Miss Pleasurable, acrylic on canvas, 2004 by Singapore artist Aaron Teo
Miss Pleasurable’s company
Walking into an art gallery is much like entering a peep show kiosk in Amsterdam’s red light district. There is always the prospect of seeing naked bodies either hanging on the wall or hanging about in a glass cubicle.
But looking at naked bodies in art is quite unlike looking at them on, say, a porn Web site. There is no need to be furtive about nudes in oil, acrylic or watercolour. In the name of artistic appreciation, you and I – dirty old men and randy young men alike – can oggle as long as we wish, over lifesized Miss Pleasurable and other unclad beauties in all their painted glory. Just make sure your erection is not obvious through the folds of your trousers.
One evening, after work, while waiting at a bus stand in front of the building that houses the somewhat pompous Singapore Ministry of Information and the Art, I recalled that the interior of this former British colonial police station also has several art galleries. As the evening was bright, and I knew there would be unclothed ladies on display, I decided to walk in and feast on some art.
If a gallery has Balinese oil paintings, I can enjoy tan beauties in floral sarong and elaborate hairdo, showing off their pièce de résistance: perky, rounded breasts with cherry-dark nipples. I haven't been to Bali yet, but I don't suppose the women there walk around in public with exposed cherries any more. Neither would they be bathing and frolicking in a crystalline stream by a waterfall, as depicted in those 1950s oils that currently sell for anything from $10,000 onwards.
If I were to have $10,000 to throw away, I might as well spend it on a gaggle of warm bodies who would probably charge me no more than $150 an hour of pleasure (in Bangkok, I was told, $100 could buy you two hours of bare body massage and sex from a “therapist” you pick from a room-sized glass tank of beauties).
Singapore’s best-known artist Liu Kang and some of his contemporaries spent years living and painting in Bali and the happy result is a buffet spread of countless nudes combing their hair, bathing in a stream or putting on a sarong skirt. I am dead sure the artists – all dead now – had also taken their fill of the warm bodies posing as models.
Inside the building was a courtyard, covered by a transparent sunroof to keep in the airconditioning and keep out Singapore's creativity-sapping heat and humidity. Facing the courtyard are the galleries but most have already closed for the day, except Gajah Gallery, a name that sounded familiar. Years ago, as a self-designated art reviewer for the Straits Times newspaper, I visited a gallery of the same name but it was then located at Newton Circus, not far from the cluster of greasy Hokkien noodle food stalls.
Now, in the new gallery, a tall, skinny girl called Karen assured me this was indeed the same Gajah re-located from Newton Circus. Inside were Balinese paintings by a chap called Paramartha. Unlike conventional oil, the female forms were fuzzy figures in gold, red and yellow. They look very unerotic.
In another part of the gallery were huge lacquer-on-wood paintings by a Vietnamese, Ho Huu Thu. I was struck by a bigger-than-life vertical panel entitled “the Buddha”, showing a slender, feminine-like figure pushing apart two dark patches, probably representing either basic ignorance or the petal-folds of a vulva. Other lacquer paintings showed women in various langourous poses. The shimmering patches on the paintings were actually gold leaf rubbings, said Karen.
Ho’s paintings glowed under the spotlight but even when Karen switched off the lamps, they remained luminious in the dim shadows. The dreamlike figures seem to come from a portal that is opened only in sleep. Other than such decorative but gimmicky impressions, I couldn’t figure out what Ho was trying to express.
As I walked out of the building, I turned back and noticed in the falling darkness a naked woman under the spotlight behind the glass door of Gajah Gallery. According to details from the gallery's Web site, the piece of art was entitled “Miss Pleasurable”, by a Singaporean, Arron Teo. – August 24, 2004