To be honest, I rarely have any reason to be in Ang Mo Kio.
Yet, in the first week of July, I found myself visiting the densely populated residential neighbourhood to check out an art space, which I had only learnt about through Instagram. Named Frida, it’s intriguingly described it an “art space by a window in Singapore”.
Scrolling through Frida’s feed piqued my interest. There were photographs of a framed canvas by a second-floor window, with a wisp of a tree branch peeking through; up-close shots of those framed works, with the glass poetically reflecting the buildings outside; and even a darkened view of the work from the back, facing outwards onto the streets. What on earth did this all mean?
And so I found myself DM-ing the account for the project’s location and discovered the artist Lai Yu Tong is behind it. Upon sharing some directions with me, I decided to chart my course for Ang Mo Kio.
Into the suburbs
A few days later, the white-hot sun towered over me as I journeyed through the neighbourhood’s many, many numbered avenues, passing eerily quiet hawker centres and ‘mama’ shops with the occasional elderly customer.
Finally, I reached a ground-floor laundromat—a landmark that Lai had mentioned. Still, I was worried I had gotten completely lost. But walking around the block, I found what I was looking for: a small, framed artwork installed by a window.
I’m not going to lie, but a part of me went, Is this it?
I found myself wondering if the work were more visible on the Instagram page, since it looked smaller from being displayed on the second floor. To be fair, Yu Tong did tell me to bring some binoculars since he foresaw this issue, but I didn’t own any, so maybe that’s on me.
I walked closer to the window, to the building opposite, and down the street, hoping to see if any movement granted a better vantage point, but to no avail. Finally, I decided to leave after some residents began to eye me suspiciously, and I went on my merry way.
And yet, I remained fixated on Frida over the next few weeks, like a puzzle I couldn’t figure out. Why was Frida here? What artworks would it showcase? And what this small, subtle art project hoped to achieve? Lai was frank and insightful about the project’s development as we emailed each other about it—read on for my conversation with him.
Hi Yu Tong! How did you come up with the name Frida?
What compelled you to turn such a everyday location—a space by a window in Ang Mo Kio—into an art space?
My partner and I actually live and work in this unit, which is the second floor of a HDB shophouse. We have been renting it for more than two years now and the lease is ending next February, which is when Frida will end too.
It’s interesting to live on the second floor in a busy neighbourhood as I spend a lot of time by the window looking at things downstairs—cars, people, birds, rats, etc. Sometimes I catch the people and the birds looking up at me too.
I find that a lot of project spaces in Singapore (including the ones that I have worked on) die from exhaustion. What I mean is that while the pursuit of art can sometimes look effortless, fun and meaningful, especially from the outside, it’s a lot of work to organise exhibitions regularly while managing finances. Very quickly, cultural work can turn into the opposite of being effortless, fun, and meaningful for the organisers.
An artist friend, Cheong Kah Kit, who co-ran a space called Peninsular in his former studio at an industrial unit in Tai Seng shared that he and his studio mates ran the project strictly so as to not inconvenience them. This means that they only programmed shows in between their lull periods, with each show opening for only two weekends. I learnt a lot from that and tried to figure out how to run a space within my capacity.
Frida, a space by the window, was partly born out of practicality as I manage the space out of my home-slash-studio and the project is tiny enough so it doesn’t incur too many production costs.
Some of the artists you’ve worked with so far include Liew Kwai Fei and Nice Buenaventura. How did you begin working with them and what was the process like?
I work with a mix of artists whose works I like. Some of them are [IRL] friends, others are online friends, and others are artists I am a fan of. I have a secret Instagram account where I do not let any Singaporeans follow me. This tricks the algorithm into thinking I am based elsewhere, which puts me in touch with a lot of artists from around the world.
My persona on that account is an outsider artist who creates work secretly, which connects me with similar outsider artists around the world and those who tend to be quite evasive.
What do you mean by artists who are “evasive”?
Artists today are expected to be social—to have online marketing skills, attend openings, and overall have a good presence to present their work. But a lot of artists are generally shy and I feel that their work can be quite shy too. [With Frida,] I’m experimenting with modes of presentation that are more intimate and suitable for them.
