By Elaine Chiew
(1140 words, 12-minute read)
Tofu sheets, latex skin, talcum, chocolate powder, milk. A meander through the fine art segment of the NAFA graduate showcase, titled as an ironic play on words, “The Grad Expectations 2017,” reveals two interesting strands: the unconventional materialities emergent in the current exhibition, and the play of intertextuality with aesthetics.
These untraditional materials contribute a distinctive visual grain and texture to a work of art. They differentiate the conceptual and art-making process; they are to installation artworks what brushstrokes are to canvas. Time also becomes embedded as an organic element as these materials are often non-durable, and consequently, the works may have to be site-specific and durational.
Jocelyn Ng’s Ah Qing, Come Eat (Fig. 1), for example, is comprised of an assortment of kitchenware and utensils made of beancurd sheets. In a previous rendition of this work, the artist has expressed her intention to “work-through” her emotional difficulties with her grandmother’s ultimately fatal battle with cancer. The fragility of beancurd sheets transacts with the artist’s cultural identity (tofu skin is often used in Chinese cuisine) and her autobiographical emotional mise-en-scène. The green fungal growth the artist has allowed in the work further underscores the idea of mortality, while the wrinkly texture and colour of tofu skin articulate a melancholia particular to the process of aging.
Tan Yun Yi’s site-specific abstract installation, Beneath (Fig. 2), portrays the serendipitous happenstance when the pages of a local newspaper is imprinted onto the latex skin during the artist’s casting process. Latex invests the work with a stretchy, rubbery feel, yet bestows a resilience that highlights the doggedness of news reports and the lasting effect of the written word. Food dye also offers a curious colour-blending palette; when combined with the texture of latex, the work in certain parts resembles bacon slices, another accidental reference to the myriad uses of newspapers (to wrap food in, etc.) within Singaporean culture.
The sensory, protective world of childhood is implicated in both Sofy Binte As’adi’s Hold on tight, to your little baby pillow (Fig. 3), which uses talcum powder to make a series of clothing, hung on hangers on a clothing rack, and Nor Azila Binte Mohd Zin’s Nostalgia (Fig. 4), which shows several objects, as if from a cabinet au memoire (a teddy bear, a pair of children’s shoes, a used brassiere), coated in chocolate, which the artist cites is a personal addiction. The use of baby powder, and the first taste of chocolate – these childhood “ready-to-hand” physical reminiscences evoke a broader existential and emotional dasein that shades the character and role of memory in art.
Rajeswariy D/O Rasoo’s work, Abandoned Ship (Fig. 5), looks like a hydraulic system or a medical apparatus, with tubes and wires connecting plastic and glass containers of milk, perhaps connecting two incongruences – the idea of sustenance or salvation (milk) to the sense of emergency pervading a vessel-at-sea (“white flares” also used to warn other ships against collision). What these materials emphasise is the instability and contingency (“any moment things can change”) that become embedded within the artistic investigation of the vitality of substances. These materials act as agent or catalyst in probing the web of relationships between bodies and objects. They fertilise a transmaterial exchange with the conceptual ideas powering artworks. Similarly, intertextuality offers a scriptive, narrative dimension to the aesthetics of several works in the show. Intertextuality permits the crosshairs of a multi-cultural society to surface, revealing what Homi Bhabha has termed “moments and processes” of “collaboration”, “contestation” and “articulation of cultural differences” that occur in the bids to elaborate “strategies of selfhood – singular or communal.”
Hew Ruyi’s Apa Nama Jalan Tu? (What’s the Name of That Road) (Fig. 6) features alphabets, individually printed on ink paper and hung on nail tags, against a background topology of bisecting roads, devoid of map markers. The artist means to challenge the blithe governmental practice of changing road-names in Malaysia, erasing history and memory, or what the artist calls “the archives of identities”. Interestingly, the deconstructed road names, which have been reduced to individual alphabets are now lost or difficult to retrace, and seem to demand the question: how does one find the road back through letters?
Kuat Zhi Hooi’s Waiting for Wolf and Offerings (Fig. 7) exploit the homonyms between the Hokkien dialect and Mandarin language, while simultaneously presencing their disjuncture in meanings. Deng lang (等 狼), the Mandarin pronunciation of the two gold-leafed characters inscribed on this commonly-seen shop-sign that decorates many diasporic Chinese-owned businesses in Singapore and Malaysia, means, rather nonsensically, “waiting for wolf” in Mandarin but signifies “the Chinese people” in Hokkien. All the cultural semantics of Chineseness – the propitiousness of gold and red in Chinese culture, the symbolic importance of making offerings – are caught within this artistic act of transcribing Hokkien dialect into Mandarin characters.
The highlight of this intertextuality exchange with materials for me is Qamarul Asyraf’s installation, For You: To You. The work as a whole exemplifies Harold Bloom’s theory of poetry, encapsulated within the “anxiety of influence.” It is comprised of multiple layers of process: the artist hand-writes poetry fragments or stanzas by famous poets such as Pablo Neruda, Emily Dickinson, Qurbani and Rumi, displays them in perspex as if they were museum ornaments; then, he converts or changes the meaning of the poetry fragment by carefully excising or scratching out certain words, which he sequesters in a miniature bottle, presented next to the poetry fragment; and finally, he physically manifests the poetry’s significance via objects, such as a chair, a stacked number of pages perforated in the middle as an interleaved square of layers, or in the most poignant part of this installation, in a series of black-painted plates inscribed in Jawi, the Arabic script for the Malay language. Each plate transcribes one word from an anonymous pantun which had significantly influenced Asyraf when he was young, but he further subjects the word to a dual process by first translating it from Malay to English, then reproducing homonymically the English pronunciation of the word in Jawi.
The dense meta-layered works highlighted here not only speak to the complexities of acts of translation, but provocatively challenge our understanding of the interactions between transmateriality (via objects) and linguistic meanings (even within the Chinese culture, a translation of dialect to official written script betrays a slippage in meaning). Mainly though, what these works manifest is an appreciable deepening of the exploration of multi-cultural and pluralistic influences on identity-formation within a complex upbringing such as Singapore.
 Term is from Freud as explicated by trauma theorist Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2014), Kindle.
 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994; repr., New York, London: Routledge, 2006), 2.
 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Second Edition. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
The NAFA Graduate Showcase 2017 runs from 25 to 31 May, 2017 at NAFA Campus 1 and Objectifs and featured works by graduands from the Diploma in Design, BA (Hons) 3D Design, Diploma in Fine Arts, B.A. (Hons) in Fine Arts and Fashion Studies.
Elaine Chiew is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted in numerous other U.S. and U.K. competitions. Her most recent stories can be found in Potomac Review and Singapore Love Stories (Monsoon Books, 2016). She is currently based in Singapore and has just completed an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts.