SINGAPORE INTERVIEW: BOEDI WIDJAJA

 boediwidjaja.com

Boedi Widjaja trained as an architect and has worked as a graphic designer before he began to practice art in his thirties. Today, Widjaja is one of Singapore's most engaging conceptual artists, drawing on his personal history as a way to comment about the experience of migration, alienation, hybridity, globalisation and the relationship between city and self, in works that engage with practices ranging from drawing, installation, sound and live art. I spoke to him about identity, belonging and home in Singapore.

SW: Can you talk about your lived experience as an urban migrant, and how it has influenced your artwork. 
BW: My elder sister and I left our home in Solo City, Indonesia due to ethnic tensions and at the age of nine, I came to Singapore. We were without our parents hence we lived with stranger-families, and moved five times in the first four years. Singapore was very different from Solo City and I was deeply struck by the straight, endless highways, boxy concrete flats, and the new sounds and smells. I didn’t speak much English or Chinese at the time, hence, culturally, it was quite disorienting. Perhaps due to my initial experience of the city, my works tend to be dialectically related to the city—a perpetual state of tension. At the same time, drawing helps me to envision a complementary relation (akin to the Chinese concept of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’) of figure and ground, in which the gap between the city and me is generative. Making marks on paper or placing a building on a site, they both suggest a figure/ground spatial relation that work together to produce an image, a thought, an idea.


SW: You work across disciplines, how does the lens of architecture influence your artwork? And why did you begin to incorporate live performance into your practice?
BW: My architectural education profoundly influence my art. I read Plato’s Cave in my first year and the text continues to be an important ontological reference today. I was also introduced to writings by Heidegger, Benjamin, de Certeau and later on, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Baudrillard. I suppose my interests in conceptual notions of ground and movement, image and media, representation and language, were inspired from these readings. Architecture school gave me a much needed space to technically and formally work through these ideas.    

The reason for live art is to create and participate in spatial relations with my environment and audience. The impulse is to ‘build’ a spatio-temporal construct using physical movement, objects, place and time—akin to making a structure that is both dynamic and invisible. Live art is also a method to bring in a corporeal dimension into the process. I work a lot with the subject of memory and I’d like to think that we remember by using our entire being: mind and body. Depending on context, the liveness may be necessary for a powerful transformation and engagement to happen.  

SW: What is PATH and how does the project negotiate issues of place, origin and identity in Singapore?
BW: The impulse behind the PATH series was my change in citizenship. After living for almost three decades in Singapore, I decided to call the place home. I expected a greater sense of ease and belonging in the city but the reverse was true. Without my foreigner status, I was unable to justify to myself the deep sense of displacement that I felt in the city. At about the same time as my citizenship conversion, there was also a sense of public resentment against foreign talent in Singapore. I felt that it was the right time to begin a series where these issues could be addressed. The first work in the series Path. 1, The White City was commissioned by The Substation, Singapore’s oldest independent art space. The work was a two-week long engagement with visitors through a joint act of mark-making and conversations. The gallery walls were covered completely with paper and the ‘blank’ space gradually accumulated in-numerous graphite marks—a joint act of personalisation by both the artist and his community. Path. 1 directly addressed, with the support of visitors and friends, the cultural disconnect that I felt when I first came to Singapore. Subsequently, each work along the Path. series became an opportunity to engage with my fossilised memories of the city and to extend their truncated forms. By drawing in additional present day information, new points of references are built into the mnemonic structures. The act of complicating the memories enabled me to bring in a dynamism into them, hence, bringing about a change in my sense of belonging.

