Baring skin, scars and personal stories
Artist Chen Yanyun had hoped her piece of work about scars would allow the man in the street to connect with art in a personal way. She did not expect it to also spur strangers to reveal to her intimate details about their bodies and lives.
Her work, The scars that write us, is part of the recently opened President’s Young Talents 2018 exhibition at SAM at 8Q, the Singapore Art Museum annex in Queen Street.
The work includes scar-shaped welts on steel plates which are based on the marks on Chen’s body and those of her family members. The tactile portrayals are paired with chalk and charcoal drawings of her body, as well as confessions about the scars by their owners.
Perhaps it is the conspiratorial tone used to describe the scars – one whispers, “She once told me, that with that mark, I’d be identifiable as a corpse” – that prompts viewers to share openly about their own with Chen.
“Random people will approach me and say they have to tell me, or show me their scars. It almost becomes competitive at times,” says Chen bemusedly. In one instance, a stranger flashed her nape, where a long, thin scar, otherwise hidden by hair, starts its run down the spine.
Or perhaps it is the set-up of the work, in a darkened gallery, that inspires the disclosures.
You first encounter the scar-shaped markings up close, then at an aching distance, before reaching a wall of poetic writing that invites you to reflect on scars – physical, mental and emotional. To exit the gallery, you are forced to retrace your steps, and possibly see the raised markings in new light.
Regardless of what causes viewers to feel an urge to open up about their wounds, their willingness to engage with art through something as commonplace as scars heartens Chen, 31.
The artist, who is also a Yale-NUS College lecturer, says: “Contemporary art engages with the philosophical and theoretical. But on that level, it can be hard for people to grasp art for day-to-day living.
“With this work, even if people don’t know anything about contemporary art, they have something they can hold on to and a story they can share.”
But there is an element of the profound that undergirds the work for Chen, who is pursuing a PhD in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Theory at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, and who is writing a thesis on laws governing nudity and the arts in Singapore.
She says: “The work is proof that we can tell more stories and have more interesting perspectives about the nude body where it isn’t tied to sexuality.”