A shocking exhibition of a stark naked man at the Art Stage Singapore exhibition, held at Marina Bay Sands has attracted much attention from both the public as well as the media, most of which were criticisms and comments aimed to ridicule the artist himself. One of the readers of the New Paper commented that, “It’s “worth” paying $250 to take photo with an ancient caveman. What's missing is a club in his hand.” while several others felt that it was an exhibition and a bold stunt to earn money ($250 per photograph) instead of an artistic expression.
However, before we go about criticizing the artist, an understanding of the background of the artist is essential in order to fully understand his intentions for such a display in such a conservative nation. The artist, T. Venkanna, is from Hyderabad, India, holding a Masters in Fine Arts in printmaking from M.S. University of Baroda and Bachelors in Fine Arts in painting from J.N.T.U. Hyderabad where he was awarded a Gold medal.
A predominant subject in Venkanna's works is the sexual imagination, which questions and confronts the way sexuality is understood and defined by society. The theme of sex is ,therefore, evident throughout his works, from his sketches to paintings as well as his other artworks. In one of his most recent solo show ‘Sacred and Profane’ which showed at Gallery Maskara in 2010, sex in all various forms is the main topic throughout the exhibition; penises, inter-species copulation and urinals were subject matters for the artworks exhibited in the Gallery.
These achievements as well as the predominance of the sexual themes in many of his earlier works probably backs up his credibility as an artist as well as his claim to 'removing the trappings of identity', by posing naked, and holding the hands of the visitors in front of a replica of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas. “Mr Venkanna is using the painting to convey the idea of healing. He is reaching out to people through the gesture of touch, which is the most basic gesture of communication,” Maskara explains.
Why is it then that such an exhibition created such a commotion and criticism from many?
Firstly, a price tag was put onto the work. This thus led many to question the original intentions of the artist. Every photo was charged $250 and it was bewildering to realize that 350 visitors actually went to take a photo with Venkanna in his birthday suit against the backdrop of a replica. The controversy over which such an exhibition aimed to express an artistic intention or to 'rob' visitors of their money as well as to gain publicity hence arises.
Secondly, was such a display necessary to bring across the message of 'removing the trappings of identity'? Did Venkanna successfully convey this through the work? In my opinion, he did not. I do not doubt his artistic expressions given his lustrous resume. However, the fact that Art Stage Singapore is a public exhibition meant for people of all ages ought to be taken into consideration before any controversial or disturbing artworks are displayed. Furthermore, Singapore is a rather conservative society, as compared to the United States. Even though measures, such as limiting the viewing of the work to those above 21, were taken, those who eventually saw the nude were still very much shocked and disturbed by the work. Such an exhibition pushed the boundaries of society unnecessarily and thus caused much commotion and criticism of both the work and the artist. Perhaps if such a display were to be exhibited in the United States, it could become a different story.
In conclusion, I believe that while artists seek to freely express themselves through their artwork, considerations for the audience of the exhibition as well as their background ought to be taken into account before exhibiting the artwork in order to prevent unnecessary commotion and become defamed as a result. This incident shows that Singapore's society is not yet ready to accept the idea of nudity. Therefore, artistic expression has to be limited within the Singapore art scene until society becomes more open-minded.