Less than Uplifting: Art and its Interaction with Public Space
story | Natalie Tan, Guest Contributor
photo | Marcus Chua
On March 16, white sheets with spray-painted messages were draped at the back of selected lifts. In calculated museum fashion, accompanying labels announced “This is an Art Installation” and provided the names of the makers, the title of the work, and the materials used. Later that day, the sheets were removed, and the makers published a post in the Yale-NUS College Students Facebook group requesting the work to be returned for its supposed sale.
Through the stark labels, the makers have boldly dictated that the 2000 thread count sheets should be received as “Art Installation[s]”. Art installations are works that draw upon and address the peculiarities of a certain physical space. Affective and effective art installations require the artist to display an acute awareness of the space in which they are immersed. Such works withstand the test of time because they have created an all-consuming logic that cannot be disrupted; any response to these works seem only to echo the works and reinforce their presence.
In the case of the sheets, whether or not they constitute Art is not the most interesting or productive question to ask. “Art” means many different things to a diversity of stakeholders in the production and consumption of aesthetics. Eventually, the aggregated baseline requirement for something to be Art is for something to be a thing, and that is a dead-end conclusion. Furthermore, in the context of a community that already knows about the existence of experimental artwork, it is not surprising to see someone contest the definition of “Art” by displaying explicit material as such. (Truthfully, it’s quite hard for anything to be surprising after Shigeko Kubota painted the floor with a paintbrush stuck up her vagina in 1965.)
Besides, the makers of the sheets have already made the decision for viewers—their works are “Art Installations.” With that move, what matters now is how the sheets interact with their surrounding space, and whether or not they live up to their own declared expectations. The presentation of the work clues us in to what these expectations are.
The work cites the form of protest or guerrilla art. The sheets appeared overnight, the makers sprayed loud statements across the sheets, they did not consult upper management to drape the sheets over the lift panels, and the creative process was pretty much kept in secrecy. The garish statements referenced “PROF” and other elements in an academic institution and doused the statements in sexual innuendo. All together the the work resembles a protest piece against the school establishment—except that the work does not communicate any clear galvanising message. The school sucks, but what about it sucks? What did the administration do this time? Do we censor ideas about sex on our lift walls? The adjacent poster about (aside)’s Private Parts play begs to differ.
Though the sheets resemble underground art movements, the deliberate labels combat the work’s efficacy as a protest piece. At best, the labels smother the audience with uncomfortable museum language in a residential space, and at worst, the labels reek of hypocrisy. If the work was supposed to reveal the intolerance of the school towards spontaneous expression or sexual innuendo, then why is there faith in the “This is an Art Installation” label to protect the status of the piece in the institution? If the makers were confident about their work’s noteworthiness, then the work wouldn’t require a declarative label to confirm its status. If the work was meant to subvert its own label and upend our conventional ideas of what Art is, then perhaps the work would have been more effective in a community where not so many people are educated about the last century’s developments in art. Otherwise, the work actually fits right into what we expect of art in this postmodern era.
The work is scarcely more than a publicity stunt. It relies on the shock factor, and even then the shock wears thin. The sheets follow the recent plastering of “MISSING INSPIRING LEADERS” posters from the same student duo, and appear in exactly the same locations. The works enter territory that has already been chartered; the memory of the last posters is still fresh in the minds of viewers. “MISSING INSPIRING LEADERS” was appalling and quickly prompted student reactions that later contributed to constructive conversations about student agency in the college. The latest work with the sheets, however, inspired no such reactions until the makers released a Facebook post about their sheets going missing. And this is the last detail that reveals the inefficacy of the work.
The issue with the piece is that it fails to create and sustain its own all-consuming logic. It would have been remarkable to witness a grand exposé of the totalising art market, where the piece cannot help but be commodified and the makers walk away with a pay cheque and the last laugh, but alas, this did not happen. The sheets disappeared, and so did the supposed plan for a transaction. On that front, the work did not hold its own against the security personnel who placidly removed it from the lift. Installation artists have to be familiar with the social rules of the space, or risk showing a lack of awareness towards the very space they criticise. This is not to suggest that they should kowtow to public expectations and security protocol. Rather, for an installation to be effective, artists should always be one step ahead of the game. In the case of the sheets, this means that they should have anticipated the removal of the work given that it would obviously violate administrative rules, and they should have somehow prevented this removal or incorporated the removal into the work’s logic. As of now, the removal of the sheets have cued the curtains on a short-lived installation, and the sheets have become yet another annoying occurrence in our school’s cacophonous lifts.
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