In times long past, labyrinths served a spiritual purpose—a function that is presently seeing a revival. Such labyrinths, unlike the famed labyrinth of the minotaur, are unicursal, lacking the dead ends we associate with mazes. The user winds their way along an intricately woven path, in a form of walking meditation. Jason Wee’s recent solo exhibition, Labyrinths, suggests both this calm depth of complexity and the challenge of navigating a maze, despite there being only one work which literally resembles a labyrinth.
The eponymous Labyrinths (2017) is the largest work in the exhibition, and the first to be encountered in the space. Formed of metal fences akin to those used in public spaces in Singapore, as well as metal tactile indicators used to assist the blind in navigating, the work’s constituent elements suggest the exhibition’s overall themes of boundaries and navigation, while also drawing familiar elements of urban life into the space of the gallery. Laid out across both the floor and the wall, Labyrinths suggests a folded, or fractured terrain, impossible to freely move through. It is a point also emphasised by the dramatic cuts through the fences, and their fragmentary projection from the wall and floor, the overall visual experience not unlike the mind-bending spatial distortions of the recent Doctor Strange movie.
One aspect of the work, which underscores the exhibition’s focus on both physical and metaphorical way-finding, is not immediately apparent without knowing how to read Morse Code. The patterns of dots and dashes formed by the tactile indicators spells out a line from the poem ‘Archipelago’ by Boey Kim Cheng: ‘the routes that led you from the coast of forgetting to this coast of remembering’.
Although the artist has stated that the ‘fences’ used in the exhibition were manufactured by the same workshop that various government bodies contract to produce the public fences ubiquitous in Singapore, some differences become apparent once one gets past that moment of familiarity and recognition. The foremost would either be their non-standard colour scheme, or their unusual dimensions—both hint at the actual colours and sizes used, while never being quite identical, taking that moment of recognition and projecting various shades of uncertainty through these modulations. The effect, as a whole, is akin to the technique of variation in music, but executed in spatial, visual terms.
Unlike Labyrinths, the remaining works in the exhibition are wall-mounted assemblages, with each having a single ‘fence’ as its ground. Each alludes to some feature of the labyrinths and barriers in Singapore’s physical and political landscape. The subject of each assemblage is sometimes plainly laid out—Labyrinths (Out of the Cl_s_t, Into the C_ge) (2017) consists of a white fence yarn-bombed with the text ‘Cl_s_t’ and ‘C_ge’, in reference to the Pink Dot protests against the continued State oppression of the LGBT community. Similarly, Labyrinths (Living Rooms) (2017) makes reference to the social media spat between Singapore’s Prime Minister and his siblings, who publicly, and in dramatic fashion, argued over the fate of their childhood home, with the Prime Minister’s siblings accusing him of abusing his powers. Other assemblages are more abstruse, prompting one to consult the exhibition flyer for a hint, but as a whole the series asks of the viewer considerable familiarity with Singapore’s past, present, and material culture.
Each assemblage, like a page of text, a series of comic panels, or a title on the spine of a book, expands upon these subjects. Rather than using ordered sequences of words or images to convey an emotion, or impart information, Wee’s assemblages are primarily evocative and associative, drawing together materials, objects, images, and text into a non-linear whole. One’s focus might wander freely between the general and the specific, between minute details and the overall physical presence of each assemblage.
While the constituent objects of each assemblage are certainly evocative of (or associated with) the subject particular to them, these evocations and associations seem also to tease out our own perceptions of them, entwining with each assemblage to form transient hybrids. For instance, while Labyrinths (Living Room) points at a high-level political dispute, it also incorporates materials more broadly associated with domestic interiors—fragments that could be excerpts of ordinary curtains, shelves, and so on, potentially re-casting the Lee family dispute in terms of some turbulence within one’s own family. Similarly, the abstraction of materials common to the now-defunct Sungei Road market in Labyrinths (Sungei Road) (2017) could suggest the second hand market’s long, lingering death by regulatory strangulation, or simply the profusion of temporary barriers in a rapidly-gentrifying neighbourhood full of construction sites.
None of these labyrinths of Wee’s offer simple answers to the thorny issues they engage with, nor do they provide maps to elude the physical barriers which constitute part of the State’s apparatus of spatial control. These focused meditations lend nuance to their respective subjects, like labyrinths tailored to reflecting upon specific subjects.
Jason Wee, Labyrinths (Living Rooms), 2017. Galvanized steel, polyester print, C-print on PVC, teak laminate on plywood, watercolour on cold press paper, mirrors, etched aluminium, powder-coated steel, spray paint on cut wood, 253 x 187cm.
Images courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.
Jason Wee, Labyrinths, 2017. Stainless steel, galvanized steel, emulsion paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery;
Jason Wee, Labyrinths, 2017. Open Fire. Images courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.
Jason Wee, Labyrinths, 2017. Out of the CIoset, Into the Cage. Images courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.