Authenticity and Specificity

Gilles Massot, Matter and Principle, 2012, Photo by PonderousPilgrim


Something that bemused me about a guided art-walkabout into the homes of strangers was the curatorial framing that made prominent the relation between art and subject, and the notion of ‘specificity’ and ‘authenticity’.

It was quite an assortment of commissioned artworks that Open House Tiong Bahru had in store for its ardent art attendees. There were installations that were thoroughly site-specific and a direct response to Tiong Bahru’s historical discourse or it’s gentrification; a few home-owner-specific ones that offered personal interpretations of the community on a more intimate scale; also a couple of pieces that were either meekly site-inspired or moving towards semi to pure abstraction. Not all of the fifteen artworks were newly commissioned for OH! Tiong Bahru; some had ‘prototypes’ as to which they had been tactfully recycled and adapted from in response to this more specific context.

While I was impressed by all the installations, a few questions that came to mind were about:

Specificity – What determines the specificity of a site-installation? Would it be a concern that some artworks were complex responses deriving from points-of-issue concerning the lives, houses or the neighbourhood, while others came off as ‘thematic’ with more universal references?

And Authenticity – Would appropriation be necessarily deceiving, in an art-event as enterprising as OH!?

To be fair, I had no experience of this Open House’s two antecedents that would prep for a keener observation, although I did see the accompanying magazine “High Quality Stories No. 3”, which was an insightfully juicy commentary that spun much of the social history of Tiong Bahru. Interestingly, the artistic manifestations of the art walkabout were somewhat toned down a notch compared to writing in this publication. Or as the lines in between the critical words of Mayo Martin (Today Online review, Feb 21, 2012) might have exclaimed, “Some artworks lack confrontation!”

One would have had no difficulties in distinguishing the resolute ends of this select spectrum of ‘specificity’ in artworks. One extreme end was undoubtedly owned by Matter and Principle, a wonderfully conceptualized installation by Gilles Massot that distinguished the connections of a progressive deity in the dialogue of contemporary culture flounced by Tiong Bahru’s hip newcomers; inevitably discerning the relevance of old-time spiritual practices and social traditions of the original community. Displayed at the Qi Tian Gong Temple, possibly Singapore’s oldest Monkey God temple and Tiong Bahru’s oldest building dating back to 1930, the installation was not merely conceptually specific and authentic to the ongoings of Tiong Bahru, but it was thoroughly specific to the site itself.

The artist - the physical link. Gilles Massot, Matter and Principle, 2012, Photo by Artitute Art

Massot, who remained on-site, was pleased to answer any questions we might have of the installation as we inspected it with an optimal introduction given by our tourguides. But it was not just the invasive guests that the artist was hospitable to. He was at times seen conversing with temple members, perhaps courteously dousing the threat to the sacred space with a little peace-making and ensuring goodwill was maintained between the imposing event and the temple community. The whole experience of the installation was at times ironic and at times allegorical, and this was what I loved most about the artwork –that it was so embedded with the meaning of the site (Temple – Art event – Tiong Bahru) that the occupying space bordered by the display of the installation became an illusion.

Qi Ting Gong Temple

Qi Ting Gong Temple during the night of OH! Tiong Bahru, 2012, Photo by Nurliyani A.R.

At the same time that the local community was deeply engaged in their spiritual practices, the new ‘inhabitants’ were glorifying the more futuristic enshrinement of the Monkey God that had occupied part of the sacred space. But it was not at all a peaceful co-existence; it was a mutually distracting one. The OH! invaders trudged in, and assimilated into the spiritual realm of the temple, through a bridging device that appeared like a sculptural axis mundi; It was formed by the vertical column ‘Principle’ consisting of nine wired screens projecting bizarre cosmic-looking geometrical figures that at times were interspersed by images and videos of Monkey God or temple rituals -rooted by  ‘Matter’ which was a semi-spherical arrangement of 72 photographic prints on the ground depicting various incidental snapshots of the neighbourhood’s urban spaces.

Matter - 72 Transformations. Gilles Massot, Matter and Principle, 2012, Photo by Nurliyani A.R.

