Sunday, February 26, 2012

Occupy Tiong Bahru: Sold Out / Goddess of Mercy

A response to the curation of Occupy Tiong Bahru
and the exhibition Goddess of Mercy (M1 Fringe Festival)


On Reading and Writing the Story of Tiong Bahru


The story of Tiong Bahru, as it has been presented to us in "High Quality Stories" (Occupy Tiong Bahru's catalog), is a story that is familiar to all. It tells a story of the tensions involved in gentrification and heritage tourism. It is a story about the problematic nature of commodifying this pure and "authentic" history, packaging it into something that can be sold to upwardly-mobile yuppies, young hipster professionals, and how these issues can be dealt with thoughtfulness, self-awareness, and aesthetically interpreted by a group of artists within the neighbourhood itself.

"These are real people, with real lives lived", Alan Oei's blurb to "High Quality Stories" reminds the visitor. "OH! is part of the gentrification process. But at the very least, let's uncover some of the stories that haven't been told in the race to annoint the place as the hippest neighbourhood in Asia..." Similarly, in her article entitled "Out with the Old", Adeline Chia writes that she despairs of the "cool" factor and the "familiar contradiction" of wanting it to be "cool enough, but still under the radar" so that other young professionals would not move into Tiong Bahru, causing an increase in the housing prices in the area. At one point, she writes: "I am a cliche laughing at a cliche."

No doubt that the above statements reveal the intention to display some self-awareness of one's complicity in the situation - something present in many of the pieces in the catalog and in the works - and also serves to explain and excuse oneself from the psychological burden of being part of this gentrification. I appreciate the attempt at candour, but personally I find that it is not an acceptable excuse. Because in the first place, there would be no need for these apologies if one did not participate in the business of turning histories, stories, and cities into commodity.

In his book entitled "Tristes Tropique", Claude Levi-Strauss wrote the story of his adventures through many "exotic" tropical locales in the course of his career as an anthropologist. The story that Levi-Strauss writes, is a story in which he observes that genuine 'travel' is increasingly being replaced by the motions of tourists moving though what he calls a "monoculture" - tourists attracted to tours and travel guide books which actually only "preserve the illusion of something that no longer exists". The assertion he makes in his memoir is that today we are faced with the appalling indictment of living in a cultural void, where there is actually no such thing as that nostalgic "vanished reality" and the treasures of history and heritage have actually already been long been plundered from its original site. In other words, "they" become more like "us" and lose their "other-ness" in the process of mutual contact via tourism.

While the original agenda of the Open House tours have been to promote a renewed interest in art and Tiong Bahru's local heritage, it is surely clear to many (yes, you self-aware, ever-so-slightly-hipster individuals) that the transactions involved may not necessarily be fueled by a genuine interest in local cultural traditions, but rather a desire to possess these things and to "live" the lifestyle through this voyeuristic lens into people's homes. Works like Lavender Chang's long exposure nude portraits of the homeowners in their bedrooms are said to be reflecting our voyeurism back at us, but could potentially be read by outside viewers as some kind of exhibitionism or self-indulgence (no offense meant to the homeowners, who so graciously let everyone tramp around their homes for two weekends, but this is simply to state the obvious of what would be the next alternative reading of the work).

What I suspect is that people presume that Tiong Bahru's heritage is somehow valuable (and hence frequently commodified as a designer lifestyle and consequently a hot property/rental zone) because we assume that anything from the past is more "authentic" than whatever is in the present, and that the present is to be seen as something that has lost this element of "authenticity" (and thus devalued). Not surprisingly, visitors and reviewers of Occupy Tiong Bahru appeared interested to see how the artists' works would respond or react to the hidden histories of the area. Meanwhile this forms the paradox - as the overarcing storyline presented by Occupy Tiong Bahru openly tells the visitor that the artistic reinterpretation and subsequent response to Tiong Bahru via the Occupy Tiong Bahru project is "part of the gentrification process" - in other words, it suggests that the artistic reinterpretation of works in houses in Tiong Bahru is complicit in desacralising that which had once been a "real" and "authentic" Tiong Bahru.

The next paradox that emerges as a result of this is that we would not be able to value or appreciate the concept of the "authentic" without this rampant and flagrant circulation of "fake" copies/approximations of the "original" thing. Yet, we can only confirm the "authentic" as having that "authenticity" only if it has re-entered the market of commodities (and thus becoming available for the consumer to buy it and only then to have to evaluate it for this concept of the "authentic"). Therefore I come to the conclusion that this obsession for the authentic is actually created only when one participates in this business of commodifying histories, stories, and heritage.

