Sunburnt

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I come from Northern Italy, not too far from where Marco Polo started his journey East more than seven hundred years ago, but I now live in Singapore. I travelled there by plane with one big luggage and no immediate return ticket. In Europe my skin is white but gets tanned in summer months, in Asia when I stand in the sun I get ‘sunburnt’ instead. Language reveals a lot of cultural and historical biases.

Raphael Fonseca travelled from Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) to Southeast Asia in 2017, on a research trip at the invitation of Osage Art Foundation, starting a process which lead in 2018 to the group exhibition The sun teaches us that history is not everything at Osage Gallery in Hong Kong. 

Working as curator, like Raphael, I am curious about methods and asked him, when we met in Hong Kong and I visited the show, how he had prepared for the initial research travel. My understanding was he had selected the twenty-six artists included in the exhibition during the journey that brought him to Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macao, The Philippines… But there was a prologue I was unaware of, before embarking on his trip, Fonseca compiled a long list of artists based in this region, consulting online and in print catalogues and reading about projects that had occurred in or around these geographies. The artists Fonseca ended up meeting on the journey were those he had already been in touch with and considered the most suited for the project even before leaving the shores of South America. After his visit, his dialogue and exchange with them, as well as artists from Brazil and Central America, continued from a distance and grew into an exhibition, twenty new commissions, and a publication. 

One of the curator’s departure and arrival point is the admission that to some degree we all come from a non-linear, mixed background, our geography of origin is subject to colonial, economic forces, as well as turns of fate. For most of the twenty-six artists in the exhibition, Central and South America, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong are temporary homes for movements of people that might have originated in different times from, among others, Japan or the Netherlands, Indonesia or Africa. 

The exhibition carefully juxtaposes some of these stories expressed through video, installation, performance and ephemera, and presents entangled journeys where different meanings might be ascribed to certain works in different parts of the world. The exhibition as a whole offers a complex picture of global movements and the personal consequences they might shadow. The project doesn’t shy away for tackling negative effects of colonialism such as racism, but it never defaults to thematic groupings of works, entrusting each artist to follow their own trajectory.

If you ask me, effective group exhibitions are hard to come by, often the thesis they are based upon is reductive, the spatial decisions conservative, the artists mismatched. This is not the case for The sun teaches us that history is not everything which provided a respite to the chaotic days and visual overload provoked by Art Basel Hong Kong and the myriad events around it. The exhibition has the merit of presenting artworks of established artists (FX Harsono, Melati Suryodarmo, Nguyen Trinh Thi…) next to lesser known, younger ones, interweaving on equal ground their assorted materials which account for different inspirations, contexts and aesthetics. The exhibition, in my mind, functions as a theatre in which the works dialogue with one another and the bodies of the visitors move around them. 

It starts with a silent proscenium, followed by a central part with visual and sonic cues, like in Mimian Hsu’s installation consisting of 25,934 tiny bells, activated by visitors when walking under or next to it. The artworks occupy the perimeter of walls as can be found in the central part of the room, like João Ó’s mobile sculture/heart/nest made with bamboo. 

There are also two external wings to the gallery footprint: one is dark and hosts several screens of video works, the other is bright, thanks to blurred windows and four spotlights pointing to Jonas Arrabal’s installation using sea water. This antechamber, with a video of Arrabal carrying buckets of water from the sea to a beach at daytime looking at the Hong Kong skyline, leads outdoors, to a long balcony facing the new, shiny surfaces of the buildings across the street. There on a pre-existing collection of stones and crystals on pallets, Daniel Lie created his impermanent installation Semarang and Garanhuns love affair, assembling for a ritual with open interpretation a ghostly throne with fabric and a floating aerial perimeter punctuated by flowers and ribbons bound to decay over time. 

Back to the central room, Meela Jaarsma, a Dutchwoman who has been based in Indonesia since the 1980s, has made In ravel out, a wall piece which connects three costumes that could fit the same number of bodies (it was worn for the opening). There are holes for the head, hands and feet, a tie doubles as a protruding pink tongue, bags with newspaper balls inside make a cartoonish head of hair and a body that reminds me of fish scales, like that of a mermaid or a serpent. They speak of something that needs to be moved far and quickly, of migrant mobility, of dance and the suppression of binaries that exist in multilayered pre-colonial forms of expression. I am imagining conversations between the artist and the curator, possibly about traditional Indonesian costumes or the sculptures to wear of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark (1920-1988), and how those might have influenced what Jaarsma made for this project.

Three foldout posters, which can be taken away, contributed to the show by Yudi Rafael, connect text and images from films, public campaigns, magazines covers and cartoons gathered from different continents. Rather than considering events in isolation or for their national or regional relevance, Rafael alerts us to the long roots of racist stereotyping in different centuries and parts of the globe. In his constellation there is, for example, a poster for a Brazilian TV show called Negócio da China (2008) where what I presume are the main characters are pulling the side of their eyes to make more evident the ‘China Business’ the title refers to. A 19th century engraved advertisement for rat poison made in the USA portrays a man in Oriental clothing as the one to exterminate; or Mickey Rooney, the Hollywood actor, who was white, wears eyeliner and Japanese clothes to impersonate Mr Yunioshi, the eccentric neighbour of Ms Golightly, in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Ho Kok Kue, the subject of Kent Chan’s film Seni, act 2, is a member of the Singapore Chinese literati that in 1955 went to London with a suitcase of drawings by local artists intending to find a place to exhibit them in the capital of the British Empire. The archive of this event is transposed through songs and interview into film, borrowing from the genres of musical and documentary, re-staging, rather than re-purposing the historic material. Chan reflects on the encounter between Eastern and Western art: from ink painting to oil landscape, from the absence of a word for ‘art’ in Malay to the concept of Modernity. In a scene of the film a drone flies over the emerald tropical forest and the blue sea, although the location exists in the body of water surrounding Singapore, the impression is akin to that of a green screen used to convey a space-time continuum.

To one side of the main room, Kwok-Hin Tang has installed sideways two bed frames, which become a fort. The bed function is subverted as the head lends itself as a projection surface with conceals, unless you walk around it, the exposed slats holding a TV monitor and a framed doormat with ‘Welcome’ written in English and Cantonese. The artist seems to ponder on Hong Kong’s identity as it orbits from a British to a Chinese political and economic area of influence. In Draft, everything functions as signifier: the video on the monitor is a close up of the artist’s mouth, inhaling and exhaling smoke from a cigarette. There are real cigarette butts overflowing from an ashtray positioned inside a perforated IKEA magazine holder, which becomes a cage. The cigarettes there and on the floor have been smoked at the opening of the show by the artist, who perched on top of the bed frame would lean and talk to the audience. The ashes which gathered on the floor were saved the following morning, when a hasty text message from the curator stopped the cleaners who were getting ready to sweep them away. 

Sociality is brought up in different forms throughout the exhibition: with food and cooking (David Zink Yi, Shima at the opening), parades on the streets (Mark Salvatus’ video), smoking (Kwok-Hin Tang) … All these methods could be read as attempts of sharing time in a temporary convergence of private and public space. In The sun teaches us that history is not everything the art object is first fragmented and then reconstituted through experience, study, contemplation or history, personal and otherwise. Food is as ritualistic and a witness to material culture, dare I say, as much as Norberto Roldan’s Katipunan church of the revolution. This piece consists of an altar with Catholic and pagan artefacts placed in front of a richly embroidered map of the Philippines: the grouping conveys to the viewer a suspended time which mixes the influences of religion, politics and social movements inscribed in those islands’ constellation. 

April 2018

Afterword: 25 June 2018

I have recently returned to Singapore after two weeks in Italy catching up with family, friends and food. I was away from the city-state on June 12 2018 when the Singapore summit to discuss nuclear renunciation took place between Trump (USA) and Kim Jong-un (North Korea). But I did witness–live from my motherland–the new Italian Minster of the Interior, Salvini, deny permission to 630 migrants, coming from Africa and rescued in the Mediterranean sea by the ship Aquarius, to disembark in any Italian port. Spanish authorities eventually accepted the ship in Valencia with its cargo of humans, but the Aquarius had remained stranded at sea for a number of days (12) not being equipped to host for that stretch of time so many people in serious physical and psychological conditions. With shortage of food and of medical supplies, as well as basic hygiene, crew, medical and civil volunteers tried their best to attend to pregnant women, injured men, children, all weary and exhausted, captive to an inhumane exercise of power.

While I am writing this, only a week after the Singapore summit, Trump has signed an executive order to divide infants and children from their parents trying to cross over from Central America to the United States. Footage of babies crying–wallowing– and held in cages in Texas, moved to facilities in other parts of the United States are here to haunt our minds.

This has nothing to do with art, one might say, this has everything to do with it, I would argue.

On June 15th I was in Palermo, Sicily, for the professional preview days of Manifesta, a nomadic European art biennial that in its 12th edition dealt with The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence. Inspired by the potential for co-habitation, Manifesta in Palermo embraced the metaphor of gardens, borrowing strategies from the interchange of multi species flora and fauna and their varied provenance. What can be learnt from the centuries and layers of historical contacts and colonial movements? Plants are one thing but when it comes to humans the stakes are indefinitely more difficult to disentangle. 

Thinking and talking of exhibition against such an unstable reality is hard, aesthetics seems to feel at a loss in the face of moral dilemmas, in a world where prejudices and hate, discrimination and capital guide the worst instincts. Nation-states where borders once porous are reinforced blindly and without compassion, in particular when dealing with the poor rather than big corporations.

The implication of the other text I had written in closer response to the exhibition at Osage and nearer in time is that we all are refugees. I came to Singapore to search for better work and living conditions that those available to me in my home country.

In Singapore consideration about ethnicity are very prevalent in the discussion, people refer to fellow Singaporeans often specifying whether of Chinese, Malay or Indian descent. HDB (House Development Board) flats are also granted following quotas with restricted percentages for each of these ethnic groups in order to maintain social control. In such grouping system, I am under ‘Others’: the category I ticked on the many bureaucratic forms that I had to fill since I have joined the workforce here. 

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