Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Social media and Politics

In Today's "I Say" column, Siew Kum Hong bemoans the role of social media in Singapore today.  He fears social media, especially Facebook, threatens to throw Singapore journalism into the gutter.

Central to his column is the buzz in social media after the recent unveiling by the ruling PAP of its potential young candidate, 27-year old Tin Pei Ling (left).  He states that Tin is essentially "a young woman who has taken a huge leap into the unknown by stepping forward as a potential candidate."  He questions why "some folks seems to have taken it upon themselves to dig up what they think is dirt on her personal life, in an effort to put her down and besmirch her reputation."

A quick search on her does reveal unusually high interest of a young woman's foray into politics.  Her Facebook account has since been "privatised" but not after being ransacked by curious online denizens on her personal life.  There are loads on her marriage and lifestyle - who she is married to, how and why she married him.  Insinuations of youthful addiction to materialism and claims of an extravagant lifestyle...  Well, you get the picture.

Siew's column is well-intending, but a tad idealist, even naive.  His core point being - we should not judge Tin until "she is given a chance to show what she would be like as an MP".  But the up-coming contest of who gets into the ruling seats is an election, and for the first time I see encouraging signs of a more open debate. 

For instance, Channel NewsAsia is running an unedited forum including opposition candidates.  As in past campaigns, the lifestyle of candidates will be exposed and actually discussed to determine if a candidate is indeed qualified to be an MP.  No candidate should have the curious benefit to be an MP first, then demonstrate how competent he or she is.

And unlike previous elections, the ruling PAP party as admitted in the press, that social media will play a big role.  It remains to be seen how the PAP will manage this and where the boundaries will be in the social media.  Siew's column betrays a need to "morally" control social media.  He refers to "digging up all this personal stuff" to be "overblown", and here is the killer sentence: "She is a 27-year old professional, not a nun."

Young or old, a pro or wet behind the ears, Tin, like all politicians, should look social media straight in the eye.  Sister, this is just the beginning.  And sister is not an intended pun.  Like any political arena in the world, Singapore politicians must know the media landscape has changed.  In the age of the internet, anyone can be searched.  If a politician has skeletons in his or her cupboard, come clean.  They can come back to haunt you. 

And there is nothing worse than stepping up as a politician only to step down after an unsavoury fact shows up.

Any attempt to "tame" the social media will be rewarded with the opposite effect.  It is tantamount to taming a wild beast.  The more you disturb it, the more ferocious its defense and response.  All of us have views, and the social media has unleashed a platform where these views can and are being heard.  Facebook and Twitter have toppled regimes, it is not about to change in the face of a blushing 27-year old.  And if, like China, Singapore feels the need to clamp down sites like Facebook and Twitter, it would be a sad day.  Like a genie that has been let out of the bottle, you can break the bottle but the genie is at large.

Tin should have cleaned up her Facebook way before her bright moment of political entrance.  To "privatise" her online presence after the fact suggest she has things to hide.  And honestly, we should not apologise for who we are.  So what if one has a well-to-do husband or have a weakness for branded goods?  It's good that the government is clean and not corrupt, but most would agree that it is too straitjacketed and bland, no harm in a little spice sprinkled.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Singapore Biennale 2011 - Life as Art

If you are one of those who feel contemporary art is moving too fast and far into the abstract and conceptual, try wrapping your head around the works by the "boy band" trio, The Propeller Group (TPG).  Their art may just push you over the edge. 

"We are a collaborative," says Tuan Andrew Nguyen (furthest left), the founding member.  And the group consists of another American educated Vietnamese, Phu Nam and their close American friend Matt Lucero.  All in their mid 30s,  they don't exactly qualify as a "boy" band as such, but they have the savvy and knowing of the "new black", ahead-of-the-curve citizens of Silicon Valley - all educated in the arts in California, referred to fondly as their "Cal-Arts days way back in 2002".

