City Planned: Tracing Monuments By Michael Lee Hong Hwee

Provocative Ghost-less shells

The exhibits are less of an installation, but an attempt to haunt the Singapore Art Museum, the old Saint Joseph Institution (SJI) building by its siblings in Singapore’s architectural history. The old SJI building survived the bulldozer, and is now home to the visual arts. The works at first sight are architectural student like assignments at model building, except with cardboard here than compressed foam or expensive balsa wood. Students that were born the grandeur of these buildings are doomed to see these works as uneventful fire hazards along the corridor, confusing the average museum goer with the Museum’s existing poor signage. The models lack detail, as if forgotten and omitted deliberately, just as these buildings were omitted for conservation, for the sake of national progress. They did looked like exhibits ‘dumped outside’ because the galleries were full. They do remind me of Rachel Whitread’s ‘House’, huge plaster casts of the interior of a house that was demolished. With that line of thought, we can almost imagine the artist wanted to speak of absence and presence of these ‘Monuments’.

On closer look, and reading the important labels on each platform, they conjure the image of a city planner gone soft on progress, and is desperately reclaiming his own conscience by re-membering these buildings, in the form of architectural models. Irony will be to think of the future of these same models, constructed out of cardboard, doomed by humidity if they weren’t carefully stored. I think there is sadness too in the title, City Planned, in it’s past tense, suggest loss and regret. City planning is a momentus activity, affecting lives today and tomorrow. Gazing at models give that sense of power, the power of feeling big and in control of things.

I think most Singaporeans will not remember the old demolished / collapsed buildings of Singapore. A city-state that constantly feels the need for urban architectural rejuvenation, with façade-conservation the likes of Cathay cinema and award winning Bugis Junction, it is no surprise that any old building will be ‘revamped’,or vampirized. If buildings were not gazetted as national monuments, itself a delicate process of bureaucracy and nation-history building, they suffer the fate of the old red brick National Library, petitioned, debated, over-ruled and demolished nonetheless.

The act of tracing is significant. It signifies both the act of locating something that is lost, and the act of creating an outline, just as how scaled-models are a facsimile of something larger and physical. Monuments here, reminded me of the Artists Village project, Artists Investigating Monuments (AIM). There is an attempt and a poetic gesture, as an individual, to define monuments. It makes me wonder what is the City Planners’ definition of monument.

While the haunting at SAM is apparent perhaps only to a few, the poorly lit works and sporadic (apparition like) display would turn off most people. Do buildings have ghosts? If they do, they are quiet representatives here, queuing up to be remembered.

3.0 of 5 stars

till mid June, Singapore Art Museum (SAM)

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