Towards the centre of the gallery space at Yeo Workshop is a slender, bronze-coloured steel pipe. Titled Dyke, it runs along the narrow edge of a partition wall, before leaping off the plane, and into the viewer’s path.
Currently on view at Gillman Barracks, the objects in Aki Hassan’s solo show Entangled Attachments exude a quiet defiance. They rise from the ground, slouch away from the walls, and hang well above the viewer’s line of sight. They demand that you take care and take time not to trip over them.
It would be tempting, at first glance, to dismiss Aki’s work as a compendium of amorphous, suggestively titled, vaguely industrial objects placed strategically in odd corners of the white cube.
What makes Aki’s work compelling is that it goes beyond being a successful formal exercise. Yes, Aki’s work is Minimalist in its tendencies towards abstraction, and in its attention to encounters between the viewer and the art object’s physical properties. But it is also deeply invested in reworking these formal conventions in order to carve out a visual vocabulary that accommodates the complexities of being—as the artist is—queer and non-binary.
In our conversation, Aki shares how Entangled Attachments grew out of their thinking about queer kinships, which transcend the codes and structures of the traditional family unit. Cultural thinkers have written extensively on what kinship means within queer communities: how it is composed of “ephemeral encounters such as sex, friendship and activism, pointing beyond heteronormative organisations of intimacy, care, desire and reproduction.”
Between queer individuals, who aren’t necessarily bound to one another by blood ties or by the institution of marriage, these affective bonds tend to be mutable and non-hierarchical.
“Because queerness destabilises the cisheteronormative space, support is not something that we can demand of each other even when we need it,” explains Aki. “Things can happen very quickly. Shifts can happen very subtly, but they can be drastic.”
“I was also paying attention to the specific conditions that I saw a lot of queer people surviving through here [in Singapore]. People here tend to adjust themselves according to what [cisheteronormative society] expects of them, even if it means […] dressing in a way that is palatable, doing things that are suggestive of queerness, but not necessarily straightforwardly queer. Tweaking bits and pieces of ourselves so our existence is not too jarring.”
Despite a growing acceptance of queerness, Singapore continues to uphold cisheterosexuality as the foundation for familial relations (to the extent that government officials have publicly committed to the maintenance of the current traditional definition of marriage, clarifying that such definition will continue to inform policy-making at various levels).
Thus, toeing the line between conformity and overt “deviance” becomes a strategy for survival.
With these complexities in mind, Entangled Attachments adopts “a more obscure approach to care”. Kindred objects—similar lines, shapes and forms—are placed in proximity to one another, allowing the viewer to “read into the bodily, into suggestive movements, into the gravity and the weight of what the object holds.”
I enjoyed watching these visual resonances emerge as I approached the installation from different vantage points. For instance, the pale beige half of the largest floor piece You are everything, my tired body, echoes a work installed in the opposite corner of the gallery, Nudge, nudge, which is painted in a similar hue.
But, the two are only visible simultaneously if you’re standing in one specific corner of the gallery.
It reminds me of the tenuous visibility of queer identities in Singapore—how queer bodies dip in and out of lines of sight, often slipping under the radar in order to remain safe in circumstances which are often less than welcoming.
Both works, too, blur the lines between sculpture and painting, as three-dimensional lines emerge from the picture plane, in the form of bent steel pipes. This is also why I’ve chosen to refer to them as “objects” so far in the course of this review, as the paintings feel sculptural and the sculptures feel painterly in their deft, playful refusal to fit neatly into binary categories.
Traces of care
“Sculpture is a very physical, laborious process. With drawing, there’s always a misunderstanding that it’s spontaneous, because of the lines and the marks that I tend to make. They look very fast. But […] because it’s placed alongside sculptures, I’m hoping that this amplifies the labour-intensive work that’s behind all the [art],” Aki reflects.
While Aki’s taut compositions and pared-down forms might suggest that the artist creates at a remove, the works’ surfaces tell a different story. There’s a certain warmth and tactility in these lively, earth-toned surfaces—unlike the sleek, industrial finishes that gave Minimalist sculpture in the ‘60s its cold, impersonal neutrality. Up close, I could see that the wooden panels were covered in faint, delicate whorls. I was curious as to what these hidden processes involved.
“When I was drawing on those boards I was thinking about how to encourage them to hold on to the pigments,” Aki recounts, explaining how their process involved rubbing the pigments in, sanding the surface down, and rubbing them in again. “There was something about that exchange between my hands and the wooden boards that felt very careful.”
“I decided to work with wood specifically because it holds on to every single mark that you make. It has a memory of its own, but at the same time, it’s willing to hold on to the memories that you make with it.”
