Remember how you always tell me how much you love Venice and how you want to go back there? And how Hong Kong is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been? And how cool it would be if we could all just go and live out on Lamma Island with the hippies, next to the Buddhist monasteries and the big nuclear power plant, and we could eat seafood and get deep tissue massages and trade in our books at the local second hand bookstore, so we would never run out of things to read, so we would not really need anything. Except sometimes, we would take the ferry over to the main island, where you can get EVERYTHING. I mean, not everything that money can buy, but all that and everything else, and yet nowhere else is so pervaded by the sense that it’s all just…it’s all just Samsara, which is a Buddhist term meaning ‘continuous flow’ or stream of consciousness, but also it means that everything is just an illusion, a figment of your imagination…
So, now we can begin:
The other day in class, a friend of mine gave a lecture about a music festival. He laid the whole thing out for us: how the different gigs were interconnected, how the program evolved as a crescendo, or as a dramatic arc, with a beginning, a middle and an end and it was perfect. Or should I say, it was perfect to him, and that was the point. I would have chosen different bands in a different order and you would have chosen different ones still… as you probably are doing now, in your minds ear.
I would probably have chosen a different Venue too. The festival we were talking about took place in Central Park in NY city (which is not my favorite city, by a long shot), but I thought it would be nicer out in the wild west somewhere, say by the Devil’s Tower or somewhere, but you know what? It could be.
It could be anywhere, with anyone and in that way it reminded me of when I was younger, about the same age as you are now, and I didn’t have my own pony; I would collect all sorts of stuff out in my yard and jump over it myself on my imaginary pony, which would be a new color every day, and it was perfect. It was perfect, just like the music festival….
The thing is it never really happened, except as an idea, an exercise in ‘musicking’. -‘Musicking’ being the idea that we are all making music together not only when we are performing or playing an instrument, but also when we are listening to music or dancing to it, or even talking about it. So, in fact, you and I are musicking now, as you are reading these words.
I asked the class if this could happen in art as well, if we could be ‘arting’ together? But we couldn’t agree on that, because it’s not a perfect class, nor is it a perfect school. But you know what else, it’s real.
The reason I’m telling you all this, is that sometimes we need to fill in the blanks in what we know, with what we can imagine. In that way we can expand the fabric of our minds, in order to get our heads around things we can otherwise not understand.
So, now we can begin:
I wish there was a way that I could have made this story to be about Hong Kong and Venice, because that would have been perfect. But I can’t, because this is a real story: This story is about Venice and Singapore, and about the famous statue of the Merlion that once almost travelled from Singapore to Venice for the Venice Biennale.
You have been to the Venice Biennale, so you know that part, but you have never been to Singapore and neither have I, so we’ll have to imagine: I imagine it’s a bit like Hong Kong, but different…does that make sense? I have been told that the difference is that Hong Kong is a real city, and Singapore is a suburb on steroids, but I can’t imagine what that looks like. In my minds eye, I cannot come up with an Oak Park or an Evanston to Hong Kong’s Chicago, and I can’t imagine Singapore to be like Kowloon either…
But even as it’s not quite coming into focus yet, even if we can’t quite imagine Singapore, we can imagine that we can imagine it. We know that it’s Asia. I imagine that the air is kind of hazy and the buildings are grey, and very new. Or being constructed; I imagine there are construction sites everywhere, and there is hustle and bustle everywhere, but in that Asian way, that is not as aggressive as here, but more humming. And we know there is water, and down by the water is the statue of a Merlion, which is half lion and half fish –just like a mermaid, except it’s a lion. Can you imagine? (Do you remember that place we went to in Hong Kong, down by the water, with all the statues of Buddhist deities, the really big ones with the mosaic tiles on them, and all the alters? Oh, it was beautiful!
But no, wait, the Merlion is all alone and it’s white (or light grey, I’ve seen pictures, but only in black and white).)
So, now we can begin:
Once upon a time…no wait! This is a real story, in real time, so: In 2005, the artist Lim Tzay-Chuen, who this story is about, was invited to participate in the Venice Biennale, representing Singapore. As his contribution to the exhibition, Lim proposed that he would move the famous Merlion, the statue I was just telling you about, from it’s home in Singapore to take up temporary residence in the Singapore pavilion for the duration of the biennale. The move would cost an estimated US$ 1 million.
That’s a lot of money to you and me, but stranger things have happened in the art world, and, actually, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the statue belonged to the Singapore Tourism Board, and they were not willing to part with it, they needed it. What did they need it for, you might ask? Oh, you know, for tourist stuff: for people to have their pictures taken, for buying postcards of it, that kind of stuff! Even when Lim tried to convince them that the missing Merlion would actually make a good story, that the Tourism Board could gain a lot of publicity with, to get even more people to visit Singapore, they said no! Even when Lim told them how this story –the great story of the missing Merlion would be passed down over generations, how kids would have their photos taken at the site of the missing Merlion and they would show them, in turn to their children, and tell them about the Merlions trip around the world, they still. Said. NO.
