Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Winner, Singapore Biennale 2016 Essay Writing Competition: To-Do List for the End of the World

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Congratulations to Marcus Yee for winning AICA + ArtsEquator’s Inaugural Best Essay on the Singapore Biennale 2016 by an Emerging Art Writer Competition with this essay.

 

By Marcus Yee,

(3040 words, 30-minute read)

“A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth glancing at.” — Oscar Wilde [1]

1. Find escape routes out of a fortress

Illustration for Shelter (2016) by Debbie Ding found in the catalogue for An Atlas of Mirrors. Photo: Marcus Yee
Illustration for Shelter (2016) by Debbie Ding found in the catalogue for An Atlas of Mirrors. Photo: Marcus Yee

 

The end of the world begins with the evacuation from the funhouse of mirrors for the fortress of mirrors: namely, the 2016 edition of the Singapore Biennale, An Atlas of Mirrors. While all the charms of funhouse mirrors are preserved in this new edifice—your reflection becoming putty with its stretching cheeks, elongating neck, curving torso, and nipping waist—there is also the horror of having ugliness stare back at you.

You see your reflection in plates of dark petroleum in Chou Shih Hsiung’s Good Boy, Bad Boy (2016): you are you as you are oil as you have been distantly complicit in the torching and trashing of the planet.

The historical awareness of the wound that is the history of Southeast Asia, a history of oppressions, displacements and abandonments, compels the curator-architects to not leave these mirrors as they are—as supports for the narcissistic seductions of the mirror-image. In the fortress of mirrors, every reflective surface is varnished with a thin veneer of criticality, where the mirror is an ambivalent technology that provides an unflinching reflection of reality, but at the same time, a distortion in itself.

Architecturally, the fortress of mirrors occupies infinite space (“everywhere of mirrorings”) and infinite time (“endlessness of beginnings”). [2] Ni Youyu’s Dust (Singapore Galaxy) (2016) and Invisible Force (2015) are immaculate drawings of celestial bodies in the night sky, reproductions of astronomical photographs created out of chalk dust and industrial magnets, respectively. Not only are viewers awed by the sublime of galactic visuality, they are bedazzled and immobilised under the remorseless gaze of the heavens, becoming profoundly insignificant to the cold wheeling of the planets. [3] With every star an infinitesimal piece of the mirror-image, the galaxy pulverises subjectivity into dust: cosmological surrender. For Hegel, these illusions of infinitude are considered to be “bad” infinity because the untenable, unconceivable sublime of these concepts hinders critical thought. [4] There is technically no outside in infinite space, and claustrophobia ensues in the windowless architecture of the fortress of mirrors.

Of the varieties of escape routes, the most familiar is the modern fire escape part of building safety requirements. It is a requirement that applies to the fortress of mirrors. For instance, the location of Debbie Ding’s Shelter (2016) was a strategic curatorial manoeuvre for viewers to disengage—however temporary or partial—with the biennale and perform “psychogeography” through the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore. This typology of the escape route is unidirectional and littered with attention-seeking signage, allowing one to wander safely without anxiety.

Instead, I am thinking of the jailbreak plans conceived by shrewd observers of prison schedules, spatial arrangements and guard habits, those who study the fractures of heightened surveillance, and work with their band of other escape-artists to creep through drain systems, hoping for the distant glow of the outside world.

As a mirror Shelter could be seen as a critical reflection of the state’s paranoiac rhetoric of national security. Under the Civil Defence Shelter Act of 1997, new dwelling units are required to have shelters incorporated into new developments. [5] The mockup of a household shelter, decontextualised from the material world of domestic space and stripped bare from the stuff of households, now comes to terms with its proper function. No doubt, a function that perversely waits to be fulfilled. Placed alongside other museum exhibits illustrating facets of the country’s history, the didactic function of the work is self-evident. But to focus on the critical operation of decontextualisation misses the twitches of detail that could provide escape.

