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Scratching the surface?: Port/raits of Tanjong Pagar’s endearing quirks and playful perspectives

The Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) public art initiative, The Everyday Museum, has taken a welcoming approach to the way in which we engage with the world around us. The initiative aims to propel the visual arts into urban spaces, with the hope of transforming Singapore into a sprawling open-air museum.

For its most recent undertaking, Port/raits of Tanjong Pagar, The Everyday Museum has commissioned a public art trail comprising site-specific installations by six contemporary practitioners. Together, they unveil the unexplored layers of Tanjong Pagar’s sprightly community and its industrial and commercial legacies, which continue to evolve. Among Singapore’s earliest settlements, Tanjong Pagar was home to the Orang Laut and Chinese plantation workers. Today, it showcases multiple historic sites of worship, revamped shophouses and upscale commercial residences.

The slice in Port/raits harks back to Tanjong Pagar’s maritime significance as Southeast Asia’s inaugural deep-water berths, though operations at the container terminal have since been relocated.

Until 9 March 2025, individuals are free to visit the public artworks and reevaluate how they habitually navigate the urban environment along the way. The works are spaced across crossings, walkways, HDB estates, and parks, which created an atmosphere of exploration and anticipation that implored me to proceed leisurely. I kept my peepers peeled though, lest any details elude me.

Beachy beginnings

What set this public art trail apart for me is how the works included playful and understated interactive elements. My adventure began with the discovery of a sandy sanctuary within Block 4 of Tanjong Pagar Plaza, where tranquillity held sway undisturbed.

Transforming the walls of the Level 1 Residents’ Corner into a teeming coastal ecosystem, Isabella Teng’s mural Little Islands allows viewers to envision themselves standing on a shore, where their gaze extends towards the horizon. Encircled by boundless stretches of water, the mural offers an uninterrupted understanding of being on an island state, such as Singapore, with an abundant network of offshore islands around it.

A soothing and inviting scene awaits: hatchling turtles make their way back home and tropical red button gingers bloom on trees while intertidal crustaceans peer deep into your soul. Sturdy palm trees rise from the ground, and you can catch a rare glimpse of a whale’s tail as it plunges into the depths. It is a sight quite out of the ordinary, especially at the heart of a commercial hub. Perfect for any weary soul seeking respite and inspiration.

Looking up, the ceiling is adorned with vibrant, seemingly random lines amidst the clouds. However, the “STAND HERE” stickers placed discreetly on the floor provide a guide, framing the viewer’s perspective in connecting the previously disjointed squiggles. The quest-like arrangement of multiple differently coloured lines invoked a sense of childlike wonder, as I had to find all the spots to complete the picture. 

Climb up the stairs and find your way to Level 3 of Block 7. Then, follow similar floor markings and align your gaze so that the depicted scenery of trees and heritage shophouses connects seamlessly with those actually surrounding the plaza.

A little more wistful than the other two, Teng’s paintings on Level 3 at Block 4 emanated a dream-like quality, due to the more prominent interplay of imagination and illusion. Again, casting my eyes towards the sea, but I notice that this time I’m not on the island, which is now just out of reach.

The mural’s series of small serendipities offered a striking contrast to seemingly mundane, utilitarian spaces, such as corridors and stairs, while also reflecting how even the slightest of movements can shift perspectives and alter the way we experience art.

A Playground in new light

Less than five minutes away from Teng’s Little Islands is Space Objekt’s {still} life, a retrofuturistic playground of sorts at the entrance of Duxton Plain Park. In contrast to Little Islands’ harmonious integration into the concrete facade of Tanjong Pagar Plaza, {still} life presents itself more ostentatiously, employing innovative reflective materials and synthetic rubber flooring to entice its audience. 

Akin to a towering cluster of radioactive sunflowers, the installation uses LED strip lighting and dichroic film to compose a visual symphony of iridescent hues that shimmer in the changing light. Facing different directions, convex mirrors function as lenses that magnify, warp, and bring into focus the park’s nooks and crannies. It’s especially amusing to notice people gleefully spot their own stretched and smooshed reflections, and see their ordinary movements turning into extraordinary experiences.

I started to wonder if the installation’s iridescent and reflective surfaces are more diverting than perceptive. Although the work draws inspiration from the surroundings of one of Singapore’s tiniest parks and seeks to address its impermanence, {still} life seems to offer little beyond the surface. I felt like the charming installation missed an opportunity to inquire into the park’s back-alley vibe, as a quaint stretch of parkland between the once thriving red-light district of Keong Saik Road and Craig Road, or its history as a railroad reserve.

Sparking Conversations

While I couldn’t glean {still} life ‘s wider associations with the district from its appearance, Divaagar’s work, which showcases familiar feathered folks in different dwellings, links more explicitly to its surroundings.

