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An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season: An Unflinching Look into Today’s Systemic Problems

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An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season: An Unflinching Look into Today’s Systemic Problems

If there’s anything positive that has come out of the ongoing pandemic, it would be our newfound attentiveness to introspection and our relationship to the dominant structures in society. Independent curator Syaheedah Iskandar has astutely foregrounded these concerns in the exhibition, An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season, which is on show at National Gallery Singapore. The AV-heavy exhibition is one of 11 segments under the Proposals for Novel Ways of Being initiative, which was founded by the National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum to support artists and cultural workers through the provision of exhibition and programme platforms.

In her curatorial text, Syaheedah considers how art suggests new ways of moving forward in these paralysing times: “Like the slow alteration of our bodies throughout the pandemic, what transmutations can we read from these art practices in this momentary turbulence?”

Socio-political issues such as constant digitisation, systemic racism, and mass consumerism lie at the heart of many of the participating artists’ ongoing practices. Their intuition towards the facets of society that have gone awry are likewise on show here, and Syaheedah has found a way to shine an unflinching light on them.

Fajrina Razak, after life, reverse rituals, 2020. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Fajrina Razak, after life, reverse rituals, 2020. Walking through the piece felt like being wrapped in Razak’s train of thought, which I found particularly soothing at the start of the exhibition. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

The first work to greet viewers is Fajrina Razak’s after life, reverse rituals. It consists of a suspended, undulating arrangement of batik fabric bearing written contemplations of spirituality in a period of forced isolation. The arrangement echoes ritualistic practices of circumambulation, where one walks around a sacred point as a devotional practice. Walking through it and reading the artist’s thoughts about the cyclical nature of life and death creates a moment where we can engage with ourselves and the artist’s state of mind — how are we connecting with ourselves and the world around us more profoundly?

I took this introspective headspace with me as I traversed the exhibition further and arrived at Sufian Samsiyar’s Another Wall. It features panels of real and synthetic marble alongside each other, both hanging from a partition wall. A historic material that has been mined since the time of ancient Western civilisations to modern day, Samsiyar’s choice of marble speaks to how fraught our relationship with the natural world and its materials has become. Further attesting to this sense of unsustainable consumption is the humble partition wall – a temporary but necessary fixture of exhibitions, art fairs, and biennales – that highlights the waste and labour that the international art ecosystem creates and relies on. 

Sufian Samsiyar, Another Wall, 2020. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Sufian Samsiyar, Another Wall, 2020. I thought the work was seemingly banal at first glance, but grew to appreciate Samsiyar’s profound message behind his choice of material. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Imagining and imaging brownness lies at the heart of Priyageetha Dia’s recent series, Long live the new flesh. The series consists of three works and draws on art history and the artist’s personal experiences to navigate and normalise brownness in today’s society. One of the components, Long live the new flesh (After the Three Graces, Primavera — Sandro Botticelli) sees a black-and-white photograph of the artist on a slab of paraffin wax that bears imprints of the Renaissance painter’s fair maidens: a pointed statement on how brown bodies have been historically overlooked, underrepresented, and marginalised by society, and how the art history canon has continuously perpetuated this.

The video work, Long live the new fl3$s$sh, stood out to me the most as it depicts a gilded human form up-close against a striking ultramarine background, purposefully glitched with data-moshing techniques. The gilded form hints at a future where brownness can be viewed as something normalised, if not revered, across both real life and the digital realm.

Priyageetha Dia, Long live the new flesh, 2020. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Priyageetha Dia, Long live the new flesh, 2020. A dizzying, immersive contemplation of race where bodies and pixels meld into one. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Both Kin Chui’s Station 13010 and Tini Aliman’s Pokoknya: Organic Cancellation make for profound conversations about our relationship with the nature in the age of digitisation. Station’s PVC banners bear glitched images of landscapes and hang from the ceiling, evoking an altar and recalling Southeast Asian cultural practices. A sprawling QR code (that can actually be scanned, by the way) lies at its heart, and in the glow of neon lights, suggests a ritualistic practice for what Syaheedah calls a deeply intertwined “techno-animist world.” Visually stimulating to the point of overwhelming, Station speculates the ways we might embrace our existing ecosystems as much as we have embraced technology in our lives, in order to imagine a future where these starkly different facets exist side by side.

Pokoknya runs parallel to this sentiment as it delves into the limits of interspecies communication, and makes us consider how “our nonhuman friends get left behind in the digital,” as Syaheedah puts it. This was something I had barely considered before, having only viewed the landscape as a monolith — rather than home to individual sentient beings we could develop relationships with. The sound installation plays multiple audio tracks at wavelengths that cancel each other out, and viewers are only able to listen to each audio track properly when they physically intervene with the sculpture. Perhaps it is a wider call to action for us to cut out societal noise and pay closer attention to the seemingly silent organisms we share our existence with.

Audiences will relish the exhibition’s pacing as there’s considerable breathing room between each work. I appreciated this greatly, especially in contrast with the blockbuster exhibitions and art fairs that pack works together like sardines in a can, primed for instant consumption. Interspersed between multiple artworks are iterations of Aki Hassan’s sculptural installation, Weighed Down by an Uplift. Balloon-shaped sculptures hang from walls, their bulbous forms uncomfortably compressed by bent metal rods. The three-dimensional forms are accompanied by their digital renderings on screen, shedding light on the inevitable disconnect and restrictions we experience when viewing art online.

