Saturday, 29 November 2008

Possible, All Too Possible

TEXT BY Michael Lee Hong Hwee

PHOTO BY Chua Chye Teck

Singapore Architect #248

Jan/Feb 2009


Art and education have complex functions and relationship as seemingly different means of envisioning the future. Art calls for imagination and innovation, favours open-ended inquiry and appeals to dreamers who conjure up alternate realities and reinterpret important, neglected or new ideas into some tangible forms. Education traditionally emphasises the transfer and acquisition of knowledge primarily through a structure of syllabi, instructions, assessments, rules, mottos, uniforms and anthems, and almost always bears the burden of producing concrete and sustainable ‘results.’ Yet the spaces that house these respective functions are essentially about tradition: Even new, cutting-edge works and an exemplary student are expected to become part of history, for instance, in an art museum collection or a dean’s list. Where art, education and space meet, such as in the context of an art school or a school-themed exhibition in an art gallery, conflicts and cross-fertilisations of ideas can lead to the identification of problems and potentials of collective dreaming.

8Q-Rate: School, the inaugural exhibition of 8Q sam, the new wing of the Singapore Art Museum, offers an important case study to investigate Singapore’s hope to be a cultural hub. Featuring eight Singapore-based artists each partnering with a curator to explore the theme of “school,” the exhibition gives clues to the size of dreams and mode of dreaming in the context of Singapore’s latest art space, sited in an old school.

Like its parent institution, the Singapore Art Museum, which took over the former St. Joseph’s Institution building in 1996, 8Q sam is born of the adaptive reuse of an old building, namely the previous Catholic High Primary School on No. 8 Queen Street (hence the name 8Q). Buzzwords and stock phrases abound in the attempt to differentiate the new wing from the old: contemporary,” “fresh,” “multi-disciplinary,” “interactive,” “community oriented,” “context,” “experimental,” and “crossroad of new knowledges, cultures and expressions” (Press Release of 8Q sam, 13 Aug 2008). “As a new wing, 8Q takes on a contemporary outlook that is differentiated from the museum’s historical art programmes” (“Introduction,” 8Q-Rate: School catalogue, 2008). These promises resonate with the government’s earlier expressed dream of a “Renaissance Singapore” that is “creative, vibrant and imbued with a keen sense of aesthetics,” whose people have “an adventurous spirit, an inquiring and creative mind and a strong passion for life” (Renaissance City Report, Ministry of Information and the Arts, 2000). Words can serve as directional signs for imagining alternative worlds. They can also be mere dressings for mediocrity.

Without a doubt, the debut show of 8Q sam has delivered diversity and the ‘cool factor’: Established ceramist Ahmad Abu Bakar exhibits alongside younger graffiti artist Jahan Loh; graphic design collective :phunk studio and fashion designer Grace Tan strut their stuff with visual artists, and the show presents assorted art forms, including installation (e.g., Donna Ong), video (Tan Kai Syng), sound (Chong Li-Chuan) and architectural model (Jason Wee). At least from what is apparent, or what Freud might call “the manifest dream content,” no one can fault the exhibition for not addressing 8Q sam’s expressed role of  “a crossroad of new knowledges, cultures and expressions.

Look a little closer and one might chance upon symptoms of what festers at “the latent level.” For Freud, a dream is not a desire straightforwardly realised, but “a disguised fulfillment of a repressed wishes” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud, 1899). Due to conflicts and necessary negotiations between personal cravings and social norms, one’s dreams (i.e., those that are experienced and remembered) nonetheless conceal secrets that are too taboo or impossible to exist at the “manifest level” but remain “latent.” It is important not just to celebrate an exhibition as ‘a dream come true,’ despite all odds, but to also ask what this dream, having already been realised, might still conceal and suggest in terms of problems and opportunities, towards a better understanding of ourselves and the world.

