When it comes to alternative art in Singapore, Vincent Leow is the one name you need to remember. A pivotal figure in the Southeast Asian contemporary art scene, Leow’s early rebellious and ironic modes of expression earned him a notorious reputation in the early 90’s when he drank his own urine during a performance at the 3rd Gwangju Biennale. He later elaborated on that gesture by packing and selling bottles of urine, an act epitomizing his tendency to elaborate subversive practices to address market consumption and contemporary society in a savvy, if controversial, way. He has exhibited in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, India, The Netherlands, France, China, Hong Kong, Australia and the U.S.A.
His latest exhibition Tags and Treats in Singapore Museum of Art marks a passage from a more violent and expressionistic tone to a more subtle, satiric one with an even greater impact. Using visual language, it builds a personal narrative for depicting global issues in a way seldom achieved by visual arts. A treat indeed!
Over the past two decades Leow has established himself as a remarkable imagist with influences ranging from popular culture, cinema, politics and mass media. His earlier paintings were often unapologetically aggressive or blatantly sexual but while pursuing his MFA in Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, in USA, he started looking closely at the booming economies while using techniques of commercial advertising in his work. Employing a range of media manifested in performance, installations, sculptures, digital and mixed-media works, Tags and Treats felt like a roller-coaster of influences and techniques all held tightly together through Leow’s high individual visual vocabulary, often described as a ‘post-modern’ visual strategy.
With his signature twisted and strange sensibility, Leow dips into kitsch and pop culture to explore issues of memory, mortality and identity. Influenced by Chinese mythology, the artist mythologizes his beloved late pet dog, Andy, transforming it into a hybrid dog/hawk-manimage bearing uncanny resemblance to himself. Andy appears in several paintings and sculptures, from a whimsical, prankish character celebrating the extraordinary in the everyday reality, to a stark embodiment of Singapore’s hybridized identity and Vincent’s own alter-ego. The artist uses the allegory of pets to explore the issue of mortality and death obsession that haunts a significant part of his works. The title Tags and Treats refers both to pet identity tags, as well as military dog tags that are often used to identify the dead or wounded in war. One section of the exhibition, called The Ballad of Andy: Remember You Will Die Homage to the Everyman, depicts various sculptures made of piles of bones, referring to the baggage death leaves behind for the living. Echoing Apollinaire’s famous statement that “One can’t carry one’s father’s corpse about everywhere,” Leow’s powerful installations create a stark and spare visual space that literally draws the viewer in to examine the physical weight of death.
In exploring the issue of collective memory, the artist undertakes the transformation of classical forms such as the head busts and plinths, turning them into heavy feet busts, elevating the status of the unsung heroes of history: the feet beneath the heads that history chooses to remember. Leow’s poignant, commemorative and melancholic tone haunts his series of Middle Eastern-inspired veiled portraits, among which is Leow’s Mona Lisa, depicted as a black outline with only her white hands visible on the canvas.
A prolific artist that never runs out of relevant things to “say”, Vincent Leow possesses the rare energy and visual literacy of a true enfant terriblé of a generation. The exhibition, with its various explorations, marks a milestone of new direction of alternative art, where a new, more subtle yet stimulating visual language is used to address reality in its most unsettling, absurd and extraordinary manifestation. A tag to be remembered.