Snippets: Singapore Art Museum, Dec 2014

Heman Chong’s wall texts at the reception area of the Singapore Art Museum ends with “(s)ome of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.” This clever statement forecasts the unrealised expectations of viewing “Medium at Large”, an exhibition that aims to challenge traditional art categories, which works are arranged loosely by the medium it subverts. Also showing at the main building are works by finalists of the Signature Art Prize 2014, a lucrative award accorded to regional artists, which submissions are nominated and judged by art professionals. Seen together in one visit, “(t)here’s a wonderful sense of flow as you move (from) one artwork to another and forms overlap…” (Mayo Martin). Labels provide contexts for a collection of great individual art, as the hit-or-miss curatorial layout and competition judging issues recede to the background.

Early 'right-hand side' version of Lisa Reihana - in Pursuit of Venus (2012) [from in Pursuit of Venus website]

On the first floor, a 21-metre lenticular print of a street in Lahore impresses with its visual trickery, while Nguyen Trinh Thi’s projection of artists eating – last seen at the Singapore Biennale – remains compelling with its message of solidarity. Glittering portraits of Filipino leaders drawn with live bullets, and a jogger’s statue constructed from pink foam and bodily close-ups, show captivating approaches towards the act of seeing/making. Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s imaginative and potent take on the line in ‘Space Drawing 5’, illustrates a dynamic process that complements the technical mastery of Ian Woo and Nadiah Bamadhaj exhibited in the adjacent room. Photographic and video documentation of derelict buildings in Taiwan by the Lost Society Document, present an astonishing project where activism led to a governmental response.

Installation views of Yao Jui-Chung + Lost Society Document (LSD) - Mirage – Disused Public Property in Taiwan (2010–2014)

In contrast to the social implications implied by captures of mosquito halls 蚊子館, some exhibited works display an overbearing self-indulgence, especially the space and time wasting video installations by Ho Tzu Nyen. Humour is a more effective strategy for artful performances, evident from the wicked pleasure of seeing Melati Suryodarmo fall over slabs of butter, rather than watching the tedious charcoal-smashing by the same artist upstairs. Burnt furniture and blank tomes strike a sombre mood in Titarubi’s ‘Shadow of Surrender’, the pervasive use of wood alluding to a forgotten natural wisdom. Truncated drawings of forests lead on nicely to Natee Utarit’s classical and enormous painting, whose use of allegory is simplistic when compared to the mind-bending re-staging employed by Wong Hoy Cheong and Annie Cabigting in works hung opposite.

Snapshots from Melati Suryodarmo - Exergie – Butter Dance (Sao Paolo)

Distorted paintings and crafted artefacts make up the disappointingly few items on show from Alan Oei’s remarkable body of work “The End of History”. Projecting an individual’s story in a more dynamic approach is Ranbir Kaleka’s ‘He Was A Good Man’, the painting/video distinctly different from the habitat loss alluded to in ‘House of Opaque Water’. Indicative of how far behind award-winning Malaysian artists are, no shortlisted entries for the Signature Art Prize employ painting as its medium. Installed along the staircase wall, Liu Jianhua’s magnified ink traces ape the Chinese painting tradition with clever references to the 屋漏痕 calligraphic aesthetic. Being hypnotised by the smooth movements of Choe U-Ram’s mythical seal in a dark room, is also a far cry from watching mechanical birds flap its clunky wings closer to home.

Video stills from Chen Sai Hua Kuan - Space Drawing 5 (2009)

Two works that trigger one’s historical imagination leave the deepest impressions – Lisa Reihana’s scrolling panorama which animates a neoclassical French wallpaper, and Naeem Mohaiemen’s drawn-over photographs and grey sandstone moulds that reminisces upon Dhaka sixty years ago. Sitting on a Victorian sofa and watching images of the New World in the former, serene botanical landscapes are interrupted by colonial violence at unexpected junctures. One reviewer calls the latter’s small models “anthills, the steps of an agora, and a forest’s edge…”, these beautifully-carved objects drawing one’s attention to the personal story, behind photographs of cats taken by the artist’s father. Such captivating examples of how art leads to narratives beyond its medium’s confines, further demonstrates how mastery of a medium is an afterthought in contemporary art.

Promotional video for Naeem Mohaiemen - Rankin Street, 1953 (2013)