No Merlion in Singapore's pavilion at Venice Biennale. Is this art?
The article is written by David Chew, TODAY

13 June 2005




SINGAPORE - What would you do if you discovered that the Merlion standing at One Fullerton was missing?

Artist Lim Tzay Chuen predicts that this will actually revive the tenuous relationship Singaporeans have with the mythological creature.
As part of his work for the 2005 Venice Biennale, Lim Singapore's sole representative at the prestigious art event had proposed taking the 80-ton, water-spouting structure, constructed with concrete and steel, over to the Singapore Pavilion at Venice.

Yes, literally uprooting the statue and shipping it over to Italy.

Titled Mike the codename used in the initial stages of Lim's project to keep the plans secret the plan would have seen the statue sitting in Venice for the Biennale's six-month duration.

Interesting though the concept may be, Lim did not get approval from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to shift the Merlion.

What Lim has done, instead, is to convert his allocated space into something resembling the Singapore Visitor Centre, with information on the artist and his work not tourist maps on display, and an empty courtyard where the Merlion would have stood. The exhibit will be at the Singapore Pavilion at the Biennale until Nov 6.

The project has since been greeted with the same divided response most of Lim's works have generated: There are those who marvel at its cleverness, but others who see it as plain gimmicky and pointless.

Many of his previous proposed works have been in a similar vein most of them technically possible, but not realised due to lack of approval. These include slightly rotating the Salvador Dali sculpture at the UOB Bank Plaza, as well as shooting a bullet through one of the NIE gallery's windows from the firing range next door.

"I don't need to define to the public what ... art is all about," Lim told Today over the telephone from the Biennale in Venice. "I do what I need to for my own work.

"Art labels attempt to explain my job but they aren't important."

Dr Eugene Tan, Lim's curator for the Biennale, noted that Lim's suggestion of moving the Merlion to Venice would create two things: "Its absence here, and its presence there (in Venice).

"So, in that sense, the impact of his art would have been felt not only in Venice but in Singapore as well."

Unlike other cultural landmarks, such as the Esplanade, Tan said that many Singaporeans do not think too highly of the Merlion that it's more kitsch than anything.

"By engineering its absence here, Tzay Chuen wanted the Merlion to enter the consciousness of Singaporeans again," said Tan.

However, Lim's failure to make any headway in getting approval from the authorities to move the iconic statue, as was the case with his previous works, have led some to wonder if his work is credible if it can even be called art in the first place.

Some said that if Lim was really into pushing the boundaries, upon getting rejected by the STB, he would have looked into, say, chipping off a piece of the Merlion and taking that to Venice, rather than going empty-handed.

After all, said critics, Lim is in the very comfortable position of never having his works realised, stopping short once he's denied permission.

Don't true artists graffiti artists, for instance look beyond the "no" and materialise their artworks anyway?

If the STB had actually acceded to his request, granting the Merlion a visa for Italy, one wonders if Lim would have started panicking ...

Said art critic Lee Weng Choy: "Tzay Chuen's work is important precisely because he addresses this very Singaporean problem of 'can' versus 'cannot'.

"When a Singaporean artist approaches an institution with a proposal, such as moving the Merlion to Venice, the response is to say it's impossible, that we cannot do it.

"But Tzay Chuen's work is really less about moving the Merlion than about getting people and institutions to change their mindsets. "It's about saying something like: 'Well, it may seem almost impossible but, hey, let's seriously try to make it happen.'"

Or, as Lim put it: "What's the point of doing work that is easily realised? It is only doing something like this that sets people thinking.

"It certainly starts more dialogue more than any art hanging in galleries."

And the National Arts Council, which made the daring selection of Lim, was supportive of his Mike proposal after making the appointment.

"I told them you chose me on the basis of my past work and it was made very clear to them there was no Plan B, and despite their doubts and having to answer to other agencies, they were supportive," noted Lim. - TODAY