SW: What does home and belonging look like for you? How is your artwork an expression of these notions of home, belonging, identity and place in Singapore?
BW: I see home not as a place but rather, an internalised spatio-temporal relation. In other words, ‘home’ describes my relation with a place more than the place itself. I imagine home as a deep sense of rootedness, a gravitational power that lends weight, and gives firm traction with the ground. It has a sense of continuity and history. Home is flow and surrender, where I no longer feel on the edge. My works express a desire for home while acknowledging the struggle, anxiety and imagination that came with my own migration experience. I think that my works speak in some way, not only of the Singapore’s open borders, but also its rapidly changing, transient quality. How does one develop a sense of belonging to a city that behaves like a virtual operating system—an environment without physical permanence and one that socially changes all the time? The government is today promoting Singapore as a Smart City, a technologically advanced, well-connected city for global innovations to take place—how apt! Within Singapore’s reality, how does one speak about grounding? These are abstract questions and art is my method to engage with them.

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SINGAPORE INTERVIEW: CHUA CHYE TECK

In exquisite black and white photographs, Chua Chye Teck offers a glimpse into a Singapore that is not usually seen, capturing untamed, tangled & dense vines and trees of messy, free nature whose layers hint at something hidden, something lost, suggesting memory and ghosts. There is something personal and intimate about this encounter, so it is not surprising to learn that he in some works he returns to photograph places that held special significance as a child. 

SHARMILA WOOD (SW): You have a background in sculpture, can you tell me if this has influenced your photography? Is photography now your preferred medium, if so, why? 
CHYE TECK CHUA (CTC): Of course, my background in sculpture did influence my photography. I paint too, and my first solo exhibition was of paintings. I am always attracted to the formal elements of art such as form, texture, lines etc, and the idea of capturing a moment. My camera angles are always straightforward - this way, the focus will be on the subject rather than the camera angle. As a sculptor, I am attracted to found objects, and have the habit of buying or picking up used objects. This habit of collecting started to show in my photography, as well, since I use the camera to collect, copy and organize. Photography is a medium which I decided to focus on in the year 2001. One reason is the feeling of guilt at having  a collection of cameras paid for by my mother and not using them. They were bought by her as I told her I wanted to pursue photography as a career. Another reason came about during my early years as an artist, when I became attracted to found objects or structures made by layman on the streets. ( "Dear like me do the cleaning " is the first set of images developed from there). I  wanted to use them in my art and did not know how, and I disliked the idea of bringing them into the studio to work on them and calling them mine. The best way I could think of was to document them like sculptures. From then on I  shifted my position as an artist, who creates to a third person who observes and supports. Two years ago I  started carving wooden bases for broken concrete pieces from torn-down buildings found in the streets. I realized there is a limitation to what photography can and can not do.

SW: Your projects often seem to be developed over many years, and involve revisiting the same place, do you think this approach allows for a more intimate understanding of place?    CTC: Definitely. and that also gives me comfort working in these places. Often these places are connected to my life. For example Ponggol ( north east of Singapore ) is a place I visited often with friends during my teenage years. Almost 10 years later I revisited the area and started the project « Paradise ». The reason to revisit is partly the nature of the project. These make-do shelters are not commonly found in the Singapore landscape, and they are transient, disappearing and cropping up over time. Ponggol is also one of the last rural areas to be developed into a typical 'satellite' town.

SW: How do you document nature and urban change in Singapore? Can you tell me why this subject fascinates you?
CTC: I use photography and found objects. The camera changes the way I work. I use different types of cameras for different projects; sometime using medium format with a tripod, other times using a point and shoot compact camera - it all depends on the project. I work with both analog and digital cameras, but mostly using film and later scanning the negatives. The subjects always come to me subconsciously, from what I see and the places I go to every day. After years of working I realize the subjects in my projects are usually what's left behind or what’s about to disappear,When a nation moves forward and the economy is progressing and prospering, working on this subject helps me to understand and be aware of these changes, it is not so much a subject that makes you excited; they are more like issues that I deal with, and art helps me to process it.

Postscript: Punggol is located in the north-east of Singapore. During my teenage years, Punggol coast was where i often spent time with classmates fishing and exploring the forested area. That is where I had fun and enjoyed freedom, a paradise to me when I was a boy. In addition, my father, a carpenter, had a wood workshop in that area during the 90s and I spent most of my time there after school.My memory of Punggol in my youth comes mainly from these two activities. In the past, Punggol was a rural area, and it has since become a developed town with shopping malls, public housing. The salt water rivers have been turned into fresh water reservoirs. Coastal areas have been extended by land reclamation. The wild vegetation have been transformed into parks or gardens, a concept of greenery preferred by the government.

