“I was always a colorist, I’ve always had a phenomenal love of color… I mean, I just move color around on its own. So that’s where the […] paintings came from—to create that structure to do those colors, and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of color.”
If I told you that the great French colorist Henri Matisse uttered the above words would you be surprised? Now what if I told you that these are in fact the words of Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of the late 20th century best known for his bisected animals submerged in formaldehyde, cabinets filled with medical supplies and an installation consisting of live maggots and a severed cow’s head? The paintings to which Hirst is alluding in the above quotation are his Spot Paintings, a series of over 300 paintings currently being exhibited at Gagosian Gallery’s eleven locations in eight countries across three continents. What surprised me more than Hirst proclaiming to be a colorist in the epigraph of the press release for “The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011” was that, after viewing those works on view in Gagosian’s New York spaces, I could not help but appreciate the way in which the Spot Paintings resonate with Matisse’s canvases. Let me connect those dots, if you will.
Hirst came of age in the late 1980s as a leading figure of the Young British Artists group, emerging onto the contemporary scene in London through a series of audacious exhibitions highlighted by the 1988 Freeze show, a now legendary exhibition curated by Hirst while he was still a student at Goldsmith’s College. Advertising mogul Charles Saatchi attended the show, which was staged in an abandoned space in the London Docklands, and by 1991 had offered to fund Hirst’s art production. In short order Hirst produced arguably the most iconic work of the 1990s: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). Hirst would go on to win the prestigious Turner Prize in 1995 and before long, as his art morphed into a full-blown brand, become the poster child for the dovetailing of art and corporate capitalism.
Summer flew by, largely because I spent most of it taking courses in order to graduate in the Spring of 2012. But I can’t complain. I got to take a class on live image processing with the incredibly talented R. Luke Dubois. His deft treatment of code as a medium for art is astoundingly inspiring, but to be honest I had a difficult time keeping up with the material. On our last day of class he invited us to see Laurie Anderson perform live at the Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park Bandshell as part of the “Out of Doors” Series, but I had to pass in order to finish making a printed circuit board for another course.
I was having a hard time accepting the fact that I will be spending the next year staring at computer screens and burning my fingers hacking electronics in order to complete this degree. So I decided to take some time away from my work, with the excuse that I was going to research traditional performing arts before diving deep into the world of interactive media. The day I submitted my finals, I packed my bags, stowed my laptop safely inside my underwear cabinet, and jumped on the next plane to Asia.
First, before I start, I would like to complain a bit: Singapore prides itself on being a city of electronic gadgets and connectivity-on-the-go. There are many people watching videos on their handheld devices on the bus, the subway, and in line at the post office. Though not as dumb as Americans who text-and-drive, a lot of people here are staring at their little screens while walking. As skilled as they are at walking and watching videos at the same time, it still very much annoys me. So if you are one of those people, please stop watching crappy TV shows or crappy movies. Enjoy your bus ride. Enjoy your walk. Enjoy waiting in line at the post office!
Okay, back to art: I met Kai Lam about a year ago at a performance event at the now-defunct Post Museum. Kai has been a very active person in the art community over the last fifteen years, especially in performance circles. In 2003, he co-founded Future of Imagination (FOI), an international performance event. In 2009, Kai co-initiated Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak (R.I.T.E.S) which gives local and international artists a regular platform to showcase performance practices and time-based art.
This past June, Kai had his fourth solo show in Singapore. The show was called Untitled (Wildlife). Inside the Substation gallery space, there was actually very little to see. There was a wooden container constructed out of scrap materials. On the other side of the gallery there was a wooden ramp. On the adjacent wall there was a text that read “Banish Art Laws.”
