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Museum censors explicit art work (The Straits Times)
30 Mar, 2011

Published by The Straits Times (Singapore):

Mar 28, 2011

Museum censors explicit art work

A Biennale installation had some of its sexual content removed without permission from the artist

By corrie tan

An installation with graphic homosexual content at the ongoing 2011 Singapore Biennale has been altered by the Singapore Art Museum without the artist's consent.

The installation by award-winning British artist Simon Fujiwara converted a gallery in the museum into a Spanish hotel bar with a bar counter, bar stools, barrels of wine and legs of ham hanging from the ceiling.

But a row of gay pornographic magazines that were placed on top of a cupboard behind the bar counter and a gay pornographic magazine that was placed under a Spanish newspaper at the gallery's entrance have been removed.

Extracts of erotic text, framed up on the wall and pasted on the legs of fabricated ham, were not removed from the installation.

The changes to the installation, Welcome To The Hotel Munber, were reported last week by Fridae.com, a gay and lesbian Asian news and lifestyle portal.

When asked about the removal of the items, Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui said that while the museum and curators were aware that the installation would contain some graphic sexual material, it was only after the installation was completed for the Biennale's opening weekend that the museum realised some of the graphic material was within the clear view and easy reach of visitors.

So the museum decided to remove the material after a private preview on March 11 and 12, which was attended by local and international artists and reporters. The Biennale curators were informed as well, and they contacted the artist.

The museum said that during the busy opening weekend of March 11 to 13, it did not have a chance to discuss the work with the Berlin-based Fujiwara before he left the country. At press time, the artist did not answer queries sent by Life!.

Mr Tan did not say why the museum did not contact the artist before removing the items from the installation, but said in an e-mail statement: 'Given the diversity of visitors at SAM, including audiences who may not appreciate seeing such material in full view, we made the decision to remove it.

'SAM has a broad base of visitors, ranging from those familiar with the language of contemporary art to new audiences and families with young children who are taking initial steps towards appreciating contemporary art. Hence, the museum will always work with the curators and artists whose works deal with, or contain, potentially sensitive subject matter to determine how to best display their works for our audiences, without altering their artistic intent.'

Biennale curator Russell Storer, 40, who contacted Mr Fujiwara after the changes were made to the installation, said of the artist's reaction: 'The artist was concerned because what happened changes the work. We are in the process of working out the next step with the museum and the artist.

'It would have been good to have had this discussion before the Biennale but we are trying to be as pragmatic as possible right now. It's an issue for all of us, but we understand that there are laws in Singapore to abide by.'

Lawyer Samuel Seow, 37, said that it is an offence under the law to exhibit obscene and/or objectionable publications. He cited Singapore's Undesirable Publications Act, where anyone who exhibits 'any obscene publication knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the publication to be obscene' can be fined a maximum of $10,000 or sentenced to jail for a maximum of two years, or both.

When Life! visited the Singapore Art Museum yesterday, two advisories en route to the exhibition space warned that the gallery that housed Welcome To The Hotel Munber contained work of a sexual nature and that parental guidance was recommended.

These signs have been put up since the exhibition began.

The work, a travelling installation, was inspired by the hotel and bar run by the artist's parents in southern Spain under the military dictatorship of General Franco in the 1970s.

Mr Fujiwara, 28, the winner of the Frieze Art Fair's prestigious annual Cartier Award for emerging artists last year and who is known for his creation of fictional narratives, retells his parents' life as erotic fiction.

The installation explores and is a response to the violent and oppressive climate that his parents experienced under General Franco's rule. The artist's mother is British and his father is Japanese.

As part of the artwork, Mr Fujiwara gave a lecture performance at the museum during the Biennale's opening weekend where he read extracts of erotica and used props such as photographs, newspaper clippings and original objects from his parents' hotel.

Audience members described the performance as a conflation of sexuality, family values and political history.

This is the second art controversy relating to nudity this year. In January, an Indian artist who stripped naked in the name of art at the inaugural international art fair Art Stage Singapore, stopped his act after newspapers went to town with the story.

Asked about the incident at the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore artist and gallery owner Alan Oei, 34, said: 'If an artist's work is to be altered, you need to inform the artist first or negotiate an outcome. If the artist doesn't understand why, he or she might pull out, but that's how it is.'

Mr Olivier Henry, 38, a Singapore-based photographer and gallery owner, said: 'I think it's entirely unacceptable for a museum to change a work like that. You might change the work's integrity and message. 

'If there are censorship issues, these should have been brought up prior to the work being showcased. I find it extremely alarming that someone else can just take the responsibility and creative freedom to change an artist's message and work.'

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