The Straits Times, Published August 05, 2010

Portraits of a nation

Artists reflect on the Singapore identity and history in fine arts shows


Singapore celebrates National Day on Monday and for many people, the national holiday is a time to beat the drum for patriotism, hang the flag up proudly and enjoy the fireworks of the National Day Parade.

But five art galleries are using the occasion to stage exhibitions that reflect on Singapore identity, histories and stories - Beyond LKY at Valentine Willie Fine Art, M.M. I Love You at Objectifs Gallery, Negaraku Boleh! (My Country Can!) at Evil Empire, 100% Singapore! at Tembusu Art Gallery and The Flaming Sphere Principle at Oasis Gallery.

Valentine Willie in Tanjong Pagar Distripark and Objectifs in Arab Street say it is a coincidence that their exhibitions feature Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in the title. They also say the scope of the exhibitions is much broader than the life, times and influence of the 86-year-old politician.

The bigger exhibition of the two is Beyond LKY, curated by gallery owner Valentine Willie, 55, who does an annual survey of Singapore artists around National Day every year. He invited 19 Singapore artists to contemplate a future beyond Mr Lee and the result is an exhibition where many works are charged with political symbolism and are open to different interpretations.

The works range from an installation of a broken piano with a tape recorder playing a crackling version of the National Anthem by multi-disciplinary artist Zai Kuning to white ceramic chains hanging on a wall by ceramic artist Jason Lim to an installation of hammers smashed together by veteran artist Tang Da Wu.

Asked why he chose Mr Lee as a starting point for his exhibition, Mr Willie, who is Malaysian, says: 'Isn't it obvious?' adding that the veteran politician 'looms large in all our psyches'.

'You see him on TV, he is alert but he looks his age. We grew up leaving everything to him and we were happy to let him run the place. We live in this comfort zone. But he is going to go one day. We don't see it discussed in the media. I think it is just impolite for Asians to do so.'

Of the 108 artworks, Mr Lee's presence is the most marked in New York-based Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong's three watercolours titled Papa Can You Hear Me.

In each of the three pieces, Mr Lee's face looms large over kneeling figures and lyrics from the Barbra Streisand song Papa Can You Hear Me?, from the 1983 film Yentl, are scrawled across the works.

The movie tells the story of a young girl who defies tradition by dressing as a man and studying the Talmud. The lines reproduced on the artworks include 'Papa can you help me not be frightened?' and 'Papa don't you know I have no choice?'.

The three paintings - 1m by 70cm each - resemble playing cards and are displayed against a green background to evoke the green felt surface of a casino table. Ong, 46, who is in town for a residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, says that Papa Can You Hear Me is in part a personal story of his longing for a father figure.

His parents separated when he was young and he lived apart from his father, who died in 2004. The artist said: 'In a way, I am begging for his love.'

The song lyrics, where the singer begs for her father's understanding, resonate with Ong because he came out as a gay man in the 1980s when the song was popular.

Ong, who has lived half his life abroad and has never voted, explains the gambling reference in his work: 'It is a game of chance. I didn't choose my father. It was given to me, like my Prime Minister.'

Another overtly political work in the exhibition is by film-maker Green Zeng, 37, who created dollar notes bearing the faces of two former political detainees: the late James Joseph Puthucheary, a founding member of the People's Action Party, and the leftist leader Lim Hock Siew.

Zeng, who made a short film about another former political detainee, Chia Thye Poh, in 2007, declined to be interviewed.

But Mr Willie says: 'The artist is proposing a new currency where it is not the President who is on the note but other people in the founding of Singapore. He is envisioning a day when their contributions will be recognised.'

Installation artist and photographer Jason Wee, 31, chose to erect a series of 'memorials' to Mr Lee. One is a 1.8m- tall granite sculpture in the shape of the number one with the words, In Memory Of My Father, Mr Lee, inscribed on it. On the artwork, which is titled, Self Portrait (Number One Mr Lee), Wee says: 'He is the numero uno, the big daddy.'

He prefers to leave the interpretation of his works to viewers but says that he does not feel apprehensive about using Mr Lee as the subject of his art. 'It is a bit strange if we constantly shy away from talking about a person who has such a large impact on us. We don't shy away from talking about our parents.'

