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HAP PY TROP ICS 1

CONNECTING SPACES DOCUMENTS #10

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ZHDK

PART 2: LEARNING FROM SINGAPORE

9 783952 474129

PART 1: WHY SINGAPORE

MICHAEL SCHINDHELM DAMIAN CHRISTINGER (EDS.)


2


In her essay Academy as Potentiality,1 Irit Rogoff writes: “Contemporaneity is our subject—not as a historical period, not as an explicit body of materials, not as a mode of proximity or relevance to the subjects we are talking about, but rather as a conjunction. Contemporaneity for us means that in the contemporary moment there is a certain number of shared issues and urgencies, a certain critical currency […].” This book is an attempt to translate this new understanding of conjunctions into a dialogue. With Singapore’s emergence as one of the leading centers for finance and knowledge production in a truly globalized world, emphasis has increasingly been put on the production and dissemination of culture within the island state. While it was still regarded as an “emerging country” two decades ago, it has since become a world-leader in terms of infrastructure, urbanisation, and service industries. The question as to whether arts and culture will follow suit will be one closely followed by other nations worldwide that are aspiring to the same goals. Singapore can be thought of as a kind of laboratory for the enabling, production, education, and consumption of arts and culture. Within this framework, we see Singapore as an interesting case study. It is a laboratory for various approaches to dealing with the challenges of globalization, as the cultural topographies of Singapore are not only changing, but also constituting themselves before our eyes. We understood this city as a responsive network reflecting this reality that can be harnessed by research and education projects, which is what encouraged us to bring our students to the city, delve into its web, and try to learn from it. For us, seeing eye to eye is much more important than perceived hierarchies, a concept that is also reflected in the design and structure of this book. Learning from Singapore also means looking back from Singapore towards the West. Our research relationship has to be reciprocal. We therefore involved various institutions as partners in this research project with students from the Zurich University of the Arts, and are committed to continue to do so in subsequent publications and projects around this topic.

Happy Tropics No. 1

Damian Christinger

Concept and Design Krispin Heé

Connecting Spaces Documents #10 Editors Michael Schindhelm, Damian Christinger With Contributions by Angela Meier Anika Rosen Beh Swan Gin Benson Puah Claudio Bucher Damian Christinger Deborah Emmanuel Eirini Sourgiadaki Eugene Tan Geraldine Kang Glen Goei Gwee Li Sui Jennifer Anne Champion Jason Pomeroy Jason Wee Kenneth Tay Lawrence Lacambra Ypil Michael Schindhelm Michelle Akanji Petra Tomljanovic´ Philip Ursprung Rem Koolhaas Shirin Hirsiger U5 (Please see p. 213 for more information about the contributors) Spotting the Lion Photos (p.  3, 11–21, 47 –57, 89–99, 123–133, 149–159, 214) by Michael Schindhelm Producer Patrick Müller, Zurich University of the Arts

Assistant Editor Brandon Farnsworth Printing Niedermann Druck AG, St. Gallen Binding Grollimund Buchbinderei AG, Reinach/BL All rights reserved. © 2016 by the authors for pictures and text © Connecting Spaces Hong Kong – Zurich Zurich University of the Arts ISBN 978-3-9524741-2-9 Our special thanks go to Art Stage Singapore and Lorenzo Rudolf, who have been instrumental in introducing us to the cultural topographies of Singapore. June Yap’s insights have proved to be very pivotal and the professionalism and helpfulness of any official agency has us helped many, many times.

1 Irit Rogoff, “Academy as Potentiality,” in A.C.A.D.E.M.Y., ed. Angelika Nollert and Irit Rogoff (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2006).


HAP PY TROP ICS 1 MICHAEL SCHINDHELM DAMIAN CHRISTINGER (EDS.)

No.

CONNECTING SPACES DOCUMENTS #10

ZHDK


REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

PART

JA S O N P O M ER OY

O LD M A N

S H I R I N H I R S I G ER

1 WHY SINGAPORE CLAUDIO BUCHER U5

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

PHILIP URSPRUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


U5

PART

GLEN GOEI

2

EUGENE TAN

ok us on top of Mount Merapi

pore

GWEE LI SUI

LEARNING FROM SINGAPORE BENSON PUAH

BEH SWAN GIN


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

CRAFTING WILDERNESS P. 92

PONDERING OVER A HAWKER’S LIFE P. 180

JA S O N P O M ER OY O LD M A N S H I R I N H I R S I G ER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION P. 10

PART

INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE P. 36

1

WHY SINGAPORE

IN PRAISE OF LAKSA P. 104 PHILIP URSPRUNG

OBLIQUE CITY A RESPONSE BY KENNETH TAY P. 74 CLAUDIO BUCHER U5

UNDER CONSTRUCTION P. 116 EIRINI SOURGIADAKI IN COLLABORATION WITH POETS FROM SINGAPORE


U5

GWEE LI SUI

TROPICAL JELLY CRYSTALS P. 161

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY? P. 59 GLEN GOEI

BEH SWAN GIN

PART

WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING? P. 101

2

THEATRE AS A PLACE OF RESISTANCE P. 135

LEARNING FROM SINGAPORE

ok us on top of Mount Merapi

pore

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES P. 23

WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM P. 181

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION: ART, SPACE, AND SOCIAL CONTRACT IN THE CURRENT URBAN CONDITION, IN ASIA AND BEYOND REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

“I LIKED THE HOT AND HUMID WEATHER, …

10


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

Michael Schindhelm Can you share with us some insights into your experience being involved with the CCTV tower project in Beijing? Rem Koolhaas We have observed that one of the major effects of the market economy has been to separate architects from the public good. It used to be that architects worked for public bodies, where it is assumed that you have the interests of humankind at heart. Over the last 30 years, this situation has almost completely disappeared. Architects now typically serve developers, and money ends up being the most important consideration. The way I have dealt with this situation has been to look for public projects in many different countries, knowing full well that morally they are not always without issue. Working for the Dutch state is something completely different than working for the Chinese state, for instance. Nevertheless, we have maintained an interest in working for the public sector; the CCTV project is exemplary of this attitude. Related to this is our interest in the Japanese Metabolists, who were most active in the 1960s, and in architects like Arata Isozaki, or Toyo Ito. They had a huge impact on Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s. Metabolism was an instance where the Japanese state systematically promoted ideas from architects, and was dedicated to changing the nature of Japan, modernizing it in its entirety, making it less vulnerable to earthquakes, floods, etc. For me, it was a prototype for the state having a degree of

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… THE ETERNAL SUMMER, THE STRONG COLORS …

12


THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

imagination, and a capacity to mobilize that imagination. That is what we have always been interested in, and what I felt the Chinese state offered in 2001 when we began to work on the CCTV project. In the cultural sector, we are about to complete the TPAC (Taipei Performing Arts Center) theatre later this year. It is a combination of three theatres that tries to radically rethink what a theatre can be — and remember a theatre is also a building for the state. There has always been a nervousness about how influential money is in this process. I therefore search for partners that are interested in projects that have an idealistic or experimental dimension. MS In China we see a blurring of borders between public and private, even more so in Hong Kong. How public are these efforts really? From a Western perspective, to what extent can you apply the term public to the efforts of these governmental organizations? RK We should be careful not to discuss Asia as an exception. This blurring between public and private that you are talking about is also increasingly present in Europe. Asia is not in an exceptional situation that needs to be brought up to Western or European standards, rather what happens in Asia ends up affecting the West. This whole sentiment that the West is somehow leading is a view that has become completely misplaced. In the last 20 years, the lead of the West has been replaced by at least an

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… AND SMELLS OF THE PLANTS, THE THUNDERSTORMS, …

14


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

interaction or mutual influence between the two, and at most an influence of the East on the West.

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

MS If we are indeed experiencing a shift from public to private funding for the arts in the West, what will the effects be on culture itself, and how long will it last? RK Everything is temporary of course. We must therefore avoid being disappointed, and really investigate and participate in the transformations taking place, which we would otherwise have to abstain from with a mixture of arrogance and bitterness. I follow recent developments, but do so with a critical mindset, and as a critical participant, which I find is a very satisfying way of being engaged. We do not live in a perfect world, but what is fascinating is seeing how totally new sources of intelligence can emerge, as is the case in art. You can be skeptical about its financial incentives, but the fact is that different kinds of organization are increasingly part of it. It turns into a new typology of interaction that I really find inspiring. It is possible to participate in an idealistic way in events that you do not completely endorse. MS The issue is whether or not you stay idealistic during the process. If one still chooses to participate in a project, it means they have not lost their idealism while attempting to make something.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… THE STEADY FLOW OF TRAFFIC IN THE LARGE STREETS, …

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

MS You have sometimes been criticized for working with non-democratic leaders. Many of these projects were so-called “top-down” projects, where critics would usually say that they would never work because of their top-down nature. What is your opinion about this? RK It is an inevitable and justified criticism, but we have chosen our battles. For instance, we were openly criticized for working with dictatorships by German newspapers because of our participation in the CCTV project. The view was that in China, you could work on a hospital, social housing, or maybe a cultural building, but never on something for the state. My intimate conviction remains that what is happening in China is incredibly crucial and decisive for the well-being of the world. Because of this, it is a good thing to participate in projects that are perhaps controversial, dangerous, or important, because it is only by engaging on that level that there is any real interaction or real effect. What of course the world does not see is all the work we did not do for enterprises that we did not believe in, or for countries that we thought were not evolving into a more desirable situation.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… AND THE MIXTURE OF LANGUAGES …

RK It is not an issue of wait and see, it is also about actually making it happen.


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

RK I am not sure I was able to symbolize the flow of information, because I think it is very difficult to symbolize flow. One of the inherent qualities of the CCTV tower however is that the building is completely unstable, and does not look the same from any direction. It looks powerful from certain angles, but also very weak and even awkward from others. The Chinese state is interested above anything else in stability, in a self-evident and powerful image. We were thus able to introduce a challenging presence that was playing with the most fundamental expectations of the Chinese state in the heart of Beijing. Furthermore, we even succeeded in making it an emblem of Beijing. MS How is the building used now? How much do you study the buildings you produce after they are completed? RK CCTV is now an incredibly modern company. It seems like a whole layer of its more old-style collaborators has almost disappeared. We integrated a public loop into the building, but it is not yet open to the public, rather it is currently being used as an exhibit on the history of CCTV. I think that in

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… THAT I DID NOT UNDERSTAND.”

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

MS In terms of design, how did you attempt to support the notion of the free flow of information in a country like China?


22

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

four or five years it will be open, as such things are often slow to happen in China.

RK My entire professional life has been a systematic search for collaborators. There is not a single work of mine that has not been in some way defined by collaborations. On the other hand, I already had a lot of interests that I pursued before I was building in China. Ten years before even thinking about these competitions, I had a group of three or four intimate friends or collaborators who speculated together on the direction of China, and what we would do there should we decide to build something. Quingyun Ma, now Dean of Architecture at University of Southern California in the USA, also played a big role in the negotiation and navigation of Chinese culture. If there is one position that I really dislike, it is the position of an expat doing expat projects in foreign countries. MS You actually grew up partly in Indonesia, arriving at the age of eight and living there for four years with your parents. You never worked here in Singapore, but you never lost interest in the place. 20 years ago, you released an essay entitled Singapore

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

MS How much do you engage with local artists or experts, like for instance how Herzog and De Meuron’s collaboration with Ai Weiwei for the Beijing Olympics?


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES CONVERSATION WITH BENSON PUAH

“WE PLACE THE BEGINNING OF MODERN ART IN THE …

BEH SWAN GIN

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

RK In 1994, I was planning a book which was supposed to be called The Contemporary City. My motivation was that I felt that the terms in which cities were described were hopelessly useless for describing those urban developments that were the most acute and radical. We had a vocabulary about boulevards, plazas, and other compositional entities, but it was also incredibly clear that Asian cities were evolving at a speed that had never been seen before, and according to entirely different principles. I felt we had to do a book about a specific number of cities to reinvent the vocabulary for discussing cities as they happen rather than as they should be. I wanted to write about Tokyo, Beijing, and Singapore. I ended up only writing about Singapore, because it was perhaps the most radical example of these situations, to the extent that the entire island had been conceived as a project or work of art. Every single aspect of the city was redefined in a very short time by a regime that also had enormous organizational competence, clear intentions, and the ability to execute their intentions. The desire to understand an environment that was generated according to these new principles, to see and experience how it feels, was my motivation in going to Singapore. I was also interested in the result of cities being built by regimes that, by Western

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

PHILIP URSPRUNG

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

Songlines: Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa (1995), which is about this city and its development. Looking back on Singapore since 1995, what has changed not only in the city itself, but also in your perception of it?


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES

Damian Christinger Esplanade is the first purpose-built cultural institution in Singapore. How was it to start at ground zero and build this enormous performing arts institution? Benson Puah This view often comes up that there was not any culture in Singapore before our institution. If you go back to the history of Singapore before we were colonized, we were actually a point of exchange for many of the great civilizations that existed at that time. We were at the confluence of the four great civilizations then, namely the Chinese, Indian, Europeans, and the Persians. A point of interchange like this inevitably has a great deal of intercultural exchanges. The culture was very rich, but we lacked the means to formally recognize it as our own culture. Because we were a potpourri of people with different practices, there was no dominant culture per se. When we were colonized, European and English culture took root here, which became the definition of what culture was to be then. What followed were theatres, etc., but there were still street performances taking place performed by Malays, rituals being performed, and Chinese Opera. Before Esplanade, we did not have the same forms of cultural expression as defined by the West, but there were performances nonetheless, which had different relationships that they formed with their communities. It is correct to say that Esplanade was the first purpose-built performing arts venue, but we had a national theatre then that was later demolished and that was built out of cultural pride post-independence. There was even a cultural policy and ministry then. There was a lot of

‌ NINETEENTH CENTURY, BEFORE IT OCCURRED IN EUROPE.�

BEH SWAN GIN

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

standards at the time, would not be called democratic. The article is an investigation of all those factors at the same time. I was trying to be precise rather than critical, but hopefully without the typical condescension that was de rigueur when talking about the city at that time.

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

MS Reading this article, you find the passage “the ‘Western’ is no longer our exclusive domain.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by this? RK You could say that after the Enlightenment, the West launched a series of values, techniques, and apparatuses (like the microscope or camera), all of which define our contemporary world. We ironically consider these inventions Western, but they have become so ubiquitous that it would be absurd to maintain a sense of copyright about them. Their very success now makes them universal. Given the fact that we in Europe barely build any cities anymore, the whole idea of a modern city is no longer a Western idea, rather an Eastern one that is being defined on its own terms. The statement you quoted was also announcing a kind of modesty or at least an irritation with our own continuous sense of centrality in a culture which has become global and ubiquitous. This situation is the result of globalization, and part of this result is that we have become a lot less important.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

“SINGAPORE TENDS TO CONSIDER ITSELF AS A KIND OF …

26


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

pressures, but in a way that did not quite affect me. The language being used by different agencies were keywords such as cultural hub, creative industries, etc.; all things that governments use to justify their investments in culture. My most important goal was to make it relevant to our people from the outset, it was not a trophy venue. It emerged at a time in our history where our society was changing. It was at a turning point which was characterized by a search for our own identity. What we did here was intended to embody part of that journey. It was part of a turning point where we could journey with our people, and for them to journey with us. This is the reason that our vision statement very simply says that we intend to be a performing arts center for everyone. We really meant it. This meant no major ambitions about being a cultural hub or a world leader. When we did use the word “world leading,” it was in the way in which we fulfilled our mandate of addressing the community. We did not aspire to be a performing arts venue that was ranked with any other. It is irrelevant. We needed to be ranked by our own people first. We for instance do not issue press releases about awards, etc. What matters is what we do, not who we say we are. This has always been part of our core values. Our raison d’être is that we are part of the transformation of our people, and instrumentalize the arts in order to do so. Before you can instrumentalize it for this goal though, it must be good art, and therefore you must first invest in it. Where it is a useful means to connect with the community, I do it unashamedly. If you look at what we have been commissioning and investing in, it is meant to

… WE PICKED THIS PERIOD BECAUSE IT WAS DURING THIS TIME …

BENSON PUAH

BEH SWAN GIN

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

RK We should probably stop the comparison for the time being. On the issue of new models of society, I am often looked to as someone who can judge and comment on where it is going in the next 20 years. There is an enormous amount of developments and inventions that make our global society completely different to what it was in 1995. One of them is certainly a kind of emancipation of the civilization of Singapore, but even greater is an effect of homogenization that can be attributed to those inventions like the internet, the mobile phone, etc. These technologies, whether we like it or not, created an almost global layer of sophistication that is more determined by age than by education, and here existing in a starker form than in Western society. MS You claimed in 1995 that Singapore stands out as a highly efficient alternative to a landscape of almost universal pessimism. How do you see this today? RK It is very true; I have not met a single pessimistic government representative here in Singapore. There is still an enormous belief in changing things deliberately, mixed with a new awareness of fragility. This fragility is in certain cases paralleled with

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… SWITZERLAND OF SOUTHEAST ASIA.”

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

MS The essay also tries to understand a newly-emerging social model. Years later, what is your position on this? How does it relate to the Western model?


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

develop the artists and the art form first. There will be certain consequences or benefits to doing this, but the starting point is not to prescribe to the artists or the form what it should be. Art should develop on its own, without restraint. Once it is developed, this is where the intermediary comes in, this is where the two components can be connected. You must first see the value of the artist, and try to connect that to a broader community. You thus play multiple roles. Before we opened, nobody in the artist community wanted to have anything to do with us. This is because before the building was constructed, there was a great deal of consultation, which came along with a lot of hype and excitement that something would finally be built for the local community, in particular in the medium-format stages. There were a whole range of studies. The Esplanade, in its initial form, was much larger than what you see today. Of course, being inexperienced building venues, there was a desire to have this complete suite of venues, and we under-budgeted. When the tenders came in, the policymakers in government had a choice to either build the small venues first, or the big ones, not both. They thus decided to build it in phases. In the first phase, they decided, wisely, to start with the big theatres. When this happened, the artistic community said that this would be for tourists, it has nothing to do with us. They felt betrayed. This is where I came in. My background is not in the arts, I was a hotel manager, then I was in different appointments in government, healthcare, etc. I was probably the most unwanted appointee on the scene. It turned out to not be such a bad

‌ THAT MANY COUNTRIES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA ‌

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES

BEH SWAN GIN

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ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

interest in shifting parts of decision-making to larger parts of the population.

RK Part of the 2014 Architecture Biennale in Venice was an exhibition called Elements of Architecture. There we looked at the history of architectural elements such as ceilings, walls, floors, windows. People were initially mystified by the banality of such an effort, but what we were able to show was, after thousands of years of more or less stable existence, almost every single one of these architectural elements is being modified in very serious ways by modern technologies. Sensors have entered architectural elements, such as floors that record if people have fallen down and can alert the authorities. There are sensors that are embedded in every car that continuously collect data, and that enable you to pay lower insurance premiums if you allow the insurance company to constantly monitor them. The implication of all these mutations, which are typically sold in terms of increased comfort, safety, and reduced

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

MS You also wrote in Singapore Songlines that “the next round of Eastern-Western tension is whether democracy promotes or erodes social stability.” In the meantime, social stability is quite obviously in decay in many Western countries, people are disgusted in our governments, and political innovation is barely existent in relation to economic change. How do you see this in Asia?


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

thing, however. The first reason is that I recognized that talk would not help me convince my critics, I just needed to get on with it. I had extensive conversations with the community, and always asked that they judge me once we open and on what we do. The second reason is that because I did not come from the arts, I was ignorant. I did things that should not have been done. I set an opening date years in advance that we committed to. I also said that we could not just open with one performance but rather we must connect with the community and therefore demonstrate all that we can do. I organized a massive festival consisting of 70 productions, with a technical team who had never done anything like this before. Michael Schindhelm Not being part of the community is often good too, because you are able to stay independent of all these imposed influences you have to face. BP I was not bogged down with legacy. I was not shackled by notions of how things are supposed to be done. Even how we were organized and how my team is structured meant that I took best practices not just from the arts world, but from every industry. MS How did you finally bring in the community? BP In the beginning, our society was unaccustomed to the habit of attending performances. At that time, we only had one arts festival every a year. What we did to change

‌ CAME UNDER COLONIAL RULE.�

BEH SWAN GIN

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

MS We are in a city where many people have different cultural and religious backgrounds, where arguably this aspect of not talking about certain aspects emerges. Does this help to create a society that is multicultural and also productive? RK I do not know if this is how people interact here. It cannot be true that not talking to each other is the way Singapore proceeds. In the case of Qatar for instance, only 20 percent of the population is originally Qatari. In the case of Singapore, the city is based on the premise of collectively deciding to eliminate some of the salient features of many languages in favor of the shared language of English. Those are experiments that really impress me, and I cannot really say that it comes at the expense of raising certain issues. These issues are certainly raised all the time, and if not felt all the time, then at least dealt with all the time. MS Globalization has certainly changed our understanding of both security and freedom. We probably have to renegotiate this relationship, but it is always

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

PHILIP URSPRUNG

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

risk, is a decay of the possible range of risktaking and adventure that you can take in democracy. Whether it is called sensor or sensitivity, it is a kind of collective political correctness. This of course is exactly the place where authoritarian and democratic regimes meet each other.


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

this is anchor festivals at Esplanade to major cultural celebrations. We also created genre festivals and series. We have 14 – 15 festivals per year, and about 20 – 21 series. We started with about 1 500 – 1 800 performances per year, and now we are up to 3 000 performances per year. This was in order to create a certain regularity. We wanted to create a feeling in the public that there is always something happening at Esplanade. You can come here every night and encounter an art form. We have free performances every night in the concourse, and every weekend there are free performances outdoors too. In addition, we do 50 – 60 visual arts exhibitions a year in found spaces, which is also all commissioned work. I was accused in the early days of running a shopping mall, because of all the restaurants, bars, and activities that I invested in. The idea was not to create all these activities so that people come and eat here, but rather to create a destination that was attractive for many different kinds of visitors. Over 77% of the visitors in the early days came from public housing. They would come as a unit of friends or family, on average 3 – 5 times per year, and spend about 1–1,5 hours per visit. If you are a young family with young children, and you are coming that often, your children grow up in close contact with the arts. This has the effect of influencing their visual and aural aesthetic. When we first started out, we had free gamelan concerts in the concourse that fascinated people, as they often had never heard it before, despite living in Southeast Asia. This is because they do not choose to hear it when they turn on the radio or television, where the experience is about customization. You are hearing real content, coming from the land, from the people. This influences and

WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES

BEH SWAN GIN

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

a question of how a society allows this process to take place.

