Floating Worlds

Featuring Genevieve Chua, Michael Lee, Grace Tan

10 December - 10 January 2011

By June Yap

The group exhibition of recent works of three artists with rather dissimilar practices — Michael Lee, Grace Tan and Genevieve Chua, presents a pleasant conundrum for the viewer attempting to sustain a unified reading that is not simply evident on first look, given their rather distinctive formal expressions that accentuate the differences when juxtaposed. Yet, the consistency and method, of their internal visions in each series makes them amenable to comparison, with their mingling intimating certain shared narratives and views of space and form, and where such pleasures await gentle teasing out.

Michael Lee’s practice circles the subject of architecture, imagined, lost and concrete. His earlier works include the National Columbarium of Singapore (2009), of 100 painstakingly modelled ‘lost’ (demolished, unbuilt and fictional) buildings, accompanied by droll textual annotations gathered from newspapers, magazines and statements, that play with the imaginings and ambitions that permeate these constructions, drawing attention to the human element behind their existence and significance, or lack thereof. Another work, The $100,000 Gallery of Art (2007), based on the sketch of the proposed Singapore Art Gallery by artist and architect Dr Ho Kok Hoe, then also president of the Singapore Art Society, in 1957 that was shelved during the years of Singapore’s fledgling nationhood, in the artist’s hands is both historical testament and aesthetic interpretation that situates the unbuilt edifice within the contemporary import given to cultural development today. Like a haunting of a ghost from the past, the work is particularly germane given the anticipation of the opening of a similar national complex in Singapore some half a century later, in a few years. In the ongoing series Second-Hand City (2010) Lee continues his exploration of urban buildings and structures, this time referencing ideas of regeneration and revitalisation in a dialogue about urban design, that reveal their cultural and historical conceptual underpinnings. With a sense of humour that is familiar in his work though often underrated, #1 Spiral Supermarket (after Brodsky and Utkin) referring to the Russian architects, conceals, half-buried underground, a tribute to the fallen; and in #3: Shishitv Tower (after David Attenborough), the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV Headquarters look-alike is suggested, with a witty reference to the British natural history presenter, as dispersing "à la the balsam plant", its architectural style, like seed-pods around the world. Here, Lee calls attention to the usually unspoken tensions of architectural aspiration and formulae of architectural success, in the global race for urban supremacy.

The sense of a familiar haunting continues in the spectral-looking hand-coloured photographs of imagined varieties of nocturnal flora by Genevieve Chua. Situated in the secondary forests of Singapore, the Belukar, describing cleared land that reverts to undergrowth, the narrative of this series follows from her earlier works, Raised as a Pack of Wolves (2009), of a photo series of youths roaming together in the night seeking familial solace in each other, and Full Moon and Foxes (2009), a video installation of adolescence and the end of innocence, in being set in an uncertain woodland, in the hour of darkness. Black Varieties (2010) is influenced by the publication Plants that Heal, Thrill and Kill (2005) by botanist Wee Yeow Chin, and references species native to Southeast Asia such as the Hibiscus Mutabilis that changes colour as it blooms and dies. The images by the artist are stained with dyes, with the final hues determined, of course, by time. The ambiguous fictional narratives that Chua weaves however appear hermetically isolated. As she describes of the characters in the earlier two works, "they have no memory of what is outside of the Belukar," that arguably resonates briefly with the lost architectural memories of Lee’s work. The series is to be continued by another that will take audiences to what lies behind the Black Varieties.

In contrast to Lee’s attempt to allude to the necessity of dialogue as a means of navigating between the idealism and pragmatism of architectural logic and ambition through absent and fictional constructions, Chua’s phantasmagorical plot appears to deliberately obscure the identities and purposes of its subjects, almost to the point of implying something more sinister. Yet both in their play of notions of memory, forgetting and imagining, are characterised by a mode of fragmentation and instability. These shifts that transform and alter our perceptions and expectations are to be found also in the work of Grace Tan, known for her fabric sculptures, composed in sheer silk chiffon, cotton and silk organza, that while appearing as twisting and turning organic-looking forms of layers and pleats, are structured in their translation into numerical systems. Here, n.303, a suspended paper installation that reflects more recent experimentation with water colour paper, described as "a breaking down of rectangles, folds and stitch points," frames the gallery space, as well as the works of the two other artists within. Based on the rectangular form that is Tan’s particular fascination, "because it is the most basic, common and efficient shape we can find," the installation that is on a larger scale than her earlier works of wearable pieces that ‘grow’ from the physical bodily form, extends into architectural configuration and sensibility. It is a new exploration that she hopes "will be a point of deflection to break away from the fabric-based works and to explore new themes hidden in the series."

This challenge of spatial negotiation also then brings us back around to the tensions in Lee’s work, of the drawing from and resistance of architectural rationality. Simultaneously structured and unstructured, Tan’s material negotiations, Lee’s conceptual speculations and Chua’s dreamlike fictional evocations revel in destabilisation — of mathematics, science and architecture, by their aesthetic expression. It is an intrinsic sense of restlessness of each of their works, the deconstruction and recombination of ideas, sampling and moving on, that ironically binds the works of the three artists together, revealing, in an unexpected even if tenuous affinity of the fleeting conjunction, a reading that goes beyond their staid material construction and composition.

June Yap is an independent curator and art historian based in Singapore


  • Grace Tan
  • Michael Lee
  • Genevieve Chua