Playing With & For The Community
Past, from the Present Tense
at the red dot design museum
6 -11 May 2010
text: Melanie Chua
photo credit: Kimberly Shen
EXHIBITION might be too banal a word to describe the memories spun at Imprints. A first-time collaboration by Yesterday.sg and Singapore Contemporary Young Artists, Imprints hosted artworks by eight artists, each offered deep alternative insights into a past too often dismissed as bland and brief, usually reduced to three key players and three ‘big moments’ (1).
The National Heritage Board (NHB) launched Yesterday.sg in March 2006. Three years later came a revamp, the museum blog evolved to be a social media portal, where both contributors and visitors contribute to the archival of history even as they discover it. Yesterday.sg has since become a curious synthesis of both art and heritage, nostalgia and history in a way that the 47-year-old nation has never had, or perhaps enjoyed, before. It has amassed a unique collection not to be found in any history book or official archive.
This theme was brought alive at red dot design museum (2). Besides proving memories to be potent sources of inspiration, SCYA artists also revealed art to be capable, powerful keepers of history.
The irony of the location was not lost on Angela Chong. Researching Red Dot Museum meant journeying into its colonial past as the old Traffic Police Headquarters. A haunting projection of the bars of an old detention cell held vigil before old documents flat-opened on a table. ‘Dog Days are Over’ is a succinct pun, alluding to an authority inherited, and sometimes contended, by her generation.
Looking back meant also turning another direction for Soh Ee Shaun. Instead of bright illustrations, a video projected old childhood photographs spanning 1978 to 1986. Soh acknowledges the imperfection of memory. “The original was supposed to be a series of drawings, which I eventually didn’t use. It was almost as if I was trivialising history through the drawings,” Shaun said.
Alternatively funny and poignant, the sequence seems a fitting for an educational tour. A couple of loops later, and it becomes a searing peek into the dark halls of a very personal memory. And back at us – old manners and bygone objects cast a silent echo of recurring memories over the exhibition.
The kino-eye was also a conspirator in Tay Jiun Lin’s collection of history. He photographs a handmade quilt, religious artifact, a simple bowl of sweet potato congee. These personally relate to his grandmother. However, while the style seems starkly straightforward, we’re at once reminded of our ‘not knowing’. Tay explains, “I am drawn to the obscure relationship between the older generation (and us)… Where everyone seems to be ‘futuristic idealists’, what the past offers becomes rather ambiguous.” Where do we come from? Who are we? Who were they? It takes an unabashed eye to recognize ourselves in simple inanimate objects.
And ourselves is exactly what Hilmi Johandi remembers in 2nd Hand Tearjeaker. His rich oil painting of a kopitiam scene evokes the emotion of a moment long gone, now treasured and recollected. As poet Cesare Pavese wrote (3), ‘We do not remember days, we remember moments’.
Where Johandi was lush, personal and fluid, Aiman Hakim’s Misfired is a hard, and determinedly humorous paradox. Kendolls, toy bullets, army uniforms – fragments of his youth sit uneasily in military formation – a ‘Senang Diri’ most Singaporean males would know, fondly or not, but always nostalgically.
Two soldiers stand out in their red caps forming pillars of tension, while resolutely standing behind. “Almost trying to be different, yet at the same time, attempting their very best to blend in, very much a reflection of how I felt like growing up,” Hakim says. Catch yourself as you admire the fine precision of his brush-strokes and be aware; the same organizational principle still gathers all in its order, shaping lives and history.
Jacqui Rae returns to the basic tangible unit of a memory. Ceramic bowls hold old contact lens, strands of hair, petals, and the once ubiquitous childhood stalwart, blood red saga seeds… Each bowl is laid a respectful distance from the other, yet forming an intimate whole. Shards of ceramic separate the viewer from the collected ‘memories’. But are we not all, separated by different thoughts and strained from different memories.
Amidst the archived memories, Kelvin Atmadibrata performs a ‘tea ceremony’ in homage to the land he has called home for the past 8 years. Kelvin says he has ‘turned Singaporean’. “My earliest memory of the country is its educational system which has replaced the memory of the school I attended back in Jakarta”. Examination certificates completely soaked in a huge jar of tea, Kelvin sits back with a packet of Mamee. Contemplation or irreverence, both signal a bond branded by experience and time.
Jacklyn Soo holds a collective reminisce in what seems a childlike arrangement of a heart – at first sight. Chalk drawings hang as scratchy representations of places and objects, either demolished, obsolete, or ‘re-zoned’. Soo suggests the relics of the past live on in the mind’s eye, but only as imperfect fragments. “I am constantly pressured and challenged by the construction of buildings and ‘home’.” Nostalgia is secondary here to necessity. History informs the future.
(1) Sang Nila Utama, Sir Stamford Raffles, Lee Kuan Yew can be seen as the three figures who heralded Singapore’s progression from quaint fishing village to bustling trade-colony (which fell to occupiers in WW2) to aspiring cosmopolitan city-state.
(2) red dot design museum was opened in Singapore in 2005. This was also when envisioned a vibrant arts culture for the city-state.
(3) His published diaries, 1935 to 1950. The Burning Brand.