Wee is also among five Singapore artists who explore what it means to be Singaporean in the show at Objectifs. The others are award-winning film-maker and visual artist Ho Tzu Nyen, Amanda Heng, film-maker Tan Pin Pin and photographer Bryan van der Beek.

The show is curated by Charmaine Toh, 32, who is also the marketing manager of the photography centre. She tells Life!: 'The show recognises the fact that Mr Lee has been involved in the building of the Singaporean identity. He has been the social engineer of Singapore. Even if he is not physically present in all of the works, he is present in spirit.

'The show just wants the audience to think about how identity is constructed.'

All the five works were shown before and have been repackaged for the show.

Veteran artist Heng, who is known for her feminist art, has chosen to take on the image of the kebaya-clad Singapore Airlines stewardess, one of the iconic brands of Singapore.

Her work is a web-based project called Singirl, where she invited Singaporean women to submit pictures of their butts and these images will be shown at Objectifs.

A room with a camera in it will be set up in the gallery for female visitors to take a photo of their butts if they choose to do so.

Heng, 46, says that she wants to question the image of 'the gentle, submissive girl catering to European tourists'.

She adds: 'This image was actually created by a European image designer in the 1970s and it is a romantic vision of what a woman from a tropical island should be.

'But it has been so long already, and things have not changed.'

Van der Beek, a photographer with The Straits Times, is showing his series of National Day Parade photographs taken with a tilt-shift lens, which make the parade look like a miniature model.

Nostalgic images to stir memories

At Evil Empire gallery in Niven Road, curator Alan Oei has chosen to look beyond Singapore. The exhibition showcases 20 works by five Singaporean and five Malaysian artists.

The exhibition asks what it means to be a Singaporean or a Malaysian, given the intertwined histories of the two countries.

Oei, 34, says: 'As individuals and nations, we have many more cultural similarities then we care to admit. Using Malaya as a starting point might be a good way to see how our shared history and culture impact our creative and artistic practice.

'It's a good time to engage our past now that post-Mahathir, Singapore and Malaysia are working towards a more harmonious relationship.'

The show combines a mixture of disciplines, ranging from photography to traditional landscapes to video installation. They show that the Singapore or Malaysian identity is a highly unstable construct.

Award-winning photographer Francis Ng, 35, is showing three photographs of Singapore structures such as carparks, roads, tunnels and lifts which are often taken for granted.

Ng Joon Kiat's oil painting titled Garden City II: The World Is Made By TV Program is a world map scratched out of a thick layer of fluorescent green paint in the shape of a TV box.

The 34-year-old painter says: 'The work is to do with how Singaporeans understand nature. We see the world through a television screen.'

In comparison, the over 30 works at Tembusu Gallery in Hill Street are more 'straightforward', demonstrating an uncomplicated affection for the landscape of Singapore, as well as its historical scenes and people.

The exhibition, titled 100% Singapore, features the work of five home-grown artists: painters Ho Kah Leong, Max Kong and Patrick Teo and Jeffrey Ho Kiat, director of DesignSingapore Council, as well as sculptor-painter Lim Leong Seng.

Gallery owner Keli Fong, 42, says: 'I'm trying to encourage and support local artists and the National Day period is a good way to do that.'

Dr Ho, 73, a retired Member Of Parliament, is now a landscape painter. In the show, he is exhibiting four paintings, including scenes from a quarry pond and kampung houses in Pulau Ubin, and a bridge from Kampong Lorong Buangkok, the last kampung in Singapore.

He says: 'These scenes are for Singaporeans to appreciate. Sometimes they pass by these sights and they don't pay attention. Hopefully when they are presented in paintings, things will be different.'

Teo, 67, a retired graphic designer and jewellery designer, has created four paintings of 1960s scenes in Singapore. They include an oil painting of an animated storyteller and his audience in Chinatown, and a street scene showing the activities of immigrant coolies.

He says he has drawn these images from his recollections of his visits to Chinatown when he was a child.

'I hope these nostalgic images will bring back some memories. Now that Singapore society has become so successful, I hope to show the younger generation how our forefathers had a harder time than us.'

The works that form The Flaming Sphere Principle show at Oasis Gallery in Amoy Street are a surrealist take on the National Day theme.

