Installation view of “Countershadows (tactics in evasion)” at Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (ICAS). Back: HO RUI AN, A Difficulty (Grey), 2014, HD video, black-and-white with sound: 5 min 30 sec. Front: HEMAN CHONG, Monument to the people we’ve conveniently forgotten (I hate you), 2008– , offset prints on 300 gsm paper, one million parts, 5 × 9 cm each. Photo: ICA Singapore/Olivia Kwok.

Countershadows (tactics in evasion)

Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore

Ours is a world uncomfortable with “evasion.” The word is often associated with rich people escaping tax payment, or politicians unwilling to tackle issues directly or refusing to take a stand. But for many, evasion is the key to survival and creativity—across diverse contexts and in intriguing, insightful ways—as is shown in “Countershadows (tactics in evasion),” a group exhibition of seven Singaporean artists, curated by Melanie Pocock at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. Consisting primarily of black-and-white images and objects strewn atop Heman Chong’s Monument to the people we’ve conveniently forgotten (I hate you) (2008– )—a dark pond-like floor installation formed from one million black name-cards—the exhibition is a cave that is mysterious yet crystal clear, where one can entertain and rethink notions of ambiguity and certainty.

One form of evasion in nature, which lends the exhibition its title, is a camouflaging technique called countershading, whereby an animal, for instance, changes its skin pigmentation to merge with the environment, thereby escaping detection from predators. It is the survival tool for the “white house crow,” a fictional animal created by Robert Zhao as part of his “A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World” series (2013). According to its fictional backstory, the crow developed albinism as a response to land reclamation in Singapore that took place between 1978 and 1995, which greatly affected the country’s natural environment. Consisting of a large vinyl print of the white bird in a pitch-black forest, and a transcript of an interview describing the “now-extinct species,” Zhao’s work exudes humor and poignancy. In part, this is due to Pocock’s contribution to the exhibition, in revealing both the inspiration for Zhao’s project (the peppered moths of Britain, which were originally light-colored, but, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, developed dark pigmentation to hide in their increasingly polluted surroundings) and the methodology of the artist—who has, up to now, been hiding his tracks well and treading in the safe waters between documentary and fiction—so that viewers can closely study his artistic construction.

Installation view of “Countershadows (tactics in evasion)” at Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (ICAS). BACK: SAI HUA KUAN, Something Nothing, 2007, plywood, plaster, paint, lamp, 240 × 594 × 355 cm. Front: HEMAN CHONGMonument to the people we’ve conveniently forgotten (I hate you), 2008– , offset prints on 300 gsm paper, one million parts, 5 × 9 cm each. Photo: ICA Singapore/Olivia Kwok.

In the exhibition, camouflage exists as a subject, but also as part of its presentation and aesthetic. Tan Peiling’s The Unassuming Eavesdropper (2014) is an audio compilation of artists, curators and gallery visitors talking about various artworks, and is accessible only to listeners lucky or conscientious enough to discover the voice narrations coming from around a particular pillar. Then there are the blurring effects, which are used in both Ho Rui An’s photographic portrait, Self-Reliant Girl (2014), and Sai Hua Kuan’s Something Nothing (2007), an edgeless room. Given the limited color range and blurry aesthetics seen in the displayed works, the exhibition appears like a chromaphobic artist’s installation or retrospective. Two questions arise upon seeing the show: to what extent does the apparent coherence among the works foster the identity of individual pieces and the dialogues happening among them? And is the overall grey-scaling, which seems to smooth out the different levels of success among the displayed works, itself misleading or illuminating? Chong’s invasive underfoot piece, a tomb for futile business contacts and his best presentation of the installation thus far, succeeds ironically in providing a generous backdrop for other works. A legless sofa in Ho’s video, A Difficulty (Grey) (2014), for example, appears as though it is partially submerged in Chong’s dark pond, as do Jeremy Sharma’s Red Herring (2014), comprising “flotsams” modeled after various machine parts.

Among a series of photographs in Tamares Goh’s We Are Pigeons (2014), there is a set of UV prints showing pigeon feathers on concrete slabs, which is beautiful in its abstraction and texture. One is led to wonder whether there was a need to mount the other variously-sized prints of pigeons from this work, at different heights and positions on walls throughout the gallery. There is no doubt that the dispersal allows Goh to monumentalize the existence and tendencies of pigeons in urban environments, in her bid to correct perceptions of the birds as pests. In so doing, however, the sensitive qualities of the rice paper she printed the images on are regrettably lost.

In the case of Ho’s A Difficult (Grey), however, feeling lost is an understandable reaction to his intellectually meandering work, especially for audiences who expect straightforward messages in art. They will probably be annoyed that the female narrator in Ho’s video does not clarify whether her self-professed identity of “being grey” is meant in the literal or figurative sense; yet, at the same time, they may be intrigued by the perceptual grey formed by a Hermann grid that appears progressively in a blank picture frame behind the sofa. Viewers will find neither quick fixes nor direct links, and may see no sense in fumbling through fog when they can have clear skies. Ho’s work warns viewers against such desires for fast and easy solutions, as they will keep us from leaving our comfortable cave and, thus, rob us of personal journeys and insights.

“Countershadows (tactics in evasion)” is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore until October 26, 2014.