Review: The Signature Art Prize

Singapore’s cultural efflorescence over the past decade has been a source of wonder even to the Singaporeans themselves, who are forever celebrating their own progress. Every arts function in this most regulated of nations devolves into a recital of miracles achieved in a short space of time, with exaggerated displays of respect for the politicians and sponsors that made it possible.

To the Australian sensibility this feels slightly bizarre. Such Neo-Confucian antics would not go down well in Sydney or Melbourne, where politicians and their benevolent motivations are greeted with scepticism. Sponsorship is delivered and thanks returned, but in a comparatively straightforward manner. Not so Singapore, where every Minister is treated with reverence and sponsors are deities.

Since its inception in 2007 the Signature Art Prize has been a feature and a symbol of Singapore’s growing commitment to the arts. Its chief supporter is the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation – proving that beer can be just as easily associated with art as sport. The Prize is administered by the Singapore Art Museum but because that institution is undergoing renovations the 2018 show is being hosted by the National Museum of Singapore.

This year, for the fourth iteration of the Prize, fifteen finalists were chosen from a field of 113 artists spread throughout the Asia-Pacific and – for the first time – Central Asia. Art professionals in forty countries, territories and regions were asked to nominate artists, with the finalists and winners being decided by an international panel consisting of Joyce Toh (Singapore), Mami Kataoka (Japan), Bose Krishnamachari (India), Wong Hoy Cheong (Malaysia), and Australia’s own Gerard Vaughan.

A comprehensive catalogue was published, with images from every nominated artist, providing a valuable snapshot of the contemporary art of the region.

The finalists were: Au Sow Yee (Malaysia), Bae Young-whan (South Korea), Club Ate – Bhenji Ra + Justin Shoulder (Australia), Fang Weiwen (Taiwan), Jitish Kallat (India), Leung Chi Wo + Sara Wong (Hong Kong), Mata Aho Collective (New Zealand), Yerbossyn Meldibekov (Kazakhstan), Phan Thao Nguyen (Vietnam), Shubigi Rao (Singapore), Thasnai Sethaseree (Thailand), Yuichiro Tamura (Japan), The Propeller Group (Vietnam), Chikako Yamashiro (Japan), and Gede Mahendra Yasa (Indonesia).

The winner of the grand prize was Phan Thao Nguyen, who received SG $60,000 – a modest sum compared to the loot on offer in Australia for less ambitious portrait prizes that tell us precisely nothing about the state of contemporary art. The recipients of two Jurors’ Choice Awards, of SG $15,000 each, were Shubigi Rao and Thasnai Sethaseree. The final category, the People’s Choice Award of SG $10,000, went (predictably enough) to the only painter in the exhibition, Gede Mahendra Yasa.

The lack of painting was noted by the judges, who felt they were given few options in that area. It’s not exactly an unusual omission in contemporary art surveys. Choosing works to make an impact the nominators naturally gravitated towards genres with better ‘cutting edge’ credentials such as installation and video.

It would be hard to draw any conclusions from this, because painting is probably due for one of its periodic comebacks. Yasa’s work, After Paradise Lost # 1 (2014) was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser: a Breugelian swarm of small figures, some of them borrowed from well known paintings by Raden Saleh and Théodore Géricault. It reshaped the aesthetic of Balinese Batuan painting into a witty post-colonial parody.

No fewer than eight of the fifteen finalists employed film or video. The most elaborate was Tamura’s Milky Bay (2016), in which the film component was embedded in a large room equipped with billiard tables and antique statuary. Building on a moment from the life of writer, Yukio Mishima, the artist constructed an intriguing, multi-layered display that ranged over time and space, looking at bodybuilding, Greek bronzes and Yakuza murders, as narrated by a young gay man in a series of spoken letters.

Tamura must have run a close race with the eventual winner, Phan Thao Nugyen, whose double-channel video, Tropical Siesta (2015–17), drew on the writings of seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary, Alexandre de Rhodes, who laid the foundations for the romanisation of the Vietnamese script. Phan’s masterstroke was to use children to act out scenes that related to de Rhodes’ time, transforming history into a dream narrative. The results were cryptic but deeply suggestive, not as tightly plotted as Tamura’s work but rather more poetic.

Phan’s work also had the edge on Club Ate’s three-part, transexual, transcultural fantasy, Ex Nilalang (Balud, Dyesebel, Lola ex Machina) (2015), which some may remember from the last Asia-Pacific Triennial. Ra and Shoulder’s imagery, drawn from the mythology and popular culture of the Philippines, was startling but episodic. Where Tamura, Phan and Yamashiro all had a story to tell, Club Ate’s work revolved around the presentation of three exotic moving images.

Rao and Sethaseree, who took out the Jurors’ Awards, contributed pieces that addressed the viewer in diametrically opposite ways. Rao’s Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. Vol. 1: Written in the Margins (2014–16), was information-based, bringing together video, interviews, photos, prints and extensive research. So far the artist has written and published only the first of five volumes, dealing with the destruction of books. It’s an extraordinary ongoing project but one would need all day to work through Rao’s installation. Instead, I bought the book.

By contrast, Sethaseree’s Untitled (Hua Lamphong) (2016) resembled a vast, psychedelic abstract painting, although it’s actually a monumental collage, using swirling red streamers plastered onto a ground made from paper and the coloured robes of Buddhist monks. It’s also a conceptual piece of some complexity that adopts a critical stance on Thai history and politics.

Rao invites us to take a deductive approach in which our understanding increases as we gradually absorb more information. Sethaseree takes the inductive route, presenting a finished work that needs to be decoded before its roots are revealed.

I don’t have the space to discuss other contributions to the show, but as a survey of regional contemporary art the Prize was extremely impressive. After all the gush and formality the Singaporeans managed to assemble a genuinely stimulating group of works.

Perhaps it’s good thing after all for a nation to be perpetually amazed by its own achievements. When one starts as a cultural backwater, as Singapore did thirty years ago, every new initiative counts as a positive step. The unmistakable sign of decadence is when politicians start promising to make a country great again.

This review was originally published in Artist profile, Issue 44, 2018

The Signature Art Prize ran from 25 May to 2 September, 2018 at Singapore Art Museum, Singapore

 

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