FOR the past 10 years, photographer Darren Soh has been taking pictures of old HDB blocks. Most of the images are wide-angle, straight-on shots of rows and rows of flats. But each is artfully captured, evoking a sense of loss for a bygone life.
Today, out of more than 100 blocks he's photographed, he reckons about one-tenth of them have been demolished to make way for other developments. Soh says: "Singapore is changing so very rapidly, and many blocks are gone almost in a blink. I take these pictures for myself, to remember what Singapore once looked like. But every time I put up these pictures on Facebook, someone would write to me and say: "Hey! I used to live there."
Soh is not alone in his obsession with documenting the changing landscape of Singapore. Among Singapore's brightest young artists, many are drawn to the subject of forgotten spaces and lost places. They include Heman Chong, Michael Lee, Robert Zhao, Royston Tan, Safaruddin Abdul Hamid, Genevieve Chua, Charles Lim, Chun Kaifeng, Deanna Ng, Philipp Aldrup, Koh Hong Teng, Guo Yi Xiu and Debbie Ding.
This concern with space, land and architecture is a marked departure from the foci of Singapore artists in 1980s and 1990s, such as Amanda Heng, Lee Wen, Tang Da Wu and Vincent Leow. Back then, notions of identity and Singaporean-ness figured strongly in their works as they sought to examine who they were in this young, aspiring city-state called Singapore.
But with the passing of time, the younger generation of artists - English-educated, well-travelled, and imbued with a greater awareness of the environment and Singapore's scarce land and water resources - have begun to look completely outside of themselves and at the rapidly changing landscape they call home.
Favouring the forgotten
Ding, for one, grew up in bustling Rowell Road, which is close to the nearby flea market in Sungei Road. The 28-year-old artist often visits the market to see "old, unwanted things" such as cassette tapes, yellowing books and clothes that have gone out of fashion - all "pieces of Singapore from a bygone era", she says.
In 2011, she was dismayed to learn that a large part of the area had to be cleared for the construction of a Downtown Line Sungei Road MRT station. So when construction began, she started collecting fragments of broken pavements, drains and roads from its excavation sites. She categorised and labelled some 30 rock-like fragments in a meticulously scientific way. She also photographed them to look like archeological finds.
The photographic print, titled Ethnographic Fragments From Singapore, was recently nominated for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, the largest regional award for art (see story on page 37). Though Ding's piece did not win, an art collector snapped up the photograph for US$5,500. Meanwhile, the fragments are currently exhibited at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Gillman Barracks.
Ding says: "A lot of our old places gets overlooked. Things in Singapore disappear so very fast. So I wanted to keep an independent record of these things, because they may not be things that the Singapore Archives necessarily documents or archives."
"Very often, when I'm trying to research some lesser-known part of Singapore, I find there's a lot of missing information. So I've decided to start archiving stuff I'm interested in."
Ding's work is featured in the inaugural edition of Issue, Lasalle College of the Arts new art journal founded by Milenko Prvacki, the college's senior fellow, with guest editor Charles Merewether, director of Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. The theme of the issue is land.
Dr Merewether, who hails from Scotland and was formerly the director of Sydney Biennale, observes: "Singapore is a city with very little undeveloped land. It's driven by only pragmatism, without much respect and recognition for the land. There's no sense of regarding land as just land, because that's not economically productive. The building of a highway through the historical cemetery Bukit Brown is one example."
"So it's not surprising then that artists here want to give due recognition to the land though their art."
For the artists, it's almost a form of activism to record these spaces and places for posterity. Though no one is sure of when the trend started, it certainly seems to have grown in tandem with Singaporeans' increasing awareness of conservation and preservation issues, which gained greater popularity in the 1990s.
Artist Heman Chong says he started to take thousands of pictures of public spaces in 2004, after sensing the impermanence of these spaces. In 2011, he selected a staggering 1,001 photographs and showcased them in an artwork called Calendars (2020-2096).
The images of an empty classroom, kitchen, toilet, bar, void deck and 996 other locations are each framed within a paper calendar format with the days, month and year printed below the image. By turning these images into paper calendars of the future - the final 12 images appear in a calendar for 2096 - Chong seems to be trying to prolong the lifespan of these images, and by extension, the memory of these places.
He says: "Singapore has an obsession with things that are shiny and new. It seems afraid of things that are old, rusty and collapsing. Why? Is it because we see ourselves as a First World country, so anything less would make us look a little like our neighbouring countries? Even our flats have to constantly upgraded so that it can be made to look new."
"Everything around us is constantly changing according to the government's economic requirements. Nothing lasts."
While Chong, Ding and Soh want to document things as they are now, other artists are more interested in reimagining Singapore as an entirely different city - one with vast land resources and ample flora and fauna.
Artist Robert Zhao created a series of images called The Lost Hills of Singapore where he superimposed images of hills and mountains onto ordinary local landscapes to recast the country as a place where its hills still stand.
In one darkly comic image titled Tampines, a large black hill stands imposingly like a Mount Fuji behind an ordinary Tampines housing estate.
Zhao says that in the 19th century, Singapore begun excavating its inland hills in places such as Tampines, Bedok, Siglap and Jurong. The soil collected was then used to reclaim the sea and expand the borders of the main island. Most hills were flattened during the Telok Ayer Reclamation from 1879 and 1887, and the East Coast Reclamation of 1,481 hectares from 1961 to 1985. By the 1990s, there were no more suitable hills left to excavate.
Zhao, who pursued a Bachelors and Masters in photography in London for four years, says: "Singapore is such a small built-up little island that we take it for granted that everything must change or be renewed or demolished. We almost don't care when an old building gets torn down. We have such a uniquely blase attitude to our land - one that I don't find, for instance, among the English when I was studying in London."
Zhao's reimagined landscape images have earned him a following among art collectors. They are featured in Lasalle's art journal Issue.
Other artists such as Michael Lee, Philipp Aldrup and Charles Lim are also interested in expanding the metaphysical borders of the city beyond its geographical limits.
Lim became the first Singaporean to earn an award at the Venice Film Festival for his short documentary All The Lines Flow Out. The mesmerising film renders the various drains and canals of Singapore as a wondrous subterranean world where life begins and ends.
Photographer Aldrup similarly captures beauty in the ugliest corners of the island, while Lee recasts the city in a thousand different ways through his multimedia works.
Judging from critical and commercial success to these works, it is clear that the themes of impermanence resonate deeply with discerning Singaporeans. Though most of the artists do not see their works as expressions of nostalgia, their works nonetheless evoke a sort of recollection on the part of the viewer.
The 2010 documentary Old Places and its 2013 sequel Old Romances document old places around Singapore that bear special meaning to people - from a quaint barber shop to a little-known vinyl record store. Co-directed by Royston Tan, Eva Tang and Victric Thng, the two films have been hits with Singaporeans, selling 2,400 and 1,400 DVD copies respectively - high figures for documentary films.
"They're among our most popular titles and we get several e-mails from people asking where they can buy them," says a spokesman for its distributor, Objectifs.
A recent exhibition at Fost Gallery of Chun Kai Feng's sculptures were also a hit with local art collectors. Chun's works were inspired by some of the most enduring and recognisable Singaporean objects such as the green trash bin, window grill and parking sign. The show generated stronger sales than any of the gallery's previous exhibitions.
Says Chun: "The works I make are an attempt to give everyday things a voice. I'm trying to draw out the stories that they tell of us.
"For me, it is not important to preserve objects, they are just shells. What is important is to capture the meanings and stories in them and relate them to the viewer."
As stories go, these speak volumes about the Singapore state of mind.