Dispatch: “Volume and Form”


Vincent Leow, Money Suit, 1992. Mixed media, from the “Imaging Selves” exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum

Singapore, still the quintessential Asian crossroads city and now a booming tribute to the Asian Miracle (even after the Asian Economic Disaster), has enthusiastically embraced the concept of Cultural Tourism as an economic engine. As a consequence, the government’s Ministry of Information and the Arts and the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board are dedicating considerable efforts toward becoming a “Global City for the Arts,” and in particular a magnet for the arts public as it turns toward the Asia-Pacific region. The art market and the Singapore Arts Festival are already well established, and a series of “Cultural Zones” have been designated, including the traditional ethnic areas and districts for the arts, and arts and heritage preservation. In the wings is the Esplanade, a performing arts complex on the waterfront that is intended to be both a magnet and a symbol, in the manner of Sydney’s famous Opera House.

The arts festival is primarily a large performing arts event, with participation from traditional and modern theater, music, and dance companies, but this year, Singapore is also a city full of sculpture. In addition to the new “Volume and Form” segment of the arts festival, a large survey of contemporary Asian sculpture, there are exhibitions at the Singapore Art Museum and in several alternative spaces. There is also a good deal of permanent public art in the city, some in and around commercial buildings (including Six Brushstrokes, a group of late Lichtenstein sculptures, in Pontiac Marina) and some in public parks, Mass Rapid Transit stations, and even along the highways. Several hotels have interesting collections of sculpture, including the Ritz Carlton (which has several large works by Frank Stella and installations by Dale Chihuly, among other works), and the Four Seasons, whose collection includes contemporary Asian artists (including an elegant outdoor work by Singaporean artist Sun Yu-Li, also represented in “Volume and Form” by a meditation on cosmology and sculptural form in the Singapore Art Museum) as well as an impressive collection of traditional Asian works in various mediums.

The Singapore Art Museum is exhibiting a segment of “Volume and Form” as well as a series of shows featuring its collection of work by Southeast Asian artists, and the current installment, “Imaging Selves,” includes a number of interesting three-dimensional works, including two particularly evocative installations by Vincent Leow and Suzanne Victor. Victor’s installation, His Mother is a Theatre, is a long double dress hung between opposite walls in the gallery and draped across a table at the center. Under the table is a series of concentric rings of hair arranged to spell words dealing with the female body. On top of the dress as it crosses the table are two loaves of bread illuminated from within and two pots whose lids constantly bounce noisily, as if boiling over (but, according to the artist, also referring to the rhythm of mechanical sex). Leow’s Money Suit is actually a suit, shoes, and Daddy Warbucks hat, all made of large denomination U.S. bills. Leow satirically evokes the missing human form, the conspicuous capitalist who could well be either American or Singaporean.

Duck-Kyo Choi, Chair, 1994. Bronze, 100 x 45 x 42 cm.

Leow is also a member of an artists’ collective that operates an alternative gallery, Plastique Kinetic Worms. In June, the gallery was showing “The Me, Me, Me Show,” a joint installation dealing with reading and misreading art by three Australian artists currently living in Singapore, Colin Reaney, Karee Dahl, and Lutz Presser. The various elements of the installation transform art by turns into a fuzzy, vibrating, breathing experience, as well as an intellectual exercize. Also in June, the Substation, an arts organization including performing and visual arts components, featured “Jantung Pisang: heart of a tree, heart of a people,” an installation by Tang Da Wu based on a series of community workshops and focusing on myths and stories surrounding the banana tree in the cultures of Southeast Asia. Other alternative spaces include the Telok Kurau Studios, a former school building run by artists that offers subsidized studio space. Both well-known and emerging sculptors work at Telok Kurau, and the gallery in the complex offers exhibitions of their work. Lim Po Teck, one of the younger artists who works at Telok Kurau, recently showed his assemblages concerned with force or power, often featuring boat propellers or circuit boards, at Plastique Kinetic Worms.

A new organization and art space, Sculpture Square, officially opened in early June with a segment of “Volume and Form” and with a special event for children, “Sculpture Carnival ‘99.” Sculpture Square promises to be a vital service to the sculpture, sculptors, and public of Singapore, on the evidence of the energy and commitment of the staff, the startup support of the Singapore Arts Council and other benefactors, the strength of the opening exhibition (particularly the large Devi figures of India’s Ravinder G. Reddy and the haunting installation dealing with hunger in Indonesia by Hedi Hariyanto), and the popularity and success of the children’s program.

Other events this spring and summer have ranged widely across the diverse field of sculpture, including the second installment of the donation by Ng Eng Teng to the National University of Singapore (Ng is Singapore’s most prominent sculptor, and also a participant in “Volume and Form”). Portrait sculptures by Bryan Ellery were featured in June at Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts. Early in the summer, the island of Sentosa featured the first Asian event on the international circuit for sand sculptors, a very public and highly popular medium.

The biggest event by far is “Volume and Form.” According to organizer Jonathan Benavides, of Singapore’s 3D Only Art Consultancy, the show is an overview of 50 years of Asia-Pacific sculpture, focusing for the most part on established artists (though the artists range in age from 20 to 87). There are over 250 works by 130 sculptors from 16 countries. Benavides organized his survey on an overall theme of the relation of sculpture to nature, though some works relate to the theme more directly than others.

Yusra Martnus, Ketidakpastian (Rope Sculpture), 1998-99. Mixed media, dimensions variable.

As an exhibition, “Volume and Form” is a unique hybrid of the several current models for a large art show. Like the biennials of Venice, São Paulo, and so forth, the project is tied to the goals of cultural tourism and the city’s international image. Like the visual arts components twice mounted by another performing arts festival, Spoleto USA, “Volume and Form” grafted a high-concept visual arts show onto a series of unrelated performances. Like Chicago’s Pier Walk, the work shown at “Volume and Form” inserted a lot of sculpture into public spaces, while at the same time offering most of the work for sale. Essentially, Benavides was able to use Singapore as the world’s largest art gallery, with support not only from the tourist board but also from numerous corporate sponsors, including Time magazine. Despite some difficulties for both artists and viewers (this year’s event is the first project on such a large scale for Benavides and his organization), “Volume and Form” is an ambitious and informative survey of contemporary Asia-Pacific sculpture. It has also been an opportunity for a broad public to see a great deal of interesting sculpture in diverse public sites: botanical gardens, museums, art spaces, public parks, public buildings, commercial developments, hotels, the airport, and more.

Most of the work is explicitly sculptural (in keeping with the formal quality of the show’s title), but there are also installation, performance, and video elements, as well as work with political and social intentions and several pieces that challenge received notions of what sculpture or art can be. Kwok Mang Ho of Hong Kong, for example, presented a performance and temporary installation in his persona as the “Frog King.” He filled the lobby of the swank Crown Plaza Hotel with a network of ropes, plastic bags (full of Singapore air to be eventually released in Hong Kong), junk, and photos of celebrities and plain folks posing along with Kwok in his elaborate glasses. The funky character and personable presence of the artist and his work are a challenge not only to notions of art but also to the propriety of a dignified hotel atrium. Kwok said, “There’s no eroticism and no politics, so I can do what I want.” His comment reflects both the highly regulated public space in Singapore and a permissiveness on the part of the government and the public toward art that avoids certain very specific trigger points.

Christopher Langton (of Australia) placed a “garden” of a dozen or so huge, undulating plastic sunflowers at the entrance of the sophisticated Four Seasons Hotel, where an array of the orchids for which Singapore is famous usually reside. The hotel’s willingness to accept such an unconventional substitution speaks of the enthusiasm with which “Volume and Form” has been received. More traditionally sculptural works are also displayed inside the hotel, including two large bronze partial figures (one a hand suspended in a benevolent or meditational gesture) by Lee Kwang-Yu of Taiwan and a beautiful, colorful, and monumental goddess figure by Indonesian artist Gregorius Sidharta Soegijo.

Adrian Mauriks, Garden of Eden I, 1998. Painted fiberglass, 300 x 1250 x 500 cm.

The public reportedly has not embraced some works, sometimes for cultural reasons. Taiwanese artist Jun Tsun-Tsun Lai’s Genuine Void and Subtle Possession (1997) is a nearly featureless, armless Buddha figure bolted together from bronze segments, seated upon an elephant that seems to rise out of the ground. Viewers recognize the reference to Buddha but are disturbed by the imperfect, incomplete aspects of the representation. The work is very edgy, and quite beautiful, especially in its Botanical Garden location, set into one of Singapore’s remaining pockets of primary rainforest.

But other works are evidently very popular. I saw a family picnic among and on top of the large bronze “New Birth” series by Hong Kong’s Van Lau, works that seem to be huge seed pods suspended at the point of bursting into life. I also saw a group of tourists having their picture taken in a central city park with Australian Adrian Mauriks’s pure white Garden of Eden I, undeterred by the cheerfully kitchy pessimism of the work’s rubber-stamped messages that pronounce human and ecological ills. Visitors ignored the pure white “Merlion” statue just beyond the park, the symbol of the city and normally a tourist icon. Australian Greg Clark’s Toll Ton, a huge riveted-steel spheroid with entry holes, has become affectionately known by locals as “the bomb.”

The works are thoughtfully inserted into public space. Long-Bin Chen of Taiwan carves books and magazines, including National Geographic, into the form of globes, figures, and architectural shapes. Several of his works were shown in the halls and suspended from the ceiling of the National Library, a facility heavily used by young people. In settings where the conceptual links of the sculpture and the space are less explicit, works are displayed thoughtfully, often in close enough proximity to create dialogues, but never so close as to feel crowded against one another.

Gregorious Sidharta Soegijo, The Goddess of Happiness from the East, 1999. Mixed media, 210 x 103 x 45 cm.

In the hallways of the Singapore Art Museum, Indonesian installation artist Fx Harsono placed a haunting series of charred torsos, inescapably suggesting images of political and ecological disasters. Also in the museum, Marvin Minto Fang of Taiwan placed a series of rice-winnowing baskets that contained sprouting wheat, a beautiful punctuation of the interior space of the museum’s colonial-era building.

New Zealand is represented in part by works that reflect Maori culture, in Virginia King’s boatlike Cusp (1998), made of salt-water-cured Macrocarpa wood and Chris Booth’s stacked stone mounds, Pumice from the Mountains (1993–94). Korean sculptor Choi Duck-Kyo’s emotionally and politically charged bronze bird-cage works, including Chair (1994), a complex and affecting allegory of comfort and imprisonment, are shown in Tourism Court. Yusra Martunus, of Indonesia, contributed Ketidakpastian (1998–99), a work inserted with great subtlety into Bras Basah Park in the center of town, near the museum district. The works, made of wood, rope, and dry leaves, vanish into the tropical mini-landscape of the park, becoming wasp’s nests, sloths, fungi, or bird’s nest ferns, depending on which of the works catch your eye and at what angle to the light and the vegetation.

There are too many works in “Volume and Form” to mention in a review—I realize that I have neglected works from several nations that are making important contributions to contemporary sculpture. China, for example, is represented by the haunting works of Sui Jian Guo and Fu Zhongwang, among others. Any attempt to achieve a complete survey of the works has been frustrated by the lack of a map or comprehensive guide to the works and the exhibition sites, and a number of works were not on view throughout the show’s run.

Jun Tsun-Tsun Lai, Genuine Void and Subtle Possession, 1997. Bronze, 230 x 194 x 110 cm.

“Volume and Form” is a very large and ambitious event—in addition to the logistical challenge of bringing together so many works and artists from such a wide geographic area, there was also a lecture series, with speakers from all over the region, with texts to be published as the second installment of the catalogue. The size and complexity of the operation evidently resulted in some problems—some artists complained about logistical difficulties in getting their work or themselves to the exhibition, as well as fewer-than-hoped-for opportunities to establish cross-cultural ties with other artists. Nevertheless, Singapore and “Volume and Form” have offered Cultural Tourists, myself included, an exceptional opportunity to survey the sculpture of a region as well as to see a great deal of exceptional contemporary art. Singapore succeeds with this show in using its unique cultural and geopolitical character to become a key gateway to the art of one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world.