REDZA PIYADASA, Entry Points, 1978, original framed oil painting and acrylic on wood, 100 × 78 cm. Collection of the National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore. 

A Fact Has No Appearance: Art Beyond the Object

National Gallery Singapore
Singapore Malaysia Philippines

The 1970s was fertile ground for the contemporary art scene in Southeast Asia, where the practice of art-making was turned on its head, with boundaries broken and new limits set, by artists of the region. “A Fact Has No Appearance: Art Beyond the Object” is a group exhibition at National Gallery Singapore (NGS) featuring the innovative works of Filipino video artist Johnny Manahan, the late Malaysian artist and art historian Redza Piyadasa and Singapore artist Tan Keng-Kee. This exhibition—which compliments Tang Da Wu’s solo show “Earth Work 1979,” also on display at NGS—chronicles the groundbreaking developments in conceptual art of the region that, at its core, challenged the very concept of art objects, the process of creation and boldly confronted the value of art in the marketplace. The three featured artists and their practices, though distinct from one another, stretched the possibilities of their respective mediums and paved the way for future generations of artists from their regions to forge new expressions and perspectives, effectively redefining traditional notions of art.

The exhibition includes 68 works in a variety of mediums, including sculpture, video, photography and painting. In the entrance of the gallery, Piyadasa’s object-based work A Configuration Can Never Have a Literal Existence (1977/2001) ties the exhibition together, while also challenging the viewer’s understanding of art by reassigning meaning to the object. A wood plank written on with the same statement as the artwork’s title rests on a wooden chair, together forming a composition that is infused with meaning and value. Ironically, the objects acquire meaning from the statement, while the statement refers to the physical configuration of the objects. Bringing together everyday materials with text, Piyadasa played with the theoretical space between text and form, thus delving into conceptual art and thereby introducing a whole new dimension to the art of Southeast Asia at the time.

With Art Proposition (1978), Piyadasa went onto confront the notion of the art market by acquiring an abstract painting by one of his students, Anuar Rashid, and subsequently painted over most of the canvas with black paint. Over the black surface, he then stenciled text in his signature style, which addresses the arbitrariness of monetary value that is assigned to works of art by the market. Piyadasa proposed a new lens of looking at the value of art by defacing his student’s work and essentially vandalizing the original canvas. For Piyadasa, the value of art was pegged to the idea and concept; his message for the work, therefore, was that without the artist’s thought and intention, the art does not exist.

Likewise, Johnny Manahan’s work is concerned with the artistic process, as can be seen in his works on paper, Title Unknown (1974). Manahan has sprayed paint onto the paper’s surface and the edges of the work have been torn or folded. The works appear as though they are a photograph of nature, capturing a section of the earth or rust on metal. Here, Manahan has deliberately focused on the artistic process and materiality of the object. He created the appearance of archaic landscapes using colors such as rust, ochre and iron that is reminiscent of the deep layers of the earth—an effect achieved by the layers of paint and marks he has made on the paper.

JOHNNY MANAHAN, On New Year’s Eve (Evidences Series), photographs and negatives, 13 × 12 cm. Manahan Family Collection. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore. 

Taking art outside of the gallery space, Tan Teng-Kee also opened up the way art is seen in Southeast Asia. He is known to be the first artist to have undertaken a “happening” in Singapore during his 1979 outdoor exhibition, “The Picnic.” While this work was not archived due to its ephemeral nature, other works from the exhibition like Beam (1979), one of his several totemic vertical sculptures, has survived. Also focusing on artistic process, like Manahan, and challenging the traditional methods of creating sculpture, Tan welded pieces of manufactured pipes and steel rods to create a new form. Going against traditional methods of modelling with clay, casting metal or carving with stone, Tan’s unique method of welding is evident in the marks on the sculpture. While the medium of sculpture has traditionally been presented as intricately finished and delicate work, Tan’s pieces show on their surface the process of their creation and the materiality of the object.

“A Fact Has No Appearance” re-examines the point in Southeast Asian art history when the form was challenged and artistic processes reignited. As such, the works of the artists featured in this exhibition urge viewers to individually interpret and reimagine the objects and texts that are presented.

JOHNNY MANAHAN, Title Unknown, 1974, 12.7 × 14.1 cm, photographs and negatives. Manahan Family Collection. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore. 

“A Fact Has No Appearance: Art Beyond the Object” is on view at the National Gallery Singapore until June 19, 2016.