Singaporean Artists Consider the Lie of the Land
Sim Chi Yin's aerial photograph Shifting Sands #2 (2017), showing in The Lie of the Land at Singapore's FOST Gallery (7 August–17 October 2021), recalls the large-scale housing developments that constituted this developing islandcity during its nation-building years.
Sim Chi Yin, Shifting sands #2 (2017). Inkjet on cotton rag paper. 60.96 x 91.44 cm. Edition of 10 + 2 AP. Courtesy the artist.
The topographical photograph shows a murky grid that maps the space of the land onto coastal structures running outward to sea, with tractor machineries parked nearby.
In the 1960s and 70s, Singapore underwent rapid phases of demolition and reconstruction to make way for offices, shopping centres, hotels, housing and roads, open spaces, and sidewalks. Sim's work picks up on this historic framework, which feeds into this group show of six Singaporean artists contending with resource use, the built environment, and territorial sovereignty in the context of an island state that lacks space.
Opening around Singapore National Day on 9 August, The Lie of the Land seems to ask one question: what is this place? Focusing on popular and official memories is Kray Chen's bright and patriotic three-channel video A Parade for the Paraders (2018). Seven high-spirited young men—former members of the Singapore Armed Forces military band—perform on a stage in an old-fashioned assembly hall in a disused school in Singapore.
The video recalls the exalted and fetishised atmosphere of celebratory school assemblies and flag-raising ceremonies: one channel through which a nation makes sense of its place in history and society.
Nearby, a series of large abstract paintings from Ian Woo's 'Flag – Installation' series (2019) are hung on the wall. Four acrylic paintings on wood appear like a series of flags arranged in a cross, connected by their corners.
In these environments, of which Singapore is but one, the imagination is sometimes all one has left to escape...
The surfaces of Woo's paintings are thick and rich from repeated additions of paint, their earthy-toned and sky-blue backgrounds giving way to wheels and streaks recalling scenes from nature, including yellow fields, slanted rainfall, and still life objects that draw on a festival atmosphere, like sauce boats and table tops.
The impersonality of Woo's objects, which include abstract, geometric forms, recalls a machine aesthetic; reflective, perhaps, of contemporary Singapore's preoccupation with productivity, which Chen's video invokes through the depiction of regimented youth galvanised to serve their nation.
Across the show, ideas emanating from works begin to emerge, as participating artists ponder the space in which they live. Cultivating a place of desire and social engagement, notions of private and public life, family, social dynamics, leisure, and labour intersect.
In the case of Donna Ong's photographs from the series 'My Forest Has No Name' (2014–ongoing), a vibrant waterfall and tropical forest transport viewers to a new world, a small paradise, a daydream: a blissful summer afternoon in the country.
I find myself pondering more on the land in these images. On the one hand, the land could be seen as a utopian aspiration, but it is more likely an authority-imposed utopia, one that originates somewhat in uncompromising beliefs on how others should live.
On the other, the land stands as a relevant illustration of what a utopian project can be, once grand theories have been cast aside: a feasible, practical, but even more importantly, subjective utopia.
Arrayed on the grey gallery floor, as if on a smooth tarmac road, are a series of elegantly cut-out Bianco Carrara marble sculptures with their main bodies shaped like daggers or other traditional weapons, their tips pointed at both ends.
Comprising Ong Si Hui's Moth (that flies by day): Like clockwork (2018), these sculptural elements look coolly minimalist, with their polished anatomy, streamlined geometric forms, and understated colour.
Offering a sonic accompaniment to these floor-based sculptures is Zul Mahmod's engaging 'No Substance (Trunk)' series (2014/2019), a sound installation consisting of laboratory glassware mounted on metal pipes.
Audio interventions include the clink of the metal on the conical flask, the clink-clink of a rod on inverted bell, metal on glass, and glass on glass—a sonic combination of materials whose sounds shift from calming, beautiful, to imposing and disturbing.
Drawing an analogy with glass as manufactured and empty, 'No Substance (Trunk)' critiques the urban planning of modern cities as cold and lacking human touch, shaped by a market economy drained of empathy and kindness.
In these environments, of which Singapore is but one, the imagination is sometimes all one has left to escape the conditions that Karl Jaspers's 1931 book Man in the Modern Age aptly described, where individual agency is depleted through life's increasing mechanisation. —[O]