Image courtesy Chua Chye Teck

Image courtesy Chua Chye Teck



SINGAPORE INTERVIEW: ERICA LAI

I was drawn to Singaporean photographer Erica Lai’s atmospheric photographs that pose questions about territory, ownership, surveillance and place. Lai is a photography lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine arts in Singapore and her work is often concerned with spatial tensions that emerge from the developing and expanding city, alongside concurrent concerns around land and ownership of various spaces. 

Sharmila Wood (SW): What is your preferred medium and why?
Erica Lai (EL): I am trained as a painter, but have been working with photography for the bulk of my practice. I started out by being attracted to the immediacy of the medium, both pictorially and in process. By this, I mean that the photographic image can be understood in a very democratic way; but it is also incredibly veiled. The process of looking at and making of a painting- is to me, like a courtship of sorts. But a photograph lends itself to be understood twice – once, immediately for what appears, and the second for what it suggests.

SW: Can you tell me how your projects examine spatial territories and ownership?
EL: My projects review places that are deemed safe and secure - these range from ornamental greenery to tourist destinations. The nature of these spaces compels individuals to act in a territorial manner, either as a measure for safeguarding, or restriction. The spaces themselves are sometimes defined by the very act of territorial reclamation. In the project "The Observatory", I photographed viewing towers in tourist locations around the world. These towers essentially dictate an 'ideal' vantage point from which a place is to be visualised many times over; an incarnation of the controlled gaze. What appears as an extension of armchair tourism also suggests that this phenomena stems from desires of personal reclamation and power. Where once the human figure served to emphasise the expanse of the landscape before him/ her; at the viewing tower - safety barriers and seeing devices such as binoculars, now reduce the landscape to a mere spectacle, a sight for consumption. The viewer (of the photographs) is placed before a scene whose spatial dimension is on the verge of collapsing into flat abstraction. The view is gone, and the act of surveillance and proximity takes over, as the viewer sees nothing beyond the binoculars and railings that protect and define their experience. This loss of historical and geographical bearings (the locations are not revealed) accentuates the complex politics behind how a view is constructed and directed.

"The Gardens" project is a play on the term Garden City - a successful campaign from the 1970's tourism bureau to attract foreign investors to Singapore. Greenery exists everywhere in Singapore; however there lies a degree of moderation regarding how one may experience the natural landscape here, and a constant negotiation between feelings of unity with nature, and a sense of isolation from it. I photographed the tiny strips of roadside foliage that line our highways and main streets, and they are depicted in ways that reference compositionally and tonally- the Flemish landscape paintings from the 1700s. In these photographs, the landscapes appear untainted and stretch on endlessly. But in reality, these territories are mere ideological placeholders that span no more than 100 metres, before public housing and subway tracks emerge.

SW: What do you consider as the tensions between nature and man in Singapore?
EL: Singapore has a tense relationship with nature, as many land-strapped cities do. But I suppose the difference is that nature is a significant part of our national identity and branding. It is also clear to anyone who visits, that greenery is everywhere here. We had even reclaimed land to create a garden where plants from all over the world, temperate or otherwise, can grow and be on show all year round. However, the nature that Singaporeans understand and enjoy are simply gardens – complete with bins that empty out miraculously every night, and clear signs with rules of usage. Ask a local, and they will tell you that few will venture into the few truly unpruned pockets of nature in the outskirts of this city. These areas of nature are rarely mentioned, and if so, only in the evening news when vice or murderous activities were reported to have occurred. These spaces are thought of as dangerous, unpredictable, illegal harbours.

