Monday, January 31, 2011

Same median, different feel

The Singapore Art Biennale, a once in two years event, is the largest contemporary art biennale in Singapore. In conjunction with the theme ‘wonder’, this exhibition holds over a hundred artworks, from both local and foreign artists. Yet I was most drawn to a specific artwork, ‘I Wonder Why?’

A room filled with sculptures of children’s tricycles, urns, a bed and other everyday objects, layered with a coat of charcoal. A video of a large fire is shown on the walls, as if the room is engulfed in flames, licking every corner of the room. This is Prasad Srinivasa’s artwork, I Wonder Why?

With the ‘fire’ as the only light source, the room is set in darkness, the charcoal-coated sculptures as shadows of the already burnt objects. Indeed, the artist has set an atmosphere where viewers seemed to be a witness or even a victim to the merciless fire. Both sight and sound contributes to the atmosphere and aids in delivering the message the artist intended.

When I first entered the room, I was overwhelmed by the sound of the fire, and the conversation with my friends, which I was so engrossed in, stopped abruptly. I stared in awe as my eyes adjusted to the sharp contrast of the brightness from the flickers of the flames in the video and the darkness of the room. Some of the objects were laid on the floor; others were kept suspended in the air by some wires. The charcoal-coated objects were sewn everywhere, and I had to pick my way across the room in order to avoid touching the objects, and damaging them.

Why did Prasad Srinivasa create this artwork? What contributed to this idea? What is the message he wanted to send across to the viewers? These are some of the questions I pondered over as I entered the room.

After much thought, I figured that ‘I Wonder Why?’ brings to mind a burning society and a burning family; one of passion and tragedy. As fire spreads across vast areas in seconds, it is hard to control and foretell the outcome after the fire. Therefore, it is feared. Similarly, in this modern and fast changing world, it is difficult to predict the rise and fall, tragedy and happiness.

While fire is a powerful expression that stirs our emotions, it also relates to creation, spirituality and the origins of the world. While fire kills and destroys, plants and nature still thrive on the ashes and remains of the fire.

One other similar artwork that uses charcoal as one of its medians is ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye 好久不见’ by local artists, Tang Ling Nah and Willie Koh.

This artwork features three interconnected rooms and a corridor, covered with charcoal drawings of different parts of the rooms, like pipes, windows and doors. A video of similar photo shots is shown in the third room. As charcoal is used, the rooms are generally dark and are pictured in black and white in the video and drawings. The drawings are also given much shading, giving it a 3-D look and a life-like appearance.

Despite the two different medians used, charcoal drawing and video, both artists tackled the same ‘feel’ of the site, and worked on their artwork in similar ways. As this site used to be a housing area for soldiers in the army, it is very much rundown and has a sense of hardship and sorrow, which is similar to the ‘feel’ evoked by the artwork. Therefore, there is a link between the two medians and the site chosen.

I admired the great amount of detail and effort Tang Ling Nah put in the large charcoal drawings. Willie Koh’s video, also shown in black and white, captured the architecture elements in the different rooms.

Why did they create this artwork? Why does the artwork have such a unique title?

In my opinion, the general ‘feel’ of the artwork is of sorrow. With reference to the title of the artwork, ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye好久不见’ I figured that the artists probably wanted to portray the longing and depression when one’s loved ones die or leave us for a long period of time; the longing and depression of separation.

The artists of the two artworks used similar medians yet the message they convey are different. This is probably due to the different ways the artists used the medians.

Both artworks, ‘I Wonder Why?’ and ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye好久不见’, used charcoal as one of their medians to convey the message the artists were trying to put across. It turned out that both artworks evoked a similar yet unique ‘feel’ of darkness and sadness even though charcoal was used differently in the artworks, one as coatings for sculptures and another as drawings.

Both artworks also showed a video. The video of the fire gives the artwork its meaning and without it, the artwork will be incomplete and incomprehensible. Whereas, the video used in ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye好久不见’ adds to the sad atmosphere and enhances the sorrow evoked from the artwork. Video is used in both artworks, yet the purpose they serve differs from one another.

Indeed, ‘I Wonder Why?’ and ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye好久不见’ are both unique in their own ways, even though the medians used are similar.

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