Smoke, Sea and Mirrors

Li Hui's 'V'


The Light, it burns alright. It was at the ‘Chimera’ exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum that I encountered Li Hui’s dangerous looking V, Tabimo’s calming Midnight Sea and both burned into my memory, the former literally into my corneas. It surprises me even now to realise that they were the two most memorable pieces from the show. Me, the kid bored to tears by the musical fountain lightshow in Sentosa a decade back, the person rolling his eyes at every laser performance that didn’t involve a lightsaber. Looking back on the day I experienced both installations, I’m inclined to think my positive takeaway from them was a result not only of their concept or execution, but of an intimacy I was lucky enough to be able to share with the two works.

V is undeniably the star attraction of ‘Chimera’, one need only look at the covers adorning the print collaterals for the exhibition – text set on an ironic symmetrically reflected photo of the installation. V comprises numerous red lasers stemming from a raised panel, shining down at an angle onto a huge slab of a mirror placed on the ground. Most of the laser beams are reflected onto the ceiling, smoke periodically released from under the mirror make the beams and their ‘V’ shape visible against the darkness in the room.

As a piece of contemporary art V was less of an exercise in thinking about the nature of reality as it was an invitation to be blown away by reality. Few visual effects are as striking as an intense red glow amid darkness. I stared at it, played with the lasers, intercepting them with my hands, took some photos and stared some more. I came back for a second visit on my way out of the museum. The same could be said for the people I observed looking at it, no one took a cursory glance and left, everyone stayed and watched the stationary lasers. There was an experiment conducted at Tate Britain not too long ago that measured the average time people spent looking at specific artworks, with paintings by old masters seemingly putting the works of The New British Artists to shame in terms of average view duration. Though the validity of a work cannot just be measured by how well it holds attention, this aspect of art remains something worthy of consideration, should a dialogue between a viewer and an artwork be of any concern to the artist. It is hard to believe that any appreciable reading of art could occur within a few seconds. The opposite is true in the case of V, both the viewer’s decision to enter a room to view it and the lasers’ inherent draw weave a time span in which the viewer has to acknowledge, if nothing, the existence of the work.

If one expects art to challenge our notions of reality and ourselves, then V is likely to disappoint. What begs consideration is the fact that light is really the medium through which much art is conveyed to our senses. Is it not appropriate then, that the content of art lean more towards the visceral when the messenger becomes part of the message?

With respect to Li Hui’s previous laser based works such as Reincarnation and Cage, where the forms of a bed and a cage are utilised, V differs in the lack of an iconic object, specifically one with an identity. The mirror is synonymous with reflection, where the focus is rarely the reflective object, but the subject being reflected. Through V I experienced awe and found myself mesmerised for quite a while, but more so I experienced wonder. Not the wonder one gets from seeing earth from space, but a curiosity, of how I could be so impressed by a collection of red lasers and a mirror. Herein lies the crux of what makes it different from all other ‘lightshows’ I’ve been apathetic to, what made this more art than pure spectacle – I questioned myself, I reflected. Thus for me, where a mirror loses itself in being a reflection of another, the mirror’s nature materialises where I engaged in the act of self reflection.

A still from Tabaimo's 'Midnight Sea'

Midnight Sea, by Japanese video installation artist Tabaimo, encompasses a large raised video screen within yet another dark environment, the screen playing a loop of animated white waves, illustrated in the vein of Japanese woodcut prints. Periodically, smaller, localised images of a moving head of hair in the same style of the waves would play in lieu of them, suggesting a separate, yet related narrative. To the left and right of the screen are two mirrors that reflect the image on the screen and create the illusion of there being two more screens each to the left and right of the viewer, the reflections forming a near seamless semi circle of waves. Ambient sounds of waves played alongside the animations complete the experience. Mirror replication tricks aren’t new to the Singapore Art Museum, I remember being charmed by Briccio Santos’ Heritage Tunnel last year. An ingenious installation that used two mirrors to give the viewer the illusion of looking up or down into an endless spiral of book-filled shelves. Without venturing into the deeper significance of the work, the faux sea is already a marvel in itself. Looking left and right at the virtual waves, it didn’t feel like a cheap or makeshift imitation of an actual seashore. It was a shoreline unto itself, a glowing sea under a pitch-black night sky. The number of reflections might have been limited to four, but the darkness of the space around the installation, coupled with the sound of breaking waves thoroughly complete the illusion.

Although Midnight Sea eschews infinity in favour of immersion, it is in this vein that the use of mirrors in Tabaimo’s work proves ingenious. We know that the mirrors project illusion, but the pure appeal of the idea of an indoor sea, of an endless bookshelf makes us accept them as real. Where in a magic trick one does not know the secret and wonders how one was fooled, in Midnight Sea, one knows how the trick was done, yet still choose to be fooled. The description accompanying the work described it as a metaphor for the human subconscious, an interpretation no one would argue with. The subconscious as a mysterious dark ocean, the depths of which we’re only afforded the occasional glimpse, a glimpse present in the form of the sea’s unexplained draw that makes us willing accomplices in the overall illusion. Within Midnight Sea, the visual translation of subject matter into visuals was executed with uncanny aptness.

V and Midnight Sea are very different in their visual impact, but what tied them together as two heads of a chimera, was their presentation. I mentioned intimacy earlier, and if the spaces they were deliberately installed in – V alone within a chapel, and Midnight Sea past a blind corner, did anything, it was to push this specific aspect of the experience. An intimacy that makes both stand out from their more common brethren, the beautiful beaches polluted with tourists, laser spamming nightclubs crowded with bodies in constant random motion. Granted it’s possible that one might not be alone when viewing either installation, but the mood and cover supplied by the necessary darkness surrounding both does double duty in maintaining the additional illusion of a personal encounter with the work. The closest equivalent I can think of to situations as personal, that are augmented, ironically by darkness, are the acts of solitary meditation and prayer. Closing one’s eyes, the darkness blocks out all existences but our own, we become more aware of ourselves, and our thoughts. The same intentional erasure of distractions within the light installations, finds itself aptly situated within the Singapore Art Museum, a reprieve from the cacophony of city life surrounding it on all sides. A scenario repeated once again within the art museum and the art show itself.

An external critic I had for a class project recently said that she could not remember the last time an installation work changed her. The largely visual nature of art would imply that creating art to effect lasting change in people, an extended awareness of issues pertaining to self or society, is greatly dependant on impact and intimacy. The perceived inability of contemporary art to create significant change in individuals would suggest an overarching void in that department. Most of my thoughts with regard to both Midnight Sea and V were done in retrospect, and only because they stood out in my memories. Perhaps a touch of design within art is in order, such that art lingers in our minds, allowing us the opportunity in time, to interpret and reinterpret that one lasting moment.