Unsustainable Art

Garden of Light, Hexagon Solution, 2012. Photo by Liau Shu Juan


How do you create awareness of sustainability and promote the use of low-energy lights and technology? By creating a spectacle and organising an extravagant light art festival that stretched from one end of the Marina Bay to the other.

Does that even make sense?

For the second edition of ‘iLight’, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Marina Bay Sands, Smart Light Walks and a number of commercial enterprises came together to promote the theme of ‘Light Meets Asia’ and required that artists used recycled materials or energy-efficient lights in their installations and projections to convey the message of sustainability. The agglomeration of efforts by the government, the public, and the private sectors made it one of the more highly publicised mega art events of the year. I was particularly impressed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s interest in organising art shows. After all, its mission is to “make Singapore a great city to live, work and play in”. But will such big shows with lofty environmental goals work out? Let’s find out.

iLight’’s ‘Switch off, Turn Up’ campaign encouraged surrounding properties to switch off their non-essential lights and turn up their air-conditioning so as to conserve energy. However, Singapore’s latest urban night scene at the Marina Bay Waterfront was ablaze in a spectacle of high wattage lights and resplendent colours. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Art Science Museum, the Helix Bridge… even the Marina Bay Shoppes and the floating Louis Vuitton pavilion dazzled and burned, their luminance all the more heightened by the reflective glass panels.

Here was the irony of the campaign. If Louis Vuitton and others switched off their blazing lights; wouldn’t the vibrancy of the night scene dimmed?

The cracks were beginning to show. But let’s talk about the art.

‘Light of the Merlion’ by OCUBO was an example of a light art that revealed the conflict in achieving both sustainability and spectacle. An interactive piece of site-specific work- it allowed viewers to add colours onto the Merlion by digitally customising a Merlion image from the computer screen, and having the design process simultaneously projected (over a considerable distance and in high resolution) onto the Merlion itself. Much energy was likely to be consumed by the projection, so the solution was to rely on the idealistic offset in energy consumption from the ‘Switch off, Turn up’ campaign and recycle all materials and waste accumulated.

Instead of creating something excessive to convey a simple message and having to find a way to deal with the waste accumulated after that, wouldn’t reduction be a more sensible approach?

The disjunction between spectacle and sustainability was glaring and I decided to look at the artwork instead.

The Merlion itself has multiple levels of inferences to our ‘history’ and ‘founding’. Its mermaid tail alludes to Singapore’s origin as a fishing village while its lion head suggests grandeur and majesty, the first sighting and presence of the King of the animal kingdom on Singapura. This apocryphal narrative of Singapore’s founding was significantly transformed and subverted at iLight into a kaleidoscopic projection of contemporary art.

Light of the Merlion, OKUBO, 2012. Photo by Liau Shu Juan

From afar, Singapore’s national icon was splattered in garish hues of pink, blue, yellow and green. Looking like she’d been vandalised by Takashi Murakami with his colourful ‘Flower Ball’ series. The source of vandalism was at a makeshift booth where a group of excited Japanese tourists were decorating the Merlion in a Neoprint style, on the computer screen and exclaiming ‘Kawaii!’ as each colour simultaneously appeared on the scales and flowing manes of the statue. The excitement from the people grew as the Merlion transformed from white prince to kitsch in real time. Although, the Merlion’s fashion sense was questionable, I was similarly excited by the transformation. When the adorning was completed, there was a pause, a silence, where nothing seemed to be happening. The ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the audience were raised a couple more decibels when suddenly, she began to spew projections of coloured lights and water into the bay.

I wondered what Mr Lim Nan Seng would say if he could see his mythical personification of Singapore turned into a multi-coloured light show.

OKUBO, tourists and Singaporeans alike demystified a stately cultural symbol. The Merlion became a friendly pal instead of this exotic breed of lion and fish that we revered from a respectable distance. This temporary postmodernist icon of contemporary art will be ingrained in my mind for a long time.

