Issue DA89 Dec/Jan 2015/2016
The Search for Pace and Place
‘Lost City 3’ is a recent exhibition at Chan Hampe Galleries that highlights and reiterates important viewpoints on Singapore’s fast-changing urban fabric.
Singapore is known internationally as a modern metropolis, where gleaming new towers altering the skyline is a perennial occurrence. Locally, there are many who question this pace, which comes at the loss of recognisable elements in the urban fabric, and thus a sense of both individual and collective disenfranchisement.
This sentiment is discussed in an exhibition held at Chan Hampe Galleries from 19 November to 6 December 2015. ‘Lost City 3’ is the third instalment of the ‘Lost City’ series, conceived by architect and art writer Arthur Sim in 2004 to explore the intersections between art, architecture and urbanism. Following the second instalment in 2008, ‘Lost City 3’ invites artists to revisit their thoughts about the built environment while contemplate the speed of the city’s changes.
Sim’s own views take a more pessimistic stance, as seen from the catalogue text accompanying this exhibition. “Urban planners were determined to start with a clean state in the 1960s and 1970s and they have achieved that very well. It’s a matter of damage control. So it’s not too surprising that with ‘Lost City 3’, I do sense a vein of nostalgia running through the work – as though the artists are shifting through the rubble, trying to find a sense of socio/cultural identity,” he writes.
The artworks are multifaceted and engaging on various levels. Artist and architect CK Kum’s ‘Fragments’ – timber parts salvaged from late Cultural Medallion artist Ng Eng Teng’s now-demolished home-studio in Joo Chiat – is like an archaeological dig. An accompanying series of photography based paintings that read like crime scene close-ups emphasise the effect of time’s damage on these surfaces.
“By imposing a provisional order on what is essentially reclaimed artefacts, without achieving the crisp precision of the other gallery works, the ‘ghost’ house of Ng Eng Teng contains an implied criticism of the transitory state of culture, both evoking the shift in time and place, and the fragility and vulnerability of city,” explains Kum, hoping to prompt questions such as: “is our precious heritage destined to be lost in the ‘momentum’ of the city?”
This sense of loss is both national and personal. Ng Eng Teng is renowned for works such as Mother and Child, a sculpture with a former prominent presence in Orchard Road and is familiar in the psyche of many Singaporeans. Kum, also a personal friend of Ng Eng Teng, was unsuccessful in his efforts to conserve the late artist’s home-studio, a vernacular house archetype (Rumah Panggung or ‘stage house’). There is a certain irony – and tragic beauty – in the way the house is given more prominence in its afterlife, as a gallery exhibit, extracted and lost from its shell.
Also dealing with personal loss is Geralding Kang with her photographic installation Of two bedrooms. What appears like the interiors of a ubiquitous HDB flat are actually staged settings marking spaces before and after the passing of Kang’s grandmother, with whom she had a contentious relationship. “Real life encompasses memory and imagination. My work in general is conditioned by a sheer lack of space, whereby rigorous and honest (personal or political) conversation is difficult to take root,” she explains.
In the images, domestic symbols – the bed, window, towel, fire and other things associated with the kitchen – represent life and its habitual rhythms within buildings. They are a reminder of the very human essence that is impacted, or impacts, the changes in a city’s fabric – something that Kang hopes to highlight.
“Personal drama, which I like to think is the blood and vein of all architecture and cities, is often talked about separately. I hope to find resonance amongst viewers, be it through the recognising the interior on-goings of a HDB flat, or collectively reflecting the passing of our pioneering generation and its implications,” says her artist’s statement.
Hong Sek Chern presents a more abstract reading of loss. Using Chinese ink, pigment and collage on rice paper, she depicts building elements floating through space as if freed from “the restrictions of the physical world.”
“I wanted to suggest an ‘earlier’ beginning and slowly the various city elements coming together. So the paintings are not so much the momentum of the present times but an imagery past (using current city motifs) when the city was building up,” explains Hong. The images were taken from Google Map Streetview, chosen for their ambiguity. “Though one might tend to think of the urbanscape as constructed and planned, I feel that randomness and chance played a larger part in a city’s beginning,” she reflects.
The use of rice paper is appropriate. “This effect is to enable the idea of ‘accretion’, i.e., the gradual building up through layers,” says Hong. The translucency and softness created lend an ephemeral quality to what are typically hard-lined structures. At the same time, there is a tangible sense of movement in the way the building elements float and mash together, conjuring the rhythm of a city growing, but also possibly disintegrating.
Offering an almost literal translation of the theme is Tang Ling Nah’s installation MY CHAR-CITY – The Little Golden Dot, a miniature cityscape made from charcoal fragments and lit to project an exaggerated outline on the gallery walls. The use of drawing charcoal, made from an organic material (wood) represents a ‘living’ city, with the shadows symbolising its aspirations. “It is subjected to cyclical changes with time, and varies in sharpness throughout the day…like a city in momentum, undergoing changes all the time,” Tang describes. Both object and shadow are inseparable. Similarly, says Tang, both a city’s physical infrastructure and its inhabitants and their dreams are co-dependent.
One can read ‘lost’ as already gone and irretrievable, as with the case of Singapore’s older, urban fabric. It can also be understood as a frame of mind, as in the ‘state’ of disorientation. Acknowledging the former is key to addressing the latter. The artworks in ‘Lost City 3’ explore both these aspects while managing to evoke key questions that reiterate the fragility of the city in its search for identity.