Points of View

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?