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Looking Back at 45 Armenian Street

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The Substation building, located on 45 Armenian Street, dates back to 1926. It started life as an electric power sub-station, though by the late 1970s, had ceased operations and remained vacant until it was converted into an arts centre, which opened in 1990. The arts centre itself was founded by the late Kuo Pao Kun, one of the most important cultural figures in Singapore. A theatre-maker, Pao Kun was detained without trial for four years in the late 1970s. While there are a number of important artist organisations that pre-date it – including The Theatre Practice, TheatreWorks and The Necessary Stage – The Substation was the first arts space of its kind in the country. It wasn’t just an arts organisation, or a venue, and it wasn’t state-controlled. It was an arts centre led by an independent artistic vision.

In early March 2021, the Board of Directors announced The Substation would be closing. The Board made the difficult decision after lengthy deliberations with the National Arts Council, which rented the premises to the centre and partially funded its operations. The Board and Council could not agree on the terms, going forward, concerning funding and occupancy. In late July 2021, in response to proposals from the arts community, the Board made another announcement, just before the final handover to the National Arts Council: The Substation will continue in a different form, evolving from an arts centre with a space of its own to an arts company run by a smaller team; it will no longer be based in the building on Armenian Street, although its new location was not identified at the time.

“A” and “C”, two old friends – meaning, two old persons who have been friends for a long time – meet on a bench on Armenian Street in Singapore, sometime in the future.

A: It’s great to see you.

C: Great to see you too. But why meet here? There’s no place to get a good cup of coffee.

A: But this is a nice bench to sit on.

C: It is, isn’t it … can’t remember the last time we met in person; it’s been a while. How’s the wife and kids?

A: They are all well. As you know, my son and daughter-in-law just had their first baby.

C: And how’s your own daughter?

A: She’s still trying to make it as an artist. I keep telling her, don’t be an artist.

C: Both her parents are artists!

A: Exactly. Learn from my experience. It’s not worth the pain and struggle.

C: But you know it doesn’t work that way. If anything, she has to make her own mistakes. Didn’t that important playwright and director – who used to work on this very street – didn’t he say, and I still remember the quote: A worthy failure is better than a mediocre success.

A: Yes, Kuo Pao Kun. He was a good man … it’s sad, what happened to The Substation.

C: Who’s that artist – you know, what’s his name, the one who did a work about taking photographs of The Substation during its last days on this street. The one who had a long association with the arts centre. He also did an artwork that “re-designed” the gallery. I just read an interesting article about him.

A: Yes, what’s his name … Lim Tzay Chuen. I met him once. Years ago. Funny guy. My daughter was just talking about him. She met him recently – sat next to him at some dinner hosted by a mutual friend. She said they had a pretty intense conversation. She was asking what he thought younger artists could learn from the older generation.

C: I think you mentioned that on the phone the other day. She finally met this artist whom she wanted to meet for a long time. What a coincidence – now, here we are, sitting on this bench in Armenian Street, talking about him and his project.

A: Lim was telling her that attitudes are very different these days.

C: Sounds like us old guys complaining about “kids today”.

A: No, I don’t think it’s that. I think he was talking about how the art scene has changed. I agree. It’s becoming more and more about money. And institutions are becoming more and more institutionalised. Must be difficult for young artists. They must feel like they have to struggle against each other to stand out. Must feel very crowded. They have much less space to think, or to do nothing, wait, and then work.

So, according to my daughter, the project on Armenian Street was, for Lim, like looking back on his whole trajectory as an artist.

When you’re young, if you’re lucky, you might have some talent and maybe lots of energy. Only later, with some maturity, and lots of hard work, only then do you begin to really understand why you do the things you do. You can better articulate your ideas and work. You have a sense of clarity. Then, later in life, with even more experience, you get to a point where sometimes you can no longer articulate what’s going on. It’s beyond your own words or understanding. You can’t explain why, anymore, you do what you do. Somehow, though, you continue working …

C: Let me tell you about that article I read. Soon after the announcement that The Substation, after thirty years of operations, would close shop and leave the iconic building, Lim made this small watercolour painting of the arts centre with a large yellow signage of Bee Chiang Hiang on the facade. You know, the place that’s famous for bakkwa.

Prop in Guangzhou factory, 2021
Lim Tzay Chuen, 45 Armenian Street, construction of prop in Guangzhou factory, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

A: Yes, of course, but I haven’t eaten bakkwa in ages! Not good for your health. Though, I know you don’t care.

C: No, I have to watch my health too, these days …. Anyhow, Lim went and actually fabricated this enormous yellow light-box with the words Bee Chiang Hiang and hung it on the building. But it wasn’t to create an exhibition. The purpose was to take pictures. Including pictures of various persons standing in front of The Substation during its last days on Armenian Street. Which aren’t to be displayed until after another thirty years have elapsed … I’ve lost track – you know how many years to go, before they will be finally shown?

Prop in Guangzhou factory, 2021
Lim Tzay Chuen, 45 Armenian Street, construction of prop in Guangzhou factory, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

A: Have no idea. My daughter was talking about all this. She said that Lim couldn’t really understand why he became obsessed with Bee Chiang Hiang. At the time of the project, he wasn’t in Singapore, he was living in China, and there was the pandemic. Lim said that when he heard about The Substation closing, he thought about the feeling of missing home, then also thought about missing local foodstuff. Although, according to my daughter, Lim said, in confidence, that, even after all these years, he’s still taken by surprise at exactly why he chose to juxtapose the closing of The Substation with Bee Chiang Hiang.

