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Finding the Art in our Heartlands: Important Local Services

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essential services singapore

In the past few months that we’ve collectively stayed at home, what are some places in Singapore that we have missed? In this series, we invite Singapore visual artists to respond to beloved places that have patiently awaited the day that we can visit them once more, as well as some of the important local services that have kept us going during this pandemic.

 

This week, artists Michael Lee, Faris Nakamura, Charmaine Poh and Yeo Tze Yang respond to spaces that remained open to provide goods and services that were considered essential and that we are deeply grateful for. Slide over the photos to reveal the artists works.

 

Kopitiam | Michael Lee, Plan for nothing, no. 1, 2020

old-school coffee shopKopitiam | Michael Lee, Plan for nothing, no. 1, 2020

The old-school coffee shop, known colloquially as the kopitiam, dots almost every neighbourhood in Singapore. Here, it is juxtaposed against an abstract, minimalist depiction by artist Michael Lee. Without the reference photograph, Plan for nothing may confuse as much as it quietly intrigues, with its seemingly random symbols and lines.

The symbols make more sense as we come to note its format: the distinct blue used in the background suggests a blueprint, while the repeating lines and shapes resemble a floor plan. The geometric abstraction here rids the original photograph of any recognisable references. The simplification could be mistaken as neutrality, except, unlike a regular floor plan, Lee has incorporated the motifs commonly found in a kopitiam via symbols, such as the dishes on the menu represented by crosses.

[O]ld kopitiams and hawker centres, for that matter, are also the place I feel most at ease whether alone or with friends. This is why I chose the traditional kopitiam”

In a time when a layer of inconvenience has settled over everything and we have been deprived of access to so much, the places that used to bring us the most comfort gain even more significance.

Here, Lee encapsulates the traditional kopitiam in a ‘plan’, with his straightforward message: there is no real plan. Especially in this trying period, thinking and planning seem less relevant than adapting. Every day is unpredictable, and we will all do our best to push forward.

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Artwork information: Michael Lee, Plan for Nothing, no.1, 2020, digital illustration, 7383 x 4921 pixels (300 dpi). This artwork is for sale. For further details, please contact the artist at michaelleehonghwee [at] gmail.com

 

 
Migrant Workers’ Dormitory | Faris Nakamura, From Now On You Will Not Be Alone, 2020

Migrant Workers’ DormitoryMigrant Workers’ Dormitory | Faris Nakamura, From Now on You Will Not Be Alone, 2020

Faris Nakamura creates sculptural works and installations through which he investigates how we navigate and orientate ourselves as we encounter spaces. This particular work depicts Shaw Lodge Dormitory – an 8-storey purpose-built dormitory catering to the housing needs of migrant workers. On 17 April 2020, it was gazetted as an isolation area under the Infectious Diseases Act, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Even though, you are probably looking at an image of the work on a computer or mobile screen, imagine the work in 3-D and dipping your head to peer at it, eyes travelling over the building’s lines and protrusions and the subtle shadows cast on its white surface. Imagine looking closer, then noticing only your reflection in the dark, glossy windows. You can’t look in; you only see yourself. And this is key: it suggests the invisibility of the occupants of the building to most of us, until now.

The title of the work, From Now On You Will Not Be Alone, serves as a message of reassurance to the migrant workers who live and work among us. As much as the pandemic has put them through much distress and fear, it has also made us more aware of their existence and the conditions in which they live.

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Artwork information: Faris Nakamura, From Now on You Will Not Be Alone, 2020, matte enamel on wood, cardstock paper, PVC sheet, 30 x 22 x 14 cm. This artwork is not for sale.

 

 
Singapore General Hospital | Charmaine Poh, Notes of a Medical Student, 2020

Singapore General HospitalSingapore General Hospital | Charmaine Poh, Notes of a Medical Student, 2020

The College of Medicine Building, located at the Singapore General Hospital, was Singapore’s first purpose-built medical college. It bears witness to the development of local medical education, providing a place where Singaporeans could receive proper training in Western medicine, without having to leave the country. A distinctive feature of this neoclassical building is the impressive row of fluted Doric columns and the friezes depicting the teaching and practice of medicine in Ancient Greece on the walls of its façade.

