Aloft by Hermès in Singapore presents “fidelity”, a new sound-based exhibition by Jeremy Sharma curated by Emi Eu.
The Singapore-based space at Hermès features Sharma’s works in a journey to the heart of different cultural communities from across Southeast Asia.
In contrast to the bustle of the iconic Orchard Road, Aloft art space at the top floor of Hermès’ Singapore flagship store in Liat Towers is void of people and quiet, except for a stream of hushed melodic murmurings coming from behind a set of heavy grey curtains, behind which lie Jeremy Sharma’s newest sound-based works for the exhibition “fidelity”.
Curated by Emi Eu, the programme director of Aloft, which is one of Fondation d’enterprise Hermès’ five art spaces around the world, “fidelity” presents Sharma’s first sound-only exhibition responding to the theme of materiality. The annual theme chosen by Aloft invites artists to explore and experiment with new media to create works that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, and in this respect, Sharma’s “fidelity” recordings hit the nail on the head. The artist’s latest sonic venture marks a significant point of departure in his career, which first saw him trained formally as a painter, then moving on to experiment with video, light and installation, and now, to make collaborative sound-based art.
The artist commented on the evolution of his practice and his departure from painting in an interview with Art Radar:
I gave up the notion of a single-practice artist in 2006. As much as I love painting, I’m excited by different disciplines that could express different things. From paintings, I’ve moved on to mixed media and objects, sculpture and installation, and now sound. But people have always commented how painterly it is in everything I do. I like Bruce Nauman’s notion of art, if it’s something that you are doing in the studio, then it has to be art. I also saw extensions out of the studio in working with people and working with ideas. I don’t want to necessarily call it an evolution [from painting], I respect painters too much to say that, nothing about what great painters are doing is backwards. I would say it’s a natural diversion to other things, my practice is sort of rhizomatic, and I’m always interested in technology and time-based media and these seems like a direction I’m quite invested in right now.
Yet if there is one thing that is always consistent about Sharma, it is the depth of rigour and process that the artist has always upheld in his practice. Just last year, for instance, Sharma spent an approximate 24 hours in relentless pursuit of an elusive mahi-mahi fish in Kuala Rompin, Malaysia, and came back with video footage of over two hundred scenes of light shifting and changing over the 24-hour duration. Sharma then transformed the raw video footage into Spectrum (Mahi Mahi), a 12-channel multimedia installation debuted at the artist’s “Spectrum Version 2.2″ show at Sullivan+Strumpf last year.
Sharma told Art Radar:
I’m at a point in time where I’m very restless emotionally and intellectually and I felt a need to travel and find songs and make contact with communities to maybe find myself in them.
Indeed, search and travel have long informed Sharma’s practice, and that influence is particularly present in “fidelity”, for which the artist travelled frequently and extensively in the Southeast Asian region to record the four songs featured in the exhibition. There is a sense in Sharma’s works that ‘travel’ goes beyond the physical; for instance, perhaps Sharma’s journeys to find songs were also part of a metaphysical traversing on a more personal artistic plane, which have led to the present moment in the artist’s works. The first two tracks, Zatil Tarana and Kami Koun Laut, take on an ethnographic edge. Zatil Tarana was recorded in conjunction with a choir ensemble of five Rohingya boys and their Ustaz (an Islamic scholar or teacher) with the help of the Malaysian Relief Agency in Kuala Lumpur, and Kami Koun Laut was recorded in the dying Slitar dialect with the Olang Seletar (meaning ‘Sea Gypsie’) people now living in the Danga Bay region of the Straits of Johor.
Conversely the last two tracks seem to come from a more personal place within the artist’s own interests: Dhandang Gula Dehdep Tidhem, which transpired from two trips Sharma took to Yogyakarta, pays tribute to the artist’s longstanding interest in Javanese songs, and O Limau, recorded in the creole language of Kristang, which is primarily used by those of mixed Portuguese and Asian ancestry, speaks to Sharma’s own Kristang heritage and childhood memories of his grandmother communicating with him in the language.