The easiest way to stop this madness and escape this paradoxical, never-ending loop of desiring a "vanished reality" would obviously be to stop focusing on the question of "authenticity" and what is "real". This is perhaps where I do not fully agree with the overall direction taken in presenting it as a paradox, from the "tongue-in-cheek" title that, as it turns out, did not really engage with the relevance of the Occupy movement halfway across the globe, to the very mention of "prestige anxiety"; which can be said to be predicated on one's insecurity of the market valuation of these "relics" of Tiong Bahru.

I find it far more useful and also far more important to stop focusing on the commodification, and instead use this an opportunity to question how we construct authenticity - or even how we can construct multiple authenticities.

We need no reassurances of the quality of these stories, or discussions on quality or authenticity. For me, I reckon that it is more important to show works that inspire and encourage others to write their own stories. There is no need to focus on the missing gaps of the story or the fragmentation of "reality" in the space between past and present - I would rather read it as a sort of call-to-action for Singaporean artists and curators to go and fill it in by themselves!


Walking away from the guided tour

As one of the last tours that Saturday night, our group faced a number of logistical problems as many previous groups had been delayed and we were forced to visit the houses in a desultory fashion. We also had to wait over ten minutes outside each flat. Certainly we were there to "occupy" Tiong Bahru's various corridors for unseemingly long periods of time. I am not bothered by having to deviate from the proscribed order of landmarks on a tour, neither do I mind a little waiting, however, a combination of logistical errors also revealed general attitudes amongst people here with regards to how they approach and explore new spaces - and this made me despair.

We had arrived late at the umpteenth flat, so our guide had led us to a clearing outside the house, where we could watch it from what appeared to be a respectful distance. It was clear that the wait would take several minutes as the group before us was not yet done, so I meandered off the pavement into the grass under the trees, and I found a severely chewed-up rat trap, a pear-shaped orange-coloured fruit (that was not an orange), and a moderately thick tree branch that had somehow managed to grow itself into a perfect 90 degree angle, like a pipe with a perpendicular joint.

Even in the most unremarkable terrains, I always like to think that curiosities can still emerge, from the tiniest slivers of clues we can begin the process of building whole narratives. The point of exploration, I think, is to find a way to alter the everyday experience of place into something different every single time. To approach everything as if you had never been there before, even if you have been there a million times, and to force yourself to relinquish the complacency of saying to yourself, "I expect it'll be the same picture and the same story all over again so there's no point looking at what's around me."

chicken in a bush

Once, on one of these meanders, I even found a rooster in a bush.

After this little meander, I returned to the sight of my tour group still crowded together, standing and waiting helplessly on the pavement. A middle aged woman clutching her handbag walked past the group, observing what must have been an unusual sight of a crowd of people standing on the pavement, facing the entrance of a building some metres away. It simply seemed utterly absurd that everyone was perched atop this concrete pavement between two large, expansive patches of grass. I believe at this point our well-meaning but increasingly flustered tour guide was also trying to reel in the attentions of our group by periodically offering up nuggets of charming but textbook-sounding histories, but by this point it had honestly gone all pear-shaped for me. I was equally exasperated by what looked like a "self-kettling" by the attendees of this Occupy, which was being reinforced by the manner in which the tour was being conducted by our guide. People stood silently waiting their turn before going into the houses briefly to take a few "snaps". This was utterly bewildering to me (and perhaps exacerbated by logistical constraints) - because I thought, weren't we all here because we wanted to explore Tiong Bahru?

I pointed to the strange division between concrete pavement and grass and asked, "Why are you all standing on the pavement! You could walk on the grass or stand on it!"

I've realised that the part of the city that is significant to me is off the map and off the path - and this is probably explains why I am so interested in cartography. And something that Iain Sinclair had written in a commentary about the London Olympics also came to mind. Some months ago I had read an interview in which Sinclair mentioned that one of his book covers involved a picture of a pilgrim "stooped under a rucksack, reading as he walks". He had described walking as "a form of reading, in the same way you can read a painting, or landscape." He wrote: "The way to explore London’s territory initially was walking, which involved a burden of other people’s knowledge. So the rucksack represents this unread mass of material. Not just fictions, but testaments, documentation, statistics, obliterated council papers, adverts."