From the Bottom of My Pencil Case by :phunk studio is a response to the exhibition theme with an earnest aim: to share and trigger memories of schooldays. This is a pitched-roof house with a difference, and a few house rules. Coated in blackboard paint, the exterior of the house is filled – almost fully, except near the tip of the roof, which seems hard to reach – with scribbles and invites audiences to use the chalk and duster provided to add or erase anything on it. A black shadow of the house painted onto the gallery floor creates a poetic sense of frozen adolescent time. Its interior is a stark contrast to the outside: It contains white, miniaturised classroom furnishings – tables, chairs, a blackboard with the group’s creative statement entitled “Universality,” a skeleton, all in white, but also a series of :phunk studio’s black-lined graphic illustrations of youth cultures. Rather than for touching, the interior space and objects are for looking. They serve as a trigger for the visitors to recall details of their own schooldays. The house is like a concoction of a daydream during a less-than-engaging session in class, when the blackboard suddenly peels itself off the wall, starts folding and self-constructs into a house containing white classroom space and things. Visitors who saw the work on the opening night and again later, say, in November, may notice a difference. Jackson Tan, one of the collective’s founding member, explains that, after the opening night, he discovered to his dismay that some visitors have mishandled the objects in the interior space, including adding on their take onto the classroom blackboard. Thereafter, these ‘audience interventions’ were rubbed away and replaced with the original statement; the classroom space into which visitors were at first able to enter physically was now barricaded. A sculptural installation becomes a diorama, the latter mode of which, in my view, would have offered a more engaging, albeit voyeuristic, experience and a more effective means of maintaining the integrity of the interior space and objects anyway. For even more powerful visual interest, however, more time may be needed: such as to finish off the hard-to-reach parts on the roof, install a locked door with a viewing window, include more objects and detailing in the classroom, and perhaps really whitewashing every non-white surface (the transparent bulbs, the black wheels of the skeleton, the blackboard and the black graphics) for the sake of coherence and, more importantly, for the work to leave behind the conditions of reality and ‘enter the impossible.’

:phunk studio’s work and its ‘iconoclastic’ episode throws up at least four related sets of issues in the exhibition of contemporary art. The first involves logistics. How does the institution support while it challenges artists towards groundbreaking work? This may range from ensuring the provision of a ladder for artists to reach where they need to access, to providing gallery sitters who can advise visitors on the content of the work and the most ideal way to experience it. The second is about aesthetics. How to push an initial idea beyond the conventional and what is planned? In this regard, the inclusion of Jahan Loh’s graffiti practice in 8Q-Rate seems more like tokenism than critical reevaluation of street culture. Comprising canvases of “brightly-coloured paintings” stretched and hung on one wall, graffiti expressions sprayed on the opposite wall inside the gallery and another wall outside, and vinyl texts “ 逃學 [traditional Chinese characters for truancy] / ESCAPE FROM” pasted on one wall and its adjacent floor, and “新加坡 [Singapore]”across three ceiling beams, Loh’s work is as modest in scale as they seem arbitrary in material use. I imagine his graffiti could sprawl a whole room or stairwell, for it to move from isolated ‘bombings’ on the streets to becoming an immersive environment. I suspect he encountered many red tapes. A related third is about ambition. Up to what point should artists and curators have a free reign (after all, as Kwok Kian Chow, director of the Singapore Art Museum, proclaims in his catalogue foreword about the project: “Here, subjectivity rules!”) and when do the different parties involved sit down, discuss and decide to push ambitions up a notch?

