The Appearance of an Exhibition: Space, Things, and Art

Written By Junni Chen

7th May 2016

Category: Interview

From the 22nd of April, 2016, till the 8th of May, 2016, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore held the exhibition “And the rest of such things…”. Shown by the graduates of the LASALLE MA of Fine Arts, the exhibition featured the works of 11 artists, curated by programme coordinators Adeline Kueh and Ian Woo, as well as ICA Singapore curator Silke Schmickl. ArtHop sits down with five of the artists (Martha Chaudhry, Kanchana Gupta, Kathryn Kng, Justin Lee and Grace Tan) and Silke Schmickl, to delve into the process behind the making of the exhibition, paying especial attention to the materiality of the space itself and its implications for the creation of art. 

From left: Martha Chaudhry, Kanchana Gupta, Silke Schmickl, Kathryn Kng, Grace Tan and Justin Lee. Photo: ArtHop.

In foreground: Grace Tan, n.330- twenty constructs on a plane, [contaminate/debris/fluid/irregular], 2016. 160x360x30cm. Photo: Wong Jing Wei.

Art is, primarily, made up of objects arranged in a space, presented to the viewer. But this materiality of art is hardly what the viewer comes to privilege. The discussion of art often circles around the notion of ideation: what is the issue, or idea that the artist is trying to address? What is the message of the artist? What is he or she trying to say? Art is understood in terms of signified and signifier, with the body of the work becoming the symbol for a multitude of meanings, evocations and provocations, conveyed or interpreted by the viewer. But the “signified” half of the work is what we often seek in our encounters with art—but art is also, more often than not, things, and art in Singapore is rarely considered in terms of their thingness.

I recently sat down with five of the artists and a curator behind the exhibition “And the rest of such things”. The goal of the conversation was simple: to reflect on the exhibition, and what the process of making it happen had been like for them. All five artists were greatly talented; all had their own questions, and were chasing their own line of inquiry. Each had presented strong works, built on sound ideation and steady research.

Grace Tan’s work, for example, was born out of her exploration into compounds and pigments—in particular, calcium carbonate, a chemical compound found in a huge range of materials ranging from eggshell and marble to chalk and coral. Kanchana Gupta looked at paintings and reflected upon what painting meant by re-configuring its elements, leaving oil paint flakes littered across the floor of the gallery. Martha Chaudhry chose to focus on the idea of belonging and groundedness, channeling the livestream footage of the clouds above her house in the USA through a projector and onto a wall of the gallery. Postboxes, placed next to the projection, invited viewers to think about the idea of home, address, but also of communication with and distance from the outside world. Kathryn Kng and Justin Lee both contemplated—in different ways—how found materials could be used to comment on and even resurrect environments, history, and memory. In this sense, each and every one of the artists articulated clearly the intangible explorations that the viewer could participate in through interpretation or imagination.

But it was also the very physicality of their works that the artists were most concerned with. In a way, this tied in with the curatorial narrative put in place by the curatorial team (Adeline Kueh, Silke Schmickl, Bala Starr, and Ian Woo), which suggested the idea that “the exhibition can be experienced as a threshold between explorations of the past and infinite possibilities for the future.” One could, possibly, take it to mean that the exhibition served as a means for allowing different phases of time to converge on the same plane. Yet, the statement simultaneously referenced the notion of space, particularly the use of the word “threshold”. For the exhibition to live out its exploration of time, it requires the space, and the arrangement of the works within the space itself.

And so—perhaps it was only natural that when I began to probe them about the process of making their artworks, the conversation steadily flowed into a discussion about the set-up, or installation, phase of the exhibition. It might have been because of the fact that we were discussing Kathryn Kng’s work (a site specific work)—but each of the artists revealed the integral value that the installation process had for them in terms of what it added to their art. What was a (largely) overlooked and under-appreciated part of organizing an exhibition turned out to also be a highly valuable component of art-making.

For Kanchana Gupta, setting up meant a process of “elimination and decision making”—where she had brought extra work into the gallery but found that she had had to leave them out of the exhibition.

“The bigger panels didn’t work, they’re too overwhelming”, she explained. “Because I also intend to achieve a certain kind of poetics in my work. There’s an element of contemplation, silence, and poeticism. So the big works—I said no, they were not working.” 

“…And it’s an interesting learning process for the artist to study the site and to see the lines of the sites. For example, I was looking at the lines of the boards and the lines of the floor, and which orientation [the works should be in], whether they should go on that wall and the floorwork would go on that wall. So, in what way am I framing the space? And these decisions you cannot take before and no matter how many studies you have done, it has to be done on that site—what way the composition should work, and what way the space becomes more interesting, in the sense that people try to ask questions—where does this come from? What is the relationship between the two? Am I looking at a composition where people enter and stand from that side, or when they walk towards George [Liu]’s work and stand from that side? Or [if] they look from Grace’s area and across? So then you start looking at space and framing space from all these angles, and those can be done only on the site. But it’s the most fascinating learning when you’re doing a site specific work.” - Kanchana Gupta (in background 210106, 2016, oil on 11 wooden panels, burnt and peeled paint skins, 60x40x7cm, overall dimensions variable). Photo: ArtHop.