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

The conversation took place in the context of Seismograph: Sensing The City — Art in the Urban Age, January 21st – 24th, 2016, at the Southeast Asia Forum (a program by Art Stage Singapore)

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

“SWITZERLAND SHOULD START COPYING SINGAPORE.”

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GWEE LI SU

BEH SWAN GIN

35

GLEN GOEI

creates a habit for a whole generation that has grown up with us.

BP We now produce the majority of what we are presenting. We seldom present works for pure consumption, there is always a purpose behind a presentation, such as developing a relationship to a particular artist. Usually when we bring in an artist and present them, it is in order to forge a relationship with our local artistic community. We always have a strategy behind every investment. The question I ask my team every time we present someone is: is it an investment, or is it an expenditure? An investment means that there is an intent to do more, and develop a relationship. For instance, over the weekend we commissioned a Thai artist named Dan Swok. He is a traditional Thai dancer who has developed a contemporary language. We did this in order to connect him with our dancers here, in order to help them find their own unique vocabulary, should they want to do so. He brought his own dancers, but part of the work involved local dancers, and he also gave a masterclass here. Aside from that though, there were also informal meetings like dinners or parties, where they had a chance to connect and forge friendships. This is more important, because we bring people together so that they can evolve a relationship together. The same goes with flamenco. People always ask me why we program flamenco. It is because I invite my

EUGENE TAN

BENSON PUAH

MS There are an enormous amount of productions going on here. What is the percent that you are producing yourself?


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

“IF LAKSA WAS AN ABSTRACT PAINTING …

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

36


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

traditional Indian dancers to exchange with them. The dances both have the same origin, which leads to many interesting conversations and fruitful exchanges.

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES

MS What is Esplanade’s relationship to the theatre and drama scene in Singapore? BP Approximately one third of what we do is collaboration with other arts groups. Because we lack mid-size theatres, space is our biggest limitation when it comes to drama and spoken word. What this means is that we either have to do it in 2 000 seat theatres, or the very small box theatres. We do have a program called “The Studios,” though. Part of this is another program called “Raw,” where we develop work, showcase it, then develop it into a production. One work we did just last week called Dark Room, about inmates in prison, was very well received. The work originally came from “Raw,” where it was just a script. When I was at the Arts Council, we developed the idea for “Center 42,” which is a writing incubator. I felt that at the heart of drama must be the script. You need to have a well-written script before you can act upon it. For some time, I have been advocating for the completion of Esplanade’s phase 2, which consists of both a 500-seat and a 1 000-seat theatre. The government is supportive of it, but there is a pressure on the public purse right now because of other issues. I hope to raise funds within a year or so to build an interim 500-seat theatre here on-site. The site is already reserved for the full Esplanade concept, even though we have so far only built half of it. The other half is the outdoor eating area, as well as some interim

“THIS REPRESENTED A BIG BREAK IN THE REGION …

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38 ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… ONE COULD COMPARE THE BROTH …

REM KOOLHAAS, MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


GWEE LI SU

BEH SWAN GIN

39

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

MS How do you see the arts ecosystem in Singapore changing with the implementation of such an enormously big space like the new National Gallery? What will be the relationship between your institution and these new institutions? BP It is remarkable how this government agreed to convert these two national monuments into a national gallery. Typically in a more capitalistic environment, you would build a hotel or something similar to capitalize the reconstruction. The minister managed to convince the government to turn it into a gallery, something that, on the contrary, they will have to support in perpetuity. It is also a recognition that, pragmatic as this government may be, they know the value and the importance of identity and culture. The premise that this is to be the home of Southeast Asian art, including the art of Singapore, is significant. It shows that we recognize we do have artists of our own who have worked within the region, and that the region has its own artistic identity. Right now there is an exhibition called “Reframing Modernism” that counterpoints modernism in the Southeast Asian context to modernism as it was understood in the European context, and shows that they were quite independent from each other. At the time when Esplanade was being formed, it was a turning point for our society. Singaporean society is getting increasingly well-educated, and certainly

… WITH THE PAST, AND WITH IT A TRANSITION …

restaurants. When we build the full phase two, all this will be integrated into the new building.


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

Gardens represent an idea, a place, and an action at once. This simultaneity can be experienced in Singapore with its extended urban renewal concept called “City in a Garden.” Stepping outside, you immediately feel the presence of gardening, perfectly manicured, striving for order. Experiencing this, one could understand the act of gardening in Singapore as an instrument/image/idea of power. Gardens have historically been closely linked with power, be it in the form of the Gardens of Versailles, or in the story of the garden of Eden, which contains the power of both temptation and expulsion. In Singapore, power is not necessarily shown in its most pretentious projects, its smaller gestures can be just as important. Specifically, the constant upkeep of every green corner of the city can be seen as a constant monitoring of public space. Likewise, the gardening efforts of local residents becomes an (unconscious) instrument of negotiating power structures, as evidenced in a conversation with an elderly man printed below. For our survey, we spoke with people from a variety of backgrounds. We chose these two (starkly contrasting) interviews with Jason Pomeroy and an elderly man, as they both take part in the active forming of Singapore’s greenery, and because gardening is for both more than keeping up lush greenery. Jason Pomeroy (and Pomeroy Studios) is a landscape designer working on both private and public projects in the urban habitat all over the world. We do not know the former profession of the old man interviewed, but he was eager to share with us about his garden. He was proud of his accomplishment, and happy we were interested in his work.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… TO THE BACKGROUND OF THE COMPOSITION.”

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

“WE SHOULD BE CAREFUL NOT TO DISCUSS ASIA …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

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GLEN GOEI

much better exposed. There is an exponential growth and desire for all the things that modern societies look for. Culture is one of these things, but it is not merely consumerism, it is also part of our community and our different identities. The community will always be a part, and so will self-expression. It is inevitable that we know it is an integral part of who we are. Time will tell whether we have the wherewithal to take those progressive steps. Everything has happened in a very short time; we now have a civic district, which when you look at it has been rejuvenated with the Victoria Concert Hall, the National gallery, the Asian Civilization Museum, Esplanade, etc. Hopefully it becomes a new heart of the city. My greatest hope is that the icon of the city for Singaporeans will be this precinct. DC On our way over here, I observed several people playing soccer in the field nearby. I understand that there have been several initiatives to build on the site, but each time it caused a public outcry. BP The cricket field in the cultural district, originally put there by the British colonists, was the site of our national day parades that unified us. The parade celebrating Singapore’s 50 years of independence was held there. Even though it is not the most ideal place, there is collective memory there, it is almost precious. It was something that we inherited, and therefore, like Central Park or Hyde Park, nobody will dare touch it. In addition, we created a second central park, Gardens by the Bay. Very few governments would have the amount

… TO MODERNISM IN ART.”

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES

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42 ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

… AS AN EXCEPTION. THIS BLURRING BETWEEN PUBLIC …

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

of courage it takes to not use that amount of valuable realestate, because it represents an enormous amount of revenue. It is popular as a tourist destination, but that is not the main reason. It is a place for the people, for the community. We have a hectic lifestyle, but it is a point of refuge for Singaporeans to go to. I used to work at Santosa real-estate development. The reason I chose to take on the CEO position there was to reposition it as another recreational playground for Singaporeans. During that time in the early 1990s, we were getting wealthier as a nation, but travel was something that not yet everyone could afford. Here you had an island getaway for tourists, but we thought that Singaporeans could go there too. It is quite socialist thinking perhaps, but we look after our people first. This comes back to the concept behind this venue. I am less interested in the world’s accolades; I am more interested in people loving us. MS How do you see Singapore developing? How do you envision the future of this kind of cultural ecosystem? BP When we first created a calendar of events, it was in order to get people accustomed to the idea that culture is a valid activity. Hopefully a certain percentage that have tasted it will then frequent it more regularly. A museumgoing culture is still something that is being evolved, although museum visitor numbers have grown remarkably. This is in part due to the fact that it has in the meantime become free for Singaporeans. The museum-going culture will take a generation to establish itself.

WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

BENSON PUAH

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JA S O N P O M ER OY

O LD M A N

S H I R I N H I R S I G ER

44 ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI PHILIP URSPRUNG

… AND PRIVATE THAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT …

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

The National Gallery is also quite scholastic, because you need to understand the art history, which makes it a bit intellectual. At the other end of the spectrum, it also emanates a certain status for the rich, as Southeast Asian art is now becoming quite a hot commodity. One of the advantages the National Gallery has are all the young children in prams. Those children will grow up quite differently to their parents, because it will become a natural thing to go to the museum on the weekend. When we first started the Chinese festival during Chinese New Year, people thought I was a stark raving lunatic, because people normally eat and celebrate and do not go to the theatre. Now after several years, everyone says Chinese New Years is not the same if they are not at the Esplanade, so you form a habit, which takes time. MS If you say it will take a generation, will the politicians have the patience? BP The issue with populist governments is that you always need to respond to the popular vote, which leads to a certain short-sightedness. Our government can think a bit more long-term, which means making these kinds of decisions is significantly easier than in populist regimes. It is however also increasingly challenging for this government, because they also need to invest in other forms of infrastructure in other sectors. We have always been long-term thinkers, and we know that arts and culture are long term investments.

EUGENE TAN

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES

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46

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

SH You just mentioned the Garden City, which has recently been renamed “City in a Garden.” How would you describe this shift?

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

“EVERYTHING FLOWS TOGETHER, …

Jason Pomeroy The relationship between the green spaces and the people is somewhat of a forced one, as the greening of the urban habitat is very much a government mandate. They are keen to follow in the footsteps of Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, who wanted to make it a garden city. He took this idea to such an extreme level that it is now perceived as a city in a garden. Government mandate beautified the city, putting Singapore on the map as a lush green garden. This does not necessarily mean that people are going to embrace it as their own. It is an environment that is being imposed on them. It is more the government that requests the city to look like this. We are still in an early stage of demonstrating the benefits of the garden city to the people. What they perceive is a shaded environment that helps keep them cool. They are however slowly understanding the other benefits of the greenery that the government is trying to produce, such as its enhancement of real-estate value, reduction in temperature, rain water absorption, and reduction in noise transfer, all aspects that, arguably, the general public does not really care about.

… IS ALSO INCREASINGLY PRESENT IN EUROPE.”

INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE

Shirin Hirsiger How would you describe the relationship between green spaces and local citizens in Singapore?


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

JP A wonderful piece of marketing! It is a play on words of course. I think we have to delve a bit deeper in order to realize that many global cities have been branded. It is very easy for cities with a globalized population that still has to find a sense of identity to compare themselves to other cities and therefore differentiate themselves. Then the question becomes: how do you do this? Either through the physical makeup of the city, or through the people and the subculture of that people. For instance, look at the brown cafés of Amsterdam or the travel plans of Copenhagen. Or you may come up with tall buildings that try to rebrand the entire city, like Taipei 101 in Taipei, or Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This high-price projects are like symbols of power, prestige and opulence, and represent a city’s arrival on the global stage. Singapore’s landmark concept is the Garden City, or nowadays the City in a Garden. We need though to ensure that it is not just a superficial treatment, because sticking greenery on the side of the building does not necessarily mean it is a City in a Garden. SH What symbolic value do gardens have for you personally? JP For me, the garden has transcended culture. It always has been a source of artistic and cultural values. In the Middle East for instance, the four folded gardens were symbolic of what you find when

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… IS HYBRID, AND ACCIDENTALLY MIXED.”

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

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ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

you go to heaven. In the paradisiacal garden, the four elements of the universe are brought together. Muslims in the Middle East understand this huge symbolic value just as much the practical and environmental value. In the hot and arid climate of the Middle East, where water and greenery is so limited, the sudden appearance of a fourfold garden in the middle of the desert would have an immense value. I can see why people would associate going to heaven with a paradisiacal garden. If we look into Europe, the cloister gardens are gardens of life and death too. Their rotating gardens used the decomposition of bodies as kind of fertilizer to grow vegetables and plants. These again were seen as healing. It is interesting how these medicinal gardens of the medieval ages have somehow made their way into modern hospital concepts. I think therefore that gardens have not only an environmental value but are also extremely important on a spiritual and symbolical level. I cannot however over-emphasize the importance of gardens in the history of our evolution. How is it that we think that we can tame nature? Great garden designers of Italy or France created incredible gardens as a means to tame and bend nature’s will. The complete opposite also exists, where designers tried to mimic the unintentional look of nature in gardens entirely fabricated by man. The separation of garden design and architecture is a shame. The twentieth century made a huge mistake by separating the two professions. Le Corbusier’s views on the object in space basically subjected

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE

50


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

the landscape to be almost a second class citizen. We now have to ensure that the architecture and built environment of the twenty-first century exists as a symbiosis between architecture and landscape. SH It is interesting that you say the garden transcends culture. Singapore must constantly fight off a very invasive nature, which is part of its policy. Can you draw a parallel between the nature and culture relationship and Singapore’s policy of taming the same? JP We never really tame nature. We think we have, but there is always some point when somehow a greater power brings us down. It is crushing to realize that nature is more powerful than we are. Taking this thought and transferring it to the last elections here in Singapore, it is only human nature to seek out this healthy moment of tension, that point when people break out and express themselves, just like nature can break out of the control of a designer’s hand. There is a nice parallel to be drawn there. No matter how hard we try to tame a garden or a plant, we will never get it totally right. The art of bonsai is a perfect example of this. Nature will always prevail, just like human nature will always prevail over a system that tries to keep the individual down.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

PHILIP URSPRUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

“IF WE ARE INDEED EXPERIENCING A SHIFT FROM PUBLIC …

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE

SH As already mentioned, the taming of nature is part of the state’s narrative. Why is Singapore focusing on this narrative so much more than other countries? JP Because it needs to create an identity for itself. As it is a vanishingly small state, it has to punch above its weight. It is not London, Paris, or New York. It has not been caught in layers of history, and has not had the benefit of a monarchy. It must then deliberately find its own voice. This voice is shouting very loudly for the green garden city of the future. If you compare Singapore to Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, its particular branding as the Garden City is relatively easy to do. How would you brand Jakarta? Kuala Lumpur? Would you try to look at its Dutch colonial past? That might ruffle a few feathers. Thus Singapore’s idea was to avoid championing its British past, or its trading heritage. All of these are historic and incredibly relevant tales, but they could not have been used to brand the city, due to political and cultural sensitivity. People do not want to ruffle feathers. Therefore what better thing to do than think of the city than as a garden that everybody can enjoy! SH Your office operates in many other cities too. Do you recognise differences in handling nature? Various relationships with nature?

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… TO PRIVATE FUNDING FOR THE ARTS EVEN IN THE WEST, … “IN SINGAPORE NOTHING IS ORIGINAL, …

54


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

JP In other cities, it is a less forced relationship, because is not mandated by the government, and not been pushed through so aggressively. The private sector is increasingly embracing greenery, sky gardens, and the like. They use them to gain a first-mover advantage, whereby they try to gain a bit of ground over their competitors and get a better market position. You see this a lot in Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Philippines. In cities there, developments are almost citadel esque because they develop their parcel of land and only focus on that one site. All of a sudden you have your green utopia, but then you step out of your development into a completely alien world. What that requires is greater management among investors and developers of cities. They must work harder to pool their collective wealth in order to form something better for society. I think that is the fundamental difference. Singapore became a role model for urban greening because it is government driven. There is a greater sense of integration into the streetscapes when they have trees, palms, and shrubs rather than just vines creeping up the buildings. However, in order to create successful public places, they must to listen to developers and society, who also need to have an equal voice. In every public space, there exists a sense of inequality, of a dominant power that tries to determine how a space should be used. In the case of Singapore, we see a similar kind of government will. As soon as we can start to even out the plan, fill it

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

…WHAT WILL THE EFFECTS BE ON CULTURE ITSELF, … … NOTHING IS DEEPLY ROOTED, NOTHING IS PURE.”

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

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INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE

with developer’s interests, society’s interests, and investors’ interests, a healthy tension is created. Better spaces are created when you start to challenge, asking why can’t I use the space? How would I like to use it? You can then go into this space and meet other people with other interests, backgrounds, and motivations. This makes it an interesting place. Out of all the Southeast Asian countries, Singapore is trying the hardest to get there. Not only this, but they have both the financial resources and the political will to do it. SH When we talk about Singapore’s landscape, we think about the manufactured landscape that is always changing and never fixed. In what way does this landscape represent Singapore’s history? JP You can call it the landscape of the buildings and landscape of its people. Let’s take the societal landscape that currently exists. We have a huge population of foreigners as a result of Singapore becoming an important financial center. We can start to examine this starting in the nineteenth century. Singapore’s landscape back then was of a place of trade and commerce for the British. It was then influenced by overseas traders, so you start to see an influx of Arab, Indian, and Malay workers. When it was annexed by Malaysia, it transformed into a very different environment due to its newfound independence. All of a sudden it had to stand on its own two feet, and was constantly under threat of potential

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

… AND HOW LONG WILL IT LAST?”

58


“ORIGINAL DENGUE SLING RECIPE …

59

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY? GWEE LI SUI

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BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

invasion by Islamic countries in the surrounding areas. It therefore tried to transform itself into a sustainable city-state with microprocessors, technology, and manufacturing at its heart. The city then transformed again, focusing on financial institution and major banks. After independence, it was paradoxically recolonized by British banks and law firms. In another wave of transformation, it became very focused on tourism and knowledge-based activities, ushering in an age of high technology and industry. This economic transformation is represented by both the social and physical landscape of Singapore. There are the shops of the nineteenth century, which represent Singapore’s heritage as a trading post. There is then Singapore’s West Coast, with all of its light industrial warehouses, which is representative of the microprocessor and manufacturing industries of the 1950s. There is also the central business district with its glass skyscrapers of the late twentieth century, which is representative of the move into financial institutions, and the age of Singapore as a global player on money markets. The latest transformation towards tourism and leisure is represented by Marina Bay Sands and Sentosa. Similarly, you can see a gradual decline of British influence on the social landscape. This is a result of a lot more Southeast Asian people coming into Singapore. In the twentieth century, there was a sharp spike again in foreign talent coming in, especially in managerial positions, senior positions associated with banks, and creative industries. It is interesting that there is this kind of mirroring of the social transformation in the architecture, and vice versa.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

PHILIP URSPRUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

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GWEE LI SU

… 30 ML BOMBAY SAPPHIRE GIN …

61 Every now and then, the academic study of a field has to re-evaluate all its major premises that have come about through the conditions of a particular context. The aim of this exercise is not just to correct factual errors but also to foster a stronger critical attitude towards the whole enterprise of knowledge-making. Its importance should be clear in an era where the use of poststructuralist discourses has elicited very rewarding thoughts on the nature of entrenched power. We are more aware today that much of what we call knowledge has not been independent of either the apparatuses used to mine it, or their influence in interpreting and managing available data. Michel Foucault, a generation ago, points to forms of dominance “[w]henever one can describe, between a number of statements, such a system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity.”1 This understanding must now frame the traditional concept of Singaporean literature, which has, until recently, managed to resist fundamental questioning. For decades, the careful curation of strong voices and a scripting of a seamless social conversation have locked it to themes of nation-building, memory, and cultural legacy, and reg­ ulated it through notions of literary value. My present essay hopes to recover a distinct field of direct political engagement that has gone missing in much academic study of Singapore’s English-language poetry particularly from the late 1990s through the 2000s. This poetry is often still viewed within a structure that supports a grand “rags-to-riches” narrative, one where Singaporeans struggled against first colonial and then postcolonial conditions to forge a confident, hyper-modern, First World identity. I wish rather to make clear a broader scope of poetry that can affirm the self-reflexive ways it approaches politics in the face of hegemonic cultural pressures within the republic.

The Hollow Episteme Two recent trends in anthologizing have helped to show up the academic limits and emptiness of what we may now consider a Foucauldian episteme. Firstly, a different picture had emerged in 2009 through Our Thoughts are Free, a collection edited by Tan Jin Quee, Teo Soh Lung, and Koh Kay Yew which compiles creative pieces by former political detainees in Singapore.2 While several of its entries had appeared 1 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), 38.

2 Tan Jin Quee, Teo Soh Lung, and Koh Kay Yew, eds., Our Thoughts are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile (Singapore: Ethos Books. 2009).

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I N T ER V I E W S O N G A R D EN S A N D G R EEN S PACE

62 ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

“NOWHERE ELSE CAN ONE FIND A GREATER …

REM KOOLHAAS, MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

… 20 ML CAMPARI …

63 before in private volumes, those volumes’ limited availability had ensured that the works were not accounted for in earlier literary evaluations. My own anthology Man / Born / Free (2011) goes on to pay tribute to this strand of interest by setting a few of the poems with the more socially driven works of established Singaporean writers. 3 In 2014, Christine Chia and Joshua Ip in their anthology A Luxury We Cannot Afford — a title that echoes the words of Singapore’s late great statesman Lee Kuan Yew on poetry — combine both old and new verses that explicitly respond to the state’s relationship with poetry.4 There is also a second trend occurring, where we are seeing a rekindled interest in translating Singapore's other three main languages, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, into English. This surge had begun in 2009 with Reflecting on the Merlion edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai, Fifty on 50 edited by Edwin Thumboo, celebrating Singapore’s fiftieth year of self-governance, and Alvin Pang’s Tumasik.5 The projects revived a general wish to manifest an inclusive picture of Singaporean literature not seen since the ASEAN anthologies of the 1980s and 1990s and long-defunct literary journals such as Singa. More recent multi­lingual anthologies have included Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar’s UNION (2015), which joins Singaporean and American literature, and my own Singathology, a commemoration of Singapore’s silver jubilee in 2015.6 Translations of Isa Kamari’s Malay novels and Yeng Pway Ngon’s Chinese poetry join a quiet, growing body of production that once had little support and attention, as was the case with Elangovan’s transcreations of his Tamil works.7 Fortuitously, both of these developments have helped to make visible an otherwise overlooked space of politics in Singaporean 3 Gwee Li Sui, ed., Man / Born / Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011). 4 Christine Chia and Joshua Ip, eds., A Luxury We Cannot Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014). 5 Edwin Thumboo, Yeow Kai Chai, et al., eds., Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthol­ ogy of Poems (Singapore: National Arts Council of Singapore, 2009); Edwin Thumboo, et al., eds., Fifty on 50 (Singa­ pore: National Arts Council, 2009); Alvin Pang, ed., Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Iowa and Singapore: Autumn Hill Books, Inter­ national Writing Program at University of Iowa, and National Arts Council of Singapore, 2009).

