Naima Morelli

The Singapore Series – Chapter 24

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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.

In this respect, we can recall how Singapore has muscled its way into creating an art environment. In a similar way, nature has been artificially modified in Singapore since the ‘70s, when the government started presenting Singapore as a “Garden City”, later to be rebranded as “City in a Garden”. Instead of stripping down the unessential to get to the roots, the whole City in the Garden project has been about recreating a sort of “post-nature” – completely artificial. We can leave the technical details of its sustainability and effects to the experts. What we will do in this chapter is observe how this way of working corresponds to what is happening in the art system, and how in its own way it is influencing it.
Urban Space and Memories

At the 2016 Singapore Biennale, there was one work greeting visitors outside the National Museum of Singapore. It consisted of two walls, cladded in mirrors and placed face-to-face, which had the phrases, “There are those who stay” on one, and “There are those who go” on the other. For a city port and a place of migration, this phrase struck a chord with many. The authors were the two artists from the aforementioned duo Perception3. They explained to me the concept of the work: “The phrase ‘There are those who stay, there are those who go’ was stuck in our mind. We were talking about the idea of the relationship between people, with a country, with a specific space. Whether we attach or detach ourselves, it is about building a relationship with a place and what happens when that relationship falls apart. Who decides you should separate from a space or from a person? Singapore is our stomping ground, so it’s about memories but also recognising how much has changed. There is a lot of self reflection and a lot of conversation about when a space transforms. What does it do to your memory? It is quite disorienting when you return to a space and it has changed. Again, you start feeling that distance with a space which was once familiar.”

The work of Perception3 was compelling to me, because although it is very Singapore-specific – many works present local tropes, like void decks and escalators – it also uses universal symbols and metaphors. The idea of memory and place is a recurrent theme in their work. For the artists, the documentation of space becomes the marker of their memories. “When we look at a particular space, we don’t see space itself but we see the memories of it. What happened there.” they noted.

Before their video-work,the artists started off by taking photographs. To them, the act of taking a photograph was a compulsion to document. This to them is driven by the fact that they instinctively know how fleeting and ever-changing the spaces in Singapore are.

“We are very conditioned to accept that there is a change that can suddenly happen. Suddenly there is a new building that appears and it’s very fast. A skyscraper can come up virtually overnight. So there is this dissonance. By photographing, staring at it and meditating on it, it adds to the memory bank. It is almost a way of coping because just having that moment of “oh, how did that look like last week?” is quite jarring. You can’t remember how it looked. So you feel conditioned to want to capture things in order to make it real. It started from this point.”

Another element that pushed the artist to document spaces was the narrative around how Singapore has a sense of amnesia about history: “There is official history that is in texts or studied in school, but there are a lot of side narratives that we don’t remember, and sometimes we exclude those narratives, and people forget these things actually happened. When you have amnesia, you don’t see the full story. But you want to have many perspectives to be concrete, you want to have a document. It can’t be simply how a space looked once upon a time, because if you look at the official state archive, may not have kept everything. We see it as a way of remembering and proving that something existed – just the physical remembrance. Then there is also the remembrance of emotions that are attached to the space. In this sense, the photograph becomes the prompt – a memory of what happened. With a photograph of your school for example, everything starts flooding back, so it becomes this momentous, almost, but not in a nostalgic way, just a useful prompt to say. It reminds you of what we were then. It concretises the narrative of the self. Memories are always threaded through our work, because we carry it with us and we think about it so often.”

A constant of the work of Perception3 is that you will almost never find human figures in the spaces depicted. Indeed, the way the artist personifies the space they document is by projecting their own feelings and the feelings of the viewer into the space. This realisation came to them during one screening of their work where the artist Lee Wen stood up from the public and asked precisely this question: why they didn’t have human subject in their video. Of course, coming from performance, Lee Wen was very aware of the body in the space, and in his celebrated series “The Yellow Man” he precisely attached himself to some quintessential Singaporean spaces. The reply that came from the following discussion, which was that by not having people in it, you give the viewer the opportunity to put themselves into the space. “It aligns with our name. We take into consideration the perception of the viewer. That’s the third perception along with us two, so it’s Perception3. When we make our work, it’s up to the viewer to interpret the work, so we don’t want to be didactic or prescriptive about how to read the work. We like to have different entry points to the work. We always try to ensure that this is consistent in the work we produce. There is no one way of reading it. That is why we often don’t like to explain our work, because we don’t want to tell you how you should read it. Your life experience informs you how you read the work.”

In the project ‘Locus’, the artists approached the work as a meditation on familiar spaces. The spaces featured in ‘Locus’ were in and around the old Singapore National Stadium. The stadium was a short walk from the neighbourhood at Old Airport Road, where they used to lived. In 2010, the old stadium was demolished and rebuilt, and its surrounding area was transformed. The entire area was rebranded as the Singapore Sports Hub in 2014. In this sense, Locus ended up becoming almost archive footage of how that space looked. The artists used to take walks around the neighbourhood, exploring as a way for them to connect to space in a intimate way: “It was almost like a mindful walking. It was being hyper-aware of the environment and taking photographs and going back and considering the photographs again and trying to connect to what you actually saw. The approach we took was quite meditative, hence, the use of the ambience sound, which was almost like church bells.”

