Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Looking at Institutions Look at Themselves: NUS Museum & NTU CCA Singapore

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By Marcus Yee

(1530 words, 20-minute read)

What am I?asks the museum.If I am not to be metamuseum, interred within my own history, what do I do?”. —Lisa G. Corrin

 

Amidst the torrential stream of infrastructural expansion and bureaucratic densification that characterises the “arts ecosystem” in Singapore, several art institutions appear to gasp for fresh air, breaking into the surface of the tide to reconsider themselves—or at least, to perform this reconsideration. They include the exhibitions The Making of an Institution by NTU Centre for Contemporary Art and There are too many episodes of people coming here… by NUS Museum. For audiences, these recent projects mark a profound change: from approaching the arts space within the prevailing modernist ideology of tabula rasa, to confronting the face of the institution itself.

Lest there be any claims of alterity in going against the grind of the exhibition treadmill, it is a well-worn cliché that Institutional Critique has become paradoxically institutionalised as one of the many tropes in the mixed-bag of artistic and curatorial strategies, plundered by many passing hands. At its peak, artists, and  art institutions, had welcomed these strategies into what Lisa G. Corrin derisively brackets as “Museumism”. As Andrea Fraser’s now-canonical diagnosis of the movement’s co-optation goes, the critique of institutions has given way to the institution of critique.

Despite the obvious art historical association suggested in its title, the exhibition The Making of an Institution by NTU CCA Singapore has dropped the outmoded radical chic of Institutional Critique and instead, opts for unironic self-presentation in its appropriation of the “public report”. A curious gesture for an institution still in its teething phase – it’s not quite 4 years old – the exhibition is a culmination of the institution’s many milestones, works from artist residencies and curatorial narratives.

At its most cogent, the exhibition critiques the public report by inhabiting it, recalling Gayatri Spivak’s affirmative sabotage in entering the master’s machine to ruin it from the inside. Since the public report is a formal document written for invested stakeholders including the board of directors, existing and potential donors or government agencies, it is perhaps a misnomer because the address of its “public” is more specific than it seems. No less for an art institution, the artworks themselves exceed the limits of representation framed by the public report, where the clanging orchestra of pots and pans that in Zulkifle Mahmod’s Resonances: Readymade Sound Sculptures (2016) becomes an excess that cannot be captured in the language of statistics and finances framed by bureaucratic discourse. Here, bureaucratic accountability backfires as the public report accounts for itself.

Zulkifle Mahmod, Resonances: Readymade Sound Sculptures, wok covers, utensils, 32-channel mircocontroller connected to a Midi player, 2016.
Zulkifle Mahmod, Resonances: Readymade Sound Sculptures, wok covers, utensils, 32-channel mircocontroller connected to a Midi player, 2016. Image: NTU CCA Singapore.
Zulkifle Mahmod, Resonances: Readymade Sound Sculptures, wok covers, utensils, 32-channel mircocontroller connected to a Midi player, 2016.
Zulkifle Mahmod, Resonances: Readymade Sound Sculptures, wok covers, utensils, 32-channel mircocontroller connected to a Midi player, 2016. Image: NTU CCA Singapore.

Beyond spilling out of the bureaucratic frame, however, the rancour of artworks (and works-in-progress) by twenty-six international and local artists feel uncohesive. Even as the works are thematically organised by the concerns of the institution, such as the current overarching curatorial narrative of Place.Labour.Capital, the works that amplify the concerns about the institution, apropos the self-evaluative intentions of the exhibition, are few and far between.

In considering the institution, Critical Fengshui (2017) by Kray Chen stands out as a glib satire against the productivist anxieties in developing Gillman Barracks as a cultural hub, and by extension, NTU CCA Singapore. The video captures the artist’s consultation with a Fengshui master conducting geomantic surveys of the precinct, where the aversion to failure not only involves the manipulation of capital flows, but also the bending and buckling of metaphysical and mystical forces according to one’s will. Whether visitorship or intuitiveness, the anxieties to constitute “artistic success” (if not an oxymoron) are bounced back and forth between artist and Fengshui master.

