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Singapore has seen a spate of political art in the last few years, but the politics have always been those of other people. 2003 saw a new temerity as several local artists put political issues at the heart of their practice.
Matthew Ngui, a veteran of Documenta and the Venice Biennale and probably Singapore’s most internationally acclaimed contemporary artist, is not known for his political voice. But his installation HOME at Sculpture Square, presented last autumn at Singapore’s experimentally-inclined Sculpture Square, directed his past exploration of communication into a new, firmly political direction.
Delving into the subject of ‘home’ was always going to offer opportunities for looking at Singapore in a critical light. But Ngui has looked here before and gone away without touching any sensitive buttons—his first ‘Home’, playful and visually lyrical with nary a whiff of social commentary was shown at Singapore’s Substation in 2002.
The first part of the recent installation presented fifteen blown-up photographs documenting local events that Ngui pulled from Singapore’s National Archive. His selection functioned on several levels. Though simply captioned with only a date and brief synopsis of the human story behind each image, the photographs worked as chronological narratives of state involvement in Singaporean private lives through housing issues. The images, largely documenting interiors and events associated with housing in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, prompted an easily read nostalgia accessible to all Singaporeans; going further than nostalgia however, their subtext evoked the underlying tension between public and personal interests. By offering only a few carefully chosen images that were suggestive rather than overtly political in content, the artist succeeded in bringing to the fore questions concerning the place and impact of hierarchy and control in Singapore’s public arena.
By juxtaposing images of the folksy (a meek-faced family re-housed by the government after a fire) and the authoritarian (the rough suppression of hawker stalls on a housing estate) Ngui hoped to sensitise even the most apolitical viewer who, with identification and memory, could be forced to participate in his/her own history rather than remain a passive onlooker.
Ngui’s ongoing interest in language as a tool of engagement is a leitmotif of his practice; verbal signs incorporated into his work are used both as medium and conceptual prompt. Resorting once again to the power of semantics, in the exhibition’s second part the artist playfully stenciled the terms ‘city’ and ‘global’ on partitions. Cutting door-shaped gaps into these, and thus partially deleting the letters that form one of the two strategic words, Ngui allusively invited the viewer to first penetrate and then question not only the factual veracity of the statement ‘global city’—the state-controlled media has in recent years asserted Singapore’s status as a ‘global city’ but the glamorous statement, designed to sell the city to tourists, rings hollow for the majority of Singaporeans—but also to question the premises on which such an assertion might be founded.
Rather than looking out from a private place, Ngui is looking in to his own space within the state and in so doing takes his audience along on a compelling exploratory mission. Ngui’s most socially vocal work to date, ‘HOME at Sculpture Square’ though referencing local Singapore, is equally relevant to the thoughtful global viewer struggling to map-out his/her private space on state-encroached terrain.
A second installation/performance exhibition with potential political ambition was held in Singapore last September. Focusing on housework, ‘the houseWORK project’, a group effort that included the work of fifteen Singapore-based practitioners, offered the opportunity to examine gender inequalities and the plight of female domestic workers in Singapore, some 14,000 of whom are employed in the City-State’s homes.
A majority of artists ignored any direct reference to the exploitation of women in general and foreign maids in particular, most preferring literal and tamely personal representations of domestic toil. Dana Lam produced a mound of dirt, collected in the course of a month in her home by her maid; a ‘spoofy’ 3-minute video interview of the maid was also presented. Some artists gave the theme a gender-political reading. Jasmina Yasin and Karee Dahl, performing as washer-women, laundered male artists’ paintings thus suggesting gender-imbalance in the Singapore art community. Local luminary Amanda Heng and co-artists Twardzik Ching Chor Leng and Vincent Twardzik Ching produced Home Service, a performance work that involved the practitioners contracting themselves out for a month of domestic duty, the drudgery of the artistic concept neatly reflecting the drudgery of house work…
Two works stood out for their lucidity however, Houseproud by Australian artist Cassandra Schultz and Foreign by Agnes Yit. Houseproud was an installation/performance that charted the bond between maid and employer. The artist selected pairs of women-employers and domestics who shared reciprocal relationships of respect. She then apposed photographic images of the faces of both onto a number of domestic objects to be used by the participants. A maid slept on a pillowcase adorned with her employer’s image while an employer ate from a bowl sporting her maid’s face. The participants then had to wash the objects themselves and return them to the artist for display in pairs.
The work effectively explored the complexity of the bond of dependence between women of hugely different cultural, educational and financial backgrounds and provided an opportunity for reflection on the positive aspects of a relationship that is often unequal. In focussing on women’s relationships with domestics, Houseproud also successfully made a gender-statement, underscoring the fact that foreign maids are principally a boon to women rather than men. Finally the piece was strong in its humanity, making an unsentimental and light-handed gift of dignity to foreign domestics who are frequently dehumanised by both state and public.
Agnes Yit’s Foreign was less optimistic. Using a documentary approach to illustrate the lives of foreign domestics, the piece consisted of taped testimonials of maids describing their day-to-day existence. Devoid of artistic artifice, the unedited narration of hardships inherent to the job was delivered matter-of-factly rather than dramatised, thus lending the work a sober poignancy that a more artistically contrived effort could not have achieved. Obliging exhibition-goers to experience the piece alone through the use of headphones, Yit gave Foreign an intimacy that turned the viewer into a powerless witness as well as a trusted confidante. Disturbing in its content, the work’s power resided as much in the material as in its neutral delivery, Yit’s insistence that the monologues be experienced alone a compelling formal touch.