Daniel Michael Satele – 2 January, 2014
Laird and Singh's failure to critically engage Wihaan's escape from their intentions suggests, surprisingly, that the artists do not take the shrine seriously on the spiritualistic or traditional grounds they claim as their work's premise. According to Wikipedia's entry for “spirit house”: ‘[t]he house is intended to provide shelter for spirits which could cause problems for the [local] people if not appeased.' Taking Wihaan seriously qua spirit house, on the terms of the tradition to which it belongs, could not spirits themselves have caused or invited the vandalism?
Not long ago I was greatly disturbed by an interview I heard on Radio New Zealand with Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird, discussing their sculpture Wihaan (1). My problems with the interview’s content have driven me to write this essay; but first let me give some background.
Wihaan is a “spirit house,” a variety of shrine belonging to a particular Southeast Asian tradition. Specifically, the Thai Buddhist Association in Kelston, West Auckland is said to have given ‘assistance’ in Wihaan‘s production; and Thawee Khampantip is the name of its builder (2). Wihaan was commissioned as part of Auckland Council’s 2010 Micro Sites public sculpture series, initially installed at central Auckland’s Albert Park, but removed to nearby Alten Reserve after being vandalized at its first location. Apparently, what makes Wihaan an artwork - its point of difference from regular, “purely” traditional spirit houses - is its provenance, having had its construction and its installation into public space organized by Laird and Singh; along with the conceptual gimmick of its being painted a new colour every six months.
The October 2013 interview with Singh and Laird discusses Auckland Council’s unwillingness to continue funding Wihaan‘s maintenance at Alten Reserve, since, as the artists admit, the sculpture was only ever supposed to be installed temporarily. Nonetheless, Laird and Singh object to their sculpture’s removal since, they claim, Wihaan has come to ‘serve a community.’ Surprisingly, and unfortunately, the interview does not explain the precise nature of the sculpture/shrine’s ‘service,’ or the make up of the ‘community’ it is said to serve. The supposed community of Wihaan‘s attendants is invoked in vague, largely unsubstantiated rhetoric: Singh says she will gather ‘a certain amount of signatures’ on a petition calling for Wihaan‘s continued presence at the park while Laird asserts that the ‘community that’s […] grown to cherish’ Wihaan ‘really wants [it] to stay.’ Admittedly Singh’s claim that Wihaan has become a ‘working temple’ is partially supported by Laird’s listing some concrete examples of the kinds of offerings left at the shrine over the years. However, even if the community of attendants invoked by the artists exists in precisely the way they claim it does, this goes no way to solving the problems with the artists’ linguistic treatment of Wihaan that this essay examines (3).
More important than the presence in the interview of a rhetorically invoked yet largely unsubstantiated community of Wihaan‘s attendants is an absence that shadows it. No voice from any of the actual Southeast Asian communities to which the spirit house tradition belongs is heard. The interview even almost misses including an account of the tradition by the artists, with Singh providing only this short gloss: ‘the spirit house tradition is an Eastern idea of really creating a safe space for spirits to reside in for prosperity.’ Hence the interview provides close to no education for uninitiated listeners as to what a spirit house is or does in its typical setting. Here Singh and Laird miss an obvious opportunity to instantiate their aim, as articulated in one publicity statement, for Wihaan to provide reflection ‘on the sacred and spiritual resonance [sic] of […] many cultures’ (4) (my emphasis). Far from reflecting ‘many cultures,’ the interview is essentially monocultural, failing even to reflect the specific Thai Buddhist culture Laird and Singh appropriate into their art practice with Wihaan.