Clearly, although it would take some time to comprehend and interrogate, the cosmic plane of Principle depicted a gradual transformation of the Monkey God’s divine manifestation from an essence that was beyond perception and physical form (symbolized by pure geometrical shapes in the first few panels), to its known earthly physical appearances that became increasingly universal and graphical. Just before the junction where the two planes met, the last panel featured a video of the temple procession in Tiong Bahru, emphasizing the significant role of the temple that returns the blessings of the Monkey God to the orbit of the local community. The installation instinctively questioned the relevance of the temple –would the connection cease, or would it remain relevant (e.g. through interventions such as OH!)?

With no mounted brief of the artwork traditional in gallery space, I suspect such ‘specificity’ in site-installations, inescapably cornered by time-constraints and overwhelming distractions, would be unfathomable to interpret by an audience who had no contextual knowledge of the site i.e. the neighbourhood, the temple, and the significant role of the temple within Tiong Bahru’s community and urban spaces. The event would have been exhaustive if all the artworks were as intellectually elaborate as Matter and Principle. It could have been for this reason that the more ephemeral and universal of installations were more perceptively understood, and hence were as memorable and meaningful, and if it could be said, that they were still specific.

It would seem meaningless to reproduce a version of Matter and Principle for another Monkey God temple, due to the devotion of subject to the urban space itself  (the Qi Tian Gong temple) as a nucleus for Tiong Bahru’s social and spiritual affairs. Based on this probability of adaptation as a relative principle of comparison, we would be able to distinguish the more literally site-specific pieces in the 2012 troupe, which include Sleeping Matah Puteh and other works by Zhao Renhui, Den of Beauties by Marc Gabriel Loh, Mother Tongue by Green Zeng, I’m a Kway, You’re a Kway by Stephen Black, and also Belly of the Beast by Marc Wong that were authentic and specific to the homes they occupied. These artworks marked the end to the definite notion of ‘specificity’ and ‘authenticity’.

We never set any theme for the artists; rather we allowed the spaces speak to them. About half of the work is newly commissioned, and the other half adapted to new environments. At the end of it all, we wrap artworks and houses with neighborhood stories and then it becomes a narrative and adventure.

The words of Kimberly Shen, co-founder and assistant curator of OH!, in an interview with Terry Ong for I-S, The Asia City Network (Feb 16, 2012). It is worth noting that ‘Occupy’ was perhaps the default of this ‘theme-absent’ pre-configuration. With lingering absence of explanation of this non-theme ‘Occupy’, the fifteen site-installations were free to be specific, because after all, they would at least be ‘filling in’ something of Tiong Bahru.

The stronger of these “free to be specific” artworks were Lavender Chang’s Unconsciousness : Consciousness, Ang Song Nian’s Detours, Jying Tan’s Heimlich and Sokkuan Tye’s Kuih Muih. Pre-existing concepts were appropriated in these works, albeit with consideration and interpretation of the space that they’d occupy, to be reintroduced into the frame of Tiong Bahru. Specificity could even be a dubious principle to apply to artworks, like Detour, which are concurrent projects of an exploratory nature.

Lavender Chang, Unconsciousness : Consciousness, 2012, Photo by PonderousPilgrim

Although these artworks would still engage in the gentrification issues around Tiong Bahru, what was even more interesting about them was that they were a commentary of more personal lives in the neighbourhood, although they might easily be recycled into next OH!. Nevertheless, their distinctive impact for the walkabout experience was a subtle unveiling- a revelation of an intimate picture, or the “unshadowing” of an alternate ego of the local community that was previously unknown, special or preciously hidden.

Ang Song Nian, Detour No. 7, 2012, Photo by OH! Open House

For all I know, Heimlich could have been specific to the home it had occupied. Even footnoting that it was part of a series with, or a version of Jying Tan’s winning entry Shifting (Re)Iteration III in the France + Singapore New Generation Artists 2009 (FSNGA09), would not undo its perception of specificity, precisely because the artwork itself demanded a kind of ‘non-articulated acquaintance’, that dissolved or absorbed all co-relations laid on it. It is remarkable then that this silent piece, otherwise just a shed skin of an old champion, was endowed with the force of enigma, which I would only attribute  to the knowingness of the artist in the greater nature of her art.

