OSCILLATIONS: Adventures in Metamodernism

OSCILLATIONS: Adventures in Metamodernism
FOST Gallery, Singapore


Oscillations: Adventures in Metamodernism features works by Grace Tan, Sebastian Mary Tay and Ian Woo. This group exhibition highlights the ideological values of an emerging framework that moves beyond postmodernity and intends to initiate discourses necessary for the metamodern era. The artworks, which include sculptural objects, digital drawings and moving images, are positioned on the axis of polarities.

‘Metamodernism’ is a newly proposed term to describe the developments of contemporary culture beginning from the early 2000s, driven by the acceleration of technology, information exchange, as well as a reaction to recent global events like climate change, the financial crisis, political instability, and now the pandemic. Cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akkerby described the movement as an “informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism”, oscillating between the opposite spectrums of modernism and postmodernism.

Like a pendulum swinging between multiple poles, the artists have embraced the analogue and digital, formalism and discord and traversing the realms of reality and abstraction in their works. Grace Tan continues her investigation into natural mineral pigments used in East Asian and Western paintings before the advent of synthetic mass produced paints (n. 326 – carbonation, 2015; Tectonics, 2018; Prism Objects – Four Square Rods, 2021). Abstract painter Ian Woo debuts his digital drawings made over the course of a year with an app on his smart phone during pockets of free time outside his studio space (Snap series). Sebastian Mary Tay debuts a dream-like video sequence of shimmery mountainous peaks, created digitally using polygonal forms. Inserted in the gallery space are his plaster sculptures, seeming sliced from a multi-hued pastel hillock.

Harnessing the rhythm of the metamodern oscillation is critical as to how we can propel into the future.



Source: FOST Gallery

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Prism Objects – Four Square Rods, 2021
Cotton pulp watercolour paper squares painted with “Han Purple” barium copper silicate suspended in aqueous acrylic binder and assembled with archival PVA adhesive
Each H15.8 x W5.2 x D5.2 cm [Set of 4]

Prism Objects comprises of 4 square rods constructed from stacking paper squares painted in Han Purple, a barium copper silicate pigment. It is a peculiar pigment because it was only identified in 1992 although its earliest use could be traced back to the Warring States period [479-221 BC] (Liu et al., 2007). Han Purple reappeared during the Qin dynasty [220-207 BC] and then disappeared after the Han dynasty due to the decline of Taoism in the ancient Chinese society. Most intriguingly, scientist believed Han Purple was invented by the Taoist alchemists, a by-product of their technology to synthesise artificial jades.

Jade held an exceptional status in Taoism as it was believed to be a magical material which “not only held the power to preserve a human body and spirit (Needham and Lu, 1974) but also was an elixir for achieving physical immortality (Ko, 1966). A group of mysterious archaeological objects where Han Purple was used were the octagonal sticks from the Warring States period. Till date, their real purpose and the meaning of their use are still not determined but researchers suggested they were used as burial objects with religious or mythical symbolism (Ma et al., 2016). Supported by government patronage and the advancement of technology, Taoist monks embarked on their quest to create imitation jades. Natural stones like azurite and malachite were added to create a range of colours and it was believed that such experimentation led to the discovery of Han Purple. As a product of humanity instead of nature, it stood out from other common pigments used in ancient China. How it came about suggested an association with the concept of immortality and the desire to transcend the physical earthly realm. And perhaps it was through the process of making, synthesising and imitating that such aspiration could be seemingly fulfilled albeit unattainable and the mystery of the material be understood or revealed.

Interestingly, Han Purple has also been the object of a scientific study in the field of high-temperature superconductivity and quantum computing. Contemporary physicists have discovered Han Purple as a model to study the Bose-Einstein condensate or the “fifth state of matter” whereby the ancient synthetic pigment is able to “lose a dimension” when subjected to extremely low temperature and strong magnetic field. It is unknown for a solid to enter such a state of matter except for dilute atomic gases and superfluid liquid helium. The materiality of Han Purple – of how it was first discovered and the potential it holds for the future reinforces its intrinsic role in the pursuits of humanity from the past to the present.



