The Necessary Non-Necessity of Art: An Enquiry into Happiness Through Performance Art


An Essay by Christina Arum Sok

As part of Singapore Art Week 2015 and in concurrence with Art Stage 2015, ‘The Other Stage’ is an extension, complement and counter-proposal to the annual art fair held at Marina Bay Sands. A one-day pop-up event featuring two performances by Singaporean artist Jason JS Lee and Korean artist group Jang Hyo Kyeoung, Park Min Sun and Kim Lee Ryoung.

With the art world’s eyes on Singapore for the annual blockbuster affair, with the hottest names in contemporary art lined up, what would it be like to give light to an alternative narrative? If Art Stage and the gallery ecosystem are about selling artworks, what form does art that is not made-to-be-sold take? Perhaps this art is fleeting, or it is an experience that can only be witnessed in that singular moment. The artists commissioned to take part in this project speak of a personal narrative that touches on the notion of a collective consciousness—something that is universal and human. 

As a noun, stage is associated with the theatre, a platform on which actors perform, or it can be a raised platform for speakers and performers. At the same time, it is a step in a process or series. It can also mean to organize an activity, particularly for dramatic or public effect, as a verb. Therefore, when we stage an event, there is an element of ‘performance’ and ‘acting,’ as well as creating an occasion for an audience to share an experience. Moreover, the occurrence can be one in a series of occurrences that complete different phases and development of a larger purpose. Bringing together an audience for an art happening plays on all of these elements. ‘The Other Stage’ is staged to gather people to participate and experience an art happening. It is an act of performance, and it will be the first of a series of stages that at the core seeks to generate a dramatic effect, in the sense that it opens up the possibility of engagement, interaction, interjection and interpretation, as well as a forum for discussion, contemplation, awareness and understanding. 

On the surface level, we are aware that art is a non-utilitarian paradigm, without a particular necessity. Our societies would still function without art. Or the question is, would it? From as early as the Prehistoric period, dating 100,000 to 50,000 years ago, our ancestors began to create images, leaving behind a legacy of visual culture. What is it about art that ignites the human soul? There is a fundamental and unavoidable aspect of being human that yearns expression, creativity and unleashing the imagination. This basic freedom to express and create is the gift our Creator gave us.

The necessary non-necessity of art can be understood when we examine the multiple layers of the human being. We exist in three distinct dimensions of being— spiritual, intellectual and the physical. Art fulfills the human imagination, touching on the spiritual sphere, expressing desire and the subconscious, which then manifests itself on the second dimension as the artist, intellectualized through the human mind. Vincent Van Gogh once said, “I dream a painting and I paint my dream.” The artist is simply the medium that gives form to their subconscious, the spiritual being’s dreams and imagination. On the third level, the artwork then becomes a realization and manifestation in its physical, material form. 

When examining the process of art creation based on the interaction and relationship between these three levels of being, we can begin to understand why art has been an integral part of every society throughout the existence of humankind. As such, the process of art making is a necessity to the core survival and instincts of the breed of people we call artists. Art fulfills the necessity to give a physical dimension to an artist’s intangible desires and incorporeal fantasies, whilst also being a medium to which a perception of reality can be reflected: a window to the human soul and a version of the truth. Art provides a platform where opinions can converge and diverge, and new ideas can be born. Furthermore, art raises awareness for a shared understanding of co-habitation and co-existence.

This is the necessary non-necessity of art. It is undeniable that art is intended to be shared by an audience. The original intention of art is then further complexified as a consequence of the art being ‘consumed.’ Art becomes commodified and the multifaceted art market is in a frenzy to buy and sell the ideas, fantasies and dreams of the artists, putting a price tag and negotiating the value of these intangible desires that exist in every human being. As rational creatures operating within systems of trade and economic markets, and living in a society built on monetary exchange, buying, selling and collecting art fits into this larger system. We value art perhaps because it reminds us of something that we cannot articulate and it fulfills the spiritual aspect of our being, providing a sense of comfort, pride and purpose in our lives. Historically, collectors collected to display their wealth and socioeconomic status, as well as power and dominance, exhibiting their ability to afford non-utilitarian objects. Beyond that, collecting is the manifestation of human’s attachment to objects as well as innate human curiosity. In addition, on a higher level, collecting also provides intellectual fulfillment as collectors engage in further learning and educating as they build a collection.

If art nurtures and feeds the spiritual dimension and the soul of people, be it the artist or the audience experiencing and consuming the art, what then, are the stories that are significant and important to tell in our contemporary global society? If we strip down the complex layers between art making and the art market, as well as the theorization of aestheticism and tradition of art history, what remains is the basic meaning of our human existence. For once let us celebrate the essence of human life. Beyond all of the systems of thought, structures within society and the layers of transaction that make up the art economy, let us focus on our existence and desire to live, which comes down to the pursuit of happiness.

‘The Other Stage’ raises awareness of the multiple layers of human existence—the physical, intellectual and spiritual—and art’s intersection with these three levels. By elaborating on art’s critical role in nurturing intangible aspects of the human soul, ‘The Other Stage’ provides a platform to open up and engage our hearts and minds. An alternate stage, where instead of economic transactions and commercialization, we will exchange our desires and emotions, freely transferring, responding to and feeling what motivates our individual notion of happiness and how we in fact, define happiness. Isn’t the pursuit of happiness one of the core foundations of human existence and motivation for living? In the process of interaction and exchange of the artists' desires with the audience’s desires, the familiar and commercialized system of contemporary art is collapsed, as there is no other intention than to simply create and share art, which in turn elicits free responses from the audience.

The temporal, ephemeral nature of performance art suits the topic that this project addresses, as interpretations of happiness cannot be pinned down, while exchanges of happiness is also not tangible. As discussed by Arthur Danto in After the End of Art, contemporary art breaks free from the traditions of art history, no longer obligated to a greater narrative, as it is pluralistic in intention and realization, encompassing multiple dimensions (Danto, 17). As contemporary art exists in the everyday, outside of art institutions or intertwined with the economy of the art market, ‘The Other Stage’ seeks to provide a physical, intellectual and spiritual space for multiple peripheries and counter-stories to be displayed, studied, critiqued and archived. Multiple peripheries and counter-stories in terms of form, medium, the intangible emotional exchange, the outdoor location at Gillman Barracks, the timing of the project in the midst of Singapore's most prominent art week, the artists contributing to this project during this time period, and of course the audience interaction and response.

In stripping down the expected boundaries between the art, the artist and the audience, we are creating an alternative platform and forum for contemporary art practice, opening up possibilities of engagement, interaction, interjection and interpretation. In exploring and exchanging happiness, a state of being that is identified as a fundamental part of human existence, we are beginning with an important focal point, as this theme conceptually parallels the basic necessity and value for art as a medium to express the spiritual being. Just as much as happiness cannot be quantified, measured and fully rationalized, art exists in the same realm.

The videos of 'The Other Stage' can be viewed below: