The Private Museum is pleased to present You, Other; I, Another, a group exhibition curated by Dr Susie Lingham. This marks The Private Museum’s new initiative in collaborating with Guest Curators to facilitate and support independent and experimental curatorial practice, and to present different perspectives on our world. The exhibition will feature works by nine artists including Regina De Rozario, Mithun Jayaram, Mumtaz Maricar, Siew Kee Liong, Leroy Sofyan, Vincent Twardzik Ching, Victor Emmanuel, Susie Wong and Yeo Chee Kiong.
Relation is reciprocity. My You acts on me as I act on it. […] Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity. *
To and from every I there is a You, a They, a We, an Us, an Other. To whom is another, Other? Or is it more precise to say: when is the other Other to another? Otherness is an oscillation; is in oscillation. The binary-dynamic of finding the self in the other has always been tipped at moments, and shifts to finding the other in the self—recognising difference within oneself is ongoing, and unnerving, for every ‘I’.
Within the structures of any society, how is the other conditioned into being ‘Other’? How is otherness represented? Who represents otherness? In what way do we feel ‘other’, and how do we feel for and with ‘the other’ who differs from our self-sensed otherness?
The Other demarcates the line of belonging; what we identify against. The Other fascinates; confounds; is feared and rejected; is reviled; is ignored, dismissed; is mistreated, marginalised, alienated; is tolerated. Then again, some specimens of otherness are denied even ‘existence’ because quite anomalous, and uncategorisable: perhaps the Other is a Hydra, not a community.
Otherness differentiates on a spectrum of ‘difference’—in kind, by degree, by decree, by choice, inevitably. In You, Other; I, Another, nine artists’ works diverge off various individual realities of lived Otherness, or concepts of difference—expressed in diverse materialities and modes. From the rhythms of the natural world to the measures of culture and custom, and stemming from the personal, the familial to societal—all manner of Other manifest here reciprocally, “inscrutably involved.”
* Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p 67.
Regina De Rozario (b. 1973, Singapore) is an artist and writer. Her practice and research interests include psychogeography and urban visual culture—specifically, how related strategies of walking, mapping, writing and image-making enable us to recognise, reflect on, and respond to notions of power and control in the shaping of the physical and narrative spaces we inhabit. Apart from her solo practice, De Rozario is active as one-half of Perception3, an interdisciplinary art duo established in 2007 with design practitioner Seah Sze Yunn. Their collaborative work is currently focused on exploring the notions of loss and memory through text, photography, digital video, and site-specific installation. Recent exhibitions include An Atlas of Mirrors, Singapore Biennale (SB2016), Singapore (2016), Urbanness: Contemplating the City, Dubai (2015), and Unearthed, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore (2014). She received her MA in Contemporary Practice, and a BA (Hons) in Fine Art with Contemporary Writing from the University of Huddersfield (U.K.) at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore in 2010 and 2008 respectively. She has lectured and facilitated workshops at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore Management University, National Library, and Singapore Art Museum.
Mithun Jayaram (b. 1980, Calicut, India) is a Dubai-raised, Bangalore-based artist whose interest lies in observing the transience, decay, and frailty of everyday materials and objects, which are then translated into segments of mental landscapes through process-intensive installations. These installations tend to follow a pattern where an intended object/material gets processed and then reconstructed to form a site-specific texture. Though this texture eventually becomes sculptural in form, Jayaram places prime importance on the making and the taking down of the work. His participations and exhibitions include Between Conversations, Yavuz Gallery, Singapore (2013); The Feeling Bubble of Forgetting, Gloria Jeans Coffees, Bangalore (2009); Photographing Everyday, Alliance Française de Bangalore, Bangalore (2008) and A Roomful of Old Ladies Clattering their Fingernails, TickleArt Series, CityLink Underground Shopping Mall, Singapore (2005). Jayaram received his BA (Hons) in Fine Art (First Class Honours) from RMIT University, Melbourne at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore, where he was also presented the Winston Oh Award to travel to Romania for a research project.
Mumtaz Maricar (b. 1977, Singapore) is interested in thoughts, sensations, incidences and events that present the body as a site of transgression, negotiation, rebellion and potential revelation. Not reaching out merely for the comfort of well-demarcated areas in perception, she is far more intrigued by covert moments that shift with ease between the grey areas of observation and what appears more well-defined. These moments of sublimation are her focus. As a Synesthete, some of Maricar’s previous works have been explorations into the condition in relation to sound and the formation of memories. Maricar was an art director in the television and film industry in Singapore for 14 years before she decided in 2017 to bid it adieu, and pave her way back into the world of creating art. Maricar received her BA (Hons) in Fine Art (First Class Honours) from RMIT University, Melbourne at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore, in 2001. Her video installation piece Tragic Heroine Closet Series (2004) in the exhibition Exploring Memory & Self at Jendela (Visual Arts Space), The Esplanade,– Theatres on the Bay, Singapore (2004) explored cinema, feminine archetypes and the formation of early identity.
Siew Kee Liong (b. 1962, Singapore) is a multimedia artist graduated from University of Miami, Coral Gables, with a BSC in Motion Pictures in 1989 and an MFA in Photography in 1991. Working mainly in the realms of photography and moving images in film/video, Siew works with both digital and analogue technology. Influenced by experimental films of the 1960s, he treats the film medium like a canvas where he alters it in an organic way: scratching, staining, burning, or sometimes, given the humid conditions of Southeast Asia, allowing the inevitable mould and fungus that thrive on celluliod to interact with the emulsion organically. The manipulated film frames, negative or positive, are digitally processed and printed as large-format photographs. His work has been exhibited locally and internationally at Lien Ying Chow Library, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore (2016); The Art Gallery, National Institute of Education/NTU, Singapore (2003); 5th Passage, Singapore (1993); The Substation Gallery, Singapore (1993); Singapore Film Festival, Singapore (1993); the 5th Fukui International Video Biennale, Japan (1993); the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, U.S.A. (1993); Barbara Gillman Gallery, Miami (1991), and Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables (1991), Florida. Siew has been involved in teaching since 1991, and is currently teaching photography in the School of Film & Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore.
Leroy Sofyan (b. 1973, Singapore) is an artist and sculptor. His previous career as an Emergency Paramedic exposed him to the grit and grime of everyday living at its most basic, and often traumatic, levels. He is concerned with the struggles of the common person and the responsibility of choice. His sculptural practice includes carving wood and stone, and is centred on found objects and tools. His exhibitions include Some Things that Matter, Jendela (Visual Arts Space), Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore (2013); If the World Changed, Singapore Biennale (SB2013), Singapore (2013); Asia Contemporary Art: Space and Imagination, Chonnam Provincial Okgwa Museum, South Korea (2010) and Asia Contemporary Art: Now and Next, Gwangju National Museum, South Korea (2010). Sofyan received his BA (Hons) in Fine Art from the University of Huddersfield (U.K) at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore, He is currently a Technical Officer at School of The Arts, Singapore.
