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Art review: Renaissance City

A Renaissance City. A city of rebirth. It’s not only a fine-sounding aspiration that city officials might want, but also the title of artist Eugene Soh’s latest solo show. Nevertheless, the question is: What does it actually mean?

A Renaissance City. A city of rebirth. It’s not only a fine-sounding aspiration that city officials might want, but also the title of artist Eugene Soh’s latest solo show. Nevertheless, the question is: What does it actually mean?

In its original context, the Renaissance could, in a sense, boil down to 14th-century Europeans falling head over heels in love with the culture of classical Greece and Rome, a mission of re-invigoration based on the lost wisdom of a bygone age. Or it could bring to mind the archetypal “Renaissance man” Leonardo da Vinci and his dazzlingly brilliant sense of invention.

In his exhibition, Soh gives a nod to the Florentine polymath with Moh Lee Sha, in which the staggeringly famous Mona Lisa — of which an earlier version is incidentally on display at The Arts House — is re-imagined through a Singaporean lens. Instead of Lisa del Giocondo, the image features local band The Sam Willows’ Benjamin Kheng, who does a passable job of imitating her enigmatic expression. And, to drive the point home, the idealised landscape in the background of the original is replaced with another ideal view of sorts: Singapore’s skyscrapers, greenery and Housing and Development Board flats.

To anyone familiar with the most notable European paintings, Soh’s method is clear enough — to adapt the compositions of these grand old works to a Singaporean context through the use of painstaking photo-manipulation, arranging everyday Singaporeans in everyday Singaporean settings in place of the original subjects and settings. Soh’s Food For Thought, for one, substitutes Raphael’s School Of Athens with Lau Pa Sat and its philosophers with a diverse cast mulling over more mundane concerns.

Despite the title, the show’s not all Renaissance. Other iconic works and movements — Whistler’s Mother (redone as Eugene’s Mother) and Neo-Impressionism — come to play. Two of the works do stand out in their sheer difference, though: The Cost Of Living and Monumental Task, which concern themselves with the costs and burdens of life and parenthood in Singapore through mild, didactic photo-illustrations suggestive of quirky magazine editorials. With so little linking them to the rest of the show, the two works feel jarring in context.

The affectionately parodic remixes of Renaissance City, photo-manipulated to the point of a lush clarity suggesting both Renaissance painterly technique and dramatically lit fashion editorials, offer some leeway for interpretation. They serve as a ground onto which we might weave stories and situations that pull the subjects of each image together. It’s a bonus to know a little more of the history, context and content of the original paintings, but others might see only curiously-posed people in familiar settings.

As a whole, the series, though visually arresting, follows what feels like a well-worn approach: Take something familiar and non-Singaporean, insert some Singaporeaness and observe as humour and social commentary trundle out. It suggests a certain amount of concern for how Singaporean culture measures up to “high” culture from abroad, but whether it’s unconscious anxiety or self-deprecating humour which emerges is left unanswered. In the same way, the question of whether the Renaissance suggested here looks forward or backwards remains ambiguous.

Renaissance City runs until Jan 4, 11am to 7pm, Chan Hampe Galleries, Raffles Hotel Arcade #01-21, 328 North Bridge Road. Closed Mondays and public holidays. Free admission.

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