My daughter thinks there’s a connection – in previous work he’s had similar obsessions. He’s engaged popular local icons before. Like when Lim represented Singapore in the National Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, he wanted to bring the Merlion statue to the Italy. The whole damn 70-tonne statue. The National Arts Council of Singapore supported the proposal. However, the Singapore Tourism Board, how to say this nicely, they didn’t have the nerve, and they made up some excuse …. My daughter thinks that maybe Bee Chiang Hiang became Lim’s new Merlion. You don’t speak Chinese, so you may not realise the words “Bee Cheng Hiang 美 珍 香” translate as “beautiful fragrant treasure”.

C: I did not know that. Hmmm .… Anyhow, yes, I read about the Merlion project in the article. In the end, Lim’s presentation at Venice featured two public restrooms – a reference to Duchamp’s ready-mades, but with working toilets. He also installed a sign in the courtyard, where the statue would have been, and there was an information room. But here’s the thing that struck me. Lim said that he was less interested in bringing the Merlion to Venice than in taking it away temporarily. He said, often we only truly appreciate something when it’s missing, and his project would have given Singaporeans a chance to rethink the meaning of the Merlion. He wanted to organise visits by school kids to Merlion Park. These kids would take photographs of themselves standing where the statue was missing. And, many years later, they could bring their own children to visit the Merlion, and tell them stories of how they visited the Park when the statue went overseas for a holiday.

A: My daughter said Lim found it amusing and ironic that with a number of his projects, like the Merlion one, he couldn’t persuade the various parties involved to make it happen, even though he himself was so clear with all his reasons and arguments. With Bee Chiang Hiang and The Substation, he was bothered by private uncertainty, and, yet, compared to those other works, he managed to realise it, he managed to get the organisations and institutions to say “yes” – although it wasn’t simple or straightforward—it never is. Just like with the Merlion, it involved all sorts of bureaucratic applications and appeals and attempts at persuasion, and so on. In the case of the Merlion, as you pointed out, there was the Arts Council, then the Tourism Board, and so on.

C: Uncertainty for an artist is an interesting thing. Remember, back when you were young, and you would hang out with that artists group, the one that did a lot of performance art. A number of those artists were extolling the virtues of being spontaneous and doing things impromptu. But you weren’t convinced. Because you felt that even an impromptu action is a decision. And you’ve always been very thorough about thinking and over-thinking every decision and calculation.

A: Yeah, like I said, sometimes it’s hard to explain, looking back at one’s own practice, after so many years … So, tell me more about that article.

C: If I remember correctly, the central argument was a comparison between three images: In the middle was Lim’s watercolour of The Substation; the whole project is called, 45 Armenian Street, by the way. On the left was Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan, and on the right was The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson. Don’t know if you remember, but Comedian was simply a fresh banana stuck on the wall with duct tape—it was shown in some big fancy art fair, many years ago, there was some controversy, and I think it sold for a lot of money, or ended up in some major museum. The Weather Project was a huge site-specific installation at the Tate Modern. It was hugely popular, remember. Eliasson created the effect of a sun burning bright in a mist in the vast Turbine Hall. He installed all these humidifiers and created an environment, not only with light, but humidity and temperature as well.

Anyhow, the writer of the article – I forget his name – he explained why he positioned Lim’s work in between those two others. First of all, he noted that the three are all yellow artworks. There’s something about the brightness of the colour yellow, how it often signifies the sun. Then he wrote about how the three run a range of scales: on the left, you have Cattelan’s almost throwaway small gesture. On the right, you have Eliasson’s grand, spectacular work – which practically created a public space – it was like visitors came to sit on the beach, or on the grass in a valley, to look up at the sun. Lim’s work sits in between: it’s medium-scale, but also in the sense that it has a bit of both left and right scales. When it was just a painting, the work seems like a small gesture, but when realised physically, well, the light-box prop spanned almost the whole width of the building, and you could appreciate the largeness of it.

With Cattelan, you have the artist as prankster, the cynical commentary on the art world, about the corrupting influence of money, a critique of the institutions of art. With Eliasson, the work seems sincere, even earnest, in its gesture to provide a contemplative space, to connect with nature, and the cosmic. Again, Lim’s work sits nicely in between. It also makes a commentary about the state of the arts – making reference to the failure of a wealthy nation like Singapore to fund important art spaces like The Substation – but it is also about genuine affect, fond memories, and deep reflections – about what could have been, what was lost, all that stuff. Reflections and feelings which are projected from the vantage point of an imagined future. Perhaps most of all, the work is about stories. The stories we tell about our past and ourselves – who we are and where we’re going. Stories about art. And stories about stories.

Night shot, 2021
Lim Tzay Chuen, 45 Armenian Street, night shot, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Epilogue: As the sun begins to set, the two friends continue talking about art, catching up about their families, gossiping about mutual friends, and reminiscing about the old days.

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Featured image: Lim Tzay Chuen, 45 Armenian Street, watercolour painting, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Editors Note: A Chinese version of this text is being published by The Art Newspaper China

About the Writer: Lee Weng Choy is an art critic currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is an old friend of Lim Tzay Chuen’s, and has written a number of essays about the artist’s work. Lee was artistic co-director of The Substation from July 2000 till December 2009.

The Project Producer for 45 Armenian Street is Winnie Li.

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