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Three's a triumph
THE SOVEREIGN FOREST
By Amar Kanwar
NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore
From now till Oct 9
THE NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore in Gillman Barracks has been putting on one outstanding show after another. Its latest, Amar Kanwar's The Sovereign Forest, does not disappoint.
Kanwar is an acclaimed 51-year-old New Delhi artist. For over a decade, he has been documenting the environmental destruction of the land of Odisha in east India. The work has been presented in numerous places, including Documenta 13 (2012), the 11th Sharjah Biennial (2013) and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2012-13).
Kanwar has made films, texts, books, photographs and installations to shed light on the tragedy. He has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of Odisha's people whose pain is immeasurable and loss intractable.
Many who have lived on the land have been intimidated, evacuated and imprisoned - some even killed - so that they could make way for the international conglomerates that want to mine the resource-rich land.
But though the exhibition has succeeded in raising awareness about Odisha, Kanwar has no delusions about the impact art can make on social and political issues. He confesses: "I've asked that myself: How can I possibly make a difference through my art? But when I go to Odisha, I see these communities with no financial or political resources, no organisation backing them, yet able to hold their ground against formidable opponents, I realise that maybe it is possible to make a difference."
"When I meet other people fighting this too - whether mentally, socially or politically - I realise it's possible. Sometimes I do a little more and sometimes a little less, but it does add up, it changes things. It's hard to quantify, but it does add up."
At CCA, the first thing you see is The Scene of Crime, a lush and lengthy film showing various parts of Odisha before they were destroyed by large-scale industrial and mining projects. Kanwar trains his camera on the beautiful terrain, unabashedly zooming in on blades of grass and water sources.
Beyond this film, however, the show begins to expand in complexity. On one wall, Kanwar assembles dozens of documents including photos, articles, petitions, receipts and thumbprints - what Kanwar calls a "constellation of evidence" - to show the injustices perpetrated against the people of Odisha.
Meanwhile, in a adjacent room lined with 272 little boxes, one finds the seeds of different species of rice that were once grown on the land of Odisha, but whose numbers have dwindled since the land was taken over by corporations. You are encouraged to touch and smell the seeds, if only to evoke the reality of Odisha.
One the most intriguing parts of the exhibition are three large hand-made books, each containing various beautifully-written narratives or suggestions of narratives which you're encouraged to flip through.
One book, titled The Counting Sisters and Other Stories, recounts the real story of the "Counting Sisters" - six mourning women who have been keeping score of the people who have died or disappeared from Odisha as a result of the conflict. Another book, titled The Constitution, is filled with cryptic titles that allude to how national constitutions have failed to protect and promote the fundamental rights of its people.
The broad variety of complex responses by Kanwar is what gives the show its depth and currency. In an age of information, Kanwar's artistic vision compels one to really stop and ponder the real human and environmental cost of industrialisation in not just Odisha but also elsewhere in the world.
Fittingly, NTU CCA has created an impressive line-up of events to augment the exhibition: Talks, workshops, screenings of films on environmental issues, and even a new play by Teater Ekamatra and a research project centred on the local haze situation have been planned. More information may be found on the NTU CCA website.
By Manit Sriwanichpoom
At Yavuz Gallery
From now till Sept 18
ONE of the most politically hard-hitting art shows of the year must surely be Manit Sriwanichpoom's photo exhibition Fear. Last Saturday, it opened simultaneously in Yavuz Gallery in Singapore and three galleries in Bangkok. This unusual tactic of opening the same show in four galleries at the same time can only be guessed at - the exhibition is so bold in its critique of the Thai political situation that it risks censorship from the ruling military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
Appearing at the Singapore gallery for the opening of the show, Sriwanichpoom said: "There is now a fear of speaking in Thailand. I speak to you here because this is not Thailand. It's also okay because I speak to you in English - the military don't understand ... It's the 21st century, and people are scared to speak up."
For the past five years, Thailand has been mired in political turmoil. The country's leadership has changed hands from Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Oxford-educated politician, to Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of the polarising former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001 - 2006), to the current NCPO military junta led by former commander in chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, who had ousted Yingluck through a coup d'etat.
