of love, and sweets

John Low

The legitimacy, rationality, psychology, technical expertise, training, education and history of the artist-person; in effect, everything that marks him out as an individual professional with a right to his own stakes and claims in society is, with one fell swoop, cast off on to the rubbish heap of irrelevance. Is it really any wonder then that it is the artist, always the artist, and particularly the artist engaged in the practice of contemporary art, who must end up accommodating society; and why the arts in Singapore will never be anything more than the icing on the national cake? The first and fundamental question that must be answered is this: Does the government really want Singapore artists to do anything other than produce the sweets?

— Thirunalan Sasitharan, “The Arts: Of Swords, Harnesses and Blinkers”, in State-Society Relations in Singapore, ed. Gillian Koh and Ooi Giok Ling (Institute of Policy Studies and Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 138.

In surveying the development of contemporary visual art practices in Singapore today, one question among many dominates. Has our recent historical past occasioned an awareness of the power of visual imageries, its potency as substantially representative of diverse social, economical, political and philosophical ideologies to motivate societal resentments, awaken perceptive political sensibilities against governmental powers, disrupt the prevalent state-social relations still regarded in Singapore today as necessary to safeguard against unregulated authorship, ostentatious display, and media circulation?

The persistence of the notion that these forms of artworks, especially those that engage with critical reflections concerning politics or its societal conditions should be avoided suggests that the only way to make artworks, and gaining credence and creditability lies in the portrayal of sweetness, a condition that many would suspect not only stultifies its healthy growth, but also reflects the level of political maturity of our citizenry.

The critical development of the visual arts concerns not only its own disciplinary engagement with its repertoire of mediums, materials and imageries (including theories and histories), but how they are reflective of a contextualization that is strongly anchored in our contemporary everyday world.

As much as the portrayal of sweetness is meaningless to some as being devoid of any critical reflections may nevertheless be tastefully sweet to others in so far as these works enhance and brighten their environment and their everyday lives. This portrayal of sweetness is thus reflective of an idealized form of aesthetic beauty, portraying a one-sided aspect of art (as in for example that art’s identity concerns only the beautiful, or, it ought to transcend the political), and is thus also capable of forging meaningful relationships. A politics of art need not necessarily be read through imageries of political struggles.

Thus what defines an artwork is determined by a multitude of shifting relational and transitory external forces. When art-works are subjected to public scrutiny, the criteria of excellence are broadened and levelled to the point where a cacophony of voices extends beyond its disciplinary concerns to include opinions outside it. It then becomes difficult to pick out the pertinent issues that ground and shape the visual arts’ disciplinary concerns with contemporary society. However, the broadening and levelling of the institutionalized autonomy of the visual arts present a newer form of engagement whose complexities escape scrutiny. However, it is questionable whether such an institutionalized autonomy exists in Singapore and what its defining characteristics are to the extent that we understand sweetness as falsifying the very conception of art.

This begs a related question: has the arts community forged a meaningful relationship with its audience, such that a critical appreciation and understanding of contemporary art practices is developed and grounded on an understanding and knowledge of its own historical, cultural and societal developments and its attitudes towards the economical and the political? Developments in the arts and cultures and its societal perception/reception have always been seen as uneven — cultural change occurs at different rates and at different levels. Will our “creative economy” bring about critical reflections and innovations? Market reforms certainly have not lessened state control over the arts and cultures, (governmental and corporate sponsorship are very evident) but how will these reforms contribute to the development of contemporary arts and cultures in Singapore?

In white, silent and absent

Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?

— Henry David Thoreau

HERE, the feature film debut of Ho Tzu Nyen premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs). Its poster depicts a torso dressed in a white T-shirt in a classical S-shaped counterpoise, its upper arms held on both sides and lower down at its waist, its wrists clasped in leather wrist-cuffs. A lowered chin indicates a truncated face tilted sideways with eyes downcast casting a slight shadow on its left shoulder. The chest on the right pushes outwards, and across it, sits the title of the film HERE. As much as these minimal visual details captivates and anticipates the film’s narrative, it is on the other hand, the expanse of whiteness of the T-shirt that dominates as an ambiguous visual metaphor for the film. This dominant whiteness symptomatically draws us into an abstract space and suggests itself as a place that we should look into. The open palms are turned inwards, held-fasten at the front, seemingly not at ease, points to this abstract space, as an uneasy occurrence – its presence in Singapore’s contemporary cinema. This metaphorical imagery of whiteness focuses on issues regarding its status as a piece of film/artwork: that its visual imaginaries (or its cinematography), its narrative plot, seen and looked at, are as contingent and transparent to meanings as they are opaque, and as much as it allows you to write upon it, it refuses to offer any ground to anchor any singular interpretation of the film. The presence of HERE, sited as it is on a white ground, ranges from the brightness of white on its right shoulder, to shades of grey on its left. It is like as though when one knows what this film is all about, one lightens up; whereas when one becomes confused, it is like being submerged by the greys.

