To be washed ashore on a deserted island with an animal on the horizon
THE GROUND - THE FUTURE PAST
Ng Joon Kiat, Betty Susiarjo, Zhao Renhui
Essay by Dr Charles Merewether
‘Island Allegories’ is an exhibition that draws on three very distinct forms of artistic practice by Ng Joon Kiat, Betty Susiarjo and Zhao Renhui, three artists who are not often associated with one another. So we might ask why these three artists are put together. Is it purely coincidental, a chance encounter? They do not form a unified whole in any sense of their practice except that they are contemporaneous to one another, of an approximate age and are based in Singapore. What they do have in common is the allegorical.
Through allegory, the artistic practice of these three artists work under the guise of another. In this regard, the practice is similar to a fable but the difference lies in its discrete existence, in the meaning that is generated by its presence but that, nevertheless, lies outside of what it is that we see. It is similar in this respect to the unspoken, if you will, and thereby offers a second meaning that may well be symbolic. Allegory works by force of silence, a kind of tacit acknowledgement.
What is given is not sufficient. Rather, the art of each of these three artists create a form of symbolic surplus and further space for reflection that extends beyond that experienced through an immediate sense experience of matter, form or subject.
Allegory surges in the work of these three artists, surges without so much as their desire or consciousness to do so. I would suggest that it does so then because of the force of circumstance. There is nothing else but, to retire to the vain dictates of an invented narrative as if to satisfy the narcissism of the real, to serve as a confirmation of its validity, a historicity that forms a redemptive act, humbled by the dictates of narratives of pragmatism and calculated logic of reason. Against this, freedom exerts itself, the spirit of freedom which artists and those who seek to practice. The achievement of the arts can be seen as an achievement of this spirit and a society that has realized the fulfilment of its promised potentiality.
For some the exercise is enabled by the dimension of the allegorical. This is not the only way, for there are other artists whose work exemplifies this spirit through their dedication to the abstract, whether it be abstraction or an approach to their practice that is utterly self-sufficient. We can be grateful to those who see and support such practice. The challenge for these three artists is to be mis-appraised, to be recognized for what the work is not only and arguably, to be a critical counterpoint to local and dominant artistic tendencies.
In one of the great periods of Russian literature and arts during the two decades of the 1910’s and 1920’s, writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov or Yevgeny Zamyatin, both wrote extraordinary stories that were fables of an era which was running headlong into disaster, into the years of Stalin’s Gulag - how to say this, how to survive and write, to write the unspoken, the yet to be. By the end of the Twenties, the allegorical or fable was no longer necessary as a device. The tragedy of Russia’s immediate future was written all over the wall and when Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930, his last poem was a love poem that spoke of hope and of utter loss.
Let me not say that the work of these three artists is comparable in any immediate way. The sense of profound change, disillusion and destruction that was experienced and witnessed in the Soviet Union is not evident in Singapore. The death of so many that included some of the greatest artists and writers of the century is devastating to recall. However, I write here by way of reference to the Russians because they so powerfully articulated and exercised the potential of allegory to speak, to forecast, and to imagine beyond the visible. What unites these three artists is the shared idea of a shared humanity, a continuity, that as Maurice Blanchot would propose: “the notion that man is naturally reflected in his works and never distinct from himself, that progress is continuous, an uninterruptable continuity which ensures the flow of past into present, since culture and cumulation go hand in hand” (M.Blanchot ‘Arts Nova’ in The Sirens’ Song (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982, p.189). The use of allegory disturbs this pact. It disturbs the imagined line of continuity, the idea of a harmoniously unfolding narrative of the present, the construction of a map that becomes the template for the future.
Ng Joon Kiat writes of his painting as “questioning for a horizon and an imaginary geography of Singapore. I spent two years studying old maps of Singapore.” Elsewhere, he writes of “exploring firstly, tactile paint and secondly, the illusionistic spaces in painting (in particular, traces of thinking about landscape paintings in Chinese and Euramerican Art Histories). The construction of maps, the imaginary geographies, traces - all of these are both the point of reference, yet spectral in the claims over their subject to which they refer. Zhao Renhui aptly entitles his series of photographs: “To be washed ashore on a deserted island with an animal on the horizon.” To see the horizon, to see that we were and are not the first nor only inhabitants to occupy this island, that it was not made in ‘our’ image, that culture co-exists with nature. This is not an argument about origin but rather, against the destructiveness of instrumentality. He writes, “A large part of my work tries to resist the false naturalisation of beliefs and circumstances. The work is loosely centered around notions of knowledge production and enmeshed with philosophy, natural history and anthropology.” Betty Susiarjo seeks to address the impermanence of things as she remarks, of their frail temporality. She writes in her artistic statement of the “rivalry between nature and man, the landscape and the city, the organic and the artificial, the dreams and the reality we all live in.”
The pleasure of the work lies in the act of seeing and yet nonetheless, there is no constant in this subject. In fact the pleasure is frustrated by a light which is too much for the work, that frustrates visibility, as in Joon Kiat’s work or, a light that is refracted by the materiality of the surface in Susiarjo projections and the darkness of the landscape made barely visible in viewing the subject of Renhui’s photographs. The presence of the allegorical in the work of these three artists functions elliptically, alluding to the past that has been always already written by its future. Allegory offers meaning other than the words that are spoken, images that are given. It recognizes the horizon as the ground on which we may find ourselves.
...Language is everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of things, the waves and the forests.” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible.)