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Museum Musings: Sailing the South Seas in National Gallery Singapore’s Roof Garden with Cao Fei’s 浮槎 Fú Chá

National Gallery Singapore presents its fourth commission in the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission series, 浮槎 Fú Chá, by one of China’s foremost contemporary artists, Cao Fei. On display from 17th January to 25th October 2020, this work marks the first kinetic sculpture to be installed at the Roof Garden, comprising a spectacular five-metre tall structure of a swinging wooden ship (that spits water), accompanied by four different soundscapes.

Cao’s dynamic installation sits surrounded by the civic structures of the Supreme Court and Parliament House, while looking out over centres of commerce and entertainment in the Central Business District and Marina Bay. A reflection of Cao’s ongoing interest in the social histories of Asia and the surreal experiences of global capital, 浮槎 Fú Chá also brings to mind the orchestrated pleasures of amusement parks, suggesting Singapore as a construct where any variety of experiences can be readily obtained.

Says Cao Fei on her work: “This work was inspired in part by the tour boats in Singapore. I was also inspired by Englishmen bringing boats to China in the old days. So you can see that there’s a lot of tradition with this boat, such as traditional wording inscribed on it, and you can see things like fish eyes painted on, which are looking both forward and back to ensure the road ahead is safe and the road home is still clear as well, since the sea is so unpredictable. At the end of the Qing dynasty, there was a lot of chaos, and people had to leave and travel via boat.”

“When I came up to the rooftop to see previous commissions, a lot of them were inspired by the surroundings,” she adds. “And I was thinking, how could I bring that to life with my work? And I wanted to include ideas of movements with it to convey the idea of ‘moving history, which was very difficult to do. It’s about organising the space, and figuring out how to incorporate elements from the sound to the movement of the surroundings, and almost creating a theatrical type of structure you can experience.”

Standing amidst the architectural landmarks of the Civic District, 浮槎 Fú Chá  also responds to the feng shui of its site. The work provides a unique perspective on the region’s history of migration, in which people set sail to often distant lands in search of new livelihoods. Its title refers to a Chinese fable about a raft that traverses both the Milky Way and the sea, suggesting faraway journeys in unexplored waters. At the same time, it also engages with Singapore’s identity as a historic port, shaped by the numerous diasporic and migrant communities which have made it the contemporary cosmopolitan city-state it is today.

Says Cao: “I first came to Singapore in 2008, and that was when these tourist hotspots and icons were just starting to spring up in the Civic District. There’s something about them that draws you in to take photos of them. You think about the ArtScience Museum and the top of Marina Bay Sands, and both of them feel like boats in some way. Then there’s the fantastical Merlion spitting water, and all of them are near a water body. There’s something thematic that links all of them, and it made me think about boats and history and how there are so many people that have come before us.”

“When I first came to Singapore in 2008, my impression was that it was full of tourist hotspots, and that’s how it wants to present itself to the public,” she adds. “Singapore has become one of Asia’s touring hotspots for leisure and entertainment, from Gardens by the Bay to Resorts World Sentosa. And now you have something magnificent like Jewel, which all the tourists will see when they land in Singapore! I imagine that living here, there are times people might almost feel like a tourist living in this country. Now though, when I come here, I love visiting places like Little India, Golden Mile and the food courts.A lot of friends say there’s nothing to do in Singapore, but the difference is that they haven’t been able to see it through the eyes of a local.”

Born and raised in Guangzhou, China, a historic centre of foreign trade and commerce, Cao Fei’s family has many links to Nanyang, which was a key point of departure for the concept of the commission. A Chinese term, Nanyang translates to ‘the south seas’, which was how Chinese migrant populations historically described geographical Southeast Asia. The term is also used to refer to the art styles and cultural movements that emerged in the region in the first half of the 20th century.

“Growing up in the South, my parents were university lecturers and never cared much about fengshui. But I’d always be interested in these things as a child, and found it very fascinating,” comments Cao. “And I realised that fengshui masters would be approached to speak at conferences overseas, and you think yes there must be some truth in it. It’s so easy to feel the vibe of a place, and you yourself know when something in the air feels right or wrong. It’s a secret kind of knowledge that’s been passed down for generations, and it’s an invisible knowledge and power that’s really based on instinct. It’s about resolving these weird tensions and feelings in the air, and finding out how to counteract them. Everything exists in a balance, where you must use things like a ‘soft’ thing to reduce the ‘hardness’ of something.”

Bridging reality and fantasy, Cao’s work uses nautical imagery to point toward the historical and contemporary flows of peoples and cultures which have transformed this region, including Singapore’s own identity as a port city shaped by its diverse communities. The design of the ship is inspired by boats typical of this region, with decorative motifs intended to provide protection and guidance, including a pair of eyes to help the vessel find its way back to land. Visitors will notice that water—which would normally surround a ship on the ocean—fills the boat’s interior, with waves splashing out as the ship swings back and forth. This mysterious and poetic combination of movement, sound, and surging water responds to the feng shui of this particular site, while suggesting a magical voyage to faraway places. The work suggests the hopes and dreams of migrants seeking a new life, as well as the looming dangers of sailing to an unknown land with little chance of return.

“It’s interesting to think how the landscape of a place changes at night as well, and I hope that when that happens, people will look at my work set against the starry night sky, and just be able to take an interest in it, regardless of whether they’re art lovers or not,” says Cao. “I hope it evokes feelings of nostalgia and familiarity and curiosity, especially with how it practically shoots water out, and that it moves people to come a little closer, take a photo, and appreciate it for what it is.”

浮槎 Fú Chá runs at the National Gallery Singapore’s Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden from 17th January to 25th October 2020. Admission to the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery is free. For more information, visit their website here

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