By Fareez Ahmad
As a child, I grew up in Sunset Way and attended Henry Park Primary School on Holland Grove Road. I had adventurous friends who liked to explore the maze of drains from Clementi to Buona Vista, simply because we were young and hungry to discover the world around us. For my friends and I, the network of waterways were a kind of alternate reality, a mysterious underground world.
Surprised at having these childhood memories bubble to the surface upon having encountered Charles Lim’s commissioned work for the Singapore Biennale 2011 at the Old Kallang Airport, I decided once again to explore this world, this time through the artwork entitled ‘All Lines Flow Out’, which comprises a video installation as well as an installation of two drainage ‘socks’ suspended from the ceiling of the space. The work takes the form of an urban exploratory adventure which examines the political, geographical and environmental dimensions of water in the Singaporean context.
Drainage socks, I imagine, are installed in various parts of the waterways and act as filters which trap rubbish and debris. The ones on display in the space, each about three meters in length, have accumulated pieces of refuse, but mostly brown leaves, giving them the bulging, organic appearance of Eva Hesse sculptures. The video, looped on a panoramic three-part screen roughly two and a half meters wide and half a meter from top to bottom, features a narrative which explores the drainage waterways as well as the aquatic periphery of Singapore. We see from a first-person perspective different points on Singapore’s waterways, most likely to have been filmed from aboard a vessel, as we occasionally hear the gentle splashes of the paddle as it propels the boat gently on its course.
Each sequence in the video is like a living photograph. In most scenes, the camera makes only gentle movements, allowing the viewers to immerse themselves in the visuals. Beautifully composed, they cast a mundane subject matter in poetic light. Its lingering pace allows one to meditate on the associations conjured up by the images.
The act of navigating a vessel on water alludes to the discovery of Singapore by Sang Nila Utama, who arrived via sea after a tropical storm and soon (re)named the island Singapura. The founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company too, undoubtedly arrived by ship. It was also he who noted that Singapore was surrounded by very deep waters, and decided that it would make an ideal port for ships travelling from Europe to the Far East. This geographical feature continues to play a major role in shaping the island’s economic prosperity as well as its social landscape.
A bridge appears in each of the film’s ‘navigating’ scenes. It is a deliberate and significant symbol alluding to the massive bridges linking Singapore and Malaysia, the country which the island state used to be a part of and from which it gets a significant portion of its drinking water supply. The Johor-Singapore Causeway, which is a road, rail and pedestrian link also serves as a water pipeline. It is ironic that while tropical Singapore is surrounded by water and receives heavy annual rainfall, its quest for water self-sufficiency persists till the present. Indeed, as the video suggests, the waterways eventually lead to the aquatic periphery of Singapore. In one scene, we are presented with a panoramic vista dotted with kelongs – wooden dwellings built out in the sea for the purpose of rearing fish for commercial consumption. In the distance we gaze upon a familiar landscape which betrays an odd detail, a large white cylindrical structure, which is indeed a water containment tank. Then from behind one of the kelongs, a Singapore Coast Guard patrol boat casually reverses into view, drawing an imaginary line demarcating the boundaries between two territories on the water’s surface.
If each landscape presents a piece of a large puzzle, the people in the video serve to compound the mystery, being referred to as ‘immigrant workers’ whose individual identities are not made known to us. Their motivations are also shrouded in ambiguity as they appear alone or in groups clad in diaphanous raincoats, exploring the aquatic passages, at times appearing in unexpected places and unusual situations, and often we struggle to determine their political or moral affiliation. Having been attributed neither individual identities nor speech, their bodily gestures and movements acquire an enigmatic gestural and performative quality, and even in the scenes when several of them seem to be engaging with the debris accumulated in a canal, one questions whether they truly accomplish anything at all.
The vividly coloured guppies, with their bodily movements echoing the gentle swaying of the aquatic plants with the water currents, suggest a commentary on an environmental issue. Then in one of the most poignant scenes in the narrative, one of the men stands still in the stream of ankle-deep water with his back towards the camera, as an unexpected fluid cloud of white emanates from his feet and soon permeates the water, in a magic-realist act of cleansing. It must surprise viewers who are well acquainted with the popular notion of prosperous Singapore as a clean and green ‘Garden City’ to observe how much rubbish is present floating along its waterways, evident in the video as well as the drain socks in the space.
In contrast to the rich content of the video, the drain socks however, appear to be a rather perfunctory element. But perhaps an artist proficient at teasing our minds into thought by means of suggestion included it as a compass in directing our interpretation of the video and the installation as a whole. They are particularly symptomatic of the postmodern contemporary art condition, being nondescript, utilitarian ‘everyday’ objects removed from their usual context to be displayed in the art space in its unadulterated form, with leaves and pieces of garbage intact and discernible through the netting.
In a city of residents who complain endlessly about the boredom of inhabiting a small island-city state, it is refreshing to witness a Singaporean artist addressing aspects of the local landscape in an attempt to deepen our understanding of it by looking at it through historical, political, geographical, and environmentalist paradigms. And as a photographer who is interested in exploring the Singaporean landscape, I identify with Charles Lim’s situation of living in a cosmopolitan city, the landscape of which is constantly and aggressively changing. Old buildings, for instance, even those of historical significance, often do not survive the onslaught of progress. The Singapore Biennale 2011 is itself partly staged at one of these old buildings, radically transforming its former utilitarian purpose. Not far away, the colossal magnificence of the former National Stadium has been recently retired from existence.
The artwork can be seen as the artist’s attempt to engage with the local landscape in a deeper manner, to quench his thirst for exploration and enhancing his understanding of the subject matter. The process of making the artwork becomes a mode of learning, thinking, and sharing one’s findings and is done out of a need to form a kind of psychological affinity and security about one’s grounding in an ever-shifting external world. The beauty of ‘All Lines Flow Out’ lies in its ability to raise questions and associations, conjuring a certain joy in its artistic yet ambiguous nature and in neither being too direct nor allowing only a constrained, singular interpretation of the artwork. Indeed, beginning with those childhood memories of exploring the mysterious underground world of drains and canals, I found that it was in fact my lines of thought which were flowing out.