At the inaugural edition of ART SG held in January at Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre in Singapore, Shanghai-born multimedia artist Lu Yang’s work Electromagnetic Brainology! (2017) was exhibited at the fair’s curated Platform section. While his video installation was generally well-received by visitors, two channels of the typically five-channel work were not on show, raising concerns of censorship among some.
Moreover, the main video, positioned in the middle, was cut from the original 13 minutes to 6 minutes, with two of the four key virtual gods portrayed in the work, specifically the ones closely resembling Hindu deities Kali and Shiva, notably missing. The earth and air gods, seemingly inspired by the Buddhist pantheon, remained in the video.
According to BANK, the Shanghai-based gallery representing the artist at ART SG, they had been informed via the fair that Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), the government statutory board involved in licensing arts and entertainment in the city-state, found some parts of the visuals in Electromagnetic Brainology! concerning.
Responding to ARTnews via email, founder of BANK, Mathieu Borysevicz said, “We were told that IMDA gave Lu Yang’s video work an NC16 rating, which meant that anyone under 16 would be prohibited to view it. This would have created many obstacles for a public project, so ART SG decided instead to ask for a re-edit of the video.”
Additionally, the gallery was informed that the artwork placed in the fair’s public space with an advisory sign would not suffice.
“Initially I was opposed to this entirely as the integrity of the presentation rested upon the channels that were edited out. However, after discussion with the artist, and given the very last-minute nature of the project, we decided to move forward,” he added.
Lu was shocked when he found out Electromagnetic Brainology!, which is available online in its full version, had to be cut for ART SG. “This work is very popular and has been shown in many places all over the world including Art Basel Hong Kong,” he wrote in an email. “It never happened before. It was shown for the first time at M Woods Museum in Beijing, and it was totally not a problem. Many kids dance in front of the video, and they really like it.”
Lu was informed by BANK about the work requiring changes on December 28, exactly two weeks before the fair’s vernissage. Since he was off-site on an island in Colombia during that time, the gallery helped to edit the video work.
“At that time, the gallery also felt that it was very disrespectful to my work and proposed that it should not be exhibited. However, I accepted their request considering that the gallery had already incurred so much expenditure and a lot of work was already done in the early stage,” he explained.
Lu, who was the BMW Art Journey winner at Art Basel in 2019, believed that if the fair had told the gallery earlier, at least before the physical part of the installation was on the way to Singapore and the booths materials, walls, televisions and other equipment were in production, he would have shown a different work.
Typically, in Singapore, art exhibitions, plays, music and dance performances, variety shows, and concerts require applying for an Arts Entertainment License (AEL) from IMDA, unless exempted. This involves assessment and classification of the event and its content.
Responding to ARTnews via email, a spokesperson from IMDA stated, “The full version of film ‘Electromagnetic Brainology’ is classified NC16 (Some Mature Content). ART SG chose to screen a version with a lower rating due to the chosen venue. Exhibitors are required to adhere to the licensing conditions and enforce the relevant age restrictions.”
According to classification guidelines for films publicly available on IMDA’s website, the NC16 rating is for “mature themes that are appropriate for viewers aged 16 years and above” such as issues related to “adult life, including adultery, alternative sexualities, gender identities, promiscuity, suicide, drug/substance abuse, etc.”
In response to a query from ARTnews, Art SG sent over a lengthy statement that a spokesperson said could not be used unless it was quoted in full:
As a matter of course, any work that is being shown as part of the ART SG curated official public program, that features work in the medium of film or video, is checked with IMDA for rating purposes. The work by Lu Yang contains video and was initially rated by IMDA as NC16 meaning that it was deemed unsuitable for viewing by children under the age of 16 years. The gallery was informed about the rating as soon as we received it. It was the only film or video work to be shown on the public spaces of the show floor.
Given that children are welcome to the show, and the circumstance that the work was to be on display in an unrestricted, open and public area of the Fair, it wasn’t a context in which it would be possible to adhere to the NC16 access requirements.
In order to be able to show it in a public space, it was agreed with the gallery to create a version of the work that would allow it to be shown in an unrestricted context.
The revised version provided by the gallery was resubmitted to IMDA, and received an updated advisory rating of ‘PG 13’, which meant that the work was able to be shown without any access restraints, with a sign indicating the updated advisory rating.
We are very apologetic to the artist and gallery that the work was not able to be shown in its entirety in the space that we had allocated. We should have found a way of showing the whole work for over 16s and we will be reviewing our timelines and processes going forward to ensure such a situation doesn’t arise again.
Long-time local arts organisations tend to take a different approach to IMDA’s advisories and ratings. OH!, a homegrown arts non-profit, is known for its public art presentations in diverse spaces in Singapore, such as the exhibition “For the House; Against the House: ______ is Dead,” which was held in January in the heart of the shopping district.
“We did get advisories for certain works displayed at the recent ‘For the House; Against the House: ______ is Dead.’ We kept the works up and chose to frost the glass panels of selected shop units at Tanglin Shopping Centre to allow audiences the chance to choose whether they would like to engage with the works and exhibition,” said Lim Su Pei, deputy director of OH! Open House.
It is worth noting that Singapore, like most aspiring and established art capitals, has its own storied history of censorship. In 1994, when Singaporean artist Josef Ng’s performed a famous work that involved trimming his pubic hair, there was an intense public debate on obscenity in art. A restriction of government funding for performance art followed, lasting from 1994 to 2004.
Yet, more often than not, censorship does not come from the government but from the public, in acts of self-censorship. Artworks perceived by members of the public as being sexually explicit or going against societal norms tend to incite online furor and subsequent backtracking by the arts organisations or artists involved. This was the case in 2018 with Singaporean artist Vincent Leow’s sketch of the back of a naked man on top of a chicken exhibited at Esplanade – Theatres on The Bay.
Most recently, Belgian art collector Alain Servais, who was in town for ART SG, tweeted about posters placed strategically on the glass entrance of Hatch Art Project, an art gallery in Singapore’s hipster enclave, showcasing Vietnamese artist Nguyễn Quốc Dũng’s ongoing solo show “The Lives of Others.” Dũng’s work typically focuses on vulnerable communities, such as migrant workers and transgender people, portraying their nude forms in private spaces.
Servais learned from staff that the posters were placed on the glass doors to partially conceal Dũng’s nude paintings as passersby supposedly made disturbed facial expressions while looking at the artworks as they walked by the gallery. ARTnews reached out to Hatch Art Project and Dũng. Both parties declined to comment.
As Servais observed, “Contemporary art is about making you think about things you may want or may not want to think about but it should be one’s choice to turn the head away and not some public authority’s decision or worst, the vicious hydra of self-censorship.”