I Polunin at NUS Museum

persistence, familiar and the exotic

The exhibition title I Polunin no doubt has two implications and meanings. Firstly, it is the initials of the prolific British physician, Dr. Ivan Polunin. Secondly, a self-proclamatory exclamation between pride and conceit, “(It is) I, Polunin”.

My first encounter with these moving images stems back many years in a forgotten exhibition at the pre-renovated National Gallery (now National Museum of Singapore), and more recently in Tan Pin Pin’s Invisible City (2007). According to the director, “Invisible City documents the fight against the the passing of time and the atrophy of memory”, and the materials and life-long work of Dr. Polunin featured strongly in the film. This unique collection, aptly named the Dr. Polunin Collection, records the daily scenes of Singapore life in the 1950s and 60s, providing rich visuals for ethnographic study of the development of a nation from tribal, rural, coastal to cosmopolitan-urban, and global. The archive of 16mm film footages captured the Singapore that we have all but forgotten.

His position is unique, straddling the roles of an academic and a historian. He was teaching Social Medicine and Public Health at the then University of Malaya, and numerous opportunities led him to provide film footages to National Geographic, the British Broadcasting Corporation on wide ranging topics of sailing boats in South East Asia to studies of people. 

In this exhibition display, we are led to imagine the obsessive need to ‘document’ to record everything before it vanishes. The only other artist that can came to my mind is Koh Nguang How, in detail and loyalty to his persistence. The 8 metres long cabinet lay like a cabinet of curios, shelving a mix of maps, film canisters, a Beaulieu 16mm camera, lens, projectors, sound recorders, monitors and more. The juxtaposition of notes, re-printed photographs and digitised 16mm film footage adds to the nostalgia. What is amusing, for me, was the playback of the ambient ,consistent drone ‘digitised’ from a 16mm projector, capturing and re-staging the ambience of such a projection event. The sound of rattling film and hum of a motor, will no doubt be unfamiliar to many. 

The potency of these images, lie in the rich colours, and potential narratives. Unlike proper documentaries, these are like silent movies, not unlike the lumiere brothers when they first shown moving images to any audience. 

The idea of narrative is deliberately fragmented, and presented akin to an installation. The fragmentation is perhaps, an attempt to look at these archives objectively, providing a lens to critique the amount of progress Singapore has made. The exhibition did open on National Day’s eve. But subjectivity creeps in, like all art intepretations. We are left to bridge the gaps of his story, and our own stories. Were there familiar places, or are they all exotic by the distance of time?

Watching the footages by myself would have been different to watching them with my mother. She would interrupt the projection to add agreeable remarks that life was like that in Pasir Panjang, the farms in Sembawang were like that and so on. There’s a scene of 3 children playing a hopping game, back facing each other, one bent leg kicked back, supporting each other in a triangle ‘fold’. She added that children in those days had no toys to play with. She also remarked that some of the children in the photographs were around the same age as her, and they would be in their 60s. The digitised film footages had a strong pull on one’s imagination, if only we let them. I had imagined the farm boy in the film to be an old man sitting at the coffee shop. This old man, with a boisterous voice and a bottle of Guinness between meals,would perched on the ubiquitous plastic chair,a cigarette in one hand, the other gesturing, lamenting of by-gone years, and the indecency of not being able to eat one’s own home-grown vegetables. I would imagine my father as a child, running along the short beach at Pasir Panjang, where the port now sits. I imagine the bulldozer tearing through the kampong houses, flats, cinemas and libraries. I can imagine that we are destroying ourselves.


 I Polunin
NUS Museums, 
8 August 2009 – 3 Jan 2010

National Archives of Singapore: Dr Ivan Polunin Collection, Accession Number: 2000000490 


NOSTALGIA – With its Greek roots–nostos, meaning “to return home” and algos, meaning “pain”–this word sounds so familiar to us that we may forget that it is a relatively new word, as words go. It was coined in 1688 by a 19-year old Swiss student in his medical dissertation as a sophisticated (or perhaps pedantic) way to talk about a literally lethal kind of severe homesickness (of Swiss mercenaries far from their mountainous home)
Johannes Hofer, Dissertatio medica de nostalgia, oder Heimwehe (Basel, 1688), translated in The Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine 7 (1934): 379-91. 

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