Dreaming of the Azurite Grove, 2021
Assorted blue polyamide cable fasteners and tags and clear acrylic rod
H38 x W26 x D26 cm

In Dreaming of the Azurite Grove, the industrial cable fasteners that were fashioned into clusters and wrapped around an acrylic rod look strangely like a certain stone or mineral formation in nature. At the same time, the ubiquitous blue – IKEA tote bag, 3M masking tape and tarpaulin sheet is strikingly similar to azurite – a blue mineral pigment used in Chinese blue-and-green landscape paintings. The rock-mountain imagery is further magnified by the upright composition of the work and its resemblance to Scholar’s Rock.

To the ancient Chinese, azurite was regarded not just as a painting pigment but also as a medicinal and “key substance used in refining age-defying elixirs” (Yik, 2016). It was also believed to be formed by the qi or the “energy of the universe” and the places azurite could be found were often associated with the Taoist paradise or myths and supernatural powers (ibid.). Perhaps this was a reason why azurite was added to the formulation of Han Purple by the Taoist alchemists in their pursuit of synthetic jades as symbolic materials of immortality. Likewise, the use of azurite and the act of painting with it illustrated how the beliefs and desires for otherworldliness were imagined, constructed, visualised and encoded by the ancient Chinese painters. While the paradise or land of the immortals could be painted out definitely, such magical place was illusory.

By drawing a parallel between the banality of the blue cable fasteners and the elusive and ultimately futile search for transcendence by the ancient Chinese painters, Dreaming of the Azurite Grove reveals a self-consciousness in art making in the use of materials and the act of putting them together. It is through the very process of making, shaping and manipulating materials that humanity’s internal ambitions could be realised externally. Dreaming of the Azurite Grove is not an attempt to redefine or push the envelope of the cable ties as an art material. It is also not about trying to make a visually aesthetic work or a work that represents something. Instead, it is the perceptiveness that the mundane or crude could also be deeply meaningful and beautiful at the same time.



n. 326 – carbonation, 2015
Cotton pulp watercolour paper painted with malachite mineral pigment suspended in cow hide binder and archival PVA adhesive
H20 x W20 x D20 cm

Constructed from stacked circular sheets of paper to form a towering composition, n. 326 – carbonation continues the exploration on the symbolic use of mineral pigments in Chinese landscape paintings with the application of finely pulverised malachite pigment. The use of such pigments – specifically the combination of azurite and malachite, was the basis of the blue-and-green landscape painting genre used deliberately by painters to convey imageries of paradisiac landscapes and transcendence. Both mineral pigments were also used as ingredients in the Taoist alchemists’ quest for the formulation of the immortal elixir. According to the Taoist philosophy, “both painting and alchemy were transformative and magical arts that could be used to control the forces of life” (McNair, 1998). However, such belief was no longer practiced, and alchemy was regarded as “mere fakery and illusion” when Confucianism became the dominant philosophy after Taoism.



Tectonics, 2018
Cotton pulp watercolour paper squares dipped in natural indigo [Polygonum tinctorium] with cow hide binder and archival PVA adhesive
Variable Dimensions [Set of 460 squares, each square measure approximately 5 x 5 cm]

Tectonics is an exploration of tectonic gestures – the process and condition of construction where multiple identical parts are stacked to form a self-supporting structure without the use of adhesive or fasteners. The structure stands purely because of the physical laws of nature, and it could collapse if an external force is introduced. This work was originally made and presented at ADM Gallery in 2018 for "Shapes in Symmetry" and it was arranged in the configuration of a truncated pyramid. The paper squares dipped in natural indigo referenced the Maya blue – a vivid blue made from clay and organic indigo that survives until today. Ironically, the longevity of Maya blue contributed by its structure where the “indigo molecules are protected from any action coming from the outside world” (Delamare, 2013) is an antithesis of the impermanence of the man-made environment that is prone to ruination and disintegration.



Photography by Jing Wei