I took in the intricate details. The grandeur of the blooming Frangipanis, the solemnity of the Bluebells, how seamlessly the protagonist camouflages into the abundant floral growth and yet resonating an undeniable presence of her own. Protruding framed butterfly specimens flanked the oil painting, bringing out the sanguine character of an otherwise melancholic piece of art. The tilted gaze of the protagonist strangely resembles the iconic poise of Mother Mary cuddling Baby Jesus. I sensed a warm and vibrant but yet stern and unyielding atmosphere to this piece of art, just as how Roman-Catholicism impresses upon me. My judgment came as no surprise as the realist artist is a Filipino while the protagonist in question was a renowned Mexican artist, both cultures heavily influenced by Roman-Catholicism.
I left the Singapore Art Museum and headed towards Old Kallang Airport. In its heyday, it served as Singapore’s first civil airport. This desolate compound was given a new lease of life recently, having transformed into an enormous gallery space housing the bulk of the contemporary artworks featured in the Singapore Biennale 2011. The choice of location for the Biennale was an interesting one; its atmosphere encompassed the steadfast richness of Singapore’s historical past and the dynamic nature of modern contemporaries.
Wandering around the exhibition space, I initially didn’t think much of the pieces of embroidery showcased in South Korean artist, Kyungah Ham’s gallery when I chanced upon it. However, I had second thoughts after listening to the audio-guide. The artist introduced her work as a deliberate intention to transmit information through the process of sending her initial digital prints to North Korea and the eventual pieces of commissioned embroidery back to Seoul. Her concept sounded interesting since it involved two states which are technically still at war.
As I began to patiently decipher the controversial messages embodied in each piece of embroidery, I became awestruck by the artist ingenious use of satirical sarcasm. For instance, there was a piece of embroidery depicting a majestic chandelier hanging loosely against the backdrop with recurring motifs of stardust and meteor showers. I instinctively fantasized a pair of happily-ever-after prince and princess having their first dance beneath the magical sight. Disappointingly, the quote at the bottom of the piece of embroidery had to be ‘Perhaps I secretly longed for our liaison to fail’. What a dig at unification!
Intriguingly, a couple of the digital prints originally part of this series were missing from the eventual embroidered artwork, regrettably seized by the North Korean authorities. I was sure that the artist rejoiced upon the supposedly bad news. Her point was being made across the border.
At the end of the day as I made my way out of Old Kallang Airport, I felt as if I had journeyed and intruded upon cultures not of my own, on home ground. Maybe it’s time to re-define the notion of ‘travelling’. Do we really need to physically transcend borders to journey into unknown cultures?
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