The installation, a transposed memory of the artist’s bedroom, essentially a room filled with warped silhouettes of furniture and objects such as bed, pillows, shoes, lamps, chests, wardrobes, stool, and even walls purely constructed of cling wrap and tape, had taken over an entire room of a HDB apartment that was starkly different from the other houses in our visiting list for its quaint 70s décor. It was also the same apartment that housed Detour and some of Zhao Renhui’s works.

Jying Tan, Heimlich, 2012, Photo by OH! Open House

Jying Tan, whose works investigate issues of temporality, construction and displacement, was inspired by her personal experience of shifting environments. Home and art was the unchanged –the anchor-points in an ever-changing world, and thus she developed special relationships to tangible objects for which “intangible memories and behavior from an old place” (Tan) are conferred.

Heimlich, without even restating its name, would have made a profound impact to anyone perceptively responding to its aesthetic, as the imposition of the subject was one that was deliberately and specifically decoded for a universal takeaway. But it would not have made a big impact for those who wanted it to be intellectual, had it not been entitled and encapsulated in the way that it was.

Knowingly, Tan entitled her piece (which was not conceptually any different than her winning entry) ‘Heimlich’, German for ‘canny’ or ‘homey’, which has two meanings in a dialectic relations, the known, familiar and the secret or unknown.

Essentially, the ‘heimlich’ in Heimlich denotes that the familiar is one that is “at home” in which to the stranger, the viewer from the outside; is the secretive and the unfamiliar.  But congruent to the dialectics of ‘heimlich’, the Freudian theory is that the outsider could also simultaneously, be the self. It is through this implicit connection (outsider becomes insider) that the ‘unheimlich’ in Heimlich is borne.

The ‘full-circle’ overlap of oppositions was an asset in Tan’s Heimlich. The installation drew attention to the viewer that they were not only interlopers in a private sanctuary familiar to her, but that it was also an unexpected canny self-revelation of the phantasm of Home, within the uncanny-ness of the ghostly aesthetic.

This is not to say that a mere symbolic title would return truth to matter and discount it from the subjugation of site-specificity or a general approach. But the earnest of a title that had made no reservations that the art was an indeed an occupant -in forcing out the homeowner’s entire bedroom, taking it over, henceforth declaring itself a ‘Home’, could be a specific agenda in the OH! Tiong Bahru discourse. It was the only artwork that had attempted to pronounce the extent of the theme ‘Occupy’; not only by inhabiting, but by forcibly seizing and taking possession of a space.

In the reiteration of her own Home, Tan unveiled to those who pry, the uneasy revelation of their prying, and made clear that the secret enterprise of OH! was prying.

Threshold. Jying Tan, Heimlich, 2012, Photo by OH! Open House

The site-specificity in Heimlich was precarious. Would it still be efficient if reinstalled in another neighbourhood with similar issues to Tiong Bahru? It would instead seem like an inverse had occurred, whereby the site, Ortiz’s home, became specific for Tan’s installation. With its authentic 1970s design, the apartment was the antithesis to ‘prestige anxiety’ (a term that I came across in High Quality Stories No. 3) and it corresponded to the homes that we might have been accustomed to as a child. Much the same could be said of the intimacy discovered from its sentimentality in the way that an intimacy was understood in the discovery of the Tan’s personal memories in Heimlich; her favourite teddy bear, her favourite shoes, etc.

Reflecting back on the OH! Tiong Bahru experience, it had been nostalgic, contained outsider and insider moments, a marveling over the social affairs of the close-knitted community, Art deco architecture and the unusual front gardens –an intimacy found in something that did not belong to me. Based on this framework of understanding the artwork in situ, was Heimlich site-specific? Was it authentic? I would say yes. It could rightfully be, for the authenticity of Art here was not how ‘new’ or how nonreplicable it was, but how it would devote itself to the subject and site, even if the decision were the pasting on of a new title.

Specificity can be nuanced, but authenticity would not let itself be circumstanced. Authenticity cannot be fabricated because if it were, it would be obsolete.