3 Singapore artists to look out for in the SB2011

Singapore Biennale 2011 at Old Kallang Airport

Old Kallang Airport, for those old enough to remember, was Singapore’s first civilian airport, decommission in 1955. It then served as part of an expressway, headquarters to People’s Association, used-car sale rooms, racetracks for weekend Radio-controlled car rallies, recreation venue until sometime in 2009, and a venue for the Singapore Biennale 2011. Old Kallang Airport is an icon of Singapore’s geographical, cultural and urban landscape. In its heydays, it connects Singapore’s sky to faraway places; as the head office for people’s association it provided numerous subsidized venues for Singapore’s amateur cultural groups; it remains an architectural feature, announcing the prominent, once fashionable Art Deco style of the 1920s and 30s.  In its current state, it reminds me of a broken toy, too precious to discard, too broken to be played with satisfactorily. The installation work by Michael Lee, Office Orchitect: K.S. Wong (2011) is most apt and best describes urban planners’ intense love-hate relationship with relic or derelict buildings, balancing Singapore’s past, present and future constructed architectural environment.

When K.S. Wong, the persona of artist Michael Lee, remarked that “Buildings are made of piles of butter” , he meant it as a critique of buildings in Singapore – buildings in Singapore are demolished as quickly as butter appears to melt. Just as paper as a building material suggests disposability/recycling, impermanence, experimentation, perhaps so are buildings not protected by conservation in Singapore. While the politics and narrative of space remain to be played out, the absence of detailed client briefs, creature comforts of commercial offices prevent us from plunging into the make-believe completely. What we can admire, from the onset and with untrained architect eye,  are the incredulous architectural models that stretch our imaginations about living spaces those lived or conceptual architectural spaces.

The body of work, in the form of a make-believe studio-office-home, surpasses Psychotaxonomy (2009), a solo exhibition at the Baba House, and works shown at Art Stage (2011).  It culminates his enduring interests in using paper and its derivatives (e.g. cardboard, carton etc) as materials for art, allure of polarity or ambiguity between fact & fiction, his fascination for monuments and architecture, and his attention to using concept maps to replace what words find difficult to relate and illustrate.

Another work that relates to Old Kallang Airport, is John Low‘s curiously titled installation, I’ve been Skying (2011). Inspired by and a tribute to the iconic Singapore River, the installation consists of fragments, artifacts, books, articles, sketches, borrowed artworks and parts from earlier artworks. John Low’s installation is constructed to resemble a lived space, and is akin to John Constable’s process of observing clouds. Like clouds, the meaning of the installation transmutes across the span of the installation – a research and inspiration space filled with book cases, a thinking space, a painting space, a writing space and an exhibition space. It alternates between a serious contemplation on the authenticity of art, and a play of meaning and purpose of art. To this end, the title of the work might well be “I’ve been skylarking”, playing tricks or puns like how Duchamp did with Étant Donnés (c.1969).

This installation displays in parts, and relate to John Low’s  earlier works, Ghost Stories (2009) series and Landscape (1997). Ghost Stories (2009) series consists of large, plan size, enlarged photocopies of newspaper archive articles, reporting on ghost sightings in Singapore. Fact, fiction and myth are confused in this age where documents are easily digitally manipulated and doctored, and these article’s authenticity are doubted. These photocopies are also displayed in the installation, along side floor arrangements of burnt charcoal or charred spherical objects. Owing to the proximity to these oversized newspaper articles, one can almost imagine the burnt objects have spontaneously combusted by uncanny forces. Like Landscape (1997), charcoal as a substance, signifies the basic element of life (carbon), birth, ‘re-birth’ or regeneration and death. Perhaps the artist wanted art to function like the uncanny and magical, transforming minds and lives like religious transubstantiation.

Like the Singapore River, the muse for many artists, the concept of ‘waterways’ and ‘island’ remain central to Singapore’s sovereignty and identity. Another modern magical facility, forgotten and underrated are Singapore’s reservoirs, storm drainage and sewage. Charles Lim’s All Lines Flow Out (2011) consists of a video and two nets hanging from the ceiling, droplet-like only magnified, filled with dead leaves. Relating to Singapore’s waterways  – canals and our beloved Singapore River – a romantic interpretation would be to see them as tear drops, symbolic of nostalgia. An environmental interpretation would be to see them as a reminder of the price of continual land reclamation at the cost of nature, or in this case, marine life.

The video shown navigates these forgotten waterways presenting an augmented viewing experience in an elegant, unusual high-definition and uber-landscape format. This video is fantasy, documentary and abstract rolled into one. One part fantasy, it unfolds a narrative of a young man who possibly works cleaning the canals. In the magical realism tradition, with a meta-narrative of a narrator or cinematographer, we are taken on a journey through the canals and waterways, seeking the sea and metaphorical freedom. One part documentary,  it is a celebration of our water-ways like Venice, only under explored.  Bits of the video probably featured the Kallang River, near the Old Kallang Airport. One part abstract, the pictorial contrast between light and dark, beaming night cityscape and construction sites, picture rivers and drains as ‘drawn’ lines in our landscape. Physical space is ultimately condensed, digitized and re-presented.

We are left uncertain if the protagonist is the narrator/owner of the abandoned house by the sea, the young man in the film, or artist himself. Fitted into Charles Lim’s larger interest, Sea Stories, they form a cogent and beautiful statement about the price of land, sea and a nation built by sea trade.

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This text was edited and posted much later than intended. Originally conceived as comments to accompany a special tour on Singapore Artists at Old Kallang Airport site, they have since been reorganized and redeveloped as a written piece. These 3 artworks were selected because they display strong unique aesthetics decisions; they convey sentiments in relation to space and identity or relate to Old Kallang Airport and notions of site-specificity.

Further reading:

Singapore Biennale 2011 artists: http://www.singaporebiennale.org/artists.php
Young Art Writer’s Programme, SB2011: http://blogs.todayonline.com/forartssake/tag/young-art-writers-programme/
Michael Lee: http://michaellee.sg/ and http://www3.ntu.edu.sg/chronicle/archives/vol17no09.pdf
John Low: http://www.myartspace.com.sg/Pages/artists_in_residence/John_low.html
Charles Lim: http://charleslim.org/

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