You’ve seen it on your friends’ Instagram stories, and maybe you’ve even been there yourself – since this October, a pop-up museum at *SCAPE known as The Bubble Tea Factory has been serving up picture perfect rooms to throngs of millennials who seek a photogenic and interactive environment for all their selfie needs.
For the uninitiated, The Bubble Tea Factory (or, in the spirit of the ‘gram, #tbtfsg) is Singapore’s answer to the selfie factory phenomenon that has swept the Instagram world over the past few years. Not to be mistaken for a traditional museum exhibition, such pop-ups function more like movie-sets, where the main purpose is to provide an Insta-worthy backdrop.
While this trend was popularised by spaces such as Refinery29’s 29Rooms and Museum of Ice Cream, some claim that the Insta-centric installation has its roots in contemporary art – namely, in Japanese superstar artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms. Ironically, they were first created in the 1960s, long before the birth of the smart phone. These light-filled, mirrored environments place the viewer in the front and centre of a psychedelic and (more importantly) photogenic landscape, a hallmark that has perhaps accidentally made it a huge crowd-pleaser with today’s selfie-obsessed generation.
But in acknowledging the uncanny similarities between contemporary art and the Insta-museum, why stop at Kusama? Echoes of actual artworks hide in plain sight at The Bubble Tea Factory, and here at Plural, we present to you 7 #tbtfsg moments that resemble contemporary art (#notsponsored):
1. Enchanted Forest // teamlab’s Crystal World, 2018
In Enchanted Forest, both sides of a long, narrow corridor are lined with giant tubes that house swiftly ascending beads of light. I imagine that this is a stylised interpretation of tapioca pearls propelling up a straw, though it reads more like a background set for The Matrix. If #tbtfsg is an exercise in using moving light to create visual interest, then Japan-based new media collective teamlab’s Crystal World is a full-scale invasion of the senses – this massive installation of glittering light points changes colour and pulsates as visitors walk through and interact with it via their smartphones.
Like many of teamlab’s works – which, incidentally, are on permanent exhibition at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum (#stillnotsponsored) – Crystal World exists in a state of perpetual change as it responds to visitors’ input. An ever-evolving sense of the sculptural is formed and dissolved as light points accumulate, shift and disperse.
2. Utapioca clouds // Grace Tan’s refuge, 2013
In a game of which-is-which, I’d dare wager that half of you will get this wrong. After all, both the Utapioca installation (left) and Singaporean artist Grace Tan’s refuge (right) appear to be an efflorescence of puffy white clouds suspended from the ceiling.
From a distance, the 1.5 million individual polypropylene loop pins that Tan’s refuge are constructed from cannot be distinguished amidst the organic forms that they have become a part of. Tan uses a modular means of construction that is repetitive and methodical, yet transforms the commonplace industrial material into forms that communicate quietude, and possess an ambiguous, poetic beauty.
As the #tbtfsg clouds appear similarly idyllic from afar, it is only a close-up examination of refuge that reveals the meticulous labour necessitated by its construction, and the paradoxical, dream-like elegance that emerges from the unassuming loop pins.
3. Utapioca rolling hills and ‘trees’ // Weixin Quek Chong’s sft crsh ctrl, 2018
Given the two installations’ mutual fondness for blush tones and bubblegum accoutrements, one can almost imagine the dreamy tween fantasy of Utapioca aspiring to become the seductive world of sft crsh cntrl when it grows up. But while the former features upturned cups of faux-bubble tea that struggle in their search for identity as trees, the latter deconstructs materials such as silk and latex, presenting them in non-conventional ways that subvert their audience’s preconceived notions of the objects and their functions.
Chong is motivated by the possibilities that this ambiguity unlocks. She shares, “People want to find points of entry into the art and want to be told a particular outcome. It is cultural and I understand that… But I think art can help us to expand and curve so that there doesn’t have to be a direct path.” The Utapiocan bubble tea’s identity crisis, while cute, is not likely to be motivated by a similar interest in provoking its audience into a deeper contemplation of materiality.
4. Bead curtain separating Boba-verse from Boba Lab // Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Golden), 1995
Untitled (Golden) (right) by Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres comprises a curtain of gilded beads that hangs across a corridor. As we pass through the glittering membrane, the strings of beads caress us gently before clattering back into place. It would be fair to say the experience of the artwork and that of the decorative bead curtain at #tbtfsg (left) is almost identical.
Untitled (Golden) is true to the artist’s practice of using seemingly mundane everyday objects such as clocks, candy, and strings of lights in his work. While this may not strike one as art, his craft lies in relating these unassuming materials to both personal and political events of his time, which elevates the minimal gestures of the commonplace to the poetry and poignance of art.