In the interview, as in publicity statements and news reports on Wihaan‘s vandalism, the artists’ stated multiculturalist intentions are presumed to coincide with the actual effects produced by their artwork, a presumption that does not stand to reason. The interview turns to the artists’ intent when Singh describes how she and Laird decided to contribute a spirit house for Micro Sites because, although ‘there was a marae […] a fale and multiple churches’ in the designated area, ‘there wasn’t really anything specific for anyone of Eastern context so [she and Laird] really wanted to provide a space for people to be able to share and feel like they were represented within a spiritual capacity within the’ vicinity. Singh posits Wihaan as the answer to a counter-logically stated problem: that there was nothing specific for the community of ‘anyone of Eastern context’ - a linguistic construction devoid, and in denial, of specificity. In a speech act of quiet violence, Singh homogenizes a diverse range of cultures linked with the Asian region into a monolithic ‘East.’ I wonder if the Indonesian congregation of St Andrew’s - directly opposite Wihaan, across Alten Road - might not consider themselves people of ‘Eastern context’ who are ‘represented within a spiritual capacity’ by the church they choose to attend weekly. This suggests that only certain versions of ‘Eastern’-ness and ‘Eastern spirituality’ count for Singh: precisely those that are visibly exotic and exoticizing for a Western audience.
Singh claims to have answered the local lack of a ‘specific’ ‘anything’ for ‘anyone of Eastern context’ with a spirit house whose culturally particular link to the Thai Buddhists who assisted in Wihaan‘s production she elides. Hence Singh’s rhetoric produces the opposite of multiculturalist effects, in complete departure from her stated intentions. The aim of providing ‘representation’ for ‘anyone of Eastern context’ is rendered in cruder phraseology in an earlier account of Wihaan‘s inception by Laird: ‘We thought: “Let’s do something with a strong Asian flavour.”’(5) This too was presented as some kind of achievement when Laird’s glib wording circulated as the headline for a newspaper story about Wihaan: “Artwork Brings Asian Flavour.” Intentions and effects are once more conflated when Singh’s claim that Wihaan ‘fuses together cultures of Thai, Indian, Maori and Pacific peoples’ is published - online and in the aforementioned newspaper story - without explication. Yet how this fusion occurs is far from self-evident. While Wihaan is essentially Thai via the artists’ collaboration with the Thai Buddhist Association, I would like to know how, specifically, the other named cultures are fused into the work, particularly where the supposed Maori and Pacific elements are concerned. I do not see it.
Instead of taking the proposition that Wihaan is a spirit house seriously, the crux of its multiculturalist purchase as “artwork,” the interview quickly turns into an account of the artists’ individual emotional responses to the vandalism. Laird states that ‘it was actually a very painful experience […] it did feel like we’d been personally abused’ (my emphasis). Yet surely, if there was ‘personal abuse’ implicit in the vandalism of this work, with its ‘strong Asian flavour’ in Laird’s words, the abuse was aimed at Asians, not Laird, a white New Zealander whose racial privilege precludes her precisely from ‘personally’-directed experiences of anti-Asian racism. Despite some attempts by the interviewer to nuance the discussion, Singh and Laird use the interview to produce a conservative, moralistic indictment of vandalism. Singh reveals that Wihaan‘s initial location was ‘actually notorious for being quite a dodgy spot in Albert Park, which was the basis as to why’ she and Laird installed Wihaan there: ‘to see if we could transmit, or translate the energy of that site into being more of a safe, positive place, rather than a negative place like it’ had been. Admitting that this attempt was ‘unsuccessful,’ neither Singh nor Laird offers any critical reflection on the possible reasons for their project’s failure to achieve this “energy translation.”
Laird and Singh’s failure to critically engage Wihaan‘s escape from their intentions suggests, surprisingly, that the artists do not take the shrine seriously on the spiritualistic or traditional - that is, precisely the multiculturalist - grounds they claim as their work’s premise. According to Wikipedia’s entry for “spirit house” (I cite Wikipedia to make it clear that I have no special knowledge of the tradition being discussed - the interviewer could easily have done this level of preparatory research too): ‘[t]he house is intended to provide shelter for spirits which could cause problems for the [local] people if not appeased.’ (6) Taking Wihaan seriously qua spirit house, on the terms of the tradition to which it belongs, could not spirits themselves have caused or invited the vandalism? If Wihaan is a spirit house, should we not ask how the local spirits are interacting with it as much, if not more so, than we ask about the interactions made by local people? This, to my mind, is the crucial question that should have been asked in the Radio New Zealand interview, and should still be put to Singh and Laird.