I completely agree with this idea of walking as reading, but I recalled distinctly that I took issue with the fact that within the same article, Sinclair had voiced a belief that the urban writer (who conceived of his prose as inspired by the city and while walking along) was going to die out, only to be replaced by the jumpy image-sampling internet writer - which he also seemed to suggest was inadequate of being able to produce the same kind of complex, textured prose that Sinclair himself had produced in his career as a writer. My gut response to this at the time was that it was inaccurate to say so - because I was of that internet generation, and this hadn't stopped me from walking or looking for those "magical, obscure places". But now I see his point in all this. It is not the internet that he was actually taking issue with, but the very "culture of listing, exposing, producing the guidebook", abetted by the internet and mobile technologies, that is stopping people from walking. Sure, I hadn't stopped walking despite being connected to the internet, but this could not be said of everyone else. The Internet was enabling people to find exactly what they wanted, and in doing so, indirectly preventing them from taking the long route on foot to find what they wanted.

Likewise, the guided tour experience draws a line from point A to point B and in doing so, allows the tourist to skip everything inbetween - when in fact the more important discovery was to be made in the spaces between, this "conjunctive loci" of the ellipsis written into the story . . .

In those seemingly empty spaces between those points lie the most interesting part of the city, waiting for us to find them and fill in the blanks.


Goddess of Mercy

Before going to see Occupy Tiong Bahru, we went to see Alecia Neo's installation "Goddess of Mercy" at The Substation. In my view, this was almost a microcosm of Occupy Tiong Bahru - in that it was also bringing audiences into a representation of "rustic" (Bukit Timah) or "shophouse" (Queenstown) living spaces.

To be honest, I believe that which is sacred remains sacred because it is not put on display and remains outside of circulation. It also certainly does not need to made digestable, or to be re-presented in the context of art and set down right in front of the audience. We often talk of this issue of making things or viewpoints "accessible to an audience" - especially in the context of Singaporeans' level of art appreciation" - but I do not think we need to simplify anything at all at this point if Singapore is to develop into a nation of people who are able to think for themselves.

Part of "Goddess of Mercy" featured Dr Nalla and her son Tan Ying Hsien, whose house was also the site of Alecia and Clarence Chung's previous exhibition, where they "restaged" the family's own photographs in their own home before it was going to be demolished.


There is a video of Dr Nalla Tan being pushed in her wheelchair - showing her in a state of deterioration from Alzheimer's where she has become nothing but a pale, uncommunicative shadow of her former self. The very fact that she is no longer able to speak as Dr Nalla Tan worries me because it is her life being "restaged" as art without her ability to give her consent. Many younger audiences will be unfamiliar with Dr Nalla Tan's former role as a feminist, her being one of the first to talk about sex education in Singapore, and being one of the first females to become a doctor in Southeast Asia. These were roles and parts she had actively played in her life without expecting an audience. So why bring the audience in to see this now? I can only say that I did not understand the motivations behind this entire nostalgia trip.

The re-staging of the living spaces within the gallery as if they were a "shrine" to the memory of the living, while the living (Dr Nalla Tan) are actually still alive but unable to agree or disagree or comment on it, is simply problematic to me.

Again, bringing people directly from point A to point B - such as in the case of recreating two spaces in the same gallery in order to "equip" the audience with "visual library" with which to explore the question of faith, health and disappointment is to me a facetious suggestion at best. I find it to be a visual library of commodified symbols, not so different from the Peranakan-themed restaurant next door satisfying people's desire to purchase heritage and authenticity in their lives in a situation where things are increasingly less real.

Again, this is akin to a "guided tour experience" which has already drawn a line from point A to point B - or in this case, brought point A and point B and recreated them in this gallery, allowing visitors to become lazy by skipping that the crucial journey required in trying to understand these things.

I feel that it is important especially for art about spaces and memory to encourage people to make the journey and the walk on their own if we are to move on from the constant state of paradoxes into a more productive phase of identity-making for Singapore.

Singapore and Singaporean art needs to have more critical engagement of the issue of how and what we choose to we define as "historic" or "memorable", and who gets to define these things. Who will write our stories in the years to come? And who are the stories written for? I would love to see more curators and artists pushing themselves harder to deal with these issues, because I feel that is the only way to really move forward and take control of the present.


As this entire blog is written in the spirit of promoting criticality, discussions and comments would be more than welcome.

