Art collective Vertical Submarine pick up Chinese dialect phrases for new work

Vertical Submarine’s Joshua Yang (above left) and Justin Loke (right) with their mixed media piano installation, Play The Piano Drunk Like A Percussion Instrument Until The Middle Finger Begins To Bleed A Bit.
Vertical Submarine’s Joshua Yang (above left) and Justin Loke (right) with their mixed media piano installation, Play The Piano Drunk Like A Percussion Instrument Until The Middle Finger Begins To Bleed A Bit. PHOTO: LIM CHENG JU

Vertical Submarine again pushes boundaries with their solo show, Penetrations, using works peppered with their trademark textual wit, drawing on lyrical Hokkien phrases

Local art collective Vertical Submarine routinely baffle and amuse viewers with their quirky, tongue- in-cheek artworks, which push the boundaries of art.

Their solo show Penetrations, which opens tonight at Chan Hampe Galleries, is no different.

The group, made up of Fiona Koh, 32, Joshua Yang, 41, and Justin Loke, 35, make a departure from their immersive installations, though elements of installation art remain. For example, there is a piano with precariously positioned arrows pierced into it.


  • WHEN: Today to Oct 18, 11am to 7pm, Tuesday to Sunday

    WHERE: Chan Hampe Galleries, Raffles Hotel Arcade, 01-21, 328 North Bridge Road

    ADMISSION: Free. Call 6338-1962 or go to www.chanhampe

When asked about the work and the pierced arrows, Loke, the chattiest among the trio, says: "We have arrows inside the piano's body because our exhibition title is Penetrations. We did a lot of target practice in Goodman Arts Centre (where their studio is) to get each arrow position perfect."

But there is clearly more to the piece, starting with its long title - Play The Piano Drunk Like A Percussion Instrument Until The Middle Finger Begins To Bleed A Bit.

This mixed media piece anchors the exhibition and is an easily accessible entry point into the show.

It is based on an interpretation of the brusque and infernal collection of poems found in American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski's book of the same title. The piano, although silent, invites viewers to imagine the sound of the arrows penetrating it from all angles.

Drawing on the Bukowski title is also an indication of how text comes into play in the rest of the works. The other artworks and an installation of boxes draw on lyrical Hokkien rhymes which are included in each of the works without a translation. At first viewing, it is a little hard for someone who does not know the dialect to access the remaining works.

While the collective have done paintings inspired by Hokkien expletives, this time, the use of language is more direct. Actual phrases play a big part as their new series of work is a tribute to local dialect culture.

While preparing for this exhibition, they spent a lot of time in coffee shops picking up phrases to look at what they call "disappearing pockets of colloquial conversation among Singaporeans".

Yang tells Life: "We picked up a lot of these rhymes while hanging out at coffee shops. They are lyrical, but are not often used by people our age."

Using such phrases is their way of getting viewers to reflect on the gradual loss of vernacular language. The collective's tribute to local dialect culture is presented via a selection of rhyming verses as archetypal, old style advertisements and illustrations. The boldly printed silk-screen vintage posters, light box and billboard signs clearly point to a time gone by.

Even if you do not know the language, the quirky presentation makes you seek a translation of the text to make sense of it. The English translations are available at the gallery counter and are best read only after the works are seen.

Patiently translating complex titles such as Gor Kar Dua Ge Gu Chia Lian, Loke says while the literal translation for the phrase in this work is: "Five-cent coin is bigger than an ox cart wheel", the rhyme is actually "a sarcastic remark for someone who did a small favour and is asking for a huge compensation in return".

Another catchy mixed media installation featuring the figure of a monkey on wooden boxes is titled Lao Hor Tngee Teng Jiak Leng Mong, Lao Gao Swa Teng Zhor Ba Ong. The literal translation is: "Tiger eating lemon in heaven, monkey calls himself king on the mountain."

The meaning here is much deeper.

It is about taking full advantage of your boss' absence, Loke explains. "When the boss is not around, the second-in-command bosses everyone around. In Chinese, the word Sky (Tian) also refers to heaven and God. We found these phrases used in colloquial conversation very endearing."

These lyrical phrases, commonly used in jest and often delivered in what they call "rogue voices", have deeper meanings.

The idea of presenting them as smaller works rather than as one installation was also their way of presenting what they call "portable art". Works at this show are priced between $1,800 and $20,000 for the piano.

Vertical Submarine, which was formed in 2003, have made a name by pushing boundaries to create compelling new artistic narratives. Their creations often involve not just painting, but also drawing and performance art. This often results in detailed installations peppered with their trademark textual wit.

They have participated in art projects in Hong Kong, Seoul and Mexico City. Most recently, they completed their residency and research at France's Foundation La Roche Jacquelin as part of Singapour en France - le Festival, the largest overseas showcase of Singapore's contemporary arts and culture and heritage. They have won several awards including the Credit Suisse Artist Residency Award in 2009 and The President's Young Talents Award in 2009.

When asked what has kept them together as a collective since 2003, Loke says in jest: "What keeps us together is the fact that we do not have too many friends."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline 'Taking a shot at local dialect'. Print Edition | Subscribe