Exactly what's a "collaborative"?  Their skills-set compliments each other, and they all have media background - producing music videos, documentaries and TV commercials.  Formed in 2006, TPG's works stretch the world of contemporary art to its mind twisting limits.  Each work forces you to ask, what is contemporary art?  Or is it even art?

First off, they don't physically do the work, at each stage, they hire or commission other professionals.  "Yes, you can say we are like a boy band," says Tuan.  "Except we are NOT the band, but the people behind it."  Confused?  It gets better.  They consider themselves the "creative think tank" behind every "project".  So typically, on any project, the trio puts their collective and creative minds together and gets various groups as "partners" in the process.

For the Singapore Biennale 2011, which stretches from 13 March to 15 May, their contribution is "TVC Communism 2011", TVC is TV Commercial (The work is actually commissioned by the Singapore Biennale).  What a visitor sees at the National Museum is a video installation that captures a brainstorming session that had gone on for five days to create "a cutting edge global media campaign promoting and gaining positive brand identity for communism".  This project is done in conjunction with TBWA, the award-winning advertising force behind mega campaign successes for companies like Apple, Nissan and Adidas.

The participants in the video are the actual staff of TWBA Vietnam.  The next stage (which is not part of this Biennale) involves them making a pitch to TPG, with storyboard and animatics (mock-up of the actual television commercial using images, music and voice overs).  Once TPG approves it, the trio will raise funds to get the 30-second TV commercial produced.  So it involves hiring professionals for it.  "If we have enough money, there is no stopping us hiring an Oscar winning director or actor for the commercial, someone like Angelina Jolie?" Matt asks jokingly.  But that sly smile that is almost covered by his moustache and beard seems to add, "We are serious, we want the best."

And at this stage, it is just starting to get interesting.  When the commercial is produced, TPG will put on their "poor-artist" hats on again to raise funds.  More money?  Yes, they need money to buy airtime in TV channels, spread it virally online, produce commercials for the commercial so that the world audience will get a chance to see it.

Before you enter the room of the video installation at the National Museum, there is a text at the entrance telling you, "This installation is the first step in realising the actual television commercial and getting it broadcast worldwide."  Another text below betrays the art, "All political systems and ideologies need their PR and advertising people," it says.  "The Propeller Group, a collaborative art group located in Ho Chi Minh and Los Angeles, are on hand to pay tribute to the process of working with cultural producers situated outside the art realm...this video of a round table advertising brainstorming session is shot from the outside-in into an inside-out panoramic view of how advertising processes politics.  The advertising campaign becomes the work and the television commercial becomes a video artwork."

"All TV commercials want you to buy something, like a watch, or try to get you to do something, like vote for someone," says Tuan.  "Our commercial is like any out there in the ocean of mass media.  What separates us from the commercial output is the intention of our work."  More often then not, producers of mass media don't question themselves of the ramifications of what they put out there in the world.  "Which is ok," says Tuan matter-of-factly.  "That's how things are, whether we like it or not.  But that is the distinguishing factor between art and media.  The intention of the work - we want to pose questions every step of the way, at every point of the process."  He pauses and then adds, "Ultimately, we try to create disorder, hoping that disorder in such particular instances can become another 'sense of order' to an audience that may be all too afraid of change, or not accepting of other possible ways of engaging with their current cultural or social structures."

All of TPG's projects swim in the real world, and are part and parcel of what the contemporary world is interested in.  For instance, when Oliver Fricker was sentenced to five months in jail and given three strokes of the cane for spray-painting a MRT coach, the TPG commissioned renowned graffiti artists to paint on a wall in a street in Singapore.  "The graffiti is still there," says Tuan with pride but without any trace of brag as he flips his iPad out showing a bigger than life image of a man being painted on the side of a shop house with a group of by-standers looking.

"We want to bring art out of the confines of a gallery into the real world," says Matt.  "Every stage of our work involves dealing with different people and we discover different issues and problems - that's life."  And that's art to them.  At every phase, the "audience" is different, everyone involved becomes collaborator and/or audience of the work, and in the most successful cases they become both.

