Common Ground

Featuring Ahmad Abu Bakar, Ang Sookoon, Mike HJ Chang, Eric Chan, Chankerk, Safaruddin Abdul Hamid (Dyn), Belinda Fox, Michael Lee, Jason Lim, Esmond Loh, Kumari Nahappan, Dawn Ng,  Alvin Ong, Ruben Pang, Khairullah Rahim, J.S. Rajinder, Eugene Soh, Green Zeng

15 August - 13 September 2015

Chan Hampe Galleries was established in Singapore amidst an enormous amount of culturally focused activity. Far from the manufacturing and trade-centric interests of the past, the Singapore of today views local culture as playing an integral role in ensuring prosperity in the face of current and future adversity. The nation-state now sees its success as dependent upon "how united we are as a nation, and how deeply we understand what it means to be Singaporean."[1]

Despite evolving priorities, nation building has remained at the forefront of the Singapore narrative. Yet, frequently it seems the very things that make Singapore unique are replaced, overlooked, or dismissed. Take for example Singlish. The quintessential example of an organically developed dialect readily available in every hawker centre and taxicab, yet there have been formal efforts to do away with it.[2] Dr. Terence Chong, Sociologist and Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), has noted that the need for vernacular identities in Singapore is understandable in the face of globalisation and the rising population of foreigners, however when government initiatives push for homogenised identities for nationalistic purposes, these organic identities can become areas of resistance and the need for authentic connection even more significant.[3]

As a Singapore business that is a collaboration between local and non-local identities, we find ourselves in the position of being both insider and outsider in this dialogue. As a gallery committed to cultivating contemporary art in Singapore, we also know these "areas of resistance" often offer the most fertile ground for examining these tensions. This exhibition ask artists to move beyond the typical nation building rhetoric and consider the unconventional sites that set us, the residents of Singapore, apart, and the overlooked commonalities that bring us together—to acknowledge the common ground.

Common Ground features 18 artists the gallery has worked with in the past, and 26 artworks, presented in both the Chan Hampe Galleries and Shophouse 5 spaces. Working in painting, photography, installation, and ceramics, these artists propose connections and gaps in our shared experience ranging from the spiritual to the everyday, and from deeply personal to national narratives. Presenting new and previously shown works, these artists delve into and question the lived experience of Singapore today. 

Connection to land and its relation to identity is a long-standing site of tension in Singapore. Artist Ahmad Abu Bakar has frequently addressed these subjects in his work as he does here with his ceramic pieces Objek - Siri JATI DIRI #1 and #2 (Identity Series #1 and #2). From each vessel, grounded by its geometric form and shape, extends an ethereal arm, the two arms together presenting the Malay proverb "Di mana bumi ku pijak di situ langit ku junking," that is, "Where one stands (on the land) is where one should hold up the sky." While making the best of a situation is indeed practical advice, good intentions alone do not always overcome feelings of disconnection and distance. Through material, form, and structure, Abu Bakar considers meaning, or the possibility of meaning, inherent in our association with place.

Michael Lee's Diorama series documents empty storefronts, notable for not much more than their lack of distinguishing features. In the midst of renovation, abandoned, or simply vacant, these photographs regard the physical and temporal space between end and beginning, the interlude that separates states of being in the built environment. Presented in small format, the spaces appear manageable stages awaiting their next act. The images could easily be of spaces in Singapore or any city for that matter, but were shot in London in what the artist describes as "what might have been the lull before the August 2011 riots." These frozen spaces provoke the anxiety and anticipation that often accompany transition and change, and highlight the all too familiar generic appearance present in so much of the contemporary environment.

The physical need not always be without promise. J.S. Rajinder's large monochrome paintings Above the ground or under it, and When every leaf is a flower, when every dew drop is a shower explore the idea of objects and spaces framed by the built environment—the shrine, the prayer mat, the temple—that serve as thresholds to other latent forms of existence, entities with a physical presence that command devotional response. Using sculpted acrylic paint applied to acetate via an involved process used in painting automobile plastics, these works propose links between sacred spaces. 

Interpersonal relations and the inevitable peaks and valleys that accompany such interaction are given shape in Balancing the World, a collaboration between Belinda Fox and Jason Lim. Approaching the project from different backgrounds and artistic practices, the two sought to extend the parameters of Raku ceramics by exploring dualities, negative spaces and precarious balancing acts. The resulting work with its organic forms and delicate configurations is both physically demonstrative of that shared vision and symbolic of the negotiation required in any partnership, always challenging yet capable of yielding results both beautiful and unique. 

The lure of the quotidian object is its familiarity and seeming impartiality, yet this neutral demeanour provides a level of malleability. Dawn Ng's Red and White highlight this feature by gathering items familiar to many in Singapore and presenting them as carefully staged, photographed still lifes. These objects, sourced from "mom and pop shops" from across the island, are presented monochromatically to highlight their shapes and tones, and encourage new ways of viewing the commonplace. In these tableaus the objects acquire new relationships with each other as they quietly narrate a unique story to each viewer.

Artists Esmond Loh and Alvin Ong approach the question of national loyalties from alternate perspectives. Loh, currently finishing his National Service, presents This Land, a black and white self-portrait, his body clad in camouflaged fatigues and weighted with gear. While the painting is a personal and contemplative piece for the artist, the regulation uniform and painted face speak to the absence of individuality in favour of the collective identity fostered by mandatory national service, and the role this experience plays in the lives of those performing the duty. 

Ong's painting of Dr. Ang Swee Chai serves as an affecting contrast. Ong met Dr. Ang in the UK where she has lived in political exile from Singapore since the late 1970s. He was moved by her experience of estrangement and displacement and requested she sit for him. His portrait of her is a poignant tribute to sacrifices made in the name of allegiance. As he comments, "She made me think about the significance of carrying the red passport." 

While explorations of identity are often approached from serious critical perspectives, it is not always the case. Eugene Soh's Creation of Ah Dam is a cheeky interpretation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece. In this composite photograph, the wise uncle from local wet market offers the divine touch (here, in the form of a golden carrot) to a strapping young man perched upon stool and crate. Soh has presented a number of Singapore versions of well-known western masterpieces poking light-hearted fun at east-west hybridity, a bit of sugar to keep tensions in check. 

If an authentic Singapore identity is to be discovered beyond sanctioned constructs, glimpses of it may be seen in collective responses to our shared physical space, or unexpected connections resulting from familiar objects or human emotions. It may equally be found in situations of separation or exclusion, each of which can take many forms, all of them ripe for developing solidarities.

While these overlaps are not all decidedly Singaporean in nature, the resulting whole offers what may be a more realistic take on the Singapore of today—a highly globalised and hybrid nation, where commonalities are frequent, but fluid, and often translatable beyond local boundaries. Where individuals are connected through webs of touch points resulting in an unmitigated and open identity, potentially more resilient than anything that could be ever be assigned.

[1] Arts and Culture Strategic Review. Singapore: 2012. 

[2] See http://goodenglish.org.sg/

[3] Terence Chong, "FLUID NATION The Perpetual 'Renovation' of Nation and National Identities in Singapore," Management of Success: Singapore Revisited, ed. Terence Chong (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010) pp. 504-17.

By Samantha Segar

 

 

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