The Roles We Play Part 2: Art Critics

Andrew: As most of you all already know from this blog, Jasmine and I love going for exhibitions.

Unfortunately, most of the art exhibitions we’ve been too have been rather underwhelming as most of them are displays of contemporary art – perhaps we need a professional to enlighten us on the approach towards appreciating contemporary art!

The OH! Open House exhibition, advertised on Mr Wang Says So, seemed extremely promising – local artists, moving art out of conventional display spaces to see how they function within homes, a combination of our love for art and Dearie’s love for home decor. How could this go wrong? We were sadly mistaken.

I came with the expectation that the pieces would be thoughtfully integrated with the spaces they occupied, that the personality, atmosphere and feel of the homes would enhance the art pieces and hence bring out the message and meaning of the work more. This was done to varying degrees of success, but there were more misses than hits.

Hits

Andrew: One of the houses I found more fascinating was the first one, which belonged to a Mr Anbalangan, a Tamil poet and writer. The ground level is where he composes all his works and as you can hopefully see, his bookshelves are filled with his own pieces as well as collections of other writings from which he draws his inspiration:

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What I found rather fascinating in this house was the display of the exoskeleton of white cockroaches by Zhao Renhui.

Tottori Desert Cockroaches

These were displayed in the garage of the house, a very suffocating, compact space. The guide who brought us in mentioned that it was interesting how the change in colour of the cockroach changes it from a pest to an object of fascination.

What I found more interesting, however, was the use of the space and how it was ironic in response to the piece of art. In the corner of the garage, there was a can of insecticide. We commonly want to rid our garages of these pests by killing them or spraying insecticide to keep them out. However, now in this space, the cockroach became the centre of attention, an object for us to admire and appreciate. It suddenly seemed as if this was a space that belonged to the cockroach. Given that Zhao Renhui’s photography interest is in the ‘human zoological gaze’ (i.e. how humans view animals), I thought the juxtaposition of space and his exhibit was very thoughtfully done.

Another display I quite liked was the series of dead children portraits by Huang Wei in the fifth and last house. It was indeed one of the more accessible series of paintings which really drew you in and made you wonder about the stories behind these paintings. I partly also think that in contrast to all the other contemporary art pieces we saw, this series was rather refreshing and ‘conventional’ – perhaps my taste in art is rather conventional after all.

One of his pieces, taken from For Arts Sake

(Jasmine says: Huang Wei was a local artist who lost his family during World War Two. This inspired him to paint a series of pictures, all of whom featured undead children who were either maimed, disfigured or bleeding. (Yes, I know, so perfect for a romantic date.)

A dozen or so of these paintings had been framed on one wall of the entryway, a satirical mimicry of classical Western interiors where the family’s ancestral portraits take pride of place in a central public room such as the dining hall or salon. In this case, however, the pictures were not of ancestral forefathers, but of an entire generation of children who had died prematurely. The fact that this was a shophouse lived in by an actual family heightened the uneasy topic that Huang Wei’s ghostly visages sought to explore: human loss. This was one of the few instances during the Open House tour that I felt that the tense juxtaposition of art object and context was especially apt. )

Misses

Andrew: Also displayed in the first house were the wax representations of HDB flats by Rebecca Lim:

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Unfortunately I didn’t quite understand these pieces and the message behind them. Like Jasmine mentioned, most of these pieces required us to work very hard to understand what they meant and the pieces themselves were not inherently interesting or captivating. For me, I found a lot of this experience rather cerebral. The pieces didn’t communicate any emotion to me (perhaps that was the point, but still).

(Jasmine says: The way the wax sculptures were displayed, on stand-alone cubes placed at knee level, did not enhance our viewing experience, since we had to crouch or squat in order to get a close look at the pieces.

In an ideal world, I would have crammed several dozen of these wax sculptures on an Ikea bookcase like the one below to underscore the crowdedness of HDB living.

A bookshelf is such a home decor staple that displaying the wax sculptures off-handedly in it would also integrate the exhibit better within the home.)

Andrew: The displays in the 2nd house confounded me.

IMG_6534 These statues were supposed to be personifications of electro and funk music, and had song lyrics inscribed on their backs

IMG_6532 These petri dishes were placed on the dining table in the 2nd house we visited, along with a magnifying glass. What were we supposed to look at?

(Jasmine says: The petri dishes contained microscopic prints that were inspired by natural forms such as spores and leaves. My best guess would be that the artist was inviting her viewers to take a scientific look at art by gazing through a magnifying glass. However, I found it purposeless because the prints themselves were not particularly fascinating up-close. In other words, the prints of spores still looked like spores through the magnifying glass- nothing less, nothing more.

Art should draw us in and make us wonder about the provenance of the artwork, such as Huang Wei’s undead children paintings, where I found myself pondering over who a certain child might be and what her backstory was. Here, however, my response to the petri dish prints was, “Ok, so what’s next?”

