Yayoi Kusama and The (Irritating?) Interactors

The first time I heard of her was when my prof in university showed me her work as a reference a couple years ago. Still a vague-sounding Japanese artist to a noob student like me then, she became more and more well-known in Singapore, with her work printed on Louis Vuitton bags and now, the ultimate mass publicity of all, the exhibition Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Life is a Heart of The Rainbow’ in the National Gallery. This is perhaps the most popular exhibition I have visited so far… in terms of the most number of visitors, most photographed, and most hashtagged. When I went there on a weekday afternoon after work, the queue at the ticketing office was longer than usual, and the staff admitted they had been busy for ‘the past few months’.

The walkway from the MRT station that leads to the National Gallery – conspicuously Kusama.

Polka dot… and mirror. Two of the most important elements in Kusama’s work

I am not going to describe so much about her work to avoid spoiling the experience of those who have yet to visit. So I will just share some snippets of my experience in the exhibition in relation to the fellow visitors:

The first hall contains paintings from her formative years of pattern exploration. I leaned forward as I was wondering how she executed such perfect brushstrokes and shapes, examining the little details and imagining the possible methods… when I saw a lady touching another painting next to me with her index finger.

I felt irritated instantly. What is she doing and why?? I mean, even if you don’t know basic museum etiquette, shouldn’t you stay away from touching something that is barricaded for a reason? Since she stopped doing that immediately, I just rolled my eyes and walked away. Even if you feel that your fingers are clean and you only touch gently, or if the tactile quality of the artwork make your hands itch), just don’t touch anything (unless you are specifically invited to do so). It may not even be only about artwork per se, but also things in general. If something does not belong to you, what gives you the right to disturb it? Our fingers have a thin layer of oil that may accelerate the degeneration of the paint. Or for whatever reason. Just keep your hands to yourself.

One of her ‘Infinity Nets’ large-scale paintings

The closer look at the painting

Then I arrived at the first installation, which is a yellow room of black polka dots with a mirror box in the middle called ‘The Spirits of The Pumpkins Descended into The Heavens’. I managed to enter the room after 20 minutes of queuing, and I waited again for my turn to take a peek into the peephole on the mirror box that was put in the middle of the room. There were a mom with her two small kids waiting behind me, and the kids were left wandering inside the room. Of course the kids were curious of what was inside the box and started to attempt to climb the steps that led to the peephole, slightly obstructing the people who were having their turn. What made me roll my eyes was the fact that the mom did not do anything to stop her children… So she just let the situation run its course, as if it was cool if her kids cut someone else’s turn. Erm… ok.

Waiting to enter the polka dot room

The next hall houses the famous light room ‘Infinity Mirrored Room – Gleaming Lights of The Souls’. Similar with the previous installation, I was queueing for about 20 minutes to enter this room. I did not know what to expect of what to see inside, so I just made a mental note to myself not to ‘touch the lights’ or ‘get off the platform’ according to what the signs said.

Suddenly something happened. Around 5 minutes before my turn to go in, someone shrieked from inside. The visitors froze for a while. What happened inside? Should we be worried? The museum staff went into the room to attend to the matter. Did they knock on something? Did they step out of the platform? I wondered. Is something broken? Are they going to close down the installation? (just before I can go in!) But people in front of me continued to talk again, as if nothing had happened. No announcement. Nothing. The queue moved forward again, so I concluded nothing serious had happened. And indeed it was the case, as my turn to go in finally arrived.

The museum sitter ushered me in and told me that I only had 20 seconds inside… I suddenly felt a jolt of panic. I quickly prepared the camera function on my phone, trying to capture the scene quickly and to have enough time to enjoy it with my own eyes without the camera. And then they knocked the door three times. The time was up. The description in the brochure that says it ‘invite(s) contemplation in an infinitely repeating, expanded space’ is questionable. There was just no time to contemplate.

My effort in taking a picture in the light room

When I moved to the next hall, a child (who happened to be in the same group of the lady who touched the painting) brought in an opened packet of biscuits into the gallery. The museum staff happened to see it and and politely told the kid to finish it before he could go in to see the exhibition. To be frank all the museum staff that I met that day were friendly and helpful, despite some difficult visitors that I described.

The next hall has a lot of big paintings. And when you have a lot of big paintings, people tend to make it a background to their picture, because they are big, and they look really good (to be fair the exhibition so far had been Instagram-worthy). However, many were just taking too long, snapping many poses at different angles. I mean I am not trying to be this puritan art critique who feels artwork has to be enjoyed in its purest way: looking at a painting, thinking of what could possibly be the meaning while stroking our chin. By all means, take picture for documentation, take picture to maintain your persona on your Instagram account (the museum even provides a hashtag #sgloveskusama for social media purposes), but think of others who want to enjoy the exhibition as well. Perhaps you can step aside and check the string of photos you have just taken. Let other people approach the artwork before you resume the pursuit of taking the perfect photograph.

Having said that, I too decided to take a selfie in front of the painting in an attempt to recreate the publicity poster (see below). Due to the lack of red wig and sharp glare, the attempt failed ;p

Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Life is The Heart of A Rainbow’

The publicity poster

Despite all what I wrote above, the exhibition was a good one 🙂

Yayoi Kusama ‘Lide is The Heart of A Rainbow’ opens at the National Gallery from 9 Jun to 3 Sep 2017

Check out their website for admission matters.