6 Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar, eds., UNION: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing From Singapore (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015); Gwee Li Sui, ed., Singathology: 50 New works by Celebrated Singaporean Writers (Singapore: Marshall-Cavendish Editions, 2015). 7 Translated novels by Isa Kamari include One Earth (2007), Intercession (2009), Nadra (2009), The Tower (2013), A Song of the Wind (2013), Rawa (2013), and 1819 (2013). A five-volume collection of Yeng Pway Ngon’s translated poetry, titled Poems, was published between 2010 and 2012. Elangovan’s verse collection Transcreations (1988) and plays Talaq (1999) and Oodaadi (2003) are bilingual works while P (2007) carries in English two plays, P(Shit) and Motcham, first staged in Tamil.

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

Shirin Hirsiger How long have you been living here? Old Chinese Man 25 years.

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

SH Do you remember what it was like living here when you moved to Tiong Baruh? OCM There were more old people living here. Now all the old people are moving back home. There are more young people living here. [He walks away] Here I have a flower garden. Every morning I go to the garden and take some fresh air. Guess how old I am! 77 years. Very old! SH Do you put a lot of effort into your garden? OCM In the morning, I give the plants some water and then once again in the evening. SH We noticed that there are many potted plants in Singapore. Is this a kind of tradition? OCM This ground here is public. I can’t put a pot outside. This is a mango tree. The mango tree I planted two years ago. And I had grapes. But the government

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

“THE ISSUE IS WHETHER OR NOT YOU STAY IDEALISTIC … … VARIETY OF FOOD THAN IN THIS CITY.”

64


GWEE LI SU

… 120 ML TONIC WATER …

65 poetry. We discover poetry’s frank and biting confrontation with various socio-political truths in history and its presence not just across Singapore’s four languages, but also long before the advent of Alfian Sa’at, most associated with political verse in English today. The realisation challenges a whole perspective that has been based on impressions drawn from English-language poetry and then generalised for all of Singaporean verse: this assumes political poetry to be negligible and its tradition non-existent in Singapore. The lack was once understood as the outcome of life in a highly repressive environment where writers would resign themselves to regular self-censorship.8 This in turn became a convenient means to explain the fewer number of works in prose fiction, generally thought to be more effective for sustained socio-political criticism. We may now name what has been problematic: firstly, an Orientalist notion of state authority has given shape to easy answers about how repression works in Singapore. Secondly, there is the direct and perhaps unintended result of critics failing to secure the right material, whether out of laziness or actual systemic difficulties. Thirdly, we point to the conditions of literary study themselves, which has allowed actual relevant concerns to keep falling off the edges of how Singaporean literature is being queried. Conventions of close reading have examined texts and authors more as isolated entities than as overlapping fields of utterances making strategic responses in precise contexts. At the other end, the curse comes from dominant ideological readings that hastily “zoom out” to describe the life of new nations, the impact of globalisation, and so on. Between the extreme procedures, academics study what already excludes not just localised relationships between poetry and politics but, more importantly, the writing of poetry as itself a political decision.

The Form is the Message These issues force us to rethink a central question about the way Singapore’s English-language verse and its politics relate. We ask: why is it that much of this poetry seems to approach politically charged themes by oblique means, with self-deprecating wit or lyrical obscurantism? Our most careless response would be to assume the poets’ disinterest or resort to self-censorship — as if they were less informed, principled, or brave than their counterparts in other languages and other 8 See, for example, Dennis Haskell, “‘Authority’ in Modern Singaporean Poetry”, Interlogue: Studies in Singapore

Literature. Volume 2: Poetry, ed. Kirpal Singh (Singapore: Ethos Books, 1999), 19–34, 32.

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

said you can’t have those. You can’t plant it into the ground. I plant the trees with the pots into the ground so I can protect them. When they sometimes cut the grass, they don’t care. But with the pot it can’t be cut away. This one is a jambu tree (points to a tree). Can you see the flowers? I’ll show you! Jambu is a Malay wood. But you know, this area is all Chinese, not English. These houses are very old. They are from before the Second World War. These houses were originally built for the army. And this one is a custard apple tree. The fruits can be very bitter. And this a mandarin. And these are from Thailand. SH Oh! It is really big! OCM Ah, I think it’s more than 15 years old. It’s an old tree! This one is papaya. And look at this one [walks away]. The flower is really nice, but it has no smell. And no fruit. And this smells very good! Try [picks a flower]! SH Jasmine? Frangipani? OCM I don’t know.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

… DURING THE PROCESS. IF ONE STILL CHOOSES …

INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE

66


67

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

… A DASH OF ANGOSTRA BITTERS …

writers. To see their different style of engagement, we may consider first a poem called “A Completely Safe, Good Poem” (2009) by Gilbert Koh: It is about nothing you love, hate or desire. It avoids sex, God and politics. The line breaks are unadventurous And the shape of the poem is prudent. The words do not take up arms, Tear down walls or otherwise conspire. As you put them down on paper, They neither protest nor demonstrate But merely compose themselves With a careful, calculated blankness. They will do exactly as they are told, And nothing more. One late night When sleep evades and the questions burn You return here to your own words To find the answers to yourself. And it is too late. The words fold their arms And smile in silence. They take no risks. They know what they know, but they Will tell you nothing.9 Koh’s refreshing candidness should be noted as a conscious choice as deeply political as his strong focus on the theme of self-censorship. This calibration constitutes his own working through the ethical questions intrinsic to any relationship between art and politics. Distinct from having to speak plainly for the sake of impact, Koh needs to show that his poem is brutally free from the fear of external pressure it condemns; in other words, his poem has to be opposed to the bulk of crafted and yet ineffectual works that “know what they know” but “Will tell you nothing”. These two aspects — an admission of tacit limits to speech and a needed ethical response — are reflected in how the poem can shift outside the field of compromised art by ironically manifesting, in its ambiguous self-reference, its own potential for complicity. What Koh has done to achieve poetry truth is, in Hegelese, to “negate the negation:” he does not just deliver his message but pri­ marily uses its entanglement and struggle with unspoken laws to make a genuine, more nuanced point. 9 Gilbert Koh, “A Completely Safe, Good Poem”, Two Baby Hands (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2009), 82.

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

But here is a bigger one. Smell! I like it very much! You smell it when you pass it. But it’s one type, a very little type. Come here! This one. Can you see the flower? I will show you [picks one]. And this is curry! You can smell it [picks one]!

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

SH Oh yes! [everyone is laughing] OCM Sometimes when we cook curries, prawns, or chicken, we put it inside. But you only need a few leaves. Do you know this? Pandan leaves. You put it in the rice. Do you know chicken rice? SH And what plant is this? OCM Oh yes! I don’t know the name. But smell it [picks a leave]! SH Oh very intense! OCM [He laughs] This is medicine for coughs. When you have a cough, you take 7 leaves, cover it with hot water, then drink it. Or you can eat it (he bites into a leaf). This plant is very good for us. It can help people, even against cancer. The name is cold dou. There is no taste. This one you have to cook the whole plant.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

PHILIP URSPRUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

… TO PARTICIPATE IN A PROJECT, IT MEANS …

68


GWEE LI SU

… 1 TSP. CHIA SEEDS SOAKED IN BLUE CURAÇAO …

69 This dialectical production exemplifies for us how poems in Singapore are already overdetermined as the pressure to censor oneself underpins the very possibility for literary and academic discourses. Every writer writes by deciding one way or another how to address what Singaporeans call “out-of-bounds markers” or “OB markers,” vague spectral limits that govern the terrain of what is permissible in public. These markers are not, as some critics think, features of a long-obsolete dispensation which climaxed in the infamous “Catherine Lim affair” of 1994, when a novelist was publicly censured and humiliated for her political comments.10 Despite an assurance given to Yale University that its liberal arts campus set up with the National University of Singapore will be able to enshrine free speech, the state has really not stopped asserting the rule of limits everywhere else.11 Rajeev S. Patke, for example, notes in amusement how, when Alfian Sa’at’s first collection One Fierce Hour (1998) was published, the widely respected poet-academic Lee Tzu Pheng had to go to the press to defend the idea of poetry as socio-political criticism — “as if that needed defence.”12 Yet, there has always been consequences for challenging authority and alleged “core values:” in recent years alone, a column was lost, arts mentors dropped, funding for a theatre group cut and for a graphic novel pulled, installation works amended, and films barred from public screening.13 In this sense, Koh’s rather prosaic verse — which a reviewer stiffly describes as ideal if one “wishes to read local poetry without having to learn how poetry is read” — is strategic violence that performs a political stance.14 For a demonstration of what pure form in poetry can 10 For a comprehensive summary and analysis of this episode, see Kenneth Paul Tan, “Who’s Afraid of Catherine Lim?: The State in Patriarchal Singapore”, Asian Studies Review 33 (2009): 43–62. 11 Alison Griswold and Drew Henderson, “Academic Freedom promised at YaleNUS”, Yale Daily News (1 April 2011) www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/apr/01/ academic-freedom-promised-at-yale-nus/. 12 Rajeev S. Patke, “Voice and Authority in English Poetry in Singapore”, Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature. Volume 2: Poetry, ed. Kirpal Singh (Singapore: Ethos Books, 1999), 85–103, 92. 13 See Au Waipang, “The Fear and Lunacy That is Arts Censorship”, Yawning Bread (8 August 2006) www.yawningbread.org/ arch_2006/yax-632.htm; “Daily Newspaper Today Sacks Blogger ‘Mr Brown’ after Government Criticism”, Reporters without Borders (6 July 2006); Adeline Chia,

“Education Ministry Drops Arts Mentor”, The Straits Times (3 October 2009); Adeline Chia, “Don’t Play Play”, The Straits Times (13 May 2010); Charissa Yong, “NAC Pulled Grant from Comic as It ‘Potentially Undermined the Authority of the Government’”, The Straits Times (3 June 2015); Ng Yi-Sheng, “Simon Fujiwara: Censored at the Singapore Biennale 2011”, Fridae (25 May 2011) www.fridae. com/newsfeatures/2011/03/25/10744. simon-fujiwara-censored-at-the-singaporebiennale-2011; Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “Photos Cut from Show”, The Straits Times (24 June 2016); Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “Classification for Film on Political Exiles, To Singapore with Love, Means It Cannot be Shown Here”, The Straits Times (10 September 2014). 14 Nicholas Liu, “No Grand New Words”, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 8.4 (2009) www.qlrs.com/critique.asp?id=730.

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE

SH Including the roots? OCM Yes, including the roots. You have to boil it for one hour, then you can drink it. This one [points to a tree] will have fruits in two or three years. It is still too young. I cannot plant durian because it is too big. If a fruit drops and the people see it, they complain. The government therefore only gives one warning. In Singapore you can’t plant fruits; it’s prohibited. You really need to see fruits in Malaysia. They have a lot of fruits, like Rambutan, Durian. Singapore also has plantations, but very little. Singapore is a very small island. Singapore is very safe. The government is very strict. They catch you and put into jail, but it’s good. Nowadays, the streets are very clean, unlike a long time ago, when people spit on the ground [he mimics the sound], and threw away rubbish. Nowadays it’s very clean.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… THEY HAVE NOT LOST THEIR IDEALISM … “AMONG THE DISHES I HAD NEVER SEEN BEFORE ANYWHERE …

70


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

… GARNISH WITH A STICK OF LEMON GRASS.”

71 do, there has been the playful verse of Grace Chia, who uses the visual arrangement of words as shock protest often against traditional notions of female sexuality. Chia’s short piece “Supremacy” (1998) quirkily expresses through the squashed and dismembered shape under a foot of an insect, “a lesser being,” the sadistic, childish pleasure in the mere exertion of power.15 This sort of effect must also be observed in Koh’s poem because the proof of how, in his words, “line breaks are unadventurous” and a poem’s shape “prudent” is in the saying. In fact, being fixated on this trope of bodied poetry, Koh in another poem “We Were Talking Poetry in a Coffee Café” (2009) relates how he avoids the painful personal content of a poet-friend’s work: So we discussed the technicals only. The choice of a word, the colour of a metaphor. Where to break A line. Sipping bitter expressos, testing resonances, We rearranged the bones of your language, Studiously avoided its weeping flesh.16 Note here how, like the earlier poem, Koh’s line break in “to break/ A line” is performative, this one stressing not just the violence of poetic form but also its complete correspondence with actual suffering. The figurative bones needing rearrangement highlight a brokenness that requires urgent attention in order to re-attain the shape of what has been lost: wholeness. To be sure, such a way of conflating the poem and the poet is not the same as when Samuel Taylor Coleridge propounds: “What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other.”17 For Coleridge, poetry is the life-force of the human imagination, and it is thus the poet who can pull together the human soul and diffuse in it a distinct harmony. What we get in Koh is something both conscious of the fact and yet crude, with the poem itself directly mapping out the poet’s visceral body. When his “completely safe, good poem” folds its arms and smiles back at its obsequious creator, the point must not be missed that what is communicated is not the power of poetry but its powerlessness, the incarceration of its life. The central image is of art as a straitjacketed prisoner of conscience, its silent smile being its sole possible response in defiance. 15 Grace Chia, Womango (Singapore: Rank Books, 1998), 61. 16 Koh, Two Baby Hands, 84. 17 William Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My

Literary Life and Opinions, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983). 2.15.

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


JA S O N P O M ER OY

O LD M A N

S H I R I N H I R S I G ER

72 ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

CLAUDIO BUCHER

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… WHILE ATTEMPTING TO MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN.” … WAS A SOUP WITH A FISH HEAD STARING BACK AT YOU.”

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


73

GWEE LI SU

TROPICAL JELLY CRYSTALS

The Body of Poetry Broken For You Here then are two points we can go on to substantiate: how political and non-political verse are paradoxically saying the same thing in Singapore and how their forms are too often conflated in poetic argument with their creators’ bodiliness. These two sets of conflation are surprisingly elastic and can be stretched across all of Singaporean poetry as our strategies of reading even the most private works. For example, the verse of the hugely prolific Cyril Wong has landscapes that replicate so tightly his corporeal condition that his own poems become not just the means but also the ends of his self-transference. Wong reg­ ularly brings into his writing the empty space on each page in some performance of being more than words, embracing the word-space dichotomy as a version of a mind-body one. This point is sought to its indulgent absurdity by having sometimes one line on a page or a whole volume without consciousness of page determinants such as titles and text length. His poetry ends up filling books in a way that destroys their form to give shape to heightened interiority: this is certainly true of Wong’s books oneiros (2010) and Satori Blues (2011).18 As such, whichever way a poem’s ideological face turns, poetry itself can be treated firstly as a condensation of the poet’s mental life in response to his or her state in society. Secondly, the curious transformation of words locks poetry into an anxiety over what can be expressed, a conceit that essentially underscores the question of political freedom in Singapore. We see this link even in the early “Singaporean poetry” of Boey Kim Cheng, now an Australian citizen, in, say, “The Addict” (1992): We strap you down with our rules, consign you to cold turkey, nail you to our strict regime, but always your shadow slips our crutch and roams the streets for another fix. We are the ones with hands tied down, unable to move, paralysed by doubts in all we do. What is there to salvage in those faded eyes? Is it for the family we go through this tedious routine? The economy of self-advancement?

18 Cyril Wong, onerios (Singapore: FirstFruits Publications, 2010);

Cyril Wong, Satori Blues (Singapore: Softblow Press, 2011).

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPRUNG

OBLIQUE CITY CLAUDIO BUCHER U5 A RESPONSE BY KENNETH TAY

DANGER

74


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

U5

75 You are sincere in hoping that the lies may turn into truth someday, that we may get it right somehow, that the figures will drop to zero and health returns to all. We examine the breakdowns, the relapses, the many forms temptation takes. We teach and you learn, as if we were in an elementary school. You swallow the alphabets of morality like medicine. Your pain is discussed in academic terms. Sometimes a few tears serve to remind us this is real, the problem is alive, throbbing, the nerves bleeding on my desk. More often I speak to an empty house whose owner has gone on a trip and will be away for a long time.19 Boey’s silent victim here is a drug addict, with the rehabilitation center representing the “economy of self-advancement,” the extension of society’s wish to make him productive again. Yet, reform runs up against the difficult truth of the addict’s fundamental state of absence from himself: his body is “an empty house” whose owner is on long holiday even as this vacancy manifests by means of bodily pain and recep­ tiveness to mental reprogramming. The seeming contradictions between absence and presence, visible suffering and eagerness to learn, and lies and truth highlight a central ambivalence felt too in how the poem simply refuses to pronounce moral judgements on the harsh treatment or the addiction. Both institution and individual are described interchangeably — the will and power in one becoming the other’s and vice versa — and this point is driven home when Boey even changed the poem’s title to “Rehabilitation” in 2006.20 We should not overlook how the curious relationship is a trope for a poet’s own bond with his or her society, a regular feature of Boey’s early poetry; indeed, at the point where society speaks completely on the voiceless individual’s behalf, Boey gives his own performance of violence, albeit a kind one in view of how deference towards paternal authority and guilt also define his verse. For a rejection of such cautious approach, there is Aaron Lee’s “Detention” (2005), whose speaker expressly condemns his subjection to physical abuse and the Kafkaesque desire to extract from him “nothing of use.” While Lee’s deadly interrogator is shown ultimately 19 Boey Kim Cheng, Another Place (Singapore: Times Books International, 1992), 70–71.

20 Boey Kim Cheng, After the Fire: New and Selected Poems (Singapore: FirstFruits Publications, 2006), 175–76.

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GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPRUNG

OBLIQUE CITY

Claudio Bucher (with U5)
21 days to get used to a new face “They say it takes 2016
 afterdigital a nose job.” video, 6”


A response by Kenneth Tay

We began first with a foreign face, the face of Madonna. Or more precisely, the face of a mannequin of Madonna the celebrity. It could have so easily been the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, or the statue of the strange Merlion; but it’s Madonna. And I am reminded that the real Madonna - Madonna Louis Ciccone (born August 16, 1958) - is herself older than Singapore. But while Madonna is constantly accosted with claims and rumours of her nose-job and other assorted plastic surgeries, there is no denying that Singapore is a city whose facades are constantly botox-ed. Which might explain why despite the We began with a foreign face,has theundergone face jobinand assorted plastic surgeries, greatfirst acceleration Singapore the other last fifty years, the facades of most Or buildings have not fallen to the vicissitudes of history. all its of Madonna. more precisely, the face there is no denyingDespite that Singapore is a city reputed austerity then, Singapore, it seems, knowsfacades a thing are or two about Botoxed. of a mannequin of Madonna the celebrity. whose constantly showbiz. This might explain why despite the great It could have so easily been the statue

of Sir Stamford Raffles, or the statue of the strange Merlion but it is Madonna. And I am reminded that the real Madonna — Madonna Louis Ciccone (born August 16, 1958) — is herself older than Singapore. But while Madonna is constantly accosted with claims and rumours of her nose-

acceleration Singapore has undergone in the last fifty years, the façades of most buildings have not fallen to the vicissitudes of history. Despite all its reputed austerity, Singapore, it seems, knows a thing or two about showbiz.

THE SIGN SAYS

OBLIQUE CITY

“They say it takes 21 days to get used to a new face, after a nose job.”


to be a mere pen-pushing bureaucrat, his clockwork return to “the desk and irrelevant paper” to write highlights how he can also be none other than the poet, at some level always a state operative, his or her verse being the innocent but principled detainee. 21 Despite differences in attitude towards an oppressive Other, both Boey and Lee show the same vision of the institution as possibly spectral, dissolvable into a question of the poet’s own political responsibility. We have still not strayed from a map of reading we have begun with Gilbert Koh and may observe it again in Felix Cheong’s “Cutting Edge” (1999): Keep pushing the edge, that sneer in the steel, sharpening your skill till every stroke knows it’s no more alien than a heartbeat or nail. Never let it rust. Leave it silent and sullen in the dark. And trust that when the passion comes, when you move in for the kill, it will draw blood as sweetly as the meanest knife poetry can ever wield.22

GWEE LI SU

“DREAMS REVEAL WINNING LOTTERY NUMBERS: …

77

Felix Cheong’s intense advice for writing poetry may well have no external addressee. In its reading, the conversation becomes an act of selfclarification, a battle mantra chanted in order to transform the writer into an expert killer. Yet, poetry’s “meanest knife,” what is being sharpened, is set to draw blood not from life in general but from a life which we would not be wrong to read as the poet’s. Self-harm here testifies once again to the violence intrinsic to Singaporean verse, what inscribes upon the body of writing the artist’s condition in his or her world. Cheong himself pursues this issue of self-destruction in Broken by the Rain (2003) via dramatic monologues, ventriloquising the “violent and damaged lives” of a self-mutilator, a murderer, a stripper, a prostitute, and a masseur, among others. 23 “Cutting Edge” thus 21 Aaron Lee, Five Right Angles (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2007), 26. 22 Felix Cheong, I Watch the Stars Go Out (Singapore: Ethos Books, 1999), 23. 23 Felix Cheong, Broken by the Rain

(Singapore: Firstfuits Publication, 2003). Gwee Li Sui, “The Auguries of Felix Cheong,” Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems, by Felix Cheong (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2009), 10–17, 14.

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GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


78

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPRUNG

“What I remember from 21 days in Singapore is my name, in green letters, on a screen, in Hotel Nostalgia.”

In June 5, 1997, a month before the Asian Financial Crisis would hit Singapore, the then Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong announces a new vision for Singapore: Singapore 21. As if he was already anticipating the financial crisis, the prime minister called on all citizens to treat Singapore as a home, and not a hotel. Borrowing a term from Sony Corporation, he emphasised the need for a “heartware” made up of motivated workers/citizens with a sense of belonging to the company/city. Singapore 21: human resource management turned into a visionary plan for a nation. 1

In June 5, 1997, a month before the Asian financial crisis would hit Singapore, the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, announced a new vision for Singapore: “Singapore 21”. As if he was already anticipating the financial crisis, the prime minister called on all citizens to treat Singapore as a home, and not a hotel. Borrowing a term from Sony Corporation, he emphasised the need for a

“heartware” made up of motivated workers/citizens with a sense of belonging to the company/city. Singapore 21: human resource management turned into a visionary plan for a nation.1

1 Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, “Singapore 21: Vision for a New Era”, (speech, Parliament of Singapore, June 5, 1997).

DANGER, KEEP OUT!

CLAUDIO BUCHER

“What I remember from 21 days in Singapore is my name, in green letters, on a screen, in Hotel Nostalgia.”


suggests both innovation and mutilation, the concern with poetic edge being put forward as itself proof of some maladjustment to society. The pleasure gained from weaponising poetry — which, like that derived from self-harm, follows feelings of being overwhelmed by or disconnected from the real — points to a socio-political failure.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

… THE MOST EFFECTIVE METHOD TO WIN.”

79

Two-Faced Art All this brings to a climax our understanding that, in Singaporean verse, the limits of expression are presented as not just an existential theme but also a political one. The possibility of double entendres is especially real when poems get too introspective or philosophical, alerting us to the terms and fundamental pressure of what is unsaid. By showing life dithering at an edge of inexpressibility, these poems conflate issues of civil liberties and an inner orientation of life. The fact that questions of freedom and enslavement return to almost all Singaporean contemplations on self-worth and the fact that almost every published poet has at least one poem in defence of poetry, on ars poetica, are not mere aesthetic features. The poems are sites of a regular shaping of resistance, the extrapolation or retreat of the individual’s purity that has been hard to defend, let alone assert, in the outer politicised world. This point compels us to see every voicing in verse as tied to the other life lived in the poet’s body and its intensity as directly proportional to an awareness of this life’s and art’s powerlessness. Such a sense has been stressed before by Lee Tzu Pheng, who describes “what might be called a self-reflexive acknowledgement of poetry’s powerlessness which, paradoxically, is what succeeds in giving poetry its unique power.”24 However, Lee finds this trait lacking in Singaporean verse as a result of assumptions based on a popular manner of blaming the dominant one-party rule in Singapore. As the critic Dennis Haskell also argues, because “[p]olitical, legal and economic actions require a certain stability of meaning,” little depth for meaning can exist in a space kept too long under a hard-line regime that restricts free speech and employs the converse penetration of propaganda.25 Such a view nonetheless makes one key mistake of supposing that the way meaning expands in poetry is the same as the way it does in normal writing and speaking, namely that the medium does not align and reconfigure its entire being to the poet’s intuitions, intentions, and sensitivity. The fact that poetic meaning is always 24 Lee Tzu Pheng, “Poetry Says It Fierce and in Verse”, The Straits Times (18 July 1998). 25 Dennis Haskell, “‘Authority’ in Modern Singaporean Poetry”, Interlogue: Studies in

Singapore Literature. Volume 2: Poetry, ed. Kirpal Singh (Singapore: Ethos Books, 1999), 19–34, 20–21.

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BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


80

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPRUNG

“Body memory called up Côte d’Azur, Cannes, somewhere between grey residential blocks in the outskirts of Sengkang.”

"

60 Marine Parade Road, Singapore 449297

60 Marine Parade Road, Singapore 449297

THE NIGHT AND THE SUN

OBLIQUE CITY

“Body memory called up Côte d’Azur, Cannes, somewhere between grey residential blocks in the outskirts of Sengkang.”


GWEE LI SU

TROPICAL JELLY CRYSTALS

81 enhanced by ambiguity, what affects the direct effectiveness of its message, must not escape us. Indeed, I will argue that the open display of poetic vulnerability is itself an invitation for us to see political struggle. We may consider how, precisely because a certain political culture has always existed in a country, the force of its power will have dispersed and blended into the fabric of every sector of life, public or private. As such, any attack on an aspect of common, mundane existence is already deeply political in the same sense that any expression of self-hate constitutes a socialised response at some level. It is Rajeev S. Patke who understands this point when he cites Theodor W. Adorno’s view of how the universality aimed for by the lyric form “through unrestrained individuation” is essentially “social in nature.” 26 Extending this insight to his observation that Singaporean poetry is defined by the lyric, he describes how the Singaporean dialectics “turns on itself” and “internal tensions get twisted into a quarrel with the nation.” However, Patke sees the enigmatic process as one where the poetic self is still only voicing the awkwardness of a nation in self-creation. 27 A poet like Yeow Kai Chai shows something else by using a seemingly safe postmodern crafting to stress the shiftiness of identity and to celebrate pastiche as a way to capture current beauty. Language for Yeow exists as a mere philosophical heap of clichés, echoes, hearsay, fragments, and inventions, where lies and truths are but positions in speech, their determinants only semantic and syntactical. Yet, in part four of his seven-part series “From a Dissident’s Perspex Box” (2006), which allegedly aims to be “the ultimate democratic place where you can state who you are and what you want to be,” he writes:28 Without a soldering iron, I’ve been branded. What if I weren’t brown or black but yellow? “Can’t you explain with meat and potatoes?” The next hour all I did was charade and masquerade. That’s that: Slap me silly and release the Shepherds. Where words are concerned, I am guilty as charged. Snigger as bovine Philistines snog in fecund heat. Stand aside like Artaud and dismiss me as absurd. 26 Theodor W. Adorno, Notes to Literature, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 1.38–39. 27 Patke, “Voice and Authority,” 100.

28 Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, “The PROMOSAIC/PO-ERM* Interview with Yeow Kai Chai”, Lunar Park (19 July 2010) www.lunaparkreview.com/the-promosaicpo-erm-interview-with-yeow-kai-chai/.

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


82

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPRUNG

“I remember a cab driver who told me how he didn’t leave his hotel room in Amsterdam because the streets were too dangerous after eight o’clock. I remember a grandson of South Indian migrants who told me that he didn’t need an umbrella when it started raining after a wedding ona cab Sunday because wasleave jungle-proofed. “I remember driver who told me howhe he didn’t his hotel room in Amsterdam cause the streets were too dangerous after eight o’clock. I Tworemember years of national service, fighting with bayonets a grandson of South Indian migrants who told me that he didn’told needtires.” an umbrella when it started raining after a wedding on against

Sometime in 1999, when Wall Street Journal asked several world leaders to pick out the most influential invention of the millennium, Lee Kuan Yew famously declared the air-conditioner as his choice. His reason being that with the invention of the air-conditioner, people living in the tropics no longer Sometime in 1999, when thethe Wall and control. has mastered needed to suffer from heatStreet and humidity of central their climate, andItcould now Journalconcentrate asked several leadersHistorically, to pick as itsLee environment. Singapore has proven that andworld work better. argued, “advanced 2 out thecivilisations most influential inventioninofthe the geography is not destiny, especially if have flourished cooler climates.”

millennium, Lee Kuan Yew famously you are prepared to install an entire netSingapore, the air-conditioned nation, is a work society for comfort and Not declared the air-conditioner as his choice. ofdesigned climate-control systems. 3 It has mastered its environment. Singapore has proven that central control. His reason was that with the invention just jungle-proofed, but geography-proofed. geography is not people destiny, living especially if you Is areitprepared to install entire of the air-conditioner, in the any wonder thenan that one of the network of climate-control systems. Not just jungle-proofed, but geographymascots of the Singapore Zoo is a male tropics no longer needed to suffer from proofed. Is it any of wonder that one mascots of theinSingapore Zoo climate is polar bear born the tropical of the heat and humidity their then climate, and of the a male polar bear born in the tropical climate of Singapore? 3 could now concentrate and work better. Singapore? Historically, as Lee argued, “advanced civilisations have flourished in the cooler 2 “Air-con gets my vote, says SM Lee.” The Straits climates.”2 Times, January 19, 1999. Singapore, the air-conditioned 3 George Cherian, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned nation, is a society designed for comfort Nation (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2000). 2

“Air-con gets my vote, says SM Lee”, The Straits Times, January 19, 1999.

DANGER. ONE DAY,

CLAUDIO BUCHER

Sunday, cause he was jungle-proofed. Two years of national service, fighting with bayonets against old tires.”


83 In my bear costume I am anonymous. And not here. I may well be a chef, a mouse deer or a mass murderer.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

U5

Today she’s pointed out the disenchanted triads. This game, the winner is the weakest link.29 Yeow explores the vulnerability and inescapability of body by first raising an absurd, racist question of whether being “yellow” is any different from being “brown or black.” This highlights his speaker’s posited inferiority and desperation: his powerlessness is affirmed by both his voicelessness, being reduced to “charade” and “masquerade,” and his damning speech, being found “guilty as charged” at once. His loneliness is underscored by the social segregation implicit to his art, leading the uncultured as well as writers such as Antonin Artaud, a figure of high culture here, to mock him. The bear costume he then disappears into becoming “anonymous,” “not here,” anyone, or anything, is expanded by Yeow in the full sequence, the speaker — rightly called “a tragicomic” figure by reviewer Debbie Chia — dressing in a “pink bunny suit,” “Barbie’s discarded pink tutu,” “my birthday suit,” and “nipple clamps” too. 30 Yet, what is this sensitive but unstable identity that keeps playing into absurd social categories to escape them, if not yet another form of the poetic self? How else is this speaker a dissident unless, within a Perspex-box environment that sees him completely, he is able to frustrate his surveillance and render it clueless to what is being seen or read?

P is for Poetry / Politics We have thus come full circle and return, by means of the contrast of Yeow’s whining speaker, to Gilbert Koh’s cowardly poet who protects himself by betraying his artistic conscience. The violence of the artist’s self-identification is a given in all these poets we have examined, and we may make the point once more with the help of Koh Jee Leong’s seven-part sequence “I am My Names” (2011). The theme and frame of this last example are drawn, of course, from the idea of God’s multiple names, but, in wanting to point to his own divine humanity, Koh ends up affirming his fragility by shattering into distinct identities, each represented by an alphabetical letter. The poem is a 29 Yeow Kai Chai, pretend I’m not here (Singapore: FirstFruits Publications, 2006), 90.

30 Debbie Chia, “Identifying Absence”, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 6.1 (2006) www.qlrs.com/critique.asp?id=564. Yeow, pretend I’m not here, 87–89, 91.

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


84

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPRUNG

“I remember the absence of a golden age. A future built on constructive paranoia. Angry guys in exile. Angry birds on display in morning trains. I remember how I forgot why I was here.”

I am reminded that the Golden Age of Singapore cinema is often recorded as the late 1950s and early 1960s when figures such as P. Ramlee were actively directing and acting in local film productions. A talented singer, composer, actor and director, P. Ramlee was a major driving force behind the golden age of Singapore cinema, particularly with the studio Malay Film Productions. In 1964, P. Ramlee returned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, after years of working in Singapore. But he struggled to find an audience, and was increasingly seen I am reminded that the golden of find audience, and was as being out-of-date by anage audience hungry foran Western pop music andincreasingly other Singapore cinema is often recorded the penniless, seen as being out-of-date by an foreign entertainment. He died inas1973, and heartbroken about hisaudifailure to early recapture thewhen heartware of a changing nation. Today, there are late 1950s and 1960s, figures ence hungry for Western pop music and streets across Malaysia named after him:foreign There are “Jalan P. other entertainment. He died such asseveral P. Ramlee were actively directing Ramlee”s in Kuala Lumpur, in Penang, and in Kuching, but none in heartbroken about and acting in local film productions. A in 1973, penniless, and Singapore. talented singer, composer, actor and direchis failure to recapture the heartware of

tor, P. Ramlee was a major driving force behind the golden age of Singapore cinema, particularly with the studio Malay Film Productions. In 1964, P. Ramlee returned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, after years of working in Singapore. He struggled to

a changing nation. Today, there are several streets across Malaysia named after him: There are “Jalan P. Ramlee”s in Kuala Lumpur, in Penang, and in Kuching, but none in Singapore.

YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE

OBLIQUE CITY

“I remember the absence of a Golden Age. A future built on constructive paranoia. Angry guys in exile. Angry birds on display in morning trains. I remember how I forgot why I was here.”


curious collection of found bits, with Koh trying to articulate both each fragment’s strengths and weaknesses, in order to understand who he truly is. Crucially, in a fragment called “S.”, he confesses: What burden does a birthplace lay on the shoulders of maturity? What claims belong to a small country? Declaiming against its measurements, I learn the burden of its song, and raise the earth into a poem. My name is Singapore. I am a fulcrum. 31

GWEE LI SU

“EVERY PACK OF CIGARETTES WITH UNPAID DUTIES FOUND …

85

The signifier “S.” is the imprint of the country of birth and upbringing on the soul of this poet now based in New York City. It is one of the marks of both inescapable destiny, what he cannot but still be, and his infinite freedom to change, since “S.” can stand for a lot more than just Singapore. Koh acknowledges the “claims” on him and the exacting of “measurements” in order to declaim them; yet, the ensuing liberation produces a responsibility he feels towards transforming the reality that can only repress him. To “raise the earth into a poem” is thus nothing short of a call to action, the poet as “fulcrum” bringing to mind the image of Archimedes’s lever, with which the Greek mathematician could supposedly move the earth from any place he stood on. The poet here is significantly both the fulcrum and a place — “My name is Singapore” — and this twist forces us to see how Koh, in fact, finds his socio-political identity to be what he is now able to draw on to reach artistic transcendence. As much as national conditioning has contrib­ uted to his limitation of self, he now reciprocates by elevating, through poetic self-possession, the brutal geography of his mind. Powerfully, the outlook of these poems turns two ways, as much towards the conditions of a material environment as towards the individual’s existential and poetic concerns. The poems highlight this duplicity, and its very collective possibility shows it to be a preferred strategy in the face of hegemonic pressures. I have demonstrated no more than how one can read differently volumes of Singaporean verse for embedded challenges to limits in interpretation, and possibilities that redefine how poetry struggles with the political question of the unspeakable. The cultural anomaly that is the popular production of English-language poetry has previously mostly been explained by 31 Koh Jee Leong, Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Oregon: Bench Press, 2011), 35.

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


86

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPRUNG

“It’s a city where you might start smoking. City of aunties, uncles, 30-year-olds living with their parents. City of prosperity amulets and paper buddhists. In Singapore I learnt that escapism maybe isn’t an evolutionary stage of youth.”

CLAUDIO BUCHER

DANGER:

“It’s a city where you might start smoking. City of aunties, uncles, 30year-olds living with their parents. City of prosperity amulets and paper buddhists. In Singapore I learnt that escapism maybe isn’t an evolutionary stage of youth.”

I remember that in May 14, 2012, a terrible road accident occurred along Rochor Road. A Ferrari 599 GTO driven by a wealthy Chinese national, Ma Chi, aged 31 and working in Singapore as a financial adviser, ran the traffic lights and crashed into a taxi. The impact killed Ma; the 52-year-old Singaporean taxi driver Mr Cheng Teck Hock; and Mr Cheng’s passenger, a 41-year-old Japanese Ms Shigemi Ito who was studying in Singapore. While I remember that onwas Mayno 14th, 2012, a ter- event,the amount of xenophobic comments that the accident doubt a terrible what was much more terrifying occurred along Rochor AnAn angry mob rible road wasaccident the amount of xenophobic comments followed. that followed. angry mobofofSingaporeans Road. A Ferrari 599were GTOcalling driven a were calling on Chinese nationals to Singaporeans onby Chinese nationals to “go back to China!” This “go back to China!” The city wealthycity Chinese Ma Chi, did not national, tolerate the new richaged of China taking the lives or livelihoods of did not tolerif they weren’t to play by theriche rules.taking the ate the going Chinese nouveau 31 andinnocent workingSingaporeans, in Singapore especially as a financial

adviser, ran the traffic lights and crashed lives or livelihoods of innocent SingaporeThe minimum speed required to achieve velocity from the weren’t gravitational into a taxi. The impact killed Ma, the 52- escape ans, especially if they going to pull of the Earth is approximately 40,720km/h. For Singapore, it is 178km/h. year-old Singaporean taxi driver Mr play by the rules. Cheng Teck Hock, and Mr Cheng’s passen- The minimum speed required ger, a 41-year-old Japanese Ms Shigemi to achieve escape velocity from the graviIto who was studying in Singapore. While tational pull of the Earth is approxithe accident was no doubt a terrible mately 40 720 kmh. For Singapore, it is event, what was much more terrifying was 178 kmh.


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

… IN THE OFFENDER‘S POSSESSION CARRIES A FINE.”

87 seeing its writing as a task easier and less inhibiting than writing transparent prose fiction.32 We may now offer another possibility and see the medium as the most agreeable habitat to house an inner life in tortured resistance to all the determinations of self made by overpowering socio-political realities. Poetry allows the poet to keep the state’s “meaningless Machiavellian intent” from his or her soul and to gesture at “an interiority fighting for its own values’ survival” by enabling a split whose surface is poetry with its bifocal vision. 33 Elaine Scarry has famously taught that pain is perhaps our most subjective and yet most real experience, as it grounds our awareness of the unspeakable world within and our vulnerability to the world outside. However, political might lies precisely in being able to exploit this truth to write its own fiction: power “bestows invisibility on the structure and enormity of what is usually private and incommunicable,” even as the vision of suffering is converted into its “wholly convincing” but “wholly illusory” spectacle. 34 I am proposing here a variation of this argument where indeed power can also render its objectification invisible by dispersing the spectacle through modes of more ordinary daily living. In a context where the tools of torment are diffused systematically in space and time, the expressions of inner life may most likely come to this fact only via a kind of cluelessness that knows its pain but not its causes, with metaphors that function like medical symptoms. Poetry as a means to explore the psychology and geography of inwardness invites us to do immanent literary study that can describe better the world of poetic inspiration and fixation. Seeing creative dysfunction can help us interrogate histories of writing meaningfully and explore a broader range of attempts to act politically in the name of literature.

32 See for instance, Leong Liew Geok, “Dissenting Voices: Political Engagements in the Singaporean Novel in English,” World Literature Today 74.2 (2000): 285–292, 285. 33 Gwee Li Sui, “Two Renaissances: Singapore’s New Poetry and Its Discontents”, From the Inside: Asia-Pacific

Literatures in Englishes, ed. Edwin Thumboo and Rex Ian Sayson (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2007),199–213, 210. 34 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 27.

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

OBLIQUE CITY

September 29th, 2016, 18:24 Hey Kenneth, I finished a short film with U5 for the ZHdK-Singapore-Project. Since i loved what you wrote for U5’s last film: Would you be interested to write a short essay or a foreword or xyz (you would be totally free) for the upcoming ZHdK-Publication about Singapore? Working title for the book is ‘Happy Tropics’ (TBC) and they are planing to launch it in Singapore next January. I may not say too much about the film.. It’s a mosaique, networknarrative of my diary entries and observations. I would see this as an exchange of views, sort of ping pong essay with two hits, i will pass you my short film first. Every reaction is fine,  smash or lob (german word for praise). For the book i would use stills with quotes from the film/diary. I may or may not provide context, footnotes, explications. Your text first or interwoven. Would you be interested? This would be fantastic: “Oblique City” (6’) mit U5 bit.ly/Oblique-City All the best from Switzerland, Claudio

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

KT hey claudio yes i just saw the film i think the thing that struck me most about the film is the layering of this “foreign” element whether it’s the face of “madonna”, the dialogue from a foreign European film (french?) versus your texts or rather your narrative there’s references to Ivory Coast, to Cannes also the scenes in night safari with the leopard it’s a foreign animal, as far as the tropics are concerned this idea of the “foreign” or the “outsider”, i don’t know, i wonder if it is a reflection on your own status as a swiss coming into singapore and needing to write/do/ make something about it from the outside. but it’s also balanced or countered by this “escapism” you see in singaporeans the need to escape, to go somewhere else CB shall i answer or explain or does this distort the process? KT well this is my first impression CB the awareness of embodied references (like the body memory) and the inability to ignore them was also a subject in my hk project. the french film quotes, perec’s deconstruction: the protagonist is killing all associations with the things surrounding him. there are some sentences i selected to construct a meaning in this film and there are parts that are shuffled. i think an elaborated ‘first impression’, a personal essay would be the most interesting KT yes i could write a short response but i wonder too if a conversation between us might be interesting too email conversation?

PHILIP URSPRUNG

CB conversation would be very interesting. i don’t know if it would be a bit overambitious considering my english skills ? KT I think your English is fine! But if you prefer me to write something on my own that’s fine also CB or a longer response and i will answer to that response KT sure i can try to write a short response first? CB ‘authentische reaktion’ instead of an essay based on theoretical research: i would really love that KT ah just a reaction then? CB haha my english has its limits a reaction i don’t know about your writing process i really liked the density of the dna volcano text, density of references etc please feel free ok? this is from an earlier concept i wrote (outsider status etc.): “’Oblique City’ ist Knotenpunkt des Netzwerk-Narrativs, eines Versuchs, den Spirit der Stadt einzufangen, im Bewusstsein, dass sich Realität im Zuge der Suche nach Andersartigkeit verformt, in eigenen Sehnsüchten, Ängsten, Bestrebungen verwickelt, verwandelt.” CB i know it’s late on your side of the globe. I’m just reading in ‘Concrete Island’ and i guess i would love to have Kenneth Tay overreading my short film and its subtexts. productive misunderstandings of my (mis)understandings of the city. I think this would be more authentic (?) than a conversation with small responses

WALKING LEGS COLLAPSE

88


PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

KT sure well let me think about it? i’ll try to consolidate what i felt/ thought about the film

CLAUDIO BUCHER

CB Kenneth, I hope you are well I’m meeting the zhdk-publication’s editor tomorrow morning. No pressure on you but would be great if i could give him an update about our contribution. Will keep you updated! All the best from 5-degreesSwitzerland, Claudio KT Hey Claudio, I managed to write this for the film. It’s really a response made up of separate responses to each section/cut of the film, based on the image and subtitle text/narrative. It is me responding to both the image and text at each instance. I found that the easiest way to respond somehow to the film. So like the excerpts from your diary/journal, consider this also the same: a collection of notes/responses/observations. I began as close as i could to the film’s images, but I found my responses slowly departing from the film. Somehow I kind of liked that, it’s like me starting to achieve some sort of escape velocity from the film too. But let me know what you think? CB Kenneth, i am really impressed the heartware motif for me this is a kind of knowledge generator. a warhol ‘interview magazine’ interview. instead of a tapped phonecall it’s me (U5) talking with you. it has a high density of historical facts, cross-references and a tension between facts and subjective, seemingly apodictic judgements in the façon of ‘disneyworld with the death penalty’-western-travelogues, relativized or called into question by micro-samples out of George Perecs ‘Un homme qui dort’. KT yes, you’re right in that i was thinking a lot about william gibson’s

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPRUNG

wired text “introducing” singapore as that: disneyland with death penalty. i sensed a knowing reference to that too in the film. but unlike gibson, i think we’re both careful and sensible enough not to paint merely a caricature of singapore. for me, it’s enough just to hint of singapore as “singapore inc.” — a business essentially, a corporate nation that is in the showbiz of global tourism. hence the references to celebrities and actors (madonna + p ramlee). did you google the address of “60 marine parade road”? that would actually bring you to a condominium in singapore called cote d’azur CB I didn’t get the Côte d’AzurCondominium-Link cause i thought it was the original address of the scenery pictured.

