Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: Seelan Palay’s solo art exhibition

Here is a review of my solo exhibition by Kent Ridge Common (NUS students and alumni).
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By Melvin Chen
Published: July 27, 2009
Lee's Pet -- artwork from the exhibition.
Lee's Pet -- artwork from the exhibition.
'ISA Detainee Vincent Cheng'
'ISA Detainee Vincent Cheng'

The first thing that strikes you about Seelan’s gallery is its off-the-beaten-track, sequestered nature. Tucked away in a humble corner of Little India, this underground exhibition immediately exudes a certain bad-ass aura, since it is being conducted under the radar of the authorities, and invitation to the gallery is by-appointment-only, and for good reason. Seelan is an artist and political activist who wears his criminal record (for his involvement in local protests for the SDP and the Burmese monks) like an artistic badge of courage. The starkly controversial nature of his work means that its essence may only be faintly discerned by reading between these lines, and will reward a firsthand vewing.

‘Walking the Streets, Haunting Ghosts’ deliberately transposes the much-feted cult-like aura of the artist onto the figure of Singapore’s political enfant terrible, J B Jeyaratnam. Seelan playfully toys with Benjamin’s concept of authenticity, by incorporating a placard gleaned from J B’s best friend and by using audio recordings of J B Jeyaratnam’s speech at the Reform Party’s inauguration dinner. Through revisiting popular haunts of the iconoclast in his placard-waving heyday (with shots of Raffles City being included for good measure), Seelan presents a video montage sequence which both lauds J B as a martyr for a cause and indicts an entire society which has been raised in a culture of fear and repression. Just as Benjamin politicized the aesthetic in his seminal essay, Seelan, with Lacanian fervour, returns his message in inverted form, by aestheticizing the political with his local namesake, creating imaginative topoi through a collage of visual (placard) and audio (voice recording) traces of the (repressed) figure who is always already under the process of erasure.

The master signifier of repression in political discourse takes centrestage in ‘ISA Detainee Vincent Cheng’, a black-and-white portrait of Vincent Cheng, the ISA detainee from the 1987 Marxist conspiracy. With booklets entitled ‘The Ghosts of the Past Will Return to Haunt the Guilty’ beneath the stark rendering of Vincent’s mugshot, Seelan slily alludes to the name of the ISD sting operation, Operation Spectrum, while reinvesting Vincent with martyr-like appeal. Vincent, the leader of the Marxist conspiracy, was detained for three years, and as a sign of political protest changed his hair parting upon his release. In a case of life imitating art, the ghost of Vincent did indeed haunt the exhibition, as Seelan informed me that Vincent had visited the gallery only hours before I arrived.

Seelan uses the tight-lipped and censorship-ridden media as tools for deconstruction, creating pictorial collages from a database of more than a thousand images gleaned from the mainstream media. Art as process unfolds in Seelan’s narration of his painstaking categorization of images into Things, Places, People, and Objects, recapitulating the ruling party’s Adamic power to name and legislate reality within the narrower confines of the artist’s two-inch piece of ivory. Just as the spectral presences of political discontent occupy an interstitial position in a society running like Clockwork Orange, Seelan’s art draws our attention to the interstices of representation, where symbolic violence is wrought upon the unquestioning multitude. Through spatial juxtaposition, Seelan re-enacts this violence: an image of Singaporeans partying jostles for attention alongside one of Burmese children dying from want, while the bloodied head of a Burmese monk overlooks a pristine field of sunflowers. The same irony derided by Hegel as a criterion for aesthetic excellence is cleverly utilized by Seelan as a means of disrupting consistency, since the politicization of art requires that it disrupt hegemonic assumptions. Seelan’s artistic aura draws its street credibility from his having been formerly arrested for his role in the Burma protests, after ‘Peace at Last’, a collage inspired by the protest of the Burmese monks, was finished. The inclusion of the Burmese predicament appears to serve as a commentary on the universal nature of man’s inhumanity to man.

Countless Singaporeans, of course, will no doubt be conditioned to mourn the inclusion of ‘Lee’s Pet’, in which Singapore’s leading political figure, Lee Kuan Yew, is shown taming a king cobra, to which the towering skyscrapers of the city skyline provide a visual rhyme. This collage was sold before the auction to an anonymous buyer, a testament as much to the endearing popularity of Singapore’s Minister Mentor as to the enduring master signifier of repression, the buyer not wishing his name to be disclosed from the obvious fear of reprisal. Straw poll enthusiasts, however, may baulk at the next piece of information: ‘Nice Guys Finish Last’, a collage valorizing Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the SDP, was sold before the auction, implying the discomforting possibility that Dr Chee might be as popular as the Minister Mentor. Just as Dr Chee has been demonized by his detractors as a mouthpiece for the liberal and hedonistic Western media, meat-eaters are demonized by Seelan, an avowed vegetarian, for their role in perpetuating violence against animals. Perhaps Seelan’s postmodern bravura, in a Dostoyevskian age where everything is permitted, takes him too far, in placing carnivores in the same league with the Burmese military junta, but he is certainly allowed the riposte that all art is meant to provoke a response. Seelan’s art offers a Marxist critique of the Singaporean government’s involvement in the suffering of the Burmese through their continued investments in that embattled region. That the generals of the military junta are allowed to seek medical treatment in Singapore, and that their children enjoy comfortable lives here, only provide further grist for Seelan’s mill.

Seelan’s oil and crayon pieces invert the phallogocentrism of patriarchal discourse by turning the logic of homophobic conservatism against the long-attested power of the phallus. Each piece was hammered out in thirty seconds, in a veritable show of productive orgy, at the height of the campaign to repeal 377A of the Penal Code. A visual standout is the clock with two phalluses for its clock hands, reading three on the hour hand and seven minutes past ‘7′ on the minute hand, immediately recalling the phalluses subliminally inserted into Disney’s movie posters for ‘The Little Mermaid’. When I had reached this section of the gallery, I fell into conversation with P Elangovan, the enfant terrible of the local theatre scene, with two banned plays under his belt and counting. Upon learning his Brechtian inclinations, I cracked a joke about the good bullet being used in the good gun for a good funeral (from a poem by Brecht), to which Elangovan implied that the bullet be used on one of the two most popular figures in the collage section of Seelan’s collection. The editor might himself be shot for publishing a picture of ‘Time for Change’, but for more cloacal and less conservative palates the image of two dicks on a tick-tock c(l)ock might possibly be worth the price of admission alone. Meeting a theatre director with two banned plays under his belt and an artist-activist with a criminal record reminded me of the relative poverty of my track record as an artist, and I briefly flirted with the idea of helming a politically dangerous film and getting into legal trouble for my pains, before realizing that the Young PAP had unfortunately beaten me to the buzzer. Upon Seelan returning after my repartee with Elangovan, I was led to his verbal collages. Once more encapsulating the idea of art as process, the artist spent a year collecting red bold captions with which to present stark messages. The year of spectralized effort is externalized in stark, trite messages, one of which reads ‘Lucky Time’s Up’. As visual images yield to verbal images, Seelan weaves a cautionary tale of Singapore as a Prozac nation, peopled by anorexics, anaemics and anxiety-stricken insomniacs. In his apocalyptic future, divined through the logos as opposed to the eikon, change is so continual as to be meaningless, and with nothing enduring – apart from the PAP’s popularity in straw polls – on which to ground being, the masses lapse into zero-consciousness. Seelan appears to make the jump into end-of-days-mongering based on the omnipresence of symbolic violence and social conditioning, although to tamer palates it may appear to be unwarranted. However, things weigh differently in the combined presence of a convicted artist and a controversial theatre director, and with the spectres of Vincent Cheng and (dare I say it?) J B Jeyaratnam looming over proceedings, the appearance of truth in art may never have seemed uncannier.

The gallery is located at 91A Hindoo Road (the Jalan Besar end), Little India, Singapore. It is close to Mustafa Centre, along Jalan Besar Road, and is closest to Farrer Park MRT. To arrange for an appointment to visit this exhibition, contact Seelan Palay at 92445785. The exhibition runs from 25 July to 17 August.

Seelan may also be contacted via email at seelanpalay@gmail.com. Visit his blog at http://seelanpalay.blogspot.com.

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