“The party is not the....”, a visitor beside me squints into a portrait, trying to make out the tiny words handwritten just below it. After the words, an ‘Erica’ is signed.
“The past is not the past”, I correct him. He grins and then realises. That is the name of the exhibition, after all.
It is opening night for Erica’s first ever art exhibition. Erica is an art student and has always been intrigued with exploring different materials and mediums to express herself. She has also been interested in social and political issues since she was in school, and this series of works marks the first time both interests have intersected and culminated. Erica recalls, “I spoke to my tutor and he suggested that I work on issues in relation to my country and I thought, since I am always so interested in the political scene in Singapore, why not I do something in relation to it?”
This is also Coda Culture’s first exhibition since its inception. The gallery was started by artist Seelan Palay, who himself is featured in a portrait depicting his arrest after a performance art involving him standing in front of Parliament holding a mirror. In the portrait, his head is bowed, hands behind his back as two policemen eagerly handcuff him, after failing to persuade him to stop his one-man protest. Tonight he seems less restrained, fervently welcoming, with messy hair and all, visitors and friends into his small gallery that's no bigger than an HDB bedroom. Like melting ice, people flow out from the gallery into the corridor outside. Streams of people come and go; quite a surprising bubble of activity for the second (and highest) floor of an old building in a sleepy estate just behind Lavender MRT Station.
The same handwritten words the visitor was squinting at are scribbled below each of the eight portraits, four hanging on each wall, facing each other. Below each portrait, an ice block with black ink melts away and stains the floor, surrounding itself in a puddle. Some puddles begin to bleed into each other. Footsteps in every direction are imprinted around them, suggesting the sometimes haphazard way people shift their focus from one artwork to another. Some visitors take little notice of the ice right in front of their feet.
“I decided to print on ice because it’s a performance in itself”, Erica explains.
“Normally when you are talking about performance art, people will ask, are you the one performing? No, the ice is the one performing it for me, the ice is saying what I want to say. When it melts, the image disappears, and people will think about the image behind it.”
Each of the portraits features images of different people in different eras. Seelan’s arrest in 2017 is the most recent, of course, and it goes all the way back to 1966, where a portrait shows the then Member of Parliament Chia Thye Poh being escorted into a police car. He was not to be released until some 32 years later in 1998. Several portraits hark back to a time when the Singapore Democratic Party was more known for its public protesting. In one, Dr Chee Soon Juan is being physically restrained from marching by police officers who are, strangely, hugging him. In another, Ms Chee Siok Chin sits on the floor and looks up to a horde of police officers surrounding her in a circle. This protest was held at Speakers’ Corner during the 2006 IMF World Bank meetings when leaders around the globe met in Singapore for a conference. More importantly, the international media were present. Needless to say, the protest and how the police reacted made international news. A film of their three-day protest, wittily titled ‘Speakers Cornered’, has been uploaded onto YouTube.
These portraits each tell their own deep stories and have so much context behind it, but a common thread seems to exist between them.
“Someone was telling me something interesting. When it was melting just now, and the print is on the floor, when the ice melts and comes together, it’s like moving in spaces, and you’ll see footsteps of people stepping on the ice that’s melted. Something is shared through that.” Erica’s way of explaining things always seems to hint at something, but never quite giving a direct answer or resolution at the end, preferring to leave it open-ended. It’s this arbitrariness that makes you constantly look at the framed portraits, the melting ice, and then the portraits again.
“I can’t write posts, words”, she admits. “Instead through these pictures, through this medium, I can say what I want to say. To me, I think imagery is a very strong way to represent it.”
Another portrait depicts the now famous silent protest on the train in June last year, showing activist Jolovan Wham and several others blindfolded while ‘reading’ copies of 1987, a book commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Marxist Conspiracy. For that incident and several others, Jolovan was slapped with seven charges relating to organising public assemblies without a permit, and one vandalism charge of sticking two A4 papers onto the inner wall of the train with scotch tape, which he later removed.
I stand before that portrait, choosing instead to study the pamphlet given to me describing the inner nuances of the symbolism of the art. Someone taps my shoulder and enters my right peripheral vision. “Hey, how are you doing?” I look up, not expecting to see the real Jolovan. “Hey, good. That’s you in the portrait!”, I joke. We engage in friendly conversation and proceed to talk about the portraits, moving deeper into the gallery. I point at one depicting a woman with her mouth opened, wearing an oversized T-shirt with some words on it, both her arms being restrained by police. “Is that someone we know?” I ask. Jolovan shakes his head. He explains that it happened in the 1960s, and that filmmaker Martyn See, who incidentally made the film ‘Speakers Cornered’, shared it on Facebook. “But it’s not someone we know, that history is lost. It’d be really interesting if we could find out who that is and interview her.”
I peer closely at her T-shirt and struggle to make sense of the words. The portraits are printed in a dotted, pixelated style in pure black ink, with no shades of grey in between. Lighter parts of the image are portrayed by fewer and smaller black dots in that area, providing more white space and giving our eyes the perception of greyness.
I ask Erica about the type of printing and she tells me it's called halftone silk-screen printing. “It’s actually the dots (of the ink) that make it more significant, because if it’s too clear, too realistic, it’s quite meaningless.”
I take a step back from the portrait and the words become easier to decipher. The words tell me that the woman was protesting for the unconditional release of all political detainees, presumably the ones detained under Operation Coldstore in the 1960s, of which Chia Thye Poh, whose portrait was to the left of this, was subjected to.
“It actually looks clearer when I step back”, I remark to Erica. “Don’t you think this also means that you can’t look at it individually, that you have to step back and look at it from a distance away, which causes you also to take into account the portraits around it?”
Erica looks surprised. “That’s a great point. Because I haven’t thought about that. That’s why I was talking about the observation someone gave me. Yeah, you can’t be fixated on one.”
“Only when you step back, can you see all the words.”
'The Past is not the Past' is Erica Chung's first solo exhibition presented by Coda Culture. Part psychological play and part performance, a series of melting ice blocks with silk-screened images invite the audience to explore dominant narratives from a nuanced perspective. It runs from 27th January, Saturday, 7pm, to 2nd February. Artist's talk is on 28th January, Sunday, at 3pm.
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