• Issue
  • Mar 01, 2023

New Currents: Data Driven Dream

Installation view of BERNY TAN’s Talismans for Disentanglement, 2021, pearl cotton thread and calico, dimensions variable, at "Sewing Discord," Jendela (Visual Arts Space) at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore, 2021. Photo by Ken Cheong. Courtesy Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

Berny Tan

Our perceived reality is constantly shaped by the language we use. To become more aware of her own thought patterns, Singaporean artist and curator Berny Tan employs data visualization to translate emotions and relationships into a rational, systematic form.

One early example is her Study of conversational patterns in phone calls to my grandmother (2014), in which Tan categorized the topics of her and her grandmother’s weekly talks with different-colored threads. Allocated across the four quadrants of a two-axis alignment chart, which are labelled with “worry,” “guilt,” “apathy,” and “security” at its four ends, the threads are each marked with repeated expressions such as “Did you cook?” and “Have you eaten?” with their length signifying the duration of the conversations. While Tan found it difficult to engage with her grandmother, the saturation of data around “security” reflects the words’ effects on one’s peace of mind.

Tan’s more recent embroidery works explore the possibilities of rewiring our beliefs through language. For her 2021 installation Talismans for Disentanglement at Singapore’s Jendela arts space, she wrote these spells and embroidered them in red threads on unbleached calico fabric, referencing Taoist paper charms. In a dimly lit room, 30 talismans hung from the ceiling and rotated in the air. On their right sides are imperative statements addressing an action taken by “you,” while the linked threads at their backs evoke the calligraphy of a fantastical, lost language. Mirroring the Taoist talisman’s function as evidence of communication between the mortal and the divine, each sentence is a warning or an attempt for change.

For her large-scale installation a shapeless mass; a network of times (2022), Tan transformed the mezzanine space of Science Centre Singapore into a meditative area with 128 hexagonal lanterns suspended in the air. Weaved with the public’s recollection of the now-inaccessible Chinese Garden located within Singapore’s Jurong Lake Gardens, these lanterns crystalize their collective memory. Through these translations between memories, objects, and texts, Tan demonstrates how even the most rigid data carries its own subjectivity, and how there’s spirit in each word that we express toward ourselves and others.

By Beata Li, Pamela Wong

MOHAMED KHALID, Cats, 2021- , mixed media on paper, 21 × 14.8

Mohamed Khalid

Mohamed Khalid’s works do not vie for attention. Instead, they whisper, full of intention and introspection. The Dubai-based artist’s first institutional solo presentation, “Let me tell you something,” at the Abu Dhabi nonprofit space 421 was one for close viewing and slow ruminations. Sitting on a small desk, next to a worn-out brown envelope, was a series of short letters Khalid wrote to his second-grade teacher who converted his preferred writing hand from left to right, Mrs. Sima (2022). Using his left hand, the artist wrote about how he was doing (“Life has been good to me lately.”) and the effects of forcefully changing his handedness on him (“I know you didn’t think it would cause dyslexia either.”) As the letters progressed, his left hand regained control of its inherent dexterity and his handwriting became more precise. Reading between their lines, these letters convey humankind’s unhealthy and futile quest for homogeneity, rooted in the fear of the deviant and need for control.

Above the missives, Khalid hung small cyanotype-treated fabrics with small binder clips on two lines that stretched across the exhibition space. Printed on them are Khalid’s stream-of-consciousness observations, made, as indicated in the title, During work hours (2022): “Thinking about my bank balance during work hours”; and “Feeling positively delusional during work hours”; among other reflections. These statements hold up a mirror to the experience of the mundane working day (forgettable, repetitive, ingenuine), in which most people spend the majority of their existence. Their relatability offers a collectivity in what is often an isolating and individualistic pursuit.

Khalid’s oeuvre is built on reflection and interaction. Cats (2021– ) is a series that emphasizes small serendipitous encounters. Referencing photographs of street cats taken during his daily commute, Khalid’s mixed-media-on-paper drawings depict the strays with as much character as one would a sitter for a portrait. About this dignified portrayal, Khalid said: “I see street cats as fellow flâneurs. Whenever I find myself alone with my problems . . . they approach me with unconditional love.” Such romance tints his works, in all of their many forms.

By Nicole M. Nepomuceno

POW MARTINEZ, Solitary Confinement, 2022, oil on canvas, 60 × 72

Pow Martinez

Viewing Pow Martinez’s work is like witnessing a fever dream transpire on canvas. There is a frenetic energy buzzing just beneath the painting’s surface. Beyond this energy, or perhaps through it, Martinez taps into the subcurrent of modern society by drawing on imagery from politics, religion, and social media.

Martinez studied under the conceptual artist Roberto Chabet, whose influence is palpable in the younger artist’s minimalist three-dimensional works from the early 2000s: an untitled piece from 2006–07 is a simple box painted in neon green with the word “HELL” spray-painted on one side. It wasn’t until he won the Ateneo Art Award in 2010 for his show “1 Billion Years” (2009) at Manila’s West Gallery that he chose painting as his primary medium through which he processed personal and social realities. Works from the show, such as the crimson-hued Family Portrait (2009), which addresses the subjectivity of taste, were indicative of what would become Martinez’s aesthetic stamp: disproportionate figures with wide, all-seeing eyes rendered vigorously in paint.

This visual language was further refined at the “City Prince/sses” (2019) exhibition at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where Martinez painted a mural that covered the walls and ceiling of the space’s staircase. Titled Border Patrol (2019), it featured humanoid subjects engulfed in warfare, riding up the stairs on horseback and charging into enemy territory holding spears or guns. This militant imagery recalls the sociopolitical and economic barriers people still encounter in today’s “global” urban centers.

Martinez’s acerbic absurdism, fueled by social media, is a response to “how we present ourselves in this world and how we are perceived.” For his latest show, “Clunker” (2022), at Silverlens Manila, Martinez turned his gaze further inward as he contended with the effects of pandemic-induced isolation on self-perception. Here, his figures sprawl across their rooms in various states of undress as in Solitary Confinement (2022) or devolve into a fleshy mess on the ground in falling down (2022).

Chaotic as they may seem, Martinez’s paintings are the result of his reconciling the noise from outside and within, an orderly chaos that speaks of a hyper-aware self amid a hyperactive world.

By Monica Fernandez