Vincent Twardzik Ching (b. 1970, Canada) is an artist and educator who lives and works in Singapore. Through paintings, drawings and sculpture, Twardzik Ching investigates trauma, healing and various aspects of male identity, often through the genre of landscape. Within these charged mindscapes, he attempts to reconcile experiences of conflict while exploring their dynamics as spaces of action and possibility. An advocate for Arts education he completed an MEd in Visual Art at the National Institute of Education/NTU, Singapore, and holds a BA and an Academic Achievement Award from the University of Regina (Canada). He was awarded Honourable Mention in The Phillip Morris Singapore Asean Art Awards (2002 and 2003) and received a National Arts Council grant (2012) to attend the Academy of Realist Art in Toronto, Canada, where he studied the oil painting techniques of Caravaggio. His sculpture will be presented at Multi-layered Surfaces, a survey of Canadian artists, NICA Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (2018), and his work is included in the international travelling exhibition: The Fieldtrip Project (2015-present). Twardzik Ching is currently a part time Visual Arts Lecturer in drawing and painting at NIE (Singapore) and an Early Childhood Arts specialist at SEED Institute (Singapore).
Victor Emmanuel (b. 1979, Singapore) spent most of his youth in small local pockets of greenery in Singapore, observing and discovering different fauna in their natural habitats. Later in his teens, his nature-driven journeys were extended to parts of Southeast Asia. More recently, he has been developing a deeper understanding of artistic techniques, including sculpture and casting, and wood carpentry as well. Victor received his Diploma in Fine Arts (Painting) from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2014. His recent exhibitions include Qi@art, Telok Kurau Studios, Singapore (2016); 50 Obsessions, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore (2015) and Telok Kurau Studios Exhibition, Telok Kurau Studios, Singapore (2013-2015).
Susie Wong (b. Singapore) began her arts practice in the late 1980s, in painting and art writing, complementing these with art education, teaching, and curatorial projects. She has exhibited works of figurative paintings, portraits, landscapes, drawings, and installations. Central to her current work is the inquiry of the image/light as a medium that mediates between memory and loss, between documentation and nostalgia. Her work Trace, installations of drawings, was exhibited at The Substation (2008), which travelled to Valentine Willie FA Gallery, Kulau Lumpur. More recently, her works My Beautiful Indies, and After Image, were shown respectively at The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore (2013), and Space Cottonseed, Gillman Barracks, Singapore (2014). Her video installation Take Care of Me was part of the curated series Opening Day at Upper Serangoon Shopping Centre, Singapore (2018).
Yeo Chee Kiong(b. 1970, Singapore) is a contemporary sculptor and installation artist who is fascinated with the language and spatial relationship between objects, space and authorship. His work destabilises the familiar notions of spatial proportions and perspectives, whilst examining the human condition in the construction of an extended surreal world. His recent exhibitions include Yeo Chee Kiong Solo Exhibition, Juming Art Museum, Taipei, Taiwan (2017); 3rd FORMOSA, Sculpture Biennial 2017, Taiwan (2017); Personal Structures, parallel event of Venice Biennale 2017, Italy (2017); Art In The Forest, Flamingo, Dai Lai Resort, Hanoi, Vietnam (2017); Suide International Sculpture Symposium, China (2017) and International Sculpture Group – Tokyo & Seoul, Tokyo, Japan (2017). Yeo is an alumnus of the Glasgow School of Art (U.K.) and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Singapore), and his list of conferred awards includes the NAFA Distinguished Alumni Medal (2016); the Grand Prize for the Inaugural APB Foundation Signature Art Prize, Singapore Art Museum (2008); the Young Artist Award, National Arts Council (2006), and the Grand prize for the 2nd CDL Singapore Sculpture Award (2005). He is currently the President of the Sculpture Society (Singapore) and Visiting Assistant Professor at National Taiwan University of Arts.
A. A Meditation on Otherness & Belonging
Relation is reciprocity. My You acts on me as I act on it. […] Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity.1
I. The Human, Conditioned: Preconceptions
To and from every I there is a You, a They, a We, an Us, an Other. To whom is another, Other? Or is it more precise to say: When is the other Other to another? Otherness is an oscillation; is in oscillation. The binary-dynamic of finding the self in the other has always been tipped at moments, and shifts to finding the other in the self – recognising difference within oneself is ongoing, and unnerving, for every ‘I’.
Within the structures of any society, how is the other conditioned into being ‘Other’? How is otherness represented? Who represents otherness? In what way do we feel ‘other’, and how do we feel for and with ‘the other’ who differs from our self-sensed otherness? How is any ‘We’ held together? Who decides to let ‘Us’ be ‘Us’? Perhaps there is no immutable ‘Us’? What holds a ‘people’ together? What is it that magnetises the ‘core’ of a sense of civic or national identity? Does that actually override cultural-racial-religious identity? What value systems do ‘a people’ hold in common? And how have these arisen, if they have been allowed to rise? Preconception, conception and perception feed into each other in continuum, and given human nature, perhaps inevitably, the Other demarcates the line of belonging: what we identify against. So many ‘normalities’ are perpetuated by default, and justified as what the ‘majority’ accepts, and expects. As Foucault insightfully states:
In actuality, dialectics does not liberate differences; it guarantees, on the contrary, that they can always be recaptured. The dialectical sovereignty of similarity consists in permitting differences to exist, but always under the rule of the negative, as an instance of non-being.2
The scope of this subject is indeed perilously tortuous and unwieldy. This meditation sets adrift some thoughts for contemplation, in the hope that deeper understanding can find new moorings amidst some of the more discernible currents in the deepflow of the subject. ‘Otherness’, the experience of being perceived and treated differently within dominant society-specific norms – with varying degrees of acceptance – is that deeprooted part of the human condition with entangled anthropological genealogies buried deep in the ancient, fathomless darkness of the collective unconscious. Snarled in associative conditioning, encounters with capricious Nature, feelings of vulnerability, survival, familiarity, family, bloodties, kin, skin, limited resources, tribe, clan, caste, village, kingdom, power, recognition, powerlessness, exploitation, slavery, loyalty, trust, privilege, protection, ownership and legacy, all contribute to the wretched cycles of being human. Uniting through division, privilege – in a world of limited resources – is much sought after, and given that there is more desire and need for privilege than there is ‘enough’ to go around, the pecking order that emerges is often vicious.
Otherness, or the subject of ‘the Other’, as termed in various strands of Western critical thought, has been much studied as an ever-deepening aspect of the human condition. Nonetheless, it is embedded first, namelessly, in and within experience, and extended in-between embodied experiences. The named concept was, and remains necessary, and has spun and spiralled along in various analyses of accounts of historical experience, from the trauma of war, genocide, the holocaust, colonialism, civil disobedience, ethnic ‘cleansing’, human rights leaders’ ideals and their assassinations – analyses that continue to evolve through the ever-honed instruments of different modes of thinking. Indeed, many brilliant thinkers have pondered this much-knotted nodal point of the human condition, involving everything and everyone on the ‘other side’ of power and influence, throughout the history of human culture – any existence that has encountered power and privilege, been disempowered, and oppressed by turn. These explorations have been “negotiated” through phenomenology and existentialism (e.g., Hegel, Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Buber); psychoanalysis (e.g., Freud, Lacan, Irigaray), Marxism and feminisms (e.g., Wollenstonecraft, Steinem, de Beauvoir); postcolonial theory, including concepts of the “hybrid”, the “hyphen”, interculturalism, and more (e.g., Said, Bhabha), as well as gender studies and queer theory (e.g., de Lauretis, Butler, Munoz, Cixious). In fact, the study of the Other is necessarily highly interdisciplinary, given the subject’s scope and influence within human conditioning.