The escape route out from the fortress of mirrors, or equally paranoid critique of paranoia, is found in the hallucination of the Fortune God as he enters into the hopeless safety of Shelter through a “small door”. For nonbelievers, the arts of escape is alternatively couched on human invention, where the uninhabitable is made more bearable with the sound of “rustling leaves”, casting a pastoral landscape in an apocalyptic world. The “rustling leaves” are actually paper frills breezing in the wind that comes from a ventilation valve. These sketches of provisional narratives could be found in a blueprint of possible “psychological encounters” provided by the artist. Like hastily scribbled directions on browning pieces of paper, these escape routes are enveloped in medieval secrecy. Where there is neither signage nor map, one must be attenuated to the clues, if not, the accidents.

2. Ride on a glass rocket

Installation view of Sugoroko - Anxiety of Falling from History (2016) by Nobuaki Takekawa. Photo: Marcus Yee
Installation view of Sugoroko – Anxiety of Falling from History (2016) by Nobuaki Takekawa. Photo: Marcus Yee

 

In the Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk defines cynicism as “false enlightened consciousness”, warning of the deleterious one-upmanship in cynical strains of criticism. [6] Like the dismissive masses, the fortress of mirrors is inwardly adroit and outwardly fortified. Except, since the fortress of mirrors is structurally infinite without boundary, it veers towards a hypertrophied reflexivity as it looks exhaustively inwards.

From the uncertain horizon, an armada of three charred ships sail towards the viewer. Standing on each ship are missionaries, each clad in ominous cloaks of gold-plated nutmeg, glittering seductively in the violent history of Dutch colonisation. In sweeping pessimism, the self-evidently titled installation by Titarubi, History Repeats Itself (2016), constructs an allegory of the history of mankind as the history of greed, echoing the theme of cyclical temporality that undergirds the biennale. The waves rise and fall, a dog chases its tail, Sisyphus rolls his boulder—such is the circular architecture of the fortress, steeped in nihilism. Redemption is nonetheless spoken in hushed tones, although unimaginably messianic.

Better to come across sober than naïve, the curator-architects attempt to exorcise the ghosts of futurity in its past editions, making no grand claims of possible “change” or speculative attempts at “ifs”. What is left are unmoored ships drifting in tumultuous seas, the horizon an endless, enclosed circle.

As with commentaries on past editions of the Singapore Biennale, the tyranny of open-endedness eschews criticism. [7] Not only does the curatorial edifice overwrite the artworks into its narrative, cosmological obscurantism disguised as plurality empties out political clarity. Even as I am desperate to find breathing room, I hesitate to take a wrecking ball to the fortress of mirrors; rather, I want to turn my attention back to the artworks themselves and innervate myself with their potential overflows that spill out of the curatorial narrative. I am looking for overflows of meanings and sentiments and contradictions, warm patches of moisture in a desert of cynicism, as I seek out the ghosts of futurity.

Through the cynical optic, one could easily surmise that the cartoonish irreverence in Nobuaki Takekawa’s Sugoroko-Anxiety of Falling from History (2016) is a commentary of geopolitics-as-game. Instead of popular science-fiction images for children, the subverted board game of Sugoroko or Japanese Snakes-and-Ladders recall the atrocities of Imperial Japan during War World II, such as the Nankin Massacre of 1937 or the Mukden Incident of 1931: events that are blanketed by amnesia in contemporary Japanese society. Sugoroko here is an allegory of the abject political regression implicit in the relentless propulsive force of Imperial Japanese expansionism.

The woodblock prints on the walls tell of other warped fairy tales. We are taken underwater into a deep sea concert where genderqueer anemones play rock music under the banner of “NO HATE UNDER THE RAINBOW”. It is an impassioned moment of barnacle togetherness—possibly disguised as political demonstration—as anemone-fans carry placards that instruct “STAND UP FOR SOMEBODY” and “YOU ARE NOT ALONE”. In another print, a crab-punk meets a crab-dominatrix. They wear T-shirts emblazoned with “BE THERE” and “ANTI-FASCIST” and we are transported to an oceanic moment of intimacy between bottom-feeders.

