By Evangeline Wai
“When it is an empty structure, a house remains as an architectural edifice…a primitive man’s cave… In a house, there are two spaces we generally, traditionally do not dare to wander around without permission of its owner, the bedroom and the refrigerator.” Nur Hanim Khairuddin.
These quotes, drawn from a short write-up for Secret Affairs, a project by Roslisham Ismail, got me thinking about this year’s biennale theme Open House, and the juxtaposition of public and private spaces in two particular artworks.
The common perception of a refrigerator: A cold storage space to preserve food. Seldom would anyone see it as a secret, private space. Well, until guests start peeking around your cosy quarter. Suddenly realization kicks in, your eyes become aware of yesterday’s dinner in a microwave box, a sandwich from lunch wrapped in cling-wrap right next to today’s dinner covered with aluminium foil, all within ‘breathing space’ of each other. Unexpectedly, the fridge has morphed into a space for hiding ‘the ugly’ behind closed doors, and should remain hidden from the curious.
But what happens when a private space is deliberately placed under public scrutiny? In Secret Affair, Roslisham Ismail blurs the line between private and public spaces by creating a simple display of six refrigerators arranged in a circle. A $200 budget was given to each household to fill them up however they liked. The refrigerators function normally. A chef from a local café was invited to create recipes using food stored in the fridges. The visitors are allowed to open the doors and gaze at their contents. Some of them are filled to the brim, packed with frozen meat and well-labelled containers. Two are so full that boxes of dried food are stacked on top of them. Conversely, there is one that is bare, just two items in it. Each refrigerator and the accompanying video on its door are representations and reflections of a family—their lifestyles, beliefs and habits. Just by taking a peek into the cold storage, one can get clued into the eating habits, size, religious practices and even the obsession for cleanliness of each family. Yet, if one chooses to be a passive observer, to just pass them by, refusing to snoop and view its contents, one would just assume that they are just the same fridges with the same capacity, on display, waiting to be filled in some way or another.
Yet at the same time, it would be foolish to generalize about the state of the refrigerator as a reflection of an entire family and assume that every member of the family adheres to the same habits. Nuraini Juliastuti, another contributor to the Secret Affair project, wrote about her desire to leave her house to live her dream for freedom. “Confronted with undesirable matter, most people would seek ways of distancing themselves from it and projecting the hopes onto coveting things possessed by the others.” This led me to recall another exhibition from the Biennale, one that involved temporary housing with a prominent, iconic object and one that I had coveted staying in for a night and led me to question the possibility of fitting a public space into a private one.
Dear Sir/ Madam,
I should stay at The Merlion Hotel because on the 4th of April (the first day for the public to stay) I will be turning 21. I’ve been to a number of 21st birthday parties but haven’t been able to think of anything special to mark this milestone. While the stay wouldn’t be on the actual birthday, doing something unique before or after the day wouldn’t matter if I get to pass it uniquely. I will advertise it well. I have a written assignment about the Biennale coming up. Please, let me stay with the Merlion!
Yours Truly, Evangeline Wai
Tatzu Nishi’s work first caught my attention when it appeared in The Straits Times on 28th January 2011. Firstly, while I am not an adventurous person, I am quite into novel experiences. There was a section that invited readers to write a 100 word entry to get a chance to win a night’s stay in The Merlion Hotel. I was quite certain I had a fighting chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear a word after my submission. Secondly, it’s about the Merlion. It was going to be ‘caged’ by a foreign artist. It puzzles me that non-Singaporeans view this mythical creature with such great potential. It was a member of the Souvenir Committee (Fraser Brunner, who we presume wasn’t Singaporean) who created the logo in the first place. Tatzu Nishi is a Japanese who works and lives in Berlin and Tokyo. I might understand if he was a Singaporean. He could have had the intent of creating newfound interest for the 40-year old Merlion (or perhaps critiquing it as in the proposal of Lim Tzay Chuen) but from the articles about his work, it seems all he intended to do was to create a surprising experience with interaction between art and participant. Still, as much as poets and artists have had mixed views of the Merlion and Singaporeans scorn at the Tourism Board for creating a fictional national image, I believe we still possess some attachment to the half-lion-half-fish (It must surely mean something when the temporary hotel was fully booked one day after the dates for the stay were released to the public).
“You’re about to enter The Merlion Hotel. This is a temporary hotel constructed by Artist Tatzu Nishi. The hotel is open from 10am to 7pm daily. After that, registered guests get to stay in the hotel room for a night,” announced the exhibition guide. I nodded as I gingerly climbed up the stairway to the hotel and removed my shoes at the door. Call me silly but on entering the hotel, I felt a little sorry for the Merlion. He is trapped, like a ‘fish out of water’, out of place amidst the wallpaper of Sir Stamford Raffles, the well-tucked bed and the polished wooden floor. The Merlion still stands with grand poise. His presence fills the entire room. Yet despite his towering figure, the way he is positioned in the middle leaving the guests with no choice but to centre his/her activity around him, the Merlion looks stiflingly small in the absence of his tail and the continuous water spewing out from his mouth.
As I continued my exploration of the space with camera in hand, I found myself walking around with some trepidation. Perhaps it was the proximity to the majestic national icon that caused me to feel a tad uncomfortable. But in addition to that, I suspect the nervousness came from stepping into someone’s private space. Temporal as it might be, two people would be making themselves comfortable and vulnerable in that room later that night. Somehow, with those thoughts in mind, the items in the room no longer existed as ‘displays’ but become a reflection of the personalities of the hotel guests’, their beliefs, their societal status in some way. I looked around in search of someone; anyone who I suspected felt the same discomfort. And then at that moment of being slightly judgemental, I became conscious of myself being watched. I am part of the ‘show’, together with the Merlion. Yes, the national icon moves into a bedroom, a private space. Yet, unlike my bedroom, there is an estimation of twenty other people in there, capturing that memorable moment, and a queue of people waiting to get in. I am compelled to accompany the Merlion in his public space. I am up for public scrutiny. As if the icon itself didn’t have a complicated enough history, this public space converted into a private space, but now open for viewing, a public entity again adds depth to the twisted mess.
On a larger level, this coalition of public into private space (allowed by the authorities) took me by surprise as well. It is an extravagant request to place a national monument (an object for public admiration) into a private space. The authorities in Singapore have always had a tough stance towards the usage of national symbols and yet this was given the green light. While it might not be the first time the Merlion has appeared in the news for being part of a Biennale line-up (artists Com&Com made affectionate use of him in the first Biennale in 2006), I believe that the Merlion becoming part of an actual art installation is a first. Lim Tzay Chuen proposed to ship the icon to Italy for the 2005 Venice Biennale and leave it there for six months. His intention was to create a double response of its presence in Venice and absence in Singapore. A fair explanation but his request was rejected despite it being the sole representative in a prestigious art event. Perhaps it was the long, physical absence that was too much to handle for the local authorities. At the Singapore Biennale 2011, the Merlion looks as good as absent from afar—no water-spouting lion will greet you when you look across the Esplanade Waterfront. The fish tail can hardly be seen through the steel scaffolding. But the Merlion is still there, firmly rooted to that spot along the Singapore River and in three weeks time, Merlion will see the (sun)light again.
And so, as ‘Open House’ suggests welcoming guests into one’s life, it is the interplay of the public and the private spaces, a division that, as I’ve found out, isn’t always so clear . The line drawn sure is finer than I once thought it to be.