In the Off-frame Spaces of “With You Here Between: Defamiliarizations”
By Louis Ho
The Curator Open Call program by Objectifs, a space focused on photography and the moving image, produces an annual exhibition that “encourages innovative curatorial approaches to lens-based art.” The results have been decidedly mixed thus far, with previous shows a hit-or-miss affair. The latest project, “With You Here Between: Defamiliarizations,” curated by Elaine Thanya Marie Teo and Tekad Kolektif, features a roster of emerging local artists, and presented the most aesthetically effective exhibition to date. Its conceptual pivot was the idea of the liminal and its motifs—the spaces and objects that reify instinctual desires and emotional textures.
The centerpiece of the show was Vimal Kumar’s Iconic and Aniconic Waterbody: Reimagining the Singapore River (2021). The work is an altar to a fictive deity, the Singapore River Goddess, and is a manifestation of the artist’s interest in spiritual energy and notions of the divine. Its irreverent aspect involves recycling signifiers of national identity into a postmodern pastiche—the tongue-in-cheek use of Singapore Airlines’ batik uniform, the Merlion imagined as a fossilized specimen—but the most cogent dimension of the work was serendipitous. The space currently occupied by Objectifs was the home of the now defunct nonprofit Sculpture Square, which in 2013, played host to a one-work exhibition of Cheo Chai-Hiang’s 5' x 5' (Singapore River) (1972). 5’ x 5’ was a rejected proposal for an empty space imagined as a representation of the river, and is now commonly cited as one of the earliest local examples of the conceptualist ethos. Cheo and Vimal’s respective takes on the river suggests shifts in cultural politics in the intervening decades, from the tabula rasa of Cheo’s blank square—redolent of the early, nation-building years of independence—to the more recent emergence of narratives centered on the feminine, symptomatic, perhaps, of our #MeToo moment.
Dylan Chan’s Untitled series (all 2021) embeds photographs that “emphasize the delicate quality of memory” into sculptural cut-outs of plywood flooring. The truncated, partially obscured images of flowers and anatomical fragments peeking out from gaps in the parquet pattern suggests a form of scopophobia, ill at ease with the objectifying power of the gaze. Here, the oscillation between revelation and concealment, exposure and occlusion, suggests identities and ways of life inimical to mainstream scrutiny, all too common in socially unprogressive Singapore. At the opposite end of the gallery, the meditative mood of Fitri Ya’akob’s video, Akar (2020), channels the yearning for that almost always fugitive phenomenon of home. The artist, who was born and raised in Singapore, traces her lineage to the Riau-Lingga islands of Indonesia. The work, its title meaning “root” in Malay, is a lyrical montage of sequences that occur in geographically liminal sites, from the woods of an uninhabited offshore island to the shallows between open water and land. The spaces of the interstitial in Fitri and Chan’s works serve to evoke the sociocultural marginality that often accompanies alterity.
Of the four artists in the show, it was Masuri Mazlan’s recreation of domestic interiors that offered the most compelling expression of personal exigencies. The series of works features elongated abstract sculptures resting upon furniture and fixtures, ornamented with images of the artist. In There’s Nothing Wrong Contemplating God (SOS d’un terrien en détresse) (2021), a black, alien-like appendage lies on a bed, on sheets depicting Masuri performing in a mask. Its only companion is a metal plate that bears the text of the shahadah, the profession of Islamic faith. The juxtaposition of these elements highlights the fundamental tension in Masuri’s work: between non-mimetic abstraction and the human figure, and between the restrictions of faith, encapsulated in Islam’s injunction against iconicity, and the desire of sexuality, embodied in the flesh—anxieties complicated by his own sexual identity.
Film scholar Christian Metz described the space exterior to the photograph as “the off-frame”: “The spectator [. . .] cannot help imagining some off-frame, hallucinating it, dreaming the shape of this emptiness [. . .] insisting on its status as excluded by the force of its absence inside the rectangle of paper.” “With You Here Between: Defamiliarizations” materialized the off-frame with sculptures and installations, which enabled the trope of liminality to thread its way through often peripheral sentiments of loss, longing, and displacement that marked the experiences of the artists.
“With You Here Between: Defamiliarizations” was on view at Objectifs, Singapore, from September 23 to October 31, 2021.