Care work—the accumulated actions and micro efforts that go into maintaining kinships–informed Aki’s laborious processes. Like bodies inscribed with personal histories, each of the objects is a palimpsest of material exchanges. What, then, can reading into the works’ postures and gestures tell us about the lives they have lived?
Aki tells me that they have always taken note of people’s actions; the bodily cues that indicate their habits, their comforts and discomforts. What the artist finds exciting is that the queer body holds a whole repertoire of familiar gestures, that “we exchange with each other knowingly…That’s probably how we find safety in each other, by firstly perceiving the actions that our bodies make.”
While visual resonances between the objects evoke gestures shared between queer kin, Aki’s decision to work with abstract rather than figurative forms also creates a certain openness, acknowledging and accommodating the differences between individual bodies.
Recognising that not all bodies conform to the ideal, aestheticised anatomies in copybooks for painters and sculptors, and that because no one body looks exactly like another, “there’s no way I can draw something that would be totally relatable,” the artist reflected. Instead, Aki’s precise, careful lines echo the body’s curves and folds without necessarily depicting them, allowing us to imagine queer bodies beyond a “singular specific archetype.”
The word “tired” recurs thrice in the titles of the fourteen works on view. But it also comes through more subtly in the ways that the forms teeter between “a yearning for rest” and a “need to sustain its posture”. The two components in Don’t Fall seem almost to be shadows of one another. The white-coloured appendage lies on the ground, while the other, which is brown, leans tentatively over it.
Everything in Entangled Attachments seems to exist on edge: planes are suspended in a delicate balance, lines curve and collapse on the verge of crossing into other states of being. One wooden board, titled Our gestures pulse through one another, hangs at a downward angle.
Another, called Note for my kin, is wedged precariously in the nook of a bent steel pipe, without additional mounts to hold it in place (as the gallery associate informs me).
“To me, a queer body is a tired body. It’s a body that has gone through layers, processes, confrontation and survival. My work is a reflection of that. I think the tiredness and precarity come from the kind of strategy work that we do,” Aki reflects.
“When we stand up, when we present ourselves in the world, how do we posture? How do we adjust our bodies to make ourselves seem more resilient?”
Points of Entry
Precariously positioned on the threshold of change, Aki’s objects might read as an extended meditation on bodies that transform, traversing the spectrum of gender. But Aki also expressed that it’s completely fine if audiences simply appreciate their work on a formal level.
“What’s really exciting is this play of control in terms of where the entry point [into my work] lies,” Aki shares. “We’re so used to queer people giving knowledge, giving vocabulary, when in fact, these entry points should be controlled.”
“I’ve had people come to the show, and think [it’s] just a play of lines [that] is very simple and nice. […] But then I have queer people, my trans and gender non-conforming friends, coming to this show and reading into every single thing, and feeling a sense of solidarity with it. To me, that’s beautiful because I’m making work in reflection of these communities, these people. And that means so much more to me.”
That being said, the work does offer contextual cues which provide a point of access into more nuanced interpretations of its queer orientations. Accompanying the visual experience is an audio recording of a poem which plays in the background. Titled prayer for the unfamiliar, it was written and read by Aki’s dear friend and collaborator, nor.
Whereas objects assert their presence incontrovertibly, nor’s gentle, assured inflections allow viewers to tune in and out of what’s being said, without necessarily forcing the poem into the viewer’s consciousness. All this falls in line with the show’s subtle approach: Aki clarifies that their intention wasn’t for people to “stand still and pay attention to the text”, but rather, to move around the space, allowing the words to guide their train of thought.
What I appreciate about Entangled Attachments is that it opens up multiple interpretative possibilities, rather than foreclosing them. While overtly representational figurations of queerness have their own merit in making visible marginalised identities, I find Aki’s recourse to abstraction poetic in its pluralities and allusions. Its addresses to the queer community are lucid and urgent, but never didactic in its visions of queerness, which remain tender and expansive.
Against the tussle of kindred forms shifting, shaping up a lexicon of care and support, nor’s sonorous voice goes:
“we are glory / glory gorgeousness / unconventional beauty / flags / flying in / uninherited territory / beyond known borders / of our family / unto potential / we are generosity / in the ways we get to choose”
Entangled Attachments runs through 18 June 2023. Artists Aki Hassan and Esther McManus will also be exploring visual kinships in a talk on Saturday, 10 June, 4-6pm. More information on Yeo Workshop’s website.
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Unless otherwise stated, the images in this article were photographed by the writer.
Feature image courtesy of Marvin Tang.