It is telling that the very questions asked about Wihaan privilege its Western categorization as “artwork”/sculpture over its (as Singh would have it) ‘Eastern’ categorization as “spirit house”/shrine, instantiating monoculturalism while simultaneously relying on Wihaan to underpin false claims to the success of a multiculturalist act. Curators (Rob Garrett, in this case) and artists (certainly Laird and Singh) often seem content to make superficial gestures in the name of multiculturalism rather than attempting actual engagements with non-Western traditions, a problem concomitant with the already described tendency to pass off artists’ declarations of intent as isomorphic with the intention’s actual achievement. Sadly, it seems that pseudo-multiculturalist gestures are accepted in place of the real thing because they allow engagement with other cultures to remain on the level of ornamentation. Embellishing the view in a park with an Orientalist sculpture, incorporating Asian-ness on the level of a ‘flavour’ merely added to (and thus, ultimately, subtractable from) New Zealand’s white-privileging status quo is far different from engaging the hearts of others’ traditions, where things don’t just look different, but where things are different, where reality itself is conceived from within an alien framework. For their failure to take the tradition they appropriate seriously, and although they may believe the veracity of their own words, I totally reject Singh’s and Laird’s claims that Wihaan works as a point for intercultural ‘fusion’ in the way they intended, while the whole framework of their complaints that their sculpture was not ‘respected’ grossly simplifies the stakes of cross-cultural communication, suggesting that in fact Laird and Singh are not the experts in multiculturalist strategies that they take themselves to be.
A further question stands out to me. Does not Wihaan‘s vandalism constitute an authentic response to the artwork, albeit undesired by the artists, from (a subgroup of) the local community? In the interview Laird’s facile reduction of the vandals to ‘louts with nothing better to do’ elides the sociology of vandalism: so-called vandals by definition evince a level of alienation from predominating social norms, and are therefore often among the more vulnerable members of society. Simplistically casting Wihaan‘s vandals as unenlightened Philistines who just don’t ‘respect’ art, or Singh’s and Laird’s conceptions of spirituality, dismisses even an elementary critical reading of the statement being made precisely through and by Wihaan‘s vandalism, which may prove to be the most interesting thing about the work in its Western sculptural dimension. Laird tellingly states that she and Singh ‘never really fully understood why people would’ vandalize Wihaan, demonstrating a lack of sociological imagination.
Exercising cultural paternalism on two levels, Laird and Singh prescribed for the Micro Sites vicinity a spirit house - although this was not directly called for by the communities to which spirit houses actually belong - while they have further prescribed the types of interactions people should make with their sculpture, interpreting the community’s departure from their prescription as ‘personal abuse.’ Finally, I reject the view of Wihaan‘s vandalism as negative. I claim that Wihaan qua sacred object, in its traditional dimension, has refused complicity with Singh’s and Laird’s attempts to appropriate it into their art practices. If Laird and Singh label Wihaan‘s vandalism as “disrespect” they fail to see that disrespect is precisely what they - and those who condone their work - practice when they turn Wihaan into merely the pivotal device for their own self-congratulatory declarations of multiculturalist achievement, all the while declining to take the sculpture seriously in its cultural otherness, which is to say its sacredness, as a spirit house. Here is the real act of desecration that needs addressing.
Daniel Michael Satele
(3) When I visited Wihaan in late-December 2013 it certainly did not look well tended, as the artists’ statements suggest. Instead it was dirty and cobwebbed, with its paint chipping; adorned only with three fake-flower lei, one tattered and discoloured with age. However, as stated above, proving or disproving the factuality of the artists’ claims about a ‘community’ being formed around Wihaan is beside the point of this essay.
(4)”Learning Quarter Micro Sites” page on the Auckland Council website.
(5) Rhiannon Horrell, “Artwork Brings Asian Flavour,” Auckland City Harbour News (30 July 2010).
(6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_house. I am fascinated to observe that the types of spirit residing in the spirit house are portrayed by Singh as somehow vulnerable, with Wihaan said to provide a ‘safe space for spirits to reside in,’ while the Wikipedia entry directly contrasts this claim, suggesting that spirit houses keep people safe from the problems non-accommodated spirits might cause. However, being unversed in Southeast Asian culture I can draw no conclusion about this difference between the two accounts.
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