Curators on Acid

 > Trading Craft

Solo exhibition by Khai Hori,

presented by Institute of Contemporary Arts, Singapore, curated by June Yap.

The Substation, Singapore

24 Apr 2007, performance by curators

26 Apr - 3 May, exhibition

The Art Center,

Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok

28 Jun 2007, performance by curators

29 Jun - 29 Jul, exhibition

TRADING CRAFT, installation view, The Substation, Singapore, 2007

Image © Khai Hori

“In the play with limits, both discourses and practices call for the abolition of borders, territorial expansion, the permeability of fields and hybridization."[i]        

        

 

Tables were turned, roles reversed and reputations, at least temporarily, were “laid bare”. Earlier this year, I invited five curators to collectively surrender their curatorial powers to myself (the artist) and perform, complement and complete the settings for a series of paintings and installations for Trading Craft[ii], my solo exhibition. With exceptions of Chumpon Apisuk and Wong Hoy Cheong, both artists-curators (the former recognized as pioneering the practice of performance art in Thailand while the latter last executed a piece of performance artwork eight years before); none of the other curators[iii] have actually attempted personal productions of performance art as artists.

 

These curators (often doubling as critics and consultants) are the very same kind of powerful persons usually attributed to the making and breaking of artists, art festivals, biennales, exhibitions, theories and, even the construct of cultural policies at governmental levels. Dr Thomas J. Berghuis for instance, is the author of Performance Art in China[iv] and an Associate Curator of the 6th International Sharjah Biennale (2003); Mikke Susanto who was one of the curators of the 8th Jogja Biennale (2005) is also curator at Jogja Gallery in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, which was only recently set-up under the auspices of none other than Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, the Sultan and governor of The Special Province of Yogyakarta; Adeline Ooi, is affiliated to and regularly curates exhibitions at Valentine Willy Fine Art “the art institution” of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, notorious partly for plunging young artistic prodigies from Southeast Asia into the commercial spectacle.  The whip these curators bear is as heavy as it is powerful, hence, I would think that not unless reasonable, to submit, to “displace” themselves at the uncertainty of the receiving end, to attempt and execute an act most uncharacteristic of themselves, is definitely not something that they most likely look forward to.

 

So what did these curators conjure when given the opportunity to shine as artists, performance artists in particular you might ask?

TRADING CRAFT, performance by Dr Thomas J. Berghuis, The Substation, Singapore, 2007

Image © Khai Hori

The exhibition which opened at The Substation gallery in Singapore sees Dr Thomas J. Berghuis start off with a series of actions dressed in an all-black outfit (par for the course of curators the world over) and started writing two pieces of texts on either sides of the gallery wall flanking a large, appropriated black and white reproduction of Francesco Goya’s etching from 1810, Great Deeds Against the Dead!. Thomas’ scribbles, executed coarse and brisk with charcoal exclaims, ‘Who said painting is dead?’ on one side and ‘Art is not important!’ on the other. After this piece of action, he left the gallery only to return dressed in an orange painter’s overalls, complete with a cheap face-towel covering his head, respiratory mask, a large tub of white paint and other house painting paraphernalia. He then embarked on an attempt to whitewash the texts he had written earlier only to create grey, smudged paint marks with the charcoal scribbling still visible and legible underneath. He then proceeded to paint over a glass tabletop, part of an installation made up of appropriated Roy Lichtenstein paintings. To end this series of actions, he roll-painted the 3 x 4 meters Goya piece with the same white paint, almost whitewashing it in its entirety!

While Thomas made a physically flamboyant appearance, Wong Hoy Cheong, although present in the same building, opted for the esoteric. On the other end of the same gallery, underneath a green tent, spectators engaged in an online conversation via a preset cyber alias as Burqah with one Tuan Mahaguru visible on screen only as a black cerebral penumbra. Such is a sample conversation:

 

         Tuan Mahaguru: I am not here to answer your questions, but to help you find the true path.

 

         Burqah: What is the true path?

 

         Tuan Mahaguru: Go pour your soul into abstract paintings.

 

         Burqah: How do I do so? I am not liquid.

 

         Tuan Mahaguru: Buy paint, stretch a canvas, stare at it, and find the inner space.

TRADING CRAFT, performance by Wong Hoy Cheong, The Substation, Singapore, 2007

Image © Khai Hori

In the middle of these two performances, Mikke Susanto, in black t-shirt and jeans, was busy scouting for the ‘next big thing’ through conducting a contest of drawings to be inspired from a set of aluminum scaffolding present in the gallery. At the top of this scaffolding, two television monitors display loops of my appropriated version of John Baldessari’s Teaching a Plant the Alphabets (1972) video. Mikke’s series of performative actions were so ordinary that even though he was physically present, his performance piece was almost indeterminable. An ambiguous reading of art history from atop the scaffolding commenced as the number of exhibition attendees faded away, followed by the eventual announcement of a winner (which coincidentally, was one of the executives of The Substation) simultaneously signaling the end of his performance.

 

At the exhibition in Bangkok, Adeline Ooi pegged every single artwork on exhibit with titles she made up on a whim along with corresponding price tags. She then approached spectators, dressed in a brand new all-black outfit, playing the persona of an art dealer, attempting to trade the artworks on display. She succeeded, selling a series of seven black and white watercolours appropriating the works of Duchamp, Judd, Picasso, Manzoni, Warhol and Malevich within five minutes of the exhibition’s opening; only for us to realize later that night that the transaction was made at one-tenth its intended price!

