Motherland

A group show featuring Mike HJ Chang, Sherman Ong, Robert Renhui Zhao
Curated by Christina Arum Sok

6 - 22 December 2013

Motherland,  a loaded term, usually refers to a mother country; in other words, the place of birth, or more broadly the place of origin of an ethnic group or immigrants. Motherland literally means the nation that gave birth to a group's existence. However, throughout history, as long as humans have existed, people have always sought out better opportunities, whether spurred by conflicts and natural disasters that force people to migrate to new lands, or simply for more prosperous work prospects. It is part of human nature to be resilient and adaptable, fighting for survival as well as desiring improvement and advancement. Now, more than ever, we live in the age of globalization that allows for greater mobility as well as increased transactions and exchanges between cultures. Seeking new opportunities in foreign lands is commonplace, while large diasporas of people are found globally.  Therefore, in this day and age, motherland is no longer simply ‘home,’ just as home may not be the motherland. 

When a young nation like Singapore is founded upon migrants, old and new, who have come to find a new home, abandoning their 'motherlands,' what meaning does the motherland now hold? In this context, the notion of ‘home’ has multi-layered associations and meanings, as Singapore is characterized by diversity at its core. Whether it is the first generation of coolies arriving to find work in the small fishing village that Singapore once was, or today’s foreign executives and migrant workers flocking to a cosmopolitan, global city for work opportunities, Singapore has become ‘home’ to a wide array of people. 

In fact, foreigners have largely embraced elements of ‘Singaporeaness,’ adapting or re-inventing themselves like chameleons to wear different hats that embody both their native culture and that of their adopted home.  It is not so much assimilating or integrating into a ‘Singaporeaness,’ but rather a celebration of multiplicity and a fusion of differences that should be emphasized. Instead of the xenophobic attitudes that shun the ‘infiltration’ of foreigners as well as the preoccupation with a sterilized racial harmony that only gives room for Chinese, Malay, Indian and the ambiguous or all-encompassing ‘Other,’ perhaps it is now the time to unlock the door for the ‘Others’ and adopt a broader, more accepting approach to differences. It is this element of ultra-diversity that gives Singapore the edge, making it a competitive city-state that attracts people from all walks of life. 

The artists in this exhibition take on the concepts of home and motherland, re-interpreting the different meanings of place versus space, re-assigning value to forgotten landscapes and highlighting stories of immigrants who struggle to belong. The evolving perception of ‘motherland’ and the multiple ways in which people choose to carve out a place called ‘home’ is a universal theme that is dealt with in three divergent ways. Through these artists, we are able to question what ‘home’ means for us today: perhaps we do not belong to one place, having a plethora of ‘homes.’ What about the idea of global citizenship? Are we all global nomads; are national boundaries and distinctions unnecessary in today’s world? How do we define our individual identities vis à vis our motherlands?

Mike Chang investigates familiar objects found in every home such as the table and literally turns it on the head. An overturned table creates tension and anxiety, raising questions about how we characterize a home, or how we fill up a home. The place of a home is associated with objects that bring about familiarity, comfort and a sense of belonging; however, when a scene of tension is created, disturbing the familiarity, alluding to a kind of disruption to the comfortable space, it exists merely as a space, a space devoid of attachment and comfort. The ‘welcome’ mat with an image of a palm tree adds to the generic, non-specification element of a place called home, and as it lies underneath the overturned table, it adds to the created tension and conflict, acting as a juxtaposition of the familiar and unfamiliar. The space becomes a site of hostility, a rather unwelcoming space that seems far from the nostalgic place of home. Perhaps Chang is toying with the ambiguity of ‘home.’ Furthermore, he explores the space between binary sets such as public/private and inside/outside, attempting to find the liminal line in each situation. The attempts often result in creating an even more ambiguous sense of the existing dualities. In such paradoxical circumstances, Chang places himself as a figure interacting with transitional spaces through objects like the chair or ladder, which indirectly reference the human body.

Robert Zhao's 'imagined landscapes' bring to light a forgotten scene of the past when Singapore was going through a period of great transformation. Zhao uses photographs taken in the Tottori Desert of Japan to become an embodiment of what Singapore could have looked like when land was being reclaimed. The great mounds of sand that was used to fill up the bodies of water surrounding Singapore are shown in its glorious state, appearing as impressive dunes. We are invited to perceive the raw, untouched landscape of Singapore before it was ‘moulded’ to be what it is, as we know it now. The very physical notion of motherland appears to be man-made and curated by the government. In fact, ‘national identity’ is something that is marketed and controlled by governments, while ‘collective memory’ is often a pre-determined and pre-selected memory propagated by the state. Zhao’s work also deals with the concept of memory and history. When people ‘remember’ a certain aspect of history, other realities are forgotten at the same time. Thus, Singapore has been reinvented several times over, just as the society continues to evolve and change with the constant influx of people that diversify the nation. Motherland becomes a reinvented place, not quite its original state but a concept and site of endless evolvement. 