Before the opening, Kai sent out email invitations which included a letter in which he described the night he spent on Pulau Ubin, a small island off the main Singapore Island. Here is an excerpt:
“For an unassuming while, I was humored by my own helplessness in such ‘wilderness,’ possessing a limited knowledge of the natural environment, and told myself to learn more about it when I got back to ‘civilization.’ I then picked up the fishing line-spool, [where] clipped onto the line is a note, written with waterproof ink: “For all my wants, here are my unwants…. XXX,” and tied to the end of the fishing line is a rock-bait. I cast the line into the air, towards the sea, the trapping debris flew in a slow-motion movement, about twenty meters above the water surface just like the distance (I thought) of my close proximity to the wild boars, and predictably splashed into the steady-moving sea waves. I felt the rock-bait hit the bottom of the seabed and the sea’s underwater current, pulling on my rock-bait invisibly. The wait continues again.”
Those who know a bit about the geography of Singapore know that Pulau Ubin presents a contrast to the main Singapore Island. Most roads are still made of dirt, there are lots of stray dogs, and trees that are not planted. This place is as natural or wild as Singapore gets. I like the imagery Kai Lam sets up for the viewers, and their strong metaphorical content: away from the center (civilization, materialism, modern progress, etc.), the artist-figure awaits on the periphery with a fishing line. The fishing line is a double-sided one; once it hooks, it binds the debris to the artist, and the artist to the debris.
I caught up with Kai Lam to ask him about his exhibition, as well as the state of performance art in Singapore.
Mike HJ Chang: I found the letter your wrote to be very romantic. It provides the audience with an image of the artist as a contemplative figure. Can you talk a little bit about the idea behind it, and how the letter relates to the exhibition?
Kai Lam: For me, the exhibition is about developing something outside of how I usually work. I wanted to break out of my usual norm and process. Therefore, the time spent waiting, contemplating, thinking, all these processes become more important than the exhibition itself. That’s why the exhibition space is so empty to start with. For me, the show is about a certain invisibility. So in this aspect, the letter deals with my position as an artist at the moment. My position, not just in Singapore, but overseas, in a general way. When I travel to Europe, I feel that when people find out that you are an artist, then they think that what you do is something very important. But in Asia, overall there are different perceptions about artists. A different outlook and mentality about what artists do, and what artists should do. Therefore the letter is a metaphor about being on the outside, away from the city, away from the mainstream core. I have been thinking a lot about how we can position ourselves as artists in Asian society. Not by promoting our importance, but by promoting a way of thinking of the artist as a social commentator, a philosopher, and a thinker. Artists are an important part of the process for a nation maneuvering in this kind of climate. Singapore, like many post-colonial states, is still very young, still experiencing all kinds of newness, like democracy, institutional transparency, capitalism, etc.
Soon after writing my first post for this blog, I realized how unnecessary it was for me to point out that things are different between the States and Singapore. Isn’t that a given? Even Peter in 5th grade would know things are different between Canada and Mexico. That pretty much goes without saying. Also, I have little interest in playing games of “spot the difference” between two pictures. So, what is it about living in Singapore that made me, an American, feel really confused and disoriented? Hopefully at some point, my analogy will be The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), instead of The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997). In both films, the protagonist is involved in an assassination attempt while “on vacation.” I think the “guest” status applies here, as I consider my own position on this island.
On my way to visit a friend’s studio in Goodman Art Centre, a newly-converted art studio and gallery space, (really nice studios, funded by the National Arts Council, but I cannot apply since I am not a citizen–so I am bitter), I was thinking about funding for the arts here in Singapore. Spaces like this, set up by government funding agencies, are rare in the States. I have seen State government subsidized artist co-ops, but nothing like these large-scale studios for artists, offered at a pretty affordable rate. This is one stark difference between the States and Singapore: Singapore’s government aggressively puts money into the development of art, but to me this seems to be more of an act of compensation to balance out the small private sector. (I myself have already been involved with three shows that are funded by the National Arts Council). I wanted to learn more about how Singaporeans feel about working in this kind of environment; luckily, the friend I was visiting happened to be an artist and curator named Guo-Liang Tan, who recently guest-curated the exhibition We Who Saw Signs at ICAS (Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore). That show featured many internationally-known artists including Ho Tzu Nyen and Adad Hannah.
First, I asked Guo-Liang about his experience writing on art in Singapore, where there is a lack of regular art periodicals. He points out a periodical called Focas: Forum On Contemporary Art & Society, edited by artist Lucy Davis, which had a good run for a year but ultimately met its demise due to lack of funding. He jokingly said that the only people who need art publications are artists. I thought that was humorous but true. In a small country such as this, the small population of artists simply cannot fuel publications centered on art. And it is not a coincidence that the newspaper Strait Times’ art coverage falls under the “Life” section, together with articles on home decoration and holiday travel. Guo-Liang points out that there aren’t enough art writers here, though some, like Lee Weng Choy, June Yap, and T.K. Sabapathy, have been very influential in developing the local art scene. Guo-Liang notes that, given the lack of art periodicals in Singapore, much of the art writing now takes place within exhibition catalogs. This means that artists who are not exhibiting their work publicly are left out of the contemporary discourse. In earlier days, Singapore’s art writers had followed a select group of artists and supported those artists’ practices by explaining them to the public. In contrast, much art writing today seems more impersonal.
As the artist-in-residence at an all-girls high school in Singapore, I have been working on an environmental project with the students. Twenty students and myself have each been carrying an IKEA bag in which we’ve collected our personal trash. I figured the best way to see how much junk we produce on a daily basis is to not throw any of it away. So, for the last sixty days, I have been carrying my IKEA bags everywhere I go, as a performance art piece that now weighs about 4kg [almost 9 lbs]. The girls–who I think are very brave to do this–have to explain to their mothers why they are keeping trash. I think this is awesome, because it is not exactly a very “lady-like” thing to do.
Teaching art in the school is great, especially because there is time set aside for the art students to learn art history (which I myself didn’t do until I went to university). Besides some local Southeast Asian art history, a good portion of the art history curriculum is based on Western art. The students are taught Romanticism all the way to Pop Art. Since I get to design some of the courses, I can teach a little bit of performance art, Land Art, and Conceptual art, which are my favorite dishes. Just last year, the school had its first-ever art trip to London and Paris to let the students see all the great masterworks in person. The experience was as invaluable as it was magical: the textbooks came alive!
This also points to one of the problems of teaching art on an island nation. Resources are somewhat limited, and every place else is a flight away. But Singapore’s advantage as a port city is its special relationship to the rest of the world (through economic trade, etc). I thought I would use that to my own advantage by bringing artists a little bit closer to the classroom. I have been running Foxriver, a small art space in the school, where I invite friends from different places to send works to be exhibited. Last year I had artists Gala Porras-Kim, Juka Araikawa, Krister Olssen, Josh Miller, Guan Rong, and Lindsay Foster, along with many other artists who participated in a comic book show curated by John Burtle.
The highlight, though, was when I invited Gala Porras-Kim to have an artist talk via Skype while her exhibition was on view in the space. So this week, I brought Louisa Conrad, a friend of mine from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), to chat with the students about her experiences as an artist and her interest in environmental issues. Over the last three years, Louisa has spent time in Iceland photographing volcanic landscapes, researching sea pollution, and investigating the impact of industrial development on salmon. She has traveled throughout the Northwest Territories and the Canadian Arctic, and she now lives and works on a goat farm in Vermont called Big Picture Farm.
Below is an excerpt from our classroom’s Skype conversation with Louisa.
Before I start, I have to confess: let’s just say writing about/for other people is not my strong suit. Writing about other people’s art gives me the nausea. Writing about another culture makes me want to make an excuse to get out of the guest blogging stint. Embarrassingly and unprofessionally, I thought about lying to the editor about a family emergency so I don’t have to write. (Also feels weird about lying using family emergency as an excuse, just feels like a bad omen.) I am one of those people who believe languages have a certain mythical power, so from now on, you can expect a “writer” who would almost lie but respects words too so much so he could not commit.
