Native revisions—a new morphology

Chua Chye Teck, Noh Suntag, Anup Mathew Thomas, Tomoko Yoneda
Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts
11 February – 12 April 2017

The title of this exhibition was adapted from an earlier more innocuous title by Anup Mathew Thomas. Native ball and revisions is the title of a 2014 series of panoramic colour photographs of an indigenous ball game being played again in Kerala, India. The old rules for this game are a little fluid and the game gets going nearly anywhere that is convenient. There are two of these photographs in the exhibition along with other major works by Thomas made between 2008 and 2016. In using Native revisions as a title for her exhibition, curator Melanie Pocock focuses on scenography that is adapted and imprinted over what was there before.

For her ensemble installation, Pocock chose the work of four artists—alongside Anup Mathew Thomas (India) there were Chua Chye Teck (Singapore), Noh Suntag (South Korea) and Tomoko Yoneda (Japan). Each of the artists envisages processes of returning to and photographing familiar places, places to which they are or were connected. Each work idiosyncratically presents a contingent sense of place and photographic image. Place or what is ‘natural’ (or native) is drawn as temporal and changeable, effected by seemingly intangible qualities given to time and people.

Pocock marks out this direction early in her catalogue essay where she draws attention to how postmodern narratives have generalised national markers of identity. ‘Native’ has come to represent exclusive content in terms of the culture industry. One could say that the overwhelming pressure on contemporary artists is to identify ‘place’ within what are relatively new national cultural systems. This sort of arm-twisting can be seen in the work of Chua Chye Teck who is represented by Beyond wilderness (2014-16), a series of black and white photographs taken of jungle interiors in Singapore. Chua’s photographs are attenuated and abstracted, even graphic. Depths of field are very short and contrasts heightened. The images do not directly come across as immersive nor provide an escape into the remnant ‘wilds’ of Singapore; nor are they so much statements about the loss of this natural landscape, although these suggestions are made in the catalogue.

Thinking of the pressure of the culture industry, one cannot ignore the new positioning being undertaken in Singapore to connect and facilitate broader pan-Asian cultural viewpoints. It is a healthy task and this ICA Singapore exhibition is itself involving these complex motivations. Conversely in Singapore there is a parallel, perhaps lower down, antagonism where the material influence of government upon cultural life is near all-pervasive. Notions of ‘independence’ and its social acceptance are not well-defined, creating a situation that pushes and pulls within the life of the city. For artists the real pressure or tension lies in how they might work without previewing by the state. Chua Chye Teck’s photographs can be read as an attempt to find an intuition of place out of sight of this overlooking.

The six medium-sized black and white photographs in the exhibition by Noh Suntag were taken on the southern side of the demilitarised zone in Korea. It is a place where Noh has staged his photography for many years, and this specificity is loaded inextricably across each printed surface. The series is titled The strAnge ball (2004–07), and documents the enforced displacement of villagers and farmers in the area to make way for an increased military presence. The scenes generally depict semi-rural countryside and local people, but in each image Noh punctures the ‘natural’ landscape by catching sight in the distance of a white ball low the sky—it is the dome of a US radar installation close by. Working with a cool technical brilliance, Noh’s images portray an exasperating and unnerving realism.

What was interesting in Native revisions was the way it made visible an unfolding of new intercultural potential. Melanie Pocock chose artists whose expression comes from what she describes as ‘self-identification’, an identification unbound and unlimited by place. Her curatorial premise was that ‘where a place might begin or end is a boundary that perhaps lies outside ontological possibility’.

There was another very successful exhibition in Singapore recently that pursued a similar intercultural critique of identity in Asia. Held at Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in late 2015, it was titled Time of others and involved seventeen artists co-curated with Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. There were healthy synergies between the two exhibitions but what was very different was the curatorial approach to installation. Where Native revisions was presented as a unified installation of different zones where artworks were not delineated, the SAM exhibition involved corralling artists individually into designated rooms for works of various media. Native revisions held closer to an articulated morphology—the installation was nuanced, the artists almost choreographed. This approach registered commonalities between the four artists despite the geography ranging from South India, east to Korea and Japan, and south to Singapore. Pocock firmly established the geography and specificity of these artist’s worlds, but allowed them to coexist in plain view.

Anup Mathew Thomas, Scene from a wake, 2016. Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2017. Photograph Geraldine Kang.

Noh Suntag, The strAnge ball, 2004–07. 6 digital prints, each 54 × 81cm. Courtesy the artist.

Tomoko Yoneda, The parallel lives of others—Encounter with Sorge spy ring, 2008. 15 gelatin silver prints, each 9 × 9cm. All works courtesy the artist and ShugoArts, Tokyo.

notes: 

All quotes are taken from the exhibition catalogue. Native Revisions, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2017.