Peanut Get Monkey

an unedited excerpt of the article published in the Autumn 1988 issue of Modern Painters, and written by Howard Jacobson.

We are en route to the Telok Kurau Studios, a National Arts Council project which provides workshops and gallery spaces for 26 artists, one of whom is Vincent Leow. Since I'm only in town for a few days I don't waste time on conversational niceties. 'So what's it like for an artist here?' I ask, leaning on the word 'here' in such a way as to make it clear that Western standards (God save us) Singapore is a fussily, not to say sternly, paternalistic state.

He gives me a balanced answer, the gist of which is that an artist can always transform an obstacle into an opportunity. I listen carefully to be certain there isn't any George Steinerish nostalgia for the underground art that thrives under despotism, and am satisfied there isn't. Silly of me even to be on the lookout for such a thing in such a place, given that the Steiner position is the merest indulgence of intellectual luxury. And I'm prepared to take a gamble that Vincent Leow cannot possibly enjoy pampering on the Steiner scale.

No, they're not free, as artists, to go wherever their fancy drives them. Take, for example, the now notorious case of the performance artist Josef Ng Sing Chor who, by way of protest at the arrest of twelve alleged homosexuals, symbolically canned a dozen squares of pristine tofu, lowered his swimming trunks, and scissored off his public hair. Notwithstanding the time and place of his performance - the Artist's Gneneral Assembly annual New Year's Eve bash, 1993 - nor the solemnly ritualistic nature of its execution, Josef Ng was rebuked by the National Arts Council, charged with indecent exposure by the courts, fined 1000 Singapore dollars, and forbidden to perform in public again.

Swallowing my own lack of enthusiasm for performance art, which always reminds me of the most amateur of amateur dramatics, I make a shocked face and wonder that Singapore's artistic community was not fired into action by this unpardonable assault upon a fellow artist's integrity. Vincent treats me to an amused and tolerant stare. He does tolerant amusement well. He has the teeth for it. More teeth than I have ever before seen in a single mouth. Milk of human kindness teeth. Singapore does not yet have an 'artistic community' confident or strong enough to bring pressure to bear, that's what he wishes me to understand. Yes, there was, there is concern. But his turning-obstacles-into-opportunities point stands. OK, they have to watch what they do in public. But that still leaves room for private expression. And even publicly, there's more latitude than one might expect. Vincent, too, is a performance artist, and he suffered no lasting criticism, for example, in the aftermath of a recent performance during which he swallowed a glass of his own piss. This was partly because he made water with his back turned to his audience. Partly because his critique of the artist as being forever consuming himself was thought to be pertinent. And because he was able to remind his critics that Gandhi himself regularly drank his own urine - for ascetic rather than aesthetic reasons, it is true, but the precedent went a considerable way to tempering the public disgust.

You make your accommodations, that is Vincent's position, in your ends are your beginnings.

And now we have arrived at the Telok Kurau studios, once a school, now distempered and leaky, and therefore suitable for artists, in a well-to-do domestic suburb of Singapore, where people live not in nondescript apartment blocks but in Italianate villas, Swiss chalets, Texas ranches.

'Ah a desirable part of town', I observe.

'Definitely not desirable', Vincent laughs.

I warned you he was a bohemian.

He takes me to his studio where I see pieces of his recent exhibition - 'Mountain Cow Milk Factory' - a multi-media, multi-venue installation, comprising paintings of cows, brightly colored life-sized sculptures of cows, CD Roms and prints. The inspiration for the project is the idea of cloning, which I guess is another way of talking about karaoke, and its guiding principle is multiplicity, lookalikes which in fact are not. I bite my tongue over Vincent's misspelling of Mountain. Too late to do anything now, since the word is writ large across every painting. Oh well, I think, maybe , they won't notice it here. Then I read the small print disclaimer at the bottom of one of his brochures - 'Please note that the spelling of 'Mountain' is intentional - and I realize I've been had.

So much for the un-cloned western sophisticate.

The work is droll and vital. It's only late that I get to see the fibre glass cows in all their variegated sameness, munching temporarily at the entrance to a cafe in a new shopping complex; but some of the mountain paintings are on Vincent's studio walls, and they tease away, more complex than any Koons, kitschier in that their allure is more ambiguous.

But that's enough of Vincent, Vincent decides. Virgil-like, he leads me to artists on the way up and on the way down. The Singapore Watercolor Society has its headquarters here and I am fortunate enough to meet its president, Ong Kim Seng, a distinguished pleir air watercolorist. I am enjoying a number of his sensuous, light-drenched evocations of Singapore that reminds me of Pertofino, and thinking that can be the problem with watercolors - they take you everywhere and nowhere - when he launches into an apology of his own for the art of the watercolorist. Vincent has told him that I am here to see modern art. 'I am not sure you can call this modern art', the president laughs.

Well, modernity is hard for anyone over the age of twelve. But Ong Kim Seng has got the old-fart blues bad. 'The young can get to their creativity more quickly through video and computer', he says.

