OH! It’s A Bird!

BY TIMOTHY BOEY

“Oh! Look at that bird over there”, exclaims one excited teenage girl from the corner of the living room. Her boyfriend walks over and stares at it for a moment before lifting up his camera phone to snap a photo. After a few moments, his attention is caught by another piece of work and he walks away. Almost immediately another middle aged Caucasian couple approaches the same portrait of the bird. After taking a short while to look at it, the woman promptly lifts up her compact camera and takes a photo of the art work.

The large scale photographic portrait of the bird is one of the many works by Singaporean artist, Zhao Ren Hui, at the recent OH! Open House at Tiong Bahru. Open House was a creatively curated art show put together in six houses and one Chinese temple in the Tiong Bahru district. House tours were organized into groups and led by a guide who was responsible for taking visitors around Tiong Bahru and bringing them to the different houses to view the art works.

Open House is conceived as a large pop-up arts exhibition designed to turn some of the houses in the estate into gallery spaces. The idea of showing art in an unexpected space is not something new but the experience of viewing art in a familiar setting of a house creates a disjuncture between a piece of art being part of the house and one which stands solely as an exhibit. There were installation works which fully transformed entire rooms like Jying Tan’s, which featured carefully crafted objects made up of scotch tape in a room plastered in the same material. Other works such as Lavender Chang’s portraits of the home owners’ sleeping naked were less conspicuous as works for the show, looking instead more like ordinary framed portraits on the wall.

There was no order and a lack of a sense of any visual continuity between the works, creating an experience for the viewer that is less formal and rigid than a traditional gallery show. Interaction between the art works and the space was also not a key feature of the show, although some of the works used the existing features of the houses. While artists such as Isabelle Desjeux playfully turned a bathroom into a laboratory there was a general absence of an idea of domesticity in most of the works.

Equally as interesting as the art works on display were the houses themselves, offering visitors an opportunity to enter the houses of this rather quaint estate. Given Tiong Bahru’s charm as a bohemian hideaway near the city central, there is a lure to the place which added to the appeal of the whole show. Each house is intriguing is so many different ways, the décor might be interesting, some of the items could be revealing of the owner’s personality and combined with the presence of the art works, there is probably too much to take in. Instead of being acutely aware of the presence of the art work, the interior and its settings became a much more immediate draw.

The seeming lack of curation allowed the audience an intimate process of discovery as they visited each home. There was no specificity to a theme even though most of the works seemed to reference to something related to Tiong Bahru. There’s also no artist’s text to accompany the works, which emphasized the experiential aspect of the show. Open House is not too far different from a circus show, you go there to be entertained and admire the talents of the performers but never need to know exactly what everything is about. Each art work seeks to draw attention to itself and be engaging enough for the audience. This is not to discredit the merits of any individual artworks but if you begin to see Open House as one entire performance art piece rather than a single art show then the different elements will begin to coincide more evidently.

Looking back at Zhao’s work of the bird, it is easy to mistake it for a photo realistic painting until you begin to examine it closer. Little else is known of the work except that it depicts a sleeping Mata Puteh, a popular songbird. A symbolic feature of the Tiong Bahru estate, the Mata Putra was a common sight in the large community of bird lovers who used to gather frequently around the neighborhood. The influx of new residents over the years and the setting up of modern establishments like cafes has eroded a part of the Tiong Bahru culture. The Mata Putra represents a sentimental reminder of the days gone by.

There is a legitimate cause towards the preservation of history but what is becoming increasingly perplexing is that in doing this we are undoing it. The teenage couple who had curiously stumbled upon the Mata Putra, were perhaps not at all concerned about the loss of a once popular past time but instead fascinated by a ‘sleeping  bird’. In taking a photo of the photograph, they have objectified the bird, creating a sentimental object out of a history they might never have fully understood.

It is not immediately apparent if such sentimentalism in Zhao’s work is supposed to encourage a case for the preservation of our own heritage or is it a representation of how it has already gone. The sadness of the bird makes us feel sorry for its state and suddenly aware of its beauty. We may feel compelled to protect the Mata Puteh in a way that we are keen to protect Tiong Bahru from the extensive development that can envelop an old place in Singapore. The result of which is that we have preserved the buildings but not the people.  Its attractiveness as a town of somewhat rich heritage in a country where there is hardly anything old any more, is also its own downfall. The Tiong Bahru of today is now an enclave for a slew of trendy hangouts and a residential haven for successful professionals. There is an irony to this in that in an effort to preserve the heritage of Tiong Bahru, they have actually altered it.

Zhao’s other works are centered around a fictitious scientific community called the Institute of Critical Zoologist. The works in this broad series are intended to be pseudo scientific and they appear to be documentations of scientific experiments. He goes to great extent to make his audience think it is real or at least realistic, some of the claims he makes in his work border on absurdity but it is the very edge of belief he tries to explore. It is not how far Zhao can push the lie but where the lie pushes us – the viewer. His fabrication of his projects dealing with issues of and around animals and the natural environment highlights the peculiar relationship between humans and nature.

Nowhere else is the relationship between humans and animals more evident than in the zoo. The purpose of the zoo is to be a representation of the wildlife in a manner in which it allows us to get a lot closer to these animals. However this proximity is a false sense of closeness with the animals, what we see in the zoo is a simulated reality. Giraffes do not live next to elephants neither do lions get fed, they hunt, so much of these inconsistencies prevail right before us but most people are readily accepting of this mediated experience. It is not the inability of the zoo to mimic wildlife to an undifferentiated manner which distorts the truth; it is our willing acceptance of what is not the truth.

Sometime after the Caucasian couple left the house a new group of visitors enters the house. After moving through the art works in a systemic manner, they arrive at the Zhao’s Mata Putra. The guide promptly begins explaining about the symbolic references of the bird, while a number of people have their cameras out snapping photos. A young man interrupts the guide just as he was about to finish, explaining the fictitious nature of Zhao Ren Hui’s work. The group lingers on for a few moments before they proceed on, feeling a little skeptical.

Zhao’s unique brand of cynicism does not cloud the truth in his intentions but they become part of the very discourse. Seemingly frivolous but terribly insightful, Zhao draws the viewer in with a mixture of mystique and beauty but never reveals himself fully. His work becomes more like an attraction than a piece of art, much like the Merlion for the average tourist. Tourists go to the Merlion to take photos not because of its significance to any tangible aspect of Singapore’s history but because it establishes themselves as part of a common experience. In a similar manner, the Mata Putra is a way to recreate a common experience amongst viewers by drawing on a good dose of sentimentalism. However in trying to do so it has also highlighted an absence of any common identity. The work becomes a cynical critique of itself and ultimately makes us question the way we look at art.

We may look at Art in an institutional way; coming to recognize what we know as art by what we see in the museums and galleries. In many ways Open House was an innovative way of expanding the boundaries of the institution by redefining the use of non-traditional gallery space. On the flip side, Open House might be nothing more than a disassembled representation of the works put together for the sole purpose of creating a spectacle. After taking one final look at the huge crowd gathered around the Mata Putra, I can’t help but think that maybe like Zhao Ren Hui, that the intention behind Open House was somewhat cynical.

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