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Seventh Month “Celebrations” at NTU CCA Singapore

The following reflection was originally published on the now-defunct

In what has to be acknowledged as a happy coincidence of curatorial programming and the lunar calendar, NTU CCA Singapore opened Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History last Thursday. Featuring works by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand), Ho Tzu Nyen (Singapore), Nguyen Trinh Thi (Vietnam), and Park Chan-kyong (South Korea), the show monumentalises the spirit world.

Spirits have a special position in the hearts of Asians and Southeast Asians in particular. They are our ancestors, the crazy ex-residents of the house, the anguished mother maligned by the world, our gods and guardian angels and many more. Some may even consider the recollection of personal memory a part of the spirit world.

In this romantic imagining of the spiritual as recollection, we can consider what the curators have called ‘research into their own cultural and historical backgrounds’ as a kind of haunting. In remembering and recounting the past, the artists conjure spectres that demand our attention in the now. Art generally is a fictive practice, where artists create an alternate reality for their audience. In utilising truths, conjuring up the past as art, viewers become witnesses to a spiritual presence. Ghosts and Spectres, more than an exhibition of works by four artists, makes visible the world of ghosts that lies enfolded in the landscape of Southeast Asia.

For a show that has thus far been interpreted as Southeast Asian in perspective, Park stands out as the anomalous artist who is not from Southeast Asia. His three-channel projection, Citizen’s Forest (2016), features people in Korean garb and sounds from Muism (무교), Jindo Island and Jeju Island. His references are wholly Korean.

Nonetheless, its anomalous inclusion in the show does demonstrate a certain sensitivity by CCA’s curatorial team. Despite its specific content, the artistic form by Park is telling. Each channel records a different scene within a forest that, when placed in relation to each other, suggests that all of these scenes were happening in the same forest. The layering of narratives, through having the same event appear on the different screens and non-linear presentation of stories is contrary to the one-directional restriction of video, a corruption that echoes the multi-layered, non-chronological aspect of time in the spirit world.

To believe in spirits is to believe that there is more to the world than what we can literally see. Our memories of the past are very real and part of our present. It is only through our mental discipline of time in our mind that we begin to understand these memories as ‘past’ and explain their lasting presence in the now as ‘spectres of the past’.

The experience of Citizen’s Forest is dissociative and mystical. At one point, the middle screen focuses on a beautiful young woman in a white hanbok beckoning at the camera. White clothing is associated with death and the afterlife, a point that Park drives into us using a funerary procession through the forest on the left screen. It is unclear whether she is in our world or the next, a quieting conflict echoed as the silence of this scene.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether or not the funerary scene is even necessary to conjure this link; the woman’s unearthly beauty, the distancing between the camera and the woman through the use of bushes and the film’s colouration is sufficiently suggestive. The funerary procession almost seems to be a realisation of the viewer’s own thoughts and associations, a scene conjured into being through memory and experience of funerals in the past. In this sense, the beckoning woman anchors the visitor in the present while the other screens act as the ghosts of the visitor’s past (and present and future), dislodging experience in the real and now into the culturally specific presence. Everything that we experience immediately is coloured by past experiences or our shadows.

Leaving CCA at 10pm at the close of the reception, Gillman Barracks is quiet, a ghost town. The cafe on Malan Road, Red Baron, had closed down a few months back and the only activity was at CCA itself. Yet the nostalgic visitor would remember the drinks, conversation and after parties that Red Baron used to host. The outdoor benches, which are really owned by CCA and heavily utilised by Red Baron customers during these post-reception gatherings, are empty except for a few lingering figures who attempt to relive that past moment, rehabilitating the ghost of what was once there.

Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History

Ho Tzu Nyen, Nguyen Trinh Thi, Park Chan-kyong, Apichatpong Weerasethakul 1 September to 19 November 2017.

Exhibition site available here.