Archive
July, 2015 Monthly archive

Points of View
Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

In John Clang’s image “Dragon playground”, from his series The Land of My Heart for TwentyFifteen.sg, five women dressed in Singapore Airlines (SIA) stewardess uniforms are staged on and around a dragon playground structure in a Housing and Development Board (HDB) estate. Clang’s series is calculated to provoke and subvert the lush visual language of the SIA’s iconic advertisements, and this particular image seems to summon up the question: what is Singapore? Is it the promise of Oriental submission conjured by the SIA girls (who have in fact retired from the airline)? The safe, unthreatening nostalgia for “uniquely Singaporean” landmarks like the dragon playground? The anonymous HDB block that has become a synecdoche for the Singapore everyman experience?

Or is Singapore the land of the migrant workers and passers-by, looking on from the edge of the photo? Then there are the trees, looming over the playground and the people, the garden city grown to maturity alongside the HDB flats. Finally there is the pencilled-in statement, “No, Singapore is not China.”—a refutation Clang and many Singaporeans have had to make to foreigners, and one that is destabilised, in this photograph, by the dominant Chinese imagery of the dragon motif and the neatly swept long hair and demure posture of the Chinese SIA girls.

Another TwentyFifteen.sg series, Senseless Spaces by Chow Chee Yong, takes as its subject the residue or traces of urban structures—drains, paths, fences and barriers—that were left behind after rebuilding or redevelopment. Steps lead purposefully up to an impassable wall, drains and walkways compete in irreverent (and redundant) zigzags, ghostly walls and barriers protrude out of newer constructions. This, too, is Singapore—a landscape pared down to a vivid black-and-white meditation on the national obsession with upgrading and urban renewal. There are no sympathetic human figures in these barren images, yet Chow’s unswerving focus on man-made concrete and metal structures paradoxically reinforces the human presence in every scene.

Dissimilar as they are, Clang’s and Chow’s series both capture the absurd poignancy of Singapore in the mid-2010s. While the nation has been instructed to celebrate what it has achieved in the last 50 years, on an everyday basis contradictions abound. Singapore today is an idea still being fought over, from the most top-secret Cabinet rooms to the ceaseless fray of the internet: who or what counts as Singaporean, what does Singapore stand for, what kind of society should it be? Put the Chinese SIA girl and the South Asian migrant worker into the same tableau (or in the same room), and some people’s heads explode.

TwentyFifteen.sg did not set out to explode myth, challenge history or define “national” identity. Its starting point was simple (some might even say, simplistic): PLATFORM would publish the work of 20 Singaporean photographers, presenting 15 images each on the subject of Singapore, in the months leading up to August 2015. What constitutes “Singapore” as a subject was left to the individual photographer’s imagination. There was no ambition to represent “all” of Singapore, or to respond to the assumptions underpinning Singapore’s putative 50-year history.

That is not to say that the resulting work has been ahistorical or dehistoricised. Indeed, the first folio in the series, For My Son by Darren Soh, is a gentle evocation of past, present and future: the past, in that almost all the buildings and structures in his images have been demolished; the present, in that this is Singapore, the endless cycle of building, demolishing and rebuilding that animates the city; and the future, in dedicating the book to his son, which inevitably conjures the question of what Singapore the younger Soh will inherit in the decades to come.

In a different way, past, present and future intersect in Robert Zhao’s series Singapore 1925–2025. His carefully constructed images of speculative Singapore landscapes reflect the formality of the 19th-century tourist gaze, as well as present-day concerns about rampant urbanisation and the marginalisation of nature. These landscapes do not literally exist, yet they summon up enough realism to hover on the edge of existence, as if they might shimmer into being in the next instant. In that respect, they appear to be more vivid and authentic than reality itself (“View of Marina Bay Sands” is particularly compelling).