The film opens with a slow, measured sequence, showing the transformation of an expanse of foliage into an abstractly painted surface. This slowing process allows the eye to scrutinize in minute observation this entire process of transformation: as light slowly falls on the trees and its foliage till their shapes and colour are in full view, the scene then slowly changes into a painterly abstract surface. The entire process of transformation is brought sensuously to light, a sequential movement from a pictured natural scenery to an artifice and an object. The opportunity to scrutinize this process makes you aware of your own presence as a fully conscious self, watching a work in creation, and brings about a conscious awareness of being in the presence of a made object, a film. HERE’s opening scene is soon to fade away meaninglessly as the stories of Island Hospital’s interns take up the scene.[1]

HERE demands a reading based on a transistory relationality that is to be established between the object before you as a self who is consciously aware of looking at this object with a reflective criticality to initiate a connection with it. Both self and object are contemporaneously sited in space and time, and as such we are made aware of our place in this situation. The film is more than an object whose representations and meanings correspondingly unfold into a coherent masterful beautiful picture/film, but more importantly, the things that we see to connect with generate further meanings which are very much hidden by what is presented in the film. If a film does not seem to know what it is saying, it is not because a critical self-reflectivity is not at work, but the persistence of a particular vision dictates the way it is to be viewed.

As a pseudo-documentary film, a film within a film, HERE’s main protagonist is the art director, Ho Tzu Nyen and also its leading character, He Zhiyuan, both acting as folds of each other. He Zhiyuan is unable to speak. When asked by the film’s pseudo-documentary director (Ho’s voice-over) why he is in Island Hospital, the mental institution where he is interned for a video-cure, he writes on the page of his notebook, which he then extends towards you, the viewer – “can’t be out there”.

The words, supplanting speech, point to a here-ness, a “not-there”; the performative presence of words is made more evocative than the enunciative “I”, the presence of the actor. Ho, too, now occupies the position of the viewer, a position “not-there”. On the one hand, words and performance seem to correspond, reflecting a specific context or episode in the plot. On the other, it is highly suggestive that this is not meant to secure such correspondences, but to point symptomatically to something else, where the performance, the script/plot, and the medium of films are brought ambiguously at odds with each other. It seems to present a conviction of the media’s capacity to scrutinize, to honestly and realistically document its subjects yet all these are also rendered highly suspect.

This ambiguity is equivalent to looking at the opacity of painted portraits. The painted selves that are presented can never be revealed to us, for vision and looking refers to our blinded sight and a false reliance on speech and text for authenticity and authority. What He Zhiyuan extends to you is a representational image of self-reflectivity and self-consciousness, and its relation to light as film’s substantiating presence captured in the represented image of the whiteness of a page on which the film’s script is written. Whiteness as a visual metaphor of HERE reflects on its medium and language. Light, its very materiality as object, it says, as it is caught through the camera’s eye: here I am directly in front of your presence, a film created by Ho Tzu Nyen.

As the film unfolds we become aware that the filming eye is fully conscious. Ho has revealed his disinterest in representing the “otherness” of mental patients, neither is HERE a reflection of the workings of a mental institution.[2] Every character is filmed as ordinary as they performed in front of the camera – they are given alphabetical letters as forms of identification. Any ideological identification is neutralized, though this leaves open the question of how the representation of ordinariness is to be read. Ordinariness no longer functions to validate authenticity in life that identifies a state of being. It has become commonly deceptive. This deception is reinforced by its counterpart, evoked in a scene where the characters were made to undergo a rehabilitative imagination workshop to learn to announce their names “as theatrically as possible and with grandeur” (HERE, film script).

As representational characters their stories/histories never develop in progressive time with due climax. This absence of time unfolding where each character is revealed correspondingly with the plot renders foremost the importance of the role of post-production editing in films. The notion of time is an artifice in film.

