by Daniela Beltrani
“In all of humankind’s ‘forms of consciousness’, only the arts are international and borderless. They are an expression of a common human spirit. Hence, it is only when the nationalities of the world unite through art that war can be completely eradicated. […] Hence, we should actively study and promote artistic culture.”
For the third instalment of the series of yearly exhibitions collectively known as a|edge – after the first two successful editions in 2012 and 2013 curated by Dr Susie Lingham – the theme is elicited by the power of the hyphen to link or juxtapose two diverse terms in order to form a third word, a new proposition. The word hyphen derives from the ancient Greek ὑπό ἕν (hypóhén), meaning literally “under one.”
This somewhat forceful unitarian quality is by no means appeasing or exhaustive; au contraire, it is often a mere stratagem to question, probe, investigate, and overall it intends to leave the audience pondering, confronting issues in an irresistible and seducing manner through theselection of artworks presented.
This year, a staggering number of proposals responded to the open callextended to art teachers within the fraternity: 77! Almost two and half times the number of submissions for the inaugural exhibition in 2012.
Essential considerations concerning the pertinence of the individual response to the theme, the cutting edge quality of the submission in terms of medium, concept, process and/or material, and the aesthetic properties of the piece, in equal measure contributed to the selection of 36 artworks for this exhibition.
These numbers are mentioned not as detached and unsympathetic statistics,but as impartial indicators of a current trend and tremendous effort amongstart educators.
Whilst I congratulate the successful art teachers on having been selected, onbeing able to exhibit as artists in their own right and on sharing with the audience a glimpse into their own practice, which is situated timidly yet consistently alongside their primary role as educators; I also wish to recall all those who were not selected and are therefore – to extrude a pun from the theme – in-visible within this context, yet bravely continue their own individual artistic journey.
I wish to encourage them to persevere in their artistic efforts, to continue honing their aesthetic skills and sensibilities further, to allow the rejection tochallenge their status-quo in creative self-reflection and to remember that “discerning and deep-thinking artists are rare,” because “culture and art require long-term cultivation and cannot be hastened.”
Thus, the higher number of submissions of this year is a heartening markerof the steadily escalating success of STAR’s effort in encouraging andsustaining the personal artistic journey of each art educator within a dialogic platform that engages him/her with a wider creative community and the art world beyond the classroom.
The diverse, implied benefits of such a personal path are undoubtedly passed onto the students, not only as a real-life inspiration but also as the teacher’s artistic research is deepened, made relevant and questioned through confrontations and dialogues with the audience and with theirstudents alike. Participating artists are in fact required to prepare, besides a statement in relation to their artwork, also a Lesson Idea. This expedientallows them to probe further readings, stimulate more questions and invite the students themselves to create an artwork in dialectic response to the artist’s.
The high demands and fast pace of our society paired with mesmerisingtechnological advancements have had the effect of challenging and ultimately perhaps reversing Liu Kang’s consideration on the consequences of teaching for the artistic practice – when he talked about Chen Jen Hao who taught 13 years at Dunman High School – which in his opinion “seriously depleted his precious time and creative energy, almost causing him to give up his art.”
“We should be courageous enough to take risks, to experiment, to explore terrain where no one has ventured before. We can no longer be prisoners in the castles of the East or the West. We must fight for a Singapore art. We must fight for a Singapore culture.”
Another positive indicator, in this year’s exhibition, is the first appearance of performance art amongst the disparaged artistic modes of expression the artists have employed to express their preoccupations. More on this later when the works are discussed.
As an additional curatorial post-selection contemplation over the generalpreoccupations of the artists, there seem to be some easily identifiable and at times overlapping threads amongst them.
In fact, almost all of the artworks appear to revolve around the theme of Self,in response to the hyphen inspired theme, but executed with different approaches: namely—in the profoundest etymological sense—introspective, observing or interactive.
Ten artworks are mentioned in the rest of this text to illustrate how the artworks might be understood. These summary assessments are by no means descriptive or exhaustive of the depth of each artwork, they merelyintend to emphasize one of their prominent qualities.
Adzmey Bin Asmom’s and Noor Rahman Saini’s photographic works are intensely introspective in refreshingly divergent ways. The first offers us a seemingly flat yet visually compelling reconstruction of himself within his most immediate and strongest familial bonds, his mother and grandfather. Often, particularly at a young age, people try to find physical and/or characterful connections in our bodies and/or dispositions, with our own blood relations. Adzmey takes this approach in a literal manner and attempts to visually present such connections within his own narrative. His distinctive facial features become lost and confused in the segmentation of the two images in both works.
Noor Rahman Saini, Pasir Ris Sec School
The observing approach literally contemplates on the Self in its traces and presence, as experienced in the outside world, highlighting fractures and bringing them together in an conciliatory proposition. This approach looks outwards, at a world where humanity seeks understanding and acceptance of the seemingly incomprehensible Others. Human experience is characterised by an undeniable dualistic quality, which ultimately cannot be resolved in one sense by denying the Other, but only transcended in its completeness. Initially seeming incongruities are presented and connected, in order to be transcended.
The blurred vision in Razali’s work suggests a secondary urban landscapeso close to us, yet instinctively refused because they are connected to our deepest inner fears. Smell of stale urine, dirty corners, unknown figures become the metaphorical presence of our ignorance and lack of awarenessof back alleys. The softness of the lines renders the composition if not seductive, at least attractive enough to invite us to walk into it, fearlessly,whilst the focal points may be suggesting a hopeful journey.
Not so with Norlita Marsuki’s series of microscopic landscapes within the larger Singaporean context. She looks at the natural world with a benevolent and compassionate eye, as in an attitude of appraisal and subsequent request of forgiveness. Ignored, subversive and unregulated details take first stage and are brought to our attention. Her example is an exhoringawareness of the smallest details in our surroundings, where we may surprisingly find traces of beauty and be inspired to compose our own.
Loke Puay Yin, Hua Yi Secondary School
As anticipated, two performance-installations will grace this year’s exhibition space. Within the observing context, Sheralyn Woon’s A-typical. Sheralyn had originally proposed a photography work, polished, essential and rather self-explanatory. The idea had potential for further investigations and a different medium, performance. The artist took on the curator’s passionate words and enthusiasm and ran head-on into an artistic whirlwind-like journey. She produced a work that probes into her Peranakan culture and draws attention to the idiosyncrasy between past and present, between lived and represented. What we see today, over-commercialised for the needs of a constant influx of tourists, is one side of the Peranakan Nyonya, as the artist is suggesting, more imagined than real. Sheralyn offers the audience an atypical Nyonya, one they may not see in the shiny and colourful slippers and ceramic vases they will bring home, one they are unable to take away,but one who existed nonetheless.
Foo Tiang Weng’s work, untitled (sweeping), entails another familiarity, this time seemingly harmless, yet pregnant with prejudices the artist wishes to challenge through his first ever performance, which doubles up asinteractive installation. The untitled work ambiguously suggests the mis-represented expression ‘If You Don’t Study Well, You Will Be Sweeping the Streets’, naively meant to be an advice, encouragement and threat to youngsters, yet looking down on an indispensable occupation; it also suggests some Singaporean’s kiasu mindset of pursuit of awards, with unintended consequences. In Singapore, it was not too long ago, in the year 2000, the Parliament legislated compulsory education up to Primary 6. It is clear though that while school attempts to prepare future generations for any type of economy, it is equally important to instil core values, such as respect and care. Only then can we keep prejudices and discriminations at bay, and honour any occupation, and respect people for who they are. Through the performance, the teacher-artist Tiang invites us to reconsider our prejudices and to witness him sweeping the floor in a cathartic act, which has the direct intention of exorcising those very prejudices, and provoking us to think about the consequences of blindly chasing for trophies. The strength of the work comes precisely from the idiosyncratic coming together of subject and action, and inviting the viewer to think about humility in our daily lives.
The undeniable stigma associated with performance art in Singapore, in my opinion probably predominantly due to a distorted portrayal of certain controversial performances by the media, is undeservedly ascribed and hashampered a true understanding, study, appreciation and propagation of one of the most versatile and unmediated forms of art of the 20th century.
Thus, respectively, the photography and installation works originally proposed by the two artists acquire a new power and relevance not only in the immediate delivery of the strong message, but also in that, being the materials directly used during the performance, the process of art making becomes transparent and is unveiled before the very eyes of the attending audience. In fact, the traces of the performances leave not only an installation, but a more poignant relic, no longer mere material but material charged with the energy and memory of the performance.
Both artists’ concerns abandon the rational and mediated site of connection with the audience in favour of an empathic and vulnerable approach. This interactive approach invites us to leave the realm of the merely visual experience of art and to enter that dialogic space through actions or non-actions set in motion by choices of the participating audience. Thus, the artist is the starting point, whilst the audience is the end part and both meet in the artwork, which becomes the catalyst of this meaningful encounter, even when the audience decides not to interact with the work, as a decision was made nevertheless.
Lorraine Lee’s work displays a positive stance to the inherent punitive and/orintimidating quality of a popular household object, which is still being sold in Singapore’s heartlands local shops: the cane. The original inherent quality is questioned and the cane comes to serve a completely different purpose, that of offering a form of catharsis to the members of the audience sitting onto the chair by recalling and sharing past experiences or memories related to the object. This re-appropriation of the object occurs even before this intimate moment, as the body gently sits down and therefore moves towards that object one day may have run away from.
Numbers are what can make up a great part of a person’s life: the years cumulating, the money earned or spent, the ever rising population, the many children and grandchildren, the friends, and so on. Karen Yeh is perfectly aware of the power of numbers within an art context in relation to the audience. Increasing visitorship every year may be a sign of success for a museum or an art fair, but the artist is concerned more with the quality of the individual presence that contributes to that number. She questions the single person and invites him/her to become aware of their own attendance and furthermore NOT to be counted in this exhibition by retaining the card they were invited to punch into the machine as a tangible sign of their presence at the exhibition, at the beginning of their visit as well as at its end. Her workUntitled (Time-stamp machine) has the duplicitous rationale of prompting ourawareness to visitorship numbers, whilst revolting against the hegemony ofnumbers, interpreted in absolute terms and disengaged from a necessaryqualitative analysis of the entire artistic experience.
Taking lead from the recent Singapore Biennale’s contentious theme If The World Changed, I will quote Mahatma Ghandi:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.
If art teachers are to inspire students to become artists or even simply adults who are responsive to aesthetic stimuli and able to appreciate art—ultimately for a better integrated and more tolerant society—there is no better example for these 41 artists but their own art to speak for them.
Classically educated in Italy, a doctor in Law and a docent for the Singapore Art Museum, Daniela gained a Master of Arts in Contemporary Asian Art Histories in 2011 from LaSalle CIA, Singapore.
Since 2010 Daniela has curated four exhibitions and written articles for art publications. In June 2011 she set up a performance art platform, named SPAM. Her interest in performance art both as spectator and performer allows her to explore different levels of communication.