Prayers are predicated on desires, dreams, hopes, and may take the form of words and deeds. For Chun Kai Qun, his art objects are imbibed by the desire to remake his world. He believes that human beings have always projected their identities onto objects, thereby creating a permanent essence of substance and dwelling within a material thing.
Moreover, the enduring materiality of objects can sometimes outlive the creator and is able to procure a sense of existence beyond the mortality of the physical body. Kai Qun, the quintessential object maker, thus transforms a spiritual invocation into a solid form, and possibly extending his prayers well into the afterlife.
The Art of Chun Kai Qun
by Michelle Ho
In August 2013, Chun Kai Qun cooked more than 70 eggs as part of a site-specific work at the Hospitalfield House in Arbroath, Scotland, placing them on the roof of the castle building. The artist chose this spot to avoid the more conventional sites within the historical building housing an artist residency, that would typically yield cliché works. The uncanny sight - a mass of fried eggs, flaccid, yet ever cheerful, perched precariously on the slanted roof - was Chun’s response to the notion of Scotland as a land of no sun but many seagulls, with his intervention entitled Sunny Side Up. It was also the artist’s quixotic attempt to see if his work could possibly “act as a bird repellent, because the birds would be seeing a form of their offspring.”
Chun’s awkward balancing act of resisting a cliché while operating on another, also places the significance of an artwork upon being both a joke and a punch line. It is a quality and thought process that lies in the heart of many his works. Sunny Side Up is an example of Chun’s works, amongst others, that present aesthetic and conceptual incongruities that strive to evaluate premises, rational or otherwise. While artists in Singapore have ventured into making works that deal with humour, the topic is not one that has been largely documented, in the research of art practices of the region which has tended to be focused on social, historical and political frameworks, or medium-specific studies. Granted, the objective of creating humour may not be the key intention in art-making for many artists. Yet the aptitude to create artworks that can incite meaningful laughter is a skill and finesse few artists here are endowed with. In this regard, Chun’s practice is remarkable for his consistent body of works - through pun, parody, irony or even the failure of an artist’s joke – that seek to use humour as a way to push the boundaries of art and representation. Solid Prayers is the artist’s largest solo exhibition to date, presenting a body of more than 20 works which includes new pieces, as well as developments and re-visitations of earlier ones. Through the course of his decade-long practice, Chun has worked with a variety of mediums, including installation, sculpture and video. His subject matter in art-making appears to be expressions of the banality of the everyday, with his penchant for engaging with domestic objects that range from burnt toasts to discarded mattresses, electric fans to garbage bags. It is tempting to indulge in his works as odes to absurdity and randomness. But what is significant is the manner in which he deploys them as critical material in his practice, at times devising endeavours in his art-making that derive unexpected results, or staging illogical scenarios that in fact, investigate valid conceptual or philosophical propositions.
A way of entering the context of his art-making is to see them as punch lines of a joke, when art stages an instance of comedy, and where meaning may sometimes arrive belatedly. Take for example, Live and Die Forever, a work which has a component of Japanese manga-styled resin dolls being installed on the gallery wall at a strangely high level. Why so, one wonders? To create an upskirt sighting, the artist quips. Or Back-Up Dancers, a pair of inflated garbage bags on rotating platforms – curious contraptions that perhaps, make for audacious interactive sculptures. Truthfully, the work was intended by the artist to perform, literally, the role of back-up dancers for future performances he might stage, when he does not have enough participants.
Chun’s works are coated with a naïveté and directness that shroud the more complex meanings of his aesthetic and semantic experimentations. His works, much like his personality, can come across as obtuse, which then often become part of the artist’s strategy to challenge the audience as they navigate through the coats of meaning, forged by some of his artworks’ image-title relationship. The three-channeled video, Waiting For The Same Things, features three toasters with nothing much happening until the toasts suddenly pop, in succession at each screen, and one gradually realises that the identical- looking footage has been edited to activate micro-seconds apart, and that one was, well, waiting for the same thing. In Framed Air, a print of a gas stove is featured within a boxed-up frame attached to a vacuum cleaner. Here, Chun is interested in the notion of the peripheral surroundings of an artwork, which is the immediate air it occupies. The artist is also more concerned about the functional meaning of the objects he uses, rather than metaphorical ones. It is upon a pragmatic, rather than a poetic reading of his work – the sheer impossibility of a perpetual flame in a vacuumed space – that the irony of his composition emerges. Are You Ready to Rejoin Society Today? tests the extent of the audience’s degree of acceptance of framed trash bags, hung on a gallery wall, be they a subversive sculpture, or a legitimate painting proper. It is however, also intentionally structured by the artist to facilitate its function as a trash bag, proper. For an artist who has no qualms about the work being thought of as rubbish, it also attests to Chun’s skillfulness in blurring the boundaries between common objects and reified artworks, and his ability to defend his practice, and re-situate his works within the edge of acceptance in an aesthetic discipline.
