quasi-singapore; @ home abroad

8Q sam, Singapore Art Museum
21 February – 26 July 2009

In the second major exhibition since its inauguration in August 2008, 8Q sam presented a simple premise in ‘@ home abroad’. The exhibition predominately introduces works, that have not previously been seen in Singapore, by five Singaporean artists: Jason Lim, Choy Ka Fai, Sookoon Ang, Zulkifle Mahmod and Ming Wong. As the itinerant artists are literally at home abroad, many of the works are more familiar to audiences outside of Singapore.

To elaborate on an argument from the exhibition catalogue: the rapid ascension of Asian biennales and fairs, or spectacles that persistently encourage insatiable commercial attention, has created an urgent need to develop public awareness locally; to develop a critical mass, particularly for contemporary art. It is implied that whilst fostering an international interest in artists from Asia, it seems that Singaporean institutions almost forgot to nurture a local audience and muster a following for the home-grown. Conversely, who is not at home abroad these days? Not just an increasingly common phenomenon, where the currency of nationality is diminished, but a standard practice that can test institutions to offer competitively lucrative opportunities. In response, ‘@ home abroad’ modestly attempts to counteract these positions.

‘@ home abroad’ takes its form as a series of solo exhibitions. Like the diagonally adjacent Singapore Art Museum, the renovated four-storey contemporary wing was formerly a Catholic school. The galleries’ configuration offers exhibition-makers some clear challenges. In particular, how to turn corners, connect distinct galleries across causeways so that larger-scale exhibitions can read coherently. The awkward geometry and orientations of the Singapore Art Museum are almost replicated and further exacerbated at 8Q. Dubbed ‘the Museum of Tomorrow’, 8Q sam plans to focus on, and make accessible, the diversity of contemporary practice by both established and emerging artists. However, despite its good intentions to personalise exhibition experiences, it retains aesthetic and institutional distancing.

Singapore and biennale poster boy, ceramist and performance artist, Jason Lim’s seemingly contradictory approaches are both organic and cumulative, and effectively bridge the traditional with the contemporary. For ‘@ home abroad’, his mini-solo exhibition (further supported by another mini-retrospective of his ceramic works at the Singapore Art Museum) presents a set, or a backdrop to a stage, with an archive of several documented performances from the Last Drop series (2005-2008). The documented performances show Lim, austere and serious, executing purposeful movements that, predominately, stress glass and watery or translucent materials. He is seen sitting on a wooden chair balanced atop four inverted glass tumblers (4 Actions (Straws) (2007, Germany); or we hear the thunderous tear of sticky tape being wrapped around a configuration of trees in a public space. Using Ikea furniture and some organic materials, specifically branches, the set anticipates the performance (or has it passed) and has the most evocative potential of the installation.

Exploring the ‘ontology of our everyday life’, Choy Ka Fai’s Rectangular Dreams reflects the structure of a documentary. Through five visual chapters projected onto two intersecting screens, the documentary retells the ‘retro-futuristic’ 1960s vision of living above and in close proximity to work and after-hours leisure. Montages of architectural sketches are gradually spliced with fragile historical images. Rather than using the actual architectural plans for public housing, Choy Ka Fai has used sketches from the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR), which publicly reviewed urban planning policies of the time, and thereby the work infers a critique. As an unofficial history, the work is offered, curiously, as a quasi-documentary, rather than a documentary or for that matter a mock-umentary. The description raises a question about the research that undermines its authenticity. Are research-based practices not valid?

A narrator, a bureaucrat, possibly an urban planner, also accompanies the installation. Three stacked screens contort and portray her as out-of-sync and, with two speakers sitting above her head, she appears to be a kind of fake Mickey Mouse narrator. At first she appears confident and capable, but progressively becomes puzzled. As Rectangular Dreams have in theory materialised in Singapore, the installation explores the tenuous differences between dreams and reality. Is the result really happiness or just some kind of quasi-happiness? As a portrait, Rectangular Dreams intersects interior and exterior angles in an attempt to shake-up this ‘unbrave new world’. For the most part, the underlying critique is subtle.

