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Of Mynahs, Maids and Merriment: Artists Take Over Design Orchard with The Non Season

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Artists have taken over Design Orchard in Singapore and — spoiler alert— it’s really, really good.

Helmed by May Leong, Bobby Luo and Becca D’Bus, independent culture consultancy Hyphen has put together a presentation entitled The Non Season which features the works of over 20 Singapore-based artists and designers. It’s billed as “an eclectic public art, fashion and lifestyle activation,” and will be on display at Design Orchard in Orchard Road till 10 April 2022.

Quietly defiant artworks like Marla Bendini‘s WHERE ELSE CAN WE GO? and Tubeman Forest by Mojoko, Kristal Melson, Howie Kim and Yok & Sheryo highlight the diverse communities who occupy Orchard Road and the tensions that invariably accompany their activities. Tubeman Forest, for example, with its ‘dancing’ nylon creatures, is billed as being “intended to attract pedestrians to the building and offer new ways to experience one of the best vantage points of the precinct.”

Looking at the work though, one cannot help but recall the controversy some years ago over foreign domestic workers dancing and partying in Orchard Road. Ditto for WHERE ELSE CAN WE GO?. Bendini’s work, located in a shop front window, is difficult to focus on and take pictures of — but step back, and the phrase suddenly becomes much clearer. It’s a beautiful work, but also a sharp statement against unkind views that foreign domestic workers are unwelcome in luxurious Orchard Road.

We had an e-mail chat with Becca D’Bus about her fabulous outfit at The Non Season’s media launch, the inspiration behind it, and the significance of an art show in Singapore’s biggest hyper-capitalistic shopping street.

Read on for all the juicy details.

Tell us a bit about the outfit you were wearing at the launch of The Non Season – where is everything from, how did you put it together and what was the inspiration behind the look? 

Becca at The Non Season press launch

This old thing?

Genuinely, I had bought a whole pile of materials and was going to make myself something new but the lead up to the opening of The Non Season was slightly nutty. So, I reached into my pile of drag and pulled out a few things — a yellow and turquoise dress that I made in 2019 (the before times!), a top I made in 2015 for the first RIOT! on Valentine’s Day 2015 (SG50!), a pile of red flowers and a pair of boots fortified with blue duct tape.

These are the colours of The Non Season, but rendered entirely in, ahem, archival pieces.

Which is appropriately unseasonal.

Seriously though, you will see that in all three sessions of Dragged and Drawn in The Non Season, models are dressed in pieces from various designer archives. It offered us a way to be a bit less precious in how we approached fashion.

What were you seeking to achieve with The Non Season and what would you like audiences to take away from the experience ?

The Non Season is inspired by a distinct reality for Singapore’s fashion designers and brands. If they are selling in Singapore, the global convention of the Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter seasons is irrelevant. In Singapore, we get hot, we get wet, and sometimes, we get hot AND wet. (The birthrate is still very low though.) Singapore-based brands that sell here have largely abandoned this convention, which is to say, they have found structures that better meet their needs. And thus we have the starting point for the intervention.

It’s an invitation to reimagine structures for our lives and a challenge to defy the structures and frames that are placed on us. And then, of course, we also looked at Orchard Road, because it is where Design Orchard is located. Orchard Road is, of course, a product of intense planning to maximize yield, from the days of it being a space of orchards and plantations to now, where every square foot has been calculated to maximise the spending of the customer.

Yet some of the most exciting, colourful and lively parts of Orchard Road have been about the communities, sub-cultures and indeed wildlife that exist in it, in spite of this intense planning and intent. So, The Non Season wants to celebrate this too.

Might audiences be inspired to break every rule in the book? Let’s be real here, this is an intervention in a shopping district.

I think when May, Bobby and I were first talking about The Non Season, we were saying things like, “Well, it’s not like we’re gonna lose tourist spending dollars!” and so I hope folks who come to The Non Season absorb some of that energy of just taking some chances and trying things.

The stakes have never been lower, that’s a gift, and something we must fight for when it is available.

There is a common (mis?)understanding that art in malls or retail spaces tends to be overly commercial — was this something you thought about when curating the works for The Non Season? If so, how did you address it? 

It’s not like any of the installations are for sale. But maybe what you might mean is that there is this sense that art in retail spaces can be quite safe, or quite inoffensive.

I don’t think I know how to be inoffensive in Singapore. As a queer person and a drag queen, I am reminded that the very idea that one of us might have parents that love us is so wildly offensive that a commercial portraying this had to be pulled.

So no, I don’t think it was much of a consideration. We went after artists we were interested in and asked them to respond to the ideas of The Non Season, and they have taken all kinds of approaches. Some of the work, like the Tubemen Forest, is chaotic and playful.

Tubemen Forest by artists Mojoko, Kristal Melson, Howie Kim and Yok & Sheryo is located on the roof of Design Orchard. It features ‘dancing’ and flailing ‘tube men,’ or nylon tubes with fans blowing air through them.

Some of it is deeply felt and defiant, like Marla Bendini’s WHERE ELSE CAN WE GO? in a street-facing window.

 

Artist Marla Bendini with her work that incorporates butterflies and reflective surfaces. It also spells out the phrase “where else can we go?” Referencing “migrant workers, nomads, expatriates and social butterflies,” the work is about the diverse communities that congregate in Orchard Road.

And some of the work like Robert Zhao’s installation in the external staircase was a test of the very ideas of celebrating Orchard Road:

Sundown at Orchard Road in Singapore is marked by a massive flurry of mynahs coming to roost. Robert Zhao’s artwork pays tribute to this “spectacular natural phenomenon in the heart of the city”. Image from Design Orchard.

No, CEOs of organizations that run retail stores don’t necessarily want giant blackbirds on their buildings.

Yes, we too wonder what the heck (a slogan like) “Live. Love. Local.” is supposed to mean — if not referring to the wildlife that surrounds the buildings we inhabit and was around even before these buildings were built.

Do you think Orchard Road is a good place for art exhibitions? There have been plans to rejuvenate the street for a long time but nothing has really taken off, and retailers still face stiff competition from online sellers — do you think art presentations like The Non Season can help to turn the tide? 

Is anywhere a good place for art exhibitions? Of course, maybe!

I don’t think we set out to help rejuvenate retail or Orchard Road. In a way, Orchard Road’s building owners and retailers have to do that work.

We set out to think about what Orchard Road can mean, how it can be a way to think about how we relate to public space, identity, and so on. I do think more parts of Orchard Road should think about this too. It would be amazing if we had some kind of emotional connection to sites on Orchard Road that it isn’t just a place to point and laugh at wannabes standing in line outside Gucci.

We were mindful of the fact that The Non Season takes place in a context of a store selling Singapore brands. Hence, we say The Non Season is not just the art and the programmes, it is also the vast majority of the Design Orchard shopfloor full of brands that actively embody The Non Season all year round.

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The Non Season runs till 10 April 2022 at Design Orchard. In addition to site-specific installations, a series of events will be running in conjunction with the show. They include tours, panel discussions and workshops which are open to the public. Find out more and look out for the next session of Becca’s Dragged and Drawn programme here

 

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