Junk gets injected with a new life in the exhibition Wonderland. A load of rubbish – that’s what I saw when I set foot into Wheelock Gallery to view local visual artist Chua Chye Teck’s latest exhibition Wonderland.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not referring to my opinion of the show, but rather, its subject matter. For there, pinned meticulously to the wall, are 500 (5"x7")photographs of junk.
These pieces of junk are all small display objects collected by Chua from the Salvation Army, flea markets and donors. Each object was cleaned and captured against a clean turquoise background, drawing attention to its unique form, shape, texture and color. At the same time however, their sheer number threatens each to dissolve into a near-faceless crowd of images.
Ironic it may be, but it was these pieces of junk that prompted me to stand in the small gallery for a while and reflect on the notion of value.
The items photographed are ornamental objects. Not needed, they were wants or desires, pointing to different temporalities in the past where they were assigned values other than that of the use value. Embodying dreams for the future, they were purchased or made, only to be rendered into trash when the meanings imposed on them evaporate. As dreams lay broken, objects were abandoned, their lifespan superseding our intangible and sometimes, fickle emotions and whims.
Or perhaps these objects were discarded as their owners fall prey to the seduction of the relatively new. They are victims of devaluation as people invest new (and sometimes, old) meanings in the purchase of the novel and gratify themselves in a never-ending ritual of consumerist behaviors that characterize a capitalist society. To borrow a term from Chua, these items have “expired.”
Either way, the owners of these objects have moved on before them. Chua, by sourcing, collecting, cleaning and taking pictures of junk objects, has devoted a great amount of energy and time to what are deemed by most to be undeserving. Furthermore, by exhibiting his photos in a gallery, and hence, implicitly insisting that pictures of junk are worth looking at, he, like the garang guni man (local slang for a rag-picker), finds value in the devalued.
For a while – till April 20th at least – junk gets represented, endowed with a stage to be noticed (again). The exhibition Wonderland too, in my opinion, can be further interpreted with regard to Orchard Road and Scotts Square, the upcoming luxury condominium being developed by Wheelock Properties. Orchard Road, often marketed as “a shopper’s heaven,” is packed with fashion boutiques, malls and more, with the latest products flaunted and tantalizingly displayed, while Scotts Square is slated to be an up-market residential area, with each apartment being “served by a private lift and lobby.”Both are, in a way, involved in the celebration (and the promotion) of the new.
By paying attention to and exhibiting photographs of what is outmoded and unfashionable, Chua stakes out a space for the relatively old and the discarded in an area designed for the desired and the current. Conventional definitions of worth are rejected and a redemption of sorts for disposed objects gets executed. Via the photographs, awareness to the things that were given up or discarded as a society evolves is drawn and a critique of the modern can be inferred.
This is however, I think, also a critique that loses its strength in the aestheticization of rubbish. By cleaning the objects and shooting them in an appealing light, Chua has transformed them from grubby, useless pieces of junk into surreal, beautiful items to be appreciated. This, together with the title of the show, Wonderland, has redefined the identity of trash, and how it is to be viewed. Trash is no longer simply trash, but becomes an entity imbued with a sense of beauty and wonder. As a result, its position as an effective critique against the new and the contemporary is reduced, for it is ironically, precisely by being filthy and unwanted that it is at its most potent.
I slipped out of the gallery’s glass doors, still lost in the reflections of value the exhibition has provoked. The allure of Wonderland, to me, lies in its ability to encourage viewers to see rubbish – a ubiquitous everyday entity that we usually do not pay much interest to – in a renewed light. For now at least, I’m stuck with haunting images in my head, uneasy thoughts about worth, and a promise to murmur a guilty apology the next time I cast an object into the rubbish bin.
Ng Hui Hsien