26 February 2016

Snippets: National Gallery Singapore, Jan 2016 (II)

…Painting European conventions into local subject matter, evolves into incorporating local styles. Walter Spies’ ‘Balinese Legend’ looks like a crossover of Henri Rousseau with a Chinese ink landscape. ‘Pasar’ by Hendra Gunawan projects a wonderful abstract style for its time, in painting a typical market scene. A Japanese soldier in Fernando Cueto Amorsolo’s ‘Marketplace during the Occupation’, recalls a tumultuous time despite its straightforward depiction. Vietnamese lacquer on board – with its golden splendour – demand its own compositional elements. S. Sudjojono’s large painting is a sight to behold, and befitting of its masterpiece status. Representative works by Malaysian and Singaporean artists from the 1960s are typically abstractions. Do Indonesian and Filipino art feature more politically-charged content, as compared to the rest of Southeast Asia?

Hendra Gunawan – Pasar (c. 1940s)

Batik patterns by Jaafar Latiff and Yusman Aman captivate, although it is the first time I come across the latter Malaysian. Loaned from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s collection, Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s ‘Membasoh Kain di Tepi Sungai’ displays a wonderfully-stylised painting, its slender figures looking more like performing a ritual than going about their daily chores. Climbing up a flight of stairs, David Medalla’s bubbly ‘Cloud Canyons No. 24’ greets visitors into a gallery that documents the conceptual and experimental approaches by regional artists. Works by Jim Supangkat and Raymundo Albano are exhibited; ‘Ken Dedes’ by the former invokes a moral judgement by simply juxtaposing a classical sculpture with a casual drawing, while the latter’s photographic collage captivates with its evocative approach to drawing physical space.

Patrick Ng Kah Onn – Membasoh Kain di Tepi Sungai (c. 1960s)

A relatively high number of works by Sulaiman Esa are shown, including three new creations that reflect upon the infamous joint exhibition with Redza Piyadasa, Towards a Mystical Reality. Re-created and re-staged artworks are not uncommon within the many NGS galleries, either commemorating specific events or an art object. In this case, the problem lies in its procuring feedback from the same artist, instead of merely deferring its reconstruction. Sulaiman’s contemporary response towards a historical moment engenders irrelevance, for one exhibition clearly outlined within the parameters of canonical art. Black hearts and an al-Fātiḥah message embedded within the artist’s profile are unnecessary, as 1977 etchings hung nearby already display a clear move away from the edifying moments of a Mystical Reality. “What models are we talking about?”, asks an adjacent painting by Redza.

Raymundo Albano – A Grid Describing A Room By Defining Its Parts (1978)

Perhaps identifying with a time more familiar to mine, the exhibits on the highest floor of the UOB gallery beguile as a collective whole. Community and personal predicaments are clearly described in visually attractive ways – rock juts out from Santiago Bose’s canvas and threatens to flatten the indigenous people below it, Chatchai Puipia’s self-portrait on leathery animal skin is unsettling yet beautiful, paper mats and sawali sheets decorate a painting of women by Imelda Cajipe Endaya, and Heri Dono projects a contemporary version of wayang kulit. Artworks created in the 1990s focus more on the cultural resonance of objects. Examples include Norberto Roldan’s assemblages with traditional cloth, Montien Boonma’s stack of ceramic bowls (and Tang Da Wu’s delightful homage), and a glass cabinet by Navin Rawanchaikul containing bottles filled with old photographic portraits.

[l] Installation snapshot of Montien Boonma – The Pleasure of Being, Crying, Dying and Eating (1993, reconstructed 2015); [r] Tang Da Wu – Montien and SAM (2010)

Malaysian artworks shine here too – Zulkifli Dahalan’s ‘Ruang Dapur’ deconstructs social space by literally undressing its occupants, sensual images reveal itself within Lee Kian Seng’s blue & red dye work, Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam casts a scathing light on Reagan & Thatcher via newsprint, abstract decorative motifs are flattened and spray-painted onto Ismail Zain’s canvas, Zulkifli Yusoff’s critique on Malay deference manifests in a monochromatic installation, and the popular image of one independence declaration is juxtaposed by Ahmad Fuad Osman with human bodies in distressed poses. Tracing linear trajectories about Southeast Asian art history is impossible given its diverse cultural and socio-political histories; and frankly unnecessary in this globalised world. 

Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam – Friends in Need (1986)

At a time when paintings become synonymous with culture and a national identity, I am resigned to the fact that Singapore can amass this cultural capital, while Malaysia cannot. The two permanent exhibitions run for five years, which will serve as an invaluable resource for Singaporeans, and art enthusiasts within the region. Enthusiastic guides and ample wall texts (although some are badly written) lead the uninitiated, as I look upon children running about Ise’s rooftop mural/ installation. The museum even has a mobile application to aid browsing. While dissenters may claim this project to be a white elephant, and the local government still struggling with censorship and funding, this is Singapore’s declaration that it can be a cultural centre, as I continue to dream on, in Kuala Lumpur…

Roslisham Ismail @ Ise – Sira Pisang (2015)

23 February 2016

Snippets: National Gallery Singapore, Jan 2016 (I)

As part of its Renaissance City Plan, two municipal buildings are combined to form Singapore’s new National Gallery, which boasts an 8,000 strong collection of Southeast Asian art. Despite running up & down stairs that still smell new, and dashing across cavernous halls between galleries, I still missed a few rooms and was late for my next appointment. The concourse galleries offer an auspicious start to my visit, which showcase works made in the 1970s that steered away from traditional art mediums. “A Fact Has No Appearance” recognises the pioneering efforts of three artists in the region, respectively – Malaysian Redza Piyadasa (text-based art), Perth-based Tan Teng-Kee (performance art and found object sculptures), and Filipino Johnny Manahan (video art).

Redza Piyadasa – Malaysian Art Review (1978)

Only managing a cursory glance at exhibits by the latter two artists due to a time constraint, Teng-Kee’s creations strike a formal impression. My assumption was confirmed by a wall text that informs, “…(the artist) talks of the key elements of point, line, and plane as central to his work.” The same text’s proposal that ‘Vibrating Rods’ is an expression of kinetic art, however, is presumptuous at best. Coming around to Redza’s exhibited works, which only one I have seen in a Malaysian gallery, it is apparent that meta-criticism is the artist’s main preoccupation during the Mystical Reality years. In a description of the work that shares the title of this 3-man show, “…Piyadasa was attempting to investigate the philosophical difference between a fact and an appearance, and seeing how descriptive text could approximate and stand in for the object’s visual presence.”

Tan Teng-Kee – Vibrating Rods (1975)

Looking at a plank nailed onto a chair, one ‘Malaysian Art Review’, and a literal block of ‘Chained Art’, it is difficult to ignore the self-indulgent nature of such endeavours. More interesting are works with actual aesthetic values, such as ‘Entry Points’ – one stencil-captioned Chia Yu Chian painting – and two “To Be Completed” portraits. A slide show of images included in Redza’s 1977 MFA thesis, yield further insights into his ambition to be an artist-dialectician rather than an artist craftsman. Potentially evocative constructs number just a few among chairs and propositions. In a 2004 video interview/ rant, Redza associates his postmodern art (e.g. “Malaysians” series) as the (post-race) way forward in Malaysian art. Despite an over-emphasis on concepts, his willingness to engage with one’s national identity, strikes a familiar chord with the local contemporary scene.

Selection of slide images from Redza Piyadasa’s MFA thesis at University of Hawaii ‘Art as Art becomes Art as Art’ (July 1977)

Moving on to the “…land art interventions, earth installations and mineral pigment drawings” of Tang Da Wu’s “Earth Work 1979”, the ‘Gully Curtains’ captivate with its simple yet representative record of an eroding plot of land. Non-objective art continues to be celebrated as I chance upon an incised outline of a square, Cheo Chai-Hiang’s ‘5’ x 5’ (Inched Deep)’ proposal now physically inscribed into Singapore art canon. This second floor gallery stages “Siapa Nama Kamu?”, its title referencing words on a blackboard in Chua Mia Tee’s ‘National Language Class’. Despite browsing the show in a non-linear manner, it is impressive that a collection of artworks can tell a brief history of a country – from the realistic records of industrialisation taking place, to the abstract implications that manifest in modernist art.

Video introduction by Charmaine Toh to “Siapa Nama Kamu?” @ DBS Singapore Gallery [from CAPTURED Vimeo page]

With displays hung close to each other in a low-ceiling environment, the exhibition is cosy and intimate, an apt setting for an island state with an authoritative government. Chinese ink paintings line both sides of a (too) narrow corridor, while themed rooms pair wall hangings with freestanding sculptures. Cheong Soo Pieng’s seminal ‘Tropical Life’ hangs here, a picture loaned from Malaysia’s National Visual Arts Gallery which I have not seen. Memorable exhibits include paintings by Lai Foong Moi and Koeh Sia Yong; photographs by Wu Peng Seng and Yip Cheong Fun; sculptures by Teo Eng Seng and Han Sai Por; and woodcut prints by Tan Tee Chie and Choo Keng Kwang. Appreciating these items from the NGS Collection (and its donors) is an embarrassing affair, as I lament the lost opportunities with NVAG not showing its collection on a permanent basis.

 [from l to r] Yip Cheong Fun – Amidst the Nets (c. 1940s); Choo Keng Kwang – 13th May Incident (1954); Koeh Sia Yong – Cannot Grow Vegetables Anymore (1968)

Having content knowledge and presenting it are two different skills. “Between Declarations and Dreams” – the title taken from a line in Chairil Anwar’s poem Karawang Bekasi (“Berjagalah terus di garis batas pernyataan dan impian”) – “…follows the chronological development of Southeast Asian art from the 19th century to the post-1970s.” While re-writing histories is oft-repeated in curatorial briefs, a reliance on canonical texts remains necessary. This is the museum’s first show, after all. Looking at the many artworks stretching across decades is a mind-numbing affair, where regional contexts become secondary to visual triggers. As Mayo Martin sums up the experience nicely – “(a)t best, any attempt to frame in neat terms art production from a region this messy is provisional.” At least, one does not feel bad being judgmental in a former courthouse...

Lai Foong Moi – Home Coming (1964)

18 February 2016

The Kings of Wishful Thinking @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Anurendra Jegadeva utilises enlarged prints of the Malaysian banknote as a background to draw his typical cast of characters – the schoolgirl, the devotee, the poet, etc. In a stunted economy with a depreciating currency, the Ringgit becomes an easy symbol and a lazy target. The king’s head is a straightforward focal point in these creations, although the re-drawn royal portrait with the Nasi Lemak lady offers a good look at an image most take for granted. Going through this series of works, the overbearing nationalist sentiment turns into tiresome commentaries. I got a stronger impression when being told that visiting this sold-out show is by appointment only, as J. Anu takes precautionary steps to mitigate a previous unfortunate experience.

[from l to r] Photograph of Malaya's first Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman [picture from wikiwand.com]; Detail on a RM 10 bank note; Detail from Portrait of  the King with a Nasi Lemak Lady (2015)

Moving onto ‘Yesterday in a Padded Room – A Painted Installation’, which last exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong, romanticised portraits describe the history of Southeast Asia via a passage from Sejarah Melayu. This ambitious attempt relies on the recognition of icons, not unlike the figurative depictions of heroic myths in temples. Irrelevant and obscure references dilute the presentation, and its emphasis on an East-West dichotomy is obsolete in contemporary discussions on culture. The padded walls recall a DIY music studio, and the LED candles on outlandish chairs resemble tacky and impractical thrones. One can only hope that the historical dissonance referenced within this work, stays muted as Southeast Asian countries wrestle with its combative past.  

