or more like a destruction that is happening within the city where buildings are waiting to be destroyed or replaced. In Pich’s words, “Can we build without destroying?” Are countries just focused on growing and gaining more and more despite the effects of these actions taken by government and business?
In the cavernous exhibition hall downstairs, hanging and swaying with much grandeur, are Shao Yinong and Muchen’s, ‘Spring and Autumn’ series of large-scale embroidery of different currencies, from different times, which are no longer used. In general, Chinese art seems to be more exaggerated (mostly in performance art or photography), and the artists have a right to do so as the messages (mostly political- due to being under communist rule) hold much significance for them.
For the husband and wife team, their works are highly detailed in the use of a traditional Suzhou embroidery technique – like in Pich’s work where traditional methods are used to make modern day representations and again, addressing the change that countries go through.
The banknotes hang high in the space and create a path with translucent cloth draping down on each side, shielding people within the path from the influences of the outside. In a slightly far-fetched sense, this is very much how China was, before it slowly opened up to the outside world.
To view the famous faces depicted in them, the viewer would have to tilt and shift our gaze up, almost in reverence toward the once powerful banknotes and move around the space which becomes a memorial of banknotes, in remembrance of how power and beliefs were once imbued within these banknotes, how money was and is the main driver for many countries these days.
There’s a very similar tone to the video installation, ‘Flooded McDonald’s’ by Superflex, which shows us the leader in fast-food, making its way to its own destruction. The video features a typical McDonald’s burger joint, a well lit area, heated lamps gleaming, fries still heating up in the trays, a steady drip of soda from the drink machine like a loose tap, everything is in its right place with the exception of half-eaten burgers and toppled French fry containers with their innards strewn on the table. Without a single human being in sight, this is an abandoned McDonald’s awaiting destruction. As the title of the work suggests, the burger joint slowly gets filled up with water and eventually floods the entire vicinity in this strangely mesmerizing, apocalyptic 21-minute film.
There is a strange allure or beauty to it all, perhaps it is the similar calmness that we feel when we suspend ourselves in a pool of water, in this case, how the chairs, burgers and objects float around the space, together with the slow panning shots and photographic-like compositions to some shots in this film and its ‘watery’ soundtrack, make the pace of the video very calming and tranquil at the start. It then slowly builds up towards a more chaotic scene when the water starts moving objects around. The water even manages to lift a statue of Ronald McDonald’s (an icon of a western culture) off the ground and makes him look like he is waving at us as he bobs up and down in the water and eventually sinks to the bottom with the rest of the objects.
In a strange, cynical sense, the video was very enjoyable . The idea of witnessing and enjoying destruction whilst being afraid of it happening to us is probably why I feel guilty about it.
Perhaps in this case, the destruction of something evil evokes a certain amount of satisfaction as well.
There are many issues that this piece of work addresses, such as mass consumption, large corporations getting bigger and disregarding the environment as they keep up to the demands of the masses and this leads to environmental problems. It all ties down to the ignorance of certain individuals and the priority money takes over ethics, also known as capitalism. McDonald’s, being fully aware and guilty of this, continues to exist even though it is the target of many attacks. In a way, Mcdonald’s flooded itself.
But like McDonald’s, capitalism is a global phenomenon that’s here to stay, and artists all over the world will continue trying to fight it in their own way with more and more interesting works.