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Days of Future Past

I have lived in a high-rise Housing Development Board (HDB) flat in Jurong East pretty much my entire life, until I left for university in the UK. Over the years, I have watched my neighbourhood evolve from a sleepy suburb into a bustling mini-metropolis. When once, every National Day, my family and I could watch the fireworks in the distance, now steel-and-glass office buildings and towering residential blocks obscure our view. In my years away, three different shopping malls have sprung up, the competition among them causing the shops to die off at an alarming rate.

Shiny, photogenic Jurong East Interchange.

In many ways, my family and I have benefitted from this evolution. A short stroll takes us to cavernous air-conditioned spaces where shops and eateries abound. Everything we need is well within reach. But these changes have left me feeling somewhat conflicted. The concrete badminton court at the foot of my block where I used to duel my father has made way for more parking space. Gone is the old mall where my grandfather took me to learn how to ice skate, and where I watched my first movie “without parental supervision” but with my grandmother. Many say these are changes for the better, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his speech for the National Day Rally 2014, where he extolled the development of the commercial and residential hub dubbed the ‘Jurong Lake District’. Who am I to argue with him? Yet, gazing out my window, I wonder – will this constant drive to keep building and building ever end? Who determines when the construction stops, and what it does not get to touch?

Deathsong exhibition window, tombstones and all. Image by the author.

Deathsong dredged up these sentiments. The exhibition at the Substation is part of a month-long series En Bloc, or Buildings Must Die, co-presented by the Singapore Heritage Society.

The gallery space was dimly lit, heightening the glow of screens all around. But the first things that caught my attention were the markings on the floor and a peculiar musty smell. I recognised the pattern on the floor from secondary school geography lessons – contour lines of a topographical map. Whilst not unpleasant, the smell was slightly more foreign. The topographical map was of the Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery and its surrounds and that musty smell was from a gigantic mound of dirt (12 tonnes in all!) that was transported from the cemetery itself. If we couldn’t be in Bukit Brown, Bukit Brown certainly came to us! The cemetery is said to house an estimated 100,000 graves, slowly but surely being exhumed to make way for the construction of a highway to ease congestion on the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE). This “ghostly presence” served as a reminder that the relationship between conservation/preservation and progress/development is an uneasy one, at best.

Installation view of I’m Coming Up,2016 by Min-Wei Ting for Deathsong, 21 August – 23 September 2018. Image courtesy of The Substation.

Moving-image artist Min-Wei Ting has two films in the exhibition. I’m Coming Up takes the viewer on a disembodying journey through the corridors of a typical HDB block, walking through each level before traversing the stairs to the next. We begin at the foot of this block, passing shops and stationary bicycles, walking in what feels like a circle.

As it turns out, the building is a distinctive one in public housing design from the 70s – and happens to be located in Jurong East. While I live close by, I had no idea it existed. Ting, on the other hand, heard about this place by word of mouth. Four apartment blocks join together to form a quadrilateral complex with an open-air atrium. According to Ting, this layout is unique and has not been repeated anywhere else. It is this distinctiveness that drew Ting to the building in the first place. Although “thoughts of heritage didn’t cross [his] mind” when he made the film, in the face of so much that is being torn down and redeveloped, and especially in the context of this exhibition, an unfettered moving image of this particular building as it stands today, all 89 minutes of it, appears to be almost an act of reverence.

Min-Wei Ting,I’m Coming Up, 2016, HD video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

The soundtrack for the film was recorded from a live performance by experimental sound-artist collective BALBALAB during the screening of the film at the Singapore International Film Festival 2016, using Ting’s recordings of sound made at the site as he ascended the building. As Ting explains, “they understood the vibe of the film and tried to create a sound to go with it”, resulting in an “alternative experience of cinema” at the performance.

Min-Wei Ting, You’re Dead to Me, 2014, HD video still. Images courtesy of the artist

You’re Dead to Me, Ting’s other video work in the exhibition, is set in Bukit Brown. Ting himself appears in the video, half-clothed in a sarong which, he says, “struck that balance between coverage and exposure, while giving the film this otherworldly character”. The performative act of placing his body within the setting activated the space, creating intimacy between artist and earth and leaving Ting enamoured with Bukit Brown cemetery. Having been left to run wild, in contrast to so much of our sculpted garden city, it is one of the few places “undisturbed by ‘development’”. He describes it as “magical” with “utter tranquillity, magisterial trees and the possibility of discovery at every turn”.

A thread of unease runs through the video, reinforced by the sounds recorded by Ting during his visits to Bukit Brown. Some seem natural – a chorus of screeching insects, the sound of wind whistling through trees – but I also picked up some unnaturally rhythmic beats that seemed more mechanical. This was unsettling and foreshadowing all at once, in the light of the knowledge that this jungle would soon be bulldozed into submission.

Ting makes his disdain at the notion of paving roads through a cemetery quite clear – it is not “just a loss of cultural heritage, it [is] a loss for our environmental heritage too”, a “decision to continue favouring fossil-fuelled living over placing limits on polluting our shared space”.

Min-Wei Ting, You’re Dead to Me, 2014, HD video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

Unblinkingly facing the camera, I see in Ting’s inscrutable expression either an angry confrontation of the viewer’s tacit acceptance of “development” (his quotes), or painful acceptance of the destruction that will inevitably occur. Or perhaps it is my own dilemma I read in Ting’s face. Boey Kim Cheng’s  oft-quoted The Planners, its text found on the outside walls of the Substation, ironically facing a wall of iron-clad construction work, sums it up better than I ever will: “Not a single drop to stain the blueprint of our past’s tomorrow.”

A Handjob by an unknown artist/genius during the Singapore Night Festival. Image by the author.

Catch Min-Wei Ting’s works, as well as those of fellow artists Raymond Goh, Hayati Mokhtar and Post-Museum in Deathsong this weekend. The last day of the exhibition is Sunday 23 September 2018.

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