To grow, or not to grow. A thought-provoking exhibition that provides a glimpse into a Singaporean family’s farming life told with poignance and gravitas.
“We Were Farmers is the culmination of her 12-year personal project documenting their experience and resilience, and a commentary on changing agricultural practices and urban development in Singapore, through photography.
We Were Farmers depicts the hopes, dreams and memories that tie Ore and her family together. It is a poignant tribute to not only the family farm, but also where her understanding of community and tradition, and sense of self, come from.” – Exhibition Text
It is rare to see photographs of farms in Singapore because they are relatively uncommon in land-scarce Singapore. It might be more common to see Instagram photographs of food (#singaporefood) or Outfit of the Day (#ootd.singapore) than to see pictures of Singapore farms. This exhibition and photobook of the same title come from Ore’s personal project. It shows behind the scenes of a family farm and simple outfits one might wear to work on a farm. To my recollection, most of the photographs had a white border that reminded me of polaroids or Instax prints for some reason. The photographs were also unframed, unpretentious and laid bare for the scrutiny of visitors.
This exhibition is significant in two ways, and therefore you should see it if you can.
First, it shows us an uncommon glimpse of Singapore’s farming history told through a personal account. We see brief accounts of farm life: photographs of children at play, a wedding (or two), glorious leafy greens basking in the sun, dark clouds looming in the distant but approaching the farm, to name a few. Each photograph may be mundane to some but no doubt significant to the photographer. The farm was a family affair as much as it was a livelihood.
The second significance of the exhibition is the ‘stream of consciousness’ manner in which the photographs are curated and exhibited. Unlike a photographic installation, it placed photographs like objects in configurations that make the ‘gestalt’, a full view of the exhibition seems like one organism, one work, one body. The placement of photographs felt more like a stream of consciousness where stories are told in chunks and are not necessarily in chronology. As an exhibition, we are free to walk about and see the photographs in any order we want or to follow the curator or photographer’s stream of consciousness. The display lets the audience have a sense of the main subject matter (the farm and the family) but enables the audience to encounter each photograph and let each picture or cluster of photos whisper their stories.
Photographs can tell us stories if we let them. To do so means stopping, seeing, and trying to make sense of what is happening in a photograph. If staring at a picture is uncomfortable because we are used to scrolling rapidly through social media content, asking these questions might help us slow down:
- What do we see?
- What does it remind us of?
- What did the photographer think when the photo was taken?
- What else might the photograph be saying?
[Repeat at the next photograph.]
Not all photographs tell the same thing or mean the same thing to different viewers. Pictures without captions risk omitting a point of reference for viewers, and readers may need to construct meaningful interpretations. But I think it works to this exhibition’s advantage, adding to interpretation of larger themes like life, destruction and loss. Omitting captions also allows viewers to bring their own associative, random thoughts from their subconscious to the foreground. Which makes the viewing experience more personal.
The exhibition included two videos tucked at the end of the Chapel gallery. One, ‘Roots’, a hypnotic dance interpretive piece that “explores themes of life, destruction and loss within the farm”, and Two, ‘Artist’s Reflection’, on an interview-style reflection of this personal project and her thoughts of putting the exhibition material together. Both videos are worth catching, though my personal recommendation is to watch them apart — watch one video first, take a second look at the exhibits, and then watch the second video. Watching the two videos in the same sitting/standing might create a visual discomfort, because the styles of the two videos are very different (If I were to hazard a comparison, it felt like listening to experimental music and an acoustic guitar song track on Spotify).
The exhibition also prompted me to rethink my perception of farming in Singapore. I am now more grateful for the vegetables I see and buy at the market or supermarket. Each pluck of hydroponics vegetable was planted and care for by hand. As this exhibition was held near Singapore’s national day, it also aroused my curiosity and concern for Singapore’s Green plan 2030, where Singapore aims to produce 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030. What kind of vegetable farming methods are commercially viable, and scalable in land-scarce Singapore? How can consumers support family-run farms? How do we get from farm to table in more efficient ways and generate less waste in the process?
[Read about Singapore’s ’30 by 30′ plan here.]
[I forgot to mention that Basil Seed Paper exhibition postcard was a nice touch. Do remember to take one postcard if you have green fingers, or know someone that does.]
Chapel Gallery, Objectifs
29 Jul to 29 Aug 2021