That line between fact and fiction, preconceived notion and imaginative possibility, zigzags with varying intensity through the TwentyFifteen.sg projects. The family is reimagined in Sean Lee’s Two People and Ore Huiying’s We Are Farmers. Zinkie Aw’s Singaporelang attempts to turn the distinctive sounds of Singlish into studied images. Lim Weixiang’s Our Coastline and Kevin WY Lee’s Bay of Dreams interrogate the shoreline and Marina Bay Sands respectively, finding intimate, less-than-obvious moments on a human scale. Ernest Goh’s The Gift Book zooms in on the delicate beauty of local nature with his close-up portraits of insects, while Sit Weng San and Columba Cruz Elton’s Drawing Triangle ranges abroad to explore migratory connections between Sit’s home in Singapore, Elton’s in Chile and their common home in Los Angeles.

The documentary works, too, open up new possibilities for looking at ourselves. While most of them adopt a realistic mode of representation, they do not merely reinforce the status quo but posit the worlds beyond it, turning the lens on MRT commuters (Edwin Koo’s Transit), migrant workers (Tay Kay Chin’s Made in Singapore), artists and art-makers (Tan Ngiap Heng’s ARTiculate), industrial estate workers (Sam&Sam’s DEFU), HDB dwellers (Nicky Loh’s Common Wealth), at-risk families (Bernice Wong’s School of Hard Knocks), and the photographer himself (the self-portraits in Matthew Teo’s A Little Bit of Me from Everything Else). The works operate differently: some rely on the spontaneity of the moment, others emerge from a long engagement with the subjects; some are meant to be read visually on their own, others are accompanied by extensive photojournalistic profiles that add personal and social context. Seen as a whole, these documentary works present an important range of views from the margins, while also acknowledging each photographer’s privilege and complicity in his or her project.

The 20 photographic series in TwentyFifteen.sg provide a composite—but not comprehensive—portrait of Singapore at this moment in time. It is a portrait that provokes as much as it aestheticises, an endeavour that is more interested in asking questions than in defining what Singapore “is”. In Bernice Wong’s School of Hard Knocks, there is an image of a boy standing on the second-storey high roof on the side of an HDB block, his arms outstretched to either side, as if he’s about to strike a dancer’s pose or leap gracefully off the roof. There is a fuller story behind this boy and this particular block of flats, one that Wong has recorded in her project and that viewers likewise shouldn’t ignore.

But the photograph also captures a moment in time, of a micro-individual playfully transgressing the iconically rigid HDB landscape with a posture both lissome (like the SIA girls in Clang’s series) and insouciant. He hangs like an apparition, hovering on the edge of believability. Possibilities abound. He looks at the camera and we look at him. What will he do next?

Read More

Picturing Home, Wherever We May Be
Justin Zhuang​

Wherever we go, we carry pictures of home.

Framed up, wedged in a wallet, on a phone, shared online, etched in our minds—we hang on to these references that remind us of where we’ve come from.

It’s been almost two years since I’ve last seen Singapore. Away from home, all I’ve had apart from my own pictures are those from the news and what friends and family share online—snapshots of how home has grown through the lenses of my fellow citizens.

Marina Bay with its iconic “integrated resort” has overshadowed the Singapore River’s line of shophouses and skyscrapers as the shorthand for the nation’s success. Our list of old places has matured beyond colonial relics to include modernist complexes and even the iconic dragon playground. The index for the city’s pace of development is no longer the skyline of towering cranes, but how crowded our trains and streets have become.

The frames Singaporeans use to look at their home are changing. It shows in the subjects we picture, but also in what photography means to us today. Is picturing a Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian still the quintessential portrait of Singapore society? When did photographing and shaming online become our way of handling outrageous acts we encounter in public? Should photos of our nation’s late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew be restricted from public use?

These questions capture some of the issues Singapore faces today. Pictures of home are not just illustrations but also reflections of who we are, projections of how we see the world, and symbols of our community. A photograph’s flat surface belies its third dimension: as a platform for discussions on the people, places and things that matter to each one of us.

This social element is what defines contemporary photography. Making a picture is not just framing a subject and pressing the camera shutter (or in today’s case, tapping a screen), but also sharing it with others—a process that envelopes pictures with meanings beyond just the photographer’s point of view.

