INGA SVALA THORSDOTTIR & WU SHANZHUAN, “Things Right(s) 2013” series, 2013, lithography and silkscreen. Courtesy the artists and Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI).

The Printer/The Paper/The Layer/The Thing’s Right(s)/The LIttle Fat Flesh

Inga Svala Thorsdottir & Wu Shanzhuan

Singapore Tyler Print Institute
China Singapore

There is a whiff of pedantry in the works of Inga Svala Thórsdóttir and Wu Shanzhuan. The nearly 50 prints and lithographs on view at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) include overwhelming Rothko-esque color fields, alongside more delicate works overflowing with diagrams, abstruse commentary and conceptual equations. Most of their imagery has been culled from their 23 years of collaboration and metaphorically depicts its causal chain—for example, urinating into a goldfish bowl while simultaneously drinking its water. The initial hurdle for the visitor, however, was the exhibit’s formidable title: “The Printer/The Paper/The Layer/The Thing’s Right(s)/The Little Fat Flesh”—no doubt a terse synopsis of the artists’ residency at STPI last year. How then to decipher this meticulous art that presents itself as equal parts accusation and instruction?

The artists Inga Svala Thórsdóttir (left) and Wu Shanzhuan (right). Courtesy the artists and STPI.

Thórsdóttir, from Iceland, and Wu, Chinese, are well-established provocateurs. Through performance, photography and installation, they investigate how meaning is created. The pair dissect and disembowel language, and then reanimate its fragments through filters of morality, identity and global issues. The layering inherent in the printmaking process complements their multitextual “creative investigations,” which are, after careful scrutiny, immensely satisfying.

To appreciate these investigations, one must first yield to Wu and Thórsdóttir’s elemental signifier, the “Perfect Bracket.” These two overlapping arcs, reminiscent of the ichthys fertility symbol, suggest infinity or perfection, and the artists exploit them as the literal and philosophical foundation that grounds their works. They then morph the Perfect Bracket into a composite of arcs that they have dubbed, intriguingly, the “Little Fat Flesh.” Dominating the central gallery space at STPI was the relief-print series “A Perimeter of Little Fat Flesh” (2013), which involved debossed tessellations of Little Fat Flesh forms on handmade colored paper. This technique presses the area around an image, pushing it down into the paper, giving the appearance of depth to the paper itself—here, lending the paper a “fleshy” quality. Each massive sheet of color is printed in a subtly darker tone of ink than the paper itself, rendering the debossed symbols visible only through delicate shifts of light and shadow.

Installation view of “The Printer/The Paper/The Layer/The Thing’s Right(s)/The Little Fat Flesh” at STPI, Singapore, 2014. Courtesy the artists and STPI.

The works of Wu and Thórsdóttir are often characterized as “humanist,” primarily by virtue of their “Thing’s Right(s)” series (1994– ), based on the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” At STPI, the artists updated this series to produce “Things Right(s) 2013,” a suite of 30 prints created through various printing processes, including lithography and silkscreen. Each print presents an article—for instance “the right to peaceful assembly”—accompanied by another article declaring the rights of “things.” The thing-centric text reads like garbled machine translation: its semantics are mutated and only vaguely comprehensible, yet its bland opacity deftly underscores the insidious global disregard of the Human Rights Declaration itself. Along with the texts, the prints are peppered with brackets and Little Fat Flesh signifiers, together with language-driven imagery often alluding to the artists’ previous performance pieces (nude supermarket rambles, pulverizing toilets, illegally pouring water into Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, to name a few).

If the works at STPI are confusing to read about, they are also daunting first hand. But Thórsdóttir and Wu are best understood through the lens of their ever-evolving practice, which calls for thoughtful consideration, and no small imagination. Acquiescence to their eccentric aesthetics reveals layer upon layer of critical insight, irreverent humor and, unexpectedly, glimpses of suppressed lyricism—the personal chronicles of an iconoclastic practice laid bare.

Inga Svala Thórsdóttir and Wu Shanzhuan’s “The Printer/The Paper/The Layer/The Thing’s Right(s)/The Little Fat Flesh” was on view from April 19–May 17, 2014 at STPI.

Marybeth Stock is a writer, researcher and editor based in Singapore and Japan.