The iconography of the woodblock prints are subversions of the traditional Japanese fairy tale, The Monkey and the Crab. [8] In this tale of retributive justice, the Crab’s son avenges the murder of his parent against the devious Monkey, banding together with his friends: Bee, Mortar, Cow Dung and Chestnut. The anthropomorphic animation of these nonhumans recalls the utopian archaeology of Ernst Bloch, where evidence of anticipatory consciousness could be found leaking from the surface of everyday life. [9] These wish-images could take the form of a new dress, illustrated magazines, the circus, beautiful masks and most certainly, fairy tales.

These romanticisms are dampened as quickly as they emerge. Takekawa’s cognisance towards the abuses and failures of Imperial Japan’s utopian projects prevents a smooth recourse into mere optimism. With signature irony, one print subverts the fairy tale, having the son’s friends refuse the quest of justice as they say: “Be neutral / Be suspicious of justice / Do not be added to the chain of hatred /  To turn the blind eye is most effective”. [10]

Without any rose-tinted lenses, political pragmatists accuse deviants and radicals as culpable players in the vicious circle of hatred. While they rationalise, the Crab’s son continues to be bullied by the Monkey who throws a tomato at him, deepening the draughts of contradiction in the reservoir of hope.

At the centre of the exhibition, a rocket is constructed out of translucent glass, decorated with gaudy ornamentation that recalls interior decoration from the unfashionable nineteen-fifties and sixties. Unlike the sleek carbon fibre of present spacecrafts, the glass rocket stands like a fossil of early dreams of space travel, its rectilinear edges and bulky appearance a mockery of testosterone-addled conquest fantasies of space travel in all its castration anxiety. Adopting the slogan from the Swampy Cree First Nation: “I go backward, look forward”, Ursula K. Le Guin argues: “I don’t think we’re ever going to get to utopia again by going forward, but only roundabout or sideways”. [11]

The flight path of the glass rocket, in its embrace of outmoded kitsch, suggests other possibilities other than forward and upward propulsion of progress. It basks in a campy sentimentality of the past, patiently waiting for its next detour.

3. Knit body armour out of leek

Documentation of Knitting the Future (2015, 2016) by Chia Chuyia. Photo: DJ Pangburn
Documentation of Knitting the Future (2015, 2016) by Chia Chuyia. Photo: DJ Pangburn

 

True to its title, Black Forest 2016 (2016) by Han Sai Por is a punctual mirror of global pessimism. Following the general apocalyptic mood of today, it is an image that mourns the precarious realities of ongoing ecological devastation. On the other hand, there is the perverse ecstasy of watching the CGI-induced slow-motion wreckage of your home city in the latest Hollywood disaster-porn movie where every tax-dollar pumped into waterfront skyline design is suddenly worth it. [12] Far from the somber address of the former, the comfort of this apocalyptic wish births its own demented species of hope as well, a kind that is more readily loved than its other abstractions.

As images of the disintegrating planet confronts its subjects at ever more accelerated speeds, they enter the sticky subterfuge of shock, anaesthesia and pleasure that makes authorial intention an unreliable discriminating factor to distinguish between mirror-images and wish-images of end times. More often than not, the whirring confusion of the disintegrating spectacle [13] eventually translates into an exhausted, cynical and tacit acceptance of business as usual. [14]

In some respects Black Forest 2016 attempts to immerse the viewer into the folds of its space, like a traditional installation. The composition of blackened logs and charcoal yawns across the gallery, leaving a tight perimeter to inspect the work. But this lack of space does not produce immersion. On the contrary, viewers are kept out to keep the landscape of ruins in harmonious suspension. There is neither the display of explosions not the smell of burning wood to lure the viewer into its sensorium. Rather, the installation straddles between two modes of spectatorships in relation to landscapes: not far enough for the reifying gaze to take in the entire landscape, not near enough for the landscape to absorb the body, erasing all vantage points. Standing on the edge of the ominous landscape is a confrontation with a blown-up low-res JPEG of disaster, where a screen keeps viewers safely from without, scrolling through swathes of the blotchy pixels as they walk around the installation.