Loo Zihan, I am Paying Attention, archival materials, 2016. Courtesy of NTU CCA Singapore.
Loo Zihan, I am Paying Attention, archival materials, 2016. Image: NTU CCA Singapore.

Subtly relevant are projects that experiment with the institutionary, whereby the (meta-)institution here acts as an incubator. This is present in the games of authoritarian control in Loo Zihan’s I am Paying Attention (2016), a condensed installation of materials from the The Ray Langenbach Collection of Performance Art and the documentation of participatory performance I am LGB (SIFA, 2016), in which audiences participate in a last-man-standing competition, but are, unknowingly, subjected to the arbitrary whims of an opaque institutional structure. In another vein, The Library of Unread Books (2016-ongoing) by Heman Chong and Renée Staal harbours the dross of neglected books from readers across all genres, looking into the conditions of the library with its heuristic methods involved in the accumulating, storing and disciplining of knowledge.

Heman Chong, The Library of Unread Books, donated unread books, 2016-ongoing. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore
Heman Chong, The Library of Unread Books, donated unread books, 2016-ongoing. Image: NTU CCA Singapore.
Heman Chong, The Library of Unread Books, donated unread books, 2016-ongoing. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore
Heman Chong, The Library of Unread Books, donated unread books, 2016-ongoing. Image: NTU CCA Singapore.

Yet, the exhibition never quite departs from the trappings of the public report, in its presentation of a manicured image of itself. In the exhibition, the chronological timeline of NTU CCA Singapore’s milestones, or the row of dossiers of Singapore-based artists and independent art spaces in the Artist Resource Platform, are instances when the public report discovers a relative: the showcase exhibition. In this blurred distinction between self-critique and self-promotion, one wonders, what then, does the institution want from the viewer?

***

The title of NUS Museum’s exhibition, There are too many episodes of people coming here… is borrowed from the words of Wak Ali, the custodian of a demolished Muslim shrine on the banks of the Kallang river, the ruins of which now hang on display in the gallery. Unlike the celebratory excess of The Making of an Institution, this exhibition dwells on the context of irretrievable pasts in minor key, taking on an ambiguity that is at once regrettable and relished.

Zai Kuning, "Riau" (2003). Digital video, 29:45 minutes. Collection of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore. Courtesy NUS Museum.
Zai Kuning, “Riau”
(2003). Digital video, 29:45 minutes. Collection of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore. Image By Geraldine Kang, for NUS Museum

The current shape of There are too many episodes of people coming here… is the result of a rewriting: new projects are weaved into the discursive fabric of the museum’s existing contexts. One such addition is Zai Kuning’s documentary Riau of the Orang Laut (2003) or sea gypsies in the region, a documentary that draws from the pre-colonial histories of diverse sea-cultures under the generalised bracket of the “Malay” people, thus providing another viewpoint against the imaginary of dispossessed seas.

Dennis Tan, Pujangga (Kolek Sailboat). Wood. 2016. Artist Collection. Courtesy of NUS Museum
Dennis Tan, Pujangga (Kolek Sailboat). Wood. 2016.
Artist Collection. Image By Geraldine Kang, for NUS Museum
Dennis Tan, Pujangga (Kolek Sailboat). Wood. 2016. Artist Collection. Courtesy of NUS Museum
Dennis Tan, Pujangga (Kolek Sailboat). Wood. 2016.
Artist Collection. Image By Geraldine Kang, for NUS Museum

Despite the density of texts on the gallery’s walls, as per the museum’s curatorial style, the exhibition does not retreat into the prescriptive. Deliberate encounters between each project animate the exhibition, making space for resonances to reverberate. The drift of interpretation is encouraged: like flotsam marooned onto the shores of the exhibition, the remnants of Dennis Tan’s artistic attempt to construct a traditional Kolek sailboat reveal the intimacies of wood and sea; through the materiality of wood, we slide into another slipstream that traces the journeys of wood (or “arborealities”) in the multivalent Migrant Ecologies Project (2014) by Lucy Davis, where a tropical hardwood bed becomes a stage to tell stories of entanglements in nature and culture within the region. Here the ellipsis of the exhibition’s title is instructive, one that indicates an unfinished thought, an echo.

Lucy Davis Together Again (Wood:Cut) Part V: EVIDENCE 2014 Artist Collection Logs courtesy of Allen Oei [“When you get closer to the heart, you may find cracks”: Stories of Wood by Migrant Ecologies Project, 2014] Courtesy of NUS Museum
Lucy Davis, Together Again (Wood:Cut) Part V: EVIDENCE, (2014) from “When you get closer to the heart, you may find cracks”: Stories of Wood by Migrant Ecologies Project, (2014). Artist Collection. Logs courtesy of Allen Oei. Image By Geraldine Kang, for NUS Museum
At stake in the gesture of rewriting is the time of exhibitions. What is the persistence of an exhibition’s memory within the forward march of the institution’s programming calendar? How does the institution carve out its own time, rather than succumb to the demands of the steroidal event economy? One luminous expression of exhibitionary afterlives is found in the curators’ play on textuality. In strategies like borrowing wall texts previously written for the works’ original exhibitions (including those from other institutions), or displaying the palimpsest of the initial curatorial text, struck-through, and updated with a new premise, the viewer (or reader) is placed in media res, into the middle of a forest of other meanings that have already been written. It is necessary therefore to clarify that the exhibition is not a spectacular rewriting tout court, but a concerted moment for ideas to mix and sediment, if only for awhile, and then drift back into history’s runoff.

As with any meta-institutional creature, the problem of (self-)display never strays far from its perennial concerns. While NTU CCA Singapore obsesses over its own bureaucratic existence, NUS Museum continues to position itself vis-à-vis the postcolonial, taking into account the inherited past of colonial museology in Singapore. Remnants of museum apparatus like specimen containers from the Raffles Museum, or recumbent “native objects”, tagged and shielded behind Perspex sheets, are restaging of the institution’s open admission of complicity by revealing the processes of storage, cataloguing and display. These gestures were previously rehearsed in the exhibition Camping and Tramping Through the Colonial Archive (2013). In this light, statements made by the curators like “the curatorial, if it can be gleamed, is to be located between thought and fetish”, found in the exhibition’s preamble, reveals much of the institution’s temperament in straddling the ambivalent. Even as postcolonial reflexivity is much welcomed, it remains necessary to question whether this proclivity towards “subjectivities, slippages and ambivalence” becomes a shelter of discursive convenience, a curatorial sleight of hand.

For all the theoretical self-cannibalisation of institutions looking at themselves, it cannot be denied that NTU CCA Singapore and NUS Museum undertake a tremendous responsibility in harbouring artistic ideas as university- and research-based institutions. All things considered, it takes much to advocate for the indeterminate, inchoate vagaries of process without product, or to halt the culture factory to allow past ideas to breathe again. To question the performance of institutional introspection is less to conspire against the sincerity of these gestures by plunging into the shadow world of intention, and even lesser to revive the anachronistic moment of Institutional Critique. Instead, it is to demand that this self-questioning goes beyond the solipsism of mere display, integrated into the day-to-day operation of the institution hereafter. The meta-institutionary should be the rule rather than exception.


The Making of An Institution was on display at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art from 11 February to 7 May 2017. It was curated by Ute Meta Bauer, Founding Director, Anna Lovecchio, Curator, Residencies, and Anca Rujoiu, Manager, Publications.

There Are Too Many Episodes Of People Coming Here… runs at NUS Museum NX1 Gallery (Concourse Level) from 26 October 2016 to 26 August 2017.

 

Guest Writer Marcus Yee is an artist and art writer. He has exhibited in group shows in Singapore, Shanghai and Zürich. His blog can be found on www.rightafters.tumblr.com.

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