Karin G. Oen (NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore) on Naeem Mohaiemen's Two Meetings and a Funeral

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Close Looking
Issue: On Historicity

Filed under: film
Established in 1961 against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Non-Aligned Movement is a coalition of countries that advocates for peace, multilateral cooperation and mutual respect. Drawing its exhibition title from this international political forum, Non-Aligned is the latest exhibition at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. By way of introduction to the exhibition, Karin G. Oen takes us through a work by Naeem Mohaiemen. Titled Two Meetings and a Funeral, the work examines two global behemoths: the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Karin G. Oen is Deputy Director, Curatorial Programmes, at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. She received her PhD in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture from MIT. A global modernist, she has recently focused on curatorial projects that explore transmediatic, transcultural, and transhistorical discourse. Oen is the curator of the forthcoming exhibition, teamLab: Continuity, at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, where she was a curator from 2015-2019.

¹ Two Meetings and a Funeral, Naeem Mohaiemen

Credit: The Artist and Experimenter, Kolkata


Dr Karin Oen (KO): Even though we couldn't have predicted the pandemic or that the majority of the world would be sheltering in place for large amounts of time this year, we were already thinking about our relationship to screens. In particular, we were thinking about formats — the cinematic versus video formats that are more portable. It was very important to us that the three different works in this exhibition be installed in a way that was particular to the work and to the specifications of the artists, but that was also something that was not akin to a home experience or the experience video streaming on a small screen, be it a laptop, a phone or a tablet. The idea was that each installation would have its own specific gravity and would have its own relationship to architecture. That’s really where we started thinking about the relationship between the moving image. With respect to Naeem Mohaiemen‘s work, Two Meetings and a Funeral, and John Akomfrah’s work, The Unfinished Conversation, we wanted to examine what the difference would be in experiencing a multichannel work versus a simple channel work.

Here, maybe it would make sense to talk a little bit about the work Two Meetings and a Funeral and its placement in the exhibition. The public will enter NTU CCA’s foyer and spend some time there getting oriented to the show and the other things that are happening at the centre. As they enter the main exhibition hall, this is the first work that people encounter and the entrance into the exhibition space is quite a stark contrast from the foyer space. The lights are very turned down very low. The space itself is usually quite large, but in this case it has been slightly modified to be as large as the video installation is. The idea is that it's been made to measure and with the exact size of the projections as the artists intended. There is a sort of sonic modulation that happens. An exhibition hall like ours is often considered large, and it can be quite echoey. In this case, the transformation of that space into a more insulated or cocoon-like one was intentional. This was both for the optimal experience of the sound, which is an important quality in the work, but there is also a physical modulation that happens when you apply soft surfaces such as carpets or sound panels so that the exhibition space feels quite different. It doesn't feel exactly like a cinema hall, but it doesn't feel exactly like you would expect perhaps a gallery or museum gallery to feel either. It is its own space.

We wanted to set the stage by placing Two Meetings and a Funeral, a durational work, front and center of the exhibition and as one of the first things that the public would encounter. Each of these works requires audiences to dig in, almost becoming part of the world as depicted. It’s not just about the physical installation, the images, the way they're composed or juxtaposed against one another. Quite a lot of research has gone into all of the three works on display, and so the format of being guided through these different times in history and these different places in the world by figures, who end up being sort of our narrators or our guides, becomes significant. Encountering Two Meetings and a Funeral opens viewers up to all of that history and archival work. While this is an art piece, it's very much informed by a specific kind of research and history. The work approaches research, not just from the point of view of historical documents or objectivity, but with the idea that these are histories that are still being written. These are spaces and places that can be revisited and be inhabited.

When we consume media through streaming platforms, it puts a lot of agency in the hands of the viewers. Of course there are certain limitations in terms of technology or equipment when it comes to sound or video projection, but one can start, pause and stop the video whenever they’d like to. Experiencing the installation in the exhibition hall, the public does not have that same level of control. As the work is played on a loop means, audiences might not necessarily enter the space and watch the installation from the beginning. Within this space, it’s not necessarily about understanding things as a linear progression. The work provides an interesting way for audiences to think about time and how time unfolds. As they get drawn into these stories, it can become helpful to not have full control over it. You can't just pause it as and when it's convenient for you. You actually have to commit to being part of it.
² Two Meetings and a Funeral, Naeem Mohaiemen

Credit: The Artist and Experimenter, Kolkata

³ Two Meetings and a Funeral, Naeem Mohaiemen

Credit: The artist and Experimenter, Kolkata


Dr Karin Oen (KO): Something that’s important to understand, not just about this exhibition, but also how in relation to how NTU CCA works as an institution, is that we have quite a profound relationship to history. This is particularly so with regard to histories that have been swept under the carpet or have been under studied. Even though we are a centre for contemporary art, we see the contemporary as existing within a historical continuum. The question that comes up is then is: what is the present moment? There are so many historical factors that go into defining the present moment.

