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I_S_L_A_N_D_S: An Oasis of Art in Excelsior Shopping Centre

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For art enthusiasts, the main crowd-pleaser in the City Hall area would undoubtedly be the National Gallery Singapore. But just a stone’s throw away lies an art experience of a very different nature, ensconced in the grungy Excelsior Shopping Centre.

Since November 2017, independent art space I_S_L_A_N_D_S has set up ‘shop’ there – first as a series of window displays, then as a small shopfront space. The shopping centre’s crowd veers towards musicians and punks, so the emergence of this artistic intervention in these commercial spaces is something of a surprise.

We speak with curator and producer Tan Pey Chuan, the force behind this peculiar space.

Pey Chuan runs I_S_L_A_N_D_S
Pey Chuan runs I_S_L_A_N_D_S as her passion project. In her day job, she is a curator and producer. Image courtesy of Pey Chuan.

How did I_S_L_A_N_D_S get its start? Could you tell me a little about what prompted you to run this space and its programming?

I’ve always been curious about starting a space for or with peers. I enjoy how in other cities that I visited, there is something very casual and bold about putting an art space in an unexpected place. I like that kind of playfulness in approaching art. Growing up in a place where culture is such a sanctioned aspect of our civic space, I thought it would just be interesting to just take a stab at doing something different.

I chanced upon the first space out of sheer luck. I was in the area after visiting the National Gallery Singapore for a show, which as you know is one of the most institutional of places. And then I saw that Peninsula Shopping Centre was still around. It’s where I used to frequent as a teenager to buy sneakers and look at guitars.

There were so many empty units. I walked around and looked at numbers to call, wondering how much it would cost to rent a space. Then I saw the window displays in the third-floor corridor, and it made me think, what if this could be a transitory space for temporary art encounters?

There’s a sense of surprise and brevity in a format like this, while also giving myself and artists much room to play with.

Packed corridors of visitors in a pre-COVID era.
Packed corridors of visitors in a pre-COVID era, back when I_S_L_A_N_D_S existed as window displays along the mall corridor. The exhibition was Berny Tan’s solo show … the invisible reasons which make cities live…, on view from mid-May to late June 2018. Image courtesy of I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

What kinds of reactions did the space draw?

What’s funny was that I would often get comments from neighboring tenants that they couldn’t get a clear sense of what we were advertising in the spaces. But over time as we developed a cadence, they got more curious about each iteration, and what the artist’s practice was about.

For me that’s interesting in terms of how we think about commodity culture – how do we place value on objects or artworks, and what happens when the same artworks are placed within the context of an advertising space?

It’s a little tongue-in-cheek nod at the commercialisation of the art world. At the same time, we’re using this very commercial space to make projects that may not necessarily seek to answer these questions but in fact, raise further other questions.

I think of it as an opportunity for artists to think about how we present work and whom we’re presenting it for – how does our artwork fit into the public sphere, and what are we really intending to say or impress upon people? These modes of presentation give us a very active space with which to experiment and gain a bit of self-awareness also.

What brought you from the window display to this current space? Was it necessity, or did you just decide that you wanted to explore a slightly bigger space?

I think I had the original lease for a year. And after that, I just wanted to move to a different space and give ourselves a new challenge. Move before it gets old – especially because it had been such a specific context and space.

When I started this, I never thought it would go beyond a year. But we had developed such a good cadence that it would have been a shame to just stop. That said, I paused I_S_L_A_N_D_S for about a year and a half while looking for this current space – I was looking through all these listings and waiting for the perfect space to come up that was within budget as well.

Exhibition close-up of sculptural works.
Exhibition close-up of sculptural works by Aki Hassan in their solo show, ex—tensions, in November 2020. For a year from November 2017 to October 2018, I_S_L_A_N_D_S existed in the form of a series of window displays on a third-floor corridor between Peninsula and Excelsior Shopping Centres. It re-emerged in April 2020 as a small basement shopfront in Excelsior.

With the shop windows, there were limitations about placing dimensional pieces though it gave artists an interesting angle on how they frame their works. But I wanted to step into showcasing more sculptural and participatory works.

With this new space, we’ve been able to do that. Although it’s a very tiny room, people could walk in and interact with the artwork when we have performance or participatory works. The commentary about commercialisation is slightly diminished, but in essence, I think we’re still pretty much the same I_S_L_A_N_D_S.  

We’re still that little odd art experience that you can see if you come to this old shopping center or if you happen to walk by, and just be surprised.

What plans do you have for ISLANDS now that it’s been a year?

I’ve been thinking about how to involve more collaborators and provide this higher level of agency when it comes to programming these shows. I_S_L_A_N_D_Shas pretty much been a one-person thing by myself. I’d like to switch things up again and let others have the space, see what could happen instead and diversify the voices a bit.

meander, meander by Hong Shu-ying (left) and Edwin Chen (right)
meander, meander by Hong Shu-ying (left) and Edwin Chen (right) in July 2021 was part of the I_S_L_A_N_D_S Open Call that Pey Chuan organised to involve more collaborators in the space. Image courtesy of the artists.

