When the medium is key

SINGAPORE - There is nothing average about the new contemporary art exhibition, Medium At Large, at the Singapore Art Museum.

Some pieces stretch as long as 7m, while others measure no more than 6cm.

There are works that demand the expanse of a whole gallery and others that occupy just the space between one's ears.

Size and scale, however, are hardly the ambition of the show, which features more than 30 works from the region.

Its interest lies in what is right under the viewer's nose - the various materials and methods in contemporary art, and their shape-shifting ways.

The museum's senior curator Joyce Toh, in her 30s, says: "Medium is fundamental to how people understand art. When you ask someone, 'What do you think art is?', they might say it is painting, sculpture or photography. But in contemporary art, medium slips and slides as artists explore their practice and try to transcend them so you have, for example, a painting that looks like photography and a video that performs like drawing.

"This show is our way of using contemporary works to address fundamental questions about art and to reach out to a public curious and uncertain about what contemporary art is."

She cites the newly commissioned work, Project: Honey Sticks (6,425) by Singapore artist Ye Shufang as an example of a work that defies traditional notions of art.

Slim straws of honey, 6,425 of them, flavoured and vividly coloured, are placed in a transparent dispenser for visitors to take and suck (just not in the galleries, which forbid eating and drinking). The number of honey sticks refers to the number of registered births in Singapore in 1941, the year the artist's parents were born.

The assembly of ready-made honey sticks, purchased by the artist from a manufacturer, may go against what some viewers hold of art-making, as requiring a display of craftsmanship by the artist.

Yet the ready-made, an ordinary manufactured object designated a work of art by an artist, has long been accepted as a medium of art since famed FrenchAmerican artist Marcel Duchamp christened a urinal a work of art a century ago.

Ms Toh says the honey stick installation also highlights how the material of a work "embodies ideas and carries weight of meaning". She says: "The taste of sweetness is often associated with new beginnings and new life so the choice of material here is symbolic."

Meaning is also embedded in the medium of the smallest and, possibly, oldest work in the show, thatisthisisthat, by Filipino artist Gerardo Tan.

The work, a 6cm-wide glass bowl, holds the blackened dust and grime collected from an 18th-century painting by Italian artist Canaletto, a master painter of Venetian landscapes.

Ms Toh says the medium of the work is ironic since dust is anathema to museums, but as "microscopic accumulations of time and history", it demonstrates acute self-awareness of how museum works reflect the past.

The exhibition also features works of art that are dematerialised, creations that in and of themselves do not have physical substance. Sonic Encounter by Singapore artist Zulkifle Mahmod, for one, is a piece of sound art composed from audio recordings of city life in Suzhou, China, and Singapore, and at heart, made up of vibrating sound waves.

The Forer Effect by Malaysia-born artist Heman Chong, on the other hand, is a text-based work that appropriates texts used by American psychologist Bertram R. Forer to validate the observation that people tend to interpret general statements as being accurate of themselves.

Ms Toh notes that Chong's work, which appears as nondescript writing on a wall in the museum's lobby, may go unnoticed by some viewers because it does not, unlike most works of art, take the form of an object.

"But what is medium, except something that embodies an idea and is used to communicate and convey a message?" she says. The fluid nature of medium in contemporary art, which resists rigid categorisation, is also at play in the show.

Singapore artist Chen Sai Hua Kuan's Space Drawing 5, for example, is a "noisy drawing" presented in the form of a video, which "questions the condition for a drawing to be considered a drawing", says Ms Toh.

It films the flight of a rope, pulled taut then released in an arts centre being built in Russia. As the rope zips and whips through the grounds, it becomes a moving line, dividing and defining the space, yet its act of drawing leaves no visible mark on the site.

Ms Toh says: "Medium, as a traditional way of defining art, is really leaping out and sliding out of its box in contemporary art."

View It


Where: Singapore Art Museum, 71 Bras Basah Road
When: Till April next year, 10am to 7pm (Saturday to Thursday), 10am to 9pm (Friday)
Admission: Free for Singapore citizens, permanent residents and from 6 to 9pm on Fridays; $10 (adults), $5 (students and senior citizens)

This article was published on May 6 in The Straits Times.

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