In its third reincarnation, Sookoon Ang’s minimal White Green consists of an astro-turfed floor and, isolated from the entry, two tiny screens depicting the prosaic activities of a Shanghai park, namely people sweeping. The screens are fixed atop galvanised posts and further weighted and covered by white rubber tiles. Reportedly, the television sets reference those found in Singapore’s community centres, while the ubiquitous rubber tiles are typically the indestructible and not so soft landing for playground equipment. The original reincarnation was part of ‘Longing Balloons’ (2006, Berlin): an exhibition-in-progress that installed Ang’s work over detritus that artist Monika Sosnowska swept under the astro-turf. Given its original intent, the path sweepers make sense. Yet, without the shape-shifting disorientation offered by Sosnowska’s contribution, the installation reiterates the rigidity of the gallery and exhibition, rather than eclipsing any physical and metaphysical realms or exploring the ethereal interior domestic and personal spaces that interest Ang.

Likewise, key experiential elements are missing from Zulkifle Mahmod’s installation. His False Securities project transforms the recording process into a dynamic listening experience in the field. The project plays-back and reverberates everyday noise that reflects a place and culture that can be at once familiar and foreign. Sampling surrounding auditory blind spots in landscaped public space and ambient interiors, he re-presents the previously inaudible and creates heightened realities for absorbed listeners. Within this exhibition, these communal experiences are exhibited, set within a particular time and space, happening elsewhere in Singapore, China and Japan. It is a really different experience to what is being offered as part of ‘@ home abroad’. While the installation includes an adjoining sound room, without the live element and not necessarily with another listener or convergence of listeners, the experience is just solitary. Given 8Q sam’s stated agenda of consistently developing community-orientated programming that engages audiences, to not have facilitated a performance-program of Mahmod’s work at 8Q sam is a missed opportunity.

Ming Wong’s new revision of world cinema is a tribute to Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Replicating key scenes from the original, Angst Essen / Eat Fear conveys the complicated relationship between Emmi, a widowed German cleaner and Ali, a much younger Moroccan guest worker who are subjected to blatantly insidious ostracism. As always, Wong simultaneously assumes all the characters, essentially levelling the playing field. In fact, it is impressive that he has been able to so closely resemble Fassbinder’s characters, not to mention match Emmi’s synthetic dresses. While his previous tragicomedies, such as Four Malay Stories (2005), inevitably made light of poor production qualities and plots and attracted humorous reactions, the narrative language of Eat Fear, like the original, drives interest in the bittersweet melodrama.

In preparation for a residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, (2007, Berlin) Wong immersed himself in this other, German culture at a time when there was public debate surrounding Turkish descendant’s growing frustration with their living conditions in Germany, and heightened xenophobia. The work is accompanied and comparatively well supported by Unter der Perücke / Under The Wig, photographs of Wong, assuming the various roles during production, by fellow Slade School alumni Anja Teske. Through adopting the disorientating slippages between Ali’s broken German, gender and cross-cultural experiences, Wong’s ‘multiplication of the self’ clearly enables empathy. He consistently positions himself as the other. From these perspective/s he challenges the notion of multiculturalism as a managerial and political catchphrase. Scrutinising the hierarchies within the politics of culture, which influence the parameters of personal and cultural identities, Wong questions—who speaks for whom?

No doubt assisted by twenty-seven minutes in a darkened room within ‘@ home abroad’, Wong’s installation most coherently delivers on ideas that oscillate with national identity, the displacing realities of globalisation and the nomadic nature of being a contemporary artist. While assuming multiple characters, the work simultaneously exhibits sameness and difference. The solo format of ‘@ home abroad’, epitomised by Jason Lim’s installation, mostly unanchors artists from the modest premise. As key experiential qualities are inaccessible the exhibition’s traction rests entirely with Ming Wong and Choy Ka Fai. It is a shame ‘@ home abroad’ is not a slightly better home-coming. Instead it is awkward, conservative and perhaps conveys a lack of familiarity with why these artists are successful elsewhere. This poses some questions: how will 8Q sam develop? Will it overcome the rigidity of its spaces or rely on artists to address these challenges creatively; and will it be able to consistently deliver community-orientated programming that engages audiences?

notes: 

Angst Essen / Eat Fear was recently exhibited as part of Ming Wong’s exhibition ‘Vain Efforts’ at Gallery 4A, Sydney, 6 March – 18 April.