Prep Room, “In Search of Raffles’ Light,” 2014, at NUS Museum, Singapore. Courtesy NUS Museum, Singapore. 

Jul 23 2014

Hauntological trajectories in “When Does An Exhibition Begin And End?”

by Amanda Lee Koe

“The time is out of joint.”

Derrida opens Spectres of Marx (1993) with the above line, taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, wherein the troubled prince is communing with the ghost of his father. Derrida invokes the ghost of Hamlet’s father to bear the weight of history as it is deconstructed, to preface disjointedness and pluralism.

The seeping of hauntology is evident in the Curating Lab Public Symposium, “When Does An Exhibition Begin And End?” Co-organized by Singaporean artist/writer/curator Heman Chong and Barcelona-based curatorial office Latitudes as part of Curating Lab 2014, it featured Singapore’s National Art Gallery curator Shabbir Hussein Mustafa, artists Charles Lim and Shubigi Rao and Centre for Contemporary Art curators Anca Rujoiu and Vera Mey as interlocutors. Perhaps the Derridian line, waiting to be appropriated as a foil to the (rhetorical) question and (curatorial) framework “When Does An Exhibition Begin And End?,” is “a question of repetition: a spectre is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back.”

Prep Room (detail), “In Search of Raffles’ Light,” 2014, at NUS Museum, Singapore. Courtesy NUS Museum, Singapore. 

As “one of the most lowly-funded public museums in Singapore,” does the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum have more or less freedom to attempt to control (or understand) its specters and revenants? Mustafa and Lim point to NUS Museum’s Prep Room, which (halfway) houses “things that may or may not happen.” A Prep Room is a luxury unaffordable to many an exhibition or institution, committed as it is to the implied attentions and infinite patience towards a line as romantic-shamanistic as: “Objects that are ambiguous must be kept until their meaning becomes clear.” It is a space designated for and dedicated to the prospect of failure—not just to permit failure, but to abet the act of “failing boldly.”

Perhaps for NUS Museum’s archival-curatorial modes of practice, time can stand still. That is only to say, the durational can be fashioned outside patriarchal systems, outside state narratives, pedagogical insistence and regional positionality that plague the other public museums and institutions that Singapore possesses. In that sense, can the durational be a strategy of resistance, or of queering hegemony, instead of just a process?

There is a touch of the mystic in the NUS Museum’s trajectories for future research, a notion that curatorial fatalism can arise from relentless excess of accumulation and the surrounding of oneself with the physicality of material. If this sounds lux, it isn’t. As Mustafa says: “All we had access to was a photocopier and a library card.” Here, one is invariably reminded of Godard’s throwaway line, “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.”

Wall with traces of exhibition text from “The Disappearance,” 2014, at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Singapore. Courtesy CCA, Singapore. 

With artist Shubigi Rao, the third-person consistency with which she addresses her fictive persona/theorist/scapegoat “the reclusive S. Raoul” raises the following question: at which point of her lecture will members of the audience being introduced to Raoulian discourse for the first time realize that Rao’s naturalness is pure performativity? For the symposium, Rao cites Raoul and his study on “the deranging effect of art on the human brain” and “visual snow.” She (Rao) quotes him (Raoul) on “pixel lint and digital dandruff”—with “pixel lint” being the aftermath of an image, the ghosting of it behind one’s eyelids.

Cover of History’s Malcontent, The Life and Times of S.Raoul (2014). Courtesy Shubigi Rao. 

Curators Rujoiu and Mey speak of how practical situations can turn into conceptual frameworks—the tautological basis of the exhibition the two curated at Singapore’s Centre for Contemporary Art, The Disappearance. Kafka’s Amerika (1927) was entitled, in its early form, Der Verschollene, which might be rendered in English as The Disappeared One or The One Who Went Missing. The decision to change the title from variations on the notion of disappearance to Amerika was made by Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor—a perpetual trace of recontextualisation, of violence enacted upon (the assumed passivity of) the work, which, thus recast, is forever afflicted by body-image/content-context dysmorphia.

Rujoiu suggests “the exhibition as moment”—a moment that will never repeat itself—but offers the important caveat that documentation will always supersede experience. When Rujoiu points to a documented image of a plain wall, asking if we can see the traces left by a vinyl wall-text or the hanging of a work, there is the invocation of Barthes: “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.” There is an acceptance of the trauma of a teardown on the physical setting of the institution. Whilst, conventionally, the aftermath of an exhibition is extant via catalogues, documentation, reviews and conversations, with “The Disappearance” Rujoiu and Mey suggest that a way to address critique and continuation of the exhibition is through the medium of the exhibition itself—through the aftermath of its aesthetics and/or the aesthetics of its aftermath. It is “a question of repetition”: the moment (the specific exhibition) may never repeat itself per se, but a moment (the exhibition as an idea), by necessity, will have multiple vectors and hence be in perpetual iteration. 

Detail of wall with traces of exhibition text from “The Disappearance,” 2014, at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Singapore. Courtesy CCA, Singapore. 

Does time always have to move forward, and do exhibitions always have to be teleological? When Derrida neologized the term “hauntological,” it was meant to be a pun on “ontological,” given the phonetic similarity of the two words in Derrida’s native French. To ask “When Does An Exhibition Begin And End?”—and to look at exhibitions hauntologically—then, is to look at the spectral dimensions and potentials of curatorial and art practice plotted against (and plotting against) time. It is to spook the linearity of the syntagmatic with the bedlam-flotsam of the paradigmatic and its attendant traces of possible meanings. It is to derail the trajectory all the way up to the point that time can never be out of joint.