Were there things that you particularly value or learnt in the process of collaborating with other artists?

I think it’s really about trusting your own instincts and giving others that trust as well. At the end of the day I_S_L_A_N_D_S is truly a passion project. Everything runs on our own budget – artists come in with their own resources to realise their shows.

So from the start, there’s always been an understanding that this needs a high level of cooperation. But I think we can all agree that it’s a refreshing break from our day jobs and usual projects. And it is just a space where we can explore ideas or directions that we haven’t had the opportunity to go in.

Something that I’m particularly proud of is being able to pull in artists from different stages in their career. I feel that it would be difficult to bring in all of these artists anywhere else in any other context. We’re all brought together because we want to do this explorative work and break away from hierarchical modes that we’re used to. So just staying open minded and focused on the outcome, and trusting in the process – that’s something that I’ve learned.

The Library of Unread Books
Veteran artist Heman Chong and Renée Staal’s The Library of Unread Books made an appearance at I_S_L_A_N_D_S in October 2020. Image courtesy of I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

Where do you see I_S_L_A_N_D_S going? Do you think that its place is to continue being a passion project that must necessarily exist outside of the day jobs and careers that people have?

I’ve been thinking about the idea of patronship and how to support emerging artists in Singapore. I’m by no means a fancy collector or board member, but this is something that I feel I need to think about.

What I really appreciate about I_S_L_A_N_D_S so far is the freedom to just do whatever. When it comes to grants and funding, you have to start thinking about the work very, very differently. At the same time, if we continue to run independently, how do we sustain or expand in long term? So those are some things that have been on my mind.

On your Instagram page, you list I_S_L_A_N_D_S as a community garden. How would you say that garden has grown in the past couple years?

I think it’s about how we’ve turned the focus to the collaborators, and also how we’ve developed closer ties to the other art spaces in the ecosystem.

There were occasions where artists did cross-platform shows where something took place at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, and then there was a concurrent presentation online or in a different art space. In doing so we learnt to leverage different skillsets and resources to share and amplify programming efforts.

The Orchid, The Wasp
The Orchid, The Wasp, an exhibition featuring artists Liyana Ali, Ivan David Ng, Anthony Chin, Leroy Sofyan, and Thesupersystem was presented at Gillman Barracks (47 Malan Road, #01-22) and online during Singapore Art Week 2021. One of its exhibition programmes was recordedat I_S_L_A_N_D_S and published online. This exhibition was organised by Zulkhairi Zulkiflee and Racy Lim. Image courtesy of I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

I think this is something that the pandemic has taught us. Even though it might have made us feel more isolated at the start, there is this nice sense of spontaneity and grassroots energy that the local independent art spaces in recent years share with one another. It breaks up the norm of how we were brought up to think about art, which in Singapore is often perceived as tidy cultural activities placed in sanctioned spaces.

What sorts of challenges did you experience with running the space?

Logistically, there were some interesting challenges of install sometimes, especially if we were going late into the night or having to carry bulky things up. That always raises some eyebrows with the security team. But I also think that Peninsula Shopping Centre has always been a stalwart for underground youth culture, such that they’re used to these sorts of strange things happening.

And the whole thing has been an exercise in patience – in understanding that if people are given their own time and space to appreciate art or culture, on their own terms, I think they all come around to it.

Lynette Quek’s exhibition TOUCH! DON'T JUST SEE
Lynette Quek’s exhibition TOUCH! DON’T JUST SEE in April 2021 was made possible by neighbouring guitar shops who loaned their equipment for the show. Visitors were invited to activate the sound equipment in the space from the outside. This exhibition was also part of the I_S_L_A_N_D_S Open Call. Image courtesy of I_S_L_A_N_D_S.

Over time the tenants and building management have become quite strong supporters of the space even. For Lynette Quek’s show, some of the guitar shops actually loaned equipment for us to display as part of the installation, so we leaned into the opportunity for the exhibition to be read as advertising space and promoted their wares as well. It’s interesting how people can perceive a space differently, yet conceive of it in a way that complements the original intention. I think the greatest challenge is just to go with the flow.

Do you have any unrealised hopes for I_S_L_A_N_D_S?

Maybe eventually, I could do the entire takeover of Peninsula. Like the Eminent Plaza takeover  – Do you remember that that show? I guess if we were to go big, that would be the logical next step.

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Keep abreast of the I_S_L_A_N_D_S’s roster of exhibitions via their social media page. More information on the art space is also available on the I_S_L_A_N_D_S website.

Feature image: Exhibition view of emit.time, a group show by NAIKAN Collective – artists Shen Jia Qi, Janice Lum, Chen Min Suen and Erman Ashburn. This exhibition is ongoing until 28 August 2021.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

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