Mahābhūta: The Great Element was a solo show by Tiffany Singh at Uxbridge, a former site for a Presbyterian Church in Howick, and Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple in Flat Bush. Both exhibitions under the same name acted like sister shows, in very different settings. From the outset, and typical of Singh’s practice, this was an exhibition centered on multiplicity; multiple sites, installations, objects, traditions and ethnicities, a multi-sensory exhibition reflecting on the natural environment. And there are multiple things at stake for this social practitioner.
The exhibition at Uxbridge included small sculptural works, films made with Robert George, a sound piece by Steven Berry, posters by The Kauri Project and The River of Verses, an installation of phrases painted around the entire circumference of the gallery. The phrases, which included proverbs and poetry on nature, were painted by local individuals and community groups, including schools and members of local iwi. The exhibition at Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple, similarly, was made up of various sculptural works, drawings, installations and a film.
Uxbridge, as a space, is a hard nut to crack. It was, and still looks very much like a Presbyterian Church. More than that, the building itself is a multi-purpose site, housing live performances, cinema and whatever else the Centre might need to host. While Uxbridge provides any artist with some difficult architecture, it is still run as an autonomous gallery. In contrast, Fo Guang Shan is a religious site with a gallery inside; a completely different type of social space with its own set of beliefs and ideas. I noticed that her familiar beeswax sculptures of Mary were omitted from this site and all the works included had some sympathy with Buddhist beliefs and values—the suspended ribbons, for example, with the Buddhist medicine mantra inscribed by hand.
I suspected Fo Guang Shan would reveal the ‘orientalist’ criticisms her work has faced in the past (1). But her work kind of belonged. I say kind of, because in my mind, with no knowledge of Eastern religions, I wouldn’t know what belonged and what didn’t. But, you could see that the work was comfortable in its surroundings, more comfortable than it might have been in a gallery. The nuns changed the contents of the beeswax bowls every morning. Water, flowers and dirt were gathered from around the temple gardens to renew the exhibition daily. The nuns participated in rituals within this art exhibition which were not that different to their everyday practices at the temple. I do admit, however, that there are many aspects of Singh’s practice I don’t particularly understand.
I’m not the best art historian, but from my knowledge, there are very few Indian New Zealand artists. I think of Bepen Bhana, Sanjay Theodore, Shruti Yatri or Harpreet Singh. These names I pull in an arbitrary and redundant way, a simple method of grouping built with its own flaws. The question, though, is does Singh’s practice require what might be perceived as simpleness because she is one of the only New Zealand Indian Contemporary artists? With Pacific art in comparison and as a case study, it took many years and many artists before New Zealand art audiences had deeper and subtler understandings of both Pacific culture and Pacific art, and even now, it would be accurate to say that New Zealand contemporary art made by Pacific artists suffers from simplistic readings based on generalised understanding of Pacific peoples and cultures. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Tautai Contemporary Pacific Art Trust (2) and using that date as a time marker, we have witnessed an extreme widening of New Zealand Pacific practices, through careers of people such as John Pule, Lonnie Hutchinson, Janet Lilo and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila. In that time, we have also seen the work move from motif heavy painting and sculpture to digital technologies, and concepts shifting from immediate experiences of migration and racism to us as Pacific people and our local New Zealand environments.
Tiffany Singh pulls imagery from various religions and philosophies not always present in the imaginings of New Zealand art audiences. I certainly do not have great knowledge when it comes to the various strains of Asian thought and religions. The simple nature of her social practice seems most fitting for children, but perhaps the simplicity is also required for adults. Singh’s practice is very literal, and on some level, incredibly simple (or really complicated and we don’t know any different). But can it really be anything but simple when she is helping shape New Zealand Indian contemporary art history? Tiffany Singh as sacrilegious lamb, maybe?
(1) This criticism has been demonstrated by Daniel Satele on EyeContact. He reviews Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird’s Wihaan and discusses the work as having a monocultural or generalised oriental emphasis rather than exploring the multiplicity that the cultural object can have.
(2) An organisation founded to support and promote Pacific art in New Zealand