The art of Gupta, hence, had a lot to do with not just the oil paint that she was working with, but also the ordering and framing of the space her works are presented in.

For Martha Chaudhry, however, space introduced chance and unforeseen elements into her work. Using a projector to screen a livestream of clouds onto the wall of the gallery (all the way from her home in the USA), Chaudhry deliberately decided to leave the projector on the floor, a distance away from the wall itself.

“There was a lot of discussion about trying to hang the projector, to get it off the floor and out of the audience… But I wanted the projector to come from an angle so the shadow of the house would be larger and have this kind of distortion to it. So we left the projector on the ground but what that means is that people enter the work.”

People inadvertently crossed in front of the projector, casting their own black shadows against the livestream, a dreamy (almost to the point of surreal) digital scape of blue sky and drifting clouds.

“At first I was like oh, that’s not expected but then I realised I loved that… This chance element and this interactive element that conceptually fits in. How much [does] the projector needs to go back to fill that wall? Is there enough room for me to walk between?—yes there is, and so people do.” 

“They [the post-boxes] also symbolise distance, and absence, and you know—bill collectors [laughs] and all sorts of things. But they were also a portal to the outside world. And a strong symbol of home, and belonging, and address. So that’s why I integrated the post boxes. The one that’s shaped like a house actually—I found it in the forest of my house. The prior owners of that house that I have in the States—they had built that post box and they had made it even look like a home. So it was like taking that metaphor to the extreme.” – Martha Chaudhry. [In background: The useless pursuit of shadows, 2016. single-channel digital video, mailbox, wood. 156x58.5x30cm]. Photo: ArtHop.

Space and things became an even greater consideration for Kathryn Kng and Justin Lee and their respective works. Both artists used found objects to resurrect memories of spaces and places.

For Justin Lee, things offered a window into environments—Bundle of love looked into the spaces of the lower rungs of society that was often missed from the booklets of the tourism board.

“The coffee sellers would give me the tin cans, and every day I collected them. And I came into the experience of handling the dirty cans… the washing process was a real experience of the people in that community. I discovered that I ignored a lot of things in my environment, so this gave me the process of taking a second look.” Lee took something that was largely ignored in the urban environment of Singapore and literally placed it under a spotlight, shedding light on what was often not hypervisualised in our own inhabited spaces. 

The artist Justin Lee poses candidly under his work. Photo: ArtHop.

[on titling his work] “Bundle of love? I think we are all looking for love everywhere… this unconditional love [that] is always around us but we usually ignore. Maybe my foreign classmates [of the LASALLE MFA programme] may not know about this, but [the tin cans] open the door for them to see the hidden society. You don't see this in STB booklets. I thought it was a great introduction to the lower rungs of society.”—Justin Lee [pictured: Bundle of love, 2016. 182 tin cans, raffia. overall dimensions variable]. Photo: ArtHop.

Kathryn Kng took the relationship between space and things further, seeking to resurrect an entire space using rolls of plastic and clay. She sought to invoke the history of the ICA gallery itself, part of which had once been used as a showcase space for LASALLE graduates. Examining the architectural plans of the gallery, she found that there had been two doors (where her plastic “doors” now stand) originally leading into the showcase area. Her work utilised sheets of plastic cut to form “doors”, creating a line of flight from one door to another—and everyone, instinctively, walks through those doors.  What Kng left open-ended was how the work slowly evolved with every visitation to the gallery: as visitors walk through the plastic sheets, touching, stepping, and pulling—clay started to fall off the sheets. People deviated off the path mapped out by the doors, and stepped in between the plastic sheets themselves. Footprints were imprinted all throughout the clay floor. Kng’s art had evolved to evoke the idea of the “well-trodden path”, the trails of previous visitors spread out on the floor. 

The artist Kathryn Kng at the opening of the show. Photo:  Loh Hui Yun. 

“The interesting thing is that the people all walked through the doors, but the footprints among the gaps [between the sheets of plastic] are actually gaps we overlook … The chance was that as you walk, the air moves and the plastic moves for you. And there are so many chance elements. I see the deterioration [of the condition of the work], the movement, and its funny how people choose their routes [as they go through the work]” – Kathryn Kng. [in picture: A visitor walks through Door, 2016, polyethylene sheets, clay, aluminium, steel wire. 300x900x600]. Photo: Loh Hui Yun. 

