Light / Dark mode

Living in a Material World (Part I)

For what is now coming to be a decade, I have made my way to the Esplanade in exactly the same way.

I alight at City Hall MRT, scurry along the constantly-evolving displays of CityLink Mall, turn into the subterranean Esplanade underpass where I side-eye the breakdancers, and finally go through the Esplanade Tunnel to be delivered into the beautiful, polished and clean interior of the Esplanade building.

An average Sunday at the Esplanade underpass, two young breakdancers cutting loose

Call me materialistic, but reaching the Esplanade feels like falling into a cradle of safety. It is where I go to patronise internationally renowned acts and local talents in a space meticulously designed to enhance their performances. I still fondly recall sinking into my seat, getting lost in Qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz’s voice some years ago. The commute to the Esplanade has become a rehearsed process of going from the doldrums of the everyday to a (literally) elevated space, and the Esplanade Tunnel is the crucial bridge, the in-between that I cross to get myself there.

This Tunnel is often used to present parts of the Esplanade’s visual arts programmes. The Life of Things is the umbrella title for three exhibitions within the building (including the Tunnel) and is the current visual arts programme free for all visitors to enjoy. I saw all three shows – Subliminal City, Relics, and Museum of Modern Sympathy – in a single visit.

Here is what I found –

Subliminal City 

(On till 8 April 2018)

This exhibition, located in the Esplanade Tunnel is a conducive space for any art presentation that is linear in nature, whether chronologically, theoretically, or visually. Although there is only one wall which can be appropriately used for hanging, it is able to act as a one-dimensional or “compressed” white cube.

Entrance of the Esplanade Tunnel, featuring the Subliminal City exhibition

Here is where you will find the photographic works of Cambodian artist Lim Sokchanlina. Lim chooses fences, construction sites, barriers and unmaintained buildings as his subjects in his works Urban Street Night Club, Wrapped Future and National Road Number 5. In Lim’s view, construction and accompanying demolition projects are transforming Phnom Penh at a rapid pace of urbanization:

In Singapore’s context, our pioneering generation has often been lauded for achieving a similar pace of urbanization. We have traded parts of our history for our skyscrapers and our current futuristic landscape, leaving our younger generations to now look for missing pieces of our heritage through the narratives of their elders and neighbours. For example, check out #ourwestcoastsg, a new initiative from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture.

Lim captures comparable scenes of urban construction sites in his own nation of Cambodia. Parts of Cambodia’s urban heritage, such as architect Vann Molyvann’s 1968 Preah Suramarit Theatre, have been boarded up for redevelopment. Fishing villages have been erased, and their marginalized residents forced to seek recompense for a suffering that is seen as secondary to the attainment of a new landscape, a new national identity. For the Singaporean visitor to this exhibition, a case of deja-vu is all too likely.

Further along the Esplanade Tunnel, Uudam Tran Nguyen presents a three-channel video titled Serpent’s Tail. Like Lim, Nguyen has observed what urbanization and economic ambition have done to his home country of Vietnam.

This video requires some patience.

First, in order to get the complete experience, you must stand stationary in the Tunnel for 18 and a half minutes. Secondly, you are required to decode and absorb a very ambitious work in that duration. The video views the mundane motorcycle through different lenses – as vehicles, as carriers of aspirations, as parts of a choreography, and also as props – for the storytelling of myths that fascinate the artist. The plenitude of these ideas is perhaps why the artist has presented a second work – the mixed media installation in the Esplanade Concourse which is meant to continue from the video installation in the Tunnel.

Uudam Tran Nguyen, Serpent’s Tail, mixed media installation at the Esplanade Concourse

When I saw Serpent’s Tail, the first thing I did was mutter to myself “Oh gosh, what a hot mess.”

Real engines and mufflers blow life into humble plastic tubes and balloons, which fill up the swanky, classy space of the Concourse. It is a mixed media installation work that could be seen as fun, colourful and avant-garde art, but that is just not how I saw it.

