“The world precedes the eye” at Lasalle’s Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore explores notions of time, space and history.
Running from 27 October 2016 to 1 February 2017, this exhibition features nine emerging and mid-career artists from the Asia-Pacific region whose work spans sculpture, installation, painting, moving image and sound.
Whereas the title “An Atlas of Mirrors” might bring to mind some sort of sleight of hand, the Singapore Biennale 2016 affiliate project “The world precedes the eye” at Lasalle’s Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (ICAS) seems, straightforwardly, to put forth the commonsensical notion that what we perceive is prior to our perceptions, having an existence which precedes our biases and beliefs. In this, the exhibition’s curators evoke a connection to new materialist tendencies in the study of the humanities – tendencies which, ironically, serve as a bulwark against unbridled anthropocentrism.
While research along these avenues delves deeply into fundamental areas of philosophical enquiry, it may well suffice to use an abbreviated sense of these new materialisms, as the show’s own exhibition guide appears to suggest: matter matters, with material experience being placed ahead of representation. The world is seen as something not made in our image, to be subdued and utilised.
It is then curious, in some senses, to encounter Pratchaya Pinthong’s A proposal to set CH45.75H20 on fire (work in progress) (2016) as the first (or last, or somewhere in between) artwork in the exhibition, considering the work’s roots in ongoing efforts by the Siberian Limnological Institute to exploit methane hydrate (or clathrate) as a source of energy. Complicating the issue, interestingly, is the substance’s role in the so-called ‘clathrate gun hypothesis’, in which rising temperatures prompt the release of methane gas from clathrate deposits, which increases temperatures, and so on.
The key, perhaps, lies in sidestepping these textual expositions, turning instead to the material experience of the installation. Within an almost pitch-black, temporary plywood structure, a short, grainy video of a substance crackling with a flame is placed on a loop. Mute as the film might be, its anachronistic projector more than makes up for it – clattering audibly, with its radiant heat only adding to its sense of presence. Put together, there is something of a sense of a self-enclosed loop, centred on that very explicit experience of watching a film being projected – of the light of the flames impressing itself onto the 16 mm film, and then re-animated with the projector’s bulb.
Matt Hinkley’s untitled mixed media installation occupies one of the most unobtrusive corners of the gallery, concealed from much of the gallery by the “opened out” exhibition architecture, which reveals the hidden faces of the usual false walls and partitions. The addition of a measure of concealment (offset by the standard gallery spotlight) has some resonance with the form of the work: it resembles a collection of miscellaneous debris, as if a number of artists were told to turn out their pockets. This ‘debris,’ however, is in truth a facsimile thereof, rendered in resin, seeming both abject and rarefied at the same time.
The other artworks in the exhibition inhabit a large, open space around the corner from Hinkley’s miniature sculptures, a space delineated by the aforementioned open-backed false walls, and anchored in one corner by projections of Shimura Nobuhiro’s Japanese cattle (2015). One unusual feature here, however, are the seams and a measure of reflectiveness in these false walls. The latter appear to be made of some laminated panelling, rising to the surface of one’s attention rather than receding, and offering some amount of competition to Firenze Lai’s drawings and paintings hung on them. While dissonant, perhaps such dissonance is appropriate in a show which lays materiality bare.
Nobuhiro’s video is also projected in a manner which draws some attention to the fact of its projection: simultaneously on both sides of a single screen as if to suggest some sort of mirroring. The video itself discusses the threatened status of the Mishima cow, much of the traditional role of which has been rendered obsolete by mechanisation. Their continued existence is the work of a local preservation society, who relate this history (and other cow-related anecdotes) conversationally over footage of the cows themselves.
The footage, as a Super-8 transfer, retains considerable grain and shakiness, suggesting not just a documentary but a conscious and sustained effort to simulate one. Mellowing out such peculiarities are a number of silent shots of the cows, which range from merely beautiful to dream-like and surreal.
A constant companion throughout the exhibition is the voice of Zou Zhao, with her strident interjections and bursts of song repeating a handful of times over the hour or two it takes to absorb the exhibition. These snippets of sound, while dispersed throughout the gallery, find themselves anchored in an audiovisual installation by the gallery’s other entrance: a video in which the artist performs, and a smattering of audio equipment, score included, for interested parties to have a go themselves.
Somewhat fascinatingly, visitors are invited to edit the score, possibly for the artist to perform at a later date. With the studied informality of its cabling, something of the experience of the recording studio appears to be suggested, and while the content meanders a little, there appears to be some link between variable truth values and the anxieties of identity in the geographically itinerant.
One work standout work is Zeyno Pekünlü’s Minima Akademika (2015 – 2016), a small archive of cheat sheets – illicit memory aids smuggled into examinations. Magnifying glasses are helpfully provided to decipher the tiny, crabbed handwriting (as well as a number of printed examples). Despite the majority of the texts being in languages other than English – the series began in the artist’s native Turkey – their commonality of purpose evokes both familiarity and empathy, and perhaps a measure of respect for the effort poured into gaming the educational system.
Though the exhibition guide remarks that an educational setting is hinted at by forming the display stands as old-fashioned school desks, this reference is likely to be lost on Singaporeans and others whose memories of school desks are rather different. Read from a material point of view, especially, these desks seem rather phantasmal in their flimsiness.
Although the exhibition appears somewhat mixed-bag, the standout works are worth seeing on their own. Exhibitions taking materiality as their reason for being are quite engaging, with a number of intriguing correspondences with the other Singapore Biennale affiliate on show at ICAS, Boedi Widjaja’s Black Hut, and the Biennale proper.
- “An Atlas of Mirrors”: 10 highlights from Singapore Biennale 2016 – November 2016 – The fifth edition of the Singapore Biennale 2016 opened on 27 October and will run until 26 February 2017
- “The Dynamics”: Chinese multimedia art at ShanghART in Singapore – November 2016 – the exhibition features a range of multimedia artworks by Hu Jieming, Jiang Pengyi, Lu Lei, Shao Yi, Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong and Zhang Ding
- South African Gabi Ngcobo appointed curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale – November 2016 – Johannesburg-based curator Gabi Ngcobo will lead the 10th Berlin Biennale in 2018
- Disavowing globalisation: Singaporean art critic and curator Weng Choy Lee in conversation – podcast – May 2011 – Singaporean art critic and curator Weng Choy Lee discusses his provocative take on the globalisation of the art world
- 11th Benesse Prize announces shortlist at Singapore Biennale 2016 – November 2016 – the 11th Benesse Prize has recently announced its shortlist from this year’s Singapore Biennale, including East and Southeast Asian artists
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