By Rebecca Chew
I love how art is a smorgasbord of creativity and expressions presented in a multi-faceted fashion through a motley crew of vehicles – diversified in its various embodiment according to genres, yet unified in theme.
Drawing on the changes in the landscape and the natural world, brought on by urbanization that contributes to the cultivation of Singapore into a “Garden City”, the “down to earth” exhibition “Unearthed” at Singapore Art Museum showcases outstanding multimedia works, created through the perception and responses of artists in Singapore who themselves live within such an artificially designed, modern and built-up environment. Their works allow us to catch a glimpse into how life is bound up with the land on Earth upon which we live in.
In the site-specific art installation by Twardzik Ching Chor Leng, the artist encased a 240 x 240 cm plot of earth that was excavated from the front lawn of SAM, and features it as an exhibit in the foyer at Level 1 within the Museum. By laying bare the ground in front of the Museum, the artist invites us to consider what lies beneath – the foundations on which we have built our city and our institutions – as well as to intimately observe the material qualities of the earth itself: its colours, textures, and detritus. This material and physical understanding of land presents a stark contrast to how we conventionally speak or think about land in Singapore, which is often foregrounded by its status as a prized commodity (in terms of ‘real estate’), or in abstract and territorial terms of land ownership and contested sites.
Upon entering the left wing of the museum, I fell in love with the space awareness, lights installation and the art features mounted on the walls. I was immediately drawn towards this piece titled “Flow Through the Land” by Han Sai Por. Created from acrylic paint, powder pigment, coloured shaped abacca paper, ink and canvas, this 100 x 200 cm piece of art evokes multiple vistas, both terrestrial and celestial. Viewed from afar, the surface appears flat and the veins of white against black suggest a comet streaking across the sky, chasing its own tail. Close up, the textured and moulded paper surfaces suggest a more earthbound view, of a river winding its way through the land, the contours of which are heightened by the raised mound in the middle, reminiscent of a landscape, or a cumulative swirl of energies, both natural and cosmic.
Going further into the room lies the framed works by Genevieve Chua, of what seems like ultrasound images. Created from acrylic and screenprint with enamel on linen, measuring 278 x 170 cm, these pieces present the dynamism of the oppositional forces of the water element as an image of nature’s energies unleashed, unbounded by the rational frameworks or technological systems (represented by the ultrasound motif) we may attempt to put in place to contain and understand it. The artist draws her inspiration and references from events of life (foetus enclosed in water bag within mother’s womb) and death (people drowned in water), which includes two separate incidents that happened near the time these works were created, both involving water. The first was a succession of flash floods in Singapore which severely impacted public infrastructure, considering how Singapore is so well-insulated from climatic vagaries. The second incident was a spate of suicides at Bedok Reservoir.
Another room within the same wing displays a series of 4 quietly elegiac photographs, collectively titled “And Now, Like Sleeping Flowers”. These archival photographs capture a succession of peaceful landscapes which betray subtle signs of man’s incursions on the natural land on earth. Each of the photographs have white confetti-like material drifting across them, reminiscent of falling petals. In the artist’s portrayal of his own expression and perception, the white paper, also resembles ‘spirit money’, strewn in front of the hearse during Chinese funeral processions to pave the way for the departed. In the same way, they are scattered over these unassuming landscapes to mourn their eventual passing, even while nature sleeps on, unaware of the imminent danger.
Moving on to Level 2 of the museum, the foyer is occupied by the mixed media art installation titled “1000 Rubber Seeds and One Mutant” by Isabelle Desjeux. Enfolding art, science, history and imagination, the former-scientist-turned-artist Isabelle Desjeux’s installation focuses our attention on the rubber fruit, a colonial crop which once covered huge swathes of land in Singapore and which today has all but vanished from the highly urbanized cityscape and the consciousness of Singaporeans. Rubber fruit propagates by exploding and propelling its seeds as far away as possible from the parent plant. On the shelves of the wooden cabinets, a thousand rubber seeds are displayed, along with one mutant fruit which has failed to explode presented prominently in the centre. In science, advancements in understanding organisms are made from the study of mistakes, or mutants, rather than the successes. This approach presents an interesting counter to society and social organisms, where success is prized and mistakes marginalized.
Central to both art and science is the discipline of observation. “1000 Rubber Seeds and One Mutant” is an intersection of these modalities as it invites the public to observe the rubber seeds and fruits through different lenses, and to use this information in different ways, be it through the creative discipline of drawing, or the logical and meticulous matching of images. The tactile quality of the interactive installation reminds us of the human dimension to science, before the advent of high-tech environments and machinery that contribute to conceptions of science today as sterile and detached from the practice of everyday life and creativity.
Rebecca writes about everything that inspires her on her personal blog on http://JREmembrance.wordpress.com