Warning: Art contains nudity
The Straits Times
12 June 2012
While parents welcome museum advisories, some ask if museum is playing it too safe
Regular museumgoer Justin Foo was surprised when he found himself running into more than 10 warning statements for works of art at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) during a recent visit.
Of the 130 works of art recently exhibited, 12 of them carry advisories issued by the museum on content that is considered mature or graphic, or contains scenes of nudity or violence.
These mentions appear as standalone signs at entrances to galleries exhibiting these works or as remarks at the end of wall labels for the works.
The advisories have caught the public's attention and drawn mixed views on whether they are necessary.
Mr Foo, 20, a national serviceman, was befuddled, for one, by the warning for the mixed media installation Cloud Nine by Sakarin Krue-On. He felt the work, which includes a video showing pups sucking on their mother's teats was not graphic and the advisory uncalled for.
Similarly, Mr Howard Rutkowski, 56, founder of curatorial and art advisory firm Fortune Cookie Projects, said the warning of 'scenes of violence or graphic content' for Chinese artist Zhou Xiaohu's work is 'unnecessary'.
Zhou's installation, Crowd Of Bystanders, depicts vignettes of news in the media such as police busting an illegal prostitution ring using videos of animated clay figurines and clay sculptures.
Mr Rutkowski said: 'You see the warning on the wall text and you think something terrible is coming up but his work is pretty low-key compared to the stuff people see in their living rooms on TV.'
Filipino artist Agnes Arellano, 63, is amused that her sculpture Haliya Bathing, which shows a naked pregnant woman, has a warning for 'scenes of nudity or sexual content'.
She said: 'I find the disclaimer funny and unnecessary because nudity is normal inside museums where you have works such as classic Greek sculptures of nudes.'
Some people would ask if the museum is playing it too safe and trying to pre-empt any complaints by putting up advisories for artworks that could have a remote chance of offending or upsetting viewers.
Art consultant and art lawyer Lindy Poh, 42, said she has noticed more organisers and venues for art shows putting up such warnings. She believes it is a move to counteract viewers who, offended by the nature of some exhibits, go online to post inflammatory comments.
She added: 'An advisory shifts some of that responsibility of viewing content to parents or guardians of young children and visitors, who cannot then say they were not cautioned.'
She said the challenge for museums lies in deciding how many such advisories should be issued and ensuring that they are meaningful and not out of touch with the ground.
But parents whom Life! interviewed, however, said the signs help them decide which galleries they can enter with their young children.
Visitors such as civil servant T.L. Lim, 30, appreciated the signs because they allowed works with possibly controversial content to be exhibited without offending people's sensibilities.
Other works with advisories at SAM include the video installations by artist Tracy Moffatt, which are considered to have 'graphic content and scenes of nudity or violence'. Her works are montages of video clips from different movie genres and some of the works exhibited show scenes of buildings being blown up and fleeting moments of naked couples sharing intimate moments.
There are also advisories at the museum that warn visitors about the health and safety concerns of works such as the installation Journey Of A Yellow Man No. 6: History And Self by Lee Wen, which uses spices that some viewers may be allergic to, and the video installation Hamletmachine by Nalini Malani, which uses strobe lighting and may affect guests with epilepsy.
Asked about the advisories, SAM director Tan Boon Hui, 43, said the museum caters to visitors of varying ages and walks of life and it is important that it finds ways to make these different visitors 'feel welcomed and have a meaningful encounter with art'.
He said: 'Advisories serve to inform members of the public on content so they can make an informed decision on whether to view the work or not, while keeping the artwork accessible.'
A spokesman for the National Heritage Board, which manages five museums here including SAM, said the use of advisories applies to all exhibitions in its museums, regardless of style or era.
For example, recent exhibitions featuring pioneer Singapore artists Cheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang at SAM had advisories at gallery entrances informing viewers of scenes of nudity.
Both artists had works depicting women from South-east Asian countrysides dressed in their usual style - topless and wearing sarongs.
The board's spokesman said its curators and museum directors assess artefacts and artworks put on show and they decide on the appropriate advisory for works that may be potentially contentious.
Artists whose works carry such warnings at SAM empathise with the museum's decision but they would rather not have their works labelled this way.
One such artist is Indonesian Entang Wiharso, 44, whose installation Temple Of Hope: Forest Of Eyes has an advisory for 'mature' content. The work is shaped like a hut with images such as entwined human bodies and bewitched figures cut out from its metal walls.
Entang said: 'I am pleased that the museum has chosen to collect and exhibit my work and it takes the risk to present ideas and experiences that may challenge viewers' expectations.
'I would, however, prefer the work to stand alone without a warning. My goal with this installation, in fact, is to promote tolerance. I wanted to create a contemporary temple that allows us to think about diversity, rather than seeing the world through a narrow mindset.'
Chinese artist Zhou, 52, said his installation, Crowd Of Bystanders, has been shown in four museums, including the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and the National Art Museum of China in 2009, without an advisory. He said SAM's advisory could stifle viewers' imaginations.
Echoing this sentiment, Singaporean artist Lee Wen, 55, whose recent exhibition at SAM had advisories on nudity, said: 'It is not nudity that I am talking about in my work but the sign may change the way people perceive it.'
He wears nothing except a pair of briefs and a coat of yellow paint over his body in his performance art series, Journey Of A Yellow Man, which was documented at the art museum show.
Customer service executive Christine Wong, 34, who recently visited SAM with her six-year-old daughter, though, found the warnings helpful.
She said: 'They prepare me for what to expect and if I don't think the content is suitable for my child, we can skip it.'
Similarly, Singaporean artist Sookoon Ang, 35, does not mind the advisories.
She said art-lovers should be able to look beyond the warnings and discern the meaningful and important issues that the works address.
Ms Tan Yen Peng, 41, a Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts lecturer in art history and studio consultation, suggested refining the practice of placing advisories in museums to displaying just a sign with the simple message 'Parental guidance required' at the entrance to an exhibition.
She said: 'Having words in the advisory that specify the types of obscenity could be disastrous as it may interfere or disrupt the audiences' natural response to the artworks.'