This is how our pictures of home are made: through the conversations we share about what we see, what we remember seeing, and even what we hope to see. While the realities depicted in pictures will one day fade or even be challenged, the meanings they hold for each one of us is what helps us see home clearly, wherever we may be.

Justin Zhuang, who received his Master’s degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City recently, has worked with the PLATFORM team on various projects. The contest administrator of The Big Picture, also a PLATFORM initiative, is now back in Singapore, and is ready to write the next few chapters in his life.

Read More

jetty steps

 

Steps
Edition of three, plus one artist’s proof
S$1200 per print*

ONE SOLD, ONLY TWO MORE AVAILABLE

These steps at the jetty in Songkou town, east Guangdong, are the ones my paternal great-grandfather — and many Hakkas from nearby impoverished mountains – walked down to get onto small boats to set sail for Shantou (Swatow) at the turn of the 20th century. From Shantou, they boarded larger ocean-going ships headed for Southeast Asia (known as Nanyang or the Southern Seas at the time), the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, as part of a broader wave of Chinese emigrants escaping poverty and civil war at home to become coolies, labourers and small businessmen abroad.

My paternal great-grandfather, Shen Shuixiang 沈水祥 left his ancestral village — about a day’s walk from this jetty (a mere 30 minute motorbike ride today) — as a poor peasant and settled in the small town of Selama, Perak, northern Malaya, setting up a small shop in a plantation there.

A generation later, in early 1949, his son, my grandfather, Shen Huansheng 沈焕盛 took those same jetty steps – back to our ancestral homeland. He had sailed back there after being deported by the British in Malaya for leftist activities during the Malayan Emergency which started in 1948. He joined a Chinese Communist guerrilla army unit near our ancestral village and in 1949 was arrested and imprisoned by the rival Kuomintang in Songkou, before being executed by them in July that year – two months shy of the Communist victory.

Today, this jetty and the town of Songkou has been spruced up for tourism. The local government wants to attract visitors especially among members of the Chinese diaspora, specifically the Hakkas who left from here. When I visited the jetty and Songkou in August 2014, workers were busy repairing and renovating the century-old steps leading down to the Meijiang River 梅江that our ancestors sailed down.

Roots is a project by China-based Singaporean photographer Sim Chi Yin to piece together the story of her grandfather who died a Communist martyr and her family history. A first-generation Singaporean born to Malaysian parents, she unwittingly did degrees in Chinese history and became a journalist and photographer like the grandfather that virtually no one in the family spoke about for six decades since his death. In 2011, she was the first in the family overseas to return in 62 years to visit her ancestral village, where a 3-metre high monument to her grandfather stands.

Many of the 200,000 Hakkas in Singapore – the fourth-largest dialect group after the Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese – were originally from the same part of southern China as Chi Yin’s family. In her on-going journey to make this work, she grapples with her family history, which turned on her grandfather’s death, but also her ethnic roots, and identity as a Singaporean Chinese and overseas Chinese living in China.

* By purchasing a print, you are making a direct and important contribution to the publications of twentyfifteen books. Without your generous support, the financial burden of self-publishing them will be significantly higher for us.

About the print:
– Paper size: 17″ x 22″
– Image size: 13.8″ x 20.8″
– Each print is carefully made with Epson professional printer, using original Epson inks.
– The paper for this edition is Museo Silver Rag, 300gsm.
– You can find out more about the paper specifications for Museo Silver Rag paper here.
– Signed with title, edition number and year, in ink, recto

Singapore shipping:
– Free hand delivery for any Singapore addresses.
– Each print is delivered in top grade Mylar or equivalent.

Overseas shipping:
- we will work with individual buyer on the best shipping option.
– Additional charges to be borne by buyer.
- Each print is delivered in top grade Mylar or equivalent, with additional protection for shipping

More info about digital printing in general:
- Wilhelm Imaging Research is the world authority on stability and preservation of traditional and digital photographs.

How to make an order:

Place your order by emailing us at kaychin@eastpix.com

You can also buy directly from our online store at
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/products/steps-by-sim-chi-yin

Read More