Those Asian bureaucrats are not kidding, you know. And in a sense, this is also what the work was about; to present a plan, an ambitious and somewhat fantastic plan, to see if you can get away with it, and moreover, if you can get other people to cooperate with you, to dream along with you and to get them to give you the permission to do it. Or in Lim’s words: “to seriously entertain the possible”. To get those bureaucrats to think again and say “That seems impossible, but, hey, why not let’s seriously consider it”
But even when you get a no, as in this case, maybe there is a way to turn around and make a yes out of it. If you look at it from a different angle maybe the obstruction can be turned into a possibility.
You know what they say in Holland: “You have a NO. A YES you can get.” And it’s along these lines that you may want to consider Lim Tzay-Chuen’s work.
Lim Tzay-Chuen has often been called a strategic artist. You know, like in a chess game, sometimes you have to work you way through a series of moves in order to get yourself into a favorable position: what Lim did next has been compared to a game of chess. Although Lim neither supports or rejects this metaphor, which is not of my own making, I thought it might appeal to you, as you enjoy playing chess.
As in a chess game, when you can’t move the piece you want to move, you can move other pieces, both in order to defend your position and to expose your opponent.
Because Lim couldn’t move the piece he intended (the Merlion) and because the bureaucrats of the Singapore Tourism Board had suddenly become his opponent, Lim decided to make his failed attempt of bringing the Merlion over to the Venice biennale, the subject of his contribution to the show.
He called the work ‘I wanted to bring Mike over’. (‘Mike’ being the secret codename, or pet name, that Lim had given to the Merlion over the months and months of negotiating with the Singapore Tourism Board.)
It consisted of posters and sings with pictures of the Merlion with the caption‘I wanted to bring Mike over’ and a longer text explaining the intended project, -so instead of the children of Singapore it was the visitors of the Venice Biennale, who imagined Mike’s travels around the world.
But his contribution to the Singapore pavilion also consisted of a large and very beautiful public toilet. A toilet? Yes, a toilet!
With this move, not only did Lim offer his public a very generous service that was very much appreciated as well as being an act of one-upmanship toward the Singapore Tourism Board, -who only provided their audience back in Singapore who had traveled all the way to see the real Merlion with a stingy little public toilet. Not only that, but he also gave a nod to Marcel Duchamp, who turned the art world on it’s head by exhibiting a urinal in an art exhibition and naming it ‘fountain’.
Now, you might think this a joke (and of course I could not write you a letter without a bit of toilet humor in it!) but it has also been considered the most influential art -work of the 20th century. In fact those two –the joke and the art work- are not mutually exclusive, and so it can be both!
Duchamp’s idea was that we should ‘leave retinal art behind’. As you may know the retina is the light sensitive tissue lining the inner eye- so I other words, he wanted us to consider art as more than just ‘eye-candy’ and to point us in the direction of the ideas behind the artwork, -the conceptual framework. More than that, he wanted to take art down from its pedestal, so we could have a fresh look at it. But seeing as this was impossible, he made another move: he put something else up on the pedestal, a readymade –in this case a urinal, and said: this is art!
Of course people were outraged and protested and said how is this art? And he answered something along the lines of: ‘Because I say so! I am an artist and I make art, so it’s art! It’s in an art exhibition, so it’s art!’
This is of course a very provocative statement, and one that is still being considered, and reconsidered, in the art world. So with his reference, in the form of a (fully functional) toilet in the context of the international art exhibition, that is the Venice Biennal, Lim Tzay-Chuen, joins the chorus of conceptual artists and provocateurs.
As for Marcel Duchamp? He left the art world, in favor of Chess, which he studied for the rest of his life to the exclusion of all other activities.
And now we are back in the game…
When my class was invited to curate a show with Lim Tzay-Chuen, as part of our curatorial practices class, our teacher suggested that we regarded the project more like a game of chess, than as an exhibition.
Because we never actually met Lim, and because all our interaction with him happened via the internet, -with a delay because of the distance and the time difference between Singapore, where Lim was and Chicago, where we were, -this particular game was not so much a face off, but more reminiscent of the match between the chess champion Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, IBM’s chess computer.
Who’s who depends of your point of view.
So, I would like to invite you come and have a look at the show we made with my class, together with Lim, and about Lim. With some of his work, and about some of his work. Maybe, at first glance you will think: there is not a lot to see here…but then I will remind you to use your imagination to fill in the blanks and try to imagine, like a chess game, what the previous moves might have looked like, and what the next moves could be.
So, now we can begin.