Actress Lucy Liu’s Handmade Books and Movie Monsters: the Shows to See in Singapore

With the inaugural edition of art fair S.E.A Focus opening in the island city-state, a guide to the best exhibitions around town

BY Wong Binghao in Critic's Guides | 17 JAN 19

State of Motion: A Fear of Monsters
National Library Building and 11 Kampong Bugis
23 January – 24 February 2019

Contemporary art and film intersect in State of Motion’s dynamic programme. Since 2016, curators and artists have been invited to respond to a particular theme or focus in the Asian Film Archive’s (AFA) collection of Asian cinema. Curated by art historian, curator and critic Kathleen Ditzig, this year’s edition features contemporary art and film history exhibitions that hone in on the figure of the monster. The contemporary art exhibition boasts an impressive line-up of artists who circulate both locally and internationally, including Yason Banal, Heman Chong, Fyerool Darma, Ho Rui An, Ho Tzu Nyen, Sung Tieu, and Yee I-Lann. The exhibition is held at 11 Kampong Bugis, in recently vacated buildings that were once the site of the Kallang Gasworks, which provided electricity to the island-nation during the British colonial period. Ditzig views the monster in Asian horror films as a cipher that exposes social taboos and acts as a prescient herald of future events; as she writes in her curatorial text, the word ‘monster’ is derived from the Latin monstrum, which translates to that which reveals or warns. With its archival rigour and artistic and curatorial insights, this year’s State of Motion is a must-see.

'Unhomed Belongings: Lucy Liu and Shubigi Rao', 2018, installation view, National Museum of Singapore. Courtesy: National Museum of Singapore

Lucy Liu and Shubigi Rao: Unhomed Belongings
National Museum of Singapore
12 January – 24 February

Co-organized by The Ryan Foundation, a local non-profit arts organization, and the National Museum of Singapore, a museum of national history, this exhibition brings together the unlikely pairing of Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao and American artist and actress Lucy Liu. While the exhibition finds itself somewhat overshadowed by Liu’s celebrity, the pair’s works complement each other formally and conceptually. Both artists engage prominently with text: a fact that is almost immediately apparent upon entry into the exhibition space, where Rao’s elegant works on paper, Useful Fictions (2013), feature poetic writing and ink and mixed-media drawings. Elsewhere, her intensive ten-year-long Pulp (2013–ongoing) project, deals with the destruction of books and acts of censorship around the world. Rao’s works dialogue seamlessly with Liu’s ‘Lost and Found’ series (2013), in which discarded items find new homes in over 200 hand-made books. Beyond topical similarities, it becomes clear that Rao and Liu are both preoccupied with stories and objects that are displaced and devalued.

Yusuf Chen Jinhui, Waterbird Calligram, 1996, ink on rice paper, 90 x 48 cm. Courtesy: Asian Civilisations Museum

Seeing and Believing: Art in the Islamic World
Asian Civilisations Museum
Opened 1 December 2018

A new permanent gallery dedicated to Islamic art at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is a nuanced addition to local displays of religious arts and heritage. Curated by Noorashikin Zulkifli, the display shares the museum’s second floor with other permanent displays on the theme of ‘Faith and Belief’, including those that deal with Christian art and ancient religions. Unconventionally, this presentation does not follow chronological developments. Rather, through four sections – global, regional, spiritual and supernatural – the display asks how art is seen or perceived as Islamic. While common perceptions of Islamic art, such as the prevalence of geometry and extensive Iranian influence on global representations of Islam, are addressed, Zulkifli also adroitly offers counterpoints to these established narratives. For example, a Quran chest from early-20th-century Myanmar attests to the presence and negotiation of Islam in a predominantly Buddhist nation. Bird Calligram (1996), by the contemporary Chinese Muslim calligrapher Yusuf Chen Jinhui, underscores the form’s dynamism and its importance as a means of artistic expression in the Islamic world.

Cheong Soo Pieng, Malay Boy with Bird, 1982, Chinese ink on canvas, 1.51 x 1.1 x 0.1 m. Courtesy: STPI Gallery

Soo Pieng: Master of Composition
STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery
19 January – 9 March

Cheong Soo Pieng is widely regarded as one of Singapore’s most prominent modern artists. Together with painters Chen Chong Swee, Georgette Chen, Chen Wen Hsi, and Liu Kang, he is also considered a pioneer of Nanyang (or South Seas) style. Practised in Singapore in the 1950s, Nanyang style references the migration of the Chinese diaspora and its perspective on Southeast Asia. Its key practitioners and artworks have now been canonized through art historical publications, exhibitions and public and private art collections. Perhaps best known for its representation of rural Balinese scenes, Nanyang style combines materials, artistic techniques and subject matter from an array of Western, Chinese and Southeast Asian sources to reflect its practitioners’ migrant backgrounds and transcultural inclinations. Capturing the artist’s aspirations to create a new, ‘modern’ visual language, the works displayed at STPI focus on Cheong’s expertise in composition. Although, as a functioning print workshop, STPI takes special interest in works on paper, the exhibition features 52 pieces in a range of media, attesting to Cheong’s material experimentation and plural cultural influences – from his time in Europe to an important Balinese field trip with the Nanyang artists in 1952.

