The next way forward

Images courtesy of SAM

BY CHONG YEW

Two recent shows at the Singapore’s Arts Museum, The Collectors Show: Chimera and the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize 2011 offered up contemporary art that had been created digitally as well as several interesting points of comparison between pieces. For the purposes of this writing, I’m looking at three works from each show and pairing the pieces up so that they can work in dialogue with each other.

First we have Yee I-Lann’s The Orang Besar Series from Chimera alongside Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds from Signature Art Prize. Both bodies of photographic works deal with social issues in their respective countries of Malaysia and Cambodia, and similarly use of nature as a metaphor for social critique. That being said, the approach to both works is a different thing altogether (well, not really, but still there is a difference).

Vandy’s Bomb Ponds are a straightforward documentary of a landscape ridden with bomb craters, filled up with water in present day to become ponds. His pictures are a social commentary on remembering history as an active act, with the ponds as a witness to the Vietnam war. The viewer is presented with unsuspecting images of landscapes filled with ponds, but they depict a sinister history of war and violence. The romanticizing of a once turbulent landscape is an approach we are accustomed to seeing.

Yee’s pictures of floral corsages pinned on to the shirts of politicians and dignitaries seem to be a straightforward photographic documentation as well. Just like politicians lining up to have a group shot, Yee’s golden-framed photos line up against the dark gallery wall bathed in warm light, giving the work a regal atmosphere. The flowers on show are dying, at the imminent stage between beauty and death. But it seems the death is only digital. When one approaches the framed photographs, the difference between Vandy’s and Yee’s becomes clearer; digitization. Yee’s pictures are undoubtedly heavily digitally manipulated, where the texture and form of the flower is digitally treated with software most photography purists hate to mention. The treatment has made the photographs seem like a hybrid between photography and painting. However, it is neither really a photograph nor a painting, which begs us to question the need to aestheticize the images. Comparing this to Vandy’s Bomb Ponds we can argue that aesthetic choices aren’t really a strong case of concern when interpreting any work, but yet it is a conscious decision during production that the artist has undertaken. The authenticity of photography is derived from its ability to capture reality in an unaltered manner. Yet in contemporary art, aesthetically altered images are being accepted as forms of documentation; the buying power of collectors and galleries is able to dictate what kind of work is produced. Therefore, the difference in methodology between these two bodies of work informs us of the direction contemporary artwork might be heading; the use of digital stylization of imagery.

This heavy treatment of imagery brings us to the next pair for comparison. Imran Qureshi’s You who are my love and my life’s enemy too, and Rashid Rana’s Red Carpet IV. Both artists hail from Pakistan, and their artworks respond to the death and terror they have experienced in their country. In this comparison, our ‘duelists’ are practicing on different mediums, but their subject matter is quite similar. As a matter of fact, that is not the only similarity one would find in their artwork. Both artists utilize red as a primary connotation for violence and everything else associated with it, while the backdrop is set in white. The only difference (again), is digitization.

Imran’s treatment of violence is subtle, where his paintings of vividly splattered red dots are beautifully extended into flowers of delicate patterns across the canvas. Rashid’s work might be consider subtled, as a closer examination of his artwork reveals the same underlying patterning as a basic approach to the artwork on a whole. Small little pictures of scenes in a butcher house make up this massive “carpet” in a giant mosaic. Through the use of computer software the artist then colors the canvas to create the effect of a carpet motif.

Before continuing any further, there are two possible directions that could shape our dialogue. Could the viewer be more appreciative to artworks that are harder to execute (spending more time to produce), or could the use of a simpler medium, say photography versus paintings, make it harder to be appreciative of something less arduous (i.e photography)? Perhaps what is important is for us to be critical of the ability of the artwork to offer us a new perspective, and less emphasis on being critical about its production.

Both works allow the need for exploration within their artwork, but the difference between the two is how the idea is being conveyed. With Imran’s painting, the first impression was horror as the paint splatters closely resembled blood, but upon close

inspection the violent splatters are transformed into something beautiful. On the other hand, Rashid’s digital mosaic is totally the opposite, where an elegant carpet is broken down in chaotic scenes of butchery. Cathartic experiences are always most memorable, while Imran’s painting fits into this genre, Rashid’s mosaics represents the trendiness of digital media. Trendy is the key word!

And since we are on the topic of trendy, the final round of comparison consist of the best from the two shows. We have Daniel Crooks’s Static No.12 representing the Signature Art Prize, coming in with a video installation with a single channel feed of an old man practicing Tai-chi. The artist describes the work as more of a sculpture, where he uses programming algorithms to extend the video frames, creating weird forms of the old man stuck against a still backdrop. From Chimera we have Lee Yong Baek’s Broken Mirror, where one would be fooled into thinking that a mirror lies within the thick gold frames, only to have their perception literally shattered by the artwork itself. These two artworks represent the crux of contemporary art with the influence from digital media, which has opened up a new realm of producing art.

Not only because it was something new and refreshing to see, the use of digitization was not easily deciphered for Daniel’s Static No.12.  The thing with digital technology is this; once you know how it’s done, the work becomes gimmicky or gadgety. Not everyone can paint well when given a paintbrush, but while the same does imply certain truths when we use it on digital technology, the path to learning is potentially smoother than with painting. While there are no software or hardware can physically make you paint better, there are software to help you create programs and codes that would be able to recreate a painting The air of invincibility or dominance of digital technology is thus easily shattered when the viewer figures out the inner workings of the art work. While Lee Yong Baek’s Broken Mirror represents one of the best technologies from South Korea, does it really take anything away from the work when come to realize that it is a TV display behind the frames?

The thing about contemporary art is that, while it is often easy to pass it off with the remark of “Oh, I can do that as well”, often it is the idea that counts. However, not taking anything away from Lee, the shattered mirrors could have worked better if the shattering effect alters the reflection (imagine how a cracked mirror would look, with distorted reflections) instead of just being a video “playing in the background”.

In the modern world of short attention spans and increased imagery, the introduction of digital technology into art, infused with different mediums create many new and interesting perspectives. However, like other mediums before them, digital technology needs to stand the trials of time. But the difference now is, it has to stand it’s own trails of digital proliferation, and not in art history.

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