The Singapore Intensive

Choy Ka Fai (and June Yap); Song-Ming Ang (and Guo-Liang Tan); Andrée Weschler (and Lee Weng Choy); Charles Lim (and David Teh)
Future Perfect, Singapore
19 October 2012 - 9 December 2012

As an eight-week long programme of exhibitions and forum discussions, Future Perfect’s ‘The Singapore Intensive’ series might be more fitting for an art museum or public institution than a private gallery. Perhaps it sees itself as filling a necessary lack in the country’s visual arts ecology, where attention spans and conversations on and about art can be worryingly fitful and fleeting. 

Like its suggested name, this series is about taking that deep plunge into looking at art and artists in Singapore, beginning with four artists who are invested in different media and areas of contemporary practice. Individually selected for show by four curator-peers, each artist was given a two-week slot at the gallery, which included an afternoon of conversation with interested audiences. And unlike the art museum’s penchant for showcasing a survey of upcoming young talents or mid-career retrospectives, ‘The Singapore Intensive’ does not function as a laudatory vehicle. It instead demands that work be done, through the making of new artworks that cross new lines of thought (or habitudes for the artists), and that viewers find themselves suitably challenged by what is posed in front of them. And I note too that none of the four are painters or sculptors in the usual sense, practitioners of disciplines which are more traditionally coveted by commercial galleries.

The series kicked-off with media artist Choy Ka Fai’s ‘Prospectus for a Future Body’, in which a set of performance videos demonstrated his latest experiments in cataloguing and transferring, via digital nerve stimulation which he calls ‘muscle memory’, a whole compendium of iconic dance performances from the past century (such as Tatsumi Hijikata’s butoh performance A Summer Storm from 1973). Alongside his cultural ambition to preserve and disseminate classic pieces of choreography, Choy’s gambit is that our human body can be re-trained for dance through digital means, and by this very method have the body also perform a living memory of our cultural heritage. The technological sophistication and futuristic thinking of Choy cannot be denied and the brave new world that he proffers is alluring, but it soon also runs up against the problems of artistic agency and emotional authenticity. The perfect transmission of this library of dance moves into an instant DIY activity may in fact segue into the dystopic, where we are only a shade away from the programmatic, rather than the meaningful memory of dance history. 

The body and its interplay with memory is also the subject of long-time Singapore-based French artist Andrée Weschler’s exhibition, except that her own body takes centre stage in her installation The Memory of Water (2012). The only female in this series, and an artist more regarded in Singapore for her live art performances, she turns the impersonality of Choy’s intervention into an autobiographical experience by interweaving her personal and artistic history into the exhibition. On display were the familiar red saga seeds, red shoes and black stockings which she has used as motifs in her performances, but the highlights of her show were the video projections of three shorts (‘The Need for an Alteration’, ‘Venus in Furs’, and ‘Innocence’) onto the liquid surfaces of three large plastic vats, containing black Chinese ink, blue dye, and milk, respectively. In the videos, Weschler was shown spewing black ink from her mouth, pasting horse hair all over her face until it became occluded, and filling her mouth with honey until it ran over her lips and onto her body. The hermetic sensuousness of the installation was, however, over time undercut by the instability of the milk in the gallery which continued to ferment, producing strangely luscious curds but vaguely offensive odours, and which corrupted the smooth surface of the projection, reminding us oddly of the vengeance of the organic.

In contrast, Song-Ming Ang and Charles Lim represented the more conceptual half of the series and were a lot more spare in their approaches. Ang, whose practice has centred on the construction and economy of sonic landscapes, resolved to uncover the hidden originary labour of the hand, a body part more associated with the traditional painter-sculptor than the contemporary artist, who has by now delegated much of its activity. In his installation Parts and Labour (2012), a video projection of Ang striving to take apart a piano and then reassemble it by his own hand over a period of four months, was screened opposite an upright piano. His apprenticing hand was again shown in Justin, a slide show in which he flashed his diligent exercises of copying Justin Bieber’s signature alongside the final accomplished sleight-of-hand of a Bieber poster boasting his ‘signature’ in silver ink. Similarly, Ang’s Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Seen This One Before, a series of hand-painted abstract watercolour circular disks accompanying vinyl record sleeves of Belle and Sebastian records, achieves a double citation: he premised the work on Jonathan Monk’s 2003 homage to The Smiths, Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before, but also, appropriately, found a Scottish indie pop band whose album covers took inspiration from The Smiths’s own designs. Just as Rosalind Krauss swiftly dispelled the myth of originality of the avant-garde and reignited the value of repetition, Ang revels in the act of copying, the making of cover versions, but without degrading the allure of distinctive craft.

If the three preceding artists had rather more cultural and aesthetic concerns, Charles Lim, a former national competitive sailor, rounds off the series by taking us back to the nation-site named in this Intensive. Lim’s project ‘Sea State 2: As Evil Disappears’ presents to us the insidious change happening on our shoreline, where land is ever encroaching upon water as reclamation activities pull ahead to meet economic demand. His display of official maps (detailing the coastal morphology over the past decade and the disappearance of Pulau Sajahat), photographic montages (that recall geological stratification), a miniature topographical 3D polymer print and two videos, documents a life world rationalised expansively. It is only contradicted by what is happening on his two video screens. With Sea State: Drift (Rope Sketch 1), a piece of rope bobs on the water, supposedly a cipher of the border between Singapore and Malaysia, and yet it appears to disregard national boundaries as it moves freely back and forth on the surface. Its companion screen, Sea State: Drift (Stay Still Now to Move), shows a man set adrift, floating on the waves and driven by currents, appearing at times to be crossing some imaginary territorial line as only a single continuous projection, but at other times seemingly caught in a repeated double of the same space. In Lim’s work, the land and sea swap places; the water is no longer the obstreperous one, it is the forces mobilising sand and soil that have turned aggressive and violent, so that, as the Singapore Navy puts it, we do not even have to think about the sea. Ever.

So what did ‘The Singapore Intensive’ leave behind for its audiences in Singapore? While the series brought to the public eye an inspiring quartet of contemporary practices, I am tempted to say that it has left the scene with a refreshed horizon to take on board; that a set of propositions from artists should not be merely content to be passively contemplated or accepted without question. The forum conversation that accompanied each exhibition compelled each artist to put their practice into context and contend with the peer assessment of his or her own curator-selector, fellow artists and other visitors who bothered to turn up. The labour of vigorous concentration, attraction and interaction; that is what an intense experience of art should have.

Choy Ka Fai, Eternal Summer Storm, 2010-12. Video still. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect Singapore. 

Song-Ming Ang, Parts & Labour, 2012. Video still, HD video, 26min. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect Singapore. 

Charles Lim, SEA STATE: drift (rope sketch), 2012. Single-channel HD digital video c.10min. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect Singapore. 

Andrée Weschler, The Memory of Water, 2012. Installation view. Single-channel digital video 8min projected on blue dye. Courtesy the artist and Future Perfect Singapore. 

notes: 

exhibition dates

Choy Ka Fai (and June Yap), Prospectus for a Future Body: Video and Performance 2010–2012
19 – 28 October 2012

Song-Ming Ang (and Guo-Liang Tan), Cover Versions
2 – 11 November 2012

Andrée Weschler (and Lee Weng Choy), The Memory of Water
16 – 25 November 2012

Charles Lim (and David Teh), Sea State 2: As Evil Disappears
30 November – 9 December 2012