These three aspects: the filming camera, editing, and the script as a representational propositioning conditioned by the medium of film, renders poignantly the work as an object in whiteness. The thematic direction of the film, Amor Fati, (love of fate) which seems to involve the characters with their unscripted stories/histories (the love story between He Zhiyuan and Beatrice is never developed), spirals itself into that very muteness of whiteness of light like the mute protagonist, He Zhiyuan, an object in representation (objects do not speak) which is the subject of a film within a film.

This spiralling, like clouds, whose formations are always unstable, with no definite outline or colour, form or consistency, yet whose very materiality could conjure any kind of figure and to disappear at any moment, registers adequately this metaphorical whiteness of muteness in HERE. Each of these readings enfold itself into the other, and like HERE with its repetitive episodic sequencings, one repetitive sequence beats upon the other, drumming up yet again different sets of sequences in imaginaries and thoughts.[3] HERE brings about differing cultural meanings as systems of representation are subjected to – muteness like white light, instigates the need to turn it inside out. HERE’s enigmatic metaphorical whiteness of muteness renders one’s love for the cinema problematic. Does one love cinema for its easy, gratifying universalistic readings where any one form of representation has a fixated meaning and hence brings about its pleasure and entertainment value, or, is its pleasure to be placed in its decipherment?

When Love Departs

Lynn Lu’s performance piece, When Love Departs, Reason Arrives (Or, Notes to Self for Next Time), July 2009, was presented as a performance tour at Blackout, an art exhibition held in a warehouse space. In Blackout, some works used lighting in specific orderly manner to shape their forms while others used it as its very materiality. The exhibition space was darkened to capture this aspect. Lynn’s work is of the latter. Without its own luminosity, its own substantiating presence, her work is submerged in the dark.

This orderly display of artworks in a blackout space intends to “uncover new experience” in engaging with looking at artworks. This emphasis on a blackened space is inspired by the Russian Suprematist painter, Malevich’s Black Square painting of 1915, read as a “gesture of enormity” (Alan Ooi, curator’s note, Blackout, exhibition note handouts). As a major contribution to the development of European Modernism art history, this necessary gesture figures the embrace of all art before it, instituted by painting’s perennial question: What is painting now? or, what constitutes the presentness of an art object? This gesture of enormity has determined the end of a particular form of thinking about art. As much as this embrace entombs that very history, it emphasizes the status that light functions as its ground. Artworks, once their meanings are attested, are always a kind of illumination.

Lynn’s performance tour presents one of life’s imponderable subject, “love” (or, “follies of love” as Lynn describes it in her notes from performance tour), and the varying levels of relations (values and interests) we have with it. Each night, members of the audience joined her in a walking tour around the darkened exhibition space. As the audience huddled closely around her, Lynn read from her compilation, excerpts of love letters written by historical figures, using a small naked light. At the end of a specific excerpt, which is performed to coincide with specific spots around the exhibition hall, she stopped, stood in front of a wall and flashed her camera. Instantaneously, her self-reflective thoughts written in phosphorescent paint appeared and then faded away.

This performance tour is an adamant introspection into self-consciousness and self-reflexivity of a concept that defies definition. We broach this subject with varying degrees of sensibility and sensitivity, personal experiences and prior knowledge, as we perpetually continue to fall in and out of love, finding in each a new relationality that hardly matches the prior experiences and knowledge that one already has. The rationalization of one’s life, that is, in the notes prepared for oneself for the next time – such as, “do not take sweet nothings too literally” – intend to match up to an active gift of loving, where one hopes one’s past grievous loss of failed love could immediately fade away into the dark, in the light of meeting one’s ideal love. It is this sweetness, that unknowingly, one’s rationalization of an un-definable concept “love” falls back unsuspectingly into an idealization that love becomes pure liquidity. Its conceptualization in our own self-reflections, understanding and experiences, disintegrates at the next failed love.

