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Fur on wheels with Christmas lights
The word 'I' is used as a subject of the verb, while the word 'me' is used as the object. It is, therefore, the object of the self which Lutz Presser, Colin Reaney and Karee Dahl want to deal with in their show entitled <Me Me Me>. But does the title donate the superlative emphasis of the self, or are there three individual ME's? This ambiguity is intentional and highlights the possible paradox involved in three very different artists having a combined show: one has to deal with the necessary congruency of a single exhibition and the distinct and sometimes incompatible differences of the individual works. Even though their works may be dealing with notions of 'me', the artists' approaches, intentions, and media are by no means similar.
That the three Australians presented their show at Plastique Kinetic Worms, an artist run gallery located in Chinatown, in Singapore, serves as an interesting prologue to the subject of the self. And it is within this context that one could begin to read the multiple levels of meaning present in the works, which deal with cultural identity, the phenomenological notion of the self and the notion of gender specificity.
In the works by Lutz Presser there is an appearance of an almost carnivalesque celebration of cultures, and different cultures, through the appropriation and mixing of icons and objects of ordinary ritual and perception. Presser's casual and un-formalistic use of miniature plastic red Chinese lanterns, ultramen toy figures, Christmas lights, a glowing crucifix, ceramic statues of the Chinese deity of prosperity, etcetera, composed around popular images of middle-class suburban white families, gives a humorous reading of one's cultural make-up. These materials operate as metaphors for the kitsch in our cultural identity. Through Presser's selection and manipulation of materials, he has successfully transformed these mundane objects into interesting pieces that invite the viewer to negotiate and weave stories into the different icons and images in each work. And through these false narratives, the works appear to scream to viewers, asking: 'What are you made of?'
The deliberate act of trivialising the difficult question of identity, critiques the way in which these issues often are dealt with in our popular and consumerist world. As Roland Barthes says, we have never dealt with the surface in such depth. Although this work may be an acute interpretation of Singapore's (and possibly Australia's) superficial search for a national identity, it could also be seen as an effect of globalisation.
In Colin Reaney's works, Presser's strategic use of kitsch is replaced with the methodology of mechanism. Colin's engineering and mechanistic definitions are a substitute for our functional operations in terms of the body and the existential location of the self. He creates seats with wheels attached, as a form of physical appendage or mechanical metaphor of the body's perceptions and movements. However, in none of his works is the body represented: there is not even a trace or residue of the body. The orange plastic-covered seats are obviously modeled upon the seats in Singapore's bus-stops, public buses and the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit). But unlike those, Reaney's are 'plastic-wrap' new, they are untouched and surgically clean, and they are uniform and neatly placed on shelves, like some up-market merchandise.
This act of appropriation of the perfect, and the scientific definition of the sensory body, suggest a criticism of the systematic and mechanistic way society, in particular Singapore's society, works: it is a parody based on the bus system, with its efficient and comprehensive network of routes and functions. By dealing with the functional operation of the body without the body, and by dealing with the perceptual without the soul, Reaney's works make us question the difference between our phenomenological body and our existential self. For that matter, need there be a categorical difference?
Of the three, Karee Dahl's works seem most superficial, and seemingly without embarrassment. Her deceptively simplistic and unsophisticated use of fake baby pink and baby blue fur, suggests that the material is her way of dealing with the feminine and masculine aspects of things. Her skillful wrapping of cushion seats, a streamboat scoop, toy seal and ladder with the fur, tricks the viewer into a false understanding that this blue or pink fur connotes something, and that something obviously concerns aspects of gender specificity. The surface treatment is both delightful and un-threatening, and the comfort zone provided allows one to enter into the works to discover them. It is then that Dahl slips in certain contradictions that make one question. For example, while her ladder to the skylight in the gallery is in pink fur, as if trying to subvert the masculine notion of the corporate ladder, she also wraps the streamboat scoop in pink. But one may ask, is there a female or male version of the scoop, as a utensil? And how is the transformation brought about by the pink fur able to change the properties and function of the utensil? The answer is that it does not (but the real answer lies in the questions). This problematisation of the materials and their connotations, equally problematises our so-called objective interpretation and Cartesian logic. Dahl is in fact asking the viewer 'what is our notion of that which is feminine and that which is masculine, and can we ever have a definition?' Dahl might not give us any new perspectives on those issues, but she sure teaches us a lesson about our conventions.
The strength of these three artist's work is very much in their very different, individual and personal treatment of the object of the self. But here lies also their weakness. The intention of the show, as with the title <me me me>, is to have three sole shows as one, to explore possibilities and questions that deal with the individual and his/her ego in the context of showing together. However the interactions and dialogues between artists are tentative and unresolved. By warping Reaney's seats with Dahl's pink fur, or projecting Presser's video of soap opera characters onto Dahl's pink ladder, they attempt collaboration. But if they mean to deal with the unexpected dialogue of three distinct individuals' works, like a chance encounter between an architect, a cabaret dancer and a fashion victim, then such collaboration would not be the means.