Right at the other end of the spectrum of sustainability and art was a work by Wiyoga Muhardanto, entitled ‘Tangible Gallery’. It was the one installation that did not use lights at all. ‘Tangible Gallery’ was not a gallery per se but a small, cube-like, one-level structure that stood forlornly in the dark, waiting for people to enter as excited viewers gravitated towards Zulkifle Mahmod’s colourful and electrifying deck chairs situated at the opposite. I read the instructions pasted outside the door of ‘Tangible Gallery’-

Tangible Gallery, Wiyoga Muhardanto, 2012. Photo by Liau Shu Juan

‘Dear visitor, sorry for the inconvenience caused. If you want to see the works inside, please use your own light device’.

Zulkifle’s ‘Deck Journey’ suddenly became a more attractive option.

A woman at the door of the gallery exclaimed, ‘Eh, no lights ah?’ to which her companion replied matter-of-factly, ‘It’s a blackout’.

That was not a blackout at all.

The work was intentionally conceived to allow viewers to experience art in the dark. Although multimedia works are often projected and shown in darkness, it was a first for traditional medium like paintings and sculptures. Who would have thought of holding an art exhibition in total darkness where the focus of attraction could hardly be seen? The gallery lights were visibly installed atop the ceiling but not switched on. They functioned more like props.

The space was really tiny and I carefully manoeuvred my way around the voyeurs and Yoshitomo Nara’s head sculptures, which were placed in the most awkward and dangerous position – just one foot above ground. It was an accident waiting to happen if someone kicked or bumped into them in the dark. Wait. I was treating those replicas like multi-million-dollar art works. This raised further question. Do we treat originals and their replicas differently or are we conditioned to view them in a similar fashion just because they are situated in a ‘gallery’ space?

It was a visual experience of a hidden and secretive nature. People were more concerned with trying to get a light source onto the replicas of Takashi Murakami’s ‘And then, And then, And then…’ and Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. Nobody took a step back to appreciate or really look at the works. I could not stand it any longer and emitted a long and powerful flash from my camera (of course there was no ‘no flash photography’ rule). The sudden beam of light took people by surprise and a little girl wailed. She almost bumped into Yoshitomo Nara’s ‘Head Vase’.

No more flash photography for now.

As I studied the photo that I took, I realised I was observing Murakami’s ‘And then’ from my camera’s LCD screen rather than looking at the work itself, which was just a mere three feet away from me. It was a strange and unconventional viewing experience where the photos overtook the real works as the main subject matter.

As the rest of the people were playing Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marples and pointing their flashlights as close to the paintings as possible, I was having the most frustrating moment of my time in my attempt at low light photography.

Who did that painting? What was the title of that work? The text was just a black blot without a light source. Nobody was kind enough to sweep some of their light over to the captions as they scrutinized the Mickey-Mouse like designs in Murakami’s works. The combination of activities between straining to get a good look at Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Sweet Dream Baby!’ and trying in vain to get a good photo was too much. I was perspiring from the exertion and from the sauna-like temperature in the small, confined space. I gave up and turned to see how the others were doing. One guy was very well prepared. He had with him a gigantic tripod and a flashlight, not those miserable handphone or Iphone backlights. Placing his camera atop the tripod, he aimed his flashlight at a copy of Robert Indiana’s love sculpture and it was magic from that moment. The sculpture consisted of just four words ‘L-O-V-E’ but the shadows created on the walls behind were pure art.

There was so much potential in “Tangible Gallery’s” concept that I returned a second time, this time with a flashlight and I uncovered quite a few surprises. The texture of Murakami’s ‘And then’ was made of inkjet poster paper, not canvas. Damien Hirst’s spot painting or ‘Ethistherone’ was cropped in a raw fashion along the edges, as if it was ripped out from a piece of rough paper. Yoshitomo Nara’s ‘Head Vase’ looked as if it was executed by a five-year-old with black permanent markers…

A gallery that was not, ‘Tangible Gallery’ was more about the interactivity and less about the works themselves. Viewers are turned into temporary artists as they created their own light art over works of famous artists. It questioned our perceptions and daringly challenged the culture of display in galleries and museums.

