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Art What!: Margins – drawing pictures of home at the ArtScience Museum

Screenshot 2020-11-20 at 4.22.09 AM

John Clang’s The Land of My Heart 

What does home mean to us? Whatever the answer you give, it’s likely to be just a fraction of the Singaporean experience, a single drop in the ocean of countless other things that make this island home. Presented as part of the Singapore International Photography Festival, the ArtScience Museum’s new exhibition shines a spotlight on the Singaporean experience we don’t often see, as depicted in the works of 15 local photographers through their lens.

Titled Margins: drawing pictures of home, the exhibition acts as a call for visitors to reconsider their idea of what constitutes Singapore, drawing attention to ideas, places and people often forgotten in our mainstream narratives. From the plights of foreign workers to photos of majies, to new angles of places once familiar to us, and of course, plenty of unfamiliar ones, each work in the exhibition offers up a chance to see things from a brand new perspective, and gain a newfound appreciation for the sheer diversity that makes up a Singaporean life, as we re-examine our sense of belonging and identity amidst the uncertain times we find ourselves in today.

Nguan’s Singapore

The exhibition opens with a single image by Nguan, a plane flying over a sea, three children in the waters, unsure if it’s departing or arriving. Nguan, perhaps one of our best known photographers made famous for his pastel pink aesthetic, delivers a romanticised version of Singapore, finding the beauty in the ordinary we often overlook, evoking nostalgia from the routine, and a heartfelt love for this country. 

Kevin WY Lee’s Suddenly The Grass Became Greener 

In Kevin WY Lee’s Suddenly The Grass Became Greener (2015), the photographer captures images of the surrounding greenery in the CBD in the period following Lee Kuan Yew’s death, an almost surreal, otherworldly time where almost every Singaporean was grieving for the man who built our nation. Recalling his dream to turn Singapore into a garden city, it seems that he succeeded, with these depictions of trees and grass flourishing all around.

Woong Soak Teng’s Ways to Tie Trees

Following on from the nature theme, and the thought of foreign labour contributing to our greenery, Woong Soak Teng’s Ways to Tie Trees portrays an unusual view of the ordinary trees that line our city, presenting each image almost as a portrait of an individual rather than a generic, abstract part of a whole. At the same time, we consider how we seem to constrain nature and the environment around us, with these trees all being uprooted and relocated, revealing our strict urban planning that goes into constructing our man-made garden city.

Marvin Tang’s Stateland

Gardens feature once again in Marvin Tang’s Stateland, but unlike the renowned Botanic Gardens or Gardens by the Bay, instead, his project zooms in on private gardens, and the act of guerrilla gardening in Singapore, an almost unconsciously rebellious act of reclaiming state land through planting. “I observed how people often go to extremes to create space for the self, and saw how gardens became a means of extending our living space,” says Marvin. “Sadly, most of the places photographed now no longer exist due to urbanisation and how they’ve been converted into other things by the state.”

Alecia Neo’s Home Visits

Alecia Neo then shifts the needle to portraits of actual homes and living spaces, with Home Visits, in which she asked to be invited into residents’ homes in Queenstown to capture intimate portraits showasingthe psyche and lives of the estate.

Charmaine Poh’s Ma Jie

In thinking of human subjects of photos, Charmaine Poh’s Ma Jie gives us a glimpse into the domestic servants of the same name, and dedicating their entire lives to serving a family, a life of celibacy represented by their sor hei hair buns. Characterised by their blue or white outfits, they seemed to live life like monks, owning very little for themselves and coming from impoverished backgrounds. While many have since returned to China, some still live in Singapore, in a space of alternative kinship treating and caring for each other as their own family, while others end up in nursing homes. “Most of them have left the families they once served, but there was one man, probably in his 30s, who saw the exhibition online and contacted me, because he recognised one of the ma jies, who used to serve his family,” says Charmaine. “They were a precursor to domestic workers of today, and really understood that their role was as part of the family’s lives. The ones remaining today are quite vulnerable, and it’s very difficult to find documentation on them, as opposed to the more popularised samsui woman of the past.”

Sim Chi Yin’s The Long Road Home: Journey of Migrant Indonesian Women

Still on the subject of unseen labour performed by migrant workers, Sim Chi Yin’s The Long Road Home: Journey of Migrant Indonesian Women traces the path Indonesian maids take in the modern day, making the giant sacrifice to leave home for a foreign land for better job prospects, often for their families back home. While the domestic worker is often seen as an invader, an aggressor in xenophobic narratives, The Long Road Home allows the viewer to sympathise with their journey, taking us from the centre where they train in Jakarta, to their intimate moments of prayer, to their first arrival at Changi Airport, where their new lives are about to begin.

