LOO ZIHAN,  Artists’ General Assembly – The Langenbach Archive, 1989–2013, documents, pins, threads, digital videos, dimensions variable. Courtesy Sculpture Square, Singapore.

Ghost: The Body at the Turn of the Century

Sculpture Square

LI XIE, Uncertainty, 2000/2003, archive of production notes, masks and photos for the artist’s The vaginaLOGUE – An Undeniable Journey of Being (2000), dimensions variable. Courtesy Sculpture Square, Singapore. 

LEE WEN in collaboration with KOH NGUANG HOWGhosts unto the Fishers of Truth, 2013, basins, fishing hook and line, glass shelves, hair, jasmine flowers, photographs, dimensions variable. Courtesy Sculpture Square, Singapore.

Paradoxically for an exhibition dubbed “Ghost,” the most visceral moment in the newly energized Sculpture Square’s latest offering resulted from an unexpected encounter with a living, breathing body. In an unlit chamber sectioned off by black curtains, the viewer was invited to sit down in a chair and to lose him or herself “to the darkness.” Snippets of sound could be heard—somewhere overhead a ukulele played. Then, in a sudden pattering of footsteps and rustling fabric, it happened: a whispered utterance, a warm breath on the back of the neck, the unmistakable heat of another body right there in the shadows.

It was the local musician Esther Lowless, in her “sound-body installation,” who was lurking in the darkness. Unnerving to the unsuspecting, her performance was one of the high points of “Ghost: The Body at the Turn of the Century.” Curator Alan Oei has resurrected a range of seminal experimental works of the era that examine the body. Their ephemera is repackaged to reflect the body’s emergence as a central artistic medium and a site of resistance against cultural hegemony today. The show thus confronts the body not merely an index of corporeal subjectivity, but a witness to the depredations of the state—a site on which power dynamics are played out. Both alive and mediated, the body is marked by trauma, abjection and loss. In Lowless’s performance, which effectively reminds us of the original power of these works, she demands that visitors surrender their own corporeal agency.

A snippet from Eric Khoo’s 1995 film Mee Pok Man depicting a man’s obsession with a bridal mannequin was projected over the mannequin itself. The uneasy transposition of moving, speaking bodies onto the inanimate figure seems to suggest in an oblique manner the anxieties underlying any portrayal of the past—the negotiation between memory and representation, between history and its re-imagining. Playwright Li Xie’s also revisits the past, in this case the controversy surrounding her 2000 drama, The vaginaLOGUE – An Undeniable Journey of Being. With a mirror the shape of female genitalia, the artist looks into herself (between her legs) in an act of self-examination.

In another project concerning the past, Lee Wen, with the aid of documentarian Koh Nguang How, re-presents a work first presented at the infamous Artists’ General Assembly (AGA) of 1993–94, after which performance artist Josef Ng was charged with obscenity. Original photographs of the AGA are littered among browning jasmine flowers and clumps of decomposing human hair, or soaked in bowls of water, suggesting that forms of memory are both materially and discursively subject to the ravages of time.

But another artist in the show, Loo Zihan, refuses to concede the AGA, an event that bore much significance to Singapore’s artistic community, to the slippages of time. Instead he recalls the moment specifically with his compelling project Artists’ General Assembly – The Langenbach Archive (1989–2013), in which he has assembled archival materials belonging to Ray Langenbach, an artist and scholar who was closely involved with the AGA, into an installation piece that is breathtaking both in content and scope. Displayed along two long walls, media reports, newspaper editorials, personal correspondence, scholarly articles, maps and video footage are strung together with lengths of yarn connecting the plenitude of names, dates, places and titles. The linear precision of this web, moving along and between the walls, functions as a statement of sculptural proportions: here the ghosts of the past, in all their messy, interlocked relationships, are reified as an abstract monument. Subjects, objects and histories remain inescapably enmeshed.

Ghost: The Body at the Turn of the Century is on view at Sculpture Square through December 30, 2013.

Louis Ho is an art historian and curator based in Singapore.