The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Chinese Whispers / Singapore Stories

Life After Death, Justin Lee, at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

On the plane coming home from Singapore I began to read Jan Wong's 'Chinese Whispers', her excruciating, harrowing, sometimes funny and sometimes very moving account of her quest to track down a fellow student from Beijing University where she had studied in the years immediately following the dramatic upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. At the time Wong was the first foreign (Canadian of Chinese descent) student to be admitted to the university, and an ardent Maoist. A fellow student approached her and asked for her help to get to America. Wong made the momentous decision to denounce her to the university authorities. By her own account, in the intervening 30 years, working as a Beijing-based foreign correspondent and then back in North America, she forgot all about this incident. It was only when she re-read her old diaries that she began to realise the enormity of what she had done, and begin (somewhat belatedly, some might think) to feel a great weight of guilt and remorse. The book recounts her quest in 2006 to find out what happened to this student. 

Without revealing too much, it  goes without saying that the consequences of her action were catastrophic. Despite some reservations about books of this quest-like and somewhat confessional nature (it is too easy to imagine the conversations with her agent and publisher, negotiating a book deal and a trip back to China) I found that I couldn't put it down. I especially enjoyed her astonishment, amusement and dismay at the enormous changes in China and in Beijing since she had last lived there in the 1990s - the condos for the wealthy, the emphasis on flashy designer labels, the BMWs and Mercedes, the shiny new pre-Olympics architecture and shopping malls. And the wholesale destruction of ancient neighbourhoods and significant buildings. All this in contrast with the wages and conditions of the migrant construction workers and maids (once a Maoist.....)

 I recognised much in her descriptions from my own bemused wanderings in Beijing,  although I agree to some extent with those who suggest that the foreigners (and it is mostly foreigners) who are eager to save the old courtyard houses in the hutongs are engaging in a kind of orientalism, a nostalgic chinoiserie of blue jackets, cloth shoes and bicycles.

So, despite being in Singapore and immersing myself in the colonial architecture, the food (fabulous as always) and the chaos and colour of Little India, I found myself thinking about the Chinese diaspora and the ways that it has played out in the artworld internationally, most particularly of course since 1989.  Similarly to Hong Kong, many of the commercial galleries were showing works by Chinese painters from the mainland. However I enjoyed quirky works by Lu Yifei painted on the covers of old books - these have a somewhat Japanese 'kawaii' or cute aesthetic which is also found in much contemporary graphic design. Lu was born in Shandong Province but studied and now lives and works in Singapore. In contrast, I also enjoyed the strong review show at the Lasalle College of the Arts (where Lu Yifei also studied) of abstract painter Ian Woo. 

Ian Woo

Lyrical and beautiful without descending into empty gesture or ever becoming formulaic, this body of work represents a practice of unremitting commitment and a single-minded examination of the possibilities of colour, mark and surface. Owing a debt to Philip Guston or Susan Rothenberg, as well as to canonical abstract painters such as Kline and Motherwell, the resulting series reveals nevertheless a powerful and idiosyncratic visual language. 

And the other huge surprise was the campus building - an  extraordinary sculptural edifice of glass and tilting planes. Designed by RSP Architects and completed in 2007 the project represented Singapore in the architectural section of the Venice Biennale in 2004. 

Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore

That a city of this size has three significant  art and design schools is interesting, although the quality of what was on show in the various gallery spaces was variable. A show running concurrently in the smaller gallery space at Lasalle, Ava Tan's "Woman, Body, Fetish" exploring the representation of the female body in a series of paintings offered little that is new, despite some energetic and expressive painterly surfaces.

At the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Gallery (NAFA)  "Sooner or Later this Happens to Everyone, Everyone" included conceptual works by Erica Lai, Joey Soh and Miguel Chew. These were perhaps more interesting in their conceptualisation by the artists than in the experience of the audience. The always interesting experimental Substation on Armenian Street showed an installation by Bruce Quek, "The Hall of Mirrors". So it would seem that the vital signs of the visual arts in Singapore are in good shape, despite all the usual problems faced by artists everywhere, and others which are unique to this small city of so many diverse cultural traditions and languages. One very strong thread seems to be the interest in design in all its forms, and the breaking down of barriers between artists, architects and graphic designers in particular. The Red Dot Design Museum had a steady stream of Singaporean visitors while I was there, and the works of Zxerokool (see previous post) and Justin Lee demonstrate the successful hybridisation of art and design.

Tupperware Display at the Red Dot Design Museum

Justin Lee installation at the Asian Civilisations Museum