These are the Lethean depths where the forces of the unconscious, consciousness and that most human of traits – conscience – come into being; where power, politics, ethics, and aesthetics are inextricably entwined. Pre-wired, hardwired and constantly rewired within the sensitive realms of psychoneuroimmunology3, here be primordial phobias and drives: the treachery of darkness, dispelled by life-giving sunlight; friend or foe; win or lose; live or die; attract or repulse; survive or thrive; self-preservation and well-being. To be safe, to feel loved and protected and well, we all long to belong, but perhaps no belonging is unconditional. Any conditioned predisposition inherited and reinforced through preconceptions over aeons cannot easily be rationalised away. This is an unbearable, unscratchable itch, and is akin to being aware of the need to fathom the pain of a long-excised, now-phantom limb. It involves a proprioceptive sense of understanding your place in the world, while being aware of everything out there, or wherever whatever might be, or should be, in relation to you. At the microcosmic levels, pecking order patterning is cause-effect bound with preferential treatment within families – whether compelled by cultural norms, personal dispositions or merely echoing societal expectations – influenced by gender, by order of birth, by physical traits. Hence, the perennial paradox: if the ‘self-preserving’ family unit is at the root of all concepts of Otherness in human culture, the Other is [a] relative. Such conditionings simmer and seethe in the individual as well as extended, collective psyches – racial, cultural, gender-related, tribal, national – and get transmitted across generations as intensifying cause-and-effect impacts that sometimes reach the exponentially retaliatory horrors of Jacobean tragedy: shuddering, violent reciprocity resulting in irrevocable damage that takes generations to even contemplate reconciliation, let alone repair. Every new repression-expression accrues to what becomes experienced as insurmountable oppression – which ends, and ironically, begins anew in the catastrophe of war and bloodshed.
Embodiment conditions; conditioning is embodied. The fundamental difference across the human, animal and botanical worlds is between maleness and femaleness, biological distinction: the primal, generative polar-other pair, whose sexual consummation ensures genetic destinies are infinitely shuffled in the cycle of the survival of every species. Until recent advances in molecular biology, genetics and the chromosomal shuffle of each individual’s genetic destiny being equally bequeathed by both parents were relatively unknown, and patriarchal cultures and religions designated a secondary, inferior status to women in general, with childbearing and childrearing as their primary roles. Besides the asymmetry in literal biological costs involved in the reproductive cycle weighing heavily against the female of the species, oddly, oftimes because of it, cultural bias, taboos and prohibitions continue to dog women’s very existence. The many millennia of violence and inhumanity that has been perpetrated against women and girls in the name of the ‘natural order’, the law, tradition, religion and culture encompass female infanticide, female genital mutilation, subservience, silence, inequalities in human rights from citizenship to professions, the inability to represent anything other than themselves in female-centred roles, and even then, only with difficulty. From this discrimination, the practical and theoretical categorisation of the Other snowballs to include other perceived ‘imperfect’ manifestations of the human being, together with the coincident inequalities and social injustices endured. As explicated by Deleuze and Guattari, in their theory of “becoming”:
[T]he majority in the universe assumes as pregiven the right and power of man. In this sense women, children, but also animals, plants, and molecules, are minoritarian. It is perhaps the special situation of women in relation to the man-standard that accounts for the fact that becomings, being minoritarian, always pass through a becoming-woman.4
Women – by birth – can scarcely be called a minority as they make up nearly half of the world’s population, but they are classified collectively under the non-discrimination policy thus: “women, minorities, and individuals with disabilities”. With women as the emblematic Other, gender, race, ancestry, ethnicity, caste, class, religion, language, sexuality, national identity, political leaning, age, disability – any minority status at all – are collectively co-existent, parallel and intermingling live currents in this flow of Otherness.
Ironically, the ideals of Beauty and embodied ‘perfection’ have always been woven into evaluative categorical systems, which have been inadvertently tyrannical, intolerant, and self-sabotaging, even. Aesthetics and ethics are diabolically bound, and can confound our best intentions to remain unbiased. Eugenics, Nazi ‘Aryan race supremacy’, and once held ‘truths’ like phrenology, and the belief that “an organism’s “outer state” – its appearance – reflected its “inner state,” its moral or intellectual worth”5 are notions that subtly reinforce the phenomenological experience of appearance and physiognomic markers, and points of identification with, and deviation from such ideals. Hence from the start, Darwin’s insights provoked outrage, and evolutionary biology’s stance on humanity’s very animal beginnings continues to invoke horror and disbelief. Beauty may be truth and truth, beauty, at its most philosophical foundations, but it is probably more truthful to say that beauty is experienced as powerful; and by extension, the desire of, and for power is tied to this experience.
So. We perceive but the tip of the primordial iceberg: so much lies at subconscious levels, and, despite advancements in sociology, psychology and psychiatry, remains furtive – inscrutable, without purposeful unmooring from the safety of structures designed to maintain perceived ‘natural order’, and preestablished ‘superiority’ and power.
A sense of ‘belonging’ crystallises around culture, tradition, pride, resilience, and also pain and loss, and accretes generationally: at some point, responses get conditioned, and lines are drawn to keep some in, and others out. Retrospect far enough, those lines recede, fade, overlap, disappear: so much of any definitive, identifying legacy arises from shared influences – from belief systems to food sources and cuisine, to language. Not all ‘influence’ was, or is, benign, of course. We impress, and are impressed upon: these pivotal moments have complicated, double-edged beginnings. Indigeneity stakes the deepest claim on belonging, where landscapes are bound with mindscapes, and the blood, sweat and tears of the living, and the bodies of the dead, feed identification with ancient geographies and stories. Yet, like the settlers who arrive millennia later, even indigeneity has beginnings. Belonging has beginnings in endings.
II. Mutual Conditioning: Walking in Another’s Skin
“…the secret of happiness and virtue […]: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” 6
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian and prescient Brave New World scopes the pragmatic solutions of social conditioning mercilessly, with the “Hatchery and Conditioning Centre” where embryos get predestined into specific castes: from Alpha-Plus through Beta, Delta, Epsilon, Gamma, all carefully conditioned to be happy with their lots. Ringing Neo-Pavlovian bells, he imagines a future governed by what is reasonable-sounding: “The World State Motto: Community. Identity. Stability.” In Huxley’s world, a person from one caste could not possibly imagine being, or being with, someone else from another caste: that was disapproved of.