The artist, veteran painter Rosihan Dahim, 55, says he has created 14 large acrylic-on-canvas works reimagining the Little Red Dot as a flaming sphere, 'expanding its energy and indicating the success of the country'. The largest work measures 1.8m by 1.8m.

Red, he says, symbolises Singapore's force and prosperity as a tiny city state which tackles social, economic and political difficulties.

The works are priced from $19,000 to $24,000 and he has pledged a percentage of the sales to Mercy Relief, the Singapore humanitarian aid body.

He says: 'For National Day, I'm doing my part as a citizen of the world. I want to acknowledge people who are underprivileged and help those in need.'

Published August 03, 2010

Singapore Stories

Two group exhibitions explore the legacy of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew


THE portrait at Objectifs Gallery only offers a partial view of the man's face. But it's not hard to recognise that familiar gaze. It's the Minister Mentor himself.

The artwork, by visual artist Jason Wee, is the fourth in his series of portraits of MM Lee Kuan Yew titled No More Tears. It's made from shampoo bottle caps - both flipped open and closed - that have been arranged to create a "pixellated" effect. 

The first portrait was exhibited in New York in 2006. Last year, another version was exhibited at the Singapore Art Museum's Singapore Art Exhibition, which bagged the voter's prize.

The No More Tears series is part of a bigger body of works by Wee that looks at "monuments to and about" MM Lee, which includes a piece utilising neon lights and a granite sculpture in the shape of the number 1 with the words "In Memory Of My Father, Mr Lee" inscribed on it. 

"Lee Kuan Yew is always this big authority figure and in a sense he really is my father. Singapore is a country that has never needed a mother - it wasn't given birth to as much as it was made and sculpted," said Wee.

MM Lee is a big presence this week with the opening of two group exhibitions that Wee is taking part in. Both tackle, implicitly and otherwise, the legacy of Singapore's first Prime Minister. 

Both are titled after him: MM I Love You and Beyond LKY.

Love is all around

In recent years, there have been a number of painting exhibitions with MM Lee as its focal subject: Ben Puah's Hero in 2008, Richard Lim Han's Singapore Guidance Angel last year and, early this year, Ong Hui Har's Harry, which saw MM Lee in his youth rendered in pop art style. 

While the two new shows also feature a smattering of portraits, they go beyond iconography and delve a little deeper.

Objectifs Gallery's MM I Love You features previous works by five artists: Wee, Ho Tzu Nyen, Amanda Heng, Tan Pin Pin and Bryan Van Der Beek.

According to curator Charmaine Toh, the title is a playful take on "Minister Mentor" and the idea of "modern mythology".

"He is a huge part of the mythology of Singapore, not just in terms of Singaporeans seeing ourselves, but non-Singaporeans seeing Singapore," she said.

No More Tears is the only portrait of MM Lee in the show, but the man who shaped modern day Singapore is "invisibly present" in the other works that deal with issues of national identity, language and history, said Toh. Forming a dialogue of sorts with No More Tears is Ho's Utama: Every History Is Named I, a revisionist video piece about Sir Stamford Raffles and the founding of Singapore. 

Image-making and language, respectively, are tackled in Heng's online project on the Singapore Airlines Girl and an excerpt from Tan's Singapore Gaga documentary. 

Meanwhile, Van Der Beek presents a series of photos of the National Day Parade using the tilt-shift technique, which virtually transforms the entire event into a miniature tableau.

Knee-jerk assumptions

If MM I Love You looks to the past and present, Beyond LKY ponders the future.

For Valentine Willie Fine Art Singapore's annual survey of Singapore artists, curator and gallery owner Valentine Willie organised a show comprising 19 artists across various generations and media. 

Its main premise? A survey of what artists think Singapore life would be like after Mr Lee. A number of artists responded with portraits. 

Jimmy Ong contributed two watercolour works titled Papa Can You Hear Me. Vincent Leow also offered two portraits, one of which is an etching of a black silhouette. A take on Marcel Duchamp's own cheeky version of the Mona Lisa, the ambiguity opens up to various interpretations of who the subject matter is.

"When I first showed it to people, they kind of found a resemblance to him. And, in a way, I found that even though (the details are) invisible, (the silhouette is) still powerful," said Leow.

The use of MM Lee's image (or the suggestion of it) has the power to evoke. But it seems to be tempered by a sense of caution, suggesting that the idea of bringing up MM Lee in an arena beyond the confines of policy discussion unfortunately seems to result in a knee-jerk assumption of antagonism.

