I hate being on a crowded train; bodies, bags and poles pressed against my arms. During rush hour on public transport, you have no personal space. The notion of a personal boundary dissolves momentarily as we sacrifice our little bubbles in favour of getting to our destinations just a little faster.
Boundaries permeate every aspect of our lives, from the mundane to the life-changing. As the world witnesses how contemptuously the novel coronavirus defies national boundaries, my personal anecdote pales, reframed as a (rightfully) petty inconvenience. Boundaries are and will always stay at the forefront of socio-political discourse. Though it seems we’ve overcome geographical differences to some extent with the popularisation of the Internet, the politics of inclusion and exclusion remain ever-present in this globalised era.
In the student-curated exhibition You May Enter, a diverse list of artists ranging from newly formed student collectives to veterans in the Southeast Asian art scene explores the notion of boundaries from various angles. From the personal to the political, concrete to abstract, the works reflect the many ways that boundaries define and segregate us.
Take for instance Indonesian-born Cynthia Delaney Suwito’s, who is known for her work, Knitting noodles, a piece in which she painstakingly knits instant noodles strand by strand. Her two works in the exhibition, Stranger and Paper Project, are similarly labour-intensive, but unlike many of her other pieces, are premised on the materiality of a rather conventional material; paper.
“The A4 cartridge paper is everywhere; in every office, in every stationary or bookstore, in everyone’s homes in the form of blank paper, legal documents, letters, notices, forms etc. It is an object I grew up doodling on, it has always come to me in exactly the same size, the same texture and around the same thickness. It’s amazing how these simple sheets of paper that have a standard size which the whole world agrees on can be so unimportant, like scrap papers, or binding, like contracts and legal papers,” Cynthia remarks on the significance of the materials and processes in her works.
Her words make me take a big step back, to think about how objectively ridiculous it is that a piece of paper could change my entire life. Yet, that is the fate of countless migrants – to be reduced by something as powerful and insignificant as an A4 paper.
“Both Stranger and Paper Project talk about the journey the paper can take, and the journey it can give me if I fill in the paper with all the correct application details. The act of tracing in Stranger is a reflection of the labour and time that it takes to create the perfect application form, letter by letter, line by line, in hope for travel approval,” Cynthia shares.
The works in You May Enter are also a reflection of what the young curators, School of the Arts students Justina Leow, Jomel Goh, Katherine Baek, Leong Su Min, Madeline Hing and Vanessa Liem, find important.
“Being only 17, my idea of boundaries tends to be more towards the idea of emotional boundaries, or simply put, ‘personal space’. How far we are willing to put ourselves out there and where we draw the line with other people,” student curator Justina says.
Fellow curator Katherine explains, “Especially as youths, we face constant judgment of our actions, people defining what we can and cannot do. However, with this idea of constriction, it is inevitable that there will be those who rebel, in an attempt to test and transgress the confines of society. I feel that this carries over to the artworks in this curation –– each artwork provides a different meaning of what boundaries mean to them, and some attempt to transgress these pre-existing boundaries. Thus, it is up to the audience to decide what to accept, and what not to.”
The works of young artists Zeharn and Zeherng Lim, respond precisely to this idea of transgression. The twin brothers’ works first entered public consciousness when their SAF Mourning Pins went viral. These pins made out of army uniform fabric were designed to resemble those worn after funerals in traditional Chinese culture. They drew attention to the unjust deaths of men in National Service, consequently striking quite a nerve with authorities who eventually made them take down the post.
Continuing their streak of cultural commentary and signature minimalist aesthetic comes Funeral Portrait Mirror, a confrontational yet diminutive rectangle mirror surrounded by white florals. This work is a glimpse of what it might be like to attend your own funeral; an “out-of-body experience” reflecting our intense yet repressed fear of death.
“Death is a topic that is relevant to us all, and yet it remains a taboo to talk about it. In Singapore, many would go to great lengths to avoid confronting this fact of life. Some even resort to anti-ageing creams, hormonal therapies, and longevity supplements as antidotes to death – a result of our deep-rooted ‘kiasi-ism’, a colloquial Hokkien term which means ‘fear of death’,” the twins explain.
Artist collective Benjamiiiiiiiiin’s existence is a sort of defiance of boundaries in itself, in the sense that it comprises of 9 young artists (Kristin Low, Feranda Chua, Rachel Yin, Rachel Chew, Hans Chew, Ling Jia Le, Joell Ang, Koh En Lin, Chia Yu Xuan) from around the globe and primarily operates online. Their collaborative work, The Benjamin system, is pieced together from reviews of the composite members’ artistic practices, a sort of self-interview.
“Interviewing ourselves sounds like a vanity project, but we were truly curious how each of us got to where we are and how much privilege we have especially since all of us are in university, with some of us even having the opportunity to study overseas.” member Kristin says.
Given that the premise of the work smacks of the very vanity that they speak of, it would take a healthy dose of self-reflexivity for the work to steer away from being read as self-congratulatory navel-gazing. I will leave it to you to decide whether they have succeeded on this front.
Originally a response to high space rental costs and an experiment in creating a digital studio, Benjamiiiiiiiiin’s very involvement in You May Enter fundamentally re-contextualises their work. When asked about how their work is reframed in a gallery setting, member Feranda responds, “When we collaborate online with no physical space or institutional validation, we are essentially invisible except for what we put out. So we exist on our Instagram, (and) in passing conversations with our friends. Being invited to exhibit in a physical gallery space legitimises our existence, and prompts us to question it as well.”
The institutionalised nature of the space is something the curators kept well in mind, because art galleries are boundaries in and of themselves. They decide who is worthy of being called serious artists, of what the public and the art world can view. Since student-curated exhibitions are supervised by the organisation, it can never really be free of the tendrils of the institution. Curator Justina cites censorship as a “definite struggle” in the curation process.
Curator Jomel says she can “envision the artworks we exhibit being in a contemporary gallery space”, in the sense that the works fit comfortably within the conventional understanding of what contemporary art should look like. It is a sentiment that I very much agree with. But while I might not walk away with my mind blown, I do walk away still quietly contemplating the questions the pieces raise.
For instance, established artist Ezzam Rahman may not be breaking new artistic ground with this continuation of his skin series, but he’s been bruised by a man who can’t love is a refreshingly intimate study of boundaries. Rahman continues to use skin as a means for translating physical memory and straddling the line between the artist’s absence and presence. Of his choice of material, he explains:
“I’ve always believed that our bodies are time capsules and wonderful machines that record memories, trauma, many different emotions; our scars and wounds are like words written by experience as reminders of yesteryear’s mistakes and past failures. Skin is the largest organ on a human body – we shed little cells of us every minute that is unseen to the naked eye, but skin is also so private but yet public at the same time. We share a bit more of ourselves intimately to someone we trust. As we touch and study one another, information is indirectly recorded as memories.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing works in the exhibition is Jason Lim’s Duet With Tape, in which the artist wraps scotch tape around two pillars in the gallery. Infused with his signature sense of tension, this simple piece rests in the narrow valleys between silence and sound, the visible and invisible. It makes me wonder if an in-between really exists – whether something necessarily either is or is not – but leaves me to form my own conclusions.
The work reveals the artist’s attitude towards the notion of the boundary; to him they are exciting, but only because they beg to be overcome. When interviewed by the curatorial team on his understanding of the theme, he poignantly states, “Boundary means setting a limitation. I welcome limitations as it welcomes me to push the boundary.” How very boundary-breaking of him to say.
You May Enter opens at School of the Arts gallery on 14 February at 7pm. It will be on view from 15 to 23 February 2020.
Feature image: Ezzam Rahman, he’s been bruised by a man who can’t love, 2019, on view at You May Enter.