Critical Playbook #2 [The Observatory: REFUSE @ SAM]
Visiting ‘The Observatory: REFUSE’ was another rare experience of entering an exhibition with almost zero knowledge of its content and what to expect. Right before going in, I had only remembered that The Observatory is a local experimental music group. I did pick up the 1-page information slip but it was in Malay so I couldn’t really grasp all the concepts that the exhibition had to offer and instead had to rely on my own interpretation of the features. Yet, even without the full awareness of its content, the exhibition captivated me as I explored it during the first self-guided tour.
There were definitely many audio-visual elements in this exhibition that would have enticed me to spend a long time in the space, regardless of whether I needed to be there for academic purposes. As I stepped in, the fragrance of wood was almost overwhelming and I felt like I was back in the days of set-creation for theatre when I had to source for wall panels and wood scraps for props. This evocation switched the type of institutional frame I had, from the ‘Displayer-of-artefacts’ frame to the ‘Learning’ frame. Honestly, I had the initial frame because I took on the mindset of looking for specific components in the exhibition to aid me in writing the critical playbook, but then the scent made me genuinely curious of what the space had in store for me.
Aside from my sense of smell being set off, I was also mystified by the humongous stacks of timber and the fact that I was suddenly surrounded by fungi. The light design also added to the allure as my attention was quickly caught by the projection of the P. Ramlee movie presented at the back. Back in Week 5, I was a bit confused by how an exhibition could have ‘magnetic energy’ as many of the prior exhibitions I had visited only had static presentations of their art pieces (e.g. Paintings displayed on the wall under simple lighting). But ‘The Observatory: REFUSE’ was a great example of how an exhibition can incorporate ‘wow’ factors to pull in their audiences. I also believe that this energy could easily be amplified in connection to audiences who are adventurous and experimental at heart, as evident by their willingness to venture down to the secluded areas of Tanjong Pagar for art, and therefore seek out experiences out of the norm.
Personally, I didn’t feel a ‘positive’ resonance in the sense of happiness. With the atmosphere being very somber and chilling, I felt very exposed (but in a good way) as if the exhibition itself was criticizing me. However, this feeling carried on my wish to comprehend what was being presented to me.
However, my attempts to fathom all the information there fell short and I believe that it was partly due to my ignorance in all things fungi and music. Even after spending a good fifteen to twenty minutes walking around, I had difficulty linking all the components together, aside from the fact that they all involved mushrooms and sounds. The curators definitely put in a lot of effort to tie everything together, with signs highlighting attempts at selective channeling, such as where there were seats with auditory machines hanging above them to isolate the listener. However, I was frustrated at times that there weren’t any blurbs to read. It then dawned on me that the lack of direction meant that each visitor would be forced to make their own unique style of navigation that would allow them to forage for new meanings. Furthermore, having artwork labels and descriptions would require appropriate lighting for readings which might diminish the impact of the planned lighting design.
The only portion of the exhibition that was clear to me was the backend where they had the wood displays engraved with The Observatory’s information, such as their discographies and members’ biographies, presented thematically as fungi. Admittedly, I felt quite disappointed that I lacked the ability to leverage on the perceptual resonance of the exhibition because I knew that some of my other classmates were able to come up with well-thought out expositions of the assemblages. Overall, in spite of the many synchronized cues and elements among the assemblages, the channeling came off to me as fragmented since they couldn’t come together coherently, yet I was sure there was some sort of complex message behind it all. But everything became clear during the tour kindly given by Chee Wai (Member of The Observatory).
The tour shed plenty of light on the BTS of ‘The Observatory: REFUSE’. Learning about the three different definitions of ‘Refuse’ tied to the exhibition was mind-blowing to me, even though I was aware of the many meanings the word possessed. It was ingenious how well the term incorporated the production processes:
- Oppose → In how The Observatory opposed the Singapore Art Museum’s desire to have new compositions and other ideas.
- Rubbish → Matter, once considered as rubbish, such as the fungi and timber, were given new lives in this exhibition.
- Re-Fuse → Musical instruments and fungi were fused together to act as innovations and hold new meanings.
I was also fascinated by how well Science and Art collaborated in this exhibition, from the use of mycelium to create instruments and speakers to allowing the mold samples to perform as DJs behind the main soundtrack of the exhibition. As an audience member, I had always attended art events with the belief that the curators were all-knowing. It was refreshing to be reminded that even during the brain-storming and production processes, they still get opportunities to learn and hone their crafts, especially across different fields. One example that stood out to me was when Bewilder (mycology designer) worked together with The Observatory to create the first-ever mycelium guitar, thus showcasing the product of applying different skillsets and being given the opportunity for freedom in creative expression.
Speaking of creative expression, I was also impressed that The Observatory gave so much freedom to their partners, such as for the choice in the visual footage whereby the guest curator’s past footages was superimposed on a P. Ramlee movie for one of the exhibition’s main components, thus linking back again to the concept of recycling generated from the word ‘REFUSE’. Additionally, it was apparent that clear communications followed prior, as the partners were able to bring their designs to life that had strong thematic and ideological ties to The Observatory’s vision, from the selective choice of the moldy P. Ramlee movie to the structure in the middle that was specifically architected to act as a medium for the Earth’s vibrations that one would feel if they were a mushroom in the middle of a forest.
In reference to partners, this would also include the fungi (considering that they are living beings) whose growth throughout the exhibition allowed for audiences to have further unique experiences, depending on the date of their attendance. With Chee Wai stating that he perceived the fungi as active collaborators, I experienced conceptual broadening as my definition of what constitutes as a team expanded outside of human elements. An effective production should mean not only considering the nature that every component possesses, but also to allow the component the opportunity to influence the exhibition, in a two-way street of progress which would allow hidden potential to be uncovered.
An example to illustrate further the ways whereby the fungi was an active collaborator was in how the projection of the superimposed footages was shone onto the mushrooms in the biodome at the other side of the exhibition. If I recall the explanation properly, the mushrooms’ reaction to the light controlled the soundtracks, thus acting almost like DJs.
Though allowing the fungi to be an active collaborator came with a lot of challenges, due to the strict rules that SAM had towards the exhibitions it hosts. The two compromises that stood out to me was The Observatory observing SAM’s wishes to have the fungi contained, so that the spores wouldn’t be released into the open air even though we already breathe in spores regularly regardless of whether the fungi is in our vicinity or not, and to fumigate the wood panels in spite of the band’s desire to not kill the wood. Even though not following these compromises might not have had any dire health consequences, the band’s patience and willingness to find the middle ground really highlights how the role of an artist requires the ability to cut through red tape to maintain formal relationships.
Ultimately, ‘The Observatory: REFUSE’ is a passionate assemblage that reflects the spirit of the band and fulfils the four core characteristics of what should be defined as a work of art. The main characteristic that stood out overall is how much symbolic meaning and cultural value the exhibition produced due to the care and thought put into the production choices, such as the Reishi mushrooms reflecting the strength that the band had when overcoming adversities. I hope to visit similar exhibitions in the future that will continue to broaden my mind.