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  • Dec 27, 2013

Chan Hampe Galleries journey to “Motherland”

ROBERT ZHAO RENHUI, Changi, Singapore, Possibly 1970s, 2011, artist proor, 121 × 84 cm. Courtesy the artist and Chan Hampe Galleries, Singapore.

There is something ambiguous about the notion of a “motherland.” It suggests a place of stasis and safety, and has ties to identity, but it also raises the more precarious promise of “home.” Few other concepts so inflame categories such as ethnicity and race—it connotes the aspirations of immigrants, the nostalgia of landscapes, as well as the bonds of the heart. This month, three artists at Chan Hampe Galleries tackled such notions in relation to their native land of Singapore in the multi-disciplinary exhibition “Motherland.”

Mike HJ Chang’s quirky, insubstantial Half is a Place (2013) makes a disarming case for a theory of the dual properties of transience and permanence that the motherland contains. Chang props together a pale sketch of a folding chair, an aluminum framework and a back-lit piece of plastic on which the work’s title is painted. This vagary—a capricious exploration of “there-and-here,” or “now-and-then”—infiltrates all of Chang’s work. In Temporary Space (2013), two mundane tokens of “home”—a coffee table and a cheery welcome mat—are made subtly traitorous: the table overturned offers an illicit peek beneath at a postcard whose front depicts a distant tropical beach fantasy. 

Another dubious proposition is made by Robert Zhao Renhui in three photographs. Renhui has appropriated scenes from a Japanese landscape—a seacoast famous for its massive and ever-shifting sand dunes—and injected them into Singapore’s mythos. As a country whose own coast has been rendered unfamiliar through land reclamation schemes, these idyllic visions, such as the sparkling turquoise tidal pool in Changi, Singapore, Possibly 1970s (2011), provoke a comforting, fictive nostalgia for a Singapore that could have been.

In fact, much of Singapore’s success as a nation is comprised of such myths. Its promise of prosperity is seductive to both immigrants and Singaporeans alike. Filmmaker Sherman Ong peers beneath this veneer of security in a quartet of video confessions, part of his ongoing “Motherland” series (2011- ). These subtle, layered monologues demonstrate how Singapore redefines, transforms and consumes. A young Indonesian student speaks matter-of-factly of lost family members and spiritual reconciliations, a male escort haltingly describes his life as a lonely “ghost,” a Chinese widow recalls a love lost and a local middle-aged woman speaks about her family’s prohibition of interracial dating only barely suppressing her pain. Ong submits these accounts as contemporary fables that inform the heart of modern Singapore, revealing ultimately that the notion of motherland is itself a delusion of sorts. Yet as the works suggest, longings for a concrete identity, for safety and a home persist. The artists in “Motherland” present a few attempts at versions of the illusion, which we continue to seize again and again. 

“Motherland” was on view at Chan Hampe Galleries, Singapore, from December 6–22, 2013.

Marybeth Stock is a writer, researcher and editor based in Singapore and Japan.

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