Aki Hassan, Weighed Down by an Uplift, 2020.  Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Aki Hassan, Weighed Down by an Uplift, 2020. Remember to look up and spot variations of Aki’s contorted works hanging from multiple points across the exhibition. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Up next, there’s nor’s* Sekali Lagi, Siapa Nama Kamu? (Once Again, What is Your Name?): an unforgettable, collaborative multimedia work filmed in NGS that foregrounds the enduring legacy and pain of imperialism. Collaborators are purposefully ethnic minority women and those who don’t adhere to colonial constructs of gender as dictated by the English language. After all, the gender binary that is the norm in English-speaking Singapore is not necessarily the case in non-colonial languages such as Malay, where separate pronouns for male and female do not exist. Through song, satire, and spoken word, they interrogate lingering issues such as the adopting of the language of the coloniser; debates on race and ethnicity, and in turn, inclusivity and privilege; as well as how harmful colonial narratives continue to frame the way people think.

Sit through the entire work in awe and watch it end on a progressive note that asserts there is still a lot of work to be done. I can’t help but agree, as sociopolitical debate in Singapore illuminates how necessary these discussions are and how we can meaningfully integrate them into society.

nor, Sekali Lagi, Siapa Nama Kamu? (Once Again, What is Your Name?), 2020. The work uses Chua Mia Tee’s painting National Language Class (1959). Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
nor, Sekali Lagi, Siapa Nama Kamu? (Once Again, What is Your Name?), 2020. The work uses Chua Mia Tee’s painting National Language Class (1959), which portrays students of various ethnicities learning Malay, as a springboard to delve into discussions surrounding colonialism and language. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Rounding out the exhibition are two works by Izzad Radzali Shah, called Balada Seniman Pasir Putih (The Ballad of the Artist from the White Sands) and Sesi Temu Bual Bersama Seniman Tanah Air (Conversation with a Homeland Artist), and Clara Lim’s 3 GHz.

Shah’s latter work stands out for its commentary on misinformation transmitted by the media. It takes the form of a parody interview where the artist speaks about his practice in Malay, only for the transmission to be mired by glitches and translation errors. Even those who don’t speak the language (myself included) will have a faint suspicion that the accompanying English subtitles don’t tell the whole story, leading us to wonder what information has been purposefully excluded in the media we consume.

Izzad Radzali Shah, Sesi Temu Bual Bersama Seniman Tanah Air (Conversation with a Homeland Artist), 2020. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Izzad Radzali Shah, Sesi Temu Bual Bersama Seniman Tanah Air (Conversation with a Homeland Artist), 2020. Knowing that the ‘interview’ didn’t present me the whole truth really seems to encapsulate today’s era of fake news. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Multimedia installation 3 GHz echoes the sentiment of questioning the narratives fed to us, which in Lim’s case is that of national and capitalist progress. A microwave from National, a discontinued line, plays a montage of advertisements and campaigns from past decades to highlight Singapore’s fixation on technological advancement, and in turn, critique the mass consumption that comes with it. Additionally, a neon light fixture blasts the message “It’s expensive / to be poor”: a bleak reminder of how those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds in Singapore continue to be left out from narratives of financial, technological, and national progress.

Clara Lim, 3 GHz, 2020. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Clara Lim, 3 GHz, 2020. The presence of light fixtures echoing those of the traditional stock market foreground the relationship between financial progress, technology, and the ever-growing economic inequality. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Head outside for a peek at the artwork, There can be no touching here by ila, which is jointly presented as part of both this exhibition and the neighbouring Time Passes (curated by Samantha Yap). This necessary, somber work spans hanging scrolls that interrogate how local news houses unjustly depict sexual assault, and provides sensitive and practical advice on how we can support victims in our own circles. Undeniably timely with the growing onslaught of #metoo cases, the work speaks volumes for how we can actively raise understanding and contribute to healing in our own communities. As a woman, I was left both heartbroken and hopeful: appalled that these incidents are so prevalent today, but slightly heartened by the knowledge that individuals have the power to raise awareness and understanding.

ila, There Can Be No Touching Here, 2020. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
ila, There Can Be No Touching Here, 2020. I found the work’s presence in an institution like National Gallery Singapore meaningful as it opens up the conversation about the issue in a larger public space. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Honestly speaking, Glitch left me in chills like very few exhibitions do. While many works dealt with pressing (and frankly worrying) phenomena, it was how the visceral, human ways that the artists approached these ideas that reminded me that I was a part of something much larger than myself. I found the exhibition a necessary call for us to examine our paradigms, take responsibility for them and question how we can improve our own ways of living. Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I left feeling empowered and enlightened despite global anxieties, knowing that there was plenty of room for us to contemplate and propose more sustainable futures. So to anyone who’s been using quarantine to confront current realities and imagine a better life: this show’s for you.

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An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season is ongoing until 21 February 2021 at the National Gallery Singapore.

*The artist, nor, is listed by a different name within exhibition materials but has requested to be named as nor online.

Feature image: Kin Chui, Station 13010, 2020. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

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