Perhaps evasive is not the word, as generally artists are quite friendly. They appreciate people who like their work and genuinely want to present them to others, even in a weird format like Frida.
The works so far have included a Driving Test, a drawing of graphite, colour pencil, and watercolour on graph paper; Sounds to be in Limbo To (Raindrop), which features a poster with the words ‘The Sound of a Raindrop’ on it; and (Source) Mateo, a digital print of a man’s face. Why did you specifically curate these works? How do they relate to the locations in which they’re displayed?
I let the artists decide which work they want to show. I am not a curator and [instead] tell the artists that I invite that their work will mostly be seen by the birds, the cars, passers-by who frequent the area, and online audiences via Instagram.
It’s interesting when artists approach this scenario as if they’re showing work at a gallery, rather than proposing something site-specific for the window. In most cases, there is a bit of both.
Was it difficult to find works appropriate for the space, seeing that the display area is only a small window ?
The works that I show are all roughly A4-sized. The size is great because Frida has the potential to show a selection of international artists who can post their works to me relatively cheaply.
The most I have spent so far is about SGD 50 for a work coming from the U.S. It got lost once so we paid for the postage twice. Otherwise, it’s been quite smooth and not too expensive to run Frida so far.
As such, Frida is also a kind of mail-art project, which I am a big fan of. I think the small size makes it easier for artists to choose to commit to the project.
You call Frida a “mail-art project”. Were there any other projects, mail-art or otherwise, that inspired Frida’s development?
Yes! Frida came about exactly because I was so inspired by cute out-of-the-box art spaces based in other parts of the world, which I encountered online.
In America, the Boreal Throne hosts shows in camping tents along nature trails in the Pacific Northwest, and April April in New York is an art gallery in an apartment space. Sun Spot in Western Australia is an public mailbox of sorts where you can collect a free zine. Keijiban in Japan [displays art on] a signboard space, while DKUK Salon in London offers haircuts in front of art.
Are there any precautions that you have to take while displaying the work by the window?
I prepare the artists for the possibility of the artwork getting damaged. I was especially worried about the UV light from the sun, so I decided to only show each work for 2 weeks and to opt for anti-UV clear acrylic with the framing that offers some protection. The works don’t get [exposed to] any rain or other elements as the windows are usually closed.
So if you visit, there are more layers of glass to see through than how it looks from my photos [on Instagram]. Basically, the frame floats between my window and the curtains, technically making it indoors.
To me, the artworks on show are very ‘blink and you miss it’, and I wouldn’t have noticed it if I wasn’t specifically looking for Frida. How have other people, be it art enthusiasts who come all the way to see it or neighbours passing by, responded to it?
I’m not sure about the response, actually. Honestly, I’m scared to find out what they think! The birds seem to like it (haha). I’ve had visits from mynahs, crows, woodpeckers, wasps, changeable lizards, and even a cat that climbed up to the window one night.
Seeing that most people interact with art in galleries and museums, do you think that Frida (consciously or otherwise) responds to the lack of space in Singapore?
To me, there isn’t a lack of space in Singapore. Frida exists to show that it’s possible to use spaces in alternate ways and that anything is possible with art. With that logic, any space can show art, especially in a city where most places have decent foot traffic.
To me, the relationship between experimental independent spaces and the museums and galleries is like that of sporting rivals. Like Messi and Ronaldo or Federer and Nadal. I don’t mean in terms of competition, but in terms of having players on the same field who represent different philosophies, beliefs, and cultures.
In some sense the system is only complete when you have some opposition keeping things in check—to me, this is what Frida’s relationship with the galleries and museums is like.
Some people might dismiss the project based on its small scale, but what would you like people to take away from it?
I hope for Frida to be a sign of possibility, to encourage the birth of more independent art spaces across Singapore, big and small, despite the challenges of living here.
Click here to learn more about Frida. Please DM the account for Frida’s address. Each exhibition runs for roughly two weeks before being refreshed. The project will run till February 2024.
Click here to learn more about Lai Yu Tong.