ON DANGER ON SITE

90


“I’M TURNING 25 THIS YEAR. …

92

CRAFTING WILDERNESS PETRA TOMLJANOVIå

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

SAFE PRACTICE


JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

FOR DANGER

… I’M ONE OF THE YOUNGEST HAWKERS IN SINGAPORE.”

94 CRAFTING WILDERNESS

“Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world. Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a hetero­sexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the Oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. Perhaps that is why I want to see if cyborgs can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy. Cyborgs are not reverent; they do not remember the cosmos.” (Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto) Palm trees, the horizon line, skyscrapers, and street scenes — an island, heart shaped. All around are flatlands, all the denivelations have been leveled out, the tropic vegetation tamed; every blade of grass is in its right place. This is a city without insects, while nature can be found only in gardens: sometimes it is a Mediterranean garden in a glass house and sometimes a tropical forest made into a garden. It is an island, a country, a city, and a corporation. Islands have always been laboratories for building new societies and for preserving old ones. In their own way, they are disconnected from continents, imposing another temporality that questions and practices contemporaneity. Parallel to this, it is also a “Smart City” that is constantly growing; it is getting bigger, better, and more efficient. The entire coastline


96

is in fact a designed port that functions as a tactile zone, which is connected to the global network through ships and airplanes.

“It is the synthesis of the wild and the cultivated, the natural and the technological, jungle and city — unruly subject and authoritarian nomos. Singapore is the Garden City.”1 But one must give it credit: no other city has been able to master nature so efficiently, decadently, boldly defying the second law of thermodynamics. As a consequence, this exuberant natural-artificial garden city asks: what is nature anyways? How broad, narrativedriven, or his-torically-constructed is this concept? Gardens, according to Foucault, are one of the het erotopic spaces where the world comes together to accomplish a symbolic perfection. The garden provides an image of the world, a space of simulation for paradiselike conditions, a place of otherness where dreams are realized in an expression of a better world. The garden is therefore itself part of a territorial structure, and at the same time its reflection. It is part of an inseparable whole of the city and country that is subject to a total order that is reasonable and beautiful. The garden represents the victory of culture over nature, the dominion of mind over emotion. Is Singapore’s branding as a garden city actually a manicured heterotopia? One must remember that the groomed nature in Singapore, a staple of the city, is not a self­

1 Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing, Paramilitary Gardening: Landscape and Authoritarianism (Singapore: Lekker Architects, 2008)

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

CAN’T BREATHE

PONDERING OVER A HAWKER’S LIFE

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

It is Singapore. The famous garden city.


JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

IN DANGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

98 CRAFTING WILDERNESS

generating ecosystem, rather it is completely dependent on human mediation. When the British explorer and naturalist Alfred Wallace went on a colonial excursion to the area between 1854 and 1869, he observed that the soil and climate were both very favorable, more so than any other he visited in the East. In his journals he writes about its “most luxuriant” vegetation, gambier plantations, forests with 700 species of beetles, and tigers roaming freely across the land. The story about tigers is an interesting one. To the people of Southeast Asia, tigers embodied the enigmatic power of nature. The forest was a space outside civilization and beyond human control. In the medieval system of belief, the forest was the main sanctuary of everything that was considered forbidden or paranormal. The divide is clear — on one side there is the dark, mysterious forest, and on the other, pure, visible, innocent meadows. In this sense, tigers were guardians and messengers from the forest, passing between nature and culture, a boundary that only permitted healers, priests, and sorceresses to cross, as they were able to transform into tigers themselves. Interestingly enough, the mythical figure of the tigers did not take significant root in Singapore. They opted for lions instead, which obviously had never set foot on the island. Tigers were only present as a brand of beer, and as a low-budget airline company. Sometime later, a mythical, unicorn-like creature was born — the Merlion: half fish, half lion, and the symbol of modern Singapore. An artificial product of naturalization. But who is to say what is more natural than something else?


JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

NO SPECULATION

“EVERY TIME I WANTED TO START A BUSINESS, …

100 PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

During the nineteenth century, the settlement transformed into an urban place, a city. This change was marked by intensive agriculture, the building of roads, railways, and buildings, all of which led to the cutting down of jungles, drying of swamps, and disappearance of coastal mangrove forests. Urbanization and industrialization intensified in the twentieth century; the regions of Bedok, East Coast, and Jurong on the outskirts saw their physical settings completely transformed. This was most evident in the leveling of hills and forming of the coastline. A full 25% extra surface area was added, flirting with the new artificial interface between land and sea. Nature in Singapore has always been the consequence of urban development. The shift from a dense jungle to an equally dense urban jungle contains within it a paradox: the destruction of nature on one side, and the emerging green policies of the city on the other. Singapore’s institutions have promoted parks and greenery with human-centered, utilitarian, and economic functions. Nature was paired with other urban functions, such as land reservations and military zones. There is an interesting sense of uncanny embedded in Singapore’s natural history — which tells of the subordination of “primitive nature” to the purposes and projects of colonialism. Still, one can sense this nature in Pulau Ubin, a favourite island getaway among locals just a half an hour boat-ride away from the mainland. The place feels like it is years behind, with plastic chairs, no air-conditioning, and an inauspicious level of cleanliness. Is it accidental? Is it really authentic? The taming of primitive nature here took different course: nature is exploited for legal purposes. The place is


WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING? CONVERSATION WITH BEH SWAN GIN

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

101

“AT THE MOMENT, A LOT OF YOUNG ARTISTS, …

GWEE LI SU


CRAFTING WILDERNESS

That is why we made Singapore. Nature, at your service. The research goal of Crafting Wilderness has been to explore nature as an interplay of cultures and as a means of societal identification, while also seeking a way to argue for nature as a discursive form. The project emphasizes the dimensions of nature that are in opposition to culture, but also explores opportunities for the artificial to become part of nature. It tries to demonstrate Singapore as a case study in human behaviour, and ponders breaks in normality. The project tries to expose and uncover the raw, messy, and intimate natures and cultures of the perceived world. Instead of searching for the authentic, maybe we should think of Singapore as a cyborg right from the very beginning of the story. REFERENCES Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto (New York: Routlege, 1991) Lilica Topalovic, et al., Architecture of the Territory (Zurich: ETH, 2014) Roberto Wessing and Ho Tzu Nyen, “The Critical Dictionary for Southeast Asia: W for Weretiger,”

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

Field Notes 3: Mapping Asia (Hong Kong: Asia Art Archive, 2013) Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing, Paramilitary Gardening: Landscape and Authoritarianism (Singapore: Lekker Architects, 2008) Lily Kong and Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Social Construction of Nature in Urban Singapore (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 1996)

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

DANGER

… I WAS THINKING ABOUT FISH BALL NOODLES.”

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preserved as an exclusive territory in order for its complexity to be studied as an anomaly. Pulau Ubin serves as a constant historical reminder: Look, here is how it was before, and how it could have been if we did not endeavour to transform the city as we have. One must trust us. Pulau Ubin is hot, moist, and full of (denguecarrying) mosquitoes, wild boars, and raging monkeys. Unpleasant.


GWEE LI SU

Beh Swan Gin The Economic Development Board [EDB] is the lead government agency responsible for working with international companies who are interested in setting up operations in Singapore. A big part of the economic growth in Singapore has been the ability to offer a very attractive location for multi-national companies to undertake manufacturing, R&D, and to set up a “control tower” for their activities in Asia. In the early 1990s, we started a creative business unit. The credit for this initiative has to go to the EDB’s leadership during that time, who recognized even back then the importance of creative industry for economic development. The mission that we have is to attract investment, which is something that does not necessarily fit with the visual or performing arts, because that is just not their operating model. We nevertheless thought that we could bring something to the table. Since then, Richard Florida’s book has had a large impact on policymakers, who now widely accept that it is an important sector. Another reason why the EDB became involved in creative industry in Singapore is that, due to the international nature of our work, we have a large number of bureaus abroad, perhaps second only to the diplomatic corps. This means that we are one of the most internationally-oriented government agencies. As you know, many governmental agencies tend to be very inward-looking and domestically focused. We therefore bring an international orientation that is helpful when dealing with the creative industry. The Creative Services Strategic Business Unit started in the early 1990s. It was subsequently spun-off of the Singapore Tourism Board, as it was felt that there were

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… WHO HAVE JUST FINISHED ART SCHOOL …

WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING?

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

“MY INTIMATE CONVICTION REMAINS …

INTERVIEWS ON GARDENS AND GREENSPACE

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IN PRAISE OF LAKSA PHILIP URSPRUNG

BLIQUE CITY laudio Bucher (with U5)
 016
 gital video, 6”


response by enneth Tay

They say it takes 21 days to get used to a new face, after a nose job.”

NO DEVELOPMENT


greater synergies with the work that they were doing, namely making the city more attractive for visitors. About 7 years ago, the EDB decided that it wanted to refocus on creative business and the lifestyle sector. The visual arts were one of the key elements of this program. Surveying the visual arts scene locally, we felt that it was lacking a major international art fair. Furthermore, the gallery scene in Singapore was also primarily focused on local artists. There were some artists from the greater region, but it was not a cosmopolitan gallery scene. This was how we got involved. We were very fortunate that Eugene Tan was available, because in the visual arts you need very credible people to help shape the plans and policies. Another element of good timing was that Lorenzo Rudolf was looking to establish a major art fair in this part of the world. Michael Schindhelm In opposition to comparatively “cheap” cities like Berlin, Singapore is often seen as prohibitively expensive for start-ups. What do you do in order to enable the influx of creative people to Singapore? BG Singapore is a contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, it is a global city with correspondingly global prices for top restaurants and hotels. On the other hand, we always have been conscious of the fact that, unlike big countries like Germany, our people cannot move to the suburbs in order to find lower costs. As a government, it has always been clear to us that we have to provide sufficient space for the middle class and for the financially-disadvantaged.

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EUGENE TAN

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… CANNOT WORK IN THEIR CHOSEN FIELDS, …

BEH SWAN GIN

GWEE LI SU


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

… THAT WHAT IS HAPPENING IN CHINA …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

Between 2015 and 2016, I lived for half a year in Singapore as an expat. In other words I was someone living far from home for a limited time under privileged conditions. I enjoyed the distance to Switzerland, where I am based. I liked the hot and humid weather, the eternal summer, the strong colors and smells of the plants, the thunderstorms, the steady flow of traffic in the large streets, and the mixture of languages that I did not understand. I was interested in learning about both the differences and similarities between Switzerland and Singapore. As the great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has written, to travel does not necessarily bring one closer to a distant culture, but it means that one can see one’s own culture in a clearer light. Singapore tends to consider itself as a kind of Switzerland of Southeast Asia. In fact, there are many parallels between the two small countries. Switzerland has 8 million inhabitants, Singapore has 5.5 million inhabitants, but it is rapidly growing. Both national flags are white and red. Both countries are composed by different cultural groups — Switzerland has four, and Singapore three official languages. Both lack natural resources and both are economically dependent on the exchange of goods with their neighbouring countries, yet both are also rather self-absorbed and mainly interested in their own history, identity, and autonomy. Someone once told me a joke that since the 1970s, Singapore has been trying to mimic the contours of SwitWhat I remember from 21 days zerland in Singapore isthrough my name, in green land reclamation. In fact, if one tters, on a screen, in Hotel Nostalgia.” compares the maps there is some striking similarity.

NO DANGER


GWEE LI SU

This is why over 80% of Singapore's households are in very good quality public housing. Perhaps closer to Singapore in terms of composition is a city like New York, where you have a good mix of locals and immigrants that are fueling the economy, and provide a diversity of lifestyle options. Hence, the perception that Singapore has a high cost of living, and that young people will be unable to come and start something here, is a mischaracterization of the actual situation. We can instead look at the situation from another direction, and look at what makes a city appealing. Increasingly, the jobs go to where talents concentrate, as opposed to in the past, when people would go to where the jobs were. This is because value-creation is happening when creative people come together and generate innovations in technology, design, and so on. This is why, since the late 1990s, there has been a major effort to remake Singapore into a vibrant city that will retain our own people and attract international talent. We have been quite successful, to the extent that we today feel the need to pace and calibrate the inflow of people from overseas. Another reason why we think that Singapore is quite unique is the sheer concentration of globally-leading companies with their headquarters here. There is often very senior leadership working here who are responsible for Asian, Southeast Asian, and sometimes for global operations. This leads to cross-pollination and crosscollaboration between companies from different industries. We think this is a strength. In the past, Asia was not the focus for many companies — Asian markets just were not as attractive. Since about the turn of this millennium though, Asia has

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… AS LIVING COSTS ARE JUST TOO HIGH.”

WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING?

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ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

PHILIP URSPRUNG

“GARDENS REPRESENT AN IDEA, A PLACE, … … IS INCREDIBLY CRUCIAL AND DECISIVE …

The relief of course is different, as Singapore is more or less at sea level, but in the center there is one small hill covered with rain forest which it is occupied by the Swiss embassy. As far as wealth and lack of humor are concerned, the Swiss are still ahead. As far as paranoia is concerned, Singapore is rapidly catching up —  fighter jets are constantly patrolling the airspace above the tiny island in order to prevent an invasion that seems to be imminent. Regarding punctuality and cleanliness, Singapore is almost even with Switzerland. In a subway station I once saw a sign stating that management excused itself for any inconvenience caused by a stain on the polished marble floor. Shortly after that, I read that the Minister of Transportation stepped down — not because of the stain on the floor but because the MRT, the highly-efficient train system, had a major delay. Even in regards to language there are similarities between Switzerland and Singapore. While in the German-speaking area of Switzerland the language is a dialect without a grammar and without a written language, Singapore is known for its “Singlish,” for which there seems to be no written form either. Unlike the Swiss German dialects that are spoken very, very slowly, Singlish is spoken with incredible speed. Even after months of training with contractors, landlords, bus drivers and waiters, I was not capable to grasp more than the words “can” and “cannot.” Body memory called up Côte d’Azur, Cannes, somewhere between grey esidential blocks in the outskirts of Sengkang.” Where Sinagapore is way ahead of Switzerland is food. Nowhere else can one find a greater variety of food than in this city. Among the dishes I had

FOR HOMES


become the growth engine for many sectors. We see more companies that are focusing now on the needs of their Asian and Southeast Asian customers, creating products, services, and solutions that address these unique needs, whereas in the past, products would just be imported and sold here without any further thought. If you then transpose this to art in this part of the world, what you are seeing is that in the past, the ones who could afford art were the global elites, for whom it mattered very little where in the world they would buy it, be it in Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Zurich. As Asia became more important as well as more affluent, people began to explore both what Asia had to offer that was unique, as well as what Asians were interested in. This phenomenon is a way of explaining the rise of Chinese art, which coincided with the growth of the Chinese economy. Over the past several years, you have also seen the rise of Southeast Asian art for the same reason, namely the gradual development of a 2,4 trillion dollar economy in the ASEAN. This region now has economic weight, and what comes with that is a hunger for works from Southeast Asia. Because of the unique configuration of this protoeconomy, leading companies from different sectors and countries are able to do cross-border transactions in one country. In the case of art, if you are a Filipino businessman and you are interested in buying Malaysian or Thai art, Singapore is striving to become the place where that is possible. This starts with Art Stage Singapore (the fair), but increasingly, this means working through the galleries here as well. It is an aggregation of demand on one end, and an aggregation of supply on the other. Once we achieve that critical mass, we will also start to see the same kind of cross-pollination mentioned before,

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

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THEATRE AS A PLACE OF RESISTANCE

BEH SWAN GIN

GWEE LI SU


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

… AND AN ACTION AT ONCE. THIS SIMULTANEITY … … FOR THE WELL-BEING OF THE WORLD.”

never seen before anywhere was a soup with a fish head staring back at you. Food is delicious everywhere, be it in the fancy restaurant in a park or in the tiny food stall near the bus station. In the 1970s, the administration obliged the street food vendors to move to centralized food courts, the so-called “hawker centers.” Under large roofs dozens of stalls are grouped together, each of them specialized in one dish. There are two categories, “A” and “B,” for different levels of hygiene, although I never heard anybody having problems after eating in a “B” stall. In the beginning, I could not believe that some fans can drive for up to an hour to experience their favourite bean curd, then wait in line for another hour. After a while however, I understood the reason, and soon learned from colleagues and neighbours about the best spots for chicken rice, fish balls or satay. Finally I started trying to find the best food myself, mostly when it came to laksa. The city's marketing would have you believe that expensive chili crab is Singapore's national dish, while it is in fact the laksa you can get everywhere for 2 dollars. It is a soup made out of shrimp, chili, coconut milk, and rice noodles. There are endless variations, with fried tofu, fish cake, scallops, spring onions, clams, fish, and hard-boiled eggs, with one variation always seemingly better than the next. The spicy chili, the slightly sour broth, and the sweet coconut t’s a city where you might start smoking. City of aunties, uncles, 30milk produce aand perfect equilibrium of tastes. If ear-olds living with their parents. City of prosperity amulets paper uddhists. In Singapore I learnt that escapism maybe isn’t an volutionary stage of youth.” laksa was an abstract painting, one could compare the broth to the background of the composition. The “figure” would conceivably be formed by the

DANGER, MEN


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with gallerists from different regions coming together to produce unique new outcomes. For a long time, when there was only really one kind of global art, we struggled to find our voice. As a city, we were not large enough to have a sizable market. Focusing on Singapore art was not a possibility either, because we were still too young as a country. Today, we feel quite comfortable and confident that we have found the space that Singapore can occupy within the global art world. It probably will not ever be as big as Shanghai or Hong Kong, simply due to the size of the Chinese economy, which has a very different scale. Southeast Asia’s economy will nevertheless remain important, many say it will become the 4th largest economy in the world, and Singapore is the natural hub for Southeast Asia. DC Is there a strategy for using the arts as something that gives the people an identity as well? BG I would not put it that way. The role that art will play in this country is that it is a way of shaping its identity. People need to connect with their heritage and the events happening around them. The role and relevance of Singapore to the global art world will probably not be about Singaporean art, at least not any time soon. Maybe we should not be so humble! But we do have aspirations to be relevant in a bigger way to the global art world, which is where Southeast Asian art comes in. It is not so much about Singapore representing Southeast Asia, but it is about a way to be of value to the art world.

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

GLEN GOEI

WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING?

U5


… CAN BE EXPERIENCED IN SINGAPORE WITH ITS EXTENDED …

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

PHILIP URSPRUNG

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

ornamental pattern of the rice noodles and the spongy texture of the fishcake. The food in Switzerland cannot compete with the quality and diversity of the Singaporean dishes. Chocolate and cheese are great, of course. The signature dish of the German-speaking region of Switzerland is generic and unspectacular, namely hash brown potatoes and veal sausage. Should one happen to order it, it looks like someone dropped something in the kitchen (the hash brown) and forgot something on the stove (the sausage). The colors are yellow-white-beige-brown and do not remind one of a painting. The taste is rather neutral, probably an homage to the political neutrality of the country. Visitors tend to be polite and order it, although I don’t think that they do this more than once. And I never heard of anybody traveling a long way and standing in line for the national dish of Switzerland. Laksa is typical for Singapore, although it does not originate in Singapore. Not even the ingredients can be called local, because in Singapore everything, with the exception of eggs and some greens, is imported. This is however precisely the reason for its specificity, because in Singapore nothing is original, nothing is deeply rooted, nothing is pure. Everything flows together, is hybrid, and accidentally mixed. There are constant waves of immigrants from China, Holland, England, remember the absence of a Golden Age. A future built on constructive aranoia. Angry guys in exile. Angry birds on display in morning trains. I India, and Southeast Asia, as well as armies of touremember how I forgot why I was here.” ists and expats, all of which have been creating this mixture over the past two centuries. These waves also guarantee that the food keeps evolving

CONSTRUCTING


BEH SWAN GIN

MS How do you position yourself in relation to Hong Kong? How do you stay competitive in relation to other urban centers with a similar profile? BG In the early 1990s, there was a lot of competition with Hong Kong for the headquarters of international companies. After 1997, Hong Kong started to orient itself towards China, a trend that was in full swing by around 2000. Their competitor was no longer Singapore, but rather Shanghai or Beijing, depending on the sector. The overwhelming number of visitors coming to Hong Kong are from China. This means that being a gallery operator there, you naturally gear your offering towards the Chinese market. Hong Kong is much like what Tokyo is to Japan. The rest of Asia, which is very fragmented, leaves a space for Singapore to act as a hub city. Art Basel choosing Hong Kong was a very natural decision, as the buying power was in China. Setting up an international art fair is all about the market, and where the buyers and collectors are, and in Asia today, China is clearly the largest market. For Singapore, it is pointless to try and formulate a strategy to compete with Hong Kong, because the fact is that the Chinese economy is much larger than the ASEAN one. That is why we must have a distinct space. In time, the size of the Asian economy will allow for several different art centers, and we think that the second one after Hong Kong is Singapore. In visual art, it may be difficult for Singapore to become bigger than Hong Kong. But in other areas of the

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

113 “IF I WANT TO TAKE MY ROLE AS AN ARTIST SERIOUSLY ‌

GWEE LI SU


IN PRAISE OF LAKSA

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

THE PRESENT CULTURAL REVOLUTION

… URBAN RENEWAL CONCEPT CALLED ‘CITY IN A GARDEN.’”

