Jeremy Sharma’s exhibition at ICA Singapore has a vibrant pulse and operates as an orchestra. The instruments the Singaporean artist plays are his videos: in one of them there is a saxophonist who introduces a soulful vibe resonating in the entire gallery. Billy Wong, who played in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, was befriended by Sharma as a street busker; in the video he performs his interpretation for a song composed for guitar, the new score Wong wrote can be found pinned on a wall in the gallery. Sharma films the musician playing at sunset by the windows of a room with a recognisable backdrop of Singapore HDB flats’ skyline. A paper contract next to it, reveals it is an office space rented only for the day of the filming.
The drums take on three screens on three stands, disposed diagonally in the other arm of the gallery. When turned off, the black screens against the grey floor and white walls, create a physical partition. When the image comes on, one screen at a time, it shows Izzad Radzali Shah, an artist and Singapore based musician, playing the drums like in a 1990s black and white music video where the same image is multiplied. The three sets were recorded in different sessions: the most attentive viewer can discover a sheet of paper on the wall with printed instructions left to Izzad. In them, Sharma asks him to wear the same black clothes, to come up with a rock tune and to repeat and record it in three different sittings. When the drums are on, their sound envelops the whole gallery and the beating overpowers the works around, until they go off again. Sharma is the orchestra conductor who decides the tempo of the exhibition, when videos and sounds come on and turn off, but he has also respect and trust for other people’s practices (music, dance, technical) so he lets them improvise, like a fellow musician would in a jam session.
From the glass facade of the gallery, it is possible to view the only silent work in Conversions, a tripartite video wall resting on a pillar, created by assembling vertically three flat screens. In them are combined fragments from two striking black and white films of the history of Western cinema, both bearing religious connotations and female protagonists: one is The passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by C. T. Dryer and other is The Gospel according to St. Matthew (1964) by P. P. Pasolini. Joan’s expressive face has tears streaming down, a crown of sorrows on her head, in Pasolini’s film amateur characters play scenes from the Gospel: Mary, with new born baby Jesus in her arms, is with Joseph and they are reached by the Three Kings. The first time I heard the title of the exhibition I had interpreted it as a conversion from one Faith to another, but I was then told the artist meant it in terms of file or extensions in music, technology, data. For Conversions, Sharma has been opening his archive folders and selected videos not shown before in most instances, taken from older projects or saved with old technologies. Their recovered ‘converted’ footage now includes: travels in other countries, airports, performances in museums, protests he stumbled upon in the UK or the procession in the occasion of Thaipusam (a Tamil religious festival). The exhibition provides an alphabet of places, memories, sonic and visual imagery that sticks to one’s retina and triggers personal connections and thoughts.
Sharma’s sons, Jaden and Jacob (all the family members have names starting with J) appear in some of the wall projections. Jaden has been writing “conversion s” on pieces of paper that are pinned on the wall and reveal the hand of someone who is learning to write, adding to the feeling that this is a very personal and layered project to the artist, but also that life and art are constantly entwined.
I have visited the exhibition in different moments and I am always captured by different things, I hear more sounds: a boat, a riff, a poem; I’ve noticed more images: an orange, a ring with a red stone, a boat that speeds on water. Conversions feels personal (warm) and conceptual (cold) at the same time. It made me remember of my paternal grandfather and how he used to play the saxophone, but how none after him in the family had the music bite. Conversions is a compendium of compressed feelings, images, thoughts and sounds and the viewers can decide what to pay attention to and how to combine things in their heads and in the gallery.