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Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2005 - 5:54 a.m.


In a gallery on the second floor of the Singapore Art Museum, the woman pauses in front of Fernando Botero's diptych, The President and the First Lady. The left panel is a painting of the President, an almost ordinary looking man wearing a black suit, seated on a brown horse with impossibly thick legs. The President and the horse are set against a background of banana trees and face the right of the painiting, as if looking beyond the wooden frame where the painting ends. There is a thin white border of the gallery's wall, perhaps two finger breadths wide before the frame of the right panel begins. In the right panel, the First Lady is seated less securely atop a similar brown horse, as if she would fall off at any instance. She holds a riding crop with a white-gloved hand and stares directly out of the painting at the viewer.

The woman takes a step towards the diptych. She looks around and sees the security guard disappear into the adjoining gallery, leaving her alone with the two massive panels. She reaches her hand out, not to touch the paintings, but to touch the white space of wall between the two panels. Is it one painting or two? How the President relates to the First Lady is ambiguous to the viewer, but even less clear for the two characters themselves. Their expressions betray neither ignorance - that the entire locus of their understanding ends at the limit of each panel's outline, nor cognizance - that another panel containing their mutual other halves lies centimetres away. The diptych is thus an accomplishment of separation and unity.

The woman wonders which panel was painted first, or maybe they were both painted at the same time, with equal palettes of ignorance and understanding applied to the canvas. She thinks that Botero's President and the First Lady are like everyone else in a relationship, which at its core is merely a description of separation and unity. But the description is not available to the two characters no one fully understands what is happening in a relationship, least of all the two people in it. They can vaguely see what is next, but they do not see everything that is coming. The woman removes her finger from the border between the two panels, and takes two steps back to acknowledge the idea that neither will ever see the full picture. The first step she took for the painted characters, and the second she took for herself.

 

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