The fourth is directorial vision. For 8Q-Rate, no artistic director is tasked and named to oversee the eight pairs of artists and curators. This could be a strategic move to level out hierarchy. The exhibition booklet states: “There is no such hierarchy [associated with schools] nor teacher-student relationship in the museum world, where artworks, expressions and interpretations are only completed through sharing and inter-learning between artists, curators and audiences.” Or is it plain that the exhibition’s artistic director is, by default, Kwok, the director of the parent institution. It’s anyone’s guess. On the surface, 8Q – the space and the exhibition – adopts a “no rule” and “anything goes” policy. In fact, implicit rules lurk and, perhaps as a result, communication is hazy. The other exhibition that accompanied the launch of 8Q-Rate on the top floor of 8Q was Masriadi: Black is My Last Weapon, a retrospective solo exhibition of works by Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi. Being ‘on top’ and having higher ceilings (3.6m) than those below (2.9m) that house the 8Q show, Masriadi’s exhibition seems to enjoy preferential treatment. An anecdote might add to this line of enquiry. Soon after the opening of 8Q, an artist friend of mine checked informally with one of the 8Q-Rate curators on the possibility of holding his solo show in 8Q sam. My friend was politely rejected: “Sorry, we don’t do solos for local artists.” I give this curator the benefit of the doubt that he or she did not mean it literally, but I find it hard to ignore the hints of biases along class, age and national lines. The lack of a director’s presence does not mean the absence of overarching or underlying rules. For that matter, the lack of a named artistic director for 8Q-Rate has an architectural corollary in the arbitrary use and dismal communication design of spaces: For the 8Q lobby area, I thought – or wished – there were a curatorial programme in the likes of Tate Modern’s Uniliver Series at its lobby, where leading artists like Rachel Whiteread and Olafur Eliasson develop site-specific and awe-inspiring pieces. Three months after 8Q opened in mid-August 2008, I realise I have been dreaming. I continue to see Project M201: In God We Trust, a chrome-clad military jeep by the artist-couple Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, and hear it almost whispering to me: “I was acquired by the museum and because I have no where else to go yet, I am here to stay.” I fail to find information of how the area is programmed. Nor am I successful in locating a visual or textual overview (in terms of a plan or isometric view) of where things are in 8Q.

This leads us to the issue of collaboration, the chosen operational mode for this exhibition. In the past, curators from the Singapore Art Museum, if ever named in the exhibition collaterals, existed in the background. In this show, they are tasked to be on comparable footing with the artists they curate, a la a ‘buddy system.’ To what extent does the project support synergy, truly individualistic inquiry and discovery rather than groupthink, regurgitation and shoddiness? How does the ‘buddy system’ develop the artists’ and curators’ practice to new levels? Has one plus one given us two, more or less? What system of self-critique is in place for 8Q sam’s own renewal? I find no documentation of the collaborative processes or discussions on the respective and related roles of artists and curators in the project. I see uneven levels of ambition, synergy, quality of artworks and sophistication of curatorial writing (here, I must congratulate and thank curator Joyce Toh for her sensitive writing that relates :phunk studios’ work with references from  literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis and phenomenology; but I also enjoy aspects of the other curators’ text). From this, I am reminded of the lack of (credited) artistic direction and I further sense under-curation, in some cases, non-curation and futile curation. One stands before Admad Abu Bakar’s signature series Journey of a Point to a Geometry (in this exhibition, Series 14, an installation of eight ceramic pots each topped with a crown of petals made of red translucent acrylic), recalls his artistic development over the years, and cannot help questioning if the work would be any different if the named curator Low Sze Wee had not been on the project.

Study the installations by Jason Wee and Tan Kai Syng for a while and one discovers that the artists’ sensibility with words has not been pushed into new logical ends in this show. Instead, the pieces they exhibit reveal a lack of material study, attention to craftsmanship, and choreography of audience experience. For instance, I would neither be the first nor the last to wonder if scotchtape is the most interesting binding element for Wee’s bamboo strips in his installation of arches, Let Us Walk Through The Burning House. Yet this piece, considered by the artist and his curator Sam I-Shan as the more “provisional” of his two pieces, is at least more poetic (by not showing too much) and photogenic (thanks to Chua Chye Teck’s photography featured in the exhibition catalogue) than his other, In My School Are Many Rooms. The latter, a large architectural model made of paper and bamboo strips used in the construction of funeral houses, fails to stand up to scrutiny even at near distance (Cf. also Lim Kok Boon, “Apt, but Q-rious selection,” In the case of Tan Kai Syng, virtuosity with literary devices in her artist statement (a sampling: “… learn to think, learn not to think, learn to do, learn to do by repetition, repeat again, and again, learn to ace, do not daze, learn to say, come what may….”) exists only as a vinyl poster pasted on the corridor floor on which people inevitably trample rather than read. A Fool on a Stool in School Drawing Margins to Exercise Her Common Sense is far larger in size and louder in volume than her earlier video installations at the Singapore Art Museum, yet not necessarily more engaging.

The only site-specific work is Palimpsestos pathetikos by Chong Li-Chuan, an alumnus of Catholic High Primary School. The artist reassembled the school anthem into a series of humming sounds, emitted from the glass windows around the building, which have been fitted with sound-bug reproducing devices and thus transformed into mega-speakers. Credits should be given to the artist for thinking through the theme, the site, technology and his sound art practice, and developing a work that is invisible and almost inaudible, though omnipresent, which makes it so subversive and symbolic of institutional surveillance. With the original melody heavily abstracted for the most part, most people will miss the artist’s piano rendition of the original song occurring only two-thirds down the 30-minute loop. The work is an in-joke uninterested in the interested but impatient audience.

Grace Tan and Donna Ong illustrate how the precise crafting of material serves as the basis of imagining other realities. The former has presented a series of stitched and folded fabric (and paper) sculptures on sleekly designed light-box tables. This selection from her kwodrent series comes as no surprise for those familiar with her work. Neither does the mishandling by audience of her sculptures during the exhibition, given that they are not encased. What amaze are the additional notes precisely handwritten almost in a new typeface onto graph papers and plastic bags of thread ends adhered to the wall using micro-thin strips of black tape that one begins to enter a ‘post-wordprocesing’ world, if not for the distraction by the hastily applied tape-lines on the floor barring visitors from getting too near her exhibits. Donna Ong’s installation The Caretaker of a guard’s table fronting a series of cupboards arranged in a circle and filled with boxes and images of dolls, engages the turbulent changes in meanings of dolls in the historical relationships between the Americans and the Japanese. Even without this context, one experiences the meticulousness of the artist’s hands, from object selection and placement to video editing and presentation, down to each lighting effect. Ong’s work does not engage the ‘school’ theme explicitly, but she demonstrates what a great artist often ends up doing in a group show: teach the other artists how to make art (Cf. Lawrence Weiner).

In the absence of Donna Ong, how can 8Q help artists and curators help one another to make stronger art? In addition to post-opening tours of the exhibition by the artists and curators during which audiences can offer their feedback, perhaps there could be plans for pre-opening critique sessions during the creative or setup process when the participants can openly exchange ideas on how their art can be pushed to new heights. Want to be like an avant-garde school? Act like one, for a start.

While an exhibition with a “school” theme can potentially facilitate critical reflection of the relation between art, education and architecture, 8Q-Rate: School is, for the most part, a ‘cool, hip and fun-looking’ exercise. Diversity in art forms is not yet matched by ambition and rigour, the removal of hierarchical structure seems to correspond with the lack of artistic direction and communicational clarity, and an expressly collaborative mode between artists and curators reveals more flaws than new truths. To be sure, 8Q sam is new and needs time to develop its identity. In the meantime it may flash terms like “experimental,” “provisional” and “process-based” as alibis for any unresolved, or worse, unambitious, artwork it ends up presenting in its premises. Whilst doing that, hopefully it challenges itself by having bolder visions, and developing curatorial strategies, programming, and activities in research and development, to engage the history of visual innovation. Indeed, just as the process of translation often leads to the rethinking of and, sometimes, improvements to the original text, the programmes in Singapore Art Museum’s new wing can potentially affect the old in interesting ways. Likewise, the “school” of 8Q-Rate, or future exhibitions in 8Q, may well one day inspire new pedagogical philosophies and educational policies. The urgency for a Renaissance Singapore should not only lie in the provision of new, more and better spaces and technologies for art and education but strategic time management and far more ambitious goals and plans to harness, inspire and develop creative energies towards the discovery of the unknown. How big does 8Q sam dream?

8Q-Rate: School opened on 15 Aug 2008 and continues till 9 Jan 2009, at 8Q sam, 8 Queen Street, Singapore 188535. For more information, visit

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