Key Frames, Groupe LAP, 2012. Photo by Liau Shu Juan

Right in front of the Floating Platform, was a delightful piece of light installation entitled ‘Key Frames’. Made entirely from LED light tubes, this work cohesively encapsulated the idea of art and sustainability. It looked good and was eco-friendly. But whether the eco-friendliness message of the work got transmitted to the entranced audience, was another question.

54 static figures in ‘Key Frames’ stood atop podium poles like a field of football players in position (except ‘Key Frames’ was a 6 x 9 arrangement). It reminded me of Mustapha Benfodil’s Maportaliche at the 10th Sharjah Biennial, except ‘Key Frames’ was quirky, whimsical and less controversial. When the soundtrack began, they take turns to light up according to the rhythm of the music so that they evoke the motion of dance, flashing on and off in pairs and groups. Like watching a minimalist musical starring emaciated stick figures that came alive at night. It was not Tim Burton’s idea though. This work by Groupe LAP, consisted of robotic figures that were simple, futuristic and impactful. Reaching up to heights of three to four metres, they projected into the night sky like a call for freedom and liberation- a celebration of a present and future dominated by technology. Being situated at the floating platform, the work was like an appropriation of our national day performance, except, it was more sleek and stylish. Refusing to be swallowed by the urban jungle, these figures shined louder and brighter than the surrounding skyscrapers. It was an entertaining spectacle and the public clearly enjoyed it as they sat at the steps, looking at the installation as if they were watching a theatre performance. However, how do you tell and appreciate the benefits of using LEDs over electric lamps in such a spectacle?

A work that fitted too snugly into iLight’s sustainability aims was entitled ‘BioShell’ by Shinya Okuda. This industrial sounding name was more like a product, a utilitarian object trying to masquerade as art in the grand context of the ‘Marina Bay Sustainable Light Art Festival’.

The object in question was three-dimensional but it did not a slightest bit resembled a sculpture- it was a foldable tent, not like Tracey Emin’s, but blown up, translucent and cuboidal in appearance. According to the description, it was a lightweight temporary shelter that packs and stacks easily and is entirely lit by LED floodlights. A caption cum sales pitch, I was beginning to wonder if this is really a light art installation show or a convention for environmentally friendly products.

The only aesthetically pleasing aspect of the work was the bright blue, translucent hue that appealed to the basal instinct of the human eyes for a few seconds before the attraction of the work completely disappeared. However, young kids loved the work as their parents excitedly ushered them in to play in the playpen.

Shinya Okuda and his project team were definitely not making a Duchampian statement on elevating a readymade to a piece of art. Instead, they were proudly proclaiming that this work is made of biodegradable plastic and is very useful as a temporary disaster-relief shelter. To make matters worse, I was not even convinced that it would work as a good temporary shelter. Inside the space, the work did not evoke a ‘gentle feeling of kinship between human and nature’ (as the caption claimed). Instead, it emitted a strange, pungent smell from the weeks of exhibition and throngs of people viewing the ‘work’. With its biodegradable plastics, I will be very happy to see such a work in a ‘Save the Earth’ convention but not in a ‘sustainable light art show’ where the sustainability aspect of the work overrode the aesthetics, completely. It was as if the work was conceived purely as an innovative attempt in shelter technology with the LED lights thrown in to give it an excuse that it was really art.

Marina Bay’s ‘Sustainable Light Art Festival’ was trying to wear too many hats on one head. On one hand it aimed to be eco-friendly, on the other, it was pumping out so much electricity just to allow projections like ‘Lights of the Merlion’ to run. Yes, there were LEDs, solar energies and biodegradable plastics but what happen to the art? The ‘Light art’ portion of the festival, which was drowned by its bigger aim of being eco-friendly, was almost non-existent in a number of installations. The Urban Redevelopment Authority should reconsider naming its programme to- ‘The Sustainable Waterfront Convention’ and shift the very provocative ‘Tangible Gallery’ to a more deserving art exhibition.