In the absence of a definable concept of the conditions of love, it seems that in Lynn’s performance tour, the one who performs and the text that is (re)presented are irrevocably split. The performative matches its own incongruity with the self, which problematizes the status of the work as an art “object”. The bodily presence of the artist is guaranteed in this performance, but the constituent presence of the self in its performativity, (who is the self who is performing) and the performative presence of words, (the language of love is like a flight of metaphors) points to a performance work whose various elements of multiple disjunctures comes together. The spectator has to engage with many things at any one moment: watching Lynn’s performance actions, Lynn voicing her compilation of texts, her own writings on the wall as they appear and disappear, asking where is Lynn’s self to be placed, and these intermingles with other spectators visiting the exhibition. Paradoxically, this work speaks about love’s disjuncture: apart we are together, being together apart. When love arrives, reason departs; fortunately, when love departs reason returns (Lynn Lu, notes from her performance tour). The phosphorescent writings appear only to disappear. What we see is not a crisis between a rationalization/idealization of a concept and its despondent play of the ‘real’ in the social context. Between an idealized sensation and a rationalized sensibility, one is still in the dark. Any reading of this work will be provisional. Yet, from this dark space something (Lynn’s work) illuminates, changing what has gone before it. One thing stands out clearly – making you mine, does not seal the alliance between us.

When I Grow Up

View from inside the gallery. The artist is on the left of the picture. The work reads, “When I grow up, I wish to be a Minister”. In recent years, at one of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally, he showed a video clip of a young child who candidly said: “When I grow up, I want to be a Prime Minister”.

Cheo Chai-Hiang’s When I Grow Up (April 2009), consists of a two-line text in Mandarin, sculpted (or, constructed, built, assembled) in a quirky child-like handwriting, its colourful luminosity characteristic of neon-light, it sounds a child’s innocent voice. The text is encircled within a text-bubble, with a few small, diminishing circles tapering off at its lower right — a personal thought that one keeps for oneself, a dream, an inspiration or aspiration, an ambition, a conversation one has with oneself.

It is installed in a strategic position, almost at the centre of the interior face of the external glass wall of the gallery facing a main access road. From inside the gallery space, the text is in reverse. It is to be read from the exterior. In broad daylight, the text-bubble is not clearly seen, and the neon text hovers in the darkened gallery space. This darkened space extends the work beyond the realm of the personal to a larger, diverse community, and not specifically a singular linguistic community. It is a darkened space pointed to by the very fact that it uses Mandarin where its meaning’s intention is realizable with the aid of distantiation of space and time, a horizon that could not be met in the here and now. This horizon presents a vision about how our historical past is to be read in the present and our future met by our own present – hence the various possibilities of meanings in how that horizon is to be constructed.

Cheo’s conceptualization of this work is based on a major concern of his as an art educator (see Isabel Ching’s article in this issue of s/pores): the role of “civil education” in Singapore schools, or more broadly, the study of the humanities. The situation portrayed by Cheo is an acute observation: that though young students are nurtured in the arts, they ultimately have no intention of aspiring to the fullest of their talents once their studies are completed. What is strongly advocated here is art’s role in “civil education” – how would art education “shapes the aspirations of the future generation” and “guide[s] in making decisions when they have to choose between material gains and contributions towards nation building” (Cheo’s proposal for the work). In a city-state whose current programmes of arts and cultures are being developed strongly by a central body, various issues and interests that intersect with the arts and culture are highly debatable, especially when they impact upon society and its arts practitioners. Are the young ones nurtured on such debates? The childlike naiveté that the neon light portrays does not characterize our children as sweet, innocent, and an unspoiled quality akin to the giving of selfless pure love. Neither is it meant to signify political aspirations built on such naiveté qualities alone.

A mis-aimed vandalisation of the work registers a form of dialogism when a personal sovereign thought meets with an adverse response once it comes to light in the public arena. A foreign object aimed from the outside shattered the glass panel above Cheo’s work. Cheo’s work has an ambivalent co-presence with our historical past, present, and future. Its meaning has to be prospected widely – it takes into consideration movements of societal change as every viewer’s encounter with this work brings about newer contexts, requiring further reflection and deliberation. Dialogism reinforces that very status as each dialogic moment changes and alters its object as various communities and interest groups come into contact with it. All literary texts and notions of a common national language in multicultural “imagined communities” are vulnerable to interpretations. It opens up “The Singapore Story” – the prolific thematic direction of the Singapore Story circulates in a perennial state of crisis, as it waits for other histories to be written and heard.

What is it like to be in a particular light?

