On Saturday afternoon I took an MRT to Tiong Bahru. Alfian Sa’at, playwright yang femes (and possible member of Perkasa, cawangan Singapura), had given in to my pestering and agreed to be my guide for the day. I waited for him at Tiong Bahru Plaza, the MRT station’s associated mall.
At the entrance, besides the sorry-looking smokers, where several sorry-looking elderly people, plying their trades for the day:
There was an uncle playing an er hu, to moderate degree of success.
There was an auntie with a head of white hair, selling from a wet-market cart little bouquets of plastic flowers and shelf-sized teddy-bears, wrapped in pink ribbon.
There was an uncle in a motorised wheelchair, missing one leg. He wore a stained Santa hat, and had a rainbow-coloured windmill attached to his right armrest. I’m not sure what he was selling. Perhaps nothing.
I was curious, but hesitant to approach, because these were not my poor.
Am currently in Singapore, for Laneway — well, for Feist. This musical pilgrimage is meant to last me for the rest of the year.
Came down at the start of the weekend. Putting up with Norman Teh (of Poskod.sg, which seems to be doing good work) in Serangoon Gardens, a middle-class neighbourhood built in the 1950s with handsome 1950s-style terrace houses.
The house in which Norman rents his room has a pretty garden with fruit trees (got durian) and wind chimes (got six). His landlord is an elderly Chinese uncle who is bent-backed and soft-spoken.
“Oh, I’ve been to Port Dickson,” he said, softly. “Very nice beach.”
And now, a break from our regular transmission of cleaning, clearing and cat-rearing.
Ahem. PINGU! Get down from there!
I spent last weekend in Singapore, taking part in a serious sounding forum called Meeting at SEA: Conversations on South East Asian Contemporary Art, hosted by Singapore Art Museum. The forum was a spin-off event to an equally serious sounding exhibition at the Museum - Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of South East Asian Contemporary Art 1991 - 2011.
Phew. It’s a mouthful, I know. Stay with me! Sometimes big titles are like gates slamming shut in people’s faces. There should be sub-sub titles like:
Meeting at SEA: Conversations on South East Asian Contemporary Art (Hang Out With Artists from SE Asia and Eat Yummy Food + Drink Beer, Watch Slideshows, Talk Deep Shit About Art, Do A Printmaking Workshop, Experience Wacky Performance Art, Amongst Other Things)
Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of South East Asian Contemporary Art 1991 - 2011 (Alot of Beautiful, Powerful, Angsty/Joyful + Meaningful Art Made from Regular Stuff Around Your House/The Rubbish Bin, Specific to Countries in SE Asia, Oh and Some Regular Paintings & Sculptures Too, But Not That Many of Them)
Anyway, one of my works is in the exhibition. And I was invited to do a performance for the forum event.
This is the artwork.
It is called Executive Toy. I made it in 2007, when I was learning about government, democracy, separation of powers, citizenship, elections and other things about my country that I should know, that I DIDN’T know, that I wanted and needed to know. Somehow I missed that chapter in school. Maybe I was asleep, or the lessons were bad. Either way, I was walking around with a giant gaping hole in my knowledge well into my mid 20s.
So I had to (re)educate myself… and I used making art as an excuse to do it. What alot of people don’t recognize about art is that it is the best university. You set your own problem, do the research and make the assignment. Not for a certificate or a grade, but because you are just so fucking curious about something!
The little ceramic balls are painted with the logos of all 27 political parties registered in Malaysia at the time. The whole thing is based on Isaac Newton’s famous device to illustrate the conservation of momentum. They call it an Executive’s Toy because CEOs have them on their desks as a stress reliever. (Well, they also call it Newton’s Balls - which may be the best-sounding curse EVER)
I put it behind glass because that’s how I felt about electoral democracy in Malaysia - distant, frozen in time and space, a pretty thing to look at and full of potential, but never really used.
I don’t feel that way anymore. I voted for the first time in 2008. That year, I think alot of us in this country collectively decided to break the fucking glass case and set something in motion.
‘Sometimes good citizenship is the best art.’
That motion, that momentum, is what we are going to ride to the (hopefully better) future.
‘In this country, pessimism is easy, cynicism is SEXY, hope is a duty.’ - Goenawan Mohammad, talking about Indonesia.
May the balls never be at rest again!
(Above is an installation I did in 2006, one year before Executive Toy. I wanted to make something fun that people would play with, by creating movement. Aptly enough this work was also shown in Singapore, at The Substation)
Executive Toy was bought by a private collector who agreed to loan it to the Museum. When something leaves my studio, I usually don’t think about it anymore. I don’t miss it, I don’t mourn it. It’s always about the next thing, for me.
But when I saw my work in the exhibition at SAM, I was just… thrilled. It would be dumb to act all cool and pretend otherwise. The show is perfectly set up. They must have some amazing technicians at the Museum.
Also, my work is standing alongside stuff from artists I’ve admired forever, like Montien Boonma’s Venus of Bangkok (1991 - 1993). I’ve only known this work through photos in books, but it has stayed with me all these years. I was so happy to finally experience it in person…
Venus of Bangkok upclose. (Photo from Tokyowing)
View from the back. (Photo from Tokyowing)
Being able to take this picture was a good moment in my life.
Sutee Kunavichayanont’s The White Elephant (1999). People can blow up the elephant together by breathing into tubes. (Photo from bernardoh)
Also by Sutee Kunavichayanont - History Class (2000). The desks are carved with quotes and illustrations about historic moments in Thai history. You can take a rubbing of the carvings with paper and pencils provided. (Photo from claudiacreated)
So much beautiful art… So much anger and joy and corruption and sorrow and color and emotion and intellectualism. Most works were made from the stuff of everyday life - worn bricks, rubber slippers, light bulbs, a roomful of beanbags sewn into the shapes of breasts. I thought to myself: this is South East Asia.
But the more I walked around the exhibition, something seemed missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it…
God, this post was destined to be so EPIC it can’t fit in one session. I sleep now. I will continue this. Later.
Update: 23 June 2011
I actually DID write Part Two. Whoopee! Blog ninja.