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Shaping Spaces: Curatorial Insights into The Sea is a Field and 47 Days, Sound-less

Situated in the heart of the Tanjong Pagar Distripark (an industrial district turned art hub), the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) finds itself in a unique position to curate exhibitions that reflect its portside setting, with themes centred around movement and migration.

One such exhibition, The Sea is a Field, occupies a portside warehouse space at Block 37 of Tanjong Pagar Distripark, adjacent to SAM’s main galleries at Block 39. Against the backdrop of the bustling port, visitors are enveloped in the sights, sounds, and scents of the sea, which enhance the exhibition’s immersive nature. 

Meanwhile, 47 Days, Sound-less finds its home in SAM’s Engine Room at Block 39. Within this space, images projected on screens bounce off a system of mirrors onto the surrounding walls, giving visitors a complex, fragmented visual experience.

We gained insight into the distinctive curatorial processes behind these exhibitions from curators Selene Yap and Syaheedah Iskandar, as they shared their perspectives on how they curated and designed exhibition spaces for The Sea is a Field and 47 Days, Sound-less respectively.

The Sea is a Field

Installation view of “Simryn Gill & Charles Lim Yi Yong: The Sea is a Field” at Block 37 Tanjong Pagar Distripark. All images courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

The Sea is a Field emerges from SAM’s inaugural artist fellowship programme, which supports artists in pursuing long-term research and artistic projects. For this first iteration, artists Simryn Gill and Charles Lim Li Yong present a set of videos, texts, and photographs that they produced after travelling by ferry along the Malacca Strait.

Uniquely set in a vast warehouse space, The Sea is a Field transcends the conventions of a typical art exhibition. Left open to the surrounding environment, the portside space becomes a dynamic arena where “stories of everyday crossings, migrations, and borders” can take centre stage. 

“Here, the space itself is not just a container but a vital part of the artwork, treated as a medium,” curator Selene Yap expresses. Other mediums in the exhibition include video footage, text commentary, and soundscapes. This fluid, expansive approach invites visitors to engage not just visually, but also through their other senses.

Yap shares that the Tanjong Pagar site, where traces of maritime histories intertwine with the contemporary landscape, speaks to the “shifting geographies of Singapore” that have long interested Gill and Lim. “Looking through the warehouse shutter doors to Keppel Terminal,” she describes, “visitors will see remnants of cranes and shipyard elevators, reminders of maritime trade activity that has now been moved to the new Tuas Mega Port, which is built on reclaimed land.” These sights serve as poignant reminders of Singapore’s evolving relationship with the sea. 

Installation view of Simryn Gill’s “Untitled'”(2014).

Navigating intersections

The collaborative process between Gill and Lim during their travels between Port Dickson, Malaysia, and Singapore was deeply rooted in shared discussions and reflections. While the exhibition presents the fruits of their conversations, Yap shares that “[t]he artists consider this less a finished exhibition space than a site that can hold both their observations and sensibilities—a zone of convergence for solitary and private undertakings.”

The intersection of past and present is integral to the artistic vision of both Gill and Lim. “Lim’s SEA STATE project (2005-present) has long been exploring the dynamics of these shifting contours of Singapore’s landmass and relationship with the sea,” Yap explains.

She also notes that, for the first Singapore Biennale in 2006, Gill produced a guidebook on the murals of the nearby Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Now defunct, the station symbolises the historical journeys and pathways of the past, and adds another layer to the exhibition’s narratives of movement and change.

Installation view of Charles Lim Yi Yong’s “Sumatra by the Side” (2023-2024).

On collaboration: Insights from the SAM Fellowship programme

As part of the pilot cycle of the SAM Fellowship programme, Yap, with curator Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol and the artists, “built discussions around intersecting ideas on weather, art, and climate infrastructure, as well as the politics of collecting, conservation and ethnography.” Despite the challenges of the pandemic, they stayed connected through video calls, exchanging ideas and readings. These conversations eventually led to “a series of field visits and reflections on how life accrues on reclaimed land, mangrove sites, and coastal areas,” culminating in the exhibition.

The Fellowship programme as a curatorial approach allowed the artists and curators to organically shape ideas without a predetermined framework. Yap further emphasizes that “[t]he exhibition is an extension of this mode of working.” Ultimately, The Sea is a Field is an open-ended documentation of living within the interconnected zone of Singapore and Malaysia, showcasing fragments of each artist’s experiences and reflections as they navigate the complexities of connectivity.