It takes empathy and imagination to experience Other perspectives, to “become-Other”, and some inescapable shared aspects of human experience (at least thus far) like pain and suffering certainly bring one person’s world closer to another. Literature, story, art and images, music – all grow empathy. At the Virtual Reality (VR)
Innovations at the Tribeca Film Festival 2018 in New York, the Virtual Arcade featured ‘storyscapes’, or what is called “immersive experiences” of the new genre of VR films. The BBC World Service Click programme host Gareth Mitchell spoke to the VR filmmakers about modes like “Embodiment” and “Social VR”, which allow anyone to “take on a role, go into somebody else’s shoes.” Mitchell, describing himself as a “white male”, donned his VR goggles and experienced the VR film 1,000 Cut Journey, “where the person undergoing the VR experience is teleported into the body of a VR character and is subject to that foreign character’s experience, such as police brutality and racism.” This is related to the concept of the ‘avatar’, of which many definitions now pertain, but the origins of the word come from Hindu mythology, referencing the incarnation of a god in some form. Here in immersive VR mode, it enables embodied, intersubjective experience. 1,000 Cut Journey is described thus:
In this immersive virtual-reality experience, the viewer becomes Michael Sterling, a black man, encountering racism as a young child, adolescent, and young adult. 1,000 Cut Journey highlights the social realities of racism, for understanding racism is the essential first step in promoting effective, collective social action and achieving racial justice.7
The instructions include being told to look in the mirror where Mitchell sees himself as a seven-year-old black boy looking back at him: he is Michael, on his first day at school, and experiences discrimination at each small ‘cut’ inflicted, through micro- aggressions – from being mocked, to being ignored, and through fully traumatic moments in the character’s life. Mitchell said he felt the weight of “assumptions made about you before you’ve had a chance to speak.” Just 10 minutes into the embodiment experience, sitting crosslegged on the floor as a child, waiting for an interview as a young adult, and later made to kneel, to “feel subjugated” under police control, and Mitchell says: “I was furious, I mean really, genuinely.”
Pre-avatar technology, in the late 1960s in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the American teacher Jane Elliott created the now-iconic “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes”8 experiential workshop, where the children in her class experienced what it felt like to be ‘othered’ – an experiment which “labels participants as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes and exposes them to the experience of being a minority.”
While some have, since then, critiqued her work as “sadistic”, etc., this “lesson of a lifetime” provides the same immersive experience that helps with identification and empathy. Similarly, experiential workshops where able-bodied people experience disability, e.g., undertake tasks while blindfolded, demonstrate the powerful way imagination is informed by experience, and vice versa. As Atticus Finch says to his daughter, Scout, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”9
However, the ‘corrective’ pendulum has now swung into hyperdrive in the world of publishing fiction and literature, where “sensitivity readers” are now all the rage. Authors are often obliged to take on the services of these “sensitivity readers”10 who vet manuscripts for “stereotypes, biases and problematic language,” to which author Lionel Shriver responds that there is “a thin line between combing through manuscripts for anything potentially objectionable to particular subgroups and overt political censorship.” The claim is that this is not censorship, but “offering perspectives,” which might include suggestions to a writer that they “may not be the best person” to write from particular perspectives! This is tricky terrain: if one person’s freedom to express is another person’s experience of oppression, how does an evolving society balance these rights, i.e., the right to express, and the right to experience? And what of responsibilities on both sides? And aren’t writers worth their salt already their own first “sensitivity readers”, and aren’t their publishers there to work with them?
Writers imagine, that is critical to the profession, and good writers imagine experienceable worlds, however ‘unreal’. Literature is a wormhole: sit down with a book and in an instant, we are transported into worlds beyond the space of our own lives and time – we retreat into the past, and race far into the future; we climb into characters’ heads – men, women, children, animals, even inanimate objects – and understand – deeply understand – what it feels like to be other than ourselves, while, at the same time, recognising ourselves through these other perspectives. We feel the characters’ pain, shame, regret, exhilaration, despair. We identify with them, and so live a thousand lives in one lifetime. Literary devices or figures of speech are the most sophisticated instruments the human mind has created to conceptualise the world around us and our place in it – from simple and familiar similes to the mysterious metaphor and the meaningful allegory; through fiction and poetry, life becomes even more real. We are sensitised; we learn about the complexities of human nature; we become more accommodating and more compassionate when we read, write, make, and appreciate art. Conscience cannot be outsourced.
III. Conditional Representation; Obligatory Belonging
Difference can only be liberated through the invention of an acategorical thought.11
One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.12
The Other fascinates; confounds; is feared and rejected; is reviled; is ignored, dismissed; is mistreated, marginalised, alienated; is tolerated. Then again, some specimens of otherness are denied even ‘existence’ because quite anomalous, and uncategorisable: perhaps the Other is a Hydra, not a community. Otherness differentiates on a spectrum of ‘difference’ – in kind, by degree, by decree, by choice, inevitably. So, how can otherness be represented? Who represents otherness? The socio-political-cultural arena still regulates by order of stereotype: ironically, it typecasts the ‘typical’ Other, yet views askance the atypical Other. The representation of the Other and the representative of Otherness further tighten stereotype, exacerbated by the ethics-aesthetics Gordian knot.
Two visible instances of anomalous events: Barack Obama, President of the USA (2008-2016), and Meghan Markle, married into British royalty (2018), both American, both hailing from mixed race – biracial – heritage. They are, at once, both black and white, and neither black, nor white. Yet how they are perceived, and what they choose to project – are significant. To state categorically that Obama was the first black president is inaccurate. He is the first mixed race, or biracial, president. Does that make a difference? Yes. And no, in a democracy, it should not. Yet, it does. Displaying a sense of belonging – whatever the motivation on choice of sides – was critical. Politically, it kept things ‘sided’, and he could fulfill obligations to represent the obvious Other. It addressed and also perpetuated difference via obvious polarisation, giving precedence to his father, and sidestepping his mother in the equation, as if pecking order rights needed to be observed first, and reversed. If he did identify as white, or biracial – neither side might have deemed him a worthy ‘representative’, as Obama is both more minoritarian than black, and ‘insufficiently’ white. What about all the other Others – the indigenous peoples, Hispanics, Asians, people of mixed races? Somehow, his being different did make a difference: poised as a fulcrum between worlds, Obama did stand up for Otherness, including the Hydra-Other. With Markle, the claim that she represents the black and biracial population in Britain also works on this principle – although care is taken to note that she is ‘biracial’. American and biracial, marrying into the British royal family is entering even more primordially sensitive terrain, given royalty’s very premise of bloodline and kingdom. This marriage is epochal.
Another set of issues much in the public eye now: gender, sexuality and sexual abuse. What began as the LGB ‘community’ has now become LGBTQ+, an increasingly unpronounceable acronym representing a very diverse collective. Transgender issues, the T in LGBTQ+, marks the transitional, crossers of lines of belonging that reflect the complexities of embodiment and identification most visibly. The hold on gender and sexuality has long been regulated by religion and continues to engender intolerances.
While collective identity and the extended sense of self are strategies now in practice, allowing distressed online communities to represent themselves via social media like the #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and even the #NotMyPresident movements, it is religion’s strategy that stands par excellence: hearts-and-minds forged in collective identification – beyond geopolitical, national, cultural, racial, or social and class boundaries – with timeless storyscapes that intimately include the extremely extended self, aligned directly to ultimate power. There are rules and regulations of course, yet this is a near-unconditional sense of belonging that does wonders in terms of psychoneuroimmunology.
How does a diversity of othernesses represent themselves? When can othernesses be represented with critical mass, ‘solidarity’? Group, gang, community, assembly, crowd, mob, horde? How held? The difference between and within othernesses could be even wider than the difference they might individually have with the relatively more homogenous majority. The adage: “The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend” is true, yet we often find, as Trinculo in Shakespeare’s The Tempest says, taking shelter with that great Other, Caliban, to escape a storm, that “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Discussing group psychology, the social psychologist Stephen Reicher cites an example of contingent identification: imagine all the individuals in a train, boarding as individuals with “no psychological commonality.” If the train breaks down (yet again) however, all these ‘Is’ become ‘One’ against the train company, as they become “aggrieved commuters,” and experience “the transition from the physical to a psychological group, where people have, if you like, that sense of ‘we’.”13 Riots, rituals, sports events and music festivals all have such fluid, yet highly regulated group dynamics, through “shared purpose.”
Declarations of equality and meritocracy, more often than not, fall short of lived realities. Tokenism will not cut it anymore: the much-managed anxiety of engineering optics-conscious, harmonious-seeming resolution, is no real resolution at all. Based on the core tenet of democracy, the majority wins: if the majority is constituted by race, as is the case in many nations, when can someone from the minority represent their country, within which everyone is supposedly an equal citizen? What does this imply for proportionally representative governments? Can the minority only ever represent themselves and their ‘minority issues’? When can minorities be represented with critical mass, or, the powers forbid, represent the critical mass? What is national identity, if it doesn’t override race, racial distribution, and ‘community’? When can we belong to each other, to our shared humanity? Quite an impasse. David Reich, Harvard University geneticist, states that with the advances made in molecular biology, we now know that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had a common ancestor, about 500,000 years ago, and that “interbreeding may have occurred on more than one occasion.” With this shared history, “it should give us an alternative to the evils of racism and nationalism and make us realise that we are all entitled equally to our human heritage.”14
Animal, vegetable, mineral: since all life shares common ancestry, we should perhaps all shift from mere humanism to neo- enlightenment ‘Earthism’. And even as we gain new insights on how ethics and aesthetics concatenate, conscience might move us beyond ‘optics-diplomacy’: within, and between My You, and Your Me, we might just find each Other belonging.
B. The Works of Art: Living Realities & Shaping Perceptions
Art can transcend the constraints of culture. In You, Other; I, Another, all nine artists come from very dissimilar backgrounds, and their works diverge off various individual realities of lived Otherness, or concepts of difference – expressed in diverse materialities and modes. From the rhythms of the natural world to the measures of culture and custom, and stemming from the personal, the familial to the societal – all manner of Other manifest here reciprocally, “inscrutably involved.”
While not an ‘international’ exposition as far as convention goes, nonetheless the age-old thorny subject that all nine artists ponder is surfacing to the forefront of world attention: it is many-faceted and far from convenient to package and present, and inevitably so. The artworks, while very singular, resonate in subtle ways, and some come within range of each other’s territory, and some overlap. No, this isn’t about “harmony”. Instead, there are clear, unexpected overtones – sympathetic resonance – in the individual refrains: notes unstruck, tremble to each other’s presence. These can be discerned with keen listening.
Bewitched; Knotted; Guarded; Incorporated
Associations emerge between the works, and these first four all engage in their unique ways with gendered and self-conscious relations within the structures of romance, the family, the self and cultural heritage; how the sexes are socio-culturally conditioned and embodied – with subtle inversions of the male-female relational continuum – and how these relations are encountered personally.
Susie Wong’s three trace- drawings respond to the genre of romantic movies. Taking computer screen- grabs off certain scenes – stilling specific moments – from the iconic 1960s film The World of Suzie Wong, the artist remarks, dryly, that the Hong Kong heroine is her namesake, and that she made this choice for “a hoot and a laugh.” In any romantic relationship, as famously excavated in Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, his glossary-analysis of the agony and ecstasy of love and desire – there is the lover, and the beloved, and these roles are asymmetrical, and dynamically very differently charged. The lover suffers: compelled to demonstrate devotion, to perform, to make promises and overt gestures of reassurance; it is the lover who longs for the beloved ‘other’; it is the lover who is abandoned. The beloved is on the passive and receiving end of this performance of love. Barthes’ “I” is the lover, and the beloved is written of as the ‘other’. Frequently, though not always, this dynamic is mapped on typical male-female relations, in a game of pursuit and capture; endless waiting; loss; absence, etc. This in turn, as exemplified in The World of Suzie Wong, also maps against the power dynamics between East and West, the colonial and the colonised. Wong’s chosen-stolen moments show the male white protagonist in jacket and tie, but with mouth slightly agape as he pulls away, or where he is all ‘back’ – the figure is sentimental, protectively tender, but gingerly, and somewhat under siege, as evident from the man’s utterances in American-English off screen-grab, caught as subtitle- titles in Mandarin in the drawings, “a language in which I am neither conversant nor literate”, declares the artist. In the film, it is the man who beseeches his amour to stay, which echoes Barthes’ observations:
“Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the woman. […] Woman is faithful (she waits), man is fickle (he sails away, he cruises). […] It follows that in any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized.”1
This power imbalance inherent in romantic relations and mirrored in romantic movies as well as East-West relations, where the ‘Oriental other’ is often further feminised, gives pause for thought. Yet, as Wong says: “We consume Romance, and it devours us.” Language still attests to the bias that reflects the state of hapless disempowerment of the role and status of women, where words like ‘emasculated’ and ‘effeminate’ are used to belittle men, or indeed, other cultures. Ultimately though, the love to be loved disarms, and renders individuals, female and male, vulnerable, as evident in the delicate watercolour drawings of Wong’s unhappy lovers.
Approaching a Mending Wall, a pair of heavy tapestry-like hanging works, is what Mithun Jayaram, who lives and works in Bangalore, India, calls “process-based sculpture”, made in response to the scope of this exhibition. It began with observing his Hindu father’s daily rituals: cleaning, trimming and lighting of the oil lamp at their home, which uses a cotton lamp-wick twine used in temples as well. The work presents a father-and-son portrait, hung and tenuously bound to each other. Both sides of the handknitted base are heavily textured: the ‘backs’ bristle with dangling knobbly knots; the ‘fronts’ are long- furred with frayed ends. At points, the frayed ends of each tapestry are pulled and tied to each other, tensioned in sections, and looser in others, like webbed tendons, stretched and forced to keep connected.
That the tapestries are knotted and woven from temple oil-lamp wicks, spins another dimensional backdrop of family traditions, religion, ritual, cultural contexts and heritage. The tapestry-portraits wick material is a by-product in the manufacture of cotton saris: this rather intriguingly alludes to a woman’s absence – the mother’s severed umbilical connection to son – being yet another hush in this ode to silence. Perhaps also another unknotting: what is extraneous to the clothing of women’s bodies umbilical-binds the relationship of father to divine Father, and son to father. In Hindu temples, oil- lamps are filled with different flammable fats: ghee, sesame seed oil, or coconut oil. The wick, when saturated in these oils and lit, draws up the flammable liquid in a capillary flow, and keeps the flame constant on a slow aromatic burn. The very material is metaphorically saturated in the latent potential of controlled flammability, and when repeatedly knotted, suggests an inhibited, snarled up ‘violence’. Knotting and knots usually serve a vital function of holding things together, but here, the separate knots are non-functional – these knots cannot be unravelled, they are deadknots, and it is pointless to unravel them, because each knot is knotted unto itself from a separate length of twine. We eavesdrop on the unconscious and subconscious convolution of repeating patterns; of unsaid, unheard emotions and thoughts. The string-ends of the knots in front are the frayed ties that bind, and evoke familial relations of the father and son as kin; as skins, touching, and touched, while tensed across the silent acknowledgement of circumscribed roles. This family portrait of father and son is one of estranged masculine interiorities – not quite looking at each other, but unavoidably aware of each other’s presence amidst furtive sidelong glances. The distance between father and son, both Other to each other, is measured in fidgety, Gordian- knotted silences; it is given skin, uneasy touchability.