All the three works that I have briefly dealt with here draws upon a common art historical ground where light (and its complementary, the dark/black) is used as an instrument to create visual imageries. With the aid of a pencil or a brush, light/dark, white/black, bring up images, substantiating their presence. Their histories are complemented by sets of discourses built around them, which further illuminate their status and meanings. Knowledge too, is framed by these metaphorics of light and dark. Present day art historical discourses, informed by art practices situated in multicultural contexts, however, have shown that whiteness/light and dark/black do not attest to well-founded meanings that are stably grounded, but are shown to be inherently shifting.

The three works mentioned here are subjected by the artists to a re-working of tried and tested criteria of artistic excellence. These are re-staked by removing their authorial intentions, putting their works, the artists themselves and their viewers on fresher ground, where looking, understanding and acknowledgment of what these art-works are has to be continually negotiated. Their readings are never singular, but may offer conflicting views. HERE is reflective of its spiral metaphorical whiteness where its script is representative of shifting shape of whiteness of clouds, When Love Departs, engages with love’s light/dark imponderables on a concept that would not be defined, and, When I Grow Up, brings to light a darken political horizon of a political leadership in a perennial search for talents who will have to meet with newer, unknown, changing, global challenges that Singapore is a part of.

A further example to illustrate the ambiguities that white and black connotes may come from a study of a Tan Wee Huan woodcut print from 1955, Thousands of Hearts Beat as One – for Democracy and Freedom. The use of black and white to substantiate its imageries was already evident then. From the furthest background of this print, the light that illuminates the entire scene comes from the backdrop on which the People’s Action Party (PAP) symbol stands. This white background represents honesty. This white light, in honesty projects forth, permeates the entire scene. The low-lying clouds are even caught by this light. In the foreground, a man raises his pair of hands in a V-shaped formation, towards the darkened sky and is embraced by it. We see the awakening of a consciousness ready to break the dark yoke of British colonialism.

In the context of the mid-1950s, with Singapore in a process of decolonization, the PAP having won three seats out of the four that it contested at the 1955 Legislative Elections, and its communist-wing yet to rear its head, the meanings behind this print may not be known. What black and white stands for may signify different things to different members’ political ideologies though a unified meaning may be projected to the common masses. If this print’s authorial intention is to be kept intact, that is, this print illustrates a political rally held by the PAP, one could still read otherwise as informed by the present.

The meanings of these four art-works are read through the present, a time that is different from that of its historical past, and though that past is still very much with us for some of us, both times point to a difficulty in apprehending art-works. Art-works as inanimate objects register their own historical time as informed by their systems of representations and discourses, and also have the susceptibility to be absorbed by newer readings and thereby implicating the meaning of the over-arching frame-word “art”. If artworks are not taken critically beyond its historically periodized characterizations, their meanings and functions may not arrive via its own making. If history is always written backwards, it seems logical that only future times will fully reveal artworks’ histories. Yet artwork by and of itself cannot go beyond its historical characterisations. It is not that artists who make obscure artworks seek to go beyond art’s aestheticization of its own narcissistic beauty, rather they attempt to arrive at its own making as an object of the present.

If the portrayal of sweetness is to gain credence and credibility, and its end the experiencing of pleasure, the history of art is fraught with such ambiguities. The sweetness of pleasure seems to lie in opening up its obscurities to light, but we may never be fully gratified in such love. What truly illuminates the page? Art that fails to support and develop its audiences only reaches what sweetness has already achieved.


[1] See the reviews of this film which are hosted on HERE’s website: With a few exceptions, most of these reviews concentrated on the weaknesses of its narrative plot.

[2] This was Ho Tzu Nyen’s answer to a question at a Q & A session after a public screening of HERE in Cannes, May 2009. The anti-psychiatry movement and the treatment of mental patients are of public interest in France.

[3] This is highly poignant in Ho Tzu Nyen’s theatrical productions, The Avoidance of Love, and The King Lear Project: A Trilogy. The Avoidance of Love, is the title of a paper written by Stanley Cavell of the same name, on Shakespeare’s King Lear. His other three theatrical productions, also co-directed with Franz Borga, The King Lear’s Project: A Trilogy: 1) Lear Enters; 2) Dover Cliff and the Conditions of Representation; 3) The Lear Universe, Singapore Arts Festival, Singapore, 2008 and KunstenFestivaldesArts, Brussels, Belgium, 2008.

John Low is a visual artist and an independent researcher on contemporary art in Singapore. His recent work, a research-archival installation titled I have been skying was exhibited at the Singapore Biennale 2011.