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What Happens When Nothing Happens

“Nothing will come of nothing”

So goes the famous line in William Shakespeare’s King Lear where the proud and petty protagonist reminds his daughter Cordelia that she will receive no riches from him unless she waxes lyrical about her love for him, in the same way that her sisters have done.  Ultimately, (and to her peril) Cordelia insists on sticking to her statement of having “nothing” to say, as she finds the protestations of her sisters to be hollow and insincere.

In this age of social media, we tend to live our lives on a public stage for the benefit of our friends, family and acquaintances. Overblown birthday messages are broadcast to the world, close friendships are paraded on Facebook walls (when Facebook bothers to remind us of relationship milestones, that is). While happy things should be celebrated, there is certainly a quality of “showiness” to our relationships today, which never used to exist, and there seems to be little room for the smaller, quieter aspects of life – the un-Instagrammable, the deeply personal, the ugly and the mundane. Cordelia-like reticence and quiet contemplation seem to fade to insignificance.

Small wonder then, that this black door at the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay managed to catch my eye:

The entrance to the exhibition

Happens when Nothing Happens?

What exactly is happening here?

Spread over two floors at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) and the Community Wall at the Esplanade, this is an art exhibition which is simple and yet profound. Through ordinary and everyday scenes in domestic, public and common spaces, this show documents the ongoing daily activities of life, which probably go unnoticed. Curated by Dr Wang Ruobing, a lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts, the exhibition features 12 works by 10 emerging Singapore artists.

I was struck by the powerful narrative of some of the seemingly simple exhibits. This focus on the everyday feels fresh and full of possibilities, yet manages to be unexpectedly poignant and nostalgic.

In the first exhibit, Endeavour, a large black and white photograph greets you when you enter the exhibition.  A closer look reveals that it is an image of artist Ng Wu Gang’s late father’s polio-stricken legs.

It is raw, powerful and emotional.

Across this work by the same artist, lies a mixed media installation Teck Seng Vespa Service, which features a row of polaroid photos (together with a stack of polaroids on the floor), capturing images of tools used by Ng’s late father in his job as a mechanic.  Ng created this artwork after his father died of cancer. The piece serves to preserve the memory of Ng’s father through a record of the tools used by him.

Ng Wu Gang, Teck Seng Vespa Service (2016), a mixed media installation
A closer look at the polaroids strewn on the floor

In Maybe You Wouldn’t Be Sad, artist Susanna Tan too explores the subject of death through a video in which she records a conversation with her mother, without her mother’s knowledge.  With a vase of flowers as the main image in her video, Tan’s objective is to prepare herself for the time when she is no longer able to enjoy such conversations with her mother. Tan also paints an ongoing series of repetitive portraits of her mum, Face is a face is face is face, where each portrait is painted from the previous one, causing the paintings to eventually lose their resemblance to the original. This offers a poetic parallel to the fading of memories in one’s mind.

Susanna Tan, Face is a face is a face is a face (2015 -ongoing)

Ng Hui Hsien’s Before You Leave tells the story of long-time residents of Queenstown through an installation of a series of digital prints.  Queenstown is Singapore’s very first neighbourhood of public housing, which also means that its long-time residents are ageing.   Ng’s conversations with them inspired her investigations into the neighbourhood, exploring memories and past experiences:

Ng Hui Hsien, Before You Leave (2016)
The digital prints in the work are reproduced as postcards which visitors are free to take home

Aklili Zakaria’s Mamma provides food for thought in another domestic setting in the kitchen. Zakaria’s performance art of using the pestle and mortar to produce sambal belachan mimics her mother’s labour of love for her family. It evokes familiarity, warmth and fond memories of growing up:

These somewhat heavy issues weighed on my mind and so, I was glad to next chance upon Siong Chung Hua’s threesixfives. 

True to the spirit of the everyday, Siong records the moving escalator in front of her workplace which operates every day of the year. The constant movement of the escalator is a metaphor for our daily churn of routines. Six screens are featured in her site-specific installation, with each representing each day of the week. The seventh day of the week is represented by the viewer coming up the escalator and stepping off, as he or she is confronted by the six screens.

Siong Chung Hua, threesixfives (2018)

I was also delighted by Nhawafal Juma’at’s piece created through the use of an overhead projector, together with the artist’s personal belongings and found objects from around the Esplanade:

Who would have thought that the humble overhead projector would be capable of creating such landscapes?

The objects placed on the projector

Curator Dr Wang describes these exhibits as such:

“These works possess a sociological and anthological dimension in which the artists’ everyday is no longer an unnoticeable transient phenomenon, but the untold story of life being experienced and continually lived.”

With issues of national identity constantly in flux in our young country, I felt that this exhibition was timely, prompting us to think of our homes and families here, as well as what is around us. Rather aptly, the show is physically very accessible, located in a public space with free admission.

A wave of thoughts, emotions and musings emerge from these exhibits executed in various media. Even the show’s title, Happens when Nothing Happens, sounds like a redacted sentence, a truncated thought prompting the viewer to mentally fill in the blanks for him or herself – “what” is it that happens when nothing happens? 

Memories – be it a personal memory of a late father, or of a certain time and place.

Death, ageing and wisps of nostalgia.

Silent bonds of kinship.

Something is clearly taking place even when nothing seems to be happening.

As I was about to leave the Jendela studio, I turned around just in time to see slivers of sunlight peeking through the slates along the wall, bathing the exhibition space with warmth:

I was immediately reminded that art is all around us and that the everyday, matters.

We need only invest in some time to take it in and discover it all.


Happens When Nothing Happens runs until  7 October 2018, at  Jendela (Visual Arts Space) & the Esplanade Community Wall. Admission is free and a performance by Aklili Zakaria will take place on  7 October 2018, 3-3.45 pm at Jendela ( Visual Arts Space)

(Credits for all images, excluding the first and last ones: Ng Wu Gang)

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