Yayoi Kusama in Singapore

Yayoi Horse.jpg

Horse Play Happening in Woodstock, 1967


Embrace narcissism.

When you recover from the invasion of polka dots on your smartphone—yellow-and-black, primary colours on white, pixelated stardust from some neon galaxy, arresting but soon annoying, with the never-ending shower of selfies, with Singaporean FOMOness suffocating all sensibilities—when you recover from that all, remember that Yayoi Kusama probably wanted you to embrace narcissism.

How else to explain the alleyway of convex mirrors, where you are forced to either stare down or stare at your reflection, sidestepping couples waiting patiently for a break in traffic. Or the Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever, into which you pop your head and see your friend’s face, and endless reflections of yourselves lit up by psychedelic lights.

And how else to explain the most popular exhibit, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, a hanging-LED infinity mirror room, into which you walk, and immerse yourself in some glittering self-absorbed universe, trying not to think of the next person in line and the usher outside timing you, for precisely thirty seconds, with a stopwatch. (“It’s the only fair way.”)

“Up till Kusama, there were many artists from the Renaissance on, who were involved with perspective and infinity but it was all a fake because you knew, you were the viewer you were always aware that you were the master,” said Richard Castellane, a former gallerist, in a documentary on her.

With her infinity rooms, Kusama fools us in a way never done before. Does “Infinite You” prove your infinite worth or your infinite irrelevance?

The Singaporean, a species engaged in perennial status competition, is the perfect subject for her play. Over the years, we have become far more sophisticated in our social media mating dances. The garish displays of branded leather are disappearing. Today there is a new battleground: travel.

So we are treated to selfies that say nothing more than “I am here.” Of course, all this is not the preserve of the Singaporean, arguably less cultural than generational, of Xs and Ys. Still, as with most money-fuelled pursuits, Singaporeans tend to go the extra mile. (A photo of your holiday business class seat? Are you trying to show off your carbon footprint?)

No surprise, then, that Yayoi’s dots have colonised our smartphones. Yet now that the torrent has slowed, one hopes her audacious aesthetics are not the only thing we remember.


The exhibition tells us about her time in New York in the 1960s. She took photographs of nude White models, some completely unclothed, others in polka-dot dresses with round cut-outs around their breasts, their nipples becoming part of the polka collage.

Yayoi, often in the scene, is always clothed. Though surrounded by the hedonistic, liberal crowd of 1960s New York, she was and remains asexual.

“I was very afraid of phalluses. I haven’t had sex,” she recently said. “As a child I suffered a lot because my father led a very debauched lifestyle and I came to hate sex. As a kind of art therapy I created lots of sex. Filled a room with them, and I lost my fear.”

We also see photographs of Yayoi and friends organising anti-Vietnam-war and anti-Wall-Street demonstrations, like nude pagans prancing around an imaginary bonfire.

One can imagine what a White nationalist, seeing all this, must have thought: look at this alien foreigner, stripping and manipulating our innocent locals and interfering in American affairs. Let’s get her out.

But New York accepted her. Its underground arts scene celebrated her. Because that’s what a confident global city does. That’s how its society matures.

It was at this point of the Yayoi exhibition that my thoughts turned to Lucy Davis, an artist and writer. Lucy moved from the UK to Singapore with her parents in 1980, aged ten. She attended CHIJ and then UWC before leaving Singapore, from 1989-97, for university in the UK and Denmark.

In 2002 Lucy became a Singapore PR under the NAC’s Arts Talent scheme; and in 2005 was appointed assistant professor at NTU. She grew to become a fixture in our local arts scene.

I first became acquainted with Lucy’s work when I saw Ten Storey Jungle Fowl, a 3-D mixed media piece that is a commentary on modernity, development and ecology in Singapore (see bottom of this post). It is set along the green corridor at Tanglin Halt, next to a lovely old town and food centre in the process of being redeveloped.

Better known is her Migrant Ecologies Project. “One investigation involved tracing the historic, genetic, material and poetic biographies of a 1930’s teak bed found in a Singapore karang guni store, back to a location in Southeast Asia [Sulawesi] where the original teak tree may have grown using DNA tracking technology.”

All very interesting stuff.

In 2006, upon Lucy’s return to Singapore from an arts conference in Cairo, she was told that her PR re-entry permit had expired and she would henceforth be given only a probationary one-year re-entry pass.

Over the next few years, she remained in residency purgatory. In 2013, she lost her PR; and in 2016, after 11 years as assistant professor at NTU, even her employment pass renewal was rejected.

Lucy had first fallen for Singapore as a ten-year-old and had lived here for more than twenty years. Yet, over the course of fourteen years, Singapore downgraded her from PR to foreigner who cannot work here.

Why? It could be because of her death penalty activism—she co-organised and participated in arts activities on the subject. It could be because in 2003 she was one of several artists and animal-lovers, including current MP Louis Ng, who attempted to rescue street cats during a SARS-related cull.

Nobody knows for sure. And so Lucy joined the long line of artists, writers, academics and social activists, local and foreign, forced to leave Singapore. They are many. But we rarely hear about them because they have actually done nothing wrong; their only crime, often, is having unacceptable political views.

So foreigners like Lucy are booted out; locals like Thum Ping Tjin, a Singaporean academic, are effectively barred from employment here. Singapore is left only with those people the PAP finds agreeable.

Yes, of course national security threats, like (we are told) professor Huang Jing, should be dealt with appropriately. But kicking out people simply because one political party doesn’t like them? That cripples us artistically and intellectually.