I wonder what the hurry is.

He takes the implied compliment to his own beautiful unhurriedness, and bows. But there is an inconsolable air about him. He has been steamrollered by technology. I shake his hand, step backwards and fall over several pairs of shoes which people have removed as a sign of respect. We all show out respect differently. I keep my shoes on but back slowly out of the room, wanting to go on looking at his exquisite washes for as long as possible, and meaning thereby to expel the idea of hurry from our universe.

Downstairs, I meet two more senior artists, though neither of these is given to apology. Anthony Poon, whose sculptures can be seen in or around many public buildings in Singapore, began as a painter and advanced on sculpture gradually, through rhomboid and diamond-shaped paintings, illusions of curvilinearity, and then canvases constructed in relief. So his work flutters tremulously, giving the impression of having just liberated itself from the wall. Teo Eng Seng, on the other hand, makes sculptures which are yearning to be paintings, ravishingly dyed paper forms - paperdyesculps, he calls them - which look as though they have come up from the ocean bottom or dropped from some unheard-of star, bearing fading evidence of colors we never knew existed.

The two men enjoy interconneceting studios, and treat me to what I take to be a much rehearsed interconnecting senior artist's routine. Anthony Poon plays the straight guy, looking to adopt the best view of everything, accepting, mellow, ameliorative. Teo Eng Seng is fascinatingly restless, a delicate boned dapper dynamo of a man who wears a disconcertingly well-creased pair of shorts for an artist - but then he has enjoyed senior academics status in Singapore for many years - and bears upon his chin the traces of those whispy Chinese beards (five hairs at most) which I always associate, for no good reason, with nineteen-century opium dens. Teo Eng Seng is the one who dares say the unsayable.

Precisely which of my questions provoked him into an attack of the predominance of foreign work in public places I am not sure. But now he's started not even Anthony Poon's measured scepticism can stop him. 'We welcome all international artists to Singapore', he tells me, 'but we must have balance. You slaughter the culture if you only show work from elsewhere. You have nothing if you don't have your own people's work - you just have nothing to boast about. I'm not talking about private buildings. In private you can do what you like. But in a public place, where you live...'

'He means where he walks', Anthony Poon puts in.
'But hang on', I say.'It's my understanding that you are both represented in Singapore.'

'Not only that', Anthony Poon says, he is one of the first people they consult.'

Teo Eng Seng does not mind conceding that he is one of the first people they consult. Or that his work is highly regarded, and out there where the public can see it. But his argument still holds. The best commissions go to international artists. 'They're welcome', he says again. 'But' - and here he raises a finger - 'on equal ground.'

And what makes the ground unequal? Money. There is not enough it it for Singapore artists. With which even Anthony Poon finds himself in agreement. 'If they pay us peanut...'

I see what's coming... all they'll get is peanut.

But Teo Eng Seng puts it more Singaporeanly. 'Peanut get monkey.'

An hour later I am looking at the problem we've have been discussing, if problem it is. The Lichtenstein sculptures in the courtyard - in one of the courtyards - of the Millennium project, the latest soaring pyramidal complex of towers, hotels, offices, shops, etc. And not just the Lichtenstein sculptures - which are fun, Disney oriental, plasticated and wavy - but the Frank Stella climbing up the wall like wild imported ivy. And not just the Frank Stella but the roseate Rosenquists with their teeth-baring orchids.

I scratch my head and look up at Vincent. What does Vincent think ? But Vincent is cautious because he had noticed how responsive I was to the demoniacally ribald anti-internationalism of Teo Eng Seng and is biding his time.

The nearest we get to having out our undeclared differences is when I tell him that I intend popping over to Suntec City tonight to see the government sponsored multi-media Story of Singapore, in the confident expectation of an evening of solid kitsch, and he observes it will be kitsch right enough, but unselfknowingly kitsch. By which I understand him to mean not the real unreal thing. Our eyes meet over that.

Of course it's unselfknowing. It's propaganda. The story of how Singapore got to be the triumph of tolerance and economic wizardry it is today. That the medium should itself be the message goes without saying. Scores of spick and span school kids usher us into a portable, all language-friendly auditorium they call a 'people-mover', wave bye-bye to us as though they are our parents seeing us onto the big dipper, and into a tunnel of techno-nationalism we disappear. For video sophistication it beats anything you get at the Tate. Screen upon screen. Pictures to the left of us, pictures to the right of us. Actors in Japanese military uniforms suddenly walking out of pictures to bayonet us. A three-D tiger so fearfully realistic that when it makes to savage us with its paw the podgy Chinese boy sitting next to me jumps out of his seat in terror.

And if it self-knowing, which is to say a joke about propaganda as opposed to propaganda pure and simple, would it be an installation as worthy of serious critical regard as one by Samantha Taylor Coleridge or whatever her name is ?

Is a reversal of intention all it takes ?

I only raise the question.