They Do Not Understand Each Other: Investigating The Relationships Between Culture, Language, And Art

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Lifespan, 2014, performance (Hadean period rock sample, 3 vocalists), 15 minutes approx. Collection of the National Museum of Art, Osaka. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
Installation view of “They Do Not Understand Each Other,” Tai Kwun Contemporary, 25 May – 13 Sep 2020. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards, 2001, single-channel video, 13 minutes. Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ming Wong, In Love for the Mood, 2009, 3-channel HD video, 4 minutes. Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Incorporating pieces and commissions from the National Museum of Art, Osaka and Singapore Art Museum, this group show invites us to examine the connections and rifts between ourselves—and within our understanding of art itself.

TEXT: Leanne Mirandilla
IMAGES: Courtesy of Tai Kwun

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Lifespan, 2014, performance (Hadean period rock sample, 3 vocalists), 15 minutes approx. Collection of the National Museum of Art, Osaka. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.

 

Onscreen, two men discuss having to work together to accomplish a particular task. Each of them speak in their native tongue—Japanese and Korean—with neither understanding the other. The video features subtitles in English alongside a transcription in the speaker’s original language, granting viewers insight that the subjects lack. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” one of them comments eventually. “Completely, you know?” In spite of their lack of common tongue, however, they continue attempting to speak to one another, and at times their conversation even coincidentally matches up. “You’re OK? Are you good?” “Go, let’s go now.” The video is horizontally bisected in two, further accentuating the rift between them. They finally complete what they had set out to do, and the viewer is treated to a face-to-face shot of one man climbing onto the shoulders of the other to hammer a tall post bearing a QR code into the ground, both laughing at the absurdity of the situation. The QR code, in turn, reveals their location on one of the Tsushima islands that sits halfway between Japan and Korea; both nations have historically asserted and disputed ownership of it.

This is They Do Not Understand Each Other (2014) by Japanese contemporary artist Tsubasa Kato, a video and lambda print that greets you as soon as you enter the exhibition of the same name at JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun. A collaboration between the National Museum of Art, Osaka and Singapore Art Museum and co-curated by Yuka Uematsu and June Yap, the exhibition is an ambitious one. It juxtaposes 22 artworks by 18 artists hailing from nine different countries, mostly within Asia. The works span three floors of the gallery and include installations, sculptures, videos, performance art, paintings and photographs. There are also works in a variety of other mediums such as batik on cloth and bubble wrap filled with paint.

 

Installation view of “They Do Not Understand Each Other,” Tai Kwun Contemporary, 25 May – 13 Sep 2020. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.

 

Many of the works are highly specific to different cultures, or even to select communities within those cultures. Five video installations created in 2012 by Korean artist Sojung Jun takes a close look at five different people and their niche occupations: a machine embroidery designer, a tightrope walker, a typesetter, a sign painter, and a puppeteer. Upon witnessing the documentations of their lives placed next to each other in the gallery, it’s difficult to imagine how these individuals—each wrapped up in their own unique world—could possibly find any common ground if they ever encountered one other. Certain occupations have since become obsolete, too: the sign painter is the last of his ilk, while the typesetter’s skills have been outpaced by modern printing technologies. This leads the viewer to additionally interrogate the relationships between different generations.

Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards (2001) by Japanese-Vietnamese artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, on the other hand, references two aspects of Vietnamese culture: the cyclo bicycle taxi and fishing. A group of fishermen drag several cyclos along a seabed underwater in a video lacking any spoken dialogue or direction; the fishermen themselves are unable to speak with or coordinate with each other due to being submerged in the water. Meanwhile, Haliya Bathing (1983) by Filipino artist Agnes Arellano depicts the Philippine moon goddess from Bicol mythology, and Srie Bun II (2016) by Cambodian Than Sok features robes worn by monks that symbolise their devotion to enlightenment.

 

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards, 2001, single-channel video, 13 minutes. Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

While these aforementioned works involve a range of communities or consider specific cultural details, other pieces more directly address the broader role that communication plays in our lives. Yet again referencing the importance of language is In Love for the Mood (2009) by Singaporean artist Ming Wong, in which a Caucasian actress re-enacts a scene from the famous Hong Kong film In the Mood for Love directed by Wong Kar-wai. She repeats and gradually learns the lines in Cantonese, a language she does not speak. The video is displayed across three separate screens featuring English, Chinese and Italian subtitles respectively. Conversely, Singaporean artist Chua Chye Teck plays with visual language in his piece Wonderland (2007), which comprises 500 photos of kitschy ornaments. Rather than being treated as cheap, useless objects, the items are placed in the context of a retail or museum display—a framing that grants them unexpected gravitas. In Singaporean artist Heman Chong’s A Short, Performing, Story (2018), the viewer is only able to experience the piece through their own use of language, as the performance requires the viewer to read and memorise a 500-word story written by the artist under the guidance of an instructor. Hidden within a closed room, the work is otherwise inaccessible to those unwilling to read it.

 

Ming Wong, In Love for the Mood, 2009, 3-channel HD video, 4 minutes. Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

“They Do Not Understand Each Other” prompts us to interrogate whether it’s truly possible to understand one another across cultures, languages, and differing perceptions. Indeed, the exhibition’s title applies to the relationship between gallery viewer and artist as much as it does to that of the participating artists themselves. It invites us to contemplate the limitations of our own understanding when it comes to appreciating artworks. In a sense, the exhibition presents an answer to its own questions: it is not, in fact, possible for us to attain true understanding. But—just like the subjects in Kato’s work, who manage to achieve their objective in spite of their lack of common language—perhaps complete understanding isn’t necessary, and perhaps learning is simply part of the experience of viewing art.

 

 

They Do Not Understand Each Other
25 May — 13 September, 2020
JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun

 

 

 
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