SW: Is it possible for you to tell me about how you've worked in a participatory way for The Old Man and The Sea project? Will you work collaboratively in the future, and how does it change your approach to making artwork?
EL: In “Old Man and the Sea”, I worked with about a hundred students (aged 13-15) from four middle schools that are built entirely on reclaimed parcels of land around Singapore. My initial interest was to examine how these young people – at their ideologically-formative stage in their lives, understood or interacted with the ‘imaginary’ land that they stand on every day.   I was interested in how they can ponder and imagine the futures of these reclamation activities – the constant extension into other territories (because enough is never enough). In an eight month period, we went through site visits to study the history of reclamation in Singapore, held creative writing workshops that referenced Hemingway’s novel of the same name, photographed at the peripheries of the island, and also made individualised glass terrariums based on the stories they invented. Before framing the final prints, the students were also invited to inscribe their stories by hand on their portraits. I currently have plans to carry this work onwards with other communities, specifically in smaller cities/ townships with territorial complexities.

Erica Lai, The Viewing Tower, The Observatory Series,  SIPF, Creative Commons 

Erica Lai, The Viewing Tower, The Observatory Series,  SIPF, Creative Commons 




SINGAPORE INTERVIEW: ANGIE SEAH

My practice seems to me to exist in a space between many things: materiality and performativity; absurd humor and grueling tenacity; ritual and release; sound and silence; it is intuitive and considered; ephemeral and object- based. It inhibits body, object, room and world. - Angie Seah

Angie Seah is a multidisplinary artist from Singapore, who works across a variety of mediums, including drawing, installation, performance and sound. She is currently on residency in Paris, but we exchanged emails to talk about the community arts projects she has developed. These are just one facet of her rich and diverse practice. 

SW: Could you explain your journey to art, and the evolution of your multidisciplinary practice? 
AS: My journey in art started with my rebellion period during my youth. Quite a non conformist myself, I often clashed with school authorities. I decided during this time I wanted to work for myself and express “people views”. I went on to study in an art college and major in sculpture. During this creative process, I have started to explore a lot of different mediums like drawing, prints, making objects till now.In my later practise I begin to experience making performance art, which I find very authentic. It embraces my life philosophy of living art. From then, I get to work with improvisations and all my other disciplinary works like sound, video.etc.Gradually, they all come together and weave my ideas into a body of works, a  way for me to map my works together like a “city".Ever since I have always confronted my fears of the unknown, due to my curiosity for knowledge and vivid imagination. I learn and appreciate “ mistakes” and make beautiful marks with it. 

SW: What is your interest in developing participatory work with communities? Could you describe some of the projects that you have done with communities in Singapore. 
AS: Art is an open invitation to step outside of our own reality, tune in to other worlds, and reach higher planes for moments of revelation. - Robert Henri

To uplift the human spirit has always been the core objective in my art practise. Working with community has become natural and essential process for me.  Art is indeed a powerful social tool. I have tailored workshops and projects with specific communities of specific needs. From my creative metrologies, I hope to share my palette of art process with community, like a sound project called Sounding Motion (2013) where I customised a tour itinerary for the elderly who did sound recordings in different environments, sound drawing and moving along with their recorded sound in space using media technology

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MARIANNE NORTH

Painting 577, Flowers and Fruit of Mangosteen, and Singapore Monkey , North's collection of paintings is held at the Kew Gardens, www.kew.org

Painting 577, Flowers and Fruit of Mangosteen, and Singapore Monkey , North's collection of paintings is held at the Kew Gardens, www.kew.org

I've been doing research for my upcoming Asialink residency in Singapore. I'm exploring approaches to curating public space and one of the areas I'm interested in is how the concept of Singapore as the 'Garden City' or the 'City in a Garden' may be considered a curating principle that guides the design of the built environment, architecture and urban planning whilst simultaneously being interrogated through arts practice. I have been researching early representations of Singapore. I came across the botanical artwork of Marianne North completed on a visit to Singapore during the 1870s and I found her story intriguing. She led an independent life at a time where roles for women were restrictive and often confined to the domestic sphere. North traveled the world documenting plant life & she creates a snapshot of a fragrant, sensuous,  and verdant wild Singapore.

marianne north singapore