TPG uses every form of media as its medium.  They describe themselves as artists obsessed with the media who try hard not to be limited by the medium.  "Media controls every aspect of our lives today, it is the single most powerful form of engagement.  Because of the media, people in the US protested against the Vietnam War; in Vietnam the media was used as propaganda against the Americans," Tuan looks at Matt. "And that's only the political domain.  The media is even more pervasive in popular culture from music videos to drama and movies.  Michael Jackson's iconography is very powerful today, like Elvis.  If used strategically, you can do unimaginable stuff with it."

TPG's "TVC Communism" is aligned to the theme of the Singapore Biennale 2011, which is "Open House" - where the entire Singapore is "opened" for the public, as audience, to see the everyday and routine as "art".  Says Phu Nam via email, the only part of the trio who could not make it for the Biennale, "Art isn't and shouldn't be an isolated cultural phenomena separate from life.  It should not be limited and made stagnant by how it's categorised.  If someone says art can't be on TV or vice versa, a TV commercial can't be consider art, well we think the opposite."

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

What I learned from Lim Tze Peng

While writing the book, “My Kampong, My Home”, about Singapore’s oldest surviving pioneer artist Lim Tze Peng, I dredged from the 90-year-old gentleman insights into the virtues of another era.

Looking at Singapore today, we have much to be proud about.  We’ve hosted world class events, built glitzy resorts, and made this city a home that is the envy of many around the world.  Yet, if you remember, the affluence of modern Singapore is not something we have always enjoyed, and it wasn’t too long ago that things were very different in Singapore.

Progress makes us forgetful, and keeping the memory of old Singapore alive is useful.  It reminds us where we come from.

Much has been said about Tze Peng the painter, but not many of us know Tze Peng the father, the husband and the man.  The book I wrote is not just about his art, but also his life.

When I first met him, he was completely not what I expected.  I expected an old person, needing help in everything he did.  When his face greeted mine, it carried no burden of health associated with old age.

At 90, and probably six feet tall, he had the gait of a 60-year old.  That afternoon, the dark clouds hung low, the thunder rumbled in the distance.  On a simple square table, he had a pot of tea and tea cups of another time.  Wearing just a white loose shirt with no collar and dark blue cotton pants, Tze Peng’s eyes met mine.  I told myself those were the eyes that saw the things he painted, while they were not agile and lively eyes of a young man, they were not eyes of a 90-year old either.  With wrinkles around the ends, they looked with the weariness of someone who had seen life but they registered no resentment.  Then it suddenly occurred to me he wasn’t wearing glasses.  Could he really see me?  I had my progressive glasses on and felt a sense of irony.

Then his eyes left me and looked out into the car park.  Totally unaffected by the threatening elements outside, he told me the story of his life.  It was a story not easily disturbed by dark clouds or the sound of rumbling thunder.  It was a life of wisdom learned from heartaches and hard knocks.  The twists and turns of a simple man who wanted just an honest life with his ink and brushes, but whose life spared him little rest.  It was a story of a man who had to earn every cent, bear every insult and for whom recognition, when it finally arrived, was late.

Here are four key lessons I learned from my many afternoons with Lim Tze Peng.

Lesson 1: Value the kind and generous – In the early years, Tze Peng, a self-taught artist, took part in group exhibitions to ride on better-known names.  In one show, organised by the famed artist Lee Man Fong, he didn’t sell any works.  One the last day, Man Fong told him one of his paintings had sold and gave him $300.  “It was a lot of money at that time and God knows I needed it.”  A year later, he visited Man Fong’s home and saw his painting there.  He paused and looked up at me.  “Lee Man Fong is a good man,” was all he said.