Like apocalyptic-time, knitting-time is melancholically aware of the precarious present. But knitting-time does not deposit melancholy into a faraway future only to continue plodding on with the present, it is an ongoing labour that weaves together the delicate skeins of pasts and futures. Chia Chuyia’s Knitting the Future (2015, 2016) is a durational performance where the artist knits a “body armour” out of thousands of leek skeins as protection against an uncertain future. A humble utopia that is inhabitable and edible is invoked. As with the inevitable wilting of the leeks, this futurity is transitory in spite of its time-consuming labour.

The solemnity of the performance is pronounced as Chia gives intense concentration to the meditative act of knitting. Despite the bustle of vehicles and pedestrians on the street before her, she remains undistracted. Informed by the toxic present that threatens the basic necessity of food, the performance mourns the death of stable futures ahead, as well as the disappearing food preparation traditions from her Teochew heritage. Leek, a quintessential ingredient eaten on the eve of Chinese New Year for prosperity, renders this body armour recession-proof as it is disaster proof.

For the spectator, the performance of knitting is boring. Less than an image of labour of the future, Chia is entirely absorbed into the folds of knitting-time, providing no entertainment for onlookers. For what is more important than the browning, ineluctably fragile product is the difficult, sustained labour for the future.

4. Cast dream-homes with disappointment

Detail of drawing in Rathin Barman’s Home, and a Home (2016). Photo: Marcus Yee
Detail of drawing in Rathin Barman’s Home, and a Home (2016). Photo: Marcus Yee

 

Rathin Barman’s Home, and a Home (2016) tells of the failure of utopia: low-wage migrant workers from Bangladesh who come to Singapore, looking for better living and working conditions, only to be faced with cramped lodgings in Chinatown shophouses.

Despite the artist’s research on the Bangladeshi migrant worker community, virtues of hope or resilience are not simply gleaned from these collected narratives, reducing them to moral parables. Precisely because this hope can be disappointed, [15] its fragility makes it inextricable from shame. It is the shame of hope that colours the anthropological opacity of the work, by which the migrant workers themselves are at no point displayed. We see them, obliquely, through partial representations of forlorn bag packs, or rebar constructions of their Chinatown lodgings that stand in terse gravity. Keenly aware of the indignity of speaking up for others, [16] the artist focuses instead on the retelling of these narratives, a strategic choice that preserves the ebb and flow of hope around uninhabitable circumstances, rather than to opt for an exhibitionistic display.

Not only is the present not enough, it is pernicious for the many labouring to keep the machinery of global capital running. For them “escapism” is survival. Such a hope is sometimes untranslatable: I listen to recordings of their poetry readings in Bangla only to hear the impassioned grain of their voices; interpretation comes to a halt.

In the wake of traumatic histories, the curator-architects rightfully cast their suspicions against the general optimism of a seamless flow of ideas, cultures and capital predicated by globalisation. However these cultural disjunctures are not reconciled by a spectacular postcolonial synthesis where all the disparate parts of trauma and hybridity are hung in serene suspension, coming together to form a globe of plurality. Like the flaunting of privilege, such confident proclamations of hope are shameless.

One drawing is a precipitous terrain of concrete mixed with dried grass and detritus. There are small maquettes of houses clustering around the edges of the drawing, built out of skeletal rebar structures, they are perpetually under construction. The other drawing is a river, symbolically charged with life-giving propensity, but its contours are drawn with deep orange rust. Taking this mode of futurity seriously, particularly one that cannot be claimed by the artist-anthropologist, Barman strips off the pomp and ostentation from his poetic translation of the migrant worker’s dreamscapes. The drawings are essential rather than revelatory, the result is a fleeting consolation of the present. Hope tarries along with shame and danger, often having to hide in its midst.

