Technology is shaping society in ways previously unimaginable, and Singapore’s Ryf Zaini hard-wires his art to match.

On 12 July 2013, Singapore-based visual artist Ryf Zaini gave a talk at Singapore Art Museum about his artistic practice, his work for the “President’s Young Talents” exhibition and how an electric shock changed his art for good.

Ryf Zaini, 'Cumfort Zone', Berita Harian 2 Exhibition 2010. Image courtesy Institute of Contemporary Arts 2, LASALLE.

Ryf Zaini, ‘Cumfort Zone’, 2010 in “Berita Harian 2 Exhibition”. Image courtesy Institute of Contemporary Arts 2, LASALLE.

Ryf Zaini’s latest works, which examine the relationship between art, technology and social development, are on display at the Singapore Art Museum as part of the “President’s Young Talents” exhibition from to 22 January to 15 September 2013. The artist’s fascination with electronics started at an early age. His first encounter or ‘initiation’ with electricity took place when he was just five years old, in the form of a mild electric shock when he attempted to repair a defunct VCR by sticking a screwdriver into the machine.

Undeterred by the shocking experience,  Zaini went on to study Engineering, graduating with a diploma from Temasek Polytechnic in 2000. He continued to pursue his interest in the arts at LASALLE College of the Arts, graduating in 2007 with a first class honours degree in Media Arts.

“All my work is a wiring mess!”

Today, as a mixed-media artist, Zaini uses his understanding of electronic engineering in his artwork and creates installations that address the ways in which technology shapes society. The behind-the-scenes videos screened at the Singapore Art Museum talk provided a glimpse into the labour-intensive process behind his work, which often requires painstaking hours of soldering electronic components on circuit boards, leading the soft-spoken artist to declare, “All my work is a wiring mess!”

During his presentation at Singapore Art Museum, Zaini highlighted several of his works, which in different ways are emblematic of his practice.

Pornography and comfy chairs

Cumfort Zone (2010) was created for the “Berita Harian 2 – Utusan Melayu; the surreal, the contemporeal, the cosmoreal”, an exhibition curated by Zaki Razak that explored issues deemed taboo by the Malay community.

The central figure in the installation is a pair of wooden chairs simulating sexual acts in front of two other chairs placed behind camera equipment and flanked by studio lighting, suggestive of a pornography film set. To coordinate the sequences of the chair’s movement, Zaini typically uses circuit boards from remote controlled cars, a methodology that he deems “very cheap and effective”.

Watch Ryf Zaini’s Cumfort Zone on

Zaini explains, “The reason why I chose chairs to highlight pornography is because we find comfort by sitting on the chairs but at the same time pornography is also a form of comfort…and I’m trying to weave the two [ideas] together.”

As part of the installation, an isolated chair is placed outside of the main exhibition in front of a monitor underneath a bright neon sign that reads “Peep Show”. Here, exhibition goers can insert a coin to watch a live show of the main installation. For the exhibition, the artist also created a video of the installation set to a “cheesy” porno track in the form of a bootleg DVD that was sold to visitors at the opening.

Ryf Zaini, 'Cumfort Zone', Berita Harian 2 Exhibition 2010. Image courtesy Institute of Contemporary Arts 2, LASALLE.

Ryf Zaini, ‘Cumfort Zone’, 2010 in “Berita Harian 2 Exhibition”. Image courtesy Institute of Contemporary Arts 2, LASALLE.

The tenacity of technology

Irreverently drawing on the Merlion, an icon of Singapore, Disarming the Lion (2011) is a steel-clad structure with flickering lights in the form of a decapitated lion’s head. Zaini created the installation for the front lawn of the Singapore Arts Museum in conjunction with the 2011 Singapore Biennale.

To use the image of the iconic Merlion in his artwork, Zaini had to seek approval from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) guardian’s of the Merlion symbol. He reveals that in the original proposal he submitted to the STB, the armoured lion’s head was supposed to be upright, but he displayed the work on its side in order to reveal the chipboards of which the lion is internally composed. The lights on the chipboard blink and dance, implying the tenacity of technology that strives to exist even in the face of death.

Ryf Zaini, Disarming the Lion',2011,  interactive site specific installation, LCD / LEDs / webcam / motors. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Ryf Zaini, ‘Disarming the Lion’, 2011, interactive site-specific installation, LCD, LEDs, webcam, motors. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

A closer look at the video screens in place of the lion’s eyes reveals archival footage of Singapore from the 1940s to 1980s. The flashing nostalgic images from a bygone era stand in sharp contrast with the unaffected steel exterior of the lion, suggesting the impact of technological advancement on society and that the rapid modernisation of the city-state is not without consequence.

Zaini’s creature from the deep

5QU1D (2012) is a commissioned work Zaini created for i Light Marina Bay Festival. Made of recycled and used electronic parts and embedded with LED lights, the site-specific installation is a five-metre tall squid-like creature that appears to have surfaced from the sea.

Ryf Zaini, '5QUID', 2012, interactive light installation, 2.5 m x 9 m x 7m. Image courtesy i Light Marina Bay Festival.

Ryf Zaini, ‘5QUID’, 2012, interactive light installation, 2.5 m x 9 m x 7 m. Image courtesy i Light Marina Bay Festival.

Referencing the effect of modernisation on the natural environment, the geometric design of the sea creature is intended to mirror the façade of the skyscrapers in the background. The angular silhouette suggests that the creature is camouflaging itself by changing colours and shapes to match with its immediate surroundings, much like an octopus or squid. Zaini’s squid-like creature only has eight tentacles instead of the biologically correct ten, hinting that it is shedding its identity in the process of merging with civilisation.

Technologically advanced… but are we enlightened? 

Created specially for the “President’s Young Talents” exhibition, Ryf Zaini’s latest work, Unveil the curtain to the window with no ledge (2013), is a mixed-media installation housed at the Singapore Art Museum until September 2013.

Ryf Zaini, 'Unveil the curtain of the window with no ledge', 2013, interactive light installation,  Presidentʼs Young Talents 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

Ryf Zaini, ‘Unveil the curtain of the window with no ledge’, 2013, interactive light installation,
“Presidentʼs Young Talents”. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

The installation’s main piece features eleven lamps focusing on a school chair placed at the centre. A meditation on the education system, Zaini explains that the lamps of varying sizes, models, intensity, illumination and power consumption “represent different subjects or ideologies that are being taught [in school].” The lights and switches function as metaphors for enlightenment reminding us of our dependence on technology.

Typical of Zaini’s work, the installation has many levels of meaning, the examination of which the artist likens to “peeling back the layers of an onion”. The interactive work is an invitation to those who seek and “the idea is for the audience to be inquisitive.”

Once seated on the chair, the participant will be bombarded by an almost seizure-inducing barrage of flashing lights that denote information in the form of Morse code, with each lamp pulsing to the sequence of the ideology it represents. For those who sit through the entire process, a secret message unravels itself before the participant, rewarding curiosity and persistence with illumination.

Interaction, immersion, evolution

Elaborating on the element of audience participation which is a key component in many of Zaini’s work, he concludes, “In order to …create this kind of immersive experience with the audience and for them to understand the work better, I think interactivity is a good form of engagement so that they can be part of the work and evolve with the work.”

Yvonne Wang


Related Topics: Singaporean artists, lectures and talks, mechanical art, new media, technology

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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