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Art What!: The Gathering: 千岁宫 (Qiānsuì gōng) at Kreta Ayer Square

As the world grows increasingly chaotic, there are times when one would prefer to simply let go of all the pressures and anxieties of life, and calm down. That’s something members of the public can find at The Gathering: 千岁宫 (Qiānsuì gōng) at Kreta Ayer Square, Chinatown. Produced and curated by Singaporean curator and exhibition-maker John Z.W. Tung, the new site-specific art commission features work by local artist Wong Lip Chin, as he delves deeper into the intricacies of Chinese culture and history.

The Gathering, in short, is a pop-up garden in Kreta Ayer Square that creates opportunities for an elegant gathering, similar to the ones enjoyed by Chinese people more than 1600 years ago. The project takes particular inspiration from the winding stream parties of yore, where participants waited by a winding stream, composing poems before their cups full of rice wine would float down to reach them. Re-envisioning the experience for contemporary audiences of all faiths and cultures, an intricately-constructed table with a winding stream feature now serves as the main gathering place for tea-and-incense pairing sessions hosted by the artist.

“What my work does is a form of relational aesthetics, and one of my biggest inspirations is Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD restaurant in New York in the 70s, where he set up this restaurant as a means of bringing the artistic community together,” says artist Wong Lip Chin. “Artists were intended to be guest chefs, and some food would be good, some wouldn’t, but the point was to bring people together.”

“As an artist, I see myself as someone who is helping reintroduce Chinese culture to the general public. I’m not an expert, but an enthusiast who does his due research, and gets excited over my own culture, which I distill into the art product and installation,” adds Lip Chin. “I’m happy so long as visitors learn something and gain an interest in Chinese culture.”

Beyond its existence as a site-specific installation paying close attention to the history and architecture of the space, the holistic experience extends beyond visuals to engage the olfactory and auditory senses through the artist-led tea and incense experience that forms an integral part of the artwork concept.

This participatory experience is a novel installation concept steeped in culture. Emerging as an oasis of greenery within the iconic heritage site, the artwork extends beyond visuality to serve as a platform for experiences. By partnering with local artisans, performers, and heritage businesses, The Gathering: 千岁宫 will be further activated with a host of public programmes that evokes appreciation for the Chinese cultural identity while serving as a conduit for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage within attendees.

“Lip Chin wanted to rejuvenate and pay homage to these ancient traditions, and make it both contemporary and relatable to all cultures in Singapore,” says curator John Tung. “Even in his tea-and-incense pairing sessions, Lip Chin will be going back to the idea of single origin teas, when people would use all kinds of additives to flavour the tea, from pine nuts to lotus seeds, to orange and pomelo seeds. Lip Chin is reviving these ancient types of tea drinking practices, comes up with his own infusions, and will serve teas and incense made form precious materials like sandalwood and frankincense for you to enjoy, and offer opportunities for mindfulness and quiet moments of reflection, to reconnect with themselves and with others.”

Beyond Lip Choon’s sessions, The Gathering has also found partners in Kim Whye Kee of Qi Pottery with support from Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchant, for a programme called Tea Routes. That programme takes visitors on a guided tour around the Chinatown precinct with a specific focus on Singapore tea culture, and even lets guests experience local ceramic ware made of clay from the 70s – the last remaining batch of local clay in Singapore. Also featured are Chengtai Nursery, who provided support in landscaping and bonsai curation. After all Chengtai Nursery are experts in the field, having amassed over 2000 bonsai trees from China, Japan, Taiwan, as well as 200-year-old antique clay water pots, rock boulders sculpted by river currents, and fossilized wood.

“People often think of public art installations as using a lot of props, but the thing is, all that we’re doing is rooted in reality and authentic experiences,” says John. “Our items have been generously lent to us by our partners, and I hope people come in and take an interest in Chinese culture. Take for example how these bonsai were supposedly ‘Japanese zen experiences’, but actually originated from Chinese culture, only, they were lost during the Cultural Revolution.”

By cherishing what has been valued for centuries and adapting it for the contemporary audience, the installation exists as the manifestation of the ideorealm – the soul of the Chinese aesthetic experience, ever-present but nigh-untranslatable. The Gatherin then accords the rare opportunity of encountering a time beyond our own, and in doing so, seeks to attract younger audiences to the rich cultural district, and rejuvenate the plethora of traditional businesses in the area.

“We’re very excited to do this in such a bustling space, and excited to be one of the first projects to receive a permit for live music performances, with Walking through the Garden featuring erhu and zhongruan performances,” concludes John. “With such a lively atmosphere, the presence of our partners and heritage brands of Singapore, there’s the creation of the Chinese ‘ideorealm’, where aesthetic meets authentic, and people can encounter all this beauty, and be surprised by how it’s all real, and better appreciate and develop an interest in Chinese culture.”

The Gathering will be open to the public from 25th February to 25th March 2022, at Kreta Ayer Square, 21 Banda St, Singapore 050005. Admission is free. In addition, in partnership with DECK, visitors can also look forward to a range of free and ticketed programming in conjunction with the art installation. More information available here

The ‘Winding Stream Party’ Tea and Incense Experience with Wong Lip Chin runs every Saturday and Sunday, at 10AM – 10.30AM and 5PM – 5.30PM (26, 27 February, 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20 March 2022). Tickets and more information available here

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