With Spectrum (Mahi Mahi), there still remained a sense that Sharma was dealing primarily with the abstract in his practice. “fidelity”, however, signals an undeniable shift in the artist’s practice and a direction to something more sensorial and affective – something that he has talked about and hinted at since his departure from painting. The reason for this was that he wanted to engage more of the body than just sight. In Sharma’s own words,
I wanted it [fidelity] to be a work about listening as another form of perception and subjectivity. The visual field is very saturated and operates on a different level of consciousness. There is something physical and tangible with sound. It is logical because I wanted to collect and record songs, so they are like a form of oral accounts. I’m particularly inspired by Roland Barthe’s essay [The Responsibility of Forms] where he talks about the geno-song and how the voice is an embodiment of culture and place or the materiality of language from within the body. But I also wanted to work with communities on the periphery or languages that may not be part of the majority. I feel that it is important to recognise where there is harmony, and where this are dissonances in the composition, where they stand out as individuals and where they remain hidden. I wanted to be the other that comes from the outside and take and shape what he has learnt. And I wanted that subjective experience for the listener in where they can connect or feel alienated by the recordings.
There is a sense of discomfort as one rides up the glass elevator through the three stories of Hermès’ flagship store in Liat Towers to visit Sharma’s installation at Aloft, considering “fidelity”’s sense of nostalgia for disappearing and fading things – and here we are reminded of the artist’s past work on dying stars – the delicacy of his subject matter, and how removed the cultural endangerment of his collaborators seems to be from the urbane luxury of its exhibiting surroundings. Yet perhaps this sense of discomfort is not entirely out of place with Sharma’s intentions, as he has made clear that what he is aiming at with “fidelity” is not to represent or speak for his collaborators in any way, but to demonstrate through his art the complex and destabilising entanglements between art and the world, artist and subject(s), artistic production and artistic product.
Working with endangered peoples and cultures is nothing new in the art world. For instance, quite memorably, one could recall Ai Weiwei’s controversial photograph of a re-enactment of Alan Kurdi lying face down on a pebble beach in Greece during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015. There is the sense that using visual media as a way to engage with such delicate subject matter enacts a form of violence of its own, or a feeling of spectatorship and voyeurism. Immersed in the soundproof enclave that houses Sharma’s recordings, one gets the sense that through sonic collaboration, Sharma has found a way to make art with endangered peoples without making a spectacle of their endangerment.
As the artist revealed to Art Radar,
There is a certain level of trust, collaboration, complicity and duration with recordings that you won’t get from a single snap of a camera. You can apprehend or grab that image instantly but it’s not the same with sound. You record sound as you listen and when you listen upon playback, it’s uncanny. That is a certain kind of relationship that needs to be built albeit for a short while, and understood before you can record something, you need to personally visit and talk and work with people, this is perhaps the kind of authenticity and mentioned in my writing. I learn a lot about these aural cultures that may be dying, endangered, relegated or unpopular and in the end is to make them heard.
Indeed, in the end, “fidelity” is noticeably a sort of tribute to or collaboration with peoples of endangered cultures, thus placing it in a socio-political sphere of discussion regarding globalisation, modernisation and gentrification, and marks a significant shift in the trajectory of Sharma’s multifaceted artistic career. In the artist’s own words,
Marshall McLuhan said of the artist, like a criminal he’s a social explorer. I also see artists like myself as outsiders and sometimes because of how we are and where we come from we can connect more with people on the periphery or all kinds of people from different social classes. Jean-Luc Godard said it was important to not make political work but to make work politically. There was also a need personally for more human connection in my work and recently I had been working with all kinds of people for my work. I’m also interested in where the human voice meets the song form. I think my work has always sought to capture a changing and modernising world, but at our part of the world we have the effects of post-colonialism and how that has connected or divided communities and identities.
Soh Kay Min
“fidelity” by Jeremy Sharma is on view from 17 May to 19 August 2018 at Aloft by Hermès, 541 Orchard Road, #05-03 Liat Towers, Singapore 238881.
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