In this case, the appeal of showing three different works in this exhibition that rely so heavily on archives and archival material is that these works examine the space between history and memory or oral history. These are spaces that have not been fully defined by an academic pursuit of history or political science. These works are interested in lived memories — the things that we experience in our material reality. Some might not be familiar with the meetings portrayed in Naeem Mohaiemen‘s Two Meetings and a Funeral. They might not be familiar with the 1955 Bandung Conference or the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Yet what Mohaiemen‘s work does is that it starts to fill in information. For most people that I've spoken to, they’ve say that this process has clarified certain things, particularly in terms of understanding that there was a very purposeful alignment against both a capitalist infrastructure and an overtly socialist or communist infrastructure. Independence was very much entwined with the idea of the building of international coalitions. All of this comes back to re-empowering the public or concerned individuals in terms of understanding how these different aspects of history have facilitated our current world order and the way things are today.

By placing these three works together for the exhibition, we wanted to examine how present the archive is today. History plays a very immediate role in all our our lives, both on a personal and collective level. All three works see their respective artists take on archival or research roles, and they each take a very different trajectory, but they're all informed by a personal and heartfelt interest in unearthing history in a slightly different way. These works examine how the documents that are available to us might tell stories that have not been very well told or haven't been fully explored. Although the idea of storytelling is extremely present in all three works, there isn’t a clear narrative arc that can be traced with any of the three works. There are just multiple storylines and multiple characters. These three pieces ask what's missing or what's inaccessible when we consider the stories that we’ve been told or are trying to tell.
I also wanted to discuss the title of the exhibition, Non-Aligned. When we brought these three works together with this exhibition title, the assumption was that all the works exhibited responded to the Non-Aligned Movement itself. The title, however, is meant to get at larger questions of identity, the way people relate to one another and how individuals relate to society. What can being non aligned mean? This is not just in terms of the historical nomenclature of the term, but in terms of thinking about independence movements and decoloniality as associated with the post war period.
Two Meetings and a Funeral, Naeem Mohaiemen
2017, Installation View at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore

Credit: NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore

Two Meetings and a Funeral, Naeem Mohaiemen

Credit: NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore


Dr Karin Oen (KO): As a contemporary art centre that has an overarching research topic, we are a research centre that not only presents artworks but facilitates research and the creation of new archives. There’s a beautiful phrase in the archiving world that says that archives are radical in their incompleteness. This is to say that the goal isn't to have an archive that is all encompassing and finished. The goal is, instead, to think about who belongs in an archive or who should have access. How do we convene different people and points of view in order to contribute to a broader understanding of the world we live in? As a transdisciplinary research centre, we understand that archives are not the domain of a particular field or a particular approach. It's something that can actually bring people together, whether they are scholars, artists or citizens.

The production of knowledge is something that's very aspirational, very real, but then also something that needs to be revisited in a very purposeful way. Thinking about contemporary art works, and particularly filmic works that create an immersive experience, therein lies a really wonderful analogy to the work of the archive. It has to be somewhat immersive in terms of understanding, especially in terms of the depth that an archive captures. Yet, that needs to be balanced with an understanding of the radical incompleteness of the archive. The archive will not lend itself to a singular conclusion or finality.

NTU CCA was founded, in part because an institution like this didn't exist in Singapore or in Southeast Asia, but it hadn’t really existed anywhere in the world. It's a model that is a bit of an experiment. The archives and libraries in Singapore, be it the National Archives or the National Library of Singapore, both have a very extensive scope and well ordered collections. Having said that, there are gaps in those collections, even in places like that, which need to be filled by more independent bodies. It’s about capturing materials that might have fallen under the purview of artists, such as informal documentation. These are historical materials that might not otherwise have found a home, so what we’ve been very happy to do is to create an institutional structure to capture these documents, which have sprung up rather organically. That’s an important part of why we're here and the work that we do.
Non-Aligned is now open.
The exhibition will run at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore until 27 September 2020.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.

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