Guest Writing for Art Plural: Art Stage
I was flattered to be invited to write for Art Plural’s blog about their exhibition at Lorenzo Rudolf’s Art Stage last week. You can click through to the published article on the image below, or read the original copy beneath that to find out more about artists Bernar Venet, Ian Davenport, Shirin Neshat, and duo Thukral and Tagra.
Art Stage Singapore 2013 – A review of Art Plural Gallery by Nicola Anthony
Visiting the Art Plural booth at Art Stage Singapore, you will find canvases of bold gestures and dance-like movement, birds perched within vibrant paintings, and lush drips of colourful paint from Ian Davenport. A wide selection of artists from an array of cultures is featured, and the booth is an excellent taster of the type of artwork you can find adorning the gallery walls in the 4 storey space on Armenian Street.
I want to focus on a few artists that really drew me in. The first, Thukral and Tagra are a collaborative duo, whose inspiration begins with the reality of old values mixed with their ideas on modern times in the Punjabi culture of Northern India. The painting on display here contains subtle references and symbols of advertising, branding, and domestic retail, which have been quite inconspicuously included in the imagery of colourful birds perched on branches full of blossom. On closer inspection, the cheerful painting reveals imagery of products clasped in bird’s talons. The work is born out of a key theme of our times, and speaks of the shift in culture, from traditional to contemporary, transitioning between plural and simultaneous identities.
Next on the booth, I come face to face with two meaningful images of Laotian elders, by Shirin Neshat, one of the most well-known contemporary artists to emerge from Iran. Her poignant imagery is best known for its sensitive but honest commentary on gender politics and social issues in her native country. I first encountered her Laotian couples lining the gallery walls at Art Plural, late last year. On another floor, I encountered these same couples, performing a dance ritual in a video piece, in which all was not as you would expect.
The elderly couples became the subject of the artist’s work through a project called ‘The Quiet in the Land‘, which sought to examine aspects of Laotian culture, through collaborations between artists and communities that are deeply rooted in the rhythms of everyday life.
Whilst seeking to understand these couples and the stories behind the artworks, I gained a great insight about them through Neshat’s video in which a group of elderly women sit opposite a gathering of elderly men. An interaction begins, during which the men sing courtship songs to the women, and the women respond with their own animated lyrics. The groups are gesturing energetically, with a twinkle in their eye and a vibrancy in their voices, laughing at the ad-lib poetic lines they come up with through their impromptu and risqué responses. The songs were traditionally sung at weddings as a verbal sparring between the sexes.
Translated into English subtitles, their verses speak not of traditional social conventions like love and marriage as one would expect. Each weaves a tale of how much they desire the other, how even though they are just a poor man/woman, with dirty skin or weathered face, the other should give up their life or their marriage, to run away together and complete each other. The singsong speaks of the simple life, with unexpected sexual undertones and playfulness. Both romantic and rather saucy at times, the melody has a comedic value and a sense of endearment that grows around the singers and their character. I as the viewer, by the location of my seat in the centre of the room, was caught in the middle of both the male and female serenading.
These same couples have been translated into photographic images by Neshat, like those you can see at Art Stage. Handwritten text adorns the surface of each image against a backdrop of drawings and inscriptions on a temple wall. The result is a collection of very delicate, multi-layered pieces, which speak about the erosion of culture and tradition over time, contrasting it to the surprising vibrancy that can be shown when old rituals emerge.
Next to catch my eye at Art Stage is an artist who has been exploring the notions of indetermination, disorder, chance, and unpredictability through art for decades. Bernar Venet’s solo exhibition at Art Plural Gallery last year was his bold introduction to Singapore. His artworks include paintings of mathematical equations which are part of Venet’s latest series. His Saturations and Shaped Canvases comprise mathematical formulas that boast a total degree of abstraction. Talking at the gallery, Venet explained that where other artists in the past have used diverse disciplines such as religion, botanics or geometry to be the framework, subject or motivation of their art, he draws from the field of mathematics. The artist passionately notes that, uniquely, “art is a discipline in itself, that feeds itself using other disciplines…to go beyond anything that was thought before.”
Rather than using the formal concepts of mathematics in art, as has been done by artists such as Donald Judd and others who very radically and demonstratively utilised mathematics as a basis for their work, Venet pursues the linguistic aspect of mathematics. The artist is not dealing with compositions any more, but a language. He references ‘polysemic’ paintings – those having one meaning – and the alternative ‘pansemic’ paintings – having an infinity of interpretation.
I have always enjoyed thinking that as a language, Maths (or physics), has been said to be the universal one. All beings in the universe must understand it, 2 plus 2 is the same throughout the cosmos, and even though the manner or significs of communicating it may differ, mathematics remains the same. However, Venet has also used the equations in such a way that we catch snippets of text, phrases, numbers, and figures that start to overlap, blur, or be truncated by the edge of the canvas. As most of us are non-mathematicians, we cannot recognise the singular meaning of this particular equation, and may start to piece together another meaning in the form of our own ideas on it’s significance. Words come into view: ‘couple’, ‘imagination’, ‘probability’, ‘two random’, ‘correspond to’, ‘when the three’, ‘since the transition’, lies on the’, ‘problem’, ‘boundary’. This story of the relationship between things could apply to other sorts of relationships – between people, countries, lovers, families, cultures, paintings or universes.
Finally, my eye comes to rest on the Ian Davenport painting, hanging quite gem-like on the Art Plural booth. I have a soft spot for this artist, whose epic 48 metre long poured painting hangs under Southwark Bridge, crossing the London street where I used to live. Walking along beside his vibrant stripes as they gave cadence to the pace of the city was a daily pleasure for me.
Davenport’s colour theory intrigues me, and his lined surfaces always look so simple and satisfying. Ever since I discovered how they are created – through a painstaking action of pouring drips of paint from the top of the canvas and using gravity to draw each stripe – I am transported to this painterly action when I see his work: Hearing the paint sliding across the surface, envisioning the pool of colour spreading across the floor, and reminded of the slow roll of the paint down the canvas, with each slice representing a segment of time passing.
Words by Nicola Anthony, an art writer and artist living in Singapore.