07 March 2006

The Substation Loves White Elephants

It has been 4 months since the Substation launched its monthly online magazine ("The Substation Magazine"). While it does mostly performance and visual arts reviews, the magazine editor Cyril Wong seems to be steering it towards some social commentary as well as metacriticism of Singapore's art and artists.

Hopefully the Substation Magazine will shape up to be a more assessable and frequent counterpart to Focas.

(Disclosure: I wrote the top feature article for the March issue of the Substation Magazine.)
Updated 5 Sep 2007: Full text of article released here as the archives of the Substation Magazine is down, perhaps for good)

White Elephants in Singapore Art

The artist, unfettered?

Singapore’s artists have deep-set beliefs of themselves and their work. They often find it necessary to defend the value of art in a technocratic state like Singapore, especially at public forums, seminars, or even Q&A sessions at arts events. As if artists are somehow emotionally alien and distinct from the rest of humanity and completely incomprehensible:

“Why (or how) do you struggle with making art, instead of just following the rat race?”
“Is it worth it, being a round peg in a universe of square holes?”
And occasionally, even: How do artists here operate, given the restrictions of the state?

These are predictable questions that are perennially raised in almost every public forum. Of interest to us is the artist’s reply to the final question: There is freedom of speech, and we have to be very creative in putting certain politically-sensitive points across, and we occasionally have to exercise some self-censorship. So as an artist, I do not feel the heavy hand of the state.

The artist’s answer is, of course, as predictable and obligatory as the questions of of the public audience. An obligatory question meets with an obligatory reply: such is the nature of the social ritual, a liturgy of art, that establishes a kind of truth. Through each re-enactment, that truth is restated and reaffirmed as a timeless fact in itself. The coolness of the answer drowns out the doubts raised in the initial question, and re-establishes the primal state of innocence of the uncompromised artist ? a state of innocence natural, undisputed, commonsensical, and eternally so.

For all the qualities of a 10-year series answer, I hope audiences at the next public forum or Q&A session with an artist ask this question: Why was last year’s most important public art installation not done by an artist?

White elephants as art

Instead, the white elephants installation piece was created by a local businessman and minor grassroots activist from the Punggol South constituency. One August morning, eight white cardboard elephants stood outside the expensive, unopened Buangkok train station, a stunning reminder of the contest between the residents of the estate and the mandarins at the Land Transport Authority that may have shamed vacillating authorities, intent on postponing the opening of the train station in the due ripeness of time, into actually opening the station.

Even though they were exhibited for less than an hour (the grassroots activist feared reprisals and a genuine embarrassment to the visiting politician), these white elephants provide the wider audience in Singapore the idea of public art.

Good public art is:
1.Site specific art that speaks directly to the public. The work was integrated in the Buangkok MRT locale. At the same time, its installation raised the problematics of locality ? for instance, the residents campaign and the Land Transport Authority contested over the number and location of residents who would have used the station.
2.Relevant to area residents. There wasn’t any need to contemplate too deeply about what the installation meant, at its primary level. Yet, it provided much food for thought and public discussion.
3.Strong, clear social and political commentary. To call into question the judgement of technocratic mandarins, to contrast between the residents, who needed the station for their transport, and the white-collared mandarins, who did not see their need as sufficient for providing public transport. To call train station that cannot be opened a white elephant...
4.Controversial, yet humorous and cheeky. Despite its radical nature, the installation was well-liked and brought smiles to the fortunate spectators who saw it in person. Compared to other legitimate public art installations in Singapore during the same period, the public will have an enduring memory of the white elephants.
5.Safe and almost legal. The police could find no grounds to prosecute the activists involved, as the installations did not cause public annoyance or nuisance (notwithstanding the ire of the patriotic citizen who made the police report), even though the installation had not been approved within the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act.

The question, reprised

Why was the installation not done by an artist? Or, as a typical audience member in a forum might put it: Does the artist wish they had done this instead?

Let us assume first that the mythos of the unfettered artist is true. Then, there is something deficient about the white elephant installation.

Perhaps the idea of using white elephant cut-outs as an installation piece for Buangkok MRT was not creative and subtle enough? Was it too crude, the imagery not polysemic enough? If so, there wouldn’t have been a public debate or controversy over the installation. Or perhaps, was the installation socially relevant, but not art? An installation wouldn’t be real installation art if no reader disputed its status, and to remark that something is more social than artistic betrays the speaker’s ideas of what acceptable art should be...

Or, perhaps, it is time to admit that the artist has become removed, even alienated from entire types of art, through his creativity, prudent sensitivity, good taste, and self-censorship. In the oeuvre of the typical Singaporean artist, there is a lacuna that becomes the more conspicuous each time the artist insists on keeping the image of their self-censorship not affecting their creative work.

Installation art with Singaporean characteristics

Conceptual, aesthetic, avowedly non-confrontational, even to the point of avoiding biting socio-political commentary. Interred in formalised spaces within galleries; if public, curiously uninterrogative of public discourse. Perhaps the public aren’t that naive when they ask: “How do (can) artists here operate, given the restrictions of the state?” The internalisation of legal and political strictures creates a commonsensical second nature of the artist to instinctively reject certain tropes as beyond artistic markers, while maintaining protestations of his unsullied creativity.

What sort of installation art is missing in Singapore? More ephemeral pieces that last less than an hour, and only survive immaterial, in the minds of the public and their popular discourse; pieces which, in an age of mechanical reproduction, can be sold by some enterprising students on T-shirts; whose continued secondary existence point towards the multiplicity of meanings and contestations of meanings between orthodoxy and the public?

Perhaps it is time for someone to wrap the Supreme Court with a kilometre of yellow ribbon. Or plant cut-outs of a politician on a soapbox giving a speech to a large crowd in the Speaker’s Corner. Or cut-outs of picnickers, skateboarders, children flying kites ? at the wide open grass spaces prohibiting any sort of activity (State Land: No trespassing). The aim of public installation art should alert the public to alternative imaginings of public spaces; but first, practitioners should be alerted to alternative imaginings of public art.


art-lorena said...

How cool! I used to live in Singapore. I was there for 7 years. I always think about how the art scene might be now. Let me know at: http://blogs.chron.com/artbeat/

you can't get comments from non blooger uses, which can be interesting....

Anonymous said...

Hey, check out today's Life section, there's an article about an artist who did something on the white elephant topic. An installation art piece no less too!

akikonomu said...

Actually, Ted, it's a museum gallery piece. Those paintings aren't installed in the open.

The creativity of Singaporean artists: they don't invent icons, they borrow them from elsewhere.