“Either it is our destiny to be Singaporean, in which case we will be Singaporean whatever we do, or being Singaporean is a mere affectation, a mask.”
This review first appeared in Ran Dian Issue 2 (Winter 2015–2016)
Mizuma Gallery (22 Lock Road #01-34 Gillman Barracks, Singapore 108939), Sep 25–Oct 25, 2015
With 2015 being the year of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, the past months have seen a deluge of exhibitions and projects with Singapore as their subject; each fell at some point along a scale between papering over the complexities and contradictions of Singaporean history and identity, and rejecting rah-rah boosterism to explore diversity and examine the injustices underlying Singapore’s squeaky-clean image—such as the use of the Internal Security Act on social and political activists, or the continued retention of a law which criminalizes male homosexual sex.
In the face of such saturation, “what it is about when it is about nothing,” curated by Michael Lee, takes a different tack—if rose-tinted nostalgia and aggrieved inquisitiveness are two poles, Lee postulates a third dimension, as it were. Eschewing the tangible details, like state iconography or paeans to Singlish and the “kampung” spirit, which dominate all discussions of Singaporean-ness, Lee’s oblique approach, bringing together works by seven artists, suggests that things which may not seem to have much to do with Singapore could actually tell us much more than signifiers fraught with overuse.
Adeline Kueh’s “The Distance between My Bed and Yours” (2013), for instance, presents excerpts of a situation which may be familiar in cities across Asia—a projection of a pink neon vacancy sign, a slinky bathrobe on a hanger, and a pair of clogs—the near ubiquitous presence of love hotels as an outgrowth of the complexities of desire in transactional, urbanized societies. Though hardly unique to Singapore, this does suggest a different perspective on the idea of Singapore as a wholly pragmatic port-of-call—rather than one driven by unfeeling calculation, it calls to mind the possibility of it being fueled by desire, albeit of a transactional kind.
As for the curator’s own work—a series of photographs numbered Diorama 142, 165, and 261 (2011)—ready identification is resisted in a number of ways; not least, the photographs themselves, measuring just 12 by 16 cm, are mounted in frames far larger, obliging us to peer closely to discern details. Even so, what’s then revealed retains some opacity—urban interiors, bare of ornamentation and apparently abandoned. In a sense, these could be images of practically anywhere in the world within the relative architectural uniformity of major urban centers. This degree of convergence suggests a counterpoint of sorts to nationalistic exceptionalism. Overarching commentary aside, these dioramas, in their scale and subject matter, evoke an everyday desolation and individual dreams which founder, unseen behind the headlines of gentrification or economic downturn.
The tension between similarity and difference finds further expression in a number of works by Jennis Li Cheng Tien, most notably “No matter how small the difference is” (2015), in which 120 keys are lined up on a bare metal frame. Despite being almost identical in form, each key remains unique, incapable of opening anything but the lock for which it was originally cut. More visceral, though also infused with a combinatorial sense of scale is Li’s “The Specific Value” (2015), in which 250 ml of red ink is exhausted over a dense collection of overhead projector transparencies; the comparison with which we’re confronted, here, is the average volume of blood in a newborn’s body, and the curious fact that inkjet ink is considerably more expensive than blood, with the artist’s website citing a figure of two hundred euros for a liter of blood, with the same amount of ink costing five hundred and twenty eight euros.
Taken together, the obliquity—both of the works themselves and the exhibition as a whole—might, in a peculiarly literal frame of mind, be compared with oblique lighting in its capacity to reveal fine and occluded details that would escape more direct illumination. Lee and company’s deft escape from the polarization of exhibitions focused on the Golden Jubilee seems, in a way, reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ landmark essay, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”, in which the fabulist proposed that the Argentine writer need not bow restrictions of content, style, and reference: to paraphrase Borges, we cannot confine ourselves to what is Singaporean in order to be Singaporean. Either it is our destiny to be Singaporean, in which case we will be Singaporean whatever we do, or being Singaporean is a mere affectation, a mask.