The vulnerabilities of masculinity and the formation of male identity in relation to Nature and Culture pulse at the hidden heart of Vincent Twardzik Ching’s installation Eraphya, in which he invokes his ancestral lineage on his Canadian-Finnish mother’s side. Eraphya – meaning sacred wilderness – enshrines another hidden dimension of gender relations, and in the context of family, the artist constructs the space of fathers and sons, and of archetypal male coming-into-being, drawing on his own lived experience. The installation is constructed in a series of ‘screens’, nut-and-bolted together, of reclaimed wood panels, ‘distressed’, sanded, hammered at and painted upon, then deliberately set up at angles so that it is impossible to get a clear view from any particular point – except through peering and peeping – of the presence of a suggested interior. Reminiscent of a ‘kids’ fort’, a child’s hideout, or of a makeshift shelter of the homeless – it is fragile in its make-do mode – yet necessary. The painted surfaces on reclaimed panels bear abstract imagery, evocative of lichen and moss, and landscapes around which the viewer wanders. The ‘inner sanctum’ that one journeys towards, and even when one arrives within, is partly obscured by what the artist calls “three guardians” – vertical sculptures that seem to take on aspects of natural forces that collide, synthesise and incarnate as cultural-material shields, complete with the hiss of an untuned radio. Then, more veiling: a constructed ‘thorny bramble’ crowds protectively around the heart of the structure – a small oil painting featuring a man and an animal. This seems to also conjure the classic fairytale grove, where a charmed princess lies asleep, awaiting her kiss into womanhood – but this time, it’s a masculinity that is being ‘guarded’. The small, classically painted oil painting, enshrined on an easel, was inspired by a 1960s postcard, picturing a scene of the very site where the artist’s Finn ancestors migrated to in Northwest Ontario, Canada. This space also conjures a sense of an artist’s studio-sanctuary, where images are dreamt up and made manifest. One is granted a glimpse of a secret, quiet moment, a sacred moment, when a man is pictured nursing a baby moose with a bottle of milk: an archetypical manly man, coincident as a ‘mothering’ man, nurtured by Nature and nurturing Nature.
Male identity in relation to Nature – overcoming challenges of weather and wilderness, farming, the domestication of wild animals – and its vestigial associations with physical strength, is constructed around, as Twardzik Ching notes: “profound dichotomies where violence and industriousness, insecurity and self-reliance are juxtaposed in fragile and volatile relationships to each other.” The ancestral notion of ‘home’ – built for self and significant other, is still an issue today, when domestic duties are negotiated, and physical strength isn’t literally necessary in the corporate, urban city.
Intriguingly, Eraphya calls to mind Duchamp’s Étant donnés2 which can only be seen through two peepholes in a solid, sealed wooden door. Duchamp’s last work is riddled with visual and linguistic puns, alluding perhaps to Courbet’s infamous painting The Origin of the World. The hole through which one peeps, leads the eye to yet another ‘hole’, that is perceived as part of a whole but in actuality isn’t: the coming-into- being of what isn’t whole, as perceived through the peephole, is the eroticised space between the spread ‘legs’ of a three-dimensional not-quite-woman figure. It is a woman’s body in parts, headless, only barely assembled, just enough for the eye to make out the erotic-symbolic scene. Eraphya seems to be an inversion of Étant donnés in more ways than one: here, the largest peephole upfront is a violently smashed-in gash on plywood; elsewhere peepholes are frayed cracks between hinged panels, or drilled ‘bullet- holes’. The installation has a sense of secrecy, of ‘hoarding’, that suggests interior construction that must be shielded from view until completed. This is a space for the ‘becoming-self ’, backed against the wall, which will always have protective hoarding up at the deepest, most vulnerable moments – yet the work also has a ‘backstage-set’ effect. The perfect gem of an oil painting nestles within this space, only perceptible through the inconvenient, ‘culturally conditioned’ construction of manliness that is still the measure of desirability in all orientations, depending on who masculinises, and who feminises between relations. A relevant aside: Twardzik Ching and his Chinese artist wife, both of the Baha’i faith, take on each other’s surnames, deliberately unhyphenated, as a significant mark of mutual respect.
Mumtaz Maricar’s oil painting Laparoscopic wound, no wider than 1 – 2 cm, is named for the bodily site of an excision. This uncanny portrait of female embodiment, clad in the culturally-specific Indian sari, does reflect Indianness, yet what is not apparent is that the artist was raised in an Indian Muslim family, and cultural identity here is more convoluted than is visible. In this self-portrait, the artist’s hands are depicted, as expressed by the artist, “framing the site of the laparoscopic wound through which a uterine fibroid was removed”. At the painted re-opened incision just below the navel, the impression of a third hand presses up from beneath the painted skin, and fingertips seem to pry open the wound from within. This “colonisation of the body by an alien agency”, as Maricar describes, while viscerally referencing the abject, extraneous fleshly material produced when changes in the body sensitises it to high estrogen levels within the body itself, also grapples with the female body as a self-exceeding, autonomous Other, with its own will and desires, pregnant with her sense of self. The ground, against which the figure arises, blooms with cloud-like fibroid-forms, surrounding the woman. In the age of the Selfie, this self-portrait is a doppelganger who craves rebirth as another self, the female self who rebirths herself through a wound: as Maricar notes, it is her doppelganger who is the painter, struggling for existence. Resurfacing through the site of the laparoscopic wound as the “object of desire”, this artist-self, in Kristeva’s words, “bursts with the shattered mirror where the ego gives up its image in order to contemplate itself in the Other” and the abject becomes “simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other, having become alter ego, drops so that “I” does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence.”3
Here, surrealist painting arises beyond the ‘truths’ of the abstract- painterly surface once again; as surface within surface, paint paints skin and skins apart painting: a representation of the psychological dimensions of human nature.
Captured; Commemorated; Escaped
The elemental forces and forms of Nature are what inspire the next three artists, although each work with very different materials: photographic print and its chemical capture of timed being and presence; found dead and treated specimens of fauna; a felled tree turned sculptural wave. Their works resonate on themes of transience and the transitional nature of existence and perception.
Siew Kee Liong’sSessa’s Dream and Vassal’s Glove are paired and juxtaposed photographic prints of photographs and negatives of people and objects that seem to symbolically hint at the shifting power dynamic between masculinity and femininity via the inverse relations of the moment as negative, and another instantiation in print. Sessa’s Dream features a broken chess piece – the King – and is paired with the furtive and anxious partial portrait of a man on negative film, an image obscured by a decade’s growth of dendritic mould and fungus, and burnt edges.
