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  • Jan 05, 2016

Vincent Leow's "For Those Who Have Been Killed"

VINCENT LEOW, Peshawar’s List, 2015, oil on canvas, 150 × 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and Visual Arts Development Association, Singapore.

VINCENT LEOW, Andrew’s Eulogy, 2015, chalk, wood, canvas and aluminum, 230 × 56 × 16 cm. Courtesy the artist and Visual Arts Development Association, Singapore.

Beyond the so-called “Internet of Things”—that network of physical technology that connects us with our information—lies our own subjective “Internet of Symbols.” The velocity of online information is so overwhelming that we tend to pare down its clamor into facile symbols; otherwise, how to avoid being subsumed? Yet as a result of such systematic curation we become desensitized, and our insight—and empathy—are diminished. In his solo exhibition “For Those Who Have Been Killed,” multidisciplinary artist Vincent Leow observes this blunted awareness through a mix of documentary and eulogy. One of Singapore’s pioneering conceptual artists, Leow has long charged his practice with satiric interpretations of sociopolitical issues. At Singapore’s nascent Visual Arts Development Association (VADA), he presents a modest assortment of paintings and installations that consider how we mediate the internet and its relentless streams of data.

In five oil paintings at VADA, Leow has submerged vague tints of imagery beneath monochromatic veils of paint, and superimposed stenciled macro-texts across the canvases. Each work refers to a sensationalist incident gone internet-viral, but whose potency has ebbed over time. To counter what preeminent communications theorist Marshall McLuhan termed “technological narcosis,” Leow reminds us of these forgotten stories by proposing a new mythology of recollection through what are, effectively, enormous “screen shots.” In Peshawar’s List and Gaza’s List (both 2015), Leow inscribes the names and ages of the hundreds killed (many of them children) in two notorious terror attacks that took place last year—both of which made for spectacular headlines, but were quickly replaced by fresh distractions. Peshawar's List and Gaza's List each involve lo-res pixels of color, over which Leow has cast thin marble tones of white and gray as befitting a cenotaph, and his hand-stenciled lettering affects an impersonal digitization.

VINCENT LEOW, Repression, 2015, oil on canvas, 150 × 210 cm. Courtesy the artist and Visual Arts Development Association, Singapore.

VINCENT LEOW, Wheelbarrow, 1990-2015, oil on canvas, 150 × 120 cm. Courtesy the artist and Visual Arts Development Association, Singapore.

Three of Leow’s works memorialize the 2015 executions by firing squad of two young Australians in Indonesia. The Executioner (2015) is a murky rendering of guards and guns in a dense palette of bruised purples, greens and blacks; the painting’s surface is imprinted with barely discernable instructions on official execution procedure. Two hospital stretchers hang on nearby walls, one bearing a wooden machine gun, the other a single white bone. The stretcher with a gun is titled Raji’s Letter (2015) and features faintly stenciled text excerpted from a plea for clemency, written by one of the condemned Australian men’s mother; upon the second stretcher, Andrew's Eulogy (2015)Leow has stenciled the prisoner’s own final words. For several days following the executions these words had fueled the online media, but then soon disappeared.

Leow claims that he browses and selects news topics at random, but subtle calculation is evident in at least two of his works. In the nationalist-red painting Repression (2015), Leow fixes the words of late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, culled from a well-known 1956 speech (spoken as a rebuke, but deemed in subsequent years as ironically hypocritical). Repression is a shrewd accompaniment to Leow's painting Wheelbarrow (1990–2015), which alludes to a local teenaged blogger, recently censored and jailed for posting inflammatory remarks about Lee. In both of Leow’s pieces, only a few words can be gleaned at a time, depending on how light glances off the brushstroke-writings; the remainder become literal “subtext” within Leow’s thickly applied paint.

At issue here, of course, is that some of Leow’s works in “For Those Who Have Been Killed” are reminders of events so fraught that we are only too inclined to dismiss them. But by reviving their echoes, Leow implies an essential “scripting language” of loss that connects us. Two other works at VADA included Wake (1990–2015), five of the artist’s old paintings fused together into an unsalvageable cocoon of canvas and paint. Leow mourns their ruin with resigned humor, by displaying them in a custom-built “coffin.” The French Collection (1993) is another of the artist’s old works: a framed collage of old menus, maps and ticket stubs from a long-ago holiday, varnished with the French Tricolor—an uncanny augur of the viral (and tributary) online memes that followed the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last year. McLuhan wrote that communication technology, including electronic media, shapes not only cognition, but morality. At VADA, Leow’s recovered bytes of cyber memory may be understood as aides–mémoire that amplify, and honor, recollection.

VINCENT LEOW, Wake, 1990-2015, oil and mixed-media painting on canvas and wood, 195 × 110 × 25 cm. Courtesy the artist and Visual Arts Development Association, Singapore.

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