Arts & Culture

Re-examining Camp, Kitsch and Queer Aesthetic in Southeast Asia: Interview with Louis Ho

Art as critical discourse and pleasure.

Words by
b-side staff

Text and photographs by Hera

Anne Samat’s Wide Awake and Unafraid and in the bottom foreground HOMEBOUND: 3 Masked Teddies in Paracord by Daniel Kok. 

The Foot Beneath the Flower: Camp. Kitsch. Art. Southeast Asia. (28 August to 31 October 2020) showcases contemporary artworks that deploys the aesthetic languages of kitsch and camp with an equal measure of purpose and indulgence. Held in NTU’s School of Art Design and Media (ADM) Gallery, the exhibition occupies a larger rectangular gallery within the main building and a smaller external gallery which is very much permeable to daylight.

As an alumni I made the bus journey into the campus compound numerous times, but understandably ADM feels quieter these days when students are masked and discouraged to loiter around school buildings. On the other hand, the artworks within the exhibition are an extroverted and gregarious bunch. B-side speaks to Louis Ho, independent curator and critic on the beginning and evolution of The Foot Beneath the Flower as a curatorial undertaking.

Curator Louis Ho (Image credit: Xin Hui Helder-Eng)

H: How did The Foot Beneath the Flower begin as an exhibition project? What was your curatorial process like for this exhibition and how were the artworks selected?

L: I began speaking to Michelle (Ho, director of the ADM Gallery) late in 2018. That dialogue began as an informal exchange about the possibility of an exhibition of queer art or artists. As the conversation and the thinking process evolved, the complexities and the potential hurdles of staging such a project in Singapore – in a publicly funded, national institution – began to become clear. You can well imagine what those may be. Additionally, the Sunpride Foundation also organized a massive exhibition of queer Southeast Asian art in Bangkok last year, which I suspect may stand as a milestone of sorts; there seemed, by then, to be little reason for us to cover the same thematic ground so soon after. I was looking at images of “Camp: Notes on Fashion”, the blockbuster show at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, at the same time, and it occurred to me that camp and kitsch, especially in this part of the world, may be deployed to decidedly un-frivolous ends.

I was interested in how those aesthetics, which are very Western concepts, could be used to frame visual vernaculars in this region, whether indigenous or imported, and how they could be used to express various forms of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

As you can well imagine, the queer dimension of many works included in the exhibition came naturally and represented an almost natural evolution of the project’s earlier curatorial kernel. 

In selecting the artists, one particular issue that came up was the lack of female participation, since my initial list was populated almost entirely by men (many of whom espouse non-conformist identities). It was a conscious effort to reach out to women artists, though I still think we could have done better. It would have been fantastic to have included a queer female artist or two, but I didn’t seem to come across any whose work was a fit for the show – perhaps I didn’t look hard enough. Another limitation was, of course, the budget we had to work with. I was quite convinced that the show would have to be a regional affair, rather than just a Singaporean one, so most of the featured Southeast Asian artists are Malaysians, as that was what we could afford mostly. Perhaps the works that travelled the furthest from their point of origin was Yangon-based Richie Htet’s series of small paintings, Dream of an Indian Ocean. Other artists not based in Singapore, such as Kawita Vatanajyankur, in Bangkok, and Viet Le, in California, are represented by video works. 

H: The ADM Gallery is a unique space in terms of its dimension, vernaculars and location. Did the site feedback to the way the exhibition is articulated?

L: This exhibition was my first project at the NTU ADM Gallery, and I was completely unfamiliar with the spaces – there are, of course, two separate galleries – and their nuances. I had to work closely with Michelle, as well as Jocelyn, the project manager on this show, to put the exhibition together physically. The gallery in the building proper was probably the easier to work with, since it’s the more conventional space of the two. The gallery fronting the street, however, was a bit of a toughie: it’s glass-walled, which allows for large amounts of natural light in during the day and has incredibly high ceilings. It was a good fit for certain large-scale pieces, such as Anne Samat’s Wide Awake and Unafraid, but there were issues with other works there.

One that ended up benefiting quite a bit from the natural conditions of its display is Arahmaiani’s I Love You, which speaks to the misconceptions about Islam in a post-9/11 world. The slanting shafts of light that illuminate it in the afternoon seem, at least to me, to obliquely suggest the imagery and the metaphorical economy of light in the Koran, which of course lies at the heart of the faith. While that was a happy accident, there were also spatial gaps that became glaringly obvious as we were plotting the layout of the exhibition. I won’t go into details but suffice to say that several works that you see in the show were included when the process was already in its advanced stages. It’s just how exhibitions morph and shift and take shape; most curators will have experienced similar problems. 

Artworks in the external gallery including I Love You by Arahmaiani, Jawi script soft sculpture mounted on wall. Stephanie Jane Burt and Samuel Xun’s mixed media assemblage Bai Barbarella Chow can be seen at the background while After the Tunnel by Geraldine Giam is shown here on the right foreground. 

As for location, it is a perennial challenge, not just for this show. One longstanding joke refers to the NTU campus as Planet Boon Lay, or Planet Jalan Bahar. (I stand guilty of repeating those myself.) I included Khairullah Rahim’s works, one of which was commissioned specially for the exhibition, almost as a response to those perceptions of physical – and hence also cultural – distance. Khairullah lives in Boon Lay, and his works here are engaged with the visual and socio-cultural strata of everyday life in the neighbourhood. For him, the stylistics of kitsch are almost native to his locale, and he uses gilt and plastic beads and pastels and sparkly accents to bejewel the surfaces of his objects, which are material testaments to the working-class realities of life in the area.

As a parallel, I’m starting to think of the difficulties of getting to NTU almost as an extension of the thematics of the project.