For all our recent championing of the arts, one must wonder: is this really a global city in which tomorrow’s Yayoi can thrive?


“I want to become famous, even more famous…I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland.”

At the beginning of Yayoi’s exhibition we learn about her childhood. She began experiencing her famed hallucinations when she was ten. Her art has always been driven, she says, by obsessions and fear.

“When I create my work, I’m not forcing to bring the polka-dots into it—subconsciously, it became polka-dots always by itself.”

When young, her mother repeatedly confiscated her paint. Yayoi’s duty was to get married and become a housewife.

Yet she found a way to work, and the precursors to her polka dots and fish nets were conceived in Japan. Still, Yayoi’s character did not gel with traditional Japanese society, which she found “too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women.”

In 1957, aged 27, she left for Seattle then New York, where she found her voice. She returned to Japan in 1973, and after several challenging years, ridden with financial and health problems, Yayoi checked herself into a mental institution in 1977, where she has since lived.

Every day, she walks to her art studio across the street, and works regular hours, before returning to the mental institution, where she feels safe. Observers say she has found a way to successfully manage her “madness”.

Fame-seeker. Narcissistic. Unable to get along with parents or society. Precocious talent. Possibly mad.

Yes, at this point of the exhibition my thoughts strayed to Amos Yee. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his speech, the base truth is our society could not find a way to accommodate a unique sixteen-year old boy with undeniable talent.

During my recent research on OxleyGate, one interesting character comment I heard is that “Shengwu is Amos with proper financial and family support.”

And so, for our National Gallery, which has done a wonderful job with this Yayoi exhibition (on till Sep 3rd), here, in her honour, is a hallucinogenic, self-obliterating, mindless request: can you organise an artist talk featuring Yayoi, Amos and Shengwu?

Maybe then we’ll find out what it really means to embrace narcissism.

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On banned artists, academics, writers. Thum Ping Tjin is a fairly famous historian in Singapore. Donald Low and I were delighted that “PJ” could contribute a chapter to a book we co-authored, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus. His chapter,  “The old normal is the new normal”, which illustrates the startling similarities between 1950s Singapore and today’s Singapore, is one of our favourites.

PJ has told me that he has been blacklisted by universities in Singapore, most probably for his revisionist historical views. As we know, it is folly to challenge the official PAP narrative (unless you bag a few Eisners along the way…).

OxleyGate exposed the stupidity of keeping somebody like PJ out of the country. During the entire saga, Singapore’s much vaunted policy and journalistic cabal failed to produce much intelligent, deep analysis. Instead it was left to PJ, based thousands of miles away in the UK where he can work, to give the most articulate and candid breakdown, on camera to Reuters.

There are too many others to mention all. You probably know about Cherian George. You probably don’t know about Ben Bland. Ben was a freelancer in Singapore in 2008-09. He wrote for, among other publications, The Economist and The Straits Times. I had just started freelancing for the former at the time, and so found out that Ben’s visa renewal had, after a year, been rejected. No reason given.

Most people suspect it is because Ben wrote for the Asia Sentinel, a supposedly taboo publication. And so, just like that, Singapore lost a very good journalist who has, for the past few years, been writing beautifully for the Financial Times.

Just not in Singapore. Shame.


Yayoi and friends

We want to stop this game. The money made with this stock is enabling the war to continue. We protest this cruel, greedy instrument of the war establishment.
Don’t pay taxes. Stop the 10 per cent tax!
Burn Wall Street.
Wall Street men must become farmers and fishermen.
Wall Street men must stop all of this fake ‘business’.

Press release for Anatomic Explosion Happening at New York Stock Exchange, Wall Street, 10.30a.m., Sunday 13 October 1968


Other shots from the exhibtion


My favourite piece above; I spent a long time moving back and forth, dodging selfies, a bit mesmerised. Perhaps I had too much to drink before.




Lucy Davis’s Ten Storey Jungle Fowl
(Sketch for a 2065 film poster)

ten storey jungle fowl_Lucy Davis

Media: Ink sketch junglefowl, photographs, found materials and tarpaulin from along the rail tracks at Tanglin Halt, Cardboard from Karang Guni Mr Chua Thiam Seng, Sonogram recorded by Zai Tang. Dimensions: 70x50x10cm

This sketch is part of Railtrack Songmaps—a multi-media research project that is in the process of tracing the sounds and stories of bird and human lives along the former KTM rail corridor at Tanglin Halt.

The building in the sketch is one of the first ten storey blocks to be built by the Housing Development Board of Singapore in the early 1960’s. Called Chap Lau Chu in Hokkien, they are now empty. The whole area is up for redevelopment and the residents—many of whom lived there for nearo 50 years—have all moved out. The only remaining inhabitants are Mr Chua, a karang guni rag and bone man, with his collections of tin cans, cardboard and several different sorts of birds.

On the other side of the tracks to the ten storey blocks there are also mega changes afoot: the new media and biotech hubs, Mediopolis and Biopolis, carve up land that previously contained over a half-century of rich secondary forest growth, home to over 100 species of birds (according to a survey by the Nature Society of Singapore bird group, a partner in our research project). Key tenants include LucasFilm and MediaCorp. Perhaps in fifty years time they might make films about the biodiversity that was there before they arrived.

One of the sounds heard regularly along the tracks in Tanglin Halt is the call of the red junglefowl—the ancestor of the domestic chicken. At the back of the sketch is a sonogram from a recording of the bird by sound artist Zai Tang.

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