The work seems to cater to those with a taste for questions about the symbolic qualities of material things. I saw my personal reaction to the work as an opportunity to reflect through the material world, and question my own assumptions about what could be considered as ‘highbrow’ (for e.g. varnished wood, polished metal) and ‘lowbrow’ (in this case, plastic, plastic and more plastic). I experienced my own feelings of disquiet when such materials crossed over the invisible lines I had drawn for them in my conscience. So much for having fun with colourful inflatables…


(On till 1 April 2018)

In this recently – ended exhibition, the works of Phan Thao-Nguyen (Vietnam), Sarker Protick (Bangladesh) and Sim Chi Yin (Singapore) were displayed in Jendela (Visual Arts Space), which is in a tucked-away corner on Level 2 of the Esplanade Mall. The works of Relics explore “colonial legacies and independence narratives,” of the region through photography, video art and watercolour works.

Broaching the topic of regional colonial histories and stories of independence is very much like stepping into a minefield – you cannot cover much ground without risking serious damage. In this case, the risk is the emotional damage a visitor might feel when faced with a difficult part of our heritage that not all are prepared to confront. It is therefore very important (and impressive!) that the presentation was able to allow me to characterize Jendela as a ‘happy place’ during my visit. All the works came together without the heaviness and bitterness that often accompany a survey of things left behind by Western conquerors.

Despite the absence of a negative undercurrent, there was no shying away from an inspection of what lies beneath surface impressions. Exodus by Sarker Protick comprises two photographic installations and a single channel video. The photographs included those of dilapidated estates, abandoned by Hindu landowners due to the policies and strategies of British colonisers in what is now Bangladesh and the Bengal region.

Exodus, by artist Sarker Protick

I felt a deep nostalgia when I recalled Protick’s work because the photographed building above looked like it could have been from my own ancestral home in India:

My ancestral home in Pratapgarh, rural India, 2017

My ancestral home still survives, and I have spent many childhood summers there. Protick’s ghost-town version meant I had to confront the surreal notion of a parallel reality to that of my blissful childhood – no peacocks in the rain, no thriving lake by the house, no strong women in the courtyard…just a torn and tattered what-could-have-been.

Why did my home find its happy fate, while a similar home further East found itself compromised? If we are to have an effective debate about the virtues of colonialism for certain parties, we must process all the chapters that colonisers wrote in our histories. The question then is, are we really ready to confront those lesser known, yet possibly painful chapters – the ones that these relics represent?

Sim Chi Yin presented a photographic installation and two-channel video installation titled One Day We’ll Understand.

In a show where aesthetics formed the avenue through which we explore and reflect on ideas, there was a strong invitation to form personal connections with the works’ subjects. For example, I overheard a discussion between two visitors about how one of the photographed individuals in Sim Chi Yin’s installation closely resembled their own grand-aunt:

Two visitors discuss a portrait in the photographic installation One Day We’ll Understand by Sim Chi Yin

One Day We’ll Understand was inspired by the story of Sim’s grandfather who was deported to China during the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) and later died at the hands of Kuomintang soldiers. Sim photographed and interviewed individuals in China, Hong Kong, northern Malaysia and southern Thailand who had experienced the Malayan Emergency. Personal heritage, it seems, can be just as much shared as it is personal.

I was also moved by the beauty and simplicity of the children captured in Tropical Siesta by Phan Thao-Nguyen. The watercolour works from her series Education of a Poet offered a lighter energy through their use of bright colours and organic landscapes that melted into one another. There was a dimension of surrealism in these works, where Phan’s imagination allowed her to distort what she may have observed. This break from the realistic allowed for her to adopt a non-documentarian approach, where her imagination became a key component of her creation:

Video still from Tropical Siesta by Phan Thao-Nguyen
From the series Education of a Poet by Phan Thao-Nguyen

The only thing to be lamented here was that Jendela is a tucked-away bit of the Esplanade, not easily found by passers-by.

While Relics has now come to a close, Subliminal City continues on till the end of the week. In Part II of this review, I’ll go deep into the third part of the exhibition, Museum of Modern Sympathy, a show which also runs until 8 April. Stay close!









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