The relative powers of an exhibition space

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva
National Gallery Singapore, 01.02.2016

Earth work 1979Fig. 1

Much of art comes from a particular form of exile or misplacement. Geographical exiles, for political or economic reasons, the self-imposed types, the ones that don’t actually involve moving but happen internally—all carry a fertile ground for self-reflection, observation, and the poetics of longing.
  There is something disjointedly whimsical to think that Singapore—as a political entity, a country—is much younger than all of its seminal artists (suffice to be over 50)—which makes them all exiles and returnees in a way, or time-travelers who are still evolving in a rapidly urbanizing environment. Also, Singapore is an island, which in itself carries the potential for nearly magical powers to the adventurous mind. Today the city-state epitomizes the model of global-financial-center success, rapid growth, reliably enforced regulations, and an ultra-safe environment. But artists, who are in the profession of following unscripted trajectories, advocating self-determination and self-discovery (in no particular order), and lending their voice to economically powerless populations, are needed as contributors to a healthy homogeneous society—even when such a society bases itself to survive on categorical land development and uniformity.
  Tang Da Wu (b.1943) returned to Singapore after nearly twenty years spent in England with a MA from London's Goldsmiths College in 1988. He then created the Artists Village, the first artist colony in the country whose art values were rooted in process, engagement with the audience, and bold figuration. He is a founding father to the humble Singaporean art-historical landscape, and an inspiration for the quality of his work and contributions that seem to continuously renew in form while deepening in content as he focuses on responding to social changes, environmental concerns, and a sense of humanity at large. It seems natural that the curators of the newly opened National Gallery of Singapore seek to research and present his oeuvre and fill in areas of expertise that had been left less documented until now.
  The one-room exhibition Earthwork 1979 focuses on the one year Tang Da Wu came and went back, before really coming back. During that hiatus time he created a series of works in response to the changes occurring in his homeland, and the dramatic transformation of his familiar landscape. He drew from the ground, the air, and the sun, in a series of gestures and action paintings that recorded the land—though not quite in line with land art practices. The exhibition presents his historical works, the documentation about their initial presentation in 1980, and an-ongoing performance by the artist.

Tang Da WuFig. 2

  In Gully Curtains, 1979, Tang hung seven pieces of fabric within a gully in the fields of North Ang Mo Kio, near Sembawang in the northeastern part of Singapore—now an urban area including hawker centers and public housing built by the House And Development Board (HDB), completed soon after the time when the works were made. The beautiful earth paintings hang from the roof of their allocated space in the National Gallery, imprinted by three months of traces made by water and clay within the gully and the washed-out ink line Tang drew to mark the depth of the gully on the cloth. While being a necessary answer to the acute housing shortage faced by Singapore at the time, the gentrification projects marked the bereavement of traditional forms of rural life of the Kampung (village in Malay) and the loss of a closer connection to nature. Tang’s work seem to establish a strong physical relationship with the identity and values of his heritage, while acknowledging the dissolving solidity of their once established foundations and landmarks. These physical interactions and mixtures of earth and fluids are as much architectural as they are mental and spiritual.
  Facing the cloths, in Begin from Taiji, 1979, 64 days of strong Singaporean sun are imprinted on 64 framed pieces of rectangular white cloth. The gradient discoloration results from the various exposure times, from one day long to 64. How long does one need to spend under the near-equatorial sun to be affected permanently? — is what comes to mind, and the idea of permanence impressed upon us by our environment, our country, and Nature.

Earth work 1979Fig. 3

  We don’t need to buy expensive paint from art shops, just take from the ground and it’s permanent, 2016, is a current addition by the artist. He placed a scroll of paper as a durational performance within the gallery, where his claims to a simpler way of life are tested through live painting. During the length of the exhibition, Tang visits the room to ground clay, blend color, and apply it on paper. If the presentation slightly touches upon the ethnographical because of the proximity of the live event to the historical documentation of Tang’s initial 1980s exhibition of Earthworks, it has the merit of exposing the audience to the artistic process and the emotional charging of one’s relation to the land.

Earth Work 1979Fig. 4

  We should be grateful to the National Gallery for seeking these works out of their longtime hibernation in a storage in London, however the presentation falls short of a real curatorial expansive gesture. The performance corner seems unnatural, and the works in the exhibition overcrowded, confined in the one room as if their wings were clipped.
  The beautiful works in Earthwork 1979 are visual records of a time bygone, as powerful and fragile as the oral passing of songs or old photographs. They also represent the labor testimony of a seminal artist whose oeuvre is acknowledged for its performative density and humanist narrative, but has yet to be established and physically granted current relevance. The exhibition research is commendable, while the works-proper call for more room to breathe in order to charge the visitor with the powers they have been holding during their process-making, and during their waiting. An homage still but that is also a reminder in its form of the characteristics of an uprooted life, the transitory quality of exile, art, and recognition.

Earth Work 1979
22 Jan 2016 - 29 May 2016, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St. Andrew's Rd, Singapore 178957

Fig. 1
Tang Da Wu, Gully Curtains, 1979, Ink and mineral pigment on cloth
Collection of the Artist
Photo: Archive of the author

Fig. 2
Earthwork 1979, installation view
Photo Credit: National Gallery Singapore

Fig. 3
Tang Da Wu, Begin from Taiji, 1979, cotton, felt
Collection of the Artist
Photo: Archive of the author

Fig. 4
Tang Da Wu, We don’t need to buy expensive paint from art shops, just take from the ground and it’s permanent, 2016, mineral pigment on paper, Collection of the Artist
Photo: Archive of the author

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art writer, co-founder of Hong Kong-based contemporary art magazine Pipeline, regular contributor to Artforum International Magazine.