Wee pointed out how mentioning his name occasionally elicited gasps, "like it's a kind of social taboo". 

"But do we really want to think of him as taboo?" said Wee, who is presenting his granite sculpture. "You have to find a different way." 

Beyond iconography

Beyond LKY is exactly what the title indicates. "We are looking beyond him and not him (per se). Some artists (featured in the exhibition) are not even discussing him," said Willie.

Indeed, iconography is just one of the artistic responses. Issues on language, population, environment, economic boom and housing are also tackled. 

Zai Kuning is presenting the remains of a dismantled piano (previously seen in other performance contexts this year) in his reimagining of a new National Anthem in a world where English or Chinese and perhaps not Malay is the national language.

Alan Oei's diptych Kelvin & Karen, 1985 tackles the "Stop At Two" family-planning slogan, which was discontinued in 1985. It brings up questions on an alternate future with a different population makeup if there had not been such a campaign. 

Meanwhile, Hong Sek-Chern's Vibrant City Chinese ink paintings of Bishan and Marine Parade paints a future that still seems very much like what it is today. That is, Hong predicts a status quo. 

Environment and urban development plays a part in the works. Tang Da Wu is presenting a sculpture of hammers literally hammered together into one huge mass, offering itself up to a number of interpretations that extend beyond its initial environmental roots.

It is apparently a coincidence that MM I Love You and Beyond LKY are being held at the same time. But it does form an interesting dialogue. One that the curators hope won't be hampered - but instead, be enhanced - by the very presence of those three (or two) powerful letters. 

Said Toh: "The exhibition is not meant to say 'bad' or 'good', but to make us think a bit closer about these things. Because they are about ourselves."

MM I Love You: Aug 5 to 28, 11am to 7pm, Objectifs Gallery, 56A Arab Street. Saturday by appointment.

Beyond LKY: Aug 5 to 29, 11am to 7pm (Tue to Sat), 11am to 3pm (Sun), Valentine Willie Fine Art (Singapore), Artspace@Helutrans, 39 Keppel Road, Tanjong Pagar Distripark, #02-04. Closed on Monday and PH.

Business Times (Singapore), Published July 30, 2010

Thinking what it means to be Singaporean

Two art exhibitions build their themes around Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in a month that calls for reflection on identity and nationhood. A third exhibition showcases the masters of Singapore's fine art tradition


WITH National Day around the corner, August is a month of reflection on identity and nationhood - and a couple of curators are tapping into the mood with politically charged exhibitions. Valentine Willie Fine Art puts up 'Beyond LKY' for the second instalment of its 'Singapore Survey' series, while Objectifs looks at the 'myth' of nationhood with 'M.M. I Love You!'.

These exhibitions are a couple of the more obviously politically themed ones the Singapore art scene has seen in a while, as galleries and artists in the island republic on the whole tend to focus on more abstract, esoteric topics. However, 'art should reflect what's happening around us, be about topical issues, and something people can relate to, otherwise it's a waste of time', says Willie, who set up his eponymous gallery in Malaysia in 1996 and branched out to Singapore two years ago. 'We're not trying to be controversial, but I wanted to prod Singaporean artists to contemplate a future without LKY (Lee Kuan Yew). To consider it now and not wait till that dark day.'

Still, he points out drily, the title is actually more provocative than the actual content. 'All responses are serious, considered, subtle and mature though some responses will undoubtedly be emotional. Some younger artists working mostly in new media completely ignore the political dimension of the show, and most, as I hoped, will surely be thought-provoking,' he elaborates.

Willie says he invited senior artists such as Tang Da Wu, Jimmy Ong and Zai Kuning whose lives Mr Lee would not have approved and would probably consider as failures. 'But I also wanted to invite younger artists whose lives have been less defined by LKY and more by new technology,' he points out.

Other artists include Alan Oei, Chun Kaifeng, Frayn Yong, Genevieve Chua, Green Zeng, Hong Sek Chern, Jason Lim, Michael Lee, Sean Lee, Shubigi Rao, Song-Ming Ang, Tang Ling Nah, Vincent Leow, and Wei Leng Tay.

