Following the Breaking Waves open call earlier this year, the D/SINI Festival has commissioned two exhibitions which engage with the theme of art and mental health. Both The Deepest Blue and Head spinning, loop creating present distinct entry points for greater public discussion about a subject matter that, despite affecting a significant fraction of the population, continues to remains taboo in Asian sensibilities. Part of D/SINI’s third wave of programmes, it is also the first to dedicate itself to empowering emerging, Singapore-based curatorial voices.
The Deepest Blue
Revolving around the idea of water as both an overarching metaphor and a state of mind, The Deepest Blue is curated by journalist Racy Lim and art historian Joella Kiu. An interesting blend of history and contemporary art, all the works are newly commissioned, with each positioned as a response to the work and life of a key artistic figure.
The first work we encounter in The Deepest Blue is filmmaker and music video director Amanda Tan’s (Empyreal) The .Wavs, an experimental short film soundtracked by musician Niko Kenton and lensed by cinematographer Adrian Tan. An interpretation of writer Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, the film follows both the general rhythm of Woolf’s text in its jagged, stream-of-consciousness style, as well as the subject of Woolf’s own suicide: an Ophelian affair with the River Ouse, accompanied with the lethal addition of a coat filled with stones. Shots of caged birds and a butterfly trapped in a bell-jar dot the film, which is intercut with a woman alternating between a violent struggle and reclining in a shallow pool of water.
Concerning itself with both the textuality and the cadence of its source material, The .Wavs, which is cheekily titled with an actual computer file type label for audio-visual materials, is an intimate look at the process of visual translation from a source text that itself defies classification.
Another less straightforward interpretation of the theme is Renée Ting’s Self-Portraits (Or Three Objects Facing Each Other), an installation chiefly composed of a minimalist painting that was created by the artist repetitively painting a single swathe of black paint onto the canvas daily, over a period of 24 days.
The audience is invited to stand in front of a single mirror that hangs across from it and observe their reflections against the backdrop of the canvas. Inspired by the life of Frida Kahlo, who resorted to painting with the aid of a mirror mounted on her ceiling as a coping mechanism while bedridden after a terrible accident, as well as her famous oil painting What the Water Gave Me, Self-Portraits warps both space and perspective through which the audience may view themselves. While the mirror represents the mundane and inevitable introspection that one undertakes upon encountering their reflection, Ting also uses it to comment on the incommunicable facets of one’s identity that lie beneath that physical layer.
Based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, an artist and writer who is unfortunately best remembered as author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s party-girl multi-hyphenate wife, Tan Yang Er’s The Runaway Bride is a mixed-media installation is made from sculpted fabric, ceramics, and clay objects. A seared bridal dress secured by an ornate frame is the centrepiece of this artwork. Tackling the repression of the feminine individual by social institutions such as marriage, it takes its cue from the tragic end of Zelda Fitzgerald, who perished in a locked room where she was supposed to undergo shock therapy for her madness when the asylum she was in caught fire.
Head spinning, loop creating
Head spinning, loop creating takes a different approach entirely. Curated by practitioner Nicolette Teo, it concerns itself more with the physical spaces occupied by thought processes, and explores the manifestations of anxiety. Unlike its counterpart, the exhibition features multiple works from each artist, of which the works are re-imaginations of previous works.
Kheyton Lim’s 静 (Jìng) is a homonym of the Chinese word for “mirror”. 静 (Jìng), which also means silence, immediately evokes a state of loneliness and detachment. Composed of grooming tools mounted on an anti-slip stripe, Lim’s clinical assemblage and the enclosing whitewash bleaches out any sentiment. The presence of absence is highlighted here.
Peace and Harmony is another mechanical composition: a bowl of rice with three sticks of incense planted in the middle is reminiscent of traditional offerings to gods and ancestors. Only in this version, a rotting apple sealed in a jar, a single flower, and a saucer of used tea leaves complete the oblation. The perfunctory altar display alludes to an environment of disconnect, where domestic armistice is relegated to a miracle of divine intervention. A commentary on the almost transactional nature of such offerings, Lim’s ironic title highlights how the opposite, such as ambivalence and anxiety, are inevitable features of the quotidian experience.
On the adjacent alcove, Gone will be today’s tomorrow, adopts a similarly sardonic tone. In Gone, a ripped open Chinese Almanac Calendar is screwed to the wall while the torn out pages lay crumpled on the floor like the nest of some roosting bird. The calendar is ostensibly symbolic of adherence to superstition right down to every minuscule detail (Chinese Almanac Calendars advise one’s itinerary down to the hour for those wary of offending Sinophone spirits!) that detaches much-needed spontaneity from life.
In this series, it can be seen that the association of the domestic realm with a safe space is subverted. Instead, Lim exposes the tensions running through a communal space and reveals underlying anxieties that manifest in different fashions.
Mithra Jeevananthan’s series of five silkscreen prints depicting the exploits of a humanoid lotus roots is perhaps the most light-hearted of all the exhibited works. Bearing titles like Cereal Bowl and the punny Tiddy Slug (which featured quite literally a slug with many, many breasts), the style of the illustrations are cartoony with diffuse edges that hint at the style of late-night adult oriented animation from channels such as Adult Swim. Adopting the narrative of a world-hopping superhero, Jeevananthan creates an imagined space where the stressors of anxiety break free of their shackles to celebrate queer womanhood in all its hairy glories.
Jeevananthan’s surrealist, comedic universe that is set in the amygdala (the part of our brain that is responsible for processing emotions and fear) is literally a world apart from the work of the artist-curator Nicolette Teo. Entitled Waves of Certainty, it is at once the most subdued but also the most expansive, stretching through almost a quarter of the space.
Made from layers of tracing paper that billow softly to the air current from the air-conditioning, the movements of the fabric, alongside the occasional marker tracings, mimic the breathing habits of the average adult man. It exudes a sense of meditative calmness in what is a more nuanced, less controversial interpretation of the mind.
Ultimately, the effects different spaces have on the psyche are obviously, and inevitably, manifold. However, what is commonly overlooked is the way in which the reverse takes place: the way the psyche affects a space, in other words, how perception shapes our impression and subsequent response to a place. Or why you don’t go back to where your nasty break-up happened.
By addressing both the seen and unseen, and the psychic undercurrent that underlines how we perceive our own minds, the two-part Breaking Waves Showcase tackles the idea of mental health from the inside out; it is by seeing and internalising the stories and understandings of others that we may protect ourselves.