Campus Concert and Some Old Memories

By Christy Kabul, reporting from Singapore

Last Thursday, my sister was in town, and her biggest reason: to binge on the concerts that she could lay her existence on. She had told me that she wanted to attend all the 3 concerts by Singapore Symphony Orchestra on the weekend, but on our way to the first concert at Victoria Junior College, she found out, to her slight disappointment, that the three concerts were going to feature the same song line-up. We started wondering if it could have been better if she had chosen another concert day with a location which would be closer to where we stayed, but since we were already on our way, we continued our journey to VJC anyway. I wondered why this particular school had been chosen as one of the venues other than the fact that it shared the same name with another concert venue – Victoria Concert Hall 😛 (a few days later, I asked a friend who is seasoned in the band world, and he told me that the school might have written in to SSO about its interest to host.)

This was my first visit since the last visit to the campus more than 10 years ago for the school open house (I am not an alumnus), and I could vaguely remember how it was like. After we alighted from the bus and followed the trail of some VJC students, we stepped in the school compound and were greeted by a pavement painted with (I would guess) the school anthem lyric that you could read line by line as you were walking in. This is a great display idea, I thought. Imagine students, worn out from long hours of night study, dragging their feet in and being reminded again of the spirit of the school.

JC kids were still hanging out at the canteen studying for the looming exams, or just lounging around, waiting for the concert. A couple of neck tie-donning JC students served as ushers, showing us the way to the auditorium. I remember that I, too, did that once when I was their age. A time when it was not that weird for a female to wear a tie :p

 In my younger days, when the baby fat was more abound and I served as an usher for a school event.

After buying a few CDs on sale outside, we joined the rest of the audience to stream into the audi. My sister gushes about how a school auditorium could be so sophisticated and nice. True, I thought, it is nicer and more well-kept even than some national concert halls in Jakarta.

As we were looking ideal seats, the emcee on stage had already started with the introduction of the musical pieces that were going to be presented. There was no program booklet, which is to me a very good idea to save resources (if you are interested to find out more about the program, you can check it out in their website somewhere). So if you are early for the concert, you just listen and you stand a chance winning something from the trivia quiz later on. The crowd, which consisted of the students, members of the public and little kids, was quite game for the quiz. It soon became clear, the educational undertone that the whole program was framed in. Instead of hoping the public to go to classical concerts, they bring music to them, and try to groom the love for it since they are young.

Casually dressed in black shirt, jogger pants and sneakers, Conductor Jason Lai, took over the stage, effortlessly making jokes and givinv the introduction to every song. With a fluent speech like that (a cool accent is a plus!), he could easily become a radio DJ and a TV presenter (which is true, he is involved in a BBC travel programme). I always admire a conductor who can engage with the audience very well.

Spotted in the make-up of the band were a sizeable number of foreign musicians (China and some European countries?). I guess this makes sense. Their presence is needed to boost the cultural and artistic scene in Singapore which is relatively still young and developing.

The names of the pieces were not familiar to a musically average person like me (I only knew the composer Brahms, and had heard about Cinema Paradiso from one of Josh Groban’s songs), but upon hearing them being played, I went ‘oooh’. The first two classical pieces can be considered pop icons, being frequently adopted into movie soundtracks (I think I heard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” as an opening to a cartoon film before). The next two items are original pieces from movies (West Side Story and Cinema Paradiso). Each item was perhaps played for 5-10 minutes, making it very enjoyable and accessible for the public who might be very new to the world of symphony music. (As a comparison, I once attended a more hard core classical concert in which one song lasted for 45 minutes).

The list of songs for the night. 

Then there was a special section when the conductor invited two volunteers to come to the front to try their hands on conducting. To my sister’s slight disappointment (as she also wanted to be picked), two teenagers were chosen. They were taught how to start and end an orchestra (not as easy as it looks!), and how to maintain a tempo, using a very suitable and fun song Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance”. It turned out that one boy was totally new to conducting, which made it funny when he (deliberately?) slowed down the whole professional orchestra at his command. The other one was perhaps a student conductor from VJC band as he was more at ease with the movement (and the fact that many were cheering for him). It was quite fun and I was glad that we came to this particular concert.

One more cool thing about this campus concert was I got a chance to take photos with some SSO personnel, and had a chat with Jason Lai, who quickly inquired about martabak upon discovering the fact that we came from Jakarta. It almost felt surreal, meeting people that you usually see on social media, and now they were in front of you, talking to you as if it was a normal thing to do.

With Jason Lai and his thumb-up 🙂

 Talking like an excited little chipmunk

With Ng Pei-Sian – one of the famous cellist twins

Then it was time to say good bye. We walked out of the school passing the same lyric pavement, now unreadable, obscured by the dark surrounding like how the black-clad figures started to disappear from the area together with their instruments and magic. This had been fun, as I thought of the night’s concert and the old memories that visited me again as a result.

 All in black – with my school percussionist gang backstage, circa 2006