Text was later added to the final work – a short 1 minute piece – to create a juxtaposition, as the text didn’t always align with what the viewer saw. This was meant to bring the viewer on another journey.

“We have always used text as prompt, not telling you what is happening but to make you see another layer to the thing you’re looking at. It was a meditation on what you’re looking at and to the act of looking itself and considering still images and remembering when you’re looking.”

 

Architecture mirroring the coming together of people

In the first chapter, we asked ourselves what is a place, and we thought about it something more than a backdrop against which the human comedy unfolds. It is rather something created as it is perceived. Shaped by how it is remembered. It ultimately takes different forms and meanings according to our imagination. We also saw how imagination and rules fight against each other as two polar forces, and in the midst of this battlefield societies are situated. Now we will observe more in specific how space itself modifies according to these two kind a of perceptions: a bureaucratic perception versus an imaginative one. The end point will be trying to take as much as possible an outlook which is beyond these two cultural categories, their means and ends. Nature, as a force and foundation, is brought into the picture.

Let’s start with imagination. In order to understand space as a place influenced by our fantasies and expectations, we must go back to a basic human act, which translates today in the most sought-after dream for both convinced shopaholic consumerists and adventurous hippie minimalists alike: travelling.
Think about it: when we travel to countries which, just like everything in the world, offer a variety of aspects and facets to look at, we just turn our cameras to what we deem to be the local, the different, the specific. We think the opposite of Andy Wharol, who famously said that the most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s, the most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s, the most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s, “and Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.” He couldn’t have defined globalisation any better. Indeed, the massive uniformity in modern cities that was just starting out on in the heydays on Wharol. But of course, it’s not just about multinationalism per se. In our perception while travelling, it has a lot to do with architecture. The pastel-coloured small houses in Procida, Italy, had a consistent style with smoothed corners. This was not because they wanted to give a specific identity to the place, hoping to attract tourists. The reason was rather the scarcity of materials and “imagination” – they couldn’t even think of Swiss cottages, because local fishermen building their own houses never saw it on television. Because of course back then, there was no television. Furthermore, what would be the point of building pointed roofs, if heavy rains were only a secondary occurrence? In Mediterranean climates, flat or rounded roofs are what is needed.

In contemporary times, the way we conceive our houses and our cities is influenced by an abundance of choices. We have already seen that human beings tend to not to be moderate when confronted with too much choice. When actual materials and imagination become virtually limitless, when function is not seen as central to buildings, people and their architects start going crazy. So places like Orta di Atella, Italy, become possible.

Orta di Atella is a small town in Hinterland Naples, where my diabetologist lives. I’m originally from Sorrento, a place which is not too far from Orta di Atella in terms of kilometres, but still, the one-hour drive feels like hyperspace travel. The tiny town centre still had some sparse remnants of its rural past: run-down beautiful churches to old houses with big doors, reminiscent of the agricultural economy which used to be the main economical resource. In the last ten years, the town has had a residential sprawling. Housing has started becoming pivotal in the city’s economy, transforming the town into a strange creature.

Killing time before the appointment with the diabetologist, my father and I decided to explore the neighbourhood, and we were reminded of the terrifying power of architects. You could turn your face away from a painting if you don’t like it, but you can’t turn your face to architecture. A building is there and you can’t do anything about it. In Orte di Atella, each one of those houses with a bit of garden framing on them were all dramatically different from each other. The aesthetic clash was highly disturbing. You turned to your right and you had a Swiss cottage, you turned to the left and you had a Bauhaus-style building, you looked in front of your and you had a neoclassical fake-marble villa and you turned around and you have a concrete pre-fabricated from the ‘70s. Pure Disneyland.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that imagination and democracy are worth fighting for. But of course, high values need people with an ethical and aesthetical education to be used wisely. In our freedom, when we take decisions, we can know these are not guided by superficiality or by bad taste. Orta di Atella is an example of what happens when you let people without any kind of visual education wildly unleash their imagination. You feel like you’re walking into a Luna park. Which is fine for a day, but surreal if this becomes your everyday reality. I was in Naples, but I could have been anywhere in the world. Never as in time of globalisation taste is necessary. Unless of course, you have a taste for the tasteless – as a personal preference that might work, but I personally don’t wish this for an entire society.

Mind you: my aim here is not to bash Orta di Atella. When we look down on something, even using it as an example, we must be aware that it can mean the world to someone else, and what I see with a merely aesthetic and functional lens, can represent beauty for a local Atellian. Also, in this postmodern environment everything is possible, and almost everything can be accepted – even justified. I’m an art critic writing about contemporary art, so…

From a phenomenological standpoint, the question was well beyond the mere aesthetic. What the town mirrored was the lack of a collective imaginary. It was the mirror of an individualistic society, where no one cared to have anything in common with their neighbour, but was rather actively working to be grander. Architecture was indeed a mirror – or a consequence – of how people would come or not come together. So what came first? The way people came together or the construction of places? Again it’s osmotic, and it is grassroots – just like it would be a Kampong in old Singapore. Would a top-down approach like the one of the new Singapore work better in a place like this? It would be rational and logic to think so, but it is also true that what works on the board doesn’t necessarily work for the people in real life.