One of the reasons why I ended up in Singapore after grad school, or the reason that I tell everyone, is that I felt too American. I wanted to be somewhere else so I could think differently about my own practice, worldview, etc. Singapore seemed like a good place, a good transition for whatever comes next. I got to teach art, everyone speaks perfect English, and there is lovely weather. Speaking English is a big part for me because my work deals with language and spoken words, but what I realized soon is that I assume people who speak the same language should be able to understand each other. Man, was I wrong. I feel comically related to Bill Murray’s character in The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997), in which he plays an American visiting London but gets caught up in spy activity. The whole time, he thinks that he is part of a street improv theater while all the criminal euphemisms, spy codes, and threats (not to mention British humor) completely go over his head. Yet he is able to play along and amusingly diffuses a bomb attempt. To a certain degree, that’s how I feel being a foreign artist trying to produce work; I can hear and understand sentences, but feel lost in Singapore’s history, culture, and narrative.
Extrastruggle is an enormous project which began in 1997. It works on imaginary demands from imaginary customers. Just like a graphic designer designing a logo for a client, it designs logos for all communities under social pressure.
So begins the introduction to Extrastruggle (Extramücadele in Turkish), the “enormous project” belonging to artist Memed Erdener. A graphic designer by both training and until recently by trade, Extrastruggle uses the straightforward language of corporate design to explore the collective Turkish subconscious and express the complex, sometimes contradictory, thoughts, feelings, and needs of the country’s social minorities. “I don’t do art for or about me,” Erdener told me while walking with me through his recent exhibition, I Didn’t Do This, You Did, at Galeri NON in Istanbul’s Tophane gallery district. “It’s about us.”
Us—also to be understood, to quote one of the exhibition’s accompanying essays, written by artist Nazım Dikbaş, as “that strange crowd called everyone.” Erdener’s exhibition turned the gallery space into a stage, displaying a frozen scene from the drama of contemporary Turkish society, populated by characters and character-types both fictional and real. A totem pole of fiery red heads of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, balanced precariously atop a white star, a symbol of the Republican government. Its state of unbalance stood in sharp contrast to a second, steadier pillar positioned a few feet away, comprised of pairs of cartoonish female eyes peering out from beneath a single black veil, topped by a crescent moon, a symbol of the Ottoman tradition. In these twin sculptures, is the star an unstable foundation, the crescent a proudly worn crown? Or is the latter a pair of demonic horns, the former providing a vehicle for multiple perspectives and greater flexibility? Despite their physical proximity, the many gazes of the two totems do not meet, each refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other.
“Extrastruggle has no political views,” the introduction concludes, “It does not take sides. It is impossible for it to do so.” Erdener’s project is an exploration of signs, of iconography, of the linguistic possibilities of graphic design when removed from the field of commercial advertising and applied to other communicative purposes. In this sense, Extrastruggle is as much an artistic experiment as a sociological investigation, the veiled girls, Atatürk portraits, and other familiar figures from Turkish politics and culture all red herrings in a body of work that is less concerned with politics than about pushing the boundaries of design.
Art21 is pleased to announce our newest column on the blog — the first of several new endeavors for 2011.
Turkish and Other Delights is a column devoted to exploring contemporary art practice in Turkey. Rather than seeking to provide a comprehensive or definitive account of the contemporary Turkish art community, this column will serve as a space for both reflection and documentation as guest blogger Elizabeth Wolfson* travels throughout the country interviewing artists, curators, and gallerists and reviewing exhibitions, museums, and galleries. Taking advantage of her current location at a small university in the central Anatolia region of the country, where she is working on Fulbright grant, Turkish and Other Delights will focus both on subjects located in Istanbul and those in more remote regions of the country, seeking to capture the diversity of identities, practices, and experiences of the Turkish artistic community. Additionally, this column will aim to provide readers with a broader perspective on the country’s recent emergence as an internationally renowned art center by placing its central themes, practices, and concerns within a wider historical, cultural, and geographical context. Turkish and Other Delights appears on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.
Formerly based in St. Louis, MO, where she attended college and graduate school, Wolfson has spent the past several years writing about art and culture for a variety of local, regional, and international publications. She has also worked at a number of area art institutions including the Saint Louis Art Museum and White Flag Projects, St. Louis’s largest non-profit contemporary art gallery. She holds a master’s degree in American Studies with a concentration in visual culture studies from Saint Louis University.
