Going Where?

ShanghART Singapore, Singapore 19 July – 30 September

By Louis Ho

Robert Zhao Renhui, #471, After 710 Days, 2011, photo, archival Peizographic print, 121 × 84 cm

Whither Singapore? At early decades of a new millennium, the island-state is a nation in transition. Ballooning immigration numbers, rapidly shifting demographics, a constantly altering urban fabric and a growing income gap have all contributed to a highly public campaign of soul-searching, of hard questions about cultural roots and collective identity.

ShanghART Singapore’s exhibition Going Where? foregrounds issues that loom large in the Singaporean psyche. (Appropriately enough, the title is rendered in the local vernacular, ‘Singlish’.) Positioned at the gallery’s entrance and at its exit are a pair of works that, between them, provide antithetical views: Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Rynek 450m Down-under (2011) is a photograph of a multidirectional signpost that the artist had encountered in Poland, one of its signs bent and wilted, clearly the victim of vandalism. Facing it, next to the exit, is Henry Lee’s An Ode to Mother (2013). If Chen’s work poses a question in photographically ‘real’ terms, Lee’s operates in the imaginary register: An Ode is a portrayal of the mythical realm of Zix, a Kafkaesque landscape rendered in muted chiaroscuro. ‘Mother knows best,’ observes the writeup in the catalogue, ‘especially when it comes to keeping tabs and a firm hand on the daily chaos of Zix.’ The analogy to Singapore’s infamous culture of censorship and control is salient. Here is a dystopian vision of the future, offered up as a rejoinder to the uncertainties of the present.

Elsewhere, Robert Zhao Renhui’s and Wong Lip Chin’s works likewise utilise the imaginary as a means of negotiating the here and now. Renhui’s series A Heartwarming Feeling (2011) is framed within a quasi-fictional narrative of the lives of migrating birds, to some of which tiny pinhole cameras have been attached. The present images are the result, oneiric abstractions comprised of indistinct shapes and colours. While the works allude to the effects of climate change, the broader concern with vision – Renhui’s subjects are ambivalent, evading the viewer’s gaze and comprehension – suggests the general lack of public awareness regarding environmental issues. Wong’s Journey to the Land of Milk & Honey (Majulah Singapura Part II) (2010) is a monumental canvas: set into a sea of monochromatic black is a tiny window, through which we see a seminude couple in a lush utopia. The reference to a fictive, prelapsarian Eden, presented as a diminutive tableau, is an ironic comment on nostalgia, of the impossibility of returning to the days when a kampong spirit reigned (kampong being the Malay term for a village, with connotations of communal harmony and a slow, easy rhythm of life).

Other works in the show include Burmese Nyan Soe’s Unstable (2012), a hollow sculpture built up from numerous wooden parts jointed together, its material void obliquely signalling the capricious nature of identity, and a photographic series by Taiwanese-born Valence Sim, whose snapshots of individuals – the poor and elderly, foreign blue-collar workers, itinerant performers – who are overlooked or demonised calls attention to those left out of national conversations that privilege the English-speaking middle-class, the aspirational and upwardly mobile. In short, Going Where?, while not the most large-scale of shows, provides a cogent, timely engagement with matters of sociopolitical import.

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue.