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Getting Under the Skin of “How to Desire Differently”

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How Does Society Shape Our Identity

Dear reader, I’d like to propose a thought experiment of sorts, if you would try it. If someone were to see you at this very moment, what would they think of you? From the way you are dressed, how you are moving, holding yourself, where you are: consciously or unconsciously, what do you think your body is saying, or not saying? How is your body speaking for you?

Such questions about the complex relationships between identity, society, and the body are examined in How to Desire Differently, a group exhibition consisting of selected works from nine Singaporean artists. Curated by artists Zulkhairi Zulkiflee and Farizi Noorfauzi, the exhibition focuses particularly on difference in identity — aspects like race, gender, and sexuality are explored through various mediums, from sculpture to video. In so doing, the exhibition seeks to demonstrate the diversity of bodies that exist, and highlight the perspectives and struggles that minorities experience.

The exhibition is hosted by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and can be visited both in-person at the Lim Hak Tai Gallery and online from now until 30 August 2020.

Susie Wong. No Woman Dances Alone While a Man is Looking at Her (The King and I). 2018
Susie Wong, No Woman Dances Alone While a Man is Looking at Her (The King and I) 2018. Image credit: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the artist.

Clicking the link to the exhibition website, the first thing I see is the exhibition title in bold texts of white, red, and blue, superimposed over Susie Wong’s video piece No Woman Dances Alone While a Man is Looking at Her (The King and I). The work features a series of five individual women dancing by themselves to a silent soundtrack that only they can hear, free from the pressurising eyes of the rest of the world in that moment. Wong’s video is both a commentary and retaliation against society’s objectification of women’s bodies and their movement.

This theme of how people hold themselves when they think no one is watching is also seen in Yeo Tze Yang’s three oil on canvas paintings, but this time in the anonymity of the crowd rather than the privacy of solitude. Each painting depicts a group of people caught in a candid moment, between everyday movements of travel and observation, whether it be crossing the road at a traffic light or walking the streets at night.

Yeo Tze Yang, And It Was Already Dark, 2019
Yeo Tze Yang, And It Was Already Dark, 2019

Of course, there is an irony to both of these works, for the subjects are never as invisible as they think. In the very process of capturing them on film or canvas, the artists have subjected them to the public gaze of an audience. This probes us to ponder if there is not always some audience determining the way our bodies move, even if that audience exists only within our minds as the internalised expectations of society.

Adeline Kueh, Don’t You See, Baby, This is Perfection, 2019
Adeline Kueh, Don’t You See, Baby, This is Perfection, 2019

Conversely, the art of Adeline Kueh and Jason Wee looks at bodies that exist without truly being seen. Adeline Kueh’s video-still Don’t You See, Baby, This is Perfection of four KTV dancing girls dressed in Luau costumes is meant to demonstrate how a body’s appearance, captured at a particular, singular moment in time, cannot and is not representative of a person as a whole. Kueh was inspired by Vietnamese filmmaker and literary theorist Trinh. T Minh-ha’s process of “speaking nearby”, which studies a subject by focusing on a small, marginal aspect of it rather than attempting a comprehensive overview that would objectify the subject and make assumptions.

This approach is only magnified in Kueh’s video Blue Moon, in which the closeup movements of a shimmering object that could be anything from a raffia-string luau skirt or a bioluminescent jellyfish move in and out of the camera frame, tantalising us with a variety of possibilities without ever providing an answer.

Jason Wee, Dusk, 2019
Jason Wee, Dusk, 2019

A similar sense of obscured fragmentation is evoked in Jason Wee’s Dances on Their Own series, which features five portrait puzzle pieces. Composed of a mixture of extreme close-ups and landscape shots taken as Wee “followed queer bodies through an unspecified location in Singapore”, the final product is a piece where the landscape has been abstracted to the point of minimal recognition. The abstraction of the pieces highlights the plight of queer people as subject to strict censorship, turning them into invisible bodies in the social landscape.

But bodies can also be rendered unseen when they are viewed only through the simplified lens of stereotypes. Artists Fitri Ya’akob, Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, and Farizi Noorfauzi attempt to reclaim stereotypes surrounding gender and race through their works, adding depth and nuance to these identities.

Fitri Ya’akob, To Mother, 2019. Image courtesy of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the artist.
Fitri Ya’akob, To Mother, 2019. Image courtesy of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the artist.

In this exhibition, Ya’akob showcases one photograph from her series To Mother, which seeks to challenge certain misconceptions about the nature and role of motherhood, and gender norms as a whole. The photograph chosen for How to Desire Differently, however, showcases an idyllic representation of motherhood. As the child of a single mother who was too busy making ends meet to fulfil the conventional role of “mothering” when she was growing up, Ya’akob admitted to living vicariously through this piece.

Zulkiflee, on the other hand, was inspired by the work of another artist — Malay Boy with Bird by Cheong Soo Pieng. The original painting, which contains elements of racial exoticisation characteristic to Nanyang art, is reimagined and reclaimed in Zulkiflee’s hands. His digital print Malay Boy (Posterior) (After Cheong Soo Pieng) utilises the Mat Motor stereotype—a specific stereotype of Malay masculinity associated with uneducated, working class young males whose identities are bound to their motorcycle—but the figure’s position, with only his back facing the audience, suggests such an image is one-dimensional and incomplete. In so doing, Zulkiflee adds layers to understandings of Malay masculinity and class divides.

Noorfauzi presents works from two series of his own in this exhibition: No-Corner, which we previously covered here, and Internalised Conversations. While No-Corner is more a reclamation of the “lazy native” stereotype, Internalised Conversations is closer to an outright challenge. Two old-fashioned Sony television sets face each other at a 45-degree angle, intermittently playing footage and dialogue from old classic Malay films that weave into a dialogue that advocates for an end to discrimination, and a freedom to love and be treated equally regardless of race or class.

(background) Farizi Noorfauzi, No-Corner 5 and No-Corner 6, 2017, (foreground) Farizi Noorfauzi, Internalised Conversations, 2020
(background) Farizi Noorfauzi, No-Corner 5 and No-Corner 6, 2017, (foreground) Farizi Noorfauzi, Internalised Conversations, 2020
Farizi Noorfauzi, No-Corner 2, 2017
Farizi Noorfauzi, No-Corner 2, 2017

Another artist in this exhibition whose work we’ve previously featured is Vimal Kumar. In Transcendental Water Bodies, he photographically recreates Asian religious iconography to encapsulate the fluidity of bodies, reflecting how identities are complex and many-layered. Yet, this capability of the body to act as a chameleon skin may not always be positive. Rizman Putra’s video and poster series Sontol Al Loyo: The Elegy of Man and his Weapon of Choice follows a fictional character, Sontol Al Loyo, as he transforms from one pop star personality to another in his quest for fame and idolatry. While meant to be a humorous parody, the series undoubtedly brings to fore darker issues about moulding ourselves in an attempt to gain social acceptance, and questions how much of our appearance truly reflects our inner selves. The line between society and the individual thus becomes blurred on the social surface of our skin.

Rizman Putra, Sontol Al Loyo: The Elegy of Man and his Weapon of Choice, 2006
Rizman Putra, Sontol Al Loyo: The Elegy of Man and his Weapon of Choice, 2006

Outside of art, the body has been a subject of much interest in disciplines such as philosophy and anthropology. There are various schools of thought on the matter: some advocate for the body as a “social canvas” on which the structures and values of society are reflected. Others take an approach that sees the body as first and foremost used for individual self-expression. How to Desire Differently makes it evident that it is a messy mixture of both that we are constantly attempting to negotiate in our daily lives. But it is this complexity and dynamism, coupled with the fact that the physical body presents a universal reference point of sorts, that makes the body a topic that inspires creation and dialogue, to be revisited and reinvented again and again.

It was interesting to have an exhibition that could be visited both online and in-person, and I found the two to be vastly different experiences. There is a great deal of material in the virtual iteration of the exhibition that is not found in the physical gallery, including artist’s notes, audio clips, reference material, and even a seven-page essay by curator Zulkhairi Zulkiflee. In comparison, in the Lim Hak Tai gallery each piece of work was accompanied only by a simple placard with the artist’s name, and the title and date of the piece.

Vimal Kumar, Transcendental Water Bodies #3, 2019
Vimal Kumar, Transcendental Water Bodies #3, 2019

Yet, seeing the exhibition in a physical space added another layer of nuance to certain pieces. Vimal Kumar’s Transcendental Water Bodies, for instance, was hung from the ceiling and displayed above head height, in true imitation of the display of religious iconography. Similarly, the photograph chosen from Fitri Ya’akob’s series To Mother comes across differently when blown up on one wall of the gallery, its 227 x 340 cm proportions highlighting the larger-than-life nature of her idealised depiction of motherhood. It would therefore be worthwhile for the audience to visit the exhibition in both complementary forms, in order to enjoy a more comprehensive experience.

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Feature image: Still from Rizman Putra’s video work, Sontol al Loyo, The Legend, 2006.

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