Additional Note #1: This response is predominantly regarding the overall presentation of the works rather than the specifics of any of the individual artists and their works shown at Open House; it should be obvious to anyone who attended Occupy Tiong Bahru that the context and location overwhelmed most of the artwork placed within the houses itself so it seemed more logical to write about that first - I will try to write about individual works in a separate entry.


damnko said...

hey debbie. didn't manage to catch Occupy Tiong Bahru so no comments there, but i must say that i do appreciate Goddess of Mercy's (and before that, Villa Alicia's) efforts to re-inscribe Dr. Nalla Tan's contributions back into our memory in a heartfelt manner.

i agree with you that there's no point in making work "accessible to an audience", if we are to become (even more) independent in thought. but i think that the other thing to remember is how much we forget, as a young nation, and how much of so-called re-remembering that is going on now is often couched in empty, pointless nostalgia that actually facilitates the ruining of memories. preserving things online, for example, could actually be used as a justification of their destruction offline.

as you mention, dr. tan prior to these 2 exhibitions was only known to a certain generation of s'poreans. but i would argue that even in her time, she actively cultivated an audience through her books and ST column, whether knowingly or not. they were often combative in tone, and she was outspoken not only about feminism and sex education but also about minority rights, in a time when these were (and still are) shoved under the carpet.

granted, the fact that she's in a late stage of Alzheimer's and is unable to directly communicate her approval/disapproval of the exhibitions is troubling. but for me, the involvement of her son in this makes up for it. if i'm not wrong, he was the one who suggested it too. the voyeur factor was perhaps more pronounced in the first exhibition, which actually took place in the actual house, but for me it was sensitively and tastefully done (dr. tan was never around, for example), and it didn't feel wrong to be to be invited in.

i also felt the element of smell was very evocative, as jusdenanas pointed out:

and in true s'porean style, i will end off by saying: just my two cents worth.


Kent said...

Debbie: I am writing my own review of OH! as a response to your review of the event.

I think one of the first few things that we need to delineate when addressing OH! is the curation of the event from the artworks made in response to Tiong Bahru. Does OH! itself seek to address and circumvent the gentrification of Tiong Bahru or does it seek to commit the same perpetration by sanctifying itself through admittance of its own complicity?

One can only speculate on intentions, although the usage of “Occupy”, however tongue-in-cheek is telling. Situationist International had already observed how reactionaries simply assimilate and commodify left-wing subversive critique into official culture so as to depower them. “Occupy” in this instance seems a textbook example of such a practice.

Going through the OH! tour to the various venues in Tiong Bahru, we are invited to enter and view the artworks within six apartments and one temple. When one enters these stylish “yuppie” apartments to view the artworks (many made in reaction to the space and Tiong Bahru) one finds it hard to view these works in isolation from the space, as it rightly shouldn’t be. What is unfortunate about this though, is that rather than subverting the space or working in tandem with it, the artwork instead gets engulfed and become subservient to these apartments and the context of the artworks gets lost.

What stood out from the event and its guided tour approach are the apartments. The basis and potency of contemporary art often lay in its advocacy of ones own agency, which sadly gets lost in OH! and the artworks that it showcased.

The topics of gentrification and nostalgia surrounding Tiong Bahru, is reflected in the usage of contemporary art and emphasis on history in OH!. Past and present interweaved as a conundrum, tied in a Gordian knot. But is such a situation really insurmountable?

In the 60s, the architectural movement in Japan, Metabolism proposed and envisioned architecture as impermanent and flexible structures that would adapt, expand and grow to accommodate to changes to urban lifestyles like an organism. One of the most famous realized project by the group is the Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) in Tokyo by Kisho Kurokawa. Adhering to Metabolism’s manifesto, the architect of the tower, Kurokawa had once proposed that no buildings should last for more than 30 years and should be demolished after said duration. What Kurokawa propose is architecture with its end in mind.

Just like Japan, in space-starved Singapore, buildings rarely last longer than 30 years. In fact, in the last decade, buildings are being torn down as fast as they are being built. Buildings are given its birth certificate and its obituary upon inception. One ponders what equates to permanence if the landscape is permanently in flux.

What we have is a growing archive and history of lost spaces and buildings. As a result, Singapore’s is no longer perceivable in the present, but also the past, through archiving and historicizing. The past and present superimposed on one another. Fundamentally then, despite interweaving the past and present together, the problem with OH! lies in its separation of the past and present into two separate historical narratives as opposed to seeing it as one - a superimposition of temporality.

Rather than looking at commodity and consumerist culture, which is about the “now” so as to prevent its own obsolesce. The question and its answer lies in the future, both of which is sorely missed in OH!. By not providing suggestions of a way ahead, OH! present a past and present that is already lost, retarding and preventive of what is to come.

Nihilistic as it may be, Metabolism for me then, is a movement that offsets this conundrum. Metabolism always looked ahead and planned for the future, even if the future does take the form of a cultural and historical vanishing point.

debbie ding said...

Hey Dan! Thanks for your comment. I missed Villa Alicia so am not privy to comment on that directly, however, from what one can see from the work at The Substation alone, it would not be apparent to anyone else what was the significance of Dr Tan's previous contributions to society. Even her son's approval of the project does not make less problematic for me, because I find that it is already a rewriting of the story, and a particular kind of rewriting of story as some kind of meta story of forgetting vs remembering....

and if history and memory is going to be dealt with retrospectively and from the perspective of art, then I think I'd honestly rather see outrageous, outright blatant revisionist histories - rather than to see attempts to reinscribe memory "as true as they once were" with the sense of "return to nostalgia" and a touch of "fragility" around it.... etc....

Because we never lived that memory. We're too young for this kind of nostalgia. So if we are going to flog the proverbial dead horse of the "time/memory paradox", then by all means go and flog it with a big decorative stick, and don't pretend the memory is fragile (which it is, and anyone coming from a time after that can't help but step all over it anyway...

I suppose in simpler terms, a work that says "memory is fragile" while rewriting the story really irritates me. It's like someone else coming over, picking a scab off your knee, and then saying "Oh dear you're bleeding! That must hurt!"

Does that make any sense?
(Just my two cents worth as well...)

debbie ding said...

Hello Kent,

Thank you for your reply. I did find it odd that not many have mentioned the usage of "Occupy" in reviews - or few had been really outraged enough. I suppose this might mean that the assimilation and the disempowerment of the term "Occupy" is complete in Singapore then. (Even I hadn't seized on it with as much urgency because I was already resigned to the way the word would be twisted out of context here)

The concept behind Metabolism sounds great. I like that picture of buildings receiving their birth and death certificate all at the same time. Listhold properties and plots of land here also have a clock ticking on them in that sense. Sometimes they are even speeded up with enblocs. In a way, certificates, archival records, and even recorded stories become almost more important than the actual thing itself because they are the only consistent way of reading the historical narrative. BUT, not to be forgotten is the fact that when we are in the present, we can also actually live and read the present environment as part of this (continuously increasing) narrative (or cultural/historical vanishing point).

(But...... how do we make more people see this? Why is the sense of continuity always getting lost in so many things? To put the question back to the original context - is it in the way in which artists tend to be trained here? is it the education here? is it the way in which history is kinda flat here, or people feel no vested interest in being able to shape the history here?)

Completely agree on the importance of looking to the future rather than at present paradoxes of consumerism. I'd say then that it is time to put our money where our mouth is (excuse the money pun) and make more work that reflects that. So, are you going to make something soon? :-D

Kent said...

Re: (But...... how do we make more people see this? Why is the sense of continuity always getting lost in so many things? To put the question back to the original context - is it in the way in which artists tend to be trained here? is it the education here? is it the way in which history is kinda flat here, or people feel no vested interest in being able to shape the history here?)

Well like I said, we have a strong commodity and consumerist culture and consumerist items are essentially permeated with the "now". It is meant to be fashionable. So to do so, it is an object that avoids the future to prevent becoming obsolete.

And then there is the problem with commodities, which although may involve long term planning, is essentially an item meant to be traded. I wonder if it is any surprise that ourselves and Hong Kong are primarily pivotal centres of trading, to actually cultivate such a culture.

From e-flux: Boris Groys wrote of installation practices that they “reveal the materiality and composition of the things of our world.” Translation of the language of things begins with the actualization of the commodity through display. As much as it is common to discuss the master artist as one who knows materials—someone who converses with them intimately—the function of both the master artist and the curator today is to know the material from which all materials are made—the commodity.

Goddess of Mercy as an assemblage of consumer items and as an installation, is made by an artist that does not seem to know that commodity is “the material from which all materials are made”. The history evoked by the installation is just like the materials of the items within the installation – non-perishable. These item do not undergo true death and/or decay, but simply waste away in a zombified manner. To evoke history with these material without understanding the material presents a mockery of a person's history.

Is it not symptomatic and problematic the way that Dr. Tan is paraded on her wheelchair as she is in the video?

Dan: Sorry, I have to side with Debbie on this and disagree with you.

Anyway, I think education is already slowly becoming a commodity. Universities used to be institutions that safeguards a country's culture and history, but increasingly it is seen as an investment.

What's left then is... politics... I think as we all know, our education here simply does not pay emphasis, in fact, it tries to avoid political awareness.

Funny, 10 years of studying history in pre-tertiary education and I can't seem to ever recall the idea of politics being evoked.

How do I think we as artist could evoke change? That's why I'm starting the journal, no? And yeah, I'm going to be making works soon ;)