By Goh Chay Teng
The grounds of the Old Kallang Airport are open and spacious, they consist of a large ‘garden’ between three main buildings. The site conspicuously lacks signage telling visitors which is the ‘right’ building to visit first. Unlike a history museum type of exhibition space, where there is an authoritative ‘flow’ be it thematic or chronological, there is no systematic way I could view the artworks at the Old Kallang Airport. I felt a little lost. Timidly, I made my way to the middle building first, because the centre is traditionally the main attraction.
When I entered the middle block, again I noticed a lack of signs. Even worse, the art installations are arranged in a circle (well, technically a rectangle), with no obvious beginning and no obvious end. It’s a three-storey building and staircases are all over the place with no discernable flow. It was like a game of snakes and ladders: if I go up the stairs now, will I miss something amazing behind that stairwell? The lack of an orderly way to view the exhibits was overwhelming, especially in the beginning. In hindsight, this set-up was more interesting. It was a blast to explore and find bits and pieces of art in a deserted nook or cranny.
Space can be functional. Kitchens are usually adjacent to dining areas and bathrooms are usually in an easily accessible space. At the Old Kallang Airport, one installation that used functional space very well was Ming Wong’s video installation.
The arrangement was so that the five videos were housed in five separate rooms but all entrances led to a common atrium. If visitors walked in a circle, they would be able to look into all of the rooms. The open concept of the rooms also meant that the sound of the five different videos could be heard everywhere within the exhibit. This showcased an interesting mix of music and dialogue as the five different films were projected simultaneously. The set-up allowed visitors to find overall similarities and differences in the five films, but also gave visitors the space to take in one film at a time.
The effect of geographical space is something that is often taken for granted and overlooked. But it is a very powerful tool. Small tight spaces evoke tension; wide open spaces provide calmness. Yet, on the other hand, small places can provide a sense of warmth and coziness while large places could represent emptiness.
Vietnamese artist Danh Vo’s space created tension in the viewer. Part of his installation includes a collection of cardboard with gold-leafed letters (except the letter J) appliquéd on, which he left in an orderly stack against a white wall. My first instinct was to pull the cardboard stack apart just to check if there was really no ‘J’. Alas, there was a placard near the exhibit that said no touching. The stack is so constricting that it was really uncomfortable to not be able to touch it to pull them apart.
It is often difficult to critique an artist’s use of space because their intention for the space is not implicitly stated. The cardboard represented a person’s living space. He had collected it from a street merchant who used it as a shelter. The gold-leaf added material value to something someone already viewed as priceless. In hindsight, a viewer’s discomfort at not being able to touch the cardboard could be intentional. After all, it is not social protocol to go into a stranger’s house and rearrange it as you wish.
Arin Rungjang’s art installation was reminiscence of an IKEA showroom, with its use of colours and plush sofas (as well as other knick-knacks the artist got from IKEA). The artist actually invited Thai migrant workers to perform an exchange: they could take anything they wanted in the room and leave their old, unwanted stuff behind. The only condition was that the exchange had to be like for like. Yet, at this early stage of the Biennale, most of the furniture was untouched, still in the uniform lines that the artist left them in. Even if the space was very comfortable, there was unease. I felt like a bit of a creep in another person’s ‘private’ space without the host with me. His work looked so much like a normal living room that it was unnatural to go around touching and moving things around.
Both Arin Rungjang and Danh Vo’s works dealt with the value of seemingly “cheap” items. Both of them recognized that old did not mean valueless and that new was not always better. Arin Rungjang wrote it in his artist’s text while Danh Vo mentioned that the street merchant had to be persuaded to give up his shelter. For me, the artists’ display of sensitivity to where a person finds value made a difference to how they, as well as, their art installations, were viewed.
The best spaces at the Old Kallang Airport were the ones that blended with the environment. Their inconspicuousness is non-threatening and allows the visitor to take in the atmosphere at their own pace. It is something that is difficult to do: how can it be done so that it fits with the environment it’s in but is still clear as an artwork?
I missed Nedko Solakov’s work because it worked too well with the natural environment. Tucked in a spiral staircase, in the middle of the main building at the Old Kallang Airport, the art installation consisted of witty remarks about the state of certain things in the stairwell, written on the infrastructure. I started at the bottom of the stairs, and while exploring, went to the empty space at the bottom of the stairwell to find rags and seemingly unwanted goods discarded on the floor. I left and thought nothing of it. I was only after I saw photos online that I realised it was part of the installation.
What is amazing about this site-specific work was that Solakov was not physically present to create the artwork. He had a well-known fear of flying and flew Singaporean artist, Liao Jiekai, to Sofia to teach him what to do.
Solakov is an artist that takes space seriously. In the video that was shown near the installation, he was discussing space with Singaporean artist Liao. Liao had brought photos of the many sites of the Singapore Biennale to show Solakov. In the end, he settled on the stairwell by the Old Kallang Airport.
Another work that used the environment very naturally was Martha Rosler’s Garden Home. I found her work by accident while walking into the Old Kallang Airport. Looking at the beautiful plants, white-washed benches and wind-catchers, I was mentally debating if it was an art installation. And it was.
The most beautiful thing about this installation was that it was not in-your-face: the plants were hiding quirky, out-of-place objects like suitcases and books, and an outline of Singapore. It is in these quiet, unassuming installations that amusement is found, like in a scavenger hunt. Things are discovered slowly and every object found adds another layer of meaning.
The non-confrontational nature of this piece allows new viewers to take it in at its own pace. More explicit artworks like Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munbar, which included displays of gay pornographic magazines, might embarrass the public (this installation was censored in the end). When private issues like sex are brought out to the public, viewers might move on hurriedly, instead of taking their time to look and appreciate it (or not).
However, the censorship of Simon Fujiwara’s work was met with public uproar, which begs the question: Are Singaporeans really conservative or are the authorities too sensitive?
But that is a question for another time.
Nevertheless, this style of using the natural environment also makes art more accessible to the general public. How Solakov and Rosler used the environment, gave general audiences space and allowed them to get used to the idea of art: which seems to be the point of the theme of Open House.