Cheng Ran, The Lament: Mountain Ghost, 2018, single-channel video with sound. Courtesy: © the artist and Ota Fine Art

Cheng Ran: The Lament: Mountain Ghost
Ota Fine Arts
12 January – 23 February

Featuring video, installation, and print works, Cheng Ran’s exhibition at Ota Fine Arts references a Chinese poem of the same title. ‘The Lament’ was written by Qu Yuan during the Warring States period of ancient China [approx. 475-221 BC], and is considered the first romantic poem of the period. Cheng draws from this rich historical source to comment on the rapid developments of contemporary society. In a titular video work (2018), the protagonist seems to embody Cheng’s inquiry: the character’s body, painted white and covered with tattoos, moves in an enigmatic, ritualistic dance, evoking a tribal promordiality. However, upon closer inspection, we can see images of Shanghai’s ever-changing cityscape, as well as video clips of a guitarist performing the video’s alluring soundtrack, projected within the contours of the protagonist’s tattoos. In another video work, A Rainy Night (2019), the poem’s original Chinese text appears to melt and drip in a watery background. Likewise, the poem’s English translation, printed on psychedelically coloured silks, is warped and contorted, often to the point of illegibility. In these works, Cheng deftly manipulates the poem’s text in order to comment on the place of fantasy and illusiveness in a fast-paced contemporary society.

Koh Nguang How, The Sun Tree, 1990, wooden poles, jute, copper wire, thermometer, acrylic paint, hand-written signage, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Grey Projects

Koh Nguang How: The Past and Coming Melt
Grey Projects
12 January – 23 February

At the artist-run space Grey Projects, Koh Nguang How presents recreations of his eco-oriented work of the 1980s and ’90s. These are exhibited alongside rare archival photographs of the works in their original settings. Koh is known for his extensive archives documenting Singapore’s art scene, which include numerous materials such as photographs, newspaper clippings, and exhibition ephemera. His earnest, decades-long engagement with and documentation of local artistic developments have been presented as the Singapore Art Archive Project (SAAP), cementing his status as a important living resource of Singaporean art history. However, at Grey Projects, it is Koh’s artistic practice, in particular his pioneering exploration of environmental issues such as ozone depletion, global warming and climate change, which receives critical attention. Works such as The Rain Tree and The Sun Tree, both exhibited in 1990 at various public locations, are presented in new iterations here. Koh’s Trees are meant to interact and change with the natural elements, their appearance changing over the course of each exhibition: a new version of The Rain Tree (2019) is perched outside, on the rooftop of Grey Projects’ building.

'And in the Chapel and in the Temples: research in progress by Buddhist Archive of Photography and Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho', NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: NTU CCA Singapore.

And in the Chapel and in the Temples: Research in Progress by Buddhist Archive of Photography and Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho
The Lab at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art
1 December 2018 – 10 February

This experimental presentation brings together two seemingly disparate research-driven projects: the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang, Laos, and the contemporary art practice of collaborative duo Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho. Curated by Dr. Roger Nelson, this attentive showcase presents a unique constellation of knowledge systems, communities and histories that have typically been effaced or side-lined. Marking its first presentation in Asia outside of Luang Prabang, the Buddhist Archive of Photography has amassed over 35,000 photographs either taken or collected by monks since 1890. Nelson positions the archive’s digitization and cataloguing processes as a contemporary practice that addresses present-day socio-cultural factors. In a similar vein, Lien and Camacho’s peripatetic contemporary art practice is contrasted with their object of inquiry: the site-specific Angry Christ (1950) mural in a chapel on Negros Island, the Philippines, by Filipino-American modern painter Alfonso Ossorio. This is also the first occasion that Lien and Camacho have presented their research on Ossorio, in the form of a lecture and mural-installation at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art. Both projects offer a refreshing historiographical take on nascent narratives of Southeast Asian art.

Main image: Yee I-Lann, Like the Banana Tree at the Gate: Ibu or the Beast, 2016, canvas banner, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist

Wong Binghao (Bing) is a writer, editor and curator.