Staying Woke with Children at NGS, Jun/Oct 2019 (I of II)

With half its exhibits already taken down 5 months into its 7-months run, "Children’s Biennale 2019: Embracing Wonder" at the National Gallery Singapore amounted to an unimaginative visit with the family. Rudimentary motion sensors, a stationary steering wheel in a stylised boat, throwing balls that only occasionally make chimes ring, a monochromatic illustration stuck up high on a glass wall, and stretching necks to peer at plant-filled dioramas - one wonders how many of the participating artists actually have offspring, or have worked closely with children. That the majority of them are established in the regional art world, hints at a questionable curatorial approach that favours relationships over relevant credentials. While some envy the government support Singapore accords artists, I wonder how many of its citizens are actually able to question critically how funds are utilized in this sector/industry...

Video snapshots taken from Rajendra Gour - Eyes (1967)

...I visited National Gallery Singapore four months ago, when a 90-minutes brisk walk through "Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s" did a disservice to the exhibition curators & organisers, and also to myself as a keen audience member. Darn time constraints. Stepping into the first gallery, I was immediately captivated by 'Eyes', a 4.5-minutes video montage of city dwellers, a tentative artist, wild eyes, and whirling sequences up staircases and down (and out) windows. Made by former Radio and Television Singapore film editor Rajendra Gour, its frantic pacing is matched by Toshio Matsumoto's 'For The Damaged Right Eye', where the rebellious restlessness of youth is contrasted against Japanese cultural norms via a split-screen. Along with Lee Seung-taek's snapshots of 'Burning Canvases Floating on the River' displayed on the same wall, these three works outline the making & viewing of this landmark exhibition.

Toshio Matsumoto - For The Damaged Right Eye (1968)

Organised by NGS in partnership with the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea, the exhibition focus is unapologetically East Asian. Curators propose 3 themes: "Questioning Structures", "Artists and the City", and "New Solidarities". ArtsEquator editor Nabilah Said's observations resonate with me - " I made my way through the exhibition, I found these themes becoming less and less important, and focused instead on the individual artworks and their specific raisons d’ĂȘtre." To assign a metadata tag, the 3 categories that ease my visual interpretations are: Art reflecting on its relationship with the world around it, art capturing a cultural zeitgeist, and art recording a durational performance.

Keiji Uematsu - Tree/Man (1973)

Affected by the initial encounters, I gravitated mostly to exhibits featuring the human figure on screen, or on print. An exception are the playful takes on sense & perception by Mono-ha artists. Lee Ufan's steel cube wrapped in fluffy cotton was a sensual delight, while Keiji Uematsu fighting gravity to lodge himself between thin trees with the aid of a rope, is as irreverent as the act of determining one's formal relationship with the world. Yoko Ono intensifies this exploration in her seminal performance 'Cut Piece', where personal identity and its types (female beauty/ submissive Asian/ staged performance) provoke a sinister response. I recall a disturbing moment, when one audience member displayed an apologetic glee, while wielding a scissors at the stationary artist before snipping off a piece of the artist's clothing.

Installation snapshot of Lee Kang-So - Disappearance–Bar in the Gallery (1973)

Audience participation can manifest a passive resistance, as one imagines sipping makgeolli shots in the white box that housed Lee Kang-So's 'Disappearance–Bar in the Gallery'. The artist set up a bar within a gallery space, during the early 1970s when congregations of people was deemed illegal by a repressive regime. As a reviewer notes, "'Disappearance' preceded Rirkrit Tiravanija's iconic 'untitled 1990 (pad thai)' by more than two decades." The institution's programming refers to this work in staging a happening on its premises, which dance & drinks event makes for an amusing watch, yet devoid of the subversion inherent in the initial work. Another hyped-up sterile presentation is 'Reptiles' by Huang Yong Ping, the paper pulp covering entire walls and burial plots, compelling visitors to capture an ephemeral spectacle instead of questioning its material content...

Snapshots from Wang Jin - Ice: Central China (1996)