The performances begin next week but three of the visual arts exhibitions at this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival are already up at the Esplanade.
I thought Jonathon Kambouris’ Last Meals – a photography exhibit where the last meals of death row inmates are superimposed onto their grim-looking mugshots – was strategically placed. With the constant human traffic along the Esplanade Tunnel, the wall provided maximum exposure for some thought-provoking viewing.
Although I didn’t expect it to become a place for photo opportunities.
So to just get this out of the way first, I found it interesting (strange? disturbing?) how people were stopping to have their photos taken beside Ted Bundy. Am I missing something here?
So anyway, in Last Meals, justice is served—along with food. Snort snort, a bit of gallows humour there.
I’m not completely convinced of the work. Or at least, for one, the decision to exhibit it there, seeing how the presentation echoes exactly the protocol police lineup ala Usual Suspects.
Beside the photos are corresponding fact sheets listing down the convicted killer’s name, time of death, US state, the food they’ve chosen for their last meal (a curious range there) and manner of execution.
It can get quite unnerving staring at a photo and knowing that, in Bundy’s case, he had steak, eggs, a hash brown and coffee, before he sat down and, oh, you know, got fried.
There’s a certain resonance too in imagining the various choices they made on what to eat – that final (albeit rather futile) symbolic act of freedom or choice.
Last Meals has a commendable anti-death penalty thrust. Its tactic of humanising convicted killers by highlighting their relationship to food (and all its attendant connotations: sustenance, life-giving munchies, a social act and a personal event, yadda yadda).
But I also had this niggling thought. Why is it that, in mainstream discourse at least, the issue of the death penalty can’t seem to go beyond its liberal-humanist act of tugging at heartstrings?
Maybe it’s the supplementary text. You don’t know who most of them are. You don’t know their age. More importantly, you don’t know what crime they’ve committed. They are (or were) all, basically criminals on death row.
And that generalisation does not open up space for its intended viewer a chance to debate the issue.
If it had wanted to “humanise” the situation, then it should have, in my opinion, humanise it through and through – warts and all. Here’s a guy who blew up a building with people in it. He’ll get electrocuted for it. He wanted a Mars bar because it reminded him of that day when he was a kid and his dad was sober enought to not beat him up. Now discuss. Something like that la.
Or maybe it’s just the title. It confuses me. One of my thoughts while looking at the show was that of the iconic Biblical narrative of The Last Supper.
And I’m pretty sure that’s a weird thought to have while looking at Timothy McVeigh.
I liked the two Jendela exhibits more. Waaaay more.
A Guide to the Common Flora and Fauna of the World is yet another deadpan exhibition from the guy(s) who comprise the serious-sounding Institute of Critical Zoologists.
You can read a bit more of the exhibit’s beginnings here.
A Guide… plays on the hidden, the unseen, the imagined, the invisible. A very sly and ingenuous way of presenting the issue of endangered animal smuggling – and there are a lot of things going on at different levels that are really, really engaging.
It supposedly highlights the plight of animals that are fast disappearing from the world – but their presence is near nil.
You have captions describing the subjects in the photos: cockatoo and macaw eggs, golden star tortoises, a parakeet, snakes. But all you see is a t-shirt with things bulging from pockets, rolled up socks, a cardboard box, etc.
I thought it was brilliant how the images themselves are, in a way, smuggled past the viewer as well.
Or reading it another way, animals that are supposedly endangered slip through the fingers of the gallery viewer-as-hunter or even through the camera’s lenses.
In another set, again, there is no presence of animals. All we have are traces: proof of the smuggling activity consiting of a bunch of postal receipts for books, various stamps from Indonesia, China, US, Malaysia, etc. Yep, these guys have “smuggled” something. That’s all you’re given.
And you know what, the only animal that you actually see that doesn’t look like a toy is a lizard-like thing called the Calotes Albus Totoris. And nothing comes up in Google.
Talk about extinction.
Even one’s knowledge of these supposedly “common flora and fauna”, which I’m assuming can be found in that huge-ass encyclopedia (that looks similar to Vertical Submarine’s own huge-ass book), escapes us – because you can’t even read what’s inside the dang thing.
If Robert Zhao’s work… oh sorry, did I say Robert Zhao? I meant Institute of Critical Zoologists.
If the Institute of Critical Zoologists’ work talks about something illegal in a free-flowing, connect-the-dots way, Myanmar artist Htein Lin’s The Scale of Justice is one big, beautiful, full stop statement.
Bit of a background here: the artist was previously sentenced to jail for seven years. This is one guy who knows at that level how it feels to be in prison – and has filtered the experience into this singular, powerful work.
The piece is a structure that mimics, I’m assuming, being in a prison cell – a square pathway made of bricks surrounded by these a lot of blown-up black and white surgical gloves.
You walk around (or maybe “pace”) the path, surrounded by these gloves that seem almost like you’re walking under the sea surrounded by corals. But it’s creepy too, especially when the aircon (?) makes these hands shift ever so slightly – like hands reaching out or waving… (or maybe that’s just my wild imagination).
Hard brick and small balloony arms you feel like squishing; fragile and tough; good and band; guilty or not guilty; black and white; there are a lot of binary opposites in this work held together by the still golden scale in the middle.
It’s a beautiful work. You can spend quite some time contemplating and going around it like you would in, ironically, a Zen garden.
Until the loose bricks that comprise the pathway rub against each other with every step you make and you realise that while it can be a contemplatively sublime work, it is, still inspired by a brutal act of confinement.
For more information on the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2010, go here.