Lesson 2: Believe in yourself – Tze Peng once reluctantly submitted a painting he had done on a trip to Bali as one of 20 local works Singapore would be sending for a competition in England.  The Singapore authorities rejected it.  They found it “neither Eastern nor Western”; it did not conform to any artistic tradition.  Well known artist Cheong Soo Pieng fought hard for it to be included, asking the authorities to give the new artist a chance.  The piece eventually made its way to England together with the other paintings.  One morning about three weeks later, a doctor friend of Tze Peng called.  He said he had heard on the BBC the night before that a Singaporean artist who painted Bali had won a special prize in England.  Tze Peng rushed to the nearest newspaper stand, and there it was, a small article with his name wrongly translated.  But there was no mistaking it, Lim Tze Peng had won his first international award.  “They did not know who I was, did not care if it was Eastern or Western.  They saw my talent…what has not been accepted as tradition, what was considered neither East nor West, is now my hallmark.”

Lesson 3: Be true to yourself – Commissioned by a Japanese collector to do a painting of a plum – for a considerable fee – Tze Peng tried and tried but was not satisfied with the results and gave up in the end.  He passed the job on to an artist friend who did the work and got the money.  “He bought me coffee.  He was happy and so was I.  I will not sell something that I think is not good.”

Lesson 4: Perseverance will be rewarded – A painter all his life, Tze Peng won recognition only in his 70s and was conferred the Cultural Medallion, the highest artistic honour, at 83.  But he was not bitter.  Two years ago, he became the first Singaporean artist to exhibit his works at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, his life-long dream.

* Today Lim Tze Peng continues to paint and is currently reinventing his calligraphic style.

Excuse me, what do you do?

How often have you been asked the most natural of questions from the person sitting next to you. “What do you do?”  Some of us take offence – you mean you don’t know who I am?  Others pause – I have done so much, wear so many hats, where do I begin?  For whatever reason, the best and most accurate description of what we do often escapes us at these crucial moments when we network.  We end up relying on the easiest way out, presenting the tired name-card, thinking the title or titles there will do the talking just fine.
In the corporate world of who’s who, many of us rely on our marketing departments to brand us.  We have confidence that our PR machines are well-oiled, our resumes tip top, our websites updated.  So anyone who is interested in us should know who we are right?  Not really.

All that constitutes your “image” out there are just that, your “press release”.  And really, how much of these can we take at face value these days?  Too often we forget the importance of face-to-face meetings.  What a person thinks about you is fluid, it changes based on your daily interactions, how small things surprise and become big things.  Every greeting, meeting, phone call, email, (with not just your peers but also those who have no influence in your work) sends a message of who you are and what you are about.  Why do you think President Obama’s popularity rating is like the graph of a heart attack patient?

Your brand is a living thing.  There is no textbook guide to brand you – we are all different.  But there are some principles you can internalise.  And that’s what so good about self-marketing, you actually watch yourself carefully and correct and change your behavioural pattern.  Self-marketing can actually guide you to become the person you want to be.

Sure exchange name-cards.  But a name-card is just a hard piece of paper.  In social functions, you can exchange cards as many as 20 times.  How do you know yours is not the one in the rubbish bin?  And the truth is, a name-card is not who you really are.  You are often more or less than what is printed on it.  And these days, anyone can put anything on a card.

If  you have done enough in your career that you are proud of, you owe it to yourself to market yourself well.  Like most of you, I think my work should speak for itself.  But I have since learned this is a “I am good” eats “I am better” corporate world.  We hear and read about the rich and famous, like movie stars we love.  How do you know they do not possess black belts in self-marketing?

So, when you are dressed to impress, with wine in one hand and finger-food in the other, you should not leave self-marketing to the balancing act of chance.  You need to take your brand seriously so that what’s said between sips of wine doesn’t smack of self-promotion or under-whelm the curious questioner.

