Naima Morelli

Archive
Singapore Series

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Nature in Singapore

The garden city utopia was conceived well before Singapore would reclaim this title for itself. The term was first created in 1898 by utopian thinker Ebenezer Howard. The concept of having housing outside the city, providing to each house its own garden, was made possible by the brand new railroad, which made transportation possible. Again, it was a way to go home, away from the industrial pollution. This idea was successfully implemented in Anglo-Saxon countries. In the US especially, this sort of nuclear family solution came to correspond with the American dream.

As we mentioned earlier, suburbia proved problematic not only on a social level. There are also other problems involving a shortage of horizontal space, and most importantly, the transportation which made possible the idea of garden city must today be reduced for environmental reasons. Today’s transportation calls for a different conception of the garden city, a garden city that is mainly vertical, and that is what has been implemented by Singapore. In its modern idea of the Garden City, Singapore wants to show that nature and business can be integrated. The western division between leisure and work doesn’t have to be so sharp. Business life doesn’t have to necessarily happen away from nature, and be balanced by it. This corresponds, on a wider scale, to the dismantling of the idea of work-life balance, as if work and life would be two separate entities. What is valid for the individual is valid also for the wider community. It is true that there is a place to sleep, a place to work, a place to relax, but we must keep in mind that in our mind and life the boundaries are not so strict as walls.

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Daylight dystopia

In our worse dystopian imagination, brought to fruition by filmmakers and artists, we imagine the cities of the future being an endless continuation of buildings and city lights, from the steamy Metropolis to – moving to the ‘80s – the cities of Ghost in The Shell, or Neon Tokyo from Akira. Asian mega-cities provided a good model in this respect. The urban landscape of Blade Runner for example was inspired by a particular part of Kwaloon, also known as the Walled City. This was an area of incredible density, a human anthill, picturesque and inhuman at the same time. In 1994, Kwaloon was demolished. Visitors eager to see the ruins of this mythical place will instead find a park with gardens, floral walks, ponds and pavilions. The future was not as we imagined, if not only for the lack of flying cars which many of us lamented, but also because it doesn’t look as evil as we thought. Then came the daylight dystopia. As a child, I remember approaching this slightly less suffocating concept in the Disney PK comics. This was a superhero series of Donald Duck set in a futuristic future. In a particular episode, PK travelled to the future to find that instead of the tower he operated from – the Ducklair tower created by a tech genius – there was a garden. Our beloved flying cars came in handy in that comic in order to reach the heights of that vertical city, whose buildings have gardens on top, another idea which is being implemented in the green architectural world. An idea that has been developed by many architectural firms reimagining the future of the urban landscape as we will see. The palaces of the old city will be pillars, or comprised into other buildings, and of course we have plenty of examples of this as well. The final look of this city is a green aspirational environment which will preserve history and won’t look as dingy and ugly as we imagined dystopian cities to be.

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The work of Geraldine Kang

For Geraldine Kang, art-making has the functions of helping her process her thoughts and feelings and to get herself out of her head. In the awarded series ‘In the Raw’, she depicted her family members in surreal situations dealing with nudity, aging and death. The artist defines In the Raw as a “shock treatment” to introduce her parents to her art practice, which in the beginning they didn’t understand. In an iconic picture of her series, she is in bed with her parents, just like a little child would do, but with a photographic book showing breasts. The photographs encapsulate the lack of intimacy and the difficulty of maturing and dealing with desire where you share the same living space with your family.

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How space influences the art

The visitors of the Louvre museum are often upset when they see the Monalisa for the first time. Most of them, seeing it on catalogues, posters and mugs alike, they imagine it to be much bigger. Indeed, bigger than life. In a world where art and art history is experienced through the internet and catalogues, and perhaps less in real life, the size of an artwork is something that counts when it comes to the art market, but it is not really an indicator for art critics. And yet, if we take a sociological look on art, we come to realise that the size of a work tells us volumes about the conditions in which the artist works: it informs about the modes and the values of an entire art system. As mundane as it is, practical circumstances end up weighting on the final artwork more than we would like to think. Contemporary art is seldom made in poetic studios in warehouses, although in some countries that is the norm. In many other places it is done in subscales, a bedroom in your parent’s house or in tiny rented studio-apartments.

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HDB

“Yearning is the dominant theme that runs through all of my work,” said the outstanding photographer Nguan to The Straits Times. “Singaporeans are restless by nature – we have wandering hearts. This picture describes the longing to be in a different place or time.” Nguan is probably the artist who best caught the poetic, ineffable, paster colour heat of Singapore. In his delicate photographs, depicting mundane moments, suspended in silence, he is able to capture the soft alienation of his own city.

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URBAN/NATURE

In this book, I used opposite categories not as parallel dichotomies or binaries that never touch each other, but rather as two extremes of a spectrum. This also goes for one of the core themes that many Singaporean artists measure themselves with: that of the urban space and the natural space. Again, we will examine the matter from different angles. At the level of the artwork, city and nature are themes many artists muse on. Then we will look at the space itself and the way the physical structure and size of artist studios, art spaces, galleries, houses and where they are located in the city have an effect on the art production. On top of that, we will look at the idea of nature as a way to go – quite literally – back to the roots. Indeed, the attitudes of Singaporeans towards nature and art are very similar, so it is almost inevitable to draw parallels. As something that is supposed to grow organically and spontaneously, art has always been seen as something “natural” to humans. This goes for the whole art ecosystem. Precisely an ecosystem, as we can’t help using a nature-related terminology here.