If camp and kitsch are being examined here as coded signifiers of disagreement and contrariety, then perhaps the physical inaccessibility of the show for most may be understood as a reflection of the cultural distance of its objects, and their politics, from the mainstream – the berth here being both spatial and social.

The Rubble, mixed media assemblage by Khairullah Rahim. 

H: What do you think about the virtual exhibition which is becoming a common format these days? Would The Foot Beneath the Flower have its own virtual iteration?

L: I recently curated a show at a gallery in Gillman Barracks, which began life as a virtual presentation, then happened in the physical space several weeks later. It was titled “flat”, and I conceptualized it as a means of engaging with what I saw as the primary characteristic of the virtual experience. Even then, it was a bit of a struggle to overcome the limitations there. That’s simply what we have to deal with here: visual art, aside perhaps from the moving image, doesn’t translate fully into the two-dimensional. Even the photograph often has a physical and textural presence that cannot be discounted … Having said that, we haven’t decided if there’ll be a virtual afterlife planned for The Foot Beneath the Flower

Alvin Ong’s oil painting triptych, The Lover’s Inventory, Intruder, The Invisible Manuscript

H: The exhibition features an impressive list of artists, it is also an enjoyable experience. Personally, I have grown up immersed in imageries from the popular culture that embody elements of camp and kitsch, so to me the visuality of the exhibitions feels nostalgic too. How do you mediate the critical discourse in art and the drive for pleasure?

L: That’s an interesting observation! – that the visual language is a nostalgic one for you. It’s anything but, for me. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. I came of age in Singapore in the 1990s, which was the height of the Goh Chok Tong years, when the cultural sphere seemed to be opening up. There was the infamous Josef Ng affair, for one, and that may be said to be a symptom of a shifting cultural climate (even if it also represents a closure in its aftermath). I was too young to have been involved in the arts then, but I definitely remember the arrival of Tower Records and Books, Borders, Kinokuniya; venerable institutions such as the Substation and Zouk first opened up in the ‘90s too. Even the internet was only just starting to catch on then … and, of course, the interwebs was the game-changer in the diffusion of socio-cultural forms and norms globally. I guess what I’m saying is that whatever cultural space is available in Singapore now is a product of a particular social and technological progression, and I suspect that you and I remember very different points along that trajectory. I certainly don’t recall too much camp happening around me back then – maybe Kumar’s hilarious performances at the original Boom Boom Room was one isolated example. 

I love that phrase, “drive for pleasure”. Thanks for asking the question. I have to confess, though, that the phenomenon of visual spectacle – a specific sort of spectacle, of course – comes naturally with the thematic territory. Camp and kitsch are nothing if not visually conspicuous and arresting. I simply used and abused that opportunity here. For instance, we painted the walls various shades of pastels, as well as a deep Byzantium purple called “Wild Plum”, to reinforce the palettes of individual works, and to lend certain moods to discrete spaces. The wild plum gallery is also what I refer to as the Geylang gallery: a number of works deal with the sex trade, while others mimic the motific language of shrines (something you see a lot of in Singapore’s red-light district, it’s a superstitious crowd that hangs out there). The narrative of Viet Le’s heArt/break! video takes place partly in Bangkok’s Patpong district, while Joshua Kane Gomes’ Untitled (Swing) similarly pays tribute to Geylang, where the work was first shown. Wong Lip Chin’s Queer old Chinese way is an attempt to recontextualize the aesthetics of folk Taoism, as it is practised among the Chinese diaspora in this region, as camp and kitsch, as does Hoo Fan Chon’s Riding the waves in search of the great bird 駕浪尋鵬, which simultaneously celebrates and satirizes indigenous visualities and belief systems in Malaysia. 

Wong Lip Chin’s Queer Old Chinese Way, mixed media installation within the wild plum coloured section of the exhibition gallery. 

H: Prior to social distancing, the exhibition opening has always been a significant ritual and spectacle that inaugurates an exhibition. How do you feel about the lack of exhibition openings these days?

L: I’m getting used to it. It’s starting to grow on me, this retreat of the social dimension of the visual art landscape. There are, of course, other ritualized forms that remain, such as the exhibition tour, that allow for interpersonal contact. The exhibition opening was always a space for social and financial capital to circulate: you see and are seen, or buy and are seen to buy (should you be sufficiently privileged). It’s not good or bad in a moral sense, but just the way that the ecology sustains itself. Now that we are enjoined to do without those things, perhaps the most interesting question becomes: what is that mechanism of sustenance going to be? Government subsidies and grants? As one of our ministers pointed out recently, though, that state of affairs cannot hold out forever. If the principle of the survival of the fittest rings true, then the evolution of the art scene here, in an age of the coronavirus, may be well be a devolution to a smaller, more localized ecosystem, where hobnobbing and big money play a less central role … I’m just speculating. A less globalized or less social art scene may not be the worst thing to happen to us. 

H: What are your plans for the future? Are you working on any upcoming projects?

L: I have a few in the pipeline, mostly for next year. An abiding interest, of course, is queer visuality, as is contemporary Burmese art. (The latter is a holdover from my days at the Singapore Art Museum.) I have a number of projects on both those fronts happening in 2021, and one in particular where they coincide – a solo exhibition of Richie Htet’s work. Closer to home, my next few exhibitions include working with an artist here in Singapore who’s attempting to deal with the trauma from her breast cancer through her work, which is very much premised on her interest in embroidery and textiles; she combines those things through her mammographic images, for one. Another is a virtual presentation of a local artist who’s looking to meld her particular brand of abstraction and a certain Hindu worldview, where the language of contemporary art meets a religious ethos. It’ll be an instructive exercise, I think. 

Richie Htet’s Divine Reflection, Tag! You’re It, Before the Wrestling Match, part of a five piece gouache painting series Dream of an Indian Ocean.

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