 

With austerity, Chumpon also dressed in black and somehow looking almost like a fisherman back with a day’s catch at sea, stood on a low, square table with two plastic net sacks filled with colourful plastic balls hanging from his neck. He lobbed these balls in random directions towards the spectators. A piece of yellow A4 sized paper printed with instructions attached to the sacks asks spectators to look around and affix these balls to corresponding numbers found on the balls onto numbered yellow stickers mounted around the gallery walls prior to the gallery’s opening. These plastic balls also had axioms handwritten in Thai with English translation on them. One such ball says ‘Just do what you are told’, something for the participating spectator to indulge their thoughts into while searching for the corresponding number on the walls to paste them to.

TRADING CRAFT, performance by Chumpon Apisuk, The Art Center, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, 2007

Image © Khai Hori

TRADING CRAFT, performance by Adeline Ooi, The Art Center, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, 2007

Image © Khai Hori

This series of performances by curators responding to my brief as “interim curator” did provoke mixed reactions from the spectators. The performance by Mikke Susanto for example, feels very sedated, probably even failed in its bureaucratic attempt. Before and even during the duration of his performance, Mikke tirelessly solicited a piece of drawing out of me. Sensing a nasty plot at play, I resisted. I had the uneasy feeling that if I had made a piece of drawing and participated in his search for ‘the next big thing’, my drawing, regardless of how good or bad it might have been, would be chosen as the winner. This ‘scandal’ could add drama and give power to his otherwise uneventful performance. Adeline Ooi was floating around, looking almost helpless while trying to chat spectators up individually in order to sell art. She seemed to recognize some of the people in the audience and paid specific attention to those. Others seemed confused with her fleeting presence and could have thought of her as ‘a gallery assistant hired to pitch sales’ which is a definite boo hoo for an institutional gallery like The Art Center due to the fact that it belongs to one of Thailand’s national university. Wong Hoy Cheong, whose intention from the beginning was to cancel his physical being from view probably got what he wanted albeit some technical hiccups that delayed the opening of the exhibition for almost a good half-hour. Chumpon’s piece flashed security and wisdom typical of a seasoned performer and veteran artist. His presence and stature while standing on top of the table (which was about forty centimeters high) alone was almost enough to sate the spectators’ need for art. Thomas’, probably the most elaborately planned and propped performance drew numerous ireful responses. People around the gallery were overheard exclaiming, “Oh my God! How could he disrespect Goya like that?” forgetting that the piece of Goya they spoke about was my blatant, enlarged copy of the original!

TRADING CRAFT, untitled, watercolour on paper (7 pieces), 2007

Private Collection

Image © Khai Hori

Understandably, spectators throughout both opening nights came primarily to see these curators perform ‘live’ and witness the much touted exhibition concept verily manifested. The event had an air not dissimilar to that of a regular performance art festival night. Many seemingly forgot that three out of five of this all-star line up of artists presenting performance art are, in their regular and professional lives, curators.  Expectations of ‘good’ and ‘professional’ performance presentations were abound. The paradox of it is that even if the performances pieces presented were all bad, it was good!

 

I had never anticipated this fragment of the Trading Craft project to convert into an incidental and almost experimental outing of performance art. Some moments, as an artist, I have to admit that I did feel good looking at these curators fumble…

“Art. There’s the catch. At this stage of consciousness, the sociology of Culture emerges as an in-group “dumb-show.” Its sole audience is a roster of the creative and performing professions watching itself, as if in a mirror, enact a struggle between self-anointed priests and a cadre of self-appointed commandos, jokers, guttersnipes, and triple agents who seem to be attempting to destroy the priests’ church. But everybody knows how it all ends: in church, of course, with the whole club bowing their heads and muttering prayers. They pray for themselves and their religion.”

Allan Kaprow [v]

Published in the catalogue of: 

Future of Imagination 4 (FOI4)
International Performance Art Event
27-30 September 2007

Singapore

TRADING CRAFT, Not Very Important, watercolour on paper, 2007

Private Collection

Image © Khai Hori

TRADING CRAFT, Participate, watercolour on paper, 2007

Private Collection

Image © Khai Hori

[i] Birgit Pelzer, “Cache-toi, object! – The Unattainable Revolution”, Behind The Facts. Interfunktionen 1968-1975, Gloria Moure et all, Ediciones Poligrafica, Barcelona, 2004. p.68

 

[ii] Curated by June Yap, Trading Craft is a project under the Article series initiated by the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, of commissioned projects that form part of the institute’s curatorial research. Each project functions as an experimental platform where the institute collaborates with an artist towards the development of a new artwork. Trading Craft took place from 23 April to 4 May at The Substation Gallery, Singapore and from 28 June to 21 July at The Art Center, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.

 

[iii] Dr Thomas J. Berghuis (Netherlands/China/Australia), Mikke Susanto (Indonesia) and Adeline Ooi (Malaysia).

 

[iv] Berghuis, Thomas J., Performance Art in China, Timezone 8, Hong Kong, 2006.

[v] Sven Lutticken, “The Worst Audience”, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2005. p.55

TRADING CRAFT, performance by Dr Thomas J. Berghuis, The Substation, Singapore, 2007

Image © Khai Hori