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Medium At Large | 4/5

SINGAPORE — With the National Gallery Singapore set to open next year, it’s the perfect time for Singapore Art Museum (SAM) to fully embrace its position as a space completely devoted to the story of contemporary art.

SINGAPORE — With the National Gallery Singapore set to open next year, it’s the perfect time for Singapore Art Museum (SAM) to fully embrace its position as a space completely devoted to the story of contemporary art.

Its latest show is yet another important step in that direction. Culled primarily from SAM’s permanent collection, with a few loans and a commission thrown in, Medium At Large is a rather narcissistic, inward-looking show where you can imagine the 31 pieces on display asking themselves and the viewer: What am I?

It’s also one of SAM’s most playful shows in a while and examines this often-taken-for-granted descriptor in art, the “medium”. In category- and label-obsessed Singapore, we like things clear-cut and defined. But that’s not quite so easy when faced with a work like, say, Annie Cabigting’s On The Shelf, On The Shelf (After Michael Craig-Martin). It’s an exact painting of an installation by British conceptual artist Craig-Martin. The original work, On The Shelf, comprises a tilted row of milk bottles placed on a shelf. In a Mobius loop, Cabigting’s own painting is, itself, placed on a shelf. A painting? A conceptual work? A sculpture? That’s where the fun begins.

Obviously, a lot of interesting materials pop up here: Human hair in Mella Jaarsma’s outrageous, huge, wearable sculpture Shaggy; honey sticks in Yu Shufang’s interactive Project: Honey Sticks (6,425); the tree in all its various permutations in Titarubi’s Venice Biennale installation Shadow Of Surrender, comprising charcoal drawings of trees, wooden benches and thick books.

Two “paintings” highlight their very materiality. Jane Lee’s Status is a monumental work where the paint spills out and onto the floor, leaving a void where the painting should be. Gerardo Tan’s thisisthatisthis are two works made of dust scraped from old paintings and presented as works of high art: A small glass bowl and a framed “painting” of the recovered grime.

However, it’s ironic that, even as the show aims to question the point of categories, one can’t completely get away from them here. Many of the works are clumped together based on their respective genres, whether it’s a painting or a drawing. However, it does make for clearer comparisons on how different works wriggle away from its “root” genre in their own particular idiom.

Ian Woo’s Lot drawings, for instance, are partly rendered in a painterly way, using a brush to employ graphite mixed in water. Next to it are Alvin Zafra’s portraits done using a bullet to draw on sandpaper. Behind it, Sai Hua Kuan reduces the very idea of drawing to its basest element, the line, without actually drawing any thing. Instead, his Space Drawing 5 is a video of a rope whiplashing and snapping all around an abandoned building — the line becoming an action instead of being something imprinted on a surface.

There’s a wonderful sense of flow as you move one artwork to another and forms overlap: You can go from a huge sculpture made from a collage of photographs (Osang Gwon) to a series of photographs of a painting (Chua Chye Teck).

Medium At Large also redefines “medium” as the artist or creator of the artwork. In Alan Oei’s The End Of History, with its series of defaced paintings and archival material, you have an entire construct of an artist and his life — via the fictional Nanyang artist Huang Wei.

And bringing all of these different ideas together — the medium as material, genre and creator — is Ho Tzu Nyen’s Venice Biennale work, The Cloud Of Unknowing. A wily, chameleon-like work, it was previously presented in various ways not only in Venice, but at Gillman Barracks and Tokyo. It’s an immersive piece hingeing on a video set up at the museum’s chapel space that employs smoke machines (and at some point will probably include a performance element). The videos themselves, comprising tableaus, were derived from, and refers to, old paintings and texts.

Is the exhibition fetishising this whole idea of the medium? Yes, it is — but it’s about time. Many of the works on display will be familiar to regular museum-goers, but combined, you get a fresh perspective. Appreciating art isn’t just about what they mean, but also about what they are — things and ideas created from other things and ideas. Ultimately, it makes our experience and reading of contemporary art, and appreciation of what a museum is and does, all the richer.

Medium At Large runs until April 2015 at the Singapore Art Museum. For more information, visit

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