The foundation of self-marketing for me is knowing myself and knowing myself really well.  I encourage friends to be honest with me (not easy but over time I accept even the harshest opinions).  What I do is put that knowledge in a succinct paragraph that speaks of me positively and honestly.  Then I re-write that paragraph in a few different ways – but all putting out the same positive message truthfully, coming directly and effortlessly from deep inside me.  These are the foundations, the pillars that support the ME I want others to know.  I have been surprised.  What I thought was just “doing my job” impressed even surprised people.  So I stop taking myself for granted and start to “own” what I do.

When the question is asked, instead of thinking or trying to find phrases and words to define me, I reach into that reservoir I have prepared.  Pick one and introduce myself matter-of-factly.  Another person listening may ask further questions, and that’s when the other ways of introducing me come in.  Before I know it, I have effectively marketed myself with different turn of phrases and words, all conveying the same message – the me I want people to know, and still have my wits about to enjoy the entertainment, good food and wine being served.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to describing what we do.  But we should keep it simple (it can be just three or four sentences), enough to stir the curiosity of the listener to actually want to know more.  “I am a lawyer.”  Ok, the conversation moves right along.  “I run a law firm and our focus is on the entertainment industry.”  Freeze.  “Who do you represent?” is likely the comeback.  So lay out just enough tantalizing information and they’ll ask for more.

Even if you are a famous personality, don’t feel insulted.  Famous people are not always recognised in real life.  In fact, when you are humble, you can get reactions that reinforce your brand.  “Oh my god, you are THE lawyer my friend told me to look out for?”  You never know, a life-changing opportunity may come knocking on your designer door.

The one thing NOT to do is lie.  Sooner or later everyone can spot a phony, and when the phony mask falls off, you lose one of your most important pillars to marketing yourself – your credibility.  I have seen this happen to people I know.  They embellished, added asides that I knew didn’t exist.  Truth is not negotiable so don’t hide it.  One way or another, it has a way of showing up.  In this Internet age, all of us can be googled, and with powerful broadband access and mobile devices, we can be searched even while we speak.

A good self-marketer is also not a snob.  It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.  Even if you are a famous personality or a CEO of a big chain, don’t dismiss the mousey-looking, bespectacled person sitting next to you.  You’ll never know, he or she could be working for Warren Buffet.

And finally, the importance of marketing yourself goes back to not only the first principle of really knowing who you are but also not being afraid of who you are.  You want to market yourself because you have already achieved something worthwhile, however “small” that may be in your mind, and you want to share that with others.  While you need to be humble, you also need to be clear what is it you want to share, what is the essence that is characteristically you.  Oprah’s essence is her ability to use her “weaknesses” shared by many women and turn them into strengths.  “So what if we are fat?”  Singapore’s essence is, “Our system works.  Never mind who or what they call it.”  Not everyone will agree with your essence, your “reason-to-be”.  But when you believe in it like you believe the sun will rise again, you will succeed in branding and marketing the true you.  Being real is the strongest empowerment tool.  Because when it comes to your own brand, no one knows it better than you.

The Hate Factor

I am fascinated by the word “hate”, especially when it is associated with the media.  Even by the standards of the most flamboyant of industries, it has been a big week revolving around this 4-letter word.

By now, we are all familiar with the drunken “I love Hitler” anti-Semitic rant of ex-Christian Dior designer John Galliano.  “People like you would be dead,” the designer slurs in the video that circulates the web.  “Your mothers, forefathers, would all be…gassed and…dead.”

His meltdown was a Mel Gibson-esque thunderous roar that shouted across the world.  But if we move away from the sensational and loud to the everyday and subtle, we actually feel “hate” or are “hated” a lot more than know or care to admit.

Have you ever thought that someone that you work with dislikes you for no apparent reason?  Sometimes, the signs are nuanced – when your name is suggested, and the client politely says he wants someone else.  You wonder, “What have I done?”  Like those sitting next to Galliano in the fated Parisian cafe, you have and you haven’t.  But in consolation, you’re not alone, although it does affect some people more than others.

The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines hate as a “deep, enduring, intense emotion expressing animosity, anger and hostility.”  Definitions by Descartes, Aristotle and Freud reveal no consensus to the underlying cause of this feeling.  I like Scottish philosopher David Hume’s definition best: “Hate is an irreducible feeling that is not definable at all.”