5. Speculate the hand

The piece of sky that Lim Soo Nge’s Inscription of the Island (2016) points towards. Photo: Marcus Yee
The piece of sky that Lim Soo Nge’s Inscription of the Island (2016) points towards. Photo: Marcus Yee

 

The immediate question is: where is the bronze hand pointing towards? Situated on the Singapore Art Museum’s front lawn,  the monumental pointing gesture of Lim Soo Nge’s Inscription of the Island (2016) is an invitation to speculate as the viewer’s gaze is directed towards an empty patch of sky in downtown Singapore. A generous reading would perhaps have the hand provoke the endless possibilities that an empty sky holds, precisely pointing to the “no place” of utopia. An unpoetic turn would see the sky as an already occupied place: it is real-estate with the onset of verticalisation in city planning, it is militarised airspace and psychological cue for pathetic fallacy. The sky is a forbidding celestial mirror.

From the hand, we return to the fortress of mirrors.

The problem with artworks as mirrors, or artworks embedded with criticality, is that its reflective surfaces offer little apart from the ugly realities of the present. By a sleight of curatorial hand, these artworks enter a metacritical stage, or self-reflexivity, that critiques its own mirror-distortions. Such curatorial manoeuvres are at best, sobering and at worst, solipsistic. On the other hand, utopian desire that is immanent to artworks are in themselves critical against the present because of their futural orientation, they enable the critical imagination without dispelling hope.

Another relevant question would be: who does the hand belong to? By detaching the pointing gesture from its performer, the disembodied hand obscures the varieties of utopia, or dystopia, that is implicated in this directive act. Considering its elephantine scale and physiognomy of the hand, it is probably a hand violently severed from the Father, the Colonialist or the Hero.

But I yearn for something else altogether: I want this pointing hand to be the wrinkled hand of a knitting lady, the hand of an escape artist, the hand of a migrant worker, the hand of a transwoman with painted nails, the hand of a disenfranchised punk youth or even the ghostly hand of a maligned pontianak. [17]

 

Endnotes

  1. Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism”, 1891
  2. The two phrases in parenthesis are titles from the ten “conceptual zones” within the biennale.
  3. Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 2005
  4. W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, translated by A.V. Miller, 1969
  5. Singapore Civil Defence Force, “Household Shelters”, 14 May 2015
  6. Peter Sloterdijk, The Critique of Cynical Reason, 1987
  7. Pauline J. Yao, “2011 Singapore Biennale,” art-agenda.com, 18 March 2011
  8. Yei Theodora Ozaki, “The Quarrel of the Monkey and the Crab” in Japanese Fairy Tales, 1908
  9. Wayne Hudson, The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, 1982
  10. Thanks to Shawn Chua for the translation of the Japanese into English.
  11. Ursula K. Le Guin, “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be” in Dancing at the Edge of the World, 1982
  12. The movie is Independence Day: Resurgence (2016). For a celebratory response to the scene, see Genevieve Sarah Loh, “Why destroy Singapore? The director of Independence Day: Resurgence explains”, Channel NewsAsia, 7 June 2016.
  13. McKenzie Wark, “Spectacle of Disintegration”, 4 March 2016
  14. Helen Molesworth, “Only Connect” in Artforum, December 2016
  15. Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno, “Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing” in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, 1988
  16. Gilles Deleuze with Michel Foucault, “Intellectuals and Power” in Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, 1980
  17. The pontianak is a female ghost said to be either the spirit of a woman who died during childbirth or a stillborn child.

*This essay is one of 4 written by finalists of the inaugural Best Essay on the Singapore Biennale 2016 by an Emerging Art Writer Competition.The competition is a new initiative, jointly organised by ArtsEquator and AICA SG (Singapore Section, International Association of Art Critics). A call for entries in October 2016 resulted in 19 proposals submitted for competition. A jury of three judges, all members of AICA SG — Dr Adele Tan, Curator, National Gallery Singapore, Dr Kevin Chua, School of Art, Texas Tech University and Kathy Rowland, Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com — selected four finalists, who were then commissioned to write a 3,000-word essay based on their proposal. From these four commissioned essays, the Jury will select a winner, to be announced on January 31st 2017. For this inaugural competition, each finalist receives an honorarium of SG$200, while the eventual winner will receive a total of SG$500

Here are the other three finalist essays:

The Curatorial Complex: A Roundtable on the Singapore Biennale

Singapore Biennale 2016: The Myth, the Mirror and the Map

Singapore Biennale 2016: The Performative Curator

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