114

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

and changing. Switzerland, on the other hand, is proud of its deep roots — its founding myth dates back to the year 1291 — and its traditions. Instead of welcoming immigrants, it considers them a problem, and is eager to protect the borders against any influx of new people. For those who do make it, it takes a long time before they are able to integrate. The descendants of the families that came to Geneva from Tuscany in the fifteenth century are still waiting for their integration. Although there have been several waves of refugee immigrants in the second half of the twentieth century, such as people from Hungary in the 1950s, Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, they never really blended in with the Swiss, nor has their food. In this respect, Switzerland should start copying Singapore. It should open up and welcome the new and the different, allow immigration to shape and redefine its culture, and encourage diversity. Once this happens, I have no doubt that my dream of a Swiss laksa will become true.

CLAUDIO BUCHER

DANGER


GWEE LI SU

WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING?

economy it has proven possible for us to do so, due to China’s national interests in shaping its economic policies. If ever China decides that the visual arts is a strategic sector and edges out international players from the Chinese art scene, then Singapore will be able to grow its role in the visual arts as well. For instance, Taiwanese artists would look to Singapore instead of Hong Kong for representation. The same goes for the Japanese and Koreans too. MS What role will public-private joint-ventures play in the future of the arts in Singapore? BG The Gillman Barracks project is an example of this kind of partnership. One of the reasons why we got involved in it was to try to make the gallery scene a bit more international by bringing top galleries into Singapore. This gives opportunities for young Singaporean artists to be identified by international galleries and take them overseas, but also offers an opportunity for these international galleries to bring international artists into Singapore. This process then spurs competition among local galleries, which will then help upgrade overall the gallery scene. Furthermore, we felt that clustering would be the best way to help the galleries to do well, because when they all independently find their own locations, then you lose the energy that comes along with clustering. We have now partnered with the National Arts Council to jointly take the Gillman Barracks to the next level. We have succeeded in bringing in many different local and international galleries to the space, and now is the

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

115 … I HAVE TO BECOME THE VOICE OF SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS. …

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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

“THEY SAY IT TAKES 21 DAYS TO GET USED …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

UNDER CONSTRUCTION EIRINI SOURGIADAKI IN COLLABORATION WITH POETS FROM SINGAPORE


time to start grow the production of art and strengthen the content. The National Arts Council is in a much better position to lead this than an economic agency like ours.

BEH SWAN GIN

DC You mentioned that you go to Switzerland often. Though there are obviously many differences between Switzerland and Singapore, I often feel there are some similarities. How would you compare Switzerland and Singapore? BG Singapore holds Switzerland in very high regard. We have always felt this is the reference for the way that Singapore should develop. We are both small countries, and we are both centrally located among several large neighbours. As a result of this situation, both countries have to make sure that there is a clear identity for ourselves, while also being clear about how we stay relevant to the region around us. There are of course many differences, but at the heart of this is the fact that in order to survive we have to be relevant to others. DC Both places seem to be quite successful so far. BG If we were not successful, we would not survive, our populations would move to the surrounding regions, and we would lose our relevance to our neighbours. We admire Switzerland’s commitment to excellence and precision, which is something that Singapore very much aspires to.

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

117 … THEATRE, TO ME, IS A PLATFORM TO VOICE MY CONCERNS …

GWEE LI SU


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

“Life is what we make of it. Travel is the traveller. What we see isn’t what we see, but what we are.” (F. Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet)

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… TO A NEW FACE AFTER A NOSE JOB.”

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

Our brain is our first travel ticket. A perfect simulator, a perfect calculator. My first trip to Singapore was through a couple of postcards brought from there by my father in 1987. I was six. 29 years later, I travelled to Singapore once more, this time by plane. This is my attempt to transmit Singapore’s essence through the words of seven local writers, their own fragments of a city becoming part of my absolutely subjective view, or a bridge between two ways of travelling. The following consists of seven textual and visual as-yet unpublished works by: Jennifer Anne Champion Stephanie Chan (a.k.a. Stephanie Dogfoot) Deborah Emmanuel Geraldine Kang Gwee Li Sui Jason Wee Lawrence Lacambra Ypil


GWEE LI SU

MS Do you see an emergence of something that might be called “urban culture” emerging here in Singapore?

WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING?

BG We see that the means of producing art and design are becoming democratized, which means that in more and more cities, we can observe a blooming of different kinds of aesthetics. In Singapore, the relatively high level of technological sophistication is a way in which Singapore’s creative community differentiates itself. MS In many cities, art is increasingly happening in the streets; public space has become a major domain for the expression of art. Is this something that you see happening here and your institution getting involved in? BG No, that is not something that my institution gets involved in. We have a quite narrow scope. In terms of this issue of the arts playing a role in shaping national identity, there is a push towards art being brought to communities, and enabling the practice of art by the community. It then becomes no longer the province of the elite, or of trained artists, but rather enables a democratization. This is something that some of my colleagues in other governmental organizations might start to support. For instance, we have a People’s Association which is part of the same ministry responsible for the National Arts Council and the museums. Their role is to bring arts to the people. It used to be the case that to see performing arts you had to go

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

119 … AS A CITIZEN, IT NEEDS TO BE PART OF THE COMMUNITY.”

U5


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

The City Beneath the City

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

OBLIQUE CITY

Jason Wee The first Straits Times report was modest: the ongoing construction at the Supreme Court building had uncovered archeological remnants of architectural significance. At approximately fifty-eight meters below ground, the peak of a bronze dome was uncovered. Construction of the basement galleries for the National Gallery will be slowed to avoid endangering the partially uncovered structure. The head of the NUS History Department quipped how apropos it was for a museum dedicated to modern art history to rest on history itself. Seven months later, they found a building fronted by Corinthian columns and stone balconies, topped with a full dome the colour of moss under moonlight. The archeologists found beneath the Supreme Court a building exactly like the one above. As they began to excavate laterally along the same depth, they would find equally buried a Victoria Concert Hall and the old Parliament House. Tunnelers extending the train line from Marina Financial Centre towards Great World City found the pointed diamonds of the National Theatre cutting into their path. It was clear even then that these were not isolated sites but exposed segments of a larger city. No one but a carefully vetted team of excavators were allowed into those depths. The sites, as the archeologists feared, did not stabilize at all, but in fact shifted at myriad points daily. Each steel tress of the Gallery’s new dappled canopy appeared below nearly as soon as the ones above were welded into place. No one had observed the process, but a check every morning and evening with the archeologists’ charts showed that they corresponded exactly to the construction supervisors’ plans for the day. At the same time, the underground site itself was remarkably clean. The objects that did not form part of the building did not appear twice, either. A college intern who was brought into the dig by his history professor experimented by thumbing his gum onto a newly-installed elevator button; it did not appear that evening in the site below, or the morning after. The intern did make one important observation, later confirmed by two senior supervising archeologists; a building component damaged or destroyed above did not change the finds below. He first observed it when, removing his gum from the button with a palette knife, he scarred the ‘up’ arrow with a whitish gash. The next evening, he checked the elevator button of the buried structure. The round silvery plastic was smooth as pearl. It was not long before anyone with sufficient curiosity and hand tools could make their secret way down. A conservation blogger organized


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to big venues, but today there are performing arts venues that exist in town centers where the majority of Singaporeans live. The People’s Association organizes and brings performances to the people there directly. This democratization in Singapore is very organized, and the government plays a major role in this process through agencies such as the People’s Association.

BG If you go to Orchard Row, there is actually a space called *SCAPE that was built to provide a place for that kind of expression. This kind of space might seem a little bit of an oxymoron but this is a country where we like order! We recognize that youth culture and street culture is real. There is no point trying to suppress it, rather we must give it an outlet. If we do not do this, then it will just go everywhere. Some of the best sneaker artists actually turn out to be in Singapore. If you go to the shopping streets that cater to the youth, you will see many shops run by sneaker artists who started out by doing street art.

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

THEATRE AS A PLACE OF RESISTANCE

BEH SWAN GIN

MS Artists like Banksy have in the past several years redefined the meaning of art in the city. Can you imagine this kind of movement happening here in Singapore too?


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

CLAUDIO BUCHER

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

a dig below Tangjong Pagar to introduce visitors to the piquancy of the old station. Not everyone was pleased. The HDB found itself the subject of several lawsuits. Disgruntled homeowners had ventured into the buried versions of their new flats, which revealed all the cheaper-than-promised materials that were judiciously tiled over in their flats above. A preacher spoke about the impossibility of forgiveness without the forgetting of some trespasses. Lawyers warned of the potential disruption to property law. Who owns a reflection? Despite some calls for greater surveillance, the police commissioner advised restraint and praised the privileges of surface dwelling, not least of which is sunlight. Slowly, the second city settled into the everyday habits of the island inhabitants. Hoarders found more room to burrow away their disposable containers and other treasures. The military used the buried Tekong camp as additional enlistee training grounds. Artists applied for fewer surface studio spaces, when spaces beneath were free and constituted an ever-changing installation. The biggest change was also the quietest. A trickle at first, but steadily increasing over the years, young people began moving permanently out of their homes into the versions below. They took entire apartments for themselves, and out of reception range from their parents’ mobile phones. Slackers never needed to move out, as they could stay in their parents’ apartments below. Mostly they experienced an uncommon calm, free of birdsong, but also of traffic jams, national campaigns, and Channel 5 dramas. Without a high-speed data network and with an abundance of solitude, card games and board games became the most popoular pastime underground. It helped that the granite Chinese chess tables in the older void decks still existed below. Despite their love, their parents stayed away. The surface population grew older at a faster pace than in previous decades, while the age of the under-dwellers averaged a youthful twenty-four years. In thirteen more years, even the newest condominium resembled a retirement home, when only the grey-haired and wealthy cared for the distinction between ‘original’ and ‘sewer’ housing. A survey of subterranean residents conducted by a psychologist seventeen years later found that many reported a relief from nostalgia, no longer feeling ungrounded by a past they never knew. One respondent suggested that the ground-dwellers have only one island, while he and other under-dwellers have several at once. Another respondent, a writer in her early twenties, wrote a line that is often quoted in later news reports on the surface; “there is no future in nostalgia when every future is in the past.”


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

When the World Comes to an End You Will be Eating Hokkien Mee Stephanie Chan (a.k.a. Stephanie Dogfoot)

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

“WHAT I REMEMBER FROM 21 DAYS IN SINGAPORE IS …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

When the last panda dies from a heart attack from an overdose of Viagra in some Western zoo that he was sent to as a cub as a gift of goodwill from China, you will be counting how many pieces of sotong the stallholder gave you. When the oceans start overflowing and start swallowing up small coastal cities, the death toll will not even reach the 6 o’clock news on the hawker center TV screens. When all the fish have gone extinct, and all the chickens died of some flesh-eating version of bird flu that also managed to wipe out three third world countries in the space of two months, it will be ok because there will always be enough prawns left in the sea, and you don’t need chicken to make Hokkien Mee anyway. When the tidal waves start flooding large coastal cities like Sydney, LA, or Vancouver, it will not matter because there is still not enough lard in your 5 dollar plate of Hokkien Mee. When the earth starts to crack open and swallow up all the cities people stupidly decided to build on fault lines, you might be intrigued by the noodles on your plate trembling ever-so-slightly from the aftershock. When buildings in Malaysia start to collapse from the aftershocks, believe that it was because they were poorly built anyway. When the governments of the world start going completely mad, and the threat of nuclear war is imminent but probably won’t make much of a difference at this point in history, keep believing that Hokkien Mee noodles grow out of the ground on a farm somewhere in Kranji. When a Malaria epidemic hits Southeast Asia, remember to swallow your government-sponsored malaria vaccine after your meal and thank God you live in a functional country. When the ocean starts to encroach a little bit on reclaimed land in Changi, Juron Island, the CBD, just remember you were never promised that Singapore would be “flood free.” When the first child to die in a flooded neighbourhood on the ECP gets reported, be glad you live on the 20th floor. When Resorts World finally disappears underwater, you will be eating Hokkien Mee.


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PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

When the first families die in a tsunami that hits Pasir Ris, you will be eating Hokkien Mee. And it will be bloody good Hokkien Mee. So good you will want another, but you will never get another because the stall owner will be dead. And his wife will be dead. And his son, the only other person with the recipe in his head will not remember it because he fucked off to open a dessert bar in Dempsey Road which only serves people who can say the phrase “post-apocalyptic” with a straight face. So go on, enjoy that fucking plate of Hokkien Mee because it will be the last plate of Hokkien Mee you will ever taste, that will ever be tasted in the world, and be glad, be fucking glad that you are, because when the universe implodes on itself, and that tidal wave rears up to engulf this island and there is screaming everywhere and you finally look up and see the wall of water about to swallow the Old Airport Road hawker center, the taste of prawn stock, lard, and MSG will be the only thing left to hold on to. EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… MY NAME, IN GREEN LETTERS, ON A SCREEN, …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER


128

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

Birth’s Lottery Deborah Emmanuel

He says people think he is only a migrant worker, the thousandth architect of this diapered nation; temperature-controlled conglomeration of cots, pampered child of a newly dead man.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

… IN HOTEL NOSTALGIA.”

He says God gave him this life and made his Papa poor. My tongue thrashes in confinement of its cave, bitterness drips down the drain of my throat, ripples unsettle blackwater in my belly, a cesspool of ungodliness.

He says people never see that he has to wire next month’s dal to Papa’s dining table, whittle away the hard shells of strangers, write his poems with dirt-smeared hands. He says people never see that he can make pigeons dance with his peace song, bridges assemble in laughing rain, stories unroll to carpet mountains. Brother, my words are polished with blackwater shine, bubbling from the place where God is dead, where poverty tried to escape but man didn’t let him, turned him into a scarecrow stuck on infertile soil to watch mothers make more mouths to feed. Your words are marigolds, fragrant parasite repellent tooth smiles, hamsa hands shielding a wall of nails, a boat that catches the sun before it descends and rocks it to sleep on a sacred sea. How dare I condescend your freeing faith, the luminescence of predestination, burn the blueprints of an unfinished construction site and make your machine sit still?

PHILIP URSPUNG


130

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

How dare my blackwater belly growl in disbelief drown holy script in its septic tank, spurt poison at healing food so it cannot reach the poor man’s mouth?

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

OBLIQUE CITY

Sorry I was born here instead of you. Sorry my war is over and my books are read. Sorry all my apologies are written in red and white invisible ink. Sorry for birth’s lottery.

PHILIP URSPUNG


132

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

Figurine Lawrence Lacambra Ypil Side by side at table we agree: the chicken could be better. The neighbours bring the trash out when the wind blows east.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

CLAUDIO BUCHER

My mother thinking silence in her sons could mean disaster lets the night birds in. We draw the curtains. They form a chandelier of song. Is that a glimmer of a brother in my glass? — he says, wink-wink, I met a pretty girl today and she was formidable. If only father were to tell the joke about the lettuce we would laugh. Mutter. Munch. Swing our legs under the table. Invent the facts.

Every New Beginning Lawrence Lacambra Ypil So for my mother: lavender. And my father, Monet. Agapanthus was what I wanted to see or at least a house And the garden and the television left on long after The death of painting. Wallpaper covered the cracks. Mounted photographs. There was a letter from the decorator: I still enjoy sketching, yes. Yes very much. And I postpone The exhibition not because I want to finish many, certainly not. Dinner was ready but only if we reached the end of it to skip the scotch.


134

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

A Question for Georgette Jennifer Anne Champion His body is an open bible on a rainy morning. Was he hoping because you are a woman that you would also be a Sunday painter? It only matters if yours was also a Sunday love. Your paint brush makes tiny, wet sounds. Dips like a swan seeking in teal and violet — neck-first the burst — the scurrying bloom of life in its beak. Lurking beneath surfaces,

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

“BODY MEMORY CALLED UP CÔTE D’AZUR, CANNES, …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

your hunger with its sacred seeking purpose. You want to catch colours you can taste — shades that press against your cheeks — sweet colours more coloured than life — life more still than life. Because his face is the only one you want to paint over and over like a favourite song, because his body is an open bible on a rainy morn — and these are deathless days, because his face — his face is the hymn under your paint, the canvas under your breath. What did paint tell you that skin could not? Life. More still than life. Rot more skilled than lot. His body is still there, open. Still undecipherable, on some mornings, Sunday or rainy. How many rainy Sundays does the National Gallery get? Life gets more still with these questions. I pick a brush and use it to paint my lover. His body is an open bible on a rainy morning. Was he hoping because I am a woman that I would also be a Sunday painter? It only matters if ours was also a Sunday love.


“SOME OF THE BEST SNEAKER ARTISTS …

GWEE LI SU

THEATRE AS A PLACE OF RESISTANCE CONVERSATION WITH GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

135


136

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

memory to smoke Gwee Li Sui & Eirini Sourgiadaki On the pavement, sunny side of the street. Pedestrians use crossings, taxi again. Lost. Found. Coming from the hospital, mother at the back of my head. The whirls of half a day. The heat ambushes my gathering thoughts.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

… SOMEWHERE BETWEEN GREY RESIDENTIAL BLOCKS …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

City Hall. Waiting. Coffee from our London roasteries, smoke one more, he is collecting the litter from the ground, literally humid, literary gray. Meet at the ticket machines at three. There she is as I descend into my underworld, a Greek shade — her back greets me before she turns to hug me. The day now is differently warm. Egg and toast—just say ko-pi feel better the heat the heat afternoon breakfast, wake up. I go to page 23. Four stones embrace and ride into the sky, the sacrifices of an age now dwarfed but yet pure. We walk around a small piece of a new map of metal and glass. Turning page turning closer to the equator And I read The use of this bridge is prohibited to any vehicle of which the laden weight exceeds 3 cwt. And to all cattle and horses. Two ice creams two dollars. No more bread. Crossing from the left. In the gallery, we see many mirrors, but in none of them we find ourselves. The rooms open into each other like puzzles.


THEATRE AS A PLACE OFRESISTANCE

… ACTUALLY TURN OUT TO BE IN SINGAPORE.”

GWEE LI SU

137

Michael Schindhelm Glen Goei, researching the website of the theatre company W!ld Rice, of which you are the artistic co-director, I saw that one of your major productions in 2015 was Ibsen’s play Public Enemy from 1882 set in a contemporary Singapore. I remember that when I was Director of the theatre in Basel we produced the same play with Lars-Ole Walburg in 1999. As Lars-Ole and I both grew up in former East Germany, we both have strong sensibilities for issues of censorship and freedom of expression. It was during the height of the scandal about unclaimed Jewish accounts in Swiss banks from the Second World War, and there was a rumour going around that we would invite Jean Ziegler, who was a harsh critic of Switzerland from within at a time when the Swiss were realizing that their image had been sullied by their own inactions. I received a letter from a very prominent and influential patron from one of the old families of Basel warning me that if we got involved with Jean Ziegler we would lose a lot of support. We decided to have the letter read onstage and became the Public Enemy, in a way, of Basel. How was your adaptation received in the year when cultural institutions were supposed to celebrate — and not question — the 50th anniversary of Singapore? Glen Goei It got very good reviews and I think the public really liked it. On the other hand, we did get into some trouble with the authorities again, who are always threatening to cut our funding. We always have to hand in our program before each season for review, but what they failed to realise was we would not simply stage a play

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


138

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

The rooms are mirrors too  —  we fall into a rabbit hole as dizzying as the hours.

In the evening, the old street roll open and the satay men appear. The food smells travel between our conversation, under urgent buildings. The easier thing for me is to fly, says the Chinese man, he used to be a pilot, now he serves the food step your two feet on the ground, says the therapist, then repeat after me

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… IN THE OUTSKIRTS OF SENGKANG.”

Boats sail to the end of the river. Panorama, smoke one more, then smoke one more. Sun setting invisible, they cleaned the water, he says.

U N D E R C O N S T R U C T I O N He is addicted to Starbucks. From then on.

She rolls another memory to smoke.


GWEE LI SU

139

GLEN GOEI

WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING?

which is over a hundred years old and takes place in Scandinavia, but that we would also translate Public Enemy to our contemporary Singapore. We were also asked not to produce a play that deals with the detained opposition of the 1960s, some of whom were held for up to 6 years. They told us that we would receive severe cuts in our public funding if we would go ahead and do it, so we decided to wait until our funding is approved for the next 3 years and then produce it. Damian Christinger This remains me of a discussion Michael Schindhelm and I had yesterday about the theatre and the role it played in Europe in the twentieth century as a place of resistance and free speech. He said something that is kind of obvious, but that I had not thought of in that way before. It was that a text or a painting can be censored as-is if the regime feels that it somehow addresses something it should not. In theatre though, a play that has been approved by the censor can be staged in such way that it becomes clear to the live audience that the actor is really talking about something else entirely. Simply by shifting emphasis in a spoken performance, directors and actors can actually alter the original meaning and adapt it to the things they really want to talk about. GG There is very little room for discourse and no real platform for people to voice their concerns freely in Singapore. Therefore, art becomes a platform that is difficult for the government to control, and theatre is particularly effective because of being able to talk about problems

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


140

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

Danger by Danger & Nights as Long as Fences (139 photos)

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

OBLIQUE CITY

Geraldine Kang Danger the sign says Danger, keep out!1 the night and the sun Danger. One day, years have passed since2 Danger: walking legs collapse3 on Danger on site Safe practice 1 The construction fence is a significant element of the Singapore landscape hiding in plain sight. Demarcating sites of resi dential, commercial, and industrial development, these fences remain strangely overlooked despite their ubiquity. In an effort to exercise safe practice, scores of danger warning signs are commonly found mounted on any construction fence. They signal the public to stay away from potential harm, and also signal the construction company’s due diligence in ensuring public safety. To further make sure the intent stays visible at night, each sign is accompanied by a fluorescent tube above it that is switched on while the sun is setting. 2 Duty-bound to provide for family members, many migrant workers end up working in Singapore for a longer time than intended because the prospects at home don’t improve. 3 I was returning home on the subway when a man standing beside me, whom I assumed was a migrant worker, suddenly collapsed onto the floor. Hurriedly, four other passengers and I carried him out of the train and into the station. The station staff were alerted, and the man was soon wheeled away on a paramedic stretcher. I

for danger Can’t breathe4 in danger No speculation Danger No development5 no danger for homes and communities Danger, men Constructing Danger never found out why he fainted, but I am reminded of recent food scandals where it was discovered that some migrant workers were being served food that had gone bad or was on the verge of turning bad. A lack of proper nutrition and rest is something that plagues a lot of migrant workers. 4 I once attended a private tour around a construction site by a construction com pany in Singapore. The site conditions seemed harmless until we walked down one of the stairwells of the building. The air in the stairwell was constantly filled with fumes from welding and cutting metal, as well as cement dust from the construction of the stairs. I did not understand how workers could remain in these conditions for hours on end, or why measures were not taken to make sure the air in the stairwell remained breathable. 5 Several organisations release regular data on tender prices, and demand for construc tion for various property sectors in Singapore. These are supplied mainly by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the Housing Development Board (HDB) and the Building Construction Authority (BCA).


GWEE LI SU

onstage like you just mentioned. However, over the past 50 years, the government has certainly tried its best to reign in the arts. Kuo Pao Kun, whom many regard as the most important playwright of Singapore, was detained in 1976 under the Internal Security Act together with his wife Goh Lay Kuan, an influential dancer and choreographer, for more than four years, and also had his citizenship revoked. The last artists were detained in 1987, but since then the pressure has become more subtle. THEATRE AS A PLACE OFRESISTANCE

BEH SWAN GIN

Changing Topographies MS If you compare your situation to other countries with a totalitarian regime, you seem to have a kind of relative freedom here. Do you really still need to be afraid to express yourself freely? GG Well, things can change quickly. Within the civil service there is a complete rotation of personnel every three to four years. Whenever that happens, we have to deal with completely new people who are looking after us. It is not so much that we have to fight with them, we more have to negotiate with them, and to a certain extent even educate them. Their understanding of art is that it is only important as an economic currency. In the 1980s and 1990s, Singapore was portrayed by the Western media as a cultural desert. The government soon realised that to be attractive to foreign investors, Singapore has to invest in culture. They then developed plans to implement culture in Singapore, and

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

141


142

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

CLAUDIO BUCHER

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

"

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG


GLEN GOEI

“OVER 80% OF SINGAPORE‘S HOUSEHOLDS ARE IN …

GWEE LI SU

143

what infrastructure to build —the National Gallery just opened a couple weeks ago. These institutions are now expected to flourish and we do not yet know if it is possible. The understanding of what culture actually is differs between practitioners, artists, and bureaucrats in charge of implementing state strategies. These different agendas create friction, and as we never know who will be in charge next, it is difficult to say if we should be afraid or not. If I want to take my role as an artist seriously though, I have to become the voice of social consciousness. Theatre, to me, is a platform to voice my concerns as a citizen, it needs to be part of the community, which can get us into trouble. My co-director and I have talked about this a lot and we decided to continue in the way we want, even if it means going to jail at some point in the future. At the moment, we are like a thorn in their side, so they police us. What they should do is actually thank us and use us to engage with the community. DC Singapore has a lot of both recent immigrants and new citizens, and is famous for how it succeeds in allowing different cultures and religions to live together in peace. In Switzerland, there is a lot of friction and negative attitude towards immigrants and foreigners. Europe is currently facing a huge influx of refugees from places like Syria and Afghanistan, and artists are currently doing a lot to address these issues. What is the situation like here in Singapore?

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


144

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

“I REMEMBER A CAB DRIVER WHO TOLD ME …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

"


THEATRE AS A PLACE OFRESISTANCE

‌ VERY GOOD QUALITY PUBLIC HOUSING.�

GWEE LI SU

145

GG There has been some friction, especially in the last couple of years, and some artists have been addressing these questions and the problems involved. Many labourers (for instance from Bangladesh) often work under very harsh conditions and have nearly no lobby, unlike the nannies from the Philippines. There have been some artistic initiatives that have tried to give these communities a voice, but they are not nearly enough. One big taboo here though is that you cannot talk about religion. It is considered to be a very sensitive topic because when Singapore became a state, the new leadership was afraid that religious tensions would lead to a civil war, and this thinking is still very much in our heads. MS Would you say that that you self-censor so as not to touch upon topics that might be too delicate? GG I do not think so, no. It is however a challenge that every artist in Singapore has to face every day anew. Self-censorship would be the beginning of the end for me. Future Generations MS You have described changes in Singaporean culture over the last decades, and the challenges you face in the present moment, but how do you see the future? What is the situation like for young artists? One could argue that Berlin for instance has one of the most vibrant art

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


146

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… HOW HE DIDN’T LEAVE HIS HOTEL ROOM IN AMSTERDAM …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

"


GWEE LI SU

147

GLEN GOEI

WHAT MAKES THE CITY APPEALING?

scenes because it is one of the cheapest capitals in Europe, but living costs in Singapore are regarded as quite high, which would suggest that it is difficult for a young artist to survive here. GG This is a big problem indeed. The government should invest in affordable housing and studio space as well, and not just in attracting foreign galleries like what they did with Gillman Barracks and Art Stage Singapore. For culture to flourish here, it would be important to build a vibrant local scene. At the moment, a lot of young artists who have just finished art school cannot work in their chosen fields, as living costs are just too high. They therefore either quit or leave to practice in another country, for instance Indonesia. Some of the most promising young artists from here have gone to Berlin. This is one of the problems with implementing culture instead of endorsing it. We will see what the future holds.

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN


148

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

… BECAUSE THE STREETS WERE TOO DANGEROUS …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

"

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG


150

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… AFTER EIGHT O’CLOCK.

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

"

PHILIP URSPUNG


152

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

I REMEMBER A GRANDSON OF SOUTH INDIAN MIGRANTS …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

"

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG


154

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… WHO TOLD ME THAT HE DIDN’T NEED AN UMBRELLA …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

" 


PHILIP URSPUNG


156

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

… WHEN IT STARTED RAINING AFTER A WEDDING …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

"

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG


158

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

… ON SUNDAY, BECAUSE HE WAS JUNGLE-PROOFED.”

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

"


160

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

OBLIQUE CITY

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

"

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG


TROPICAL JELLY CRYSTALS

U5

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

“EVERY WRITER WRITES BY DECIDING ONE WAY OR ANOTHER HOW TO ADDRESS WHAT SINGAPOREANS CALL …

161


162

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

© G. Kang 2016

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

CLAUDIO BUCHER

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

" © G.Kang 2016


BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

… ‘OUT-OF-BOUNDS MARKERS’ OR ‘OB MARKERS,’ VAGUE SPECTRAL LIMITS THAT GOVERN THE TERRAIN …

T R O P I C A L J ELLY CR YS TA L S

163


164 “OUR BRAIN IS OUR FIRST TRAVEL TICKET. … “I STUDIED HOW TO MAKE THE FISH BALLS, … JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

… OF WHAT IS PERMISSIBLE IN PUBLIC.”

U5

165


… A PERFECT SIMULATOR, A PERFECT CALCULATOR. … 166 … HOW TO CONTROL THE TEMPERATURE, THE FISH PASTE, … JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


Haw Par Villa is a theme park in Singapore. The park, originally called Tiger Balm Gardens, was built in 1937 by the Burmese-Chinese brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the developers of Tiger Balm, as a venue for teaching traditional Chinese values (source: Wikipedia).

ASIA, 2016 50 × 31 × 4,5 cm, mixed media, from the series Five Continents

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

TROPICAL JELLY CRYSTALS

167


168 … MY FIRST TRIP TO SINGAPORE WAS … … THE SEASONING, THE MOULDING; …

1 Lucky Strike bought at a grocery store in the Ridgewood Condominiums complex, Singapore. As of January 1st, 2009, each individual cigarette either imported into or manufactured in Singa pore for local sale must be market with the letters “SDPC” (Singapore Duty-Paid). Anyone found buying, selling, or smoking cigarettes without the “SDPC” mark is committing an offence. Every pack of cigarettes with unpaid duties found in the offender’s possession carries a fine of up to 500 dollars (Singapore Customs). 2 Kretek cigarettes from Pabrik Rokok Praoe Lajar — a cigarette factory in Semarang, Java, Indonesia. Each individual cigarette is handrolled by Indonesian women. Kretec cigarettes are filled with tobacco, cloves, resin, nutmeg, and cumin. The word kretek itself is an onomat opoetic term for the crackling sound of burn ing cloves. 3 Lucky Strlkt, IPOH Cigarettes, bought in Singapore. Made under authority of hell. Paper cigarettes are offered to the ancestors during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

GWEE LI SUI

U5

169


170 …THERE’S A LOT OF DETAILS WHEN IT COMES TO STREET FOOD!”

… THROUGH A COUPLE OF POSTCARDS …

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


T R O P I C A L J ELLY CR YS TA L S BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

“THESE ISSUES FORCE US TO RETHINK A CENTRAL QUESTION ABOUT THE WAY …

171

Left: Excerpt from C.G. Jung, Der Mensch und seine Symbole (Man and his Symbols), Zurich, 1968. On this page: Mount Gede, a stratovolcato in West Java, Indonesia. Typical eruption style is explosive, with its last eruption being in 1957. Gunung Gede is one of 17 volcanoes we climbed on Java. This picture was taken on June 25th, 2016.


PONDERING OVER A HAWKER’S LIFE

… BROUGHT FROM THERE BY MY FATHER IN 1987.”

172 JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


The Singapore Sling — “sling” meaning a mixture of gin, water, and sweetener — has been Singapore’s signature cocktail since the beginning of the twentieth century. U5 has created a new cocktail to replace this old symbol of British colonialism. Dengue is a tropical fever that endangers the entire region of Southeast Asia. Dengue sling promises to protect against the disease. It evokes the fact that Singapore is part of a large area of tropical rainforests. It reminds us of the interface between the human and the non-human. After two drinks, people believe that they are facing a crater. (Text by Philip Ursprung)

30 ml Bombay Sapphire Gin 20 ml Campari 120 ml tonic water A dash of Angostra Bitters 1 tsp. chia seeds soaked in Blue Curaçao Garnish with a stick of lemon grass

U5

Original Dengue Sling Recipe

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

… SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE VERSE AND ITS POLITICS RELATE. …

173

Dengue Sling


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

174 JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ


BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

… WE ASK: WHY IS IT THAT MUCH OF THIS POETRY SEEMS TO APPROACH POLITICALLY CHARGED THEMES …

T R O P I C A L J ELLY CR YS TA L S

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176 “HAWKER CULTURE … WILL PROBABLY COME TO AN END!” EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

… BY OBLIQUE MEANS, WITH SELF-DEPRECATING WIT OR LYRICAL OBSCURANTISM?”

U5

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PONDERING OVER A HAWKER’S LIFE

“SHE ROLLS ANOTHER MEMORY TO SMOKE.”

178

Dreams reveal winning lottery numbers: the most effective method to win.

JASON POMEROY OLD MAN SHIRIN HIRSIGER CLAUDIO BUCHER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

BENSON PUAH

EUGENE TAN

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLITICS IN SINGAPORE’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POETRY?

TROPICAL JELLY CRYSTALS

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180 “CYBORGS ARE NOT REVERENT; …

PONDERING OVER A HAWKER’S LIFE ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

“MY MOST IMPORTANT GOAL WAS TO MAKE IT RELEVANT …

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM CONVERSATION WITH EUGENE TAN

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182 … THEY DO NOT REMEMBER THE COSMOS.”

Being at a crossroad within Asia, Singapore has become a bustling port city. Its economy, society, and culture has been largely defined by the maritime trade between East and West over the second half of the twentieth century. Under the watch of the British, economic opportunities increased and attracted migrants from nearby states. The island became a state with a multi-ethnic population, with every individual trying to make a living and to maintain their culture and identity in the foreign country. Street hawking is one manifestation of this development: immigrant food peddlers fed the rapidly growing population with cheap meals based on recipes from their home countries. First-generation hawkers in the 1950s were from Chinese, and to a lesser extent from India and the Malay Archipelago. During the post-war years of high unemployment after 1945, hawking contributed to general productivity by absorbing the unemployed. It was a trade with low entry barriers, requiring little capital, and little or no education or technical skills.1 During Singapore’s massive urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, street hawkers were moved away from the streets and into centers, mainly due to hygienic reasons. Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, wrote: “for years we could not clean up the city by removing these illegal hawkers and pirate taxis. Only after 1971, when we had created many jobs, were we able to enforce the law and reclaim the streets. We licensed the cooked food hawkers and moved them from the roads and pavements to properly1 Theo Kheng Lock, A Study of Twenty Singapore Hawkers (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 1962).

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

… TO OUR PEOPLE FROM THE OUTSET, …

BEH SWAN GIN

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GLEN GOEI

Eugene Tan Art history was not taught in Singapore at the time when I was studying. My first degree was in fact in economics and politics in London. In fact, it was because I was in London that I started getting interested in art, through visiting the museums, galleries, etc. The degree was at Queen Mary College. Damian Christinger How do you recruit a curatorial team for the museum if there are no art historians in this field? ET Developing the curatorial team has been one of the most challenging aspects of our museum, because of the lack of art historical training in Southeast Asia. The result of this situation is that a lot of our curators are trained internationally. To build up a good curatorial team, you need curators who have expertise in specific subject matter, so in our case Southeast Asian art history itself. They also need to have expertise in exhibition-making and current research methodologies. We try to recruit curators based on the different expertise that they have. Some are art historians for Southeast Asian art, some have worked more on exhibitions of Southeast Asian art, and through doing this we complement each other. For instance, my art history research was done primarily in the UK. My PhD was in American conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s, but that was more than 10 years ago. When I moved back here after my degree, I started learning more about Asian art and in particular Southeast Asian art, applying the same


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

184 CRAFTING WILDERNESS

constructed nearby hawker centers, with piped water, sewers and garbage disposal. By the early 1980s we had resettled all hawkers.”2 The hawker centers have been overseen by the National Environmental Agency since then. They assign the hawkers to their stalls and collect rent. Today over 100 covered open-air complexes are spread all over the country and provide lunch for workers in both the city’s economic hub and in the community centers of the numerous residential towns outside the center. Singaporeans of all ages and social or religious backgrounds eat in hawker centers several times a week. Compared to other countries, food culture has become highly distinctive in Singapore; the variety of peoples and cultures to be found in the state has been a boon for food variety. The humble food of the early immigrants has taken on an iconic status. Apart from being a place for affordable meals, hawker centers have developed into fusion spaces — from street food to architect-designed eateries with an eye to culture and environment. No Singaporean is forced to eat in a certain way, rather they are able to embrace their own culinary rituals under the same roof as many others. For this project, we researched Singapore’s cultural landscape by discussing the unique interplay of food, identity, and public space, and by entering and observing an everyday place for public eating. We walked around shiny buildings and into hawker centers, finding not only culinary delights, but also clues as to what it means to live in a country transforming as fast as Singapore. Ien Ang calls it hybridity, writing “hybridity is not only about fusion 2 Azhar Ghani, A Recipe for Success: How Singapore Hawker Centres Came to Be (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2011).

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


U5

GWEE LI SU

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

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DC How would you describe the role of Singapore in the wider region within the context of the art histories that you have mentioned?

EUGENE TAN

… IT WAS NOT A TROPHY VENUE. …

methodologies that I had learned in school in order to evaluate and question the development of art in this region. I have been based in Singapore since returning to Asia from London, but spent two years in Hong Kong some time ago.

ET We are still understanding the art histories of Asia and Southeast Asia through the paradigm of European and American art history. There are differences however between the development of modern art, modernism, postmodernism, and contemporary art between the different regions. There are several scholars who have found ways to think about how we can begin to understand our own art histories. It is not in a way that is totally separated from European and American paradigms, but something that is more in line with our own perspective and development. This is what we show in our two permanent galleries, whose focuses lie in the areas of Singapore and Southeast Asia respectively. These exhibitions are the first time anywhere in the world that the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia in the last 150 –200 years are being presented. In our exhibitions, we place the beginning of modern art in the nineteenth century, before it occurred in Europe. We picked this period because it was during this time that many countries in Southeast Asia came


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186 PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

and synthesis, but also about friction and tension, about ambivalence and incommensurability, about contestations and interrogations that go hand in hand with the heterogeneity, diversity and multiplicity we have to deal with as live together-in-difference … [We must learn to live together] in a world in which we no longer have the secure capacity to draw the line between us and them — in which difference and sameness are inextricably intertwined in complicated entanglement.”3 When entering the hawker scene — both in real life and online — one soon comes across Douglas Ng. The winner of a 2016 Bib Gourmand award in the Michelin Guide Singapore 2016 is widely known for his famous fish balls, which he sells at his stall called The Fishball Story. He is both an influencer, and the voice of a young generation hawkers, called “hawker-preneurs,” engaged in preserving the heritage of the hawker tradition. We met Douglas at his stall at timbre+, a newlybuilt hawker center in the western part of central Singapore.

3 Jean Duruz and Gaik Cheng Khoo, Eating Together. Food, Space, and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore (Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2014).

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

… IT EMERGED AT A TIME IN OUR HISTORY …

BEH SWAN GIN

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GLEN GOEI

under colonial rule. This represented a big break in the region with the past, and with it a transition to modernism in art. Our first special exhibition is a collaboration called “Reframing Modernism” with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which will be beginning in the end of March of this year. Borrowing from their collection, as well as using our own, we will re-examine how modernism developed between 1900 and 1960 from the perspective of Southeast Asia. It will be one of the first times that we will be showing European artists alongside Southeast Asian artists, and will be very different from how it has previously been done. MS You mentioned that there are a number of scholars currently working on this issue. Are they from Southeast Asia themselves or are they from overseas? ET Some are in Southeast Asia, such as Patrick D. Flores in the Philippines, or John Clark, who recently retired from the University of Sydney, who was one of the more formal scholars in terms of thinking about modern Asian art. We have some here in Singapore too. It is not a very big circle simply because there are also not that many art history faculties in the region. There are a few younger ones at SOAS University of London in the Department of South East Asia, and some in the USA as well. There are also several scholars of the topic in the field of cultural studies as well.


REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM

CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI

Douglas Ng

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

“PALM TREES, THE HORIZON LINE, SKYSCRAPERS, … 188


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

MS How much do you look at the whole spectrum of the arts? ET We see our work as cross-disciplinary research that is not just focused on fine arts or visual arts, but also looks at how it intersects with tradition — in the form of craft for instance. We still tend to look at performing arts as something separate. This is primarily because the visual arts are still a very under-researched area in comparison to the performing arts, and we wanted our focus to remain on the former.

EUGENE TAN

… WHERE OUR SOCIETY WAS CHANGING.”

BEH SWAN GIN

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MS This period of modernism came to an end with the postwar period. Does your institution also cover this period? ET In the West, the stylistic changes that art went through during this time are premised also on certain fundamental transformations in society and philosophy, for instance in the 1960s and 1970s, with the expansion of art towards what we call post-modern or contemporary art. The period of independence that many Southeast Asian countries went through in the post-war period was fundamental for the development of art in the region. However, we often confuse stylistic change with a paradigm shift in Asian and Southeast Asian contexts. Many artists here were very influenced by developments in the West, which goes back to the early 1900s through transmissions of knowledge about what was going on in Europe and America. This adoption of style should not be seen as a means to judge paradigm shifts in Asian


Douglas Ng in front of his stall at Timbre + hawker centre

PONDERING OVER A HAWKER’S LIFE

… AND STREET SCENES — AN ISLAND, HEART SHAPED.” 190

I’m Douglas. Douglas Ng. I’m turning 25 this year. I’m one of the youngest hawkers in Singapore. I have a diploma. I had plans to continue my studies, but, I don’t know, I just followed my heart. I used to own a restaurant. The restaurant business was more or less stable, but I wanted to venture into street food. Every time I wanted to start a business, I was thinking about fish ball noodles. People asked me “Why fish balls?” It’s my grandmother’s recipe. I didn’t have any intention of becoming a hawker when I was 16 or 17 years old, I just wanted to make fish balls at home so I could eat them more often. It took me around four months to master the recipe. I studied how to make the fish balls, how to control the temperature, the fish paste, the seasoning, the molding; there’s a lot of details when it comes to street food! My grandmother taught me how to produce them, but now she doesn’t cook anymore because of her hands. She used to make hundred or two hundred fish balls at once and by hand. Today I do like 10, 20 times more fish balls than that. We optimized the procedure. We have to take the ingredients, the raw materials, and the time and effort into account. It takes a lot of time and it’s a lot of hard work, which is why we introduced automation into some of the processes for making the fish paste. We sell 2 000 or 3 000 fish balls a day. I make like 300 in ten minutes.

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


U5

GWEE LI SU

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

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WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES

art. We are in fact still going through a period of modern development in these regions, even though it looks very different stylistically. The underlying premises have not altered enough for it to be considered a major shift in paradigm. MS To what extent are there major differences between the countries in Southeast Asia? ET This was one of the main challenges that we had to deal with. Southeast Asia has never been presented as a region, which is what we are doing now. It is always portrayed as a collection of separate countries. Things happened differently and at different times for each of the countries. Providing a regional perspective on the development of art was always something very challenging, but we have always felt it was very necessary. We must always question what we mean by region, especially one called Southeast Asia. This is all complicated by the fact that there were exchanges and transmissions between the different countries. To give an example, Vietnam was under colonialist rule, then underwent a war, then it was under communist rule until 1986 when it opened up. How art developed there is very different to what was going on in Singapore or Malay. MS How much is Southeast Asia accepted as a region today?


Douglas Ng is serving his customers during lunch time Douglas’ Michelin star winning fishball noodles

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

192 CRAFTING WILDERNESS

Fish ball noodles is a dish born in Singapore, but almost every Asian country has their own kind of fish balls. In Hong Kong they have fish balls, in China they have fish balls, in Thailand they have fish balls. In Singapore, we have our own kind of fish balls, and, in fact, I serve the most traditional ones. We also have our own fishcake with scallions, preserved vegetables, and home-grown chilies that bring out all the flavours of the fishcake. Not many people do it like this anymore here in Singapore because it’s so much work.

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

BEH SWAN GIN

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GLEN GOEI

EUGENE TAN

BENSON PUAH

ET There is no doubt that Southeast Asia is a construct that came into popular use after the Vietnam war. At the same time, there is still something that unites all these different countries that sit between India and China. How we understand the region today is primarily political, geographical, and economic. We used the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a starting point, but at the same time, there are also very complex links going back historically. This is another mission that must be undertook in order to understand what we mean by Southeast Asia. MS What would be the role of Singapore within this socalled construct? ET It is very straight forward when it comes to the National Gallery. We are part of a very rich and diverse region where art is being produced. We feel that the region needs to be better profiled. Having a better understanding of how art develops in this region will lead ultimately to a better understanding of how art is developing globally. We are looking not just at the relations between the countries of Southeast Asia, but between Southeast Asia and other parts of the world as well. We think that in order to understand our own path, we have to examine its links to partners in the region as well. MS Are there similar organizations in other parts of Southeast Asia?