47 Days, Sound-less

Building on the themes discussed with Yap, our conversation now transitions to curator Syaheedah Iskandar, who offers her unique perspective on 47 Days, Sound-less. Co-commissioned by four international arts organisations including SAM, the artwork centres on footage by Vietnamese artist Nguyễn Trinh Thi, who weaves together snippets from movies filmed in Southeast Asia and lines by sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin to comment on the relationships between humanity and the natural world.

Installation view of Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s “47 Days, Sound-less” (2024) at SAM at Tanjong Pagar Distripark.

Syaheedah emphasises Nguyn’s innovative approach to challenging traditional cinematic norms, which prioritise the visual above all other modes of experiencing the world. She shares that Nguyn intends for “viewers to go against their instincts and re-think, re-examine, and re-attune their senses around the moving image,“ and “draws attention to the culture of listening and hearing practiced by the indigenous people living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam featured in the film.”

Simultaneously, Nguyn also shifts the focus to “peripheries” that previously went unnoticed—namely, the “natural landscapes and uncredited characters” that formed the backdrop for American and Vietnamese films shot in Southeast Asia. In doing so, she prompts contemplation by “revealing entanglements between visual-centric ways of being and colonial legacies.” 

Syaheedah shares that Nguyn’s practice has consistently made room for these “other modes of seeing—demonstrating an awareness of the limitations and potentialities of the moving image.”

Detail view of Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s “47 Days, Sound-less” (2024).

Other ways of seeing

The exhibition space of 47 Days, Sound-less was set up to create an interactive experience for visitors. Syaheedah shares that during the exhibition design process, The Engine Room “was transformed into a darkened space, where two prominent projection screens are placed at the centre, diagonally facing each other.”  She further explains that this work was designed as an “expanded cinema,” where the projected imagery varies between the two screens at any one time. This departure from traditional single-screen viewing prompts visitors to embrace a “non-linear, exploratory mode of watching.”

To enhance the immersive experience, the exhibition employed mirrors to project images onto The Engine Room’s walls. These mirrors (initially square-shaped but later changed to circles) reflect video fragments which, Syaheedah explains, “activate the corners of our eyes.” This creates a multi-dimensional environment engaging our peripheral vision and “[m]imicking a more natural understanding of our visual field.”

Syaheedah shares that Nguyn’s decision to introduce mirrors into the work was influenced by the “parallel worlds” present in Southeast Asian animistic practices. This addition encourages viewers to engage with multiple layers of imagery simultaneously and to perceive the world in a more multifaceted manner. 

Installation view of Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s “47 Days, Sound-less” (2024).

Overcoming challenges

The process of planning and installing the exhibition came with its own set of unique challenges. Held in The Engine Room, a space SAM usually uses for programming events, 47 Days, Sound-less required the team to reconfigure the venue, including having to “darken and minimise sound disruptions seeping into the space.” Syaheedah notes: “This was naturally challenging considering the nature of the building, and its proximity to the port.”

She also shares that while Nguyn initially intended for the projection screens to be placed further apart, the artist and the SAM team eventually settled on a closer placement, creating a “more intimate setting.” Additionally, the seating was “deliberately arranged in such a way to accommodate the direction of the sound,” with the overall experience immersively “mimic[king] the participation of sitting in a circle.”

Syaheedah highlights Nguyn’s intention to create a setting that acknowledges the limitations of human sight, encouraging viewers to “embrace that discomfort” of being unable to view everything at once. Throughout the installation process, she adds, the artist was “constantly re-editing the sounds to suit the needs of the space” and create the desired effect on viewers.

Overall, the collaborative efforts between the curators and artists have culminated in two compelling exhibitions at the Singapore Art Museum. Through innovative approaches to exhibition design and curation, curators Selene Yap and Syaheedah Iskandar have pushed the boundaries of traditional exhibition formats, demonstrating the museum’s commitment in shaping transformative experiences within the realm of contemporary art. 


Nguyn Trinh Thi’s 47 Days, Sound-less runs at Singapore Art Museum till 14 April 2024, while Simryn Gill & Charles Lim Yi Yong: The Sea is a Field runs till 21 April 2024.

Header image: Installation view of Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s 47 Days, Sound-less (2024) at SAM at Tanjong Pagar Distripark.

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