The country was placed under martial law, only to have that replaced by a new security order in 2015 granting greater powers to the ruling military junta. In a CNN interview, Human Rights Watch's Asia director Brad Adams described the current situation as a "deepening descent into dictatorship".
In response to these tumultuous events, Sriwanichpoom created more than a dozen series of photographic works to express the deep despair he feels as a common Thai citizen. On the central wall of Yavuz Gallery, he placed 55 pixellated images of what appears to be official state portraits of members of the National Legislative Assembly. In 2014, the NCPO had appointed the 200-member Assembly to draft a new constitution - but most of its members are current or former high-ranking military and police personnel.
Explaining the work, Sriwanichpoom said: "I have made these images of generals to look like wallpaper because these men say nothing. They are supposed to be the voice of the people but they are not. I pixellated their images because we Thai people don't know who they are. On the Internet, the Thai government pixellates images they don't like - so I have done the same here."
The exhibition doesn't just comment on the current socio-political climate, but also that of recent years. For one work, the former newspaper photographer lined a string of photographs depicting the thick concrete wall constructed in 2013 around Bangkok's Government House by Yingluck to protect it from protesters. These bleak black-and-white photos seem to sag under the weight of their own pessimism.
On the side wall, Sriwanichpoom displayed 11 photographs of overturned and vandalised riot police cars that had been seized by protesters, repainted in tri-colours of the Thai flag and scrawled with words expressing their frustrations.
Under the current security order of the NCPO, military personnel can block the media from publishing anything and detain suspects up to seven days. It remains to be seen how long the Fear exhibition in the three Bangkok galleries will remain open. But at least in Singapore, art lovers - as well as those interested in the political developments of Thailand - will be able to experience Fear as expressed by one of its leading artists.
Curated by Josef Ng
Pearl Lam Galleries
From now till Sept 4
ONE of the best group shows in Gillman at the moment is In Silence curated by Josef Ng, the Singapore artist-turned-regional curator for Pearl Lam Galleries. His new show features works by eight artists and seeks to examine "the introspective qualities of art from the contemporary era".
Though "introspective" isn't the word that comes to mind when thinking of the art of Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo or American neo-conceptualist Jenny Holzer - two of the eight artists featured here - the works of the other artists do bear a delicate stoicism that belies the complexity of their message.
Take Ezzam Rahman's works, for instance. His fragile painted flowers are made from his own dead skin. The joint winner of last year's Singapore Art Museum's President's Young Talents Award (he tied with Ong Kian Peng) peels the dead skin off the soles of his feet, paints them to look like petals and assembles them artfully.
The flowers are then encased in individual bell jars and placed in a row like some rare plant species. Hanging over them is a series of photographs of the artist himself, wearing nothing but a towel in a bathhouse. Here, Ezzam raises questions about the ephemeral nature of the body, and how it is reduced, represented and commodified. Despite the stillness of the works, they speak volumes about human corporeality and sexuality.
Also quiet yet potent is a video by Chinese artist Tao Hui titled Talk About Body (2013). Here, we see the artist sitting on his bed. He is wearing the hijab (the garb of Muslim women) and describing himself as an ostensibly effeminate man. His performance is simple and self-effacing. Yet it touches on a range of issues, from gender and identity to race and culture. In its extraordinarily subtle way, it raises the idea that our identities are really quite arbitrary, a question of where we were born and whom we were born to. It challenges us to question why many of us wear our identities so proudly and dearly.
Less provocative but no less magnetic are Chinese artist Qian Jiahua's abstract canvases. Her minimalist blocks of black are rendered askew and delineated by thin strips of pink, blue or other colours. At first, they look like just black blocks. But stay awhile, look harder and details emerge - the whimsical geometry, the hint of colours, the barely-there rhythms. Though free of extraneous details, Qian's forms have a dynamic and pulsating pull.
The remaining three artists - Japan's Sayaka Ishizuka, Singapore's Zen Teh and Iran's Golnaz Fathi - similarly operate in delicate, abstract languages that reward the viewer only if he or she patiently invests time and attention in the works. In Silence, in short, is a strong exhibition.
Curator-artist Ng has been missing from the Singapore scene for decades, following the 1994 controversy over the snipping of his pubic hair in public. His return to Singapore as Pearl Lam Galleries' managing director of Asia is no doubt one to watch.