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194 PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

Most people sell fried fishcakes, which are nice, but for me they’re too common — you can find them almost everywhere. They’re a comfort food in Singapore that people can have every day. I stick to traditions and try to bring back what people used to have in the olden days. We don’t add any flour to the balls, they’re just pure fish. Of course this makes the cost higher, but it’s what I feel right serving. I don’t want to compromise on standards or on the quality, that’s why I would rather sell it for a little bit more and change the target audience. The other option would be compromising or lowering the quality in order to make them cheaper so that more people could afford them. This is not right for me. I feel that preserving what my grandmother used to make is more important than feeding the entire crowd. We just make sure our food is high quality and fresh and that’s it. All the Singaporean hawkers do it the same. They use the freshest ingredients they can find and then they put in a lot of work. I’m a firstgeneration hawker, it sucks! This is a fact.

We don’t have a cooking school that teaches hawker food. You can study Western cuisine, Japanese cuisine, and all kinds of fusion cuisines, but not traditional Singaporean cuisine. This is wrong! Our own culture is important, so we have to preserve it. There’s no school that teaches it though. For those who want to start without any background it’s very tough. You miss getting a mentor who can guide you along and tell you what you should think about before starting this business.

So we have to make the mistakes ourselves. That’s why, when young people want to start a business today, most of them come to me and ask questions like “what should we look for before we start?” or “how do I sustain the business?”

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

“USUALLY WHEN WE BRING IN AN ARTIST ‌

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ET No, that is why what we are doing is significant for the region. We are focused mostly on providing a regional perspective. There are national museums in many areas, which are focused more on their own histories than on this same broader perspective. A lot of them serve as documentary sources that we use in our operations. MS Is there anyone voicing skepticism about this claim to representation being made by any one member of the region? ET When we initially came up with this idea, we thought that there might be a misunderstanding that we were out to represent the region. What we are presenting is one perspective on how we can begin to understand Southeast Asia and its art. We have worked very closely with other national museums in the region, and have been very lucky in getting their support in what we are doing. We have borrowed a lot of work from these museums for long-term exhibitions, because they also feel that it is important that there is a platform that profiles Southeast Asia in a bigger way. MS Your institution is on the one hand focused on looking back over your colonial history, and on the other is interested in examining the current situation in the twentyfirst century. What is the distribution of responsibilities among cultural institutions in Singapore dealing with these topics?


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

196 “IT IS SINGAPORE. THE FAMOUS GARDEN CITY.”

I share my know-how, so they don’t make the mistakes that we used to make. The first-generation hawkers guard their knowledge like a secret recipe, even for the most basic things. To them it seems like a competition. For me it’s more like a family. I don’t treat others like competitors because everybody serves different food, and food is an individual preference right? You cannot have something that suits everybody. Because nobody wants to pass down their recipes, the culture is dying. Honestly, the hawker culture … will probably come to an end! Soon. The old people are all retiring. The kids don’t want to take over because it’s too tough. It’s no longer a business where you can make much money. The rent is too high, the raw materials are increasing drastically, it’s crazy! The food costs are always increasing too, so it’s hard to get people to work. They would rather sit comfortably in an office and not work in this kind of environment. It’s hard to find passionate people who work in this business because they love it. It shouldn’t be like that. For me, the hawker business is an opportunity. But what about for the rest? There’s only so much I can do to preserve my heritage right? There has been some improvement in the situation in the form of the “hawker-preneur” program. The National Environment Board, which currently manages and regulates most of the hawker centers in Singapore, has introduced a new hawker training project. The Fei Siong Food Management “Entrepreneurship Programme” is based on a master-apprentice structure for chefs where aspiring hawkers learn how to build up a sustainable business. Over the course of a two-month training program, retiring or retired hawkers advise and teach the apprentices how to cook their recipes. At the end of the program, the students begin running the stalls on their own. Besides learning otherwiselost cooking know-how, the students have the opportunity to learn business-management skills and hygiene control.

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

ET Our focus is largely the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for now. Our aim is to tell and present art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia. If you go to our permanent galleries, the exhibits go up to the early 2000s. The focus of the Singapore Museum is more on the art of the present, i.e. contemporary art. We also seek to understand the present by looking back, because we feel it is important to understand how we are looking at history, and how contemporary discourses shape how we look at history and art history. MS Do you work with younger generation of artists to look back at history? EUGENE TAN

‌ AND PRESENT THEM, IT IS IN ORDER TO FORGE ‌

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ET There is a space on our roof garden where we will have an annual installation where we commission an artist to make a site-specific installation. It will consist of new commissions, and will always be focused on exploring how we think of history, and how we conceive of Southeast Asia as a region. The first artist is Danh Vo, a Danish-Vietnamese artist whose exhibition will take place later this year. DC Danh Vo has a very interesting way of looking at history, and is very focused on the context of his works. Is there a limit to how he can look at the histories of Southeast Asia on your rooftop? How does such a commission work?


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The government has done nothing. Rents have been steadily increasing and only the pioneer generation receives subsidies. This is wrong. In order to sustain the business, they should also subsidize our generation. If you don’t make it in the first six months, you’re gone. So there’s a problem, namely that there’s no assistance for young entrepreneurs. The least they could do would be to help us find manpower. It’s really hard to find people who want to work in the industry. All the elderly people aren’t getting younger right? We won’t have enough manpower anymore!

PONDERING OVER A HAWKER’S LIFE

CRAFTING WILDERNESS

The main issue in the business is the pricing of our local food. The raw material prices are increasing, rental is increasing, salary is increasing, but the selling price stays the same. For example, if I decide to sell fish ball noodles for five dollars, people wouldn’t buy it, because they have been eating the same food for three dollars for ten years already. Ten years ago, it was three dollars. It’s still three dollars now! Why? Other hawkers believe that if they increase their price, they will lose customers. Instead they should let them know that ingredient costs are increasing and the rent is increasing. How can we be sustainable like this? If I sell a dish for five dollars, there will be another guy coming next to my shop and offers the same for three dollars. So if the government would set a minimum price of five dollars for fish ball noodles, there would be some healthy competition. Everybody would work towards the quality. Today there are people who are killing the industry by selling cheap food. They don’t make a lot of money, but they open a lot of branches. Their logic is that if one stall makes one thousand dollars, then with ten stalls I’ll make ten thousand. These are the big organizations that have lots of funds. They have investors. We don’t. We don’t have the ability to open so many branches at once, because we are just one small company. This is the main issue that is affecting our local culture and our local heritage.

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

… A RELATIONSHIP WITH OUR LOCAL ARTISTIC COMMUNITY. …

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GLEN GOEI

ET While we are a national gallery, we are an arts institution as well. When we work with artists, we are not of the position that there are boundaries that artists cannot transgress. That is our starting point, but of course we work within society, which itself has limits as to what it can and cannot accept. It therefore is always a kind of moving boundary. MS As this museum opened only a couple months ago, can you give us some context about the beginning and initial motivation for this huge undertaking, as well as your own involvement? ET The project is over 10 years in the making, and was first announced in 2005. In fact, this project’s genealogy can be traced back to 1989, when the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts [ACCA] produced a report on how the arts scene in Singapore should be developed in the short, medium, and long term. That report established the National Arts Council, the National Heritage Board, as well as several museums, such as the Singapore Art Museum in 1996. It also said that we should also consider a larger museum such as a national gallery. Our genesis can be traced all the way back to that period. We first announced the gallery in 2005, and subsequently launched an architecture competition in 2007. Studio Milou Architecture from France, in collaboration with CPG Consultants Pte Ltd, was appointed in 2008, and construction started in 2011. I joined the project in 2013.


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200 PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

The National Heritage Board is helping us. Whenever there are events or a convention, they invite us to open up a booth or something like that. We take part in some tourism activities as well in order to share our stories with tourists. When you think about it though, why are these foreigners more interested in us than the locals? We take things for granted. It shouldn’t be the way! I can tell you that it’s the Singaporean mentality to treasure something only when it’s dying or already dead. In fact, it’s like this in many Asian countries, like Korea or Japan. Everyone thinks like this because of the amount of competition. “I need to secure my job. I need to make more money.” What happens is that you forget about love and you forget about culture. There is not much in Singapore. It’s not like we have any nature, it’s a boring city. It’s a good city to work in, to make money, but it’s not a good city to live your life. The pace is too fast. Everything is rush and rush and rush and rush. Only on weekends or holidays you get the chance to slow down a little bit. Your impression of a city like this as a tourist is always different. You’ll find Singapore a very nice place. But if you stay long enough, it’s just food. Yeah, it’s just food. Singapore is all about food. I was born in a very competitive country. Everybody is just studying, studying, studying, studying.

And all they know is: “I want to be the best in what I do!”

If you ask me about the culture in Singapore, I can tell you honestly that there is almost nothing. Chinatown used to be a place full of culture, but now it’s only Chinese tourists that go there. There’s a lot of people but nothing much to see, just shopping malls. For me, it just looks good from the outside. Singapore like to show that they have a lot of culture. My generation doesn’t know anything about our culture or about the story behind our food. They only care about whether the food is Instagram-friendly, they don’t really care about the history. Nowadays when you go to a young person’s Instagram, you will fancy delicious looking Japanese ramen, or an amazing dessert from some dazzling cafe or something like that.

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

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Since I came back to Singapore, I had been working primarily as a curator and an academic, running smaller arts spaces and teaching. The job that I did prior to the National Gallery was also related to policy, working with the Economic Development Board. That is when we worked on Lorenzo Rudolf’s Art Stage, as well as on Gillman Barracks. It was also part of a larger government plan and recognition that in order to have a vibrant arts scene, you need an ecology of different elements, each of which play an important role. Several different government agencies were enlisted in order to help develop the arts scene. Economic agencies such as the EDB were enlisted as well in order to develop the art fairs, the galleries. EUGENE TAN

… WE ALWAYS HAVE A STRATEGY BEHIND EVERY INVESTMENT.”

U5

MS Who are the stakeholders in the museum’s administration? ET It used to be that all museums came under the National Heritage Board, which was established in 1993 to oversee all public state museums in Singapore. They had a director and board which were both largely advisory, ultimately reporting to the chief executive of the National Heritage Board. In our case, like the Singapore Art Museum, we are now a corporatized entity. We report to an independent governing board which consists, among others, of members of the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth. It is a relationship that we are developing as we go, as we still depend on the ministry for 80% of our budget.


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“THAT IS WHY WE MADE SINGAPORE. …

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WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

WE WERE A POTPOURRI OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT PRACTICES

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GLEN GOEI

The government is looking to reduce this amount, and we are also investigating the patronage track because of this. Some of our major spaces have been named by large corporations, and we have raised about 100 million dollars so far. We are trying to build an endowment that will cover 10% of our operating cost initially. Ticket sales and other business revenue will make up the other 10%, and the rest will come from government subsidies. United Overseas Bank is one of our main sponsors, they have named our Southeast Asia gallery, and DBS Bank has named our Singapore gallery. The annual budget of the institution is something we are still working on. We had a separate budget for the pre-opening stage, but now that we have started operating, we still need to work out what our operating cost will be. Our projected budget is in the region of 60 –70 million dollars. MS In Hong Kong, there is a big buzz currently around the M+ Museum, which will change everything in the cultural landscape. How will this museum change the arts ecology here? ET Auction houses in particular have played a big role traditionally in defining the arts scene in Asia and Southeast Asia. Because of this, there was a realization that you need a museum, or similar institutions, that can validate what is happening, and not leave it entirely up to the market. That is where the public is watching to see how museums fit into the existing ecology and how it will function.


ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

… NATURE, AT YOUR SERVICE.”

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REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

BEH SWAN GIN

205

GLEN GOEI

EUGENE TAN

BENSON PUAH

DC Is the public in Singapore aware of the importance of an undertaking such as the National Gallery? ET The fundamental issue is that the public still lacks an understanding of the importance of art for our society. This is because historically the economy has always been the first priority. When the public does not understand the importance of art, then they naturally do not see the relevance of museums. That is where our education teams play a bigger role. We have an art education center aimed at building appreciation of art among younger audiences. They work in schools, and they work with the Ministry of Education to include more art in the curriculum as well. Education is thus a very important role for us right now. Until a few years ago, I would never hear parents support their children in studying art or art history, but now I hear it more often. I see this as part of a change taking place in society. MS Re-inhabiting the shells of old colonial buildings is an interesting approach. Do you think this is a message that is acceptable to Singaporean society? ET What is important is that the government is giving these two historically very significant buildings to an art museum. This shows that the government thinks that art is something important as well. It is seen more from this angle.


PONDERING OVER A HAWKER’S LIFE

CRAFTING WILDERNESS

206

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

BEH SWAN GIN

GLEN GOEI

207

MS Can you speak about how you have built up the collection?

WE ARE STILL UNDERSTANDING OUR ART HISTORIES THROUGH THE WESTERN PARADIGM

“WE DID NOT ASPIRE TO BE A PERFORMING ARTS VENUE ‌

U5

ET Our collection started in the 1960s with a donation of a few hundred works by a collector. The National Museum Art Gallery started in 1976, which subsequently expanded the collection. Then came the Singapore Art Museum in 1996, and now we have about 10 000 works of art in the National Collection. The collection is shared and divided between our museum and the Singapore Art Museum. We oversee here about 8 000 works, and they have custody over the rest. MS Do you have archives as well? ET Yes, we have a resource center, which is comprised of an art library, an archive of Southeast Asian art, prints, and drawings. There has been lots of talk here about how Southeast Asian art is still a very under-researched area, so we hope to be able to facilitate more research in this domain. We are also actively building an archive. One of the problems that has held back the scholarship of Southeast Asian art is that due to the challenges of our climate, a lot of documents do not exist. We are therefore trying to gather as much documentation about art as we can. We are digitizing archives of artists, families, institutions, and in some cases we have the physical documents as well.


208

Singaporeans don’t have a favourite hawker center. Every hawker center has good and bad stalls. Singaporean mentality is:

ANIKA ROSEN MICHELLE AKANJI ANGELA MEIER

PETRA TOMLJANOVIĆ

The longest queue will have the best food!

But sometimes the queue is long because the hawker is slow! [laughing] Look very carefully! If he’s working fast, he is serving fast, and the queue is still very long, you should go to the stall! We have a social network to keep in touch, to support, and to help out each other. We even have a “Generation-Y Hawker committee.” We have been coming up with different proposals to suggest, but haven’t received any response because the government is more interested in pleasing the whole community and we are just a small group of people. What they have forgotten is the fact that we are the ones who are preserving the hawker culture. If we don’t do it, who is? I hope I have the chance to educate the young people. Let’s forget about my generation, it’s hopeless. We can start with the younger ones though right? The ones in primary or secondary school! That’s why I’m giving talks. I’m giving speeches at schools. I’m sharing my articles with the teachers so they can teach the children about understanding street food culture. When they go back home they will say “Daddy, can you bring me to this place, I want to eat hawker food.” That’s what I had when I was young. My dad always brought me to different kinds of hawker places, which I always felt was very nice and very comforting. Nowadays they prefer to go to this new café or to that new restaurant. The food they serve, I don’t know, they would probably say to me that I can’t understand the food, but it’s just average food. It doesn’t help me to understand Singapore’s culture. It takes time to improve and to become better. We always start with what we like most so we don’t give up. That’s something I always share with young people. The passion must be there. If you are working for the money, just give up. All right!

REM KOOLHAAS MICHAEL SCHINDHELM CLAUDIO BUCHER

PHILIP URSPUNG

EIRINI SOURGIADAKI


GWEE LI SU

GLEN GOEI

MS How would you personally define nationalism in Singapore, which is a city-state with a huge pace of change, migration, and internationalization?

EUGENE TAN

‌ THAT WAS RANKED WITH ANY OTHER. IT IS IRRELEVANT.�

BEH SWAN GIN

209

ET A lot of countries became independent nations in the post-war period of the 1960s and 1970s. The countries here are still very young, and because of this, I think that while globalization has come, it has not changed how we think about nationalism. The diversity of Singapore is one of the cornerstones of our society. This is what distinguishes us from other countries in Southeast Asia. It is something that we hold very dear, and believe Singaporeans should embrace. Singapore should be thought of as a standalone geographic entity. The art that has developed here has developed within this independent space. The concept of Southeast Asia expands beyond this geographic constraint. MS Would you say that this concept of diversity defines the art of Singapore in the last 50 years? ET I would not say that you can see this. It is perhaps there, but it is not an overt characteristic of the art itself.


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Michelle Akanji has a BA in Journalism and Communications. She currently works as press officer at the Kunsthalle Zurich, and is finishing her MA in Cultural Analysis and Publishing Studies at the Zurich University of the Arts. Claudio Bucher studied Media Science, Journalism, and Modern German Literature in Fribourg, Switzerland, and finished his MA in Cultural Analysis and Publishing Studies at the Zurich University of the Arts in 2016. He lives in Zurich and works as a writer, composer, and music producer. Jennifer Ann Champion is a writer and performance poet based in Singapore. Damian Christinger is an independent curator, writer, and lecturer. He lives and works in Zurich. Deborah Emmanuel is a Singaporean writer, performer, and four-time TEDx speaker. Her works and dialogues have been featured at such festivals as Makassar International Writers Festival, Singapore Writers Festival, and Queensland Poetry Festival. Brandon Farnsworth completed his MA in Transdisciplinary Studies at the Zurich University of the Arts in 2015. He is now working on his PhD at the University of Music Carl Maria von Weber Dresden. He lives in Zurich and Berlin, working as a writer and music curator. Beh Swan Gin is the Chairman of the Economic Development Board of Singapore. Glen Goei is both a theatre and film director, as well as artistic co-director of the independent theatre company W!ld Rice. He lives and works in Singapore. Krispin Heé studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig before completing her diploma in design at the Bern University of the Arts. In 2008, she founded Studio Krispin Heé, and works in Zurich and Berlin. Shirin Hirsiger completed her BA in Art Education at the Zurich University of Arts, where she is now pursuing her MA in Art Education.

Geraldine Kang is an artist, publicist and lecturer. She lives and works in Singapore. Rem Koolhaas is a Dutch architect, architectural theorist, urbanist, author, and professor in practice of architecture and urban design at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Lawrence Lacambra Ypil is a poet and essayist from Cebu, Philippines. He received an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Washington University in St. Louis on a Fulbright Scholarship, and recently completed an MFA in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Iowa. He currently lives and works in Singapore. Angela Meier finished her BA in History and Applied Cultural Studies at the University of Lucerne, and is currently working on her MA in Cultural Analysis and Publishing Studies at the Zurich University of the Arts. Jason Pomeroy is an architect, master planner, academic, author, and TV personality. He is the Founding Principal of Singapore-based Pomeroy Studio— an urbanism, architecture, design, and research firm described as being at the “forefront of the green agenda.” Benson Puah is the Chief Executive Officer of the Esplanade and former CEO of the National Arts Council. Anika Rosen finished her Diploma in Typography and Book Art at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig, and is currently working on her MA in Curating and Museum Education at the Zurich University of the Arts. She lives and works as an independent designer in Zurich. Michael Schindhelm works today as a writer, film-maker, and researcher. He is based in Lugano and London. Eirini Sourgiadaki studied Sociology, Cultural Management, Greek, and English-American Poetry in Athens. She is now working on her MA in Transdisciplinary Studies at the Zurich University of the Arts. Gwee Li Sui is a poet, poetologist, and educator. He is also the author of the first graphic novel on Singapore “Myth of the Stone,” first published in 1993.

Eugene Tan received his PhD in Art History from the University of Manchester and is the Director of the National Art Gallery, Singapore. Kenneth Tay worked as an Assistant Curator at the National University of Singapore Museum before becoming an independent curator and editor based in Singapore. Petra Tomljanovic´ holds an MA in Art History and Literature from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, a CAS in Expressive Arts Therapy from the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, and a CAS in Curatorial Studies from the Zurich University of the Arts. She currently runs Kulturfolger, a curatorial-artist platform based in Zurich. U5 is a Swiss artist collective currently working as artists in residence for the project “Tourism and Cultural Heritage: A Study on Franz Junghuhn” at the Future Cities Laboratory, Singapore-ETH Centre. They live and work in Switzerland and Singapore. Philip Ursprung is professor for history of art and architecture at the ETH Zurich. He is also Principal Investigator of the project “Tourism and Cultural Heritage: A Study on Franz Junghuhn” at the Future Cities Laboratory, Singapore-ETH Centre, Singapore. Jason Wee is an artist, poet, and curator, and runs the Grey Projects independent art space in Singapore.

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Contributor Biographies


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Connecting Little Red Dots Had Claude Lévi-Strauss travelled to Southeast Asia instead of Brazil, as he did in the 1950s, he would have perhaps adopted the same mournful and resigned tone he did in Triste Tropiques. Singapore would have seemed like a soupy, sticky battleground of postcolonial exchange. It was a young nation, placed on a vulnerable archipelago, with a small British-oriented elite and an overabundance of penniless fishermen and domestic servants. Twenty years later, he would have encountered a scene of unprecedented urbanization. Singapore grew both out to sea, and up to the sky. The city’s new powerbrokers named their development strategy Vision 99, whose success saw people flocking to the small nation from not only the furthest corners of Asia, but eventually also the West. Singapore has emerged as a unique economic — and in many ways social  — project. Today, Singapore has the highest investment potential in the world. It is home to some 3 million locals, as well as roughly as many foreigners — a diverse mix of people who enjoy a standard of living that makes even residents of highly-developed Western nations envious. Happy Tropics? As Western nations struggling with political populism, an aging population, and economic stagnation face the frightening possibility of the demise of their social contract, Singapore is evolving their own way, developing what some call the “Guardian State”. Understanding culture as a mirror of society, instrument of national identification, and site for exchange with other cultures allows us to view it as a litmus test for the resilience of a societal concept. Is Singapore a viable alternative? We will never know what Lévi-Strauss would have said about this matter, but it is our intention to provide at least preliminary answers through a continuation of the research that we have set in motion with this book. Michael Schindhelm

Happy Tropics No. 1  

This book is an attempt to translate new understandings of transcultural connections into a dialogue. Happy Tropics I consists of two parts...

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