Like The Necessary Stage’s talk of the town production ___ Can Change, here’s another Fringe offering that’s just as much of a mindf**k.
Phillip Toledano, the dude who made me turn all sappy during the previous Fringe Fest with his Days With My Father exhibition, makes a complete 180 degree turn with what some may see as a humorous but cold-blooded exhibition.
America The Gift Shop at ION Art Gallery is his take on ex-US prez George W Bush’s foreign policy, which has been, by all accounts, completely defined by the Iraq War and indeed the entire War on Terror.
As the title says, it’s basically a “souvenir shop” with a twist. While most people buy mementos of a museum exhibit or a musical show experience, here you have souvenirs of the Bush war.
So you have bobble-head figures of hooded Abu Ghraib prisoners, “Wish you were here” postcards from Guantanamo Bay, cutesy wool dolls with guts spilling out or blood spurting from the shoulders of someone beheaded (from The Injured Iraqi Civilian series), a snow globe of Dick Cheney shredding some documents.
It sounds gimmicky but it’s also quite disturbing.
While there are relatively lighter har-har moments like the Choc and Awe chocolate products (geddit?), there are also extreme works that unavoidably make you wince at the heightened contrast of what’s fun and what’s contemptible, like an inflatable Guantanamo Bay prison cell. Complete with a toilet.
One work that puts you in direct collusion with the act, in fact directly mimicking the dastardly deeds is a fairground cut-out of that infamous photo of US army reservist Lynndie England striking a pose with a naked, hapless detainee.
There’s even a sign on the floor instructing/taunting you to “Please take your pictures here.”
My first thought while walking around the show was that of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.
It was unavoidable considering his infamous essay series on how “The Gulf War Did Not Happen” and his ideas on simulacra and the hyperreal, how our perception of that first Gulf War was mediated and constructed more by images we saw on TV and in the papers – and here in Toledano’s own take on Bush Junior’s own Gulf War, it’s taken further into the land of consumption and consumerism.
My only comment however is that the exhibit’s own “shock and awe” tactics for our viewing experience could have been pushed further if the items on sale were cheaper than they are. The postcards are at US$2 but it goes up to US$3,000. As it is, it seems mostly catered towards collectors, leaving most of them beyond the reach of the casual observer, lessening somewhat the impact.
America The Gift Shop is a fun and despicable look at the commodification of human terror. In contrast, Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck’s video Border is a haunting look at the terror of human commodification.
It begins with an image of shadowy figures huddled in the centre of a screen, which is later revealed via x-ray to be just a small section of a large lorry. You hear faint sounds of vehicles and snippets of dialogue in Arabic (“I’d really like to see a landscape again…”)
That Border is set in an endless loop adds even more poignancy to the socio-political issues of human trafficking and illegal refugees that it highlights.
That said, I wonder (and also for the benefit of the impatient, casual Singapore viewer who’ll probably go “That’s it?” after seeing10 minutes of the same thing in the out-of-the way Chapel Gallery at Sculpture Square) if it would have been better if the organisers had put Htein Lin’s The Scale of Justice here as well.
Jails, claustrophobia, cramped condition, “illegal” stuff – it might have created a nicer dialogue.
Both exhibitions are up until Jan 24. America The Gift Shop is at ION Art Gallery, Level 4, ION Orchard, while Border is at The Chapel Gallery, Scuplture Square (this one closes at 6pm).