11 artists from Asia explore society, history, culture and politics through a range of connections to the sea at the Singapore Art Museum.
The latest Singapore Art Museum group exhibition conjures stories of journeys at sea seen through the eyes of some among the most inspirational artists working in the Asia-Pacific region today.
Most dictionaries describe the word ‘Odyssey’ as ‘a long and exciting journey’. In the literary world, Odyssey is Homer’s mythical epic poem, which details the Greek warrior Odysseus’ ten-year journey from Troy to Ithaca. The Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) latest exhibition “Odyssey: Navigating Nameless Seas”, running until 28 August 2016, can perhaps be experienced in light of both these literal and figurative definitions as 11 contemporary artists explore society, history, culture and politics through a range of connections to the sea.
The artworks are drawn from SAM’s permanent collection, artists’ collections and new commissions. The featured artists are:
- Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan (Australia/Philippines)
- Choe U-Ram (South Korea)
- Pratchaya Phinthong (Thailand)
- Rashid Rana (Pakistan)
- Sally Smart (Australia)
- Wyn Lyn Tan (Singapore)
- Richard Streitmatter-Tran (Vietnam)
- Entang Wiharso (Indonesia)
- Ashley Yeo and Monica So-Young Moon (Singapore and South Korea)
Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan‘s work Passage III: Project Another Country (2009) addresses the issues of actual odysseys: of migrations, journeys and relocation. The artwork comprises of a wooden boat upon which used cardboard boxes have been assembled to resemble makeshift housing. The precariousness of the dwelling alludes not only to the reality for many migrants but also to the concept of home, which can be a shaky notion in today’s globalised yet uncertain world.
The artist duo, who migrated from the Philippines to Australia in 2006 and are thus part of the Diaspora themselves, collaborated with the multinational docents who guide at SAM and their children to co-create the artwork.
With the plethora of images in the media of migrants leaving their homelands via the sea, it is not hard to conceptually connect to the artwork. The recycled, empty moving boxes each have their own identity: the addresses on them making them a reality and the absence of what they transported holding a memory that is likely to be associated with home, belonging and disposition.
Rashid Rana’s Offshore Accounts (2006) engages with odysseys past and present. What appears from afar as a gentle, grey sea is actually a composite image made up of thousands of pixelated photographs of accumulated trash as well as historical paintings of colonial sailing vessels.
Rana’s work highlights the consequences of consumerism that coincidentally also arrives in most countries via the sea. Beneath the tranquil surface of our oceans lie huge garbage patches made up of plastic waste, which are endangering marine life and ecology. The images of the colonial vessels symbolise not only the import of foreign lifestyles, but also colonial trade and the legacies of the British Empire that linger on in South Asia.
Rana titles the work Offshore Accounts, a tongue-in-cheek reference to another duality that plagues many developing nations: the great wealth generated in the country through its own natural resources and people but often held offshore by a select few.
Rana’s photo-mosaic works that question cultural identity are well recognised for their paradoxical form and content. His digital photographs are composed of thousands of pixel-like images, which he meticulously brings together to create composite images. Transposing time and place through manipulation and rearrangement, the artist forces the viewer to question the reality of what appears in front of him.
Investigating and re-examining Indonesia’s history is Entang Wiharso’s work Breathing Together (2016). Using the sea that surrounds the archipelago as a witness to this history, his multimedia installation features multiple elements: rice bags, memoryscapes, text and drawings all linked together in Wiharso’s signature entangled style.
The rice bags draw on the artist and his family’s personal memory of World War II and the shortage of rice faced by the nation during the Japanese occupation. A bechak or cycle rickshaw on the wall alludes to the anti-bechak campaign in 2001, whereby the Indonesian government took 20,000 bechaks off the streets of Jakarta and dumped them into the sea in order to tidy up the city. A resin structure, which resembles a water bubble, is enclosed with a cluster of skeletons, hinting at the thousands of bechak drivers who lost their source of livelihood with this move. Wiharso links all the elements together with various convoluted pipe-like structures that look like body parts, machinery and organisms from the sea.
Moving from literal odysseys to mythical ones, Choe U-Ram’s fantastical combination of metal and machinery captivates the viewer. The Ultima Mudfox (2002) and the Una Lumino Callidus Spiritus (2016) are both imaginary creations of the artist but both seem to be totally plausible in the depths of the nameless seas that the exhibition seeks to navigate.
The artist writes on his website about the Ultima Mudfox:
The Ultima Mudfox, photographed by chance on a subway construction site, in 2002, is currently the subject of intense study by many scientists. One theory in particular that has received the most support is that they are part of an escape of microscopic robots. Freeing themselves from the factory that created them, they clone themselves in a base camp beneath the city, where electromagnetic waves are abundant, then, shortly thereafter, in union with one another, begin to procreate inorganic bodies of a new form through fusion with information that floats on earth and with abandoned, buried machines.
The Ultima Mudfox is a creature that evokes the dolphin through its silhouette, but its multiple fins, which help it navigate through the mud beneath the city that it lives in, make it look sinister. Originating from microscopic robots, which have escaped their place of manufacture, its form arises from the union of these microscopic robots with information they draw in from their environment.
The Una Lumino Callidus Spiritus consists of 51 flower-like organisms, which pulsate and produce light as they open and close. Inspired by colonies of barnacles that gather on and encrust neglected seaside structures and which co-exist without any kind of organisational structure, each unit in the structure responds to movements and activity in its surrounding and is not programmed to follow a set pattern.
Choe examines ideas of evolution, adaptation and the hierarchies of power with these magnificent biomorphic kinetic sculptures. The artist who has a deep interest in engineering and robotics says that all his organisms are developed from the idea that machines, initially developed by humans, advanced to the stage where they began to evolve themselves to adapt to their environment.
His organisms are inspired by nature, especially marine life, and though he creates a fictitious storyline and genealogy for his organisms, his intention is never to deceive the viewer. Rather, with the nuts and bolts within each artwork open and visible, he invites the viewer to examine larger philosophical questions through his works such as our dependence on technology, societal interactions and the need for power.
Sally Smart’s Exquisite Pirate (2016) is a playful yet meaningful artwork that links the idea of both literal and mythical odysseys. Drawing inspiration from multiple sources, the work re-examines the notion of pirates being a predominantly male domain and asks us to consider if there were ever any women pirates. Smart creates a montage of a pirate ship through cutting, sewing, embroidering and the layering of fabrics and other materials – an activity that is largely seen as a woman’s practice.
Inspired by the Surrealist Map of the World of 1929 that portrayed a contrarian view of the world and the surrealist parlour game of Exquisite Corpse, the work asks us to revisit predetermined notions of feminism, identity, culture and colonialism. Smart, who has been working on this series since 2004, creates each iteration specific to its site. At SAM, the Exquisite Pirate is made up of denims, lace and wigs, which are mostly associated with the European culture, but also includes fabrics with local patterns and design like batik.
The exhibition also includes a Research Room that has on display maritime artefacts and reproductions on loan from the Republic of Singapore Navy Museum’s collection. These, along with a research library with books from the National Library Board, trace humanity’s relationship with the sea both actual and fictional.
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