The reason “hate” isn’t definable is because we often tend to use the word without quite understanding exactly what it is we’re feeling.  Hate actually sits precariously between rage (needing revenge) and dislike (bringing discomfort, of course it can swing to either extreme).  Hate is both personal and impersonal – personal because you feel that hate, but impersonal because the object of your hatred is often something or someone you don’t even know.  Gulliano has said he will seek professional help for his bizarre behaviour.   Most hate crimes are motivated by ignorance, bias of race or gender.

I want to go back to media because this “hate factor” is especially alive in the media industry.  Having worked in TV for more than two decades, I’ll say this: hate is very much an irrational feeling.  Nothing gets a conversation going better than someone tossing a TV personality’s name in, “Do you know the girl who just started reading the news?  She speaks like words drip out of the corners of her mouth!”  You have to be in the industry to believe that grown adults spend time writing emails or letters complaining about a presenter, host or actor in colourful details.  And when they are ignored, they actually call in to complain.

TV personalities are easy targets because they enter your living room and “talk” to you, up close and personal.  And some of them will inevitably rub you the wrong way.  Very often, it is not something the personality can change overnight – their looks, or the way they dress.  When Larry King first started out with his bow tie and suspenders, he had a high hate factor.

But often, it goes beyond the look to how the personalities talk or carry themselves.  I’ve heard my mother say, more times than I care to remember, “Look at her, I just hate her – so ‘Kay Kiang’” (Kay Kiang is Hokkien for “not smart, but trying to be”.)

A producer then has to tip-toe into the make-up room and talk to the personality tactfully.  “You may want to tone down your delivery a little, we’ve had feedback…”  At this point, one of two scenarios is possible – the presenter collapses in total disbelief; or he or she erupts, “I am who I am – the audience must take it or leave it!”

CNN’s Richard Quest is a prime example of someone you either love or hate.  His animated delivery has split audience reception right down the middle, although the arrest in New York (for being caught naked in Central Park) in 2008 divided public opinion even more.  As a media person, I can appreciate how Quest throws himself into his stories, but his rambunctious delivery can totally wear a viewer down.

What is to be done then?  We are talking about something quite different from Galliano who is seeking help.  Look at the recently retired Larry King.  Over the years, he turned what was clearly a high hate factor into a reputation as one of the most successful  talk show on hosts on CNN.  How did he do it?  He stuck to his style and did what he was hired to do, he did not take himself seriously; he took the people he interviewed seriously.  In the end, if the audience knows that you are sincere, that you merely want to get your job done, the audience will get it.  TV is after all a very intimate medium.

The hate factor is a consequence of two things – in the media at least.  When audiences feel you’re trying to hard to sell a message or yourself; and when they feel you’re not geniune – it could be the way you talk (is that accent fake?) or your body language (why does she need to adjust her hair every two minutes?).

All said, the best cure – and this applies to everyone in general, not just those in the media – is to be receptive to feedback.  If your colleague is kind enough to tell you that you have the hate factor, acknowledge it.  Yes, it’s not totally fair, but then again, what in life really is?  Ultimately, if you are truly yourself, the hate factor can work in your favour.  Because over time, people will accept you for who you are.

If what’s causing hate is something you put on, then take a look in the mirror with honest eyes and ask, not the mirror but yourself, if you’re indeed the fairest of them all.  Your mirror cannot speak, but the person looking back will be the real you.

This is updated from my column from Singapore Peak in July 2010

Looking through the broken prism of Ronald Ventura

If you are in danger of suddenly becoming very rich and are on the look out for an investment alternative, consider art.  Good Chinese and Indian contemporary art are expensive (yes, in millions).  Southeast Asian Art is still “affordable”.  And even within Southeast Asia, top Indonesian modern and contemporary artists have also headed northwards to the million dollar mark.  But good Filipino art is still within reach, if you act fast enough.