Objects, the occupying of space by these objects, and the configuration in which this occupying takes place in becomes a key part of the art-making process. The meaningful arrangement of created form against space is part of art, makes art, and is art. Art orders the space they reside in and yet, evokes other spaces and places simultaneously through their very materiality. The form of the signifier does, in that sense, follow from the signified; but at the same time the signifier invigorates and breathes new life into what is being signified, or called to mind. Art exists in that eternal feedback loop between the intangible ideas that brought forth its form, and the form and space that feeds back into the ideas of the artist, breathing new life into it—invigorating it.

What then, for the viewer? If art (especially contemporary art) is essentially entrenched in the material, how, then, does the viewer interact with art? 

The artist Grace Tan. Photo: ArtHop.

Close-up of Grace Tan's n.330- twenty constructs on a plane, 2016. Photo: Wong Jing Wei.

Grace Tan offered an answer— perhaps to no surprise, since her work deals with tactility.

“It’s interesting because the whole process of making art is [based on] touch. Back in 2008 I had my first exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum, I told the curator I don’t want a cover [over my work]… And this mother and son came in, and she took up one piece and started spinning it, and she actually told the son to do the same… But when I think about it I was like hey, wait, I think this is what it should be. It’s the most honest interaction you could get, or it’s the most honest response that you could get because you don’t say anything, [viewers] just go [at it],” she quips.

In fact, tactility can be said to be one of the key components of her artistic practice, with her work n.330- twenty constructs on a plane, [contaminate/debris/fluid/irregular] being born out of a “need to make things. And in [my work on show] is inextricably linked to my thesis where I’m exploring the notion of formless and forms. The idea of form is also a performative process. This whole layering—every layer is like a trace of time and material.”

Art, to her, centres around touch: the artist has to touch to make, and touch can be one of a range of valid responses that the viewer has towards art. The gallery space is ordered around certain rules that govern how the viewer can, and cannot, respond to the work—there is a reason why we often name the gallery-visitor the “viewer” and not much else besides. But the rules of the gallery can often be overturned, almost violated in the viewers’ relentless curiosity and need to grab, hold, handle a work that intrigues and fascinates.

And why not? For Chaudhry, part of the reason why “And the rest of such things” received positive feedback was because “our show is very deliberately interactive. If you look at the works, almost everybody’s work has some element of interaction with the visitor… I think the show had an energy and a dynamism to it, for that very reason. Because it is quite inviting to participate, even if it’s just to cast a shadow, or push a button.”

Curator Silke Schmickl offered a different take on the success of the exhibition, stating that “I think, for me, what makes the success of a good artwork or exhibition is that there is always some openness so that the spectator also has the possibility to project his own desires, ideas, and that is why this show also flows very well. Because it’s more an invitation… it’s quite a vibrant, stimulating environment. I think none of the works dictates what you think about it.”

During the course of the conversation, I described to them what I saw when I first entered the exhibition space. Tan’s work of neatly piled chalks and pigments had greeted me, high on its narrow and thin perch. From there I moved to examining Gupta’s colourful oil paint flakes sprawling across the floor in an unceremonious heap.  I moved through other exhibits, before finding myself in front of Chaudhry’s listlessly roaming clouds drifting across an expanse of wall. Turning around, I was greeted by Lee’s dangling, reflective tin cans, before breezing through Kng’s swathe of plastic sheets. The exhibition had a quiet coherence to it—for some reason I left with the thought: “this works”. I was pleased by the space, pleased without knowing exactly why. Some people call it aesthetic experience; I put the question to Silke Schmickl: what was the process of curating this show like, with so many different artists, exploring so many different things?

“[The process of arranging the works] starts often with practical reasons. But then all of a sudden you can feel that there is a flow coming. You enter the gallery and you see Grace’s work, and it dialogues so well with Kanchana’s, and also with Kathryn’s because of all the materials. We were definitely paying attention to that.” It is this incomprehensible “flow” that makes the exhibition so delightful to look at, perhaps because of the way the works looked as though they were exactly where they belonged. Each work successfully made each space their own.  

And yet, with the appearance of every exhibition comes its inevitable disappearance: if the exhibition created a liminal space between past and future—a now—that time is already swiftly passing.

“Art and most of our explorations are just ongoing; this exhibition captures the moment where we happen to be now,” Chaudhry mentions.

That is not to say that the exhibition did not add value to their work, but as Gupta adds, “This is one of the stops in the journey and the questions will continue… [in] what mediums, I don’t know. But the dialogues are already opening up about what’s going to happen in the future and perhaps, things will continue.”

As the curtain draws on “And the rest of such things…”, it is, perhaps, well worth looking out for the works of these artists, the kinds of spaces their works will inhabit, and the art in their very materiality.  

“And the rest of such things…” closes at 7pm, on 8 May 2016 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. Photos of the exhibition may be viewed here

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