Singapore Contemporary Young Artists

Playing With & For The Community

urban body speaks/ the search for identity in singaporean post-republic art

Caroline Ward
United Kingdom/ Singapore

Before the 1960s, Singapore was dramatically different. And the PAP sought to establish Singapore as modern, efficient, clean and economically successful, by shifting away from the reliance on trade and import/export. Lee Kuan Yew said in his autobiography, ‘to achieve First World standards in a Third World region, we set out to transform Singapore into a tropical garden city’. He acknowledges that transforming a city is easier to do through urban regeneration than through social transformation; and that the latter generally follows the former.

If they were going to embrace modernity, it needed to be done drastically. This brought about the policy of ‘tabula rasa’ (blank slate), as imagined by Le Corbusier. Architectural change became a kind of visual metaphor for the shift in Singapore’s identity, represented by the new public housing schemes and transportation links that were built. Little regard was paid to the previous town

plans. In a short time, Singapore had ‘demolished virtually 70% of its existing urban fabric and created a new (one) entirely unrelated to traditional architecture, streetscape, and mixed-use districts that had traditionally characterized Singapore.’ (Johnson 2008).

The possibilities of tabula rasa meant the PAP were able to able to pragmatise issues of both social and personal identity. Stability and permanence becomes irrelevant in the need to maximise utility. The city becomes ‘less a place where history is physically inscribed and architecturally intact than the site of an endless cycle of erasure and reconstruction’ (Yeo 2003). This is one of the strongest themes to occur across Singaporean contemporary art, in visual arts, theatre, and exhibitions.

Artists such as Francis Ng have taken the idea a step further. He deals with the need to constantly readdress the meaning of space. He forces us to ‘reconsider our own concept of what a space is’, and to ‘reinterpret the information we take in passively’ (De Grandis 2003). Artist Michael Lee addresses the policy of tabula rasa more directly, by creating small scale models in memory of buildings that have been demolished. He believes that they act as silent protests ‘not against the physical erasure of architectures from public space per se but against their untracked disappearance from history; they are physical testaments to a phantom city of architectures once planned, made, used and later erased from public memory’. Where architectural models are used to ‘visualise a new special project to be completed in the future’, his ‘point backwards’, miniature mourning sites designed to provoke memory and nostalgia.

It is interesting to see how this theme has reached across the art world, and filtered into areas such as graphic design, writing and photography. Graphic novelist Troy Chin’s ‘The Resident Tourist’ deals with his returning to live in Singapore after being abroad for several years; his artwork depicts a city of Singaporeans ‘in flux, trying to negotiate their identity amidst a change that comes at too fast a pace’ (Kang 2011). He is keen to explore the transition of Singapore and the minor details that are continuously upgraded, meaning that even a Singaporean can one day turn around and not recognise a local landmark. The title ‘Resident Tourist’ refers not only to himself but to anyone who has suffered the loss of a familiar landscape.

Photographer and writer Kurt Ganapathy’s choice of medium, a photograph, implies that these structures can only be caught at a certain moment. There is no guarantee they will last. ‘Closing the Gates on Bukit Brown’ depicts Bukit Brown Cemetery, a landmark due to be demolished to make way for an eight-lane highway. He uses the visual metaphor of a doorway to symbolise two things: the passing of life to death, and the passing of modern Singapore through history. It provokes the viewer to ask whether we will be able to remember the site once it has been built over, or if future historical narrative will reduce it to a simple photograph. (Ng 2012)

The key to Singapore’s search for identity seems to be a compromise between an economic drive, and the need for ‘shared emotions, shared memories and a shared history’ (Ganapathy 2012) from its people. With a constant uprooting, Singapore seems to exist in a state of flux. Too young as a nation to have fully developed an identifiable visual culture, yet, the relentless pace of regeneration implies a stable identity might never be fully realized.

While we are yet to see the limits of urban restructuring being challenged in Singapore, we can invest some hope in a younger generation of Singaporeans, and particularly those involved in the shaping of Singapore’s cultural and aesthetic future. The possibility to ask questions such as ‘Who am I? How far does the history of my city, my country, my class, and my culture, define me? And how much free will do I have?’ (De Grandis 2003) will expand the discourse on Singapore’s visual culture and heritage.

‘Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images: they, in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, then soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.’ (Low 2003, 50)


#10, the last in a series of written perspectives on how the urban and the body manifest in the other, in a running accompaniment to the visual art exhibition called, well, urban body. Nine artists present visual provocations—in a bid to expose and make tangible the cityscapes of our formed selves.

A published compilation of both art and essay is available at the exhibition.


urban body runs 2 august – 2 september 2012 at the Orange Thimble, in Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s first housing estate. For details and updates, check out the event page on facebook.

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This entry was posted on August 31, 2012 by in Others.

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