BY JAMIE PHUA
Conceptual art is wasted on me. I completed the past two editions of Art Stage in an average of four hours, and took less than half of that for the extensive collection of Andy Warhol’s works at the ArtScience Museum (where most of it was spent bobbing to Velvet Underground in the Factory). These might seem like fairly decent amounts of time to dedicate to art exhibitions, but not with my obsessive-compulsive habit of staring each art piece down until every detail is embedded in my mind.
On the contrary, I visited the Dreams and Reality exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore twice – both times revelling in Cezanne’s every brushstroke, and gazing in wide-eyed wonder at cracks in the paint that betray years of safekeeping. Earlier in 2011, not wanting to miss out on any work that may boost my chances of understanding Salvador Dali, a second trip into the Mind of a Genius was also made. These jaunts were always followed by massive bouts of skill-envy.
The content of works by the Surrealists may have been controversial and their forms of self-expression, experimental. But when compared to conceptual artists of recent times, their techniques and mediums of paint, sculpture and photography, amongst others, are considered more conventional and easier to grasp.
Hence, it is not that conceptual art is “valueless”, as claimed by art critic Donald Kuspit; rather, understanding the concepts behind recent works have proven to be a challenge. Ironic isn’t it, one would presume that works by artists closer to my generation would be more relatable.
But this should not come as a surprise. After all, from paintings and sculptures, to live performances and urinating on canvases, the boundaries of what is considered artistic is stubbornly being pushed with growing audacity. As intangible as thoughts and feelings are, conceptual work seems to be edging in and eclipsing the value of brushwork, carving acumen, and the gamut of traditional artistic skills.
Given this obvious struggle with conceptual art, I’d imagined that I was doomed to a life of not being able to appreciate these art shows, until two weeks ago, when, at the behest of a friend, a trip to The Collectors Show: Chimera was made. When a second trip was made the following week, I knew this heralded the start of a new relationship.
What was most intriguing about Chimera was that the pieces were borrowed from private collectors, and I was curious to find out what compels people to buy art for private viewing. Furthermore, if not for the exhibition, these would never have found their way to the public. To add to this ‘forbidden fruit’ effect, the concept of illusion – or delusion – which was a theme throughout the exhibition, played to my fancies, given my penchant for art that incorporates elements of fantasy, like those belonging to the Surrealist Movement.
A striking observation was the clever manipulation of space to enhance the vibe of numerous works, relying on their environment to refine their content and concepts. The exhibition also illustrated how the term “conceptual” does not necessarily exclude beauty and aesthetics. Three works that changed my perception of conceptual art are: Midnight Sea by Tabaimo, Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle From Asia by Sheba Chhachi and V by Li Hui.
Five minutes into the exhibition saw me standing fixated in a dark chamber where I was mere inches behind another transfixed viewer, and realised this only when her step backward sent this startled shadow tumbling into me. Laid before us was an expanse of black that resembled the sea, accompanied by the sound of crashing waves. With delicate lines, Tabaimo illustrates the nocturnal seascape with its rolling tides, crashing waves and forms and creatures that resemble corals and jellyfish in Midnight Sea.
Enclosed within walls of mirrors, these drawings are made into a video of waves that break against the black surface of the sea, which loops on a sloping platform. The reflections of the drawings create an illusion of infinite space, which, perpetrated by the hollow darkness of the chamber, masks its physical restrictions.
Just as one can hardly make out the sea at night, so the installation mimics its dimness, and depicts the enigmatic world that lies beneath the cresting waves. Shrouded in mystery and laced with magic, entering this space feels as if one has transcended time and stepped into another world, and cannot help but be fascinated and apprehensive at the same time. Thankfully, I visited the museum at its most quiet on a weekday afternoon, and had the luxury of time to allow myself to be hypnotised by the beauty of this midnight sea.
Coming in a close second after Midnight Sea, my favourite of the exhibition, is V. Installed in the chapel space of the museum where a heavy black curtain intensifies the air of secrecy, the light show by artist Li Hui is remarkably more mysterious than its title suggests.
Stepping inside the hall, one is enveloped by a thick velvet blanket of darkness until the eyes make sense of the red laser beams that fire off a board on the ceiling before hitting an angled mirrored platform on the floor and bouncing off to the other end of the room. At sporadic junctures, bursts of smoke sizzle and hiss from the mirrored platform, engaging visitors and coalescing the red rays into pink mist.
There are few experiences that are as intense as this, and although made of minimalist and industrial materials, the installation captures the ethereal beauty of space and light. Apart from the cameras and mobile phones that were whipped out as visitors entered V, this installation elicits the same gaping mouths and widened eyes from the audience as Midnight Sea, and instead of transcending time, here, it is almost as if the audience transcends mortality as the smoke and rays bring to mind the Ascension.
On a more jarring note was Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle From Asia, where Sheba Chhachi illustrates her thoughts on bird flu with ten light boxes that fill the walls with stories and landscapes from traditional art and contemporary photographs. I spotted some birds from traditional mythology, such as the Phoenix and Kaha birds, juxtaposed against photo-journalistic images of men in contamination suits culling birds during the crisis. A separate light box depicts parrots with their wings clipped, floating over an urban cityscape, while yet another illustrates a line of identical hens in blood red, in the style of a mass production belt, looped over a team of bird exterminators. Bold and unadulterated, these scenes project the gripping ruthlessness of the slaughter, evoking a hollow sadness.
Standing in the centre of the multimedia installation are headless figures draped in robes reminiscent of Buddhist religious ascetics. Each holds a light box in their hands, as if in a stance of offering, that illustrates varying landscapes, from oilrigs to New York City’s skyline and dying birds with exterminators lurking over them. Put together, the audience is given pictorial insight into themes such as civilisation, waste and pollution.
To add to the sinister ambience of the installation created by the hollow figures is a disquieting silence that is marred by the raw sound of processing machines, made by the rolling slides in the light box. The sense of clinical detachment is accentuated by the use of space. Light boxes on the walls are lined with immaculate spacing and look identical, resembling the harsh mechanical precision of the mass production process.
A common thread that runs through these three installations lies in how, unlike paintings and sculptures, they provoke senses other than sight, such as hearing and touch. Chimera was a novel experience as for once, it seemed as if the art was doing the work. Instead of poring over every miniscule detail of a painting, these pieces engaged me using elements that are usually idle at art exhibitions. Instead of observing art in a lit room, the absence of light in differing degrees in all three installations heightened my other senses and I was able to appreciate the pieces in their elements.
The works also dispelled what I’d believed of contemporary art – that in the their abstraction, they see no need for beauty. But these conceptual pieces proved that this outlook was unfounded as there was no compromise on aesthetics. Feeding off their surroundings, each work was visually beautiful and infused with elements of fantasy while simultaneously evoking a sense of mystery.
Both trips to Chimera were humbling and enlightening. Instead of writing off contemporary art immediately, one of my many takeaways is to devote to these works the same diligence that I would study a Surrealist work with; and for my own gain, to simply indulge in the experience.