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Who: Simon Fujiwara
What: Singapore Biennale
Where: Singapore Art Museum
When: 13 March – 13 May 2011

I was incredibly fortunate to have been in Singapore last week to catch a smidgeon of the Singapore Biennale. I was over on a business trip and I stayed back for the weekend for the first two days of the Biennale, which was technically still the vernissage, and managed to see a few things at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and the Merlion Hotel on Marina Bay. There were plenty of things on, performances and artists talks especially, but my limited time in Singapore meant I couldn’t see much at all. Still, better than nothing, right?

This post, the first instalment of my Biennale adventures, is on the elaborate installation called Welcome to Hotel Munber (2010) by UK artist Simon Fujiwara. In a small gallery space at the Singapore Art Museum, Fujiwara reconstructs an old Spanish hotel bar. To enter the ‘bar’, you had to push through a stiff saloon door, which immediately took away my passive gallery viewing experience and put me right into a space that, at first glance, was so lifelike I had to reconsider what exactly what I was looking at and whether or not I was still in an art gallery.

Entering Hotel Munber ‘bar’ through the saloon door


View of the ‘bar’ immediately after entering

View of wall immediately behind the front door

From the decor, it was obvious that the bar existed during the period when Spain was ruled by dictator General Franco. As I made my way around the room inspecting the objects, they first appeared to be quite random, but on closer inspection this was not the case. Every single item in the room was a familiar found object but displayed in such a way that their relationships with one another created incredibly odd sexual references. Some blatant. Most fraught with tension.

Serviettes served alongside a bottle of “Extra Virgin”.
It took me a while to make the connection. Then I shuddered.

I spent forever in the bar checking out every minor detail. Nothing was out of place.

Whilst I was in there a group of three came in and had a quick look around. One commented “How Western,” and they all left within 10 seconds. Seriously? Do people not spend any time looking at art these days?

The sexual references in the room were so exaggerated as soon as you started paying attention to the objects. Yet, at the same time, the bar’s overall set up was so damn ordinary, as evidenced by these people’s reaction to it. This deceptiveness created a sexual tension in the room that was almost explosive. It was awkward, and the overall mood hung in the precarious balance of suppression and release.

A table was set up on one side of the room with a black bull’s head and a wrought iron frame hanging from its neck. In the frame was a short story about General Franco, about how an injury sustained during battle may have affected his fertility and that he was left with only one testicle. The people of Spain were repressed by General Franco’s dictatorship and I couldn’t help but think that perhaps a large part of the satisfaction that Franco gained from the power of repressing others was due to his own inadequacy to function as a complete male human being. (Hitler, too, had only one testicle.)

The work directly references the sexual oppression during the time of Franco’s dictatorship, in particular the oppression of homosexuality. There are various text based works written by Fujiwara found around the room, in books or plastered on the surface of the hams (which were themselves made out of recycled pornography magazines). These are stories of homosexual erotica and are often shown to be cut or stabbed with a knife or sword, perhaps in recognition of the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who was executed during the Spanish Civil War because of his liberal sexual preferences. Lorca’s unjust death has also been explored by Australian artist Christopher Koller, who’s exhibition I had previously reviewed here.

In Welcome to Hotel Munber, sexuality and desire are set in contrast to a repressive authoritarian system. Fujiwara’s installation suggests that no matter how society is constructed, our innate human behaviours such as our sexuality, fear of death and need to fulfil our own shortcomings will always exist. Through the construct of society (of any kind) via religion, culture or politics, the fulfilment of these basic needs are often forced to be channeled into very bizarre corners of our lives, making human beings much more complex than society will ever hope to make us believe.

Simon Fujiwara won the 12th annual Baloise Prize with this work at Art Basel.

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