The Proof is Out There
BY M. SUFYAN
Future Proof exists as a somewhat flamboyant and varied celebration of contemporary visual art by young Singaporean artists to showcase proof of these artists’ potential, a spoof on the word proof used in the printing business, as well as an attempt to embed these works and names into the public consciousness so as to insulate or ‘proof’ them from the future. From the huge melted superhero adorning the lawn to street art winding its way through the stairwells, the exhibition touched on various issues ranging from local boundaries to global statistics. However, eclectic the issues addressed may be, there seemed to be an undercurrent of fear towards the future, an instinctual recognition of the possible dystopia that lies in the nascent Singaporean cultural landscape.
“O brave new world that has such people in’t”- immortal words from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest echoed through my head as I came across the artist Ryf’s Look No Further where headless mannequins stand atop a building, looking into the distance. It’s unsettling that we can still ascribe a gaze to an object that essentially has none, and like most good dystopian works, the eeriness is achieved through a displacement of the familiar. There was a visceral reaction and a quiet fear that juddered through the soul when I came across the arresting sight of what initially appears to be a party, perched at the very edge of a building.
The placement of the work, being away from the main exhibition site in an adjacent building and removed from closer scrutiny from the viewers, also reinforced the strong illusion that something decidedly otherworldly is happening. The curatorial text suggested that in the pursuit of modern comforts, man has become slaves to his own creations – the machines. Having the machine go ‘missing’ the people are all rendered hollow and lost. However the work seems to also stand as a testament to the directionless future that the world seems to be heading, the masses being herded like headless chickens, in thrall to the powers that be.
A disturbing landscape requires similarly disturbing sustenance and in her work Your Love is Like A Chunk of Gold, the artist Sookoon Ang presents us with a series of alien images that not surprisingly became one of the cover pieces for the brochure. A series of sculptures comprised of the arresting juxtaposition of bread with crystal formations sprouting like alien moulds in a variety of hues on a bed of petrified baked goods. The artist presented this as a platform for the strange to infuse into the familiar, as bread is a common staple on most tables. Supposedly standing in as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of love, the bread and crystals presented the oxymoronic cycle of painful comfort when one falls in love.
Strange looking these confections may be, they are caramelized and seemed oddly appetizing. It piques one’s curiosity regarding its taste, would the crystals disintegrate like powdered sugar or would it maliciously cleave a bloody trail down one’s gullet? Taken literally instead of as a metaphor, the work seemed to become a showcase of food that is to come. The theme of displacing the familiar is carried over and these alien objects are transmuted beyond their base beginnings to start a journey into the tables of homes in the future.
The surreal path to the fantastic future also leads to Donna Ong’s Crystal City. Here the artist has meticulously arranged a variety of glassware – from salad dishes to shot glasses into an intricate conglomeration that when viewed from the right angle and with the right lighting reveals itself, like one of those ‘magic eye’ images, into a glittering city skyline. This dual effect seems to be what was intended as there were no attempts to disguise the fact that upon closer inspection, the illusion dissolves and what’s left is pretty much an assortment of glasses- a didactical statement on things as they are and as they seem. It cannot be denied however that the work is certainly pretty and eye-catching enough for those with a penchant for all things shiny.
However resplendent the diorama is, a future city of glass would certainly be a sterile and nightmarish place to be. Full of false reflections and blinding vistas, there would most certainly be a clinical precision to things. The lives of its inhabitants would literally be transparent, leading to a forced egalitarianism with no chance of any discourse that may shatter the peace- people who live in glass houses and so forth. Perhaps an unintended consequence of the work is that the artist has unconsciously mapped the future landscapes of this world, for her crystal city certainly seems to be arriving all around us in the form of modern architecture that are but cold monoliths of stainless steel and glass and the atmosphere of increased surveillance on the populace that has rendered walls ‘transparent’.
Going literally into a dark place we see the double bill presented by the local art collective Vertical Submarine entitled Paper Room/ A View with a Room, a work within a work that challenges and rewards the curious viewer. On approach, we are presented with a somewhat immense yet innocuous wall of text that seeks to explain the work in verbose and hyperbolic terms culled from various descriptive novels. The text describing the work offered no clue, and if the viewer had not been put off by then, they might notice a large commode with what seems to be drapes covering the back tucked away in the corner.
The wardrobe is in fact the entrance to the installation, hidden away from the casual browser. Upon entering, a narrow tunnel awaits, plastered with crumpled paper with what is described as pages torn up by a frustrated writer covering the walls and ceiling. Venturing onwards, the tunnel meanders into the darkness for a while before you find yourself literally coming out of the closet into a cramped and dark office like some sort of dystopian Narnia. The room itself is awash in grayscale, musty and dated, with books on communism and philosophy littering the table and bookcases, as if belonging to a writer in exile. This cramped environment feels as if it’s another world and the wall itself had absorbed half of the couch and television, as if this room had been shunted out of reality.
The drab confines harken to other dystopian works like 1984 or Brave New World with its cold war claustrophobia, and becomes a manifestation of a future where personal liberty is taken away to an extent that we all become political prisoners, going through a journey papered with frustrations that ultimately leads to self-exile. It is an incredibly well-executed work that forces the viewer into a feeling of isolation and personal desolation. Though the concept was certainly interesting and well thought out, in practice though, when there were more than a few visitors milling about within a narrow tunnel and space that is at most three meters across, the illusion is easily lost and instead the viewers become like voyeurs or scavengers picking apart the trappings of a life, squabbling and shuffling for space. It was only during the ebb of visitors when I was alone in the environment could I feel the dreadful oppressiveness and eerie discomfort of familiar things in an alien surrounding.
Though the work was not explicit in its aims, it seemed to be the most telling summation of the underlying fear that lies within the dreams of the future. In a subversion of the intended themes presented, we seem instead to get proof of what the future holds, a reverse time capsule that portends a somewhat different if not dismal time that is approaching or may already be here. Having boarded this train of thought, one can’t help but see parallels of this theme in other pieces of works, from the farcical dioramas presented by Chun Kaifeng of a vandalized casino and Ferris wheel prison, to the sense of loss and alienation in the piece entitled Home or the chillingly dehumanizing room of clocks that ticks away at death and natural disaster as nothing but a statistic.
In this underlying theme in the works of the young and the emerging we see works that are veritable flights of fancy and though pretty much jumbled together, certain pieces certainly resonated with each other to form a cogent message that may or may not form a pattern telling of the psyche of the young artist practicing within this city state. A dystopia may not exactly be in the cards and this could most likely just be conjuncture but like most conspiracy theories, it lures us in with its inherently speculative nature and its claim that, to paraphrase a television show of an equally speculative nature – the proof is indeed out there.