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Ruben Pang

“Wait! Is it allowed to talk about incest on the Singapore metro?” I abruptly asked with an alarmed note in my voice to the scrawny guy in front of me, holding onto the bar of the red line. I looked for a reaction in the faces of the people on the metro. Nothing. Someone told me that Singaporeans don’t complain to your face. In their heads though, they had probably already labelled me as a loud-speaking Italian as soon as I opened my mouth.

“We can talk about whatever we want!” replied Ruben Pang in a stubborn tone which implied than yes, it was not advisable to talk about incest on the Singapore metro, but rules didn’t apply to us free-thinkers.

Ah, the fleeting camaraderie you establish for a few hours with some of the artists you interview! I really liked Ruben Pang, but I was wary. In three hours, he had already told me three times that he is a person who gets easily bored. The thing with these ultra-nice people is that they never say what they truly want. They endure boredom, endure struggles, and they act as if everything is fine. On top of that, Ruben also declared to passionately admire the stoics, especially Seneca. He finds their endurance in the face of sufferings and the fact they never complain, totally badass.

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Shubigi Rao
When it comes to the power of imagination, Shubigi Rao is an artist that masters it. Shubigi has the capacity of completely drawing you into her world and work, which is complex, multidisciplinary and deeply entrenching. However, she also touched upon the other polarity of this chapter: the bureaucratic aspect of life. Indeed, in her critically-acclaimed 2016 book called “Pulp: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book, Vol I” , she addressed censorship, book destruction and other forms of repression, as well as looking at books as a symbols of resistance. The project is being developed over 10 years, in which time the artist is investigating the destruction of books and libraries around the world, collecting video testimonials from people involved in saving or destroying books, such as firefighters who tried to save the burning national library of Sarajevo during the civil unrest in the 1990s, or others who smuggled books and paintings to safety during times of cultural unrest.

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Gerald Leow

“Why should the government pay you to have fun?”

Yeah, right, why? Gerald Leow was the first person who phrased the question in this way. It shows that the kind of questions you ask, and the way you ask it, can result in overturning an entire vision, or perhaps making some hidden dynamics come to the surface.

This very simple question is one which artists from other countries would have asked themselves visiting Singapore, but a question that perhaps not many Singaporeans are asking themselves, perhaps not in this way. Gerald is aware of it: “I have very controversial views. I think as an artist…”, he hesitates as he ponders the words. “That’s the only thing that makes you special. It’s your mojo, you know? And then instead of protecting this thing and having full autonomy over it, you give it to someone else and say, “Here: how about you dictate what kind of work should I do?” To me it sounds ridiculous.”

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Funding Shaping the Work of Artists

Let’s go back to The Substation for a second. We mentioned that when the space started in 1990, it was the very first art space in Singapore, before SAM, before the Esplanade and much earlier than the National Gallery. In the narrative of the local art world, the existence of this place encouraged many people to gather to appreciate and make art, music or writing in a way that couldn’t be found anywhere else in Singapore. This was a sign for the government, who acknowledged the situation, observed a spontaneous surge of creativity and cultural momentum, and decided it was high time to open up an art museum five years later. “We were actually forcing to government to shape policies in some way last time,” said Alan Oei during our conversation: “But once they shaped the policies, we kind of have been sucked into their policies and we haven’t made them change anything for a long time.”

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Brother Cane and the Josef Ng Affair

Given the big scandal his case provoked, you would imagine Josef Ng holding resentment to his country Singapore in one way or another. This is not at all the case. After two decades of auto-exile, working as a curator in Bangkok and Shanghai as gallery director, in December 2015 the artist and curator went back to Singapore, hired by the gallery Pearl Lam. As a young man, Josef was part of the Artist Village. It was a time when, as we saw earlier, there was almost no funding for art, and artists were making art for their own pleasure, with a particular focus on performance. Over time, the performers started carving some space for self-expression, and became bolder and bolder, eliciting some reactions. A pioneer of subversion in Singapore was Vincent Leow, who made an operation à la Manzoni, without even knowing of the precent, bottling his urine.
However strange all of those performances looked for the Singaporean public at the time (and I suspect even today), the real deal happened during the performance “Brother Cane” by Josef Ng in 1994, at Parkway Parade. The performance was conceived as a protest against the arrest and caning of twelve homosexual men, and consisted of caning slabs of tofu. Then the artist turned his back to the audience and snipped off some pubic hair. Here is the recollection of Professor of Live Art and Performance Studies Ray Langenbach:

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Lim Tzay-Chuen’s elliptical approach

It’s a matter of fact that when a concept is so deeply embedded in a society, often artists tackle it not as a separate topic, but in its many manifestations. As Tan Boon Hui Calvin, Vice President, Global Arts & Cultural Programs and Director, Asia Society Museum, NY, à Asia Society, puts it : “The best work engaging with the concept of bureaucracy is the elliptical in approach. I honestly do not think it will be as blunt as ‘bureaucracy’.” One example of this elliptical approach is the work of Lim Tzay Chuen.

The artist describes his work as being concerned with “offering” solutions to possible problems, becoming about administration and organisation – aspects that are an integral part of the art world, but are usually left out from the official narrative. For the Biennale of Sydney, he designed and coordinated an open proposition to the public: “Enterprising” persons who got hold of certain pages from the 2004 Biennale catalogues would enjoy the privilege of using the Artspace Gallery 1, AUD $4000, 4 nights of hotel accommodation and official inclusion as one of the invited “artists” to the Biennale.

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