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March 20, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Every Name in History is I

Contemporary Art from New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan
Adam Art Gallery

There’s a lot to think about in Islanded, the exhibition now showing at your local University gallery, the Adam. There are numerous video works, sound samples to listen to, photographs, and even jigsaw puzzles you can play with. If you’ve got an hour break between lectures, go and have a look because it is worth it. There is so much going on in this show, so much to sift through and think about. An hour might not even be enough. Set aside two, spend some time with this art. Have a cup of tea with it, actually the gallery attendant might get a bit grumpy if you do that, maybe just read it a story instead. Bond a little.

Given that this show is filled to the brim, I’m going to focus on three works that really interested me on the blustery Saturday that I went along to peruse. Firstly, the main thrust (yip, thrust) of the show is to exhibit a range of contemporary art from New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan. These are a disparate collection of countries, but ones that all share an island status – this being the main curatorial thread running through the selection of works. Uniting the artworks is an interest in the construction of national histories; these stories which are taught as unequivocal truth. Many works in the show exhibit a frustration with the dominance of certain narratives in popular culture, and show the way in which they can be twisted or subverted. The physical geography of island land masses and their boundaries has also been a curatorial direction; many of the works explore cartography and the act of mapping and delineating space.

The first work I really enjoyed is Common Cold created by New Zealand artist Reagan Gentry. Gentry has two works in the exhibition, the other Takeaway is also an interesting piece; plaster casts were made of the artist’s head and are gradually destroyed by a conveyor belt of sandpaper. A comment on the consumption of the artist as commodity perhaps, but it seems to be completely divorced from the concerns of the show; a very odd curatorial decision.

It is much easier to see why Common Cold has been selected as the work that raises questions about the ubiquitous New Zealand landscape scene, and our situation as an isolated island. It is a video work showing a toilet roll held out in a strong wind which whips it back and forth, finally released from the hand that held it, it is swept out across the land. It is mesmerizing and beautiful. In the background you can see the sea, and the place where the land and the ocean meet each other. There is the sense of being on the edge, particularly from the high viewpoint, and we are watching the place where one space comes to an end and another begins. The scene is played out against a rosy pink sunset. This cliché of the way we would like our country to be perceived is almost ridiculed by the prosaic use of toilet paper. It would appear that both national myths and toilet paper are utilitarian and disposable.

National myths and generally accepted histories are at the core of Singaporean artist, Ho Tzu Nyen’s work Utama – Every Name in History is I. In his art Nyen challenges the dominance of colonial histories, histories which begin with the ‘discovery’ of a land by a colonial power; an arbitrary and misguided notion of history. Nyen shows that this biased colonial history shapes how his country, Singapore, sees itself today.

As part of the work Nyen has made an amazing video focusing on the pre-colonial founder of Singapore, Sing Sang Nila Utama. This video uses the conventions of an historical document, including chapters and dates, overly staged dialogue, narration, and re-enactments of events, but subverts them slightly. It is eerily put together, the images aren’t clearly defined and the characters seem to fade in and out of a mist. The movements and voices of the actors are unnatural, they sound like ill-learnt lines from a badly written script. It becomes evident that Nyen is very aware of techniques such as these that are used to create history and give it its veneer of truth. Truth, he suggests in this work, is a relative, uncertain, and treacherous territory. As the narrator in the video says, ‘whoever seeks his own origins will find only mirages.’

Finally, my favourite piece in the show is another video work by Taiwanese artist Tsui Kuang Yu called 18 Copper guardians in Shao-Lin Temple and Penetration: the penetrative. Good title. This work is hilarious. If you have no other reason to go and see the show, then you should at least go for this. It shows the artist simply running into stuff; walls, computers, horses, bashing his head against them and then walking off quite nonchalantly. And he runs quite hard, this isn’t pretend people, it looks quite painful. What is he doing? Really it’s hard to say. I thought about it on the most literal level: that he was trying to get inside things. Get inside Taiwan. Break on through to the other side. He is trying to penetrate a technologically advanced, yet impassive and austere Taiwanese culture. At one point he tries to run into a shop window that has a Craig David video playing on a huge TV screen. If there is any argument against the all pervasive technology which is marketed at ‘improving’ our lives, it is surely that people all over the world are able to see and listen to Craig David.

There are numerous other works in this show, some interesting, some not so interesting. But the contrast of artists working in and responding to different cultures definitely makes this show worth a look. While many of the works are quite playful, others respond with seriousness to the way in which nations and peoples are perceived and constructed. These of course being popular concerns in our post-colonial, post-modern age.


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