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Comma Space, a Common Space

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A humble industrial building stands on a quiet street in Bishan. I hesitate, before entering its spacious service lift. I trace the scratches on the walls with my fingertips. They resemble scars, bearing witness to time and resilience. Or perhaps, just clumsy workers carrying heavy goods.

Fourth floor. With a small shudder and a groan, the lift door opens. I step out from its embrace and study the office signage in sight. A toy dealer. A property agent. A supplier hawking construction materials. And oh, a Chinese spirit medium. My interest is piqued.

It is easy enough to spot Comma Space (逗号空间), with breezy green plants guarding its entrance:

The location of an experimental art space amongst the curious mix of tenants here seems decidedly out of place, and yet, strangely fitting.

“Hello,” artist, curator and educator Wang Ruobing greets me at Comma Space.

Grateful for some social interaction (at last) after months of mostly being at home, I quickly strike up a conversation (admittedly, regardless of whether she is looking for one).

With its concrete floor, rough walls and high ceiling, Comma Space – newly set up by Ruobing and artist Sai (also known as Chen Sai Hua Kuan) – exudes a raw, unpretentious vibe. The duo, dubbed in 2016 as a “power couple” of Singapore art, have been married since 2001. From the mopping of floors to the sounding out of ideas, the couple embraces all activities with collective gusto– there is no clear division of labour between them when it comes to the running of this new venture.

What is evident, however, is their shared vision for Comma Space: to link diverse ideas, while providing pause for thought. Much like the punctuation mark itself.

“When I was studying in the UK, I encountered many small and independent art spaces that do excellent shows. Even in somebody’s backyard!” Ruobing quips, explaining her motivation to open her own art space in Singapore.

The couple had spent a few years studying in the United Kingdom, with Sai pursuing a Master of Arts (Fine Art) degree and Ruobing pursuing both Master of Arts (Geography) and Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Art degrees. Their decision to return to Singapore in 2011 was borne out of a desire to contribute to the art scene here.

“When artists in Singapore want exhibitions, you can count on your fingers how many independent spaces they can turn to. We need more varied spaces. Spaces that allow artists, curators, and researchers to experiment with ideas,” Ruobing continues.

Funded independently by the artist duo, Comma Space opened its doors early this year, wooing visitors with the launch of a curatorial series titled 12 Solo. In this series, 12 artists are invited to each create a single work and present it as a solo show. Diversity is key in Ruobing’s selection of artists.

She explains, “I intentionally invited artists who have dissimilar life experiences and approaches. This allows audiences to understand how different artists see.”

I was one of the artists Ruobing invited, and I had to admit that at first blush, her idea sounded a little intimidating. A single work as a solo show? What if a visitor – after taking precious time to trek to this gritty industrial venue – finds the work to be a let-down? Why just one work? Why not five? Or six?

Ruobing laughs, “Every artist has ideas waiting to be made real! This project was conceived to give the artist sufficient time, space and freedom to focus on just one idea – one work. And what I would like to achieve for the audience is a singular experience, where he or she arrives at Comma Space and enters an artist’s work instead of only looking at it.”

I swallow. The pressure is on.

Three artists have risen to Ruobing’s challenge so far. In January, Sai presented Chitter-Chatter, a kinetic installation that saw numerous dental casts attached to motors and set to move at different speeds. The result: a ruckus that spoke of the tension between hearing and being heard.

Viewers could trigger the movements of Sai’s dental casts by pressing a button in Chitter-Chatter. They were also invited by Sai to sit inside the circle of dental casts and have the teeth chatter at them.

Michael Lee caused a riot next with I can’t, I got to go to Mongolia. Through an open call, the artist collected excuses that individuals dish out for not turning up at arts events and fulfilling the sometimes-tedious obligation of networking. He filled the walls with these excuses, which further became fodder for hilarious performances. From having to water plants to rushing in order to be circumcised — you name it, and someone has likely made that excuse.

Fine art graduate Sarah Lin responded to three excuses through impersonation and improvisational singing, at the opening of Michael Lee’s I can’t, I have to go to Mongolia.

Next up in the Comma Space line-up was Johann MF with Jemputan, a Malay word that means ‘invitation.’ Drawing on his experiences of being a self-professed Europhile from a conservative Javanese-Muslim family, the artist created an installation and opened the show with a feast. Visitors indulged in mangosteens, spring rolls, roasted chicken, chocolates, wine, and more. There were also classical oil paintings created by Johann himself, a Persian carpet, an antique candle chandelier, and cello performances. These whimsical, varied, and yet carefully thought-through elements came together to explore Johann’s sense of otherness.

 

Johann MF posing with his installation at the opening of his exhibition Jemputan.
A close-up shot of the sumptuous feast that visitors were treated to as part of Johann’s performance at the exhibition opening.

Affected by the outbreak of COVID-19, Comma Space suspended 12 Solo and closed its doors at the end of March. The space will reopen in mid-August with erm, my work. Other artists in the line-up include James Jack, Yang Jie, Lai Yu Tong, Boo Sze Yang, Ivan Ong, Ong Si Hui, and respected veteran Tang Da Wu. Ruobing herself will also present a work in the near future.

As my conversation with Ruobing comes to an end, I linger at Comma Space, drawn to the marks on the floor and the texture of the walls. I fall silent. I think about the physicality of the space. I think about materials. I think about taking a risk and trying something new.

I take a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves. Making an exhibition is for me as much a test of confidence as it is about trusting my intuition. Whether it is a group show or a solo one, whether it’s to feature one work or six.

I switch off the ceiling light and shine a torch around, observing how light falls on the different surfaces of this new art space. I think to myself that this time, I will explore using a material that I haven’t used before.

Maybe, just maybe, it will work out.

 

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Find out more about Comma Space here. Artist Ng Hui Hsien’s show opens to the public on 15 August.

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