Beside this ‘internal’ pair, is another pair of images: Vassal’s Glove depicts a much-worn workman’s glove, and a negative image, less stained with fungus, of a woman curled up on the ground, and yet somehow afloat, perhaps asleep, perhaps huddled, post-trauma. There is a suggestion of lost time, touch, and non-touch, given that gloves protect a user from direct contact with any surface or object. Both works are symbolically linked, referencing the legendary Sessa, Indian inventor of chaturanga, the ancestor of chess, and the power dynamics between king and the ‘hand’ of the king, in relation to the ‘protection’ of the queen – here is a parable about roles, betrayal and broken trust. Yet, that is just one possible narrative: the artist reassures that “the pairing of the human subject and the object is an attempt to create a trigger that stirs the viewer to form their own narrative.” These enigmatic images, particularly the portraits, are each “sliced” moments of a life, as Siew states, and having been captured in an instant in traditional photography on acetate – the negative – remains “distinct and separate from the human being I photographed.” A separate life, a parting of ways post the capture, with the photographed person living on, aging with each day, away from their stilled image-in-time; each drifting further apart from one another over the years; each figuring thereafter in a different story. This is the ‘stilling’ of life itself, which estranges the ‘me now’ from every passing moment. You get asked, when sharing past photographs: Is that you? You may ask that of yourself, gazing at a surrogate that perpetuates a once-you. The sense of self continues under your very nose; your image once captured, separates from you – like Oscar Wilde’s dire tale The Picture of Dorian Gray, but in reverse – the once-you gets progressively differentiated in time from the continuing self. And upon the discontinuation of that self, others choose ‘their you’ from the images left behind to remember a once-you by.
Despite perhaps sharing ancestral lineage in the murkiest, archaic depths of our mutual coming-into-being, the animal is what humanity distinguishes itself from most keenly. We may love animals – our pets; the beauty and freedom of wild animals; as wrought works of art; as revered animal spirit guides, and animal-headed gods; as the grilled steak on our plate; our handsome leather shoes; the feathers in our caps. Yet we take pains not to ‘behave like animals’, implying wayward lack of morality, and strenuously object to being ‘treated like animals’, implying slavery, powerlessness and indignity – while, at the same time, we anthropomorphise and divinise all manner of creatures in our myths, morality tales and cartoons, and create soft animal-surrogates to provide comfort and companionship for our young. While the animal is seen as Other to the human being, death others us all, human and animal alike. Victor Emmanuel’sOsseous series of works are what he calls a “tribute” to Nature’s wondrous forms, in life and in death. Osseous Ivory is one set of carefully cleaned and re-assembled skeletons: a delicately-boned pigeon and two of the enigmatic Royal Pleco fish, with primordial-looking skeletons. Dead when the artist found or was given them, their now polished ivory skeletons belie the visceral processes Victor undertook to allow for the hidden sculptural beauty of their bones to be revealed. Another series, Osseous Crystallised, is a paean to life and lifeforms: rare creatures and insects, disappearing from our urbanised islandscape, found dead on his nature trails, e.g., the Carpenter Bee, are lovingly collected and transformed into works of art through a crystallisation process. From seahorse, sea- swallow, to wasp, these are ensconced in glass spheres and affixed within cast and carved resin skulls, representing how we might hold them precious in our minds, lest we forget, or should they go extinct in our lifetimes. Most poignantly, these works remind us that our human consciousness is on continuum with the animal world, as we co-exist on Mother Earth.
Still on Nature, but this time with a focus on natural phenomena as transient form, Malaysia-born sculptor Yeo Chee Kiong received his early art education in Singapore and has lived and worked in Singapore for decades. He now also works in Taiwan. Yeo’s practice, inspired by natural forms and forces, also works through allusion and paradox, giving sculptural permanence to what has no solid form, e.g., water and wind, and their interactions. This is seen in Tempted Mind, Shaking Tree, Running Water, where he carves a felled African Mahogany tree trunk, chars it, and with mallet and chisel, turns wood into a stylised form of moving water – a curve-faceted ‘wave’. In keeping with his use of epoxy ‘spills’ to ‘liquefy’ hard surfaces e.g., walls and other architectural features, this tree-wave casts a wet- looking black shadow that seems to flow away from it on the floor of the space. As a sculptural response to an anecdotal Zen question about the deceptive perception of cause and effect in the phenomenal world, Tempted Mind, Shaking Tree, Running Water is a simple yet startling reminder that perception is constantly shifting, and that all is in flux, as deeply held in Buddhist understanding. Wood becomes ‘water’; ‘water’ casts a solid-liquid ‘shadow’; ‘shadow’ becomes solid form that resembles water. The metaphorical here becomes material, and vice versa. Nothing is what it seems. Shift your point of view, and everything – including preconceptions of another – transforms.
The final two artists’ works are individual contemplations on their experience of being overtly made to feel Other in the very country they were born in, and how estrangement becomes internalised, slowly whittling away any sense of belonging from within.
Reflecting on her childhood growing up in Kampong Siglap, Singapore, as a Eurasian girl, Regina De Rozario’s work is a careful inventory of the questions she has been traumatised and bombarded with, and that have chipped and chiselled away at her sense of identity over the years. In her words, she has “never quite ‘fitted’ in, or found my ‘place’, either by my own volition or circumstance.” 101 questions form the core of her thinking around the subject of Otherness, and the work Faultlines (or, The questions you ask today will be the questions I ask tomorrow) is made manifest as a handwritten list of these questions on and around a pillar in the gallery, on which she also affixes photographs unearthed from her childhood photo albums. The non-word markings on the pillar are deliberately worked to extend the existing visible mended-cracks on the floor of the gallery right up the pillar, creating a sense of instantiated ‘faultlines’ – the very title of her work. There is irony here: architecturally, pillars uphold ceilings and roofs; metaphorically, pillars of society keep us feeling protected – we lean upon them; value systems and ideologies are spoken of as pillars too. This pillar-of-questions, instead, is a monument to estrangement; a whipping pillar.
Noticeably absent in these photographs is her father, who was a seaman, although she notes that she had, in the past, cut some family members out from certain photographs. The pencilled 101 questions, hammered out like statements, hang without question-marks; some asked repeatedly of her over the years, right until the present, include: “What is your name • Why is your name so hard to pronounce • Do you have a Chinese name • Are you Malay • Why are you so dark • What is a Eurasian • Are you Singaporean”
Such questions have been experienced as “bruises” that continue to hurt – and they reveal much about dominant Singapore society, and the many crude prejudices and projections cast upon minority cultures and subcultures – people who appear Other, or who are simply perceived as being visibly not part of the majority, i.e., ‘not belonging’. As De Rozario says, she is “a minority within a minority within a minority.” Writing stories and drawing pictures on the walls of her home as a child, her mother never cleaned or painted over any of this accumulating ‘graffiti’. This background to her childhood remained until they had to move house when she was eight, and the house was left, with the marked walls still whispering.
