“I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community … It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion … Finally, [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.”―
As it happens, the exhibition Singapore Utopia: National Identity Through the Lens of Artists, which opened on 27 July at Chan + Hori Contemporary, proffers an opportunity for such reflection, its stated aim being to contribute ” … to an overarching discourse of identity and what it means to be Singaporean in this day and age …”, its raison d’etre, that “art reflects, articulates and contributes towards the society that we inhabit”.
On the opening night of the exhibition, I joined many others in the packed-to-the-gills gallery in anticipation of artist Rizman Putra‘s performance. Other than the fact that it was to be a live reading from his artwork Skins, I had no idea what to expect.
“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”
This, in fact, is what each of the 15 artists in Singapore Utopia, together with curators Lisa Polten and Deborah Lim, have tried to do – to reveal to us various aspects of the Singaporean identity – even aspects that don’t quite fit into that idealised version of Singapore we like to present to the world. (You know the version I mean – the Crazy-Rich-Asians version, the happily harmonious multicultural version, the squeaky-clean, efficient, economically and technologically advanced version.)
Artist Green Zeng presents Student Confessions 1 & 2 (TV Confessions), videos displayed on old-school cathode-ray tube (CRT) TV screens, so ubiquitous until the 1990s, when they were replaced by sleek streamlined flat-screen LCD TVs. In the videos, Singapore students – some identifiable in their distinctive uniforms as being from certain “elite” schools – read from transcripts (culled by the artist from newspaper archives) of public confessions made by political detainees in the 1960s – 1980s, denouncing their communist leanings and activity. The students also play alternate roles as Singapore students reciting from a school textbook. Through these re-enactments, Zeng explores Singapore’s murky history of political detention without trial, questioning the relationship between histories, truth and power.
Adeline Kueh and Ezzam Rahman are concerned with issues that touch us on a more personal, intimate, but no less important level – what goes on behind closed doors, in hotel rooms, in particular. In our tiny, densely-populated nation, where residential property prices rank among the highest in the world, space and privacy are privileges not equally accessible to all. Young people often have to live at home with their parents and extended family well into their adult years. Apartments are small and tightly packed together, with paper-thin walls. Hotel rooms become time capsules of stolen moments, imbued with a sense of the forbidden, of secrets, lies, temptation, lust, desire, intimacy, love, longing and loss.
Kueh’s Felt consists of layers of lint sheets, collected from 30 hotel laundries over a period of 28 days and an ornate wall light, salvaged by the artist from the former Lavenda Health Spa at Eminent Plaza. The sheets are neatly folded, Marie Kondo-style, but look closer and you will see strands of hair, dustballs and other detritus of the many human bodies that have grazed, brushed and rubbed against the hotels’ bedsheets and towels.
Ezzam’s two works, i’ll love you, i’ll kill you (random rooms 11:11) and i’ll stay, do you really have to go (random rooms 11:11) are the results of a project he embarked on between November 2017 and September 2018 where he and his working partner booked a room in a local hotel once a month, performing for the hauntingly lovely and poignant photographic images shown above. The objects were stolen from 11 different hotel rooms and are displayed as remnants from the project.
The works by the other artists in the exhibition deal with a range of diverse and disparate issues, the only theme appearing to unite them being that they are all concerned, in their individual explorations, with what it means to be a Singaporean today. While some of the truths they tell about us as a people and a nation may not be entirely flattering and may, in fact, arouse a deep sense of unease or discomfort, surely we are mature and confident enough, as a nation, to be able to take these hard truths on the chin. For true patriotism lies not in blinding ourselves to our faults or refusing to admit that they exist but in the willingness to face unpleasant truths with a determined resolve to grapple with them, working through our problems together so that they don’t fester and threaten the “deep horizontal comradeship” that unites us as a nation.
So, fellow Singaporeans, as we celebrate the nation’s 54th birthday today –
Marilah kita bersatu, dengan semangat yang baru.