Sherman Ong’s ongoing project, Motherland, has been the inspiration for the title of this exhibition. His title has become the overarching theme, tying together the diverse works exhibited. Ong deals broadly with the theme of migration as well as identity, languages and translation, with particular focus on the tales of Singapore’s immigrants, reflecting on the social/political zeitgeist. Densely packed, Singapore is known to have one of the greatest concentrations of millionaires in the world. Yet in the midst of all this wealth, there is also a significant population of migrant workers coming from places like China, Bangladesh and all over Southeast Asia for the prospect of earning a little more money to feed their entire family. Most of these workers are not well ‘integrated’ into mainstream society, often not being able to communicate efficiently. Ong explores their stories, giving us a glimpse of their lives in a series of video confessions that express the most private emotions and dreams for a better future. In one of Ong’s videos, we meet XiaoJing, a Chinese woman who has come to Singapore to seek a better life and maybe even to fall in love. Through getting a glimpse into the private lives of Singapore’s immigrants, we see how people are struggling to negotiate a place called home, fighting for survival and trying to weave themselves into the complex fabric of a society that may not always be as welcoming and accepting as it claims to be. Ong gives voice to some of Singapore’s untold stories, further stretching the signification of home. As we see the multiplicity of ‘home,’ on both literal, physical as well as metaphorical levels, we broaden our perspective and awareness of how we define this sacred space - one that we think we are so familiar with - and how we relate to this concept of ‘home.’

Christina Arum Sok has a bachelor’s degree in Art History and English from Columbia University in the City of New York and a master’s degree in Asian Art History from School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). Her curatorial practice and research focuses on modern and contemporary Korean and Southeast Asian art

Artist Biographies

Mike HJ Chang

Mike HJ Chang is a Taiwanese American. He received his B.A. from University of California, Los Angeles then his MFA from California Institute of the Arts. Chang now lives and works as an arts educator in Singapore.

For his art practice, Chang often utilizes autobiographical information as the basis of narrative exploration. Employing architectural elements, furniture, and text, his recent works focus on exploring the notion of temporary identity in the space where the public and the private intersect. The results are sometimes humorous, sometimes pathetic, and sometimes self-righteous. His recent works examine the concept of “neighborhood” as an emotive place where one can camouflage and hide oneself to achieve a certain sense of belonging.  

Chang was a resident artist at Redgate Gallery in Beijing in 2006. He was awarded the California Institute of the Arts Interdisciplinary Grant to go to Nauru to shoot his MFA thesis video Horizon, or Do Fish Drink Water in 2007. In June 2012 he was the artist in residence at The Artist Village’s Pulau Ubin Artist Residency. He is now the resident artist at Nanyang Girls High School, Singapore. He is also the co-editor for Locale, a curatorial platform for Southeast Asian contemporary art. Chang exhibited at Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles, Austin Museum of Art Arthouse in Texas, Dobaebacsa in Seoul, Youkobo Art Space in Tokyo, as well as with Hayama Projects Collective at The Warehouse Project in Yokohama, Post-Museum, Goodman Art Centre, Substation, Port Tumasik, Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, and Sculpture Square.
 
Sherman Ong

Ong is a filmmaker, photographer and visual artist. His practice has always centred on the human condition and our relationships with others within the larger milieu.

Winner of the 2010 ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu Photography Award, Ong has premiered works in Art Biennales, major Film Festivals and Museums around the world, including the Venice, Singapore and Jakarta Biennales, Mori Art Museum Tokyo, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin, Musée du Quai Branly Paris, Centre Pompidou Paris, Institute of Contemporary Arts London, Noorderlicht Photo Festival, Rotterdam International Film Festival, VideoBrasil International Electronic Art Festival, Singapore Art Museum, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Queensland Art Gallery, South Australia Contemporary Art Centre and Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre, Lithuania.
He is an Associate Artist of the Substation and a founding member of 13 Little Pictures, a film collective based in Singapore. He also serves on the committee of the Singapore International Photography Festival, as an educator at schools and universities, and as a member of juries at various film festivals. In 2009, he was invited to participate in the Singapore Pavilion, Venice Biennale, which garnered a Special Mention. His works are in the collections of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Singapore Art Museum and the Seoul Art Centre Korea. He is nominated for the APB-Singapore Art Museum Signature Art Prize for 2011. He collaborated on a project headed by Olafur Eliasson, which premiered at the Tate Modern London in September 2012. Most recently, his project Motherland won the jury honorable mention in Video Brazil 2013.

Robert Renhui Zhao

Robert Zhao Renhui received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Photography from Camberwell College of Arts and the London College of Communication respectively. His work addresses man’s relationship with nature, and related issues of morality and ethics, paying close attention to how our attitudes and opinions shape our assumptions about the natural world. Zhao works mainly in photography, but often adopts a multidisciplinary approach by presenting images and videos together with documents and objects. 
His work has also been awarded The Deutsche Bank Award in Photography (2011) by the University of the Arts London. In 2010, he was awarded The Young Artist Award by the Singapore National Arts Council.

Zhao has developed and participated in exhibitions at The Singapore Art Museum, The Institute of Contemporary Art (Singapore), Fukouka Asian Art Museum (Japan), Photo Levallois (Paris), GoEun Museum of Photography (Korea), The Zabludowicz Collection (London), Shanghart (Shanghai), PPOW (New York), Noorderlitcht Festival of Photography (Amsterdam), Format Festival (Derby) and Chapter Arts Centre (UK). He will also be exhibiting in the 2013 edition of Photoquai, Paris and in the 2013 Singapore Biennale.

Artist:

  • Mike HJ Chang
  • Sherman Ong
  • Robert Zhao Renhui