Leroy Sofyan hails from a family of mixed ethnicities: half Minangkabau (his father, he says, was born in West Sumatra on a volcanic lake) and half Eurasian; and different faiths: Baha’i and Catholic. He worked as a paramedic for six years, before turning sculptor. Sofyan has had to suffer all manner of presumptuous interrogation and treatment that has left him somewhat resigned to the ongoing undermining of his sense of belonging in the country he was born in. His thoughtful wood sculpture is heavy with significance, which it carries with stoic, ironic dignity. Measure/ Measured is hewn and carved from one trunk of Tembusu wood, a species of tree indigenous to Singapore. It is shaped as two weighing scales, one upside down atop the other, and sits squarely on a tall grey granite plinth. Malt vinegar-stained a deep purple- brown, the grain and beautifully worked fractures of the wood surfaces appear fragile-yet-strong. There is an old, much-weathered axe with a worn wooden handle ‘wedged’ between one part of the base of the sculpture and the top surface of the granite plinth: a ‘counterbalance’. This is Sofyan’s recognisable hallmark, where he integrates readymade tools, objects and instruments of measure with his handshaped sculptures, such that they wittily ‘pry’ each other open into another dimension of thinking. The axe as art- object also calls to mind Tang Da Wu’s work ‘Untitled’ (1991), generally known as ‘Axe’,4 where the wooden handle of the axe- head seems to sprout new leafy growth, suggesting diabolically redemptive dialectics: that the very handle, shaped from the wood of a felled tree to become the agent of tree-destruction, will in time develop ‘self-consciousness’ and begin anew, as tree.
Referencing Hegel’s “master and slave hierarchy in our own minds,” Sofyan used “one block of wood,” with the aim, he says “to convey how inextricable the self is from the other”; “to make physical the struggle within ourselves” and “to invite thought about how the struggle between mutual identification and estrangement plays out in the field of social relations.”
Measure/Measured questions the societal standard of measure, set at an unspoken default, against which we are weighed and, inevitably, found ‘wanting’. We are prompted to ponder measurability: who is positioned to evaluate our worthiness to belong; how we appraise ourselves, or ‘measure up’; that we do indeed transact on the perceptual, and are at the mercy of appearances; how are we perceived, even as our appearances belie our sense of self, and – how might we counter the weights of social bias and injustice. The gentle irony of a symbolic counterweighted counterweight is both charming, and at once deeply unsettling: here, in hewn wood, perched on stone and axe-wedged, is some measure of Foucault’s difference-liberating “acategorical thought,”5 given heft.
NOTE: The essay You, Other; I, Another is written in two parts: A. A Meditation on Otherness & Belonging; B. The Works of Art: Living Realities & Shaping Perceptions. Part B, discusses the nine artworks in this exhibition.
Endnotes (to Part A of essay)
1Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p67.
2Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p184.
Robert Ader, ‘Psychoneuroimmunology’, ILAR Journal, Volume 39, Issue 1, 1 January 1998, Pages 27–29, https://doi.org/10.1093/ilar.39.1.27. Psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI, is a relatively recent “convergence of disciplines” pioneered by Dr Robert Ader, who states: “Until recently, the immune system was considered an independent agency of defense that protected the organism against foreign material (i.e., proteins that were not part of one’s “self”). Indeed, the immune system is capable of considerable self-regulation. However, converging data from the behavioral and brain sciences now indicate that the brain plays a critical role in the regulation or modulation of immunity. This new research indicates that the nervous and immune systems, the two most complex systems that have evolved for the maintenance of homeostasis, represent an integrated mechanism for the adaptation of the individual and the species.”
4Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993/first published 1980), p 291.
In 1795, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in his book, On the Natural Variety of Mankind, divided humanity into five varieties linked to geography: Negro (African), Mongolian (Asian), Malay (Southeast Asia), American Indian (American), and Caucasian (European). He introduced the word Caucasian for what he called the first and most beautiful race; other races represented “a degeneration from the original type.” Like Blumenbach, Dutch professor of anatomy Petrus Camper was also “preoccupied with the idea of beauty and order in the world.” He ranked human faces on degree of resemblance to the Enlightenment ideal – ancient Greek sculptures – believing that “an organism’s “outer state”—its appearance— reflected its “inner state,” its moral or intellectual worth.”
6Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, (first edition 2006), p16. First published by Harper & Brothers, 1932.
7https://www.tribecafilm.com/immersive The 12-minute VR film 1,000 Cut Journey – project creators: Courtney Cogburn, Elise Ogle, Jeremy Bailenson, Tobin Asher, Teff Nichols; project directors: Courtney Cogburn, Elise Ogle; key collaborators: Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Cogburn; research group producers: Jeremy Bailenson, Courtney Cogburn; writers: Courtney Cogburn, Cogburn Research Group; funded by: The Brown Institute for Media Innovation. (USA, 2018.) Other VR films at the Virtual Arcade included The Day the World Changed, “which brings to viewers the harrowing impressions of the victims and survivors of atomic bombings and nuclear arms testing through first-hand testimonies, data visualizations, and innovative use of 3-D scanning and photogrammetry”, and Hero which transports viewers to the present-day Syrian conflict.
8https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/lesson-of-a-lifetime-72754306/ “Jane Elliott, internationally known teacher, lecturer, diversity trainer, and recipient of the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education, exposes prejudice and bigotry for what it is, an irrational class system based upon purely arbitrary factors.”
9Harper Lee, To Kill a Mocking Bird (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1982 edition), p39.
10https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/27/vetting-for-stereotypes-meet- publishings-sensitivity-readers Alison Flood, Vetting for stereotypes: meet publishing’s ‘sensitivity readers’, Fri 27 Apr 2018.
12Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace Books, 2010), p224. First published 1969.
14https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/apr/07/ever-evolving-story-humanity- david-reich-interview-neanderthals-denisovans-genome See also: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/reich-genetics- racism/558818/
Endnotes (to Part B of essay)
1Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (Penguin: England, 1990. Translation copyright Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Inc. 1978), p14.
2http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/324.html “Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic assemblage Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) has been described by the artist Jasper Johns as “the strangest work of art in any museum.”” It has been permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969.
3Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p 9.
4Tang Da Wu’s Untitled (‘Axe’), 1991, is in the Singapore Art Museum collection. Interestingly, another work, Tang’s performance relic Montien and SAM, 2010 (performance at SAM’s inaugural exhibition Modernity and Beyond, 1996), features two weighing scales, separately: one inverted with the acronym SAM on its base, the other bearing stacked ceramic ware, referencing Thai artist Montien Boonma’s work. Both artists’ works are installed in the National Gallery Singapore’s exhibition Between Declarations and Dreams (2015 – 2019).
5Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p186.
Dr Susie Lingham (b. Singapore) is an interdisciplinary and independent thinker, writer, educator, curator, and maker in the arts. Appointed Creative Director of An Atlas of Mirrors, Singapore Biennale (SB2016), Singapore (2016/17), Lingham was Director of the Singapore Art Museum from 2013 to 2016, shaping its new vision/mission, curatorial direction and acquisition strategy, and oversaw the development, organization and curating of 13 exhibitions, including After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore (2015) and 5 Stars: Art Reflects on Peace, Justice, Equality, Democracy and Progress, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore (2015/16). Prior to these appointments, Lingham was Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education/NTU, Singapore (2009-2013). Conferred the Distinguished Alumni Medal 2014 by Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Lingham has a DPhil in Literature, Religion and Philosophy (University of Sussex, U.K.); an MA (Hons) in Writing (University of Western Sydney, Australia); and a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching Higher Education (NIE/NTU, Singapore), and has taught at universities and art colleges in Australia, Singapore and the U.K.
Thursday, 17 May 2018
Guest of Honour:Prof Kwok Kian Woon
Associate Provost (Student Life)
Professor of Sociology
Nanyang Technological University
Saturday, 19 May 2018
For information and documentation of the artist talk, click here.