In a pivot away from single-artist exhibitions and private collector-led shows that are internally curated, The Private Museum has recently launched its Guest Curators initiative, in which the Museum will collaborate with external curators so as to support independent and experimental curatorial practices and present diverse perspectives and viewpoints. The first guest curator to present a show under these auspices is the former Director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Dr Susie Lingham.
You, Other; I, Another features 9 artists whose works examine relationships between and among people, with the first and second-person pronouns indicative of the interplay between the self and the “other”. As we conceive of a “self” only in relation to an “other” or a “non-self” (what we are not), the exhibition is an exploration of that spectrum of difference. In the words of Dr Lingham:
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, marginalized, alienated; is tolerated.
It would be impossible, in an article of this length, to do justice to all the works in the exhibition but here are several works that I was particularly enamoured of.
Mithun Jayaram’s Approaching a Mending Wall is a physical manifestation of the communication barrier between the artist and his father. Jayaram references his Hindu father’s daily devotional ritual of lighting a candle at home through the repetitive knotting of cotton twine that is, incidentally, the same material used in Hindu candle wicks, in order to begin to explore the texture of their relationship as father and son.
While it is not uncommon, in Asian cultures, to be more reserved and less emotionally expressive, even with close family members, Jayaram’s work is a metaphor for what he has termed the “silence-as-violence” or “non-contact” nature of his relationship with his father. This work is very much process driven, with the artist placing prime importance on the making, installing and eventual taking down of the work. (The installation includes eight black-and-white photographs that reveal elements of the arduous undertaking – scissors, a hand, knuckles, knots.) The repetitiveness and banality of the act of knotting and weaving and the ensuing pain and numbness of the artist’s fingers are as crucial to its meaning as its final form, which visually resembles a skin or membrane that is tearing apart – a visual metaphor, perhaps, for the disconnect between the artist and his father.
Mumtaz Maricar’s Laparoscopic wound, no wider than 1–2 cm is a self-portrait, following a uterine fibroid removal. The life-sized painting depicts her standing confidently with her post-operation scar exposed and framed with her hands. Through the wound, we see the subtle impression of another hand, that of another being, creeping out and colonising the body. Surrounding her is a halo of tumours. In confronting and dealing her anxieties about the tumour, albeit benign, that she harboured within herself, Maricar painted tumours obsessively, as a cathartic act that helped her feel more empowered.
In discussing this work with me, the artist made reference to the myth of the doppelgänger, an apparition or spirit double that is a replica of oneself. According to ancient myth, if you meet your doppelgänger, you will disappear. Here, the “other” that Maricar faces is, in fact, another version of herself, her doppelgänger. The artist confronts her fears, envisioning her healthy body being invaded by relentlessly and endlessly replicating rogue cells that eventually take over and colonise the body. Fortunately for her, it was the “other’ Maricar that was made to disappear, leaving the artist healthy once more, with only a scar “no wider than 1-2 cm” to remind her of that “other” self.
Regina De Rozario’s Faultlines (or, The questions you ask today will be the questions I ask tomorrow) is an autobiographical work featuring a litany of handwritten questions that the artist has been asked over the years, juxtaposed against childhood photographs of herself, posted on a structural pillar in the gallery.
The photographs depicting the artist as a smiling, happy child are in stark contrast to the intrusive nature of the questions posed. I was particularly interested in how some of the questions, for example, “What are you”, were written over and over again. De Rozario explained that the contexts of the questions could have been different, thereby necessitating endless repetition. “What are you”, is an ambiguous question that could refer to many things – her race, her gender, her humanity or even her very existence. The directness and rudeness of this stark question highlight attempts to fix her identity and to place it within the questioner’s own understanding of stereotypical and conventional contexts.
Artist Susie Wong’s pencil and wash drawings of screen-grabs from the 1960 film “The World of Suzie Wong” (I Can’t Tell, Don’t Leave and How Much I Need You) are part of her exploration of various themes arising from the movie, in which the titular character, Wanchai working girl, Suzie Wong, and English artist, Robert Lomax, overcome various obstacles to true love and end up with their happily-ever-after. (Previous works exploring themes arising from the film include her installation, Take Care of Me, part of Opening Day, a four-part series of artistic interventions housed in the common space on the top floor of Upper Serangoon Shopping Centre.)
In the context of this exhibition, the works most obviously become a commentary on the well-known stereotype in popular culture of the exotic, hypersexualised and subservient Oriental female, an idea as pervasive today as it was more than 50 years ago, given the appeal that Asian women apparently hold for members of the Alt-Right movement in the US today! The works make reference to the thematic “self” and “other” in the wider global context of how the West views the East, where Asia becomes the exotic “Other”, defined purely by what the West is not.
Ultimately, You, Other; I, Another was a thought-provoking show, and my conversations with the artists and Dr Lingham left me with many deep and lingering impressions. The show could not be more relevant in our present times when notions of self-perception and difference have given rise to deep-rooted prejudices and feelings of antipathy that have influenced policies and politics on a global scale.
Do pay You, Other; I, Another a visit before it closes. Originally slated to close on 24 June, I’ve just been informed that show’s run will be extended to 22 July 2018. The Private Museum’s opening hours are from 10 am to 7 pm on weekdays and from 11 am to 5 pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
Note: The title of this article references the song Every You, Every Me by British alternative rock band, Placebo, which was used in the soundtrack of the movie Cruel Intentions. The feature image was provided by The Private Museum.