Photographer Alecia Neo, in her 20s, had already started a project photographing foreign workers who hang out on the streets, often on the mobile phone, talking to friends or family. It's her observation about space constraints in Singapore, about how private space is spilling out into the public. 'Right now, housing issues and space are huge concerns for Singaporeans,' she notes.

Jason Wee, who helped curate the show, says that while he looked for ways to acknowledge this authority figure in his work, his real interest is more about thinking of alternative futures. 'Instead of looking at Singapore now, the theme is about looking into a crystal ball to see what artists can say about Singapore 10 years from now.'

'The title is provocative, but not the subject. I think it's a pertinent, and almost urgent question to ask. In a way, it's not just about LKY, as we also have to think beyond our parents,' says the 2008 Young Artist Award winner, adding that artists he approached were ready and willing to think about this subject.

Incidentally, Wee is also one of the five participating artists in Objectifs' exhibition themed 'M.M. I Love You'. 'It's a bit of a coincidence, but I did a portrait of LKY a year ago, which won the Voter's Prize in Singapore Art Exhibition 2009, so I'll be creating a version of that piece for that show,' he explains.

Objectifs' Charmaine Toh says 'M.M. I Love You!' isn't so much political as it makes one think about what constitutes the Singapore identity. It looks at the stories that Singaporeans tell themselves and others about being Singaporean. 'The exhibition was themed around Ho Tzu Nyen's iconic Utama work, which looks at the mythology about Singapore's identity,' she explains. 'It's a small show, with only five artists, but each makes a strong statement about Singapore.'

Amanda Heng's work questions the real identity of the real Singapore girl for example, while Bryan Van Der Beek will present a series of photographs from Singapore's National Day Parades. The exhibition will also launch Objectifs' new space as it has moved from Liang Seah to Arab Street.

As the nation celebrates its 45th National Day on Aug 9, these exhibitions prompt us to think more deeply about what it means to be Singaporean.

'Singapore Survey 2010: Beyond LKY' runs from Aug 5 to 29 at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Artspace@Helutrans, 39 Keppel Road, Tanjong Pagar Distripark, #02-04. Tel: 8133 1760; 'M.M. I Love You!' will run from Aug 5 to 28 at Objectifs, 56A Arab Street, Tel: 6293 9782

Time Out (Singapore), Published July 23, 2010

Singapore Survey 2010: Beyond LKY

So what will the future look like after LKY? The answers will be revealed over the course of 20 artworks that will be exhibited or performed, with the majority of them specially created for the show.

What happens when Uncle Harry dies? That’s the question curator Valentine Willie asks of veteran Singapore artists Tang Da Wu, Jimmy Ong, Zai Kuning, Jason Lim and Vincent Leow, as well as the newer-generation Genevieve Chua, Alecia Neo and Jason Wee, in this latest exhibition.

For most Singaporeans, Lee Kuan Yew has always been around and appears likely to be there even after our own deaths, an omnipresent entity that closely watches over us. However, though sharp and attentive, LKY is nearing 90. And we all know that no one lives forever. Willie says: ‘No other living politician dominates his people and his country like LKY does, except of course Kim Jong-il and Robert Mugabe. But whereas North Korea and Zimbabwe rank as two of the world’s poorest countries, Singapore ranks as one of the richest. LKY must be doing something right!’

So what will the future look like after LKY? The idea was to look into the crystal ball instead of waiting for that dark day. Can we emerge stronger after his rule? Are we and our government prepared for this inevitable occurrence? How will our lives change? What does this group of about 20 artists have to say – even those whose lifestyle would appear to clash with LKY’s worldview, or those less influenced by him? The answers will be revealed over the course of 20 artworks that will be exhibited or performed, with the majority of them specially created for the show.

Take for example Lim’s black and white ceramic chains, which suggest that though we are shackled to and constrained by LKY’s ideology, there is the possibility that we’ll one day break free. Green Zeng’s alternative dollar bills are imprinted with images celebrating forgotten political leaders who have been marginalised and punished by the government, while Kuning’s smashed piano depicts a future Singapore singing a new non-Malay national anthem.

Willie notes: ‘There are no right or wrong answers. Some will find it easier to escape the long shadows of LKY, while others will remain chained to him even though they have left Singapore and migrated overseas.’ What’s for sure, though, is that for every answer given, a new question will arise. Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle