5Stars: Understanding National Values Through Art
Posted on June 5, 2016
It is a tribute to Singapore’s 50th anniversary in 2015 and its national values of Peace, Justice, Equality, Democracy, and Progress.
Five of Singapore’s eminent artists Ho Tzu Nyen, Matthew Ngui, T.K Sabapathy, Suzann Victor and Zulkifle Mahmod were invited and commissioned to create large-scale works inspired by these themes. The artworks, spread across SAM’s exhibition spaces, offer a view into how these humanist values could be envisioned for the future. The exhibit provides a sacred space of sorts, one that opens the floor for deep reflection and discourse to flourish from appreciation.
The author had the privilege of experiencing the multi-platform installations of this exhibit, as well as the chance to pick the brains of participating artists Ho Tzu Nyen and Matthew Ngui, and co-head curator for Of Equal Measure and Bloodline of Peace, Joyce Toh.
Artist: Ho Tzu Nyen
Title: No Man (2015)
Materials: Six-channel audio-video installation
As a national value, the notion of justice need not veer away from how it would be defined in the judicial court of law. In the video installation, entitled No Man, justice is presented in an otherworldly and cross-worldly dimension, and applying haunting overtones to the theme. Artist Tzu Nyen has acknowledged taking Meditation XVII: Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a 17th-century poem by John Donne, as a jump-off point for his artwork. The metaphysical poem ruminates on the consequences of man’s actions, in accountability to a greater God and as a deep reflection on the meaning of humanity.
Why was John Donne’s poem selected as inspiration for the piece, and do you think that museum goers have grasped the concept behind the poem?
Tzu Nyen: Donne’s poem beautifully and movingly expresses the relatedness and inter-connectedness of life, which I thought was an interesting starting point to approach the question of justice in Singapore, where it is perhaps too often reduced to a punitive mechanism that seeks to confine and regulate life.
For me, a work of art is not meant to be grasped conceptually, but rather as sensations, and the best works are those which affect us in ways we do not even understand.
How were these spectral figures chosen to represent justice? What was your criteria or overarching train of thought?
Tzu Nyen: The figures, which hailed from the realms of myths and popular imagination, were hybrids of the digital, the human, the animal and sometimes even the vegetal. I regarded them as manifestations of otherness punished by a justice system that seeks only to normalise and homogenise. So these spectral figures do not represent justice, but rather the victims of a blind justice.
Artist: Matthew Ngui
Title: Every Point of View (2015)
Materials: Plastic pipes and real-time video projection
In Every Point of View by Matthew Ngui, we encounter a series of pipes, and at first sight, they present themselves as a maze to traverse around, with broken-up words encrypted onto their surfaces. Being in the room with others, out of mind’s eye and corner people flit between the poles, giving an impression of seamless immersion. It is through the experiential encounter and visual enigmas that the significance into democracy unfolds, and we are drawn and invited into how all the pieces fit together.
How were the quotes and points of view to be featured selected? What was the interview process like?
Matthew Ngui: Two questions were formulated to elicit the individual’s personal and heartfelt points about Singapore’s democracy or democratic process. We tried to include a broad cross- section of Singaporeans by selecting people from different age groups and professions. The 5 Stars exhibition opened around the time of our 2015 General Elections so while there were sensitivities abound, people were already thinking about the political processes in their country.
If there was one takeaway which you would like to leave with the viewer, what would it be?
Matthew Ngui: Empathy. Be prepared to step into another’s shoes to try and understand it. A fair democratic process gives all points of view equal voice while equitably prioritising their expression in our daily lives.
Artist: Zukifle Mahmod
Title: Raising Spirits and Restoring Souls (2015)
Materials: 64-channel midi controller, solenoids, e-bows, amplifiers, piano/base/guitar strings, copper pipes, midi player, etc.
Progress as defined in the Singaporean context can be closely tied to career success and material wealth. In a developed society like Singapore, a definition of progress where different socioeconomic classes move forward steadily together could be an outdated sentiment that is challenged through Zukifle Mahmod’s work. A terrain of intertwining pipes carefully structured and designed, the route is not linear or clearly marked out, yet has semblance of order and organisation.
Artist: T.K. Sabapathy
Title: Of Equal Measure
Materials: Books, mixed media, video, and various artworks (books and artworks by Elaine Navas and Tan Swie Hian)
Interview given by curator, Joyce Toh
Equality is not at all manifested in terms of origin, gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation, income, status, language, religion, health or disability in this room. Rather, the place of art is foregrounded and brought to equal measure as prized asset and pillar for Singapore’s society. A series of academic writings and books on art history, in particular for Southeast Asian art extends across the exhibition walls as chronologic overview of T.K. Sabapathy’s academic writings. As a highly respected art historian, critic and curator in Singapore, this work is a celebration of and tribute to Sabapathy‘s achievements across 4 decades. With this aisle of academic writings, art and its history is centred as platforms for continued discussion and debate. It is as if T.K. Sabapathy is having a conversation with us.
What was the experience of curating Of Equal Measure like?
Joyce Toh: In many ways, the process of curating Of Equal Measure was the most interesting and challenging amongst the “5 Stars” artworks because TK Sabapathy is an art historian, not an artist. His life work is around the creative work of visual artists, but his medium is text, word and language. Therefore we thought carefully about how to bring these dimensions together, and to reflect a range of perspectives. The long ‘timelime’ of books and writings most clearly express his work as a writer and historian, and show, in a visual way, how many years he has been working. At the same time, while his writings reveal how Sabapathy sees and interprets the works of artists, we also wanted to reflect how artists ‘see’ him – this is where the three paintings come in, including the commission of the ‘conceptual portrait’ from Kumari Nahappan.
Artist: Suzann Victor
Title: Bloodline of Peace
Materials: Fresnel lenses and metal pins, 4000cm x 216cm
Clear fresnel lenses are utilised as vessels for droplets of human blood in this installation. The appearance of the overall work however, rather belies the constitution of each individual lens till close inspection.
Could you share with us who were the generous sources of the blood used?
Joyce Toh: The blood came from donors who represented people from the armed forces, the medical profession, the art community and the pioneer generation. – Were they aware of the meaning of the piece when they donated? Any interesting comments by the participants, or anyone who provided further insights to the artist? Yes, they were aware as explained what the work was about and why they were being asked to donate blood. Even though some felt that it was a little unusual – most people don’t associate blood with the idea of ‘peace’ – when they understood the artist’s intentions, the donors felt that it was a worthy and good cause.
In being a presentation of Singapore’s 5 core humanist values, 5 Stars is a bold undertaking of deeper societal imaginings. Art upholds these core humanist values courageously, with great reflexivity and personal reflection. The place of citizens, and a multiplicity of voices are duly accorded in most of the works too.∗
5 STARS: Art reflects on Peace, Justice, Equality, Democracy and Progress is an ongoing exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum from 2 October 2015 to 10 July 2016.