Artist Charmaine Poh’s work pays tribute to the healthcare institutions and workers that have been crucial to the survival of many during this pandemic.

“To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.” Sent to the artist by a doctor friend, this 15th century anonymous folk saying is linked to the role of those in the palliative vocation. Written on a post-it, it feels like a reminder to oneself or a note left by someone.

Poh’s depiction of SGH is one that emphasises healing and learning; not a structure housing pain and anxiety, but one of care. The vibrant colours of the bougainvillea leaves and post-it set against the slightly sepia monochromatically-treated photograph give a rather retro feel to the work, allowing nostalgia to create warmth. Poh wanted to “[keep] it representational but [allude] to another time and place”, seen in her mixed use of analogue and digital means to construct it, as well as the superposition of tropical bougainvillea leaves set against a hospital building constructed in colonial times.

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Artwork information: Charmaine Poh, Notes of a Medical Student, 2020, Digital photograph, 16.52 x 23.39 inches. Price: S$600. For further details please contact the artist at: contact [at] charmainepoh.com.

 

 

Wet Market | Yeo Tze Yang, Buying Fish, 2020

Chinatown Complex Wet MarketYeo Tze Yang, Buying Fish, 2020, oil on canvas

While we can obtain fresh produce from air-conditioned, sanitised supermarkets, many of us still prefer the unique communal experience, the hustle and bustle, the sights, sounds and smells of our local wet markets. The term is derived from the markets’ wet floors – caused by the melting of the ice that is used to keep food fresh and the stall-holders’ hosing down of their stalls after a busy work day.

While the photograph on the left, taken during Phase 1, shows customers and stallholders in masks, as required by law, artist Yeo Tze Yang has chosen to exercise artistic license and depict his subjects without masks.

Wearing masks and seeing other people doing so while outside has become the norm such that this scene, painted in the time of Covid-19, faces unmasked, is surprising. It also makes us think – how long ago was this? And then: how much longer?

The vibrant blue baju kurung of the makcik Yeo has inserted in the foreground, coupled with her many accessories, catches the eye and feels immediately familiar. As Yeo explains, “She’s perhaps an aunty we’ve all seen before, somewhere.” By leaving out any recognisable signs that specify this market’s location, Yeo allows the painting to evoke memories of the first pasar that comes to the viewer’s mind – likely one that we frequent and are most familiar with.

Yeo shows us something we may not have realised we’ve missed – a pasar trip involves countless interactions that we take for granted until we are deprived of them, something we have, unconsciously, deeply missed.

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Artwork information: Yeo Tze Yang, Buying Fish, 2020, oil on canvas, 59.4 cm x 29 cm. This artwork is for sale at S$2000. For enquiries, please contact the artist at ghghbh [at] gmail.com.

Keep your eyes peeled for more artists’ creative responses to the places that they’ve missed in other articles in this series, as well as our upcoming microsite in August!

All photos in this article were shot by Jeremy Goh of Trippin’ Creatives.

 All works produced are original and were specially commissioned for this project. If works are sold, Plural Art Mag will take no commissions in respect of such sales. If you are able to, we urge you to consider acquiring a work as this will go towards sustaining our vibrant community of local creatives, as well as the wider ecosystem that supports them.

This project is produced by Plural Art Mag as part of the #SGCultureAnywhere campaign.

We are one of only a handful of independent art publications covering Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art. If you like what we do, please support us on Patreon, or get in touch about other ways to contribute towards keeping us going.

Ker Wey

Ker Wey

Aw Ker Wey is a junior college student studying Art in Singapore. She loves art, writing, music, and the people around her, and wouldn't know how to live without any one of them. When not playing catch-up with schoolwork (even when she should be), she can be found on the piano, Photoshop, or leaning on her desk, fast asleep.

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