On the occasion of Singapore’s National Day, August 9, here (in no particular order) are some works by contemporary Singapore artists whose works speak to Singapore in ways as unique and diverse as we are.
In Justin Lee’s painting of the Singapore flag, the red half incorporates Chinese characters which mean joy, or double happiness.
When the painting was first exhibited in 2003, the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) refused permission for the work to be shown, stating that the National Flag is a national symbol and that no words or graphics should be superimposed on it. However, the artist has said that the work was a demonstration of his love for his country and a celebration of Singapore’s success. The Chinese words in the painting, often used at weddings, signifies the marriage between our Asian roots and Western lifestyle. The boundary between the red and white portions of the flag echoes the Singapore skyline.
Ho Tzu Nyen appropriates the myth of the discovery of Singapore by Sang Nila Utama and weaves together encounters with other historical figures such as Christopher Columbus, Vasco Da Gama, Admiral Zheng He and Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, collapsing time by having them all played by the same person. His aim is to question the legitimacy of the popular historical narrative and demonstrate how history is sometimes re-constituted in order to serve present-day purposes.
Lee Wen is a performance artist, perhaps best-known for his Yellow Man series of performances where he paints his body with bright yellow paint, making himself an exaggerated symbol of his ethnic identity as a Chinese citizen of Singapore.
In this witty and clever project, the artist built a scaffolding with a platform of a height equal to the pedestal that the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, stands on in Empress Place in Singapore. Placing the pedestal as close as possible to the statue, he invited passers-by and guests to go up to the platform to view the statue from a different perspective, taking photographs and interviewing the audience to garner their response to viewing Raffles from that vantage point.
One of Singapore’s most well-known female contemporary artists, Amanda Heng, has been donning the iconic Singapore Girl sarong kebaya in an ongoing project that was first presented as a performance in Dresden in the year 2000 and has since been revisited at various times as performances, photographic prints and an online platform launched in 2009. Exploring the issue of social norms, standards of beauty and the female ideal in Singapore society, as exemplified by the Singapore Airlines female cabin crew, she questions the role of women as commodity and speaks to the unrealistic standards that women are compelled to conform to.
The Singapore Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale was to present the work of one artist, Lim Tzay Chuen. Lim had originally planned to uproot the 80-ton Merlion statue, the national and cultural icon of Singapore, bring it to Venice and install it in the courtyard of the Singapore Pavilion. He gave the statue the codename “Mike” so as to keep the plans for the project a secret. However, he was unable to execute his plan as the Singapore government considered it too costly and impractical. Lim eventually produced an installation for the Pavilion and put a signpost outside its entrance which reads, “I wanted to bring Mike over.” Lim has said that most Singaporeans do not think much of the Merlion, considering it more kitsch than anything else. By engineering the absence of the icon in Singapore, he wanted the Merlion to re-enter the public consciousness and make them re-think their perceptions of it.
The Malay-Muslim community is one of several ethnic and religious minorities in Singapore. In this series of images, artist-curator Khairuddin Hori attempts to document a variety of individuals from the community and, perhaps, to challenge our perceptions and assumptions about the community as being one that is relatively conservative and traditional and also homogeneous. Here, the subjects, mostly from the creative, artistic and entertainment industries, are tattooed, pierced, sport dreadlocks or heavy make-up and dress in styles and fashions not commonly associated with the popular perception of their community and the manner in which it is usually represented. These images highlight and draw attention to individual differences and challenge and complicate our notion of the Malay-Muslim identity.
To the British colonists coming to Singapore from colder climes, Singapore ignited their imagination as a lush tropical island, with its ubiquitous palm-trees, rainforests and exotic birds and animals.Yet these positive images had a counterpoint in the form of deadly tropical diseases, dangerous or venomous creatures, overgrown and out of control creepers and plants, a native population that was lazy and morally lax. In its efforts to define and construct its own post-colonial identity, modern-day Singapore has leveraged on the positive aspects of the tropical stereotype while playing down the negative.
Artist Donna Ong explores how Singapore’s greening policy, while catering to the colonial image of the tropics, defies the notion of nature as untameable, untouched and unspoilt. Here, our tropical garden city is meticulously planned, planted, tended and maintained. Shrubs and trees are arranged in strict geometry and require constant effort to maintain, presenting a national identity that both caters to and yet defies colonial expectations.
The Singapore River has featured prominently in Singapore artworks since the days of the Nanyang artists and even in colonial times. The artist’s original concept for this work was to pump water directly from the Singapore River to the Singapore Art Museum through a series of pipes, the pipes serving as an “umbilical cord” connecting the river to the museum and pumping “lifeblood,” the river water, to the museum. When the plan was rejected by the authorities as being too complicated and impracticable, this version was created instead. The arrangement of tanks seen here in the museum’s courtyard were connected via pipes to a huge glass cylinder on the fourth floor of the building and water constantly circulated between the two structures.
Bloodline of Peace, by Suzann Victor, is a dazzling installation comprising a 40m hand-made quilt of 35,000 Fresnel lenses, assembled into a grid architecture of 11,000 units, each sealed with a drop of human blood. The blood was drawn from various individuals who represented symbolically resonant segments of Singapore society such as the medical profession, the military, the arts, the pioneer generation, and so on. The work was featured in the Singapore Art Museum’s exhibition 5 Stars: Art Reflects On Peace, Justice, Equality, Democracy And Progress, an exhibition organised in conjunction with celebrations for Singapore’s 50th year as an independent nation, in 2015. One work was chosen to embody each of the values signified by the stars in the Singapore flag, with Victor’s work representing Peace, through the bringing together of disparate individuals in the shared experience of giving one’s own blood.
If there is one thing that unites all Singaporeans, regardless of race, gender, age or religion, it is a shared love of good food. Artist Matthew Ngui utilized the popular Singapore dish, poh-piah, in his installation and performance work, which he presented at documenta X in 1997. Here, visitors were only able to communicate with the artist through a system of pipes. They would speak into the pipes and the artist would type his response, which would appear only on the computer monitor. The only way for a visitor to find out if what he said, “You can order and eat delicious poh-piah” was true, was to place an order through the pipes. The installation is concerned with the necessity of testing representation, in order to establish its true meaning. Cooking, seen by all, becomes performance.