Silent Treatment is a new ongoing series of conceptual canvas-based works in which I cut up blank canvases to construct DIY face masks. It draws on the history of all-white monochromatic canvases in art. Where white was often chosen by minimalist artists for its universality, objectivity and lack of signification or reference to the real world beyond the canvas, white has become a colour with various associations during the pandemic. It evokes by turns the sterility of a hospital waiting room, or the colour of lab coats and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). White also speaks to invisibility and human limitation, of our inability to perceive the virus in the air or on surfaces. A blank canvas in this context is not an empty placeholder, but another potential site of transmission. White is the disguise of the enemy.
Many sectors of human society, from politics to religion, were caught off-guard in their response to the pandemic. Artists were likewise plunged into an existential bout, with art institutions shuttered and many left questioning the purpose of their craft in a global health crisis.
In this context, the works are a tongue-in-cheek response to the question of the utility of art practice within a public health emergency and a reworking of minimalist art practices such as Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases and Robert Ryman’s all-white paintings. As an art historical corrective to these insular modernist practices, they suggest that art in times of crisis can no longer afford to refer solely to itself but must instead contribute to society directly, perhaps even at its own material expense. The title of the series thus emphasizes the existential helplessness that many artists feel at their inability to make a material difference at this time, and suggests the strains that social distancing and isolation measures can place on our intimate connections with loved ones. Silence has also been directly invoked as a preventative measure to contain the spread of the virus, with public health announcements urging commuters to avoid speaking loudly while on public transportation.
For this online iteration, I have documented the artworks at a HDB void deck, the white cube of the people.
1: Silent Treatment (Suprematist(cist?) Composition: White on White). The composition of this canvas takes after Kazimir Malevich’s 1918 painting Suprematist Composition: White on White but cuts into the tilted white square of the original, revealing the white of the wall on which the canvas rests. The subtitle “White on White” thus no longer describes an experiment in perception and abstraction but serves as a manifesto declaring the inextricability of the white canvas art object from its white backdrop and by extension the world in which the object exists. The opening also draws attention to the wooden support of the frame, foregrounding an essential component of the canvas which usually passes hidden and unnoticed.
2: Silent Treatment (Lone Ranger; Equestrian Dismount; Karang guni Man; Line Dancer). The Lone Ranger is an iconic character of American Westerns—a masked crusader who rounds up outlaws on his white stallion. I was also thinking more generally of the cowboy archetype, an enigmatic figure with a mysterious past who rides into sleepy towns to save the day, then rides off into the setting sun. There is also a rich tradition of equestrian portraits as status symbols for the wealthy throughout the Western world. I found a local equivalent in the Karang guni man, wheeling his trusty cart from one neighbourhood to the next, hauling away the unwanted to be swapped for cash. The solitary figure and his silent companion correspond to each of the two canvases. I also thought the silhouettes made by the cutouts further complemented the titles. Later on, I decided to display the items used to make the work alongside the canvases because tools are important to the characters I am conjuring. I also added the raffia string as a lasso and appended “Line Dancer” to the title in reference to the syncretic dance form popular amongst heartland uncles and aunties which combines country-western dance steps with local sensibilities and musical tastes.
In a way, the pandemic has upset the hegemony of East-West power relations and allowed us to reconsider myths of Western heroism anew. While the pandemic has seen a rise in protectionism and nationalist rhetoric (a “lone ranger” mentality), there are also glimmers of hope for cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration.
As I was artfully arranging and laying out my barang-barang for the shot above, an uncle showed up and interrupted me to retrieve various items from the corner: a foldable wooden table, a large parasol, several plastic chairs. He later set these up by the side of the road (you can see him just at the edge of my frame). Speaking to him after, I found out that he runs a makeshift drive-by newspaper stand which he operates from around 3pm every day until he sells out. Cars would stop by his stand, passengers unwind their windows and buy newspapers from him that way. It was a nice surprise to see that some practices still find a way of carrying on.