In Tanjong Pagar, free-ranging chickens are a common sight. They go about their business, forage for food or occasionally jaywalk just like us. However, instead of their usual gathering spots, some chickens have settled into three new homes. While toylike, a conservation shophouse, a swanky skyscraper, and an HDB block, have been constructed on a grass patch in front of Ji Xiang Confectionery at Everton Park. These correspond to the diverse nature of Tanjong Pagar, where residential and business districts coexist in a green and pedestrian-friendly environment.

Though I often prefer my own company, I ended up speaking with strangers because of the trail, sharing and discussing our personal impressions of the artworks.

At Tanjong Pagar Plaza earlier, there was an elderly resident, who was watching a Taiwanese talk show on his phone at the Residents’ Corner. I was taking pictures of the work, when he told me out of the blue that he would have preferred there be a rainbow in the mural. I cringed, replying that it would have been trite, to which he chuckled.

However, my encounter with another individual next to Everfowl Estate left much to be desired. Ragged in his appearance and pacing along the pedestrian walkway next to Neil Road, he accosted me for trying to take pictures of the fowls in the work, dismissing them as a silly representation of the “real life thing.”

The placement of these art installations in shared communal spaces prompted moments of connection, bringing together individuals, who would have otherwise passed each other by without a second thought. Not to mention the lively, humorous buzz that Everfowl Estate had generated online.

But this made me wonder: are these frolicking birds all hunky-dory in their new habitats, corroborating the adaptability of life in Tanjong Pagar? Or do these familiar abodes symbolise a human-centric lens eager to impose our ways of living on other creatures? As for me, I believe Divaagar’s lighthearted yet effective prototype is way ahead of our time, as it nudges us towards creative solutions that forge a harmonious coexistence with the beings that share our spaces.

Imaginative abstractions

The first time I spotted Grace Tan’s Sea of Flags—a fleeting glimpse of a wall of what looked like post-it notes—was while driving through the Keppel viaduct. When I finally arrived in front of Block 39 at Tanjong Pagar Distripark, where the UV prints are hanging, I thought that they flapped quite helplessly in the wind.

More than to brighten up the building’s sallow exterior, these ‘post-it notes’ turned out to be a painstaking consolidation of swatches from over four hundred colours derived from the landscape and architecture, as well as natural and man-made materials that have defined the area’s industrial character.

Sea of Flags, with its vibrant hues at the top fading gradually into more muted tones, is meant to evoke the rippling of sea waves, given the site’s close proximity to the harbour. But I couldn’t help but wonder if the reverence for Tanjong Pagar’s history could have been more meaningfully expressed. Perhaps an interactive component could have linked the abstractness of the colours to something more tangible or relatable?

On the other hand, Aki Hassan’s abstract forms at each end of Duxton Plain Park are more representational than they lead on. Harnessing the inherent strength and pliability of both stainless steel and fibreglass, the artist imbues the works with robust yet playful energy.

Resembling an overwrought paperclip, Settled’s contorted steel component is propped up by its dimpled, beansprout-shaped fibreglass counterpart. Settling In features pale yellow forms coiling precariously over the metallic structures, like snakes winding around a tree. The former work has a chunky, endearing appearance, while the latter exudes a certain aloofness.

They reminded me that we all exist as complex, layered beings who embody qualities that may appear at odds with one another. Yet, it is through these tensions that we become more mindful of our reliance and impact on others and our surroundings.

Amidst the trail’s focus on architectural relics and transformations in Tanjong Pagar, Hassan’s works draw attention to the presence of heritage trees in the neighbourhood. We shouldn’t forget that they silently bear witness to the passage of time, shaping the very character of the ever-evolving urban landscape.

Final thoughts

While the trail had a fun and informative narrative, I would have preferred more intimacy and insight. From my perspective, the connection between the artworks, their immediate surroundings, and the area’s heritage was kind of touch-and-go. The commissions in Port/raits of Tanjong Pagar tend to focus on the “what” and “how” aspects, neglecting explorations of the “who” and “why” that underlie the evolving community and landscape.

It’s already hard enough to resist a visual feast, but I believe that the implementation of additional accessibility features, such as audio descriptions or tactile markers, would enhance any individual’s interaction with the works. I believe that this holds true regardless of their physical, cognitive, or sensory sensitivities and abilities.

At the end of the day, propelling the visual arts into urban spaces entails an unflinching commitment to engaging with a wider audience. Initiatives such as Port/raits challenge assumptions about who has access to and is able to appreciate art, as well as redefine how art can be experienced. Nevertheless, the unexpected detours and opportunities for a breather and a bite made the journey more memorable and worthwhile, and I definitely developed a more wholehearted appreciation of the neighbourhood’s hidden treasures and adorable quirks.


Click here to learn more about Port/raits of Tanjong Pagar by The Everyday Museum, an initiative by Singapore Art Museum. At the time of publishing, there are five artists’ works available on the trail, with Zen Teh’s work launching in late 2023.

Feature image: Space Objekt’s {still} life (2023), as part of Port/raits of Tanjong Paga: Encounters with Art in the Neighbourhood under SAM’s public art initiative, The Everyday Museum. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

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