Installation view of Yesterday in a Padded Room - A Painted Installation (2015) [picture from weiling-gallery.com]

11 February 2016

(χ_+) Unknown Plus @ Minut Init Art Social

“Unknown to us, we do have a sense to appreciate beautiful and morbid things”, states a wall text in Ajim Juxta’s exhibition of drawings, paintings, and poems. The prolific artist, active in Publika’s Art Row and often seen at Artisan Roast TTDI, is known for his grotesque yet attractive creations. Dystopic visions – of technological assimilation and development pace – are quoted as a source of inspiration, although the mesmerising quality of his works draw from a visual familiarity with organic forms. Scrawling perspective lines and dark shades threaten to overwhelm, but distinct shapes and ample white space around the subject matter nicely balance out these pictures. 

Installation snapshot

Contrasting with the dense and vivid paintings in his past works, the presentation here follows a typical portraiture and character design formats. The mannequin/ mask and the monument symbolise the artificial, but sinuous lines utilised to illustrate reveal such metaphors as a façade. Two “Penghuni Distopia” works titled ‘Obsesi/ Bntt’ and ‘Obsesi/ Ttk’ hang side by side, signifying the simple yearning for authenticity that manifest in all city folk. Blood, coffee, and saliva project a questionable novelty in its colouring effects, although one does admire Ajim’s personal conviction as portrayed through his works, and especially his poems. “In this monotonous world, we seek the unravelling of endless questions. Let this be a relic, a tribute, a testament to our journey.” 

Penghuni Distopia (2015): [l] Obsesi/ Bntt; [r] Obsesi/ Ttk

“A dead tree   I see   in this heat   I breathe;
standing waiting for a saw   thunder and lightning might hit   yet falling is uncertain;
the town is not quiet   it is robust and shifting   old and new   new and old;
I look up again   forming a style   rhythm works together   in discord or in unison;
yet I am silent in this confusion   viewing all that travels through life;
we are all lonely trees   we shall die standing straight   or falling to worship Earth”
- TREE_, wall text in “(χ_+) Unknown Plus”

Installation snapshot of Arkologi: Pohon Tak Berdaun (2015)

04 February 2016

Extending Ideas @ Feeka

One often hears that “contemporary art is open to interpretation”. Meaning-making in visual art tends to be overwhelmingly personal, and reading an artwork relies on knowledge about art history, socio-political environment, cultural tropes, etc. Typically overlooked are the emotional and thinking states of the viewer, when one visits an exhibition space. In the case of “Extending Ideas” – the Goethe-Institut sponsored follow-up to “Thinking Drawing” – I alighted the café’s staircase after learning about the Zika virus earlier that morning. Despite having seen a number of exhibits by Elias Yamani Ismail and Veronika Neukirch in shows last year, the former’s critical take on standards appear less potent, while fruits depicted by the latter (silicon-plaster, or otherwise) seem more forbidden than before.

Astrid Köppe - Baran Light Box I (2015)

Vacuum-packed wooden carvings by Eddie Choo Wen Yi recall a quarantined environment, or imported Chinese New Year delicacies. Incising hand traces onto sculptures of everyday objects, the artist’s intention to present warmth now more resemble a memento mori. ‘Baran Light Box I’ by Astrid Köppe projects a wonderful play with a Japanese material and its form, but her pink styrofoam clusters only remind of death-seeking viruses. Elias – who wrote a jejune essay about bricolage in art – presents the most visually attractive work made from scouring pads and PVC connectors. Alas, its title ‘Osedax’ refers to a deep sea bone-eating worm. No thanks to the timing of the visit, my interpretations for these artworks had other morbid ideas, beyond extended ones.

Elias Yamani Ismail - Osedax (2016)