*The views expressed by the author are solely her own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations. — Ed.
This was the most common response I received last year to the news that I had received a Fulbright teaching grant and thus would be relocating to the country for nine months. Everyone, it seems, wants to visit Turkey; in 2009 President Obama made it the destination of his first visit to a predominantly Muslim nation shortly after his inauguration, and no less distinguished a group than the collective readers of the New York Times’ Travel section nominated it as their top destination for travel in 2010. But the notion of moving there, for nine months, and not even to Istanbul, but to a tiny town in the middle of the country, a ten-hour bus ride away from the cultural capital—this seemed to strike people as a bit excessive, more of an investment of time and attention than was actually warranted. Strangely enough, upon my arrival in Turkey, I encountered this same half-confused, half-incredulous attitude among Turks themselves. Upon arriving at my university and meeting my students and colleagues, I was constantly faced with the same question: “Neden Türkiye?” “Why Turkey?”
This introduction is short. Anne Elizabeth Moore gave such thorough answers, it seemed more important to let those stand than offer an interpretation of her merit. Safe to say having published four books, Anne Elizabeth Moore is an accomplished author. Having shown internationally, she is a significant artist and permeating those facets of her work is a strategic, cultural investigation. She is presently on a Fulbright scholarship in Cambodia.
Caroline Picard: How would you characterize your work?
Anne Elizabeth Moore: Actually, I try not to characterize my work. This is the central issue in work that at its root hopes to investigate capitalism and the ethos of branding. Those boxes that make it easy to mark, identify, and sell something (either metaphorically or literally) also make it easy to either shut down criticism—if you identify with or have bought the item/idea/approach in question—or underscore it—if you are not the intended audience for that thing, pretending for a moment that we’re talking about “things. My work is like Justin Bieber if you like Justin Bieber: it defies categorization automatically because you adore it. But if you think Justin Bieber is a tool, then my work is not like that at all. In fact it is the opposite of that. Except for the fact that both Justin Bieber and I tend to be adored by teenage girls. That is exactly the same and there is no use denying it.
What I’m interested in is how easily systems of oppression become adopted and policed by the individuals they are aimed at oppressing. Branding is one of the primary ways this happens in the hyperconsumerist culture of the United States. But, like, you can’t just go get a job in that. You have to be a writer and an untrained lawyer and study sociology, and you have to speak a fair number of languages and appear friendly and approachable but also not be too scared when the guns come out. And also, because sometimes talking about this stuff is dangerous, you have to be willing to invent a new language, or perform, or work through ideas with a different, non-verbal part of your brain. Let’s be honest, if you study a lot of languages then you might get easily confused; sometimes you speak German or Italian to someone who only speaks Khmer, so visual communication—again, in its pure sense, as a two-way system, and not in the way they teach it at business school—is important.
In this week’s roundup, Alfredo Jaar and Andrea Zittell go natural, Bruce Nauman tries to get off the ground, Cai Guo-Qiang answers questions about the impact of social visibility in China, and Walton Ford shows his “humanimal.”
- The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park exhibition is now on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Visitors can walk the 100-acre site surrounding the museum and see amazing art installations that focus on the “relationship between contemporary art and the natural world.” Artists featured include Alfredo Jaar and Andrea Zittell, to name a few.
- Magic Show at Chapter (Wales) features Failing to Levitate, which documents attempts by artist Bruce Nauman to get off the ground. The exhibition demonstrates “how art and magic both flourish in the grey area between fact and fiction, where the audience is not sure whether to believe their own eyes, and considers the potential of trickery and illusion to undermine logical thought.” The show closes on September 12.
- The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today at MoMA presents a “critical examination of the intersections between photography and sculpture, exploring how one medium informs the analysis and creative redefinition of the other.” The exhibition art work from the “dawn of modernism to the present, to look at the ways in which photography at once informs and challenges the meaning of what sculpture is.” This show features the work of Bruce Nauman and Barbara Kruger, among others. The Original Copy closes on November 1. Continue reading »