The placement of the tiny petri dishes on the humongous dining table also made it easy to miss out on. If the tour guide had not highlighted the petri dishes, I would probably have dismissed it as the homeowner’s collection of cigarette trays or tealight holders. )

Andrew: In one of the houses, we had to put on 3D glasses and ‘hunt’ around the house for different lightboxes.

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How the pictures looked when viewed through a 3D lens


Andrew: Again, this was like ‘eh’?

(Jasmine says: The focus was on the process of exploring the house, rather than the final product i.e. the pictures. Yet both process and product left me feeling disgruntled. For process in particular, the areas of the house that we explored (a storeroom, a stairway and a bedroom on the second floor) had all been emptied of furniture. This greatly undermined the purpose of displaying art in people’s houses, as the house seemed to become a conventional display space of four blank walls (in curator terms, a “white box”) not unlike the typical museum or art gallery concept that the Open House organisers had tried so hard to counter.)

Andrew: And finally,

IMG_6538  Backlit artpieces featuring little monkeys in Japonesque settings i.e. sakura season and wooden houses.

(Jasmine: Though the pictures were visually appealing, the problem of appropriate context cropped up once again here, as the room was void of furnishings. To give them life, I might have mounted them in a hall where a flat-screen TV might have been to emphasize the role of the spectator, or slotted them between storybooks in a child’s bedroom to provoke viewers into contemplating the fairytale quality of these visual representations of romance.) 

Andrew: There were many other pieces I didn’t photograph, basically because either I felt the effect would have been lost thru photograph or I just felt that there was nothing much to take. One of the houses had a four-poster bed with human hair tied around the four posters.

(Jasmine says: This was just crass. Our tour guide observed that this was the artist’s meditation on how human hair was the only effect a human could leave behind after death. He also invited us to touch the lines of hair (give me Dettol or give me death!!) and noted that the four-poster bed wrapped with human hair was for sale. Alternatively, we could just purchase the hair (and this is commercially viable because…). 

Two children kept pestering the tour guide with The Best Questions Ever:


“So does the artist have any hair left?” “Will her hair grow back?” “How do you sleep on the bed?” 

I know Andrew found the two kids rather pesky, but I felt that their barrage of questions did highlight the pointlessness and meaninglessness of this rather unsanitary exhibit. Plus it was good for a chuckle.)

Andrew: Another house had a “protest-piece”, where the artist strung up pieces of porcelain to form cloud-like shapes and hung these pieces up on the ceiling of a very small room. We were supposed to lie on the floor and look up at the piece. It was supposed to re-create that experience of lying on green fields and looking at clouds in the sky, allowing your imagination to run wild, protesting against current modes of entertainment for our kids where they simply passively ‘take in’ what is shown to them. It seemed like a lot of work, for a very simple message.

(Jasmine says: The artist termed it a “protest piece” against mind-numbing modern forms of entertainment such as television and music that we use to keep our children occupied, but I felt that the artist over-explained yet under-conceptualised her piece.

The piece, which consisted of porcelain shards strung up in concentric circles, clearly resembled a windchime, so I wondered about the acoustics of placing this installation in a room without windows or ventilation. Furthermore, if the audience was meant to interact with the installation by touching it and making it rattle, asking people to lie down on the floor while hanging the installation centimetres away from the ceiling seemed to defeat the tactile nature of the artpiece.)

Andrew: Overall, it was quite a disappointing exhibition. Both Jasmine and I are still unconvinced of the value of contemporary art and this exhibition had so much potential, which wasn’t achieved.

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6 responses to “The Roles We Play Part 2: Art Critics

  1. Dear Andrew,

    What a thoughtful entry on OH!. Despite your disappointment, you took the time to share your thoughts – which is all I can ask for.

    Some of your observations are indeed spot-on, such as the shelf, and the lack of furnishing. Sad to say, we had 2 actual houses who dropped out on the project at the last minute, leaving us to scramble and plug stuff in at the last. It was an instance of time and resources.

    Also, I gave the guides free rein to interpret the works, and in addition, the artists also interjected their take to the guides. It was something I thought about – to give them the curator’s take and how to approach the work, or let them enter that space. In the end, I’m happy with the result – just as you have found the space to share your thoughts, the guides took ideas and made them their own, some of them especially came up with new thematics and ways to look at the same work.

    You seemed to miss the 5th floor exhibition at Wilkie Edge? That was a more ‘curated’ show and I believe many of the works were outstanding in their own right.

    Anyways this is my response as curator of the exhibition, and it heartens me that there are more and more people like yourself willing to go, but especially to engage art in conversation. 🙂

    yours sincerely,
    alan.

  2. dear alan,

    thanks so much for taking the time to write us and for taking our comments in good stride!

    we visited the 5th floor exhibition too, but felt that some of the pieces required more explanation in order for us to more fully appreciate them.

    the concept for OH! intrigued us enough to make us come down for the tour, so do keep us informed if similiar exhibitions are in the works 🙂 as andrew mentioned in our post, it’s an idea with great potential. thanks once again for your comments!

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