And the name on everyone’s lips for Filipino art is Ronald Ventura.  I know his art, but it suddenly occurs to me I have not even seen a photograph of him.  Roberta Dans, the owner of the gallery who represents him in Singapore, keeps me company as we wait for the poster-boy of the Filipino contemporary art scene to arrive.

At 38, Ronald Ventura is already on top of his craft.  Part of the excitement of meeting him is to find out how he plans to up his game.  He hasn’t given any hint of what his new series is, or any time frame of when collectors can expect any new work.  So for now, if you can get your hands on any work of his, grab it!

He is considered one of the most successful contemporary artists to have emerged from the Philippines.  At the Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in October 2008, a painting showing a head of a man in a gas mask littered with colourful Disney figures titled “Nesting Ground”, sold for HK$2.18 million or S$390,000.  The sound of the descending hammer that sealed the bid echoed across the Southeast Asian art world as loud as the gasp of those in the auction room – Ronald Ventura had just set a world record for any Filipino contemporary art at auctions.  A Singaporean whispered to his shocked companion, “Two years ago, I could get any piece by Ronald Ventura for 10 or 15 thousand.”

Collectors should know that wisdom is never punctual and hindsight is a rear view mirror for “what ifs” and “should haves”.  From being a hip and affordable artist where collectors could commission works for about 15 thousand dollars to essentially an “untouchable”, Ronald Ventura’s career has been nothing short of meteoric.  Today, anyone with a piece of his work holds it like a new found treasure, equivalent to standing on a piece of property in a good location; the feeling is one of exhilaration from ascending worth.  Following “Nesting Ground”, last year “Natural Lies”, his satirical painting of a boy with a long nose, hit a new high, also at Sotheby’s for HK$2.54 million.

When Ventura finally arrives, it is as if I have known the man all my life.  Even behind dark brown shades, I expect him to be soft spoken and not quite willing to explain his works beyond the obvious.  I senses an old soul in the body of a young man.  He dismisses the whole “overnight success” connotation – if anyone thinks of him as an overnight wonder, well, it’s been a long night, quoting a certain diva from Hollywood.  His fingernails wear remnants of dark coats of nail paint.  A stainless steel ring holding a Damien Hirst-esque human skull hangs heavily on his middle finger.  “I made this ring,” he says matter-of-factly.

Art visited him early.  “I knew the alphabets from A to J only, but I could draw a door or a Japanese robot,” says Ventura.  He knew his calling and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.  He also taught art for almost ten years before throwing himself lock, stock and paints into being a professional artist.
Although he has a distinct and instantly recognisable style, style is just a medium.  “It’s what I have to say that matters.”  And boy does he have a lot to say for an introvert.  Dark doesn’t even begin to explain Ronald Ventura’s world where canvas after apocalyptic canvas depict a world where humanity has been sucked out and man has been automated to digital precision and dumbness.

His son has been his compass and model for many of his paintings since he was five.  He observes how his son reacts to the environment around him.  From his paintings, it is not difficult to sense his apprehension, even fear, for the kind of world his son will be growing up into.  Different layers of alienation as theme run through all phases of his career, and Ventura approaches every empty canvas with this heavy responsibility and heavier images.

His first solo exhibition, “All Souls Day” in 2001 wrestled with the issue of gender and conditions of men and women have to deal with.  But his landmark show was “Human Study” in 2005 at the Art Centre in Metro Manila, where images conjured a kind of “contemporary hell”.  Then, while the images disturbed, his virtuosity as both a painter and sculptor caught the attention of the discerning art world leading to his ground-breaking show, “Mapping The Corporeal” at the National University of Singapore in 2008.  In the words of curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, he laid the “groundwork for an investigation of the com-modification of the human body, paranoia and religious consciousness in modern societies.”