This particular work alludes to the AIDS crisis that Gonzalez-Torres battled during his life as an openly gay man. As Lauren Hinkson writes, “A kind of membrane, as pliable and permeable as the biological materials that compose the cells of the human body, “Untitled” (Golden) is a work of transitory passage—from life to death, public to private, the known to the unknown.”
5. Toilet bowl in Boba Ballin’ // Maurizio Cattelan’s America, 2016
America is a fully functional 18-karat gold toilet bowl that was installed in a Guggenheim bathroom, and made available for use by members of the public. The artist claims it to be a Robin Hood-like gesture that makes the “one-percent art (accessible to) the ninety-nine percent”. Characteristic of art world trickster Maurizio Cattelan’s oeuvre, this notorious work possesses several layers of meaning.
In the context of the art-historical canon, it is a modern version of the Duchamp’s Fountain in the way that it calls into question many assumptions of what art is and how it should be experienced. At the same time, titling the work America renders it a commentary on the American Dream (and how it is perhaps going down the toilet in this Trumpian age). Cattelan’s extravagant use of the precious metal that used to be the basis for the monetary system also calls attention to the excesses of the art market.
The toilet bowl in Boba Ballin’, on the other hand, is a mere supporting actor in a set where the chrome bathtub is king. Literally relegated to the side-lines, this non-functional piece of plastic plumbing is but a pale shadow of Cattelan’s golden throne.
6. Neon sign at Pearl Pit // Michael Lee’s Machine for Living Dying In, 2014
The respective texts may be different, but both works pulsate with a soft neon glow, communicating their messages in handwritten script. Commonly used by businesses such as bars, casinos, and funfairs to attract attention, the lure of neon lies in the way that its striking colour lights the darkness of late-night streets.
Though there’s always Tracey Emin for all your handwritten-neon-light-as-art needs, closer to home we have Singaporean artist Michael Lee’s Machine for Living Dying In. Two contradictory statements are simultaneously proffered in this installation, which has been designed to occupy a domestic space. Referencing French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s statement that “a house is a machine for living in”, the artist proposes that life and death are concurrent processes that occur in the machine that is the house.
This neon sign at the Pearl Pit, on the other hand, well. It’s a pun, get it? How terribly tarobly cute, hahahahhaha-
7. ??? in The Secret section // Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room – Brilliance of the Souls, 2014
Finally, would this list be complete if it did not end with the work of spectacle queen mother Yayoi Kusama? The set-up at #tbtfsg reads like a pirated version of Kusama’s wildly popular Infinity Rooms, or, as I like to put it, the OG of Instagrammable art. Kusama’s original impetus for her Infinity Rooms was to invite viewers to ponder the passage of time, transience of life, and the inevitability of death, such that we consider the insignificance of human existence.
But rather than obliterating one’s sense of self by getting lost in the vastness of infinity, visitors to Kusama’s Infinity Rooms all too often simply use it as a backdrop for their vanity. Ironic, huh? Well, at least at #tbtfsg you can do so unabashedly. After all, it never made any grander claims than to be one interminable series of photo-ops.
In light of all these examples of art that look like Insta-ops that look like art, what implications does it spell for how we should view contemporary art? The distinction is perhaps best articulated by Maryellis Bunn, founder of the Museum of Ice Cream (itself another selfie factory – and a massive one, at that). To her mind, “A museum lives on in so many different verticals and ways. (Selfie factories such as her own, on the other hand) are… brand(s)”.
So while the form, material, and modes of participation of the Insta-museum might approach contemporary art – often even to the point of replication – the intentionality behind the photo-op is just that: a backdrop against which one might strike a pose (or a hundred) for the perfect selfie. Why not? Capitalising on this generation’s Insta-obsession to sell tickets has proven to be an immensely lucrative formula. There is no greater message to take away, nor big idea to ponder. This is not to pass judgment on the place and its visitors, but one does need to recognise that the quality of the two experiences are simply not interchangeable.
The Bubble Tea Factory’s use of mass-produced objects, lighting solutions and participatory installations may be driven by the need to produce a spectacular visual effect, but contemporary works of art use these selfsame ingredients to create situations that speak to larger themes, provoke thought, and evoke emotional responses. Along with many artists of their milieu, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Weixin Quek Chong’s incorporation of these mundane materials and gestures has attuned us to the art that exists in the everyday. To me, this is contemporary art’s gift to modern society – even if the everyday happens to include this spectacle-ridden funhouse that we have voluntarily cast ourselves into.