They say that Art is a universal language. Although in making art, artists are often attempting to communicate at an emotional level to those within their own community, the most significant and impactful works of art transcend cultural boundaries and speak directly to our common humanity. It is this premise that foregrounds the exhibition The Artist’s Voice, which will close at the end of this month at The Parkview Museum, a private museum here in Singapore. In the words of the show’s curator, Lóránd Hegyi, the exhibition ” … presents contemporary artists from different continents and generations with a profound, solid belief in this special vocation, competence and engagement of art,” which is, to reveal a deeper level of human reality by creating clear, strong, complex, even shocking, visual metaphors of basic and essential human experiences.
The exhibition features works by 34 contemporary artists, a majority of whom are Western artists, with Chinese artists Liu Xiaodong, Qiu Anxiong and Wang Luyan and Korean artist Chun Sung Myung being the only representatives from Asia. It provides a rare opportunity for art lovers in Singapore to view works by some of the foremost names in Western contemporary art, including Marina Abramović, Jannis Kounellis and collaborative artistic duo Gilbert & George, right here in our own backyard – thanks to the vision, imagination and largesse (admission to the museum is free) of the museum’s late founder, Mr George Wong.
For this opportunity alone, I would say that the show is definitely well worth a visit so, if you haven’t yet been, do try to catch it before it closes. The powerful and visually arresting works intrigue and easily hold your attention and interest, regardless of whether or not you are able to fully appreciate and understand the significance and meaning of every individual work. That being said, since the exhibition purports to speak, through the artist’s voice, to our shared human experiences, here are some works that will, I think, easily resonate and that therefore, perhaps, best embody the show’s ideals.
Here’s a still from contemporary American artist Bill Viola‘s 2002 video work, Remembrance. In the video, an actor expresses a variety of emotions, the unfolding expressions filmed in ultra-slow motion so that every minute detail of his changing expression is captured. The work has an almost painterly quality – indeed, Viola often references classical and medieval depictions of emotion, seemingly drawn, like the Renaissance masters, to the big themes – birth, death, love, anger, ecstasy, suffering, fear. His aim is to explore what it means to be human, present in the world yet aware that time is passing, every minute drawing us closer to the end of life as we know it.
“I am interested in what the old masters didn’t paint, those steps in between.”
The concentration required from the viewer to trace the slow, minute changes in expression and emotion, the distorted perception of time, the lack of sound or voice-over, all act to draw the viewer into the work, engaging with it and connecting deeply to the meanings contained within it. The absence of any objective correlative – an external object or event by which the emotion may be understood – allows us to impute our own memories and experiences to the emotions expressed in the video, making the engagement that much more personal and meaningful.
In contrast to the excess of emotion (almost) that typifies Viola’s oeuvre, artistic duo Muntean/Rosenblum‘s works (three are on show at the exhibition) seem, at first, to depict the exact opposite – an absence of emotion and an attitude of utter boredom and ennui. The artists appropriate images of adolescents and teens from fashion and lifestyle magazines and situate them, in somewhat contrived and affected poses, in familiar contemporary settings. Although the figures exist within the same frame, they do not look at or engage with each other, each seemingly trapped within his or her own self-contained bubble.
“She’s over-bored … and self assured …”
Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit, 1991
The paintings are placed within white frames or margins, giving the images the look of a comic strip. Adding another layer to the works are disjointed and random lines of text which one would expect to add meaning to the image or offer some philosophical or poignant commentary on contemporary existence but, instead, seem to be merely random phrases cut and pasted from some print source or other.
While Muntean/Rosenblum’s work, at first glance, seems to bear scant resemblance to Viola’s, I was surprised to learn that they, too, reference Renaissance paintings and religious iconography, drawing on classical image compositions and copying historical body poses from the Passion cycle and representations of Christian martyrs that are calculated to evoke pathos and strong emotion. By reproducing a classical pose in a contemporary setting and imposing onto it the bored, listless demeanour of a teenager, the artists invite us to explore these inherent contradictions and the tension that it creates within us.
If you still remember your teenage years or happen to have teenagers in your life, it will be pretty clear that their studied expressions of nonchalance and bored disinterest are mere masks, hiding a mass of roiling adolescent emotions – confusion, longing, desire and despair. These works, while appearing to depict absolute banality and apathy, somehow manage to evoke empathy and arouse a feeling of pathos, at least in me. I found myself quite unable to tear my gaze away from them. As Adi Rosenblum explains, “We are fascinated by, and investigate, how far you can go with the construction of the gesture of the figure. Because, we think the more artificial it gets, the more moving it is, even though, in the normal sense it is the natural that is the thing that moves you.”
Admittedly, not all the works in the show are as easy to read or accessible as Viola’s and Muntean/Rosenblum’s. However, don’t be deterred from attempting to grapple with the more difficult or more opaque works. Very often, such encounters turn out to be the most rewarding. If you think some guidance might be useful, the Parkview Museum does offer twice-weekly guided tours to support engagement with and understanding of the works in the exhibition. You still have a couple of weeks left to catch the show before it closes on 28 February 2018.
(Featured image: Paolo Grassino, Zero Series, 2017. Image courtesy of the Parkview Museum)