Ventura’s torment of the human condition attracted the attention of Tyler Rollins Fine Art in New York in 2009, a gallery in the Chelsea area that specialises in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia.  The gallery objective is to put the spotlight on some of the most exciting trends in contemporary art, and Ventura’s “realities” fit the gallery’s search then to a T.  Titled “Metaphysics of Skin”, it was Ventura’s border-less world of the complex mutating environment that humans had to live in.  “My inspiration comes from all places,” says Ventura.  “In the Philippines and everywhere in the world.  Art is universal; you can develop something not based on your motherland.  My art has no nationality.”

Quite apart from the atomic visuals on show, Ventura introduced his now famous “Zoomanities”, a battalion of mutant-men sculptures waging war on the very notion of sculptures itself.  In fiberglass, resin, plastic, metal, silver, bronze, mostly hand painted, were gas-masked figures, human with animal heads, tattooed creatures with no name – all culminating into a cast of mutant rejects of an unrecognisable world.

From the hyper-realistic, to something borrowed from art history or memories from animated Disney fairy tales, the artist’s ability to juxtapose these images results in works crowded with fantasies without boundaries.  Despite of, or indeed because of these nightmare realities, every exhibition of his is keenly awaited.  Exhibitors, galleries and collectors hold a collective breathe when he unleashes a new series.

What’s next?  All Ventura lets on is a project with Sotheby’s.  His current works are still silently exploding in his head as he continues to find new means and mediums to express his dismay.  I sense a quiet and resolved disappointment of a lack of moral code today.  His colourful Disney figures continue to visit as immortals and observers, not relevant to his totally stunned-to-silence human figures and faces, these figures seem to ruminate over history’s failings and its discontent.

If there is light at the end of his desperately dismal tunnel, that would be his ceaseless energy to inquire through various forms his almost inexpressible world.  And we, as audience will be cautioned and made aware through his wondrous creations, the perils of complacency and contentment.

Oscars – rebranding a Dinosaur

When James Franco swaggered on stage as Monroe, pretty in pink he was not.  More Navratilova having a bad dress day.   Nope, it wasn’t going well. Young and hip was the intent, but the 83rd Academy Awards presentation sat uncomfortably with viewers of all ages. The hosts were young, people tweeted and even a f-bomb was dropped, but in the end, Hollywood’s big night was difficult to watch.   The heavy lifting to attract a younger demographic should not be left to two uneasy first-timers.  They needed to do something fundamental.

Even the high tech, CGI opening montage failed to stir.   Instead, Alec Baldwin asked ominously, “Who are those people?”   To which the veteran Morgan Freeman answered, “I have no idea.”

The figures are out. The telecast was one of the least watched shows of the past 10 years.  37.6 million, that’s about 4 million short of last years’s 41.7 million.   But the scrutiny needs to be on the all important demographic – the 18 to 49 age bracket.  It fell by 12%.

To rebrand a dinosaur, you need to overhaul the entire show, which sadly, is not going to happen anytime soon.   Talent shows have completely re-worked their formats, and really the Academy should too.  Some awards shows have already done it in Asia.   The producers eliminate the nominees one by one, American Idol style, electronically as the show progresses.   When it comes to announcing the winner in each category, only two smiling but nervous nominees stand (or sit) against each other.   It would have injected the suspense the Oscars badly needed, especially in such a predictable year.

So unless the organizers dare to do something drastic, the “big night” next year would be the same old ancient awards ritual. No matter how young the hosts (Hathaway is 28 and Franco is 32), it won’t change the fact that the Oscars is an old and entrenched institution.   For those attending, it will still be about wearing gowns that cost more than the production of short-films or even documentaries, and walking the seemingly endless red carpet flashing their million-watt smiles.   No matter how many platforms on which this geriatric show streams live to, it will remain an insider community of competing star wattage and three hours of self-congratulating.

An aside, there were rumblings that there were hardly any African-American nominees this year. This tweet from comedian Bill Maher, “If you are black and want to make it in Hollywood this year, you better be a swan.”