A major presentation in Solid Prayers is Stoned Another 50 Years, a large collection of new works, as well as works in progress, comprising resin relief paintings, posters and sculptural dioramas. Presented as what Chun calls a “Storyboarding Room”, it is also an incubating space for his ideas on his vision of an alternative National Day Parade. In Stoned, artworks are concurrently titled as acts and scenes, and they function as unfolding topics that are not necessarily linear, of a larger narrative in Chun’s theatre. A set of six drawings that explore scenarios of authority and resistance form Act 1 (Scenes 1 to 6), setting the stage for the other works in the series. Acts 2 to 3 – a series of laser-printed text superimposed on cast resin figures – reveal psychological impulses that inform Chun’s imagining of a National Day Parade. In Act 2 Scene 1: The SG State of Love, political party symbols are depicted alongside instructional sex diagrams, conjuring a comical proposition of party politics in union. Act 2 Scene 2: Sometimes It’s OK If The Only Thing You Did Today Was Breathe draws upon the Internet’s infinite collection of self-help slogans, juxtaposed with signifiers of depression - Prozac, Van Gogh – alongside religious icons and symbols of salvation, that conflate into a giddy assemblage, and account about the irony of power of positive thinking. In Act 2 Scene 3: A Wee Philosophy of Love, a plethora of toilet graffiti with wicked empowerment taglines such as “The Future Is In Your Hands”, is embedded with the artist’s personal anecdotes, and framed within an overarching composition of a flag. Together with Act 2 Scene 4; A Google Travel Guide to the Astral Plane, Chun’s garish pastiche of themes culminates in a bizarre vernacular pop aesthetic, where icons like Kurt Cobain, SpongeBob and Casper the Friendly Ghost, are placed effortlessly in sync with the worlds of Chinese folk songs, deities, hell gods and Taoist talismans.
In addition, Stoned Another 50 Years also includes The Audition Announcements, a series of posters that invite guests to audition for the role of dance performers for his future National Day Parade, all designed with his similar tenacity for irreverence. What are we to make of Chun’s storyboard ideas for an alternative National Day Parade, be they his proposed new aesthetic language to reimagine nationhood, or a blatant rejection of the means in which the Singapore Story has been celebrated, and reinforced? The artist maintains that his works are not deliberate criticisms of political parties or the politics of nationalism. Having been made by what he indifferently calls, “Page 1 Google Images”, it is his intent to allow the translation of media into material, to create their own psychological imprints, rather than compose a pointed political statement. These storyboarding ideas may not cohere as a seamless narrative to a viable alternative National Day storyline. Nonetheless, they are clearly intended outcomes of the artist to disrupt our assumptions and sensibilities of what a commemorated national story should be. Chun draws attention to the scripted forms of nationalism that Singaporeans have largely been presented with, suggesting that there may be more to the question of formations of national identity, and the state’s chosen forms of its expressions.
The Utility of Futility
By the artist’s admission, these projects have been conceived with an awareness of the improbability of their realisations, and a sense of the futility of their endeavours. Chun’s works strive to effect, a potential realisation of the artist’s joke, and when they don’t, in spite of his efforts or because of it, what is noteworthy is the artist’s outright disclosure of his failure. The Mistakes I’ve Made While Building The Joe Olympic Swimming School Diorama started as his intent to make a diorama, based on his reflections of the journeys of Olympic champion Joseph Schooling and Paralympian Yip Pin Xiu, and how their stories provided alternative accounts regarding the ease of achieving one’s dreams. In the process of making the work, he noted some less than satisfactory results – defects that occurred - and Chun turned them into the basis of the artwork. The work became an artwork about itself, with the confessions of an artist detailing his imperfect skills.
More critically, Chun also deals with the perception of failure, and its relativity. n One People One Nation, he presents the dilemma of students in a live drawing class setting, having to choose between the mastery of technique through making anatomically perfect drawings, or the expansion of individual expression as a way of innovation. As he noted from his teaching experiences, the fear of being incorrect has led most students to privileging accuracy and realism, resulting in the development of artistic talent that is identical and safe. The artist suggests this scenario of a vanilla conformity as emblematic of Singapore society. As part of the exhibition, One People One Nation will also be staged as a performance in the form a live drawing class in the gallery with a model in a monstrous-looking costume, as his way of making participants define their aesthetic priorities, and the choices that they might make in confronting what a failed drawing might really mean. By embarking on the futile endeavours that he insists on pursuing, and navigating through unfavourable conditions that he has chosen to situate his works within, Chun turns failure into productive engagements. Such a mode of working follows what Lisa Le Feuve has noted, in the artistic undertakings of unattainable outcomes, which are in fact, strategies of art-making that re- evaluates notions of success, as a way of offering a defiant view of the world. By engaging with failure as a critical process and subject matter, artists recognise the limitations of the quest for perfection, thereby turning to the relativity of resolution in art-making, and risk-taking, which in turn helps us make sense of the imperfections of the human condition. “When failure is released from being a judgmental term, and success deemed overrated, the embrace of failure can become an act of bravery, of daring to go beyond normal practices and enter a realm of not-knowing.” 2 Such is the nature of Chun’s works which operate in the realm between heroic aspiration and absurdity, using humour and failure to play off the futility of ambition against the ideal of excellence, and through such an artistic determination, bring about new possibilities for expanding the purpose of art
1. Claes Oldenburg, extract from “I am for an art…” in Environments, Situations, Spaces, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1961; reprinted in version in Oldenburg and Emmet Williams, (eds), Store Days: Documents from The Store (1961) and Ray Gun Theater (1962), Something Else Press, New York, 1967, p. 39 – 42
2. Lisa Le Feuve, “Strive to Fail” in Failure, Whitechapel Gallery, London, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2010, p. 13-1