A Forage into the Heart of Gentrified Tiong Bahru

by Cheryl Lim Xin Rong

May’s Open House! at Tiong Bahru addressed its visitors’ innate voyeuristic need to peep into private spaces. Quite an over-subscribed event, I found myself amongst those bent on overcoming the sweltering heat and arduous wait to qualify for a chance to experience gentrified Tiong Bahru on an intimate level. What better way for art and culture to co-exist, than art conceived with communal spaces as canvasses?

Indeed, while this removal from traditional gallery presentation (and consequent transposal onto lived space) adorned some works with legitimacy and heightened potency, others were relegated wallflower status. In groups, we- the art appreciators- were literally running through Tiong Bahru, trying to get a sizeable bite off every art object on display. Because of the crowd, there was no real time for true artistic mastication either. Naturally, the pieces that fell flat rarely signaled a cause for re-appraisal.

Some, like Lavender Chang’s Unconsciousness: Consciousness, were a recurring motif in the houses we were allowed intrusion into. Chang’s ethereal, nude long-exposure portraits of the home-owners asleep exhibit the tracking of time and the subsequent change it effects, much of which goes by unnoticed. At once, these images became moving statements- because of their close proximity to the owners’ bedrooms that the viewer was allowed to experience in the flesh, engendering an increased intimacy. Admittedly though, the initial affinity towards the pieces began to get lost as the photographs in the series became repetitive and almost disconnected, capable of existing disjointed from each other.

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Unconsciousness: Consciousness, Lavender Chang

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Den of Beauties, Marc Gabriel Loh

While Chang points at a sublime experience in her transient images, it would have been strengthened if properly contextualized within the immediate environment, preventing her work from falling into the subsidiary zone of ‘art in the home’, as opposed to art of the home.

An accidental product of Chang’s series, which surely did not appear to be part of the aesthetic experience she had envisioned prior, was the beauty in physically experiencing the course of real time as we moved through the estate. This immediately relates to her images. Observing the changes in light as the sun set to make way for evening, very much in line with Chang’s treatment of form relative to light, engendered an experience tied to the core of cultural change in Tiong Bahru- the changing landscape from past to present.

Elsewhere, Marc Gabriel Loh’s Den of Beauties offers a more grounded, culturally-rich interpretation of Tiong Bahru. Hidden in an “attic” that viewers have to climb a ladder to confront, Loh accesses the obscured past of the area. In the installation, he gives form to a counter-narrative with a two-headed cheongsam-clad woman and a phonograph in a room bathed in eerie scarlet light. Addressed are the hidden dualities between the legitimate history of Tiong Bahru and the stories about the kept women who formerly lived there. Kudos to Loh for the interactivity and integrating the element of surprise, but might his ‘filmic’ installation border too heavily on the theatrical, providing lackluster returns for the hungry voyeuristic gaze? The emotional response from the viewer scurrying to and from artworks is very much curtailed.

The most powerful and poignant works in the show dealt very aptly with the socio-historical context of the area. Green Zeng’s Mother Tongue was the only overtly ’political’ work, expounding on how linguistic policies have oppressed and reconstructed cultural identity. Specifically, the substitution of minority dialects by an official spoken language of higher status (Mandarin). Zeng highlights the use of language as a homogenizing force that culturally binds different dialect groups in Singapore. While serving to eliminate boundaries between various dialect groups, it erases culturally significant traits that identify permutations within the larger ‘Chinese’ brand.

As a device to exhibit the tension between the status quo (imposed language) and the dialect (language of heritage), Zeng cleverly inverts original catch-phrases and slogans used by the government to sell the Chinese language in the ‘Speak Chinese’ campaign.

The criticism of the younger generation’s clear disassociation and overt incompetence at spoken dialects innate to their heritage is also a resounding facet of the piece. Next, Zeng utilized site-specificity to its fullest- the external window display of Chinese characters, almost like a silent billboard, is a clever and attention-grabbing gimmick he employs in advertising this ‘imposed regime’ of sorts. Specific usage of both the exterior and interior of the house, as well as Tiong Bahru as a locale, made way for an illuminating, acute appraisal of a cultural condition.

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Wishing Well, Patrick Storey

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Mother Tongue, Green Zeng

Conversely, there were also works that struck a blank chord. Patrick Storey’s Wishing Well was a most confusing moment, an installation that seemed estranged from its immediate environment and the larger concept of OH! altogether. Conceived with kitschy ‘family-project’ aesthetics, complete with fairy lights and plastic slide made to mimic a fountain, this was as a confounding appropriation of the Duchampian readymade.

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Matter and Principle, Gilles Massot & Mark Wong

Personally, the most refreshing and resonating artwork was Matter and Principle by Gilles Massot and Mark Wong. Apart from the superb explanation of the piece from artist Massot himself, who was both engaging and precise in ways that made up for our tour guide’s conspicuous lack, this piece saw the artists honor tradition, culture and heritage in a new-media art piece that was artistically intriguing. They have indeed dug deep in their understanding of the subject matter, successfully reviving tradition instead of exoticising culture.

Here, iPhones function as screens placed in a hierarchical order to depict the Taoist understanding of the universal stratum. Complete with objective photographical documentation of everything that identifies Tiong Bahru, the form of the piece itself aptly underscores the larger artistic concept.

Matter and Principle truly serves as a ‘realigner’ of perspectives, honing the way the audience sees, revealing a forgotten facet of heritage, but allowing for its rich historical content to speak for itself and no part of the artwork was a convenient product of Orientalism. Additionally, the light installation within the temple paid homage to the craft of Chinese papercuts in the visual language employed to depict the Monkey God’s travails. The audio playback in Chinese of the temple’s owner narrating its formative years served only to locate the piece further.

In all, it was a spectacular dialogue between mythology, religion and human devotion that deserves acclaim for its exhibition in the most truthful, un-pretentious manner. It was the honesty of the presentation, its clarity, as well as its capacity to reside comfortably in its setting without attempting to over-aestheticize itself that made it a brilliant piece on many levels. If there were particular highlights of OH! that deserve mention, it was precisely the ability to recognize this aspect that defined the success and legitimacy of some artworks. While I began the OH! journey with a child-like fervor for discovery, of exploring uncharted terrains and of being rewarded with unexpected gems, the experience did fall short of itself, owing to art pieces conceived in and of themselves, with too perfunctory a link to the rich setting they were steeped in.

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