Art review: Unearthed is a fresh look at an evergreen subject

A plot of land in front of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) has been dug up and moved inside as an exhibit for the museum's inaugural exhibition titled, Unearthed. The Singapore Art Museum, in its inaugural exhibition as an independent visual arts
A plot of land in front of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) has been dug up and moved inside as an exhibit for the museum's inaugural exhibition titled, Unearthed. The Singapore Art Museum, in its inaugural exhibition as an independent visual arts institution, goes for what is primal - Earth, and man's uneasy relationship with the natural world. -- ST FILE PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The Singapore Art Museum, in its inaugural exhibition as an independent visual arts institution, goes for what is primal - Earth, and man's uneasy relationship with the natural world.

And it is an auspicious start.

The show comprises 30 works by artists based in Singapore and it spans various mediums and practices including psychogeography, the effect of the geographical environment on an individual's emotions, and the current art world's fascination with assemblages by artists as wannabe archivists and anthropologists.

It also includes a complementary exhibition at its annexe in Queen Street, featuring six contemporary art projects from the art residency programme at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, an institute at the Nanyang Technological University which conducts research on geohazards in and around South-east Asia.

The timing of the show, tackling an evergreen theme, proves fortuitous when 10 days after its launch last month, the United Nations' panel on climate change released a hot-button report on the devasting impact and risks of worsening climate worldwide.

Yet the opportune display is not without a potential pitfall; revisiting a time-worn subject could jade a public already weary from platitudes about man and nature.

And there are such moments in the exhibition where pieces hew so close to life, they fail to bring art into the picture through a rethinking of substance, form, idea or expression.

Isabelle Desjeux's mixed media installation, 1,000 Rubber Seeds And One Mutant (2014), is a textbook model of the museum's new direction.

The introductory wall text of the exhibition states this as showing art which intersects with other disciplines, as well as different modes of expression and experience.

Desjeux's work, in the second-floor lobby of the museum, make-believes an old-fashioned research laboratory. Wooden shelves stacked against a wall are lined with specimens of rubber seeds while a mutant fruit that failed to explode and disperse its seeds is displayed prominently in a transparent box.

To the left and right of the shelves, tables are set up to invite viewers to scrutinise and make drawings of seeds, and match photographs of them to a corresponding set on display.

The work is about simple theories on life, science and art - mistakes and anomalies sow learning; science and art are like two peas in a pod, rooted in the practice of observation; science as a study of the material world is borne of man and linked to life - but it plays so closely by-the-book, it ends up flat.

Better are the installations All The Way Down (2014) and Nanyang Meadows (2014) by Lucy Davis, inspired by the stuffing of taxidermic specimens in the collection of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

In Nanyang Meadows, wheat straw used in 1887 to stuff a 4.5m-long crocodile caught in Singapore is artfully laid out behind a transparent case, while All The Way Down brings to light newspaper clippings from the early 1900s that filled the belly of a taxidermic tortoise. The yellowed pages, carrying reports on the landmark mutiny in 1905 on the Russian battleship Potemkin and the 1907 Swatow Rebellion in China, are suspended in a vertical column above a photograph of the specimen.

The display, in a darkened room akin to a natural history gallery with its ghostly picture of the tortoise and metal plate facsimiles of the newspaper clippings that are legible only by torchlight, is milked unnecessarily for drama. But the works point to a new affinity between man and nature, and a fresh way of thinking about their relationship - as reliquaries and embodiments of each other's histories.

Other works in the show similarly deliver on the promise of its title to bring obscurity into view.

In Twardzik Ching Chor Leng's Real Estate (2014), an almost square plot of land on the front lawn of the museum, abutted by its signboard, is excavated, walled with glass and placed indoors for a privileged view of what lies under the arts institution; the soil is fine, largely homogenous and an oxygen-rich brown.

Yet the gesture of cutting 2.4m-deep into the museum ground, leaving cold-blooded edges and a hollow pit, points to man's dispassionate, disquieting treatment of land and raises questions as to who holds the right to disturb the earth and carve it up at will.

Ezzam Rahman's Ouch! (2014) on the other hand, spotlights the soles of one's feet, which as a point of contact between man and earth, seldom see daylight. Specifically, flakes of dead skin from the artist's feet are glued together to form fragile sculptures of animal fossils.

The medium may induce a gag reflex in most viewers but it is more than a cheap trick.

It spells the inescapable principle of survival of the fittest, which applies to both nature and man, and brings loss and renewal, the latter sometimes at the expense of another species.

The exhibition, sporting a studied air, also cultivates fertile pairings such as the one between The Bukit Brown Index (2014), a mixed media installation by independent arts platform PostMuseum, and Ho Tzu Nyen's video, Earth (2009).

The Bukit Brown Index presents an archive of information concerning the cemetery where graves have been exhumed to make way for redevelopment plans.

The video, on the other hand, paints with deep variations of light and shadow in the style of Western masters to capture the sublime horror of still-warm bodies in suspended death, a few breaths away from becoming grey corpses in a post-apocalyptic world.

Seen together, the irony of the earth as a source of eternal repose for man and a victim of man's destruction, resonates deeper.

Unearthed, thereupon, lays a sound bedrock for future shows at the museum, being on time, mostly on message, and largely right on the money of its mission.

Unearthed is on at the Singapore Art Museum and SAM at 8Q till July 6. Visit www.singaporeartmuseum.sg for more information.

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