Zakaria Zainal’s Our Gurkhas

Zakaria Zainail’s Our Gurkhas still focuses on migrant workers, but in this case, the male gurkhas of times gone by. Giving up their youth to serve Singapore, this series captures portraits of retired Singapore Gurkhas, each one reflecting on what they miss about the past, and their lives today.

Chow and Lin’s The Poverty Line

Captured over a period of 10 years, Chow and Lin’s The Poverty Line arranges simple food on a newspaper, to show the daily food choices of people living on the poverty line. Traveling across 36 countries and territories spanning for their research, each image depicts the average meal per person per day, and acts as a visceral reminder of our own privilege without having to worry about setting food on the table.

AikBeng Chia’s SingKarPor

AikBeng Chia’s SingKarPor (the Hokkien pronunciation of Singapore) presents a version of Singapore that goes behind the glossy surface tourists see. “It’s not about capturing the beautiful but about everyday life, the subjects that are not staged and more accidental,” says AikBeng. It’s definitely no walk in the park for him, as he recounts taking a closeup shot of a woman posing at the Merlion, then scampering away as fast as he could to avoid being whacked by her.

Wilfred Lim’s State of Solitary

Wilfred Lim’s State of Solitary draws our attention to our favourite pastime – food. But rather than Instagram-worthy food photos, he arranges discarded food into artful portraits, elevating ‘trash’ to unexpected beauty, in this tongue-in-cheek series that finds the value in waste. 

John Clang’s The Land of My Heart 

John Clang’s The Land of My Heart focuses on the iconic image of the Singapore Girl, and thinks about their lives rushing back and forth from airports, only allowed leisure once they change out of their sarong kebaya. With his series, he places them in various locales in Singapore while in their signature uniform, almost like tourists in their own homes, while pondering the Singapore identity as our country rapidly changes before our very eyes.

Ang Song Nian’s Hanging Heavy On My Eyes

Ang Song Nian’s Hanging Heavy On My Eyes is perhaps the least ‘photo-y’ work of the exhibition, which instead showcases 365 pieces of paper arranged according to a calendar, each one with varying degrees of dark spots on them to represent how heavy the haze conditions were in that month, acting as a very visual graph tracking the health status of our air.

Hu Qiren’s People Mountain People Sea

Hu Qiren’s People Mountain People Sea literally translates the Chinese idiom, 人山人海, meaning a huge crowd of people, and inserts cutouts of comic character Lao Fu Zi (Old Master Q) into familiar landscapes, evoking humour from the awkward disparity in both form and juxtaposition, and is probably the most fun work of the entire exhibition, sure to put a smile on your face.

Darren Soh’s SS24 The Last Train

Finally, the exhibition ends off with Darren Soh’s SS24 The Last Train, where four out of 28 of the original series are depicted. Darren’s work captures the last days of the Singapore-Malaysian railway before it was handed back. “There was a lot of buzz about it at the time, and how this piece of Malaysian land had always been right here in Singapore leading to Tanjong Pagar,” says Darren. “I wanted to photograph the line before it ended, and I’d capture the SS24 train that leaves at 1030pm from Singapore every night for KL. Since it’s a single track, there’d sometimes be delays, and nights where I couldn’t capture anything at all. It’s an exercise in patience because I make long exposure pictures to capture the train just as it passes my camera, and found various spots along the line to capture it from different angles. It’s historical, because it really will never be something we’ll ever see again.”

As a whole, the works featured in Margins are familiar yet strange, with our knowledge of the country around us enhanced by these powerful images that showcase new perspectives of what we think we know, or not know at all. We feel the weight of these images from the history contained in them, the artistry that goes into their construction, or the lightness they were crafted with, all coming together to capture these moments our country has gone through, even as we change so rapidly. Perhaps we are nostalgic for times past because the landscape is so different from how we remember it, with new malls springing up or old buildings torn down each year. Photography then, is able to capture these tiny moments, revealing the hopes and dreams in our island state, and tells the stories of the margins we might miss out on, for a complete picture of the place we call home.

Margins: drawing pictures of home is part of the 7th edition of Singapore International Photography Festival, and runs from 21st November 2020 to 28th February 2021. Tickets and more information available here

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