Has art become a hoax?

I’m Coming Up is an 87 minute film, without dialogue or a plot or anything interesting whatsoever. Min-Wei Ting, the director, walks unflinchingly with a steadicam through all 21-storeys of a sleeping HDB flat in Jurong for a full one and half hours. A live band plays electro-acoustic noise as a background accompaniment to the film – the only redeeming element. (You can watch the SGIFF trailer here if you don’t get what I mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PzsgfBQYwQ)

By the fifth storey, about 20 minutes in, half of the cinema has walked out with a bitter taste of a wasted $13.

In the post-screening dialogue, which should have been a caustic post-mortem if not for the courtesy of the audiences that endured through all 87 minutes, Min-Wei Ting speaks nonchalantly and facetiously, almost sleepily. He may as well just not be present at all.

What were you trying to achieve? Hmmmm, I guess I was trying to say something the interplay between architecture and music. What is it that attracts you to this particular HDB block? Hmmm, I don’t know. I guess I liked it. Did you intend this as a metaphor for Singaporean society? Hmmmm, I don’t know. Yeah, maybe it was some kind of metaphor I think. I’ll leave it up to the audience. Why did you film the block counter-clockwise? Hmmmm, I don’t know. I guess I felt like it.

In this same spirit of self-congratulatory facetiousness, anyone could as well write a grandiloquent review on how the film has broken new ground in a “seamless exploration of space”, how it is a “true social-realist appraisal of Singaporean society” and how it has gone a full 9 more storeys than Eric Khoo’s seminal 12 Storeys. Up the ante, broke new ground, revolutionised a dying art form, paved a new path, popped a cherry. One could essentially say a lot but say nothing.

I’m Coming Up is yet another drop in an increasingly congested toilet bowl of local art films (or art works for that matter) that have either tried too hard or just didn’t try at all.

Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin (2014) is yet another shit local art film I’ve had the misfortunate to be bamboozled into watching (Joel has since abdicated his role in deciding what art films to watch next having selected an unbroken streak of shit films).

For all you know, this could just all be a practical joke. Made for the sole reason of poking fun at the self-absorbed state of film and modern art where everybody takes everything far too seriously. It’s just like how Salvador Dali’s 1929 Un Chien Andalou, meant to be a satirical parody of the surrealism, became a crowning poster child of the surrealist movement.

This inevitably brings me to my next point: there is a serious problem of demarcation of the arts. Where the scientific discipline has Karl Popper’s falsifiability, what criteria have we for art’s own problem of demarcation – what is of substance, and what is bullshit? What is art, and what is pseudo-art?

We give far too much latitude to the arts. Technical incompetence, directorial laziness, turgidity of an overweight script is passed off behind the excuse of artistic liberty. The artist has the final word. The artist says so. Critics are dismissed as mere labellers and cynics. Concept is now everything, and delivery is just reduced to an unimportant medium. I could very well turn a tiny carcass of an ant into a key museum exhibit just with a 500-word write up with oblique references to Nietzsche. Or a 4 hour still shot of an MRT escalator. Or montages of bird shit. As long as the concept sounds highbrow, I, the artist, am beyond any human dimension of reproach. Everything and anything can and will pass as art.

Let’s take a step back from the furthest fringes of modern art. Let’s take a look at how this lack of artistic quality has affected the mainstream.

Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice fell victim to directorial laziness at the very end. K. Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird screwed over whatever promise and potential it had with an indolent and half-hearted script. You can’t just give the excuse of “it’s my artistic rights”. Neither can you just throw “open-ended endings” at the audience for lack of creativity in actually writing a compelling work. It’s not a deus ex machina that you can pass off as enigmatic, or open to intepretation or as any other tepid gimmick so popular with artist nowadays.

Incompetence should not be allowed to hide behind the license of artistic liberties. Especially so, if works with such potential like A Yellow Bird failed to take flight simply because of the whims of a director/screenplay resistant to the idea of trying harder. You’re selling yourself short and you don’t want to face up to what a waste it is.

This is no mere storm in a teacup. This is a serious problem for the health of our cultural community as a whole.

Pseudo-art affects the legitimacy of the cultural industry. If you want people to take you seriously, you have to start taking yourself seriously. And we need to hold ourselves up to higher standards. In a place as tiny and saturated as Singapore where art is a recently resuscitated cardiac arrest victim with one foot still stuck in its decomposing coffin, it matters a lot. An influx of pseudo-art could easily crowd out legitimate art and legitimate talent. And a streak of bad apples could easily undo years of rehabilitation of our cultural scene.

You make all art and the entire cultural industry look like a major hoax.

But it is not a hoax, and I refuse to believe it is a hoax. There have been great local works even in the tiny market of film that is the starting focus of this long and rambling post: I’ve watched and enjoyed a great many local films be it art films or experimental films. Not everything out there is shit, and shit shouldn’t be the default state of things.

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