You are here
Vignettes of a nation
THIS year's National Day Funpack is garnering plenty of attention, not just because every household is entitled to one, but because the tote bags feature 50 whimsical designs by Singaporeans - from Singlish aphorisms to hand-drawn illustrations of familiar sights.
Patriotic tunes and a plethora of commercial products bearing an SG50 stamp aside, the next most powerful representations of the Singapore story are visual. And rather than being jaded by the festivities, the nation's young creative set is unleashing its imagination to investigate the meaning of being truly Singaporean.
Later this month, an exhibition of 90 products conveying the Singapore "brand" - such as badges that resemble Peranakan tiles, exercise books called The Story of Xiao Ming and Xiao Hua, or a deck of playing cards with suits that pay tribute to local history, people and culture - will be staged at the National Design Centre. Singapore Souvenirs 2015 will gather the works of 16 homegrown designers, which not only serve as alternatives to Merlion keychains and Tiger Balm ointment, but provide a fresh medium for exploring the nation's narrative.
"The Singapore Deck was the result of a brainstorming session with my wife, who is also a Singaporean and a designer," says Joe Tan, a freelance industrial designer who created The Singapore Deck of playing cards. "We wanted to create a deck of poker cards with meaningful illustrations, that could depict unique icons/aspects of our Singapore culture and history and tell our story."
Conceived as a design project by two friends, John Chan and Winston Chai, who work collectively as design duo Triggerhappy, Singapore Souvenirs is a series of products that reinforce the Singapore identity through objects.
This is the second time the pair is showcasing the works by a group of homegrown designers, with 18 new creations to celebrate the jubilee year. Apart from curating the exhibition, Triggerhappy has also organised Singapasar, a design-centric weekend pasar malam held on July 31 at the National Design Centre, in conjunction with the exhibition.
"Personally, the Singaporean identity comes from embracing who and what we are, yet hating or being embarrassed about it at the same time," says John Chan, who, along with Mr Chai and composer/media artist Nick Chan, created an alarm clock that emits familiar sounds such as the national anthem or the distinctive call of the Asian koel.
"This is reflected through the works on show. Some works relate more to the known lexicons or vocabulary of Singapore, be it visual icons, Singlish, and so on. Others focus more on the intangible values of the Singaporean behaviour and psyche. The objective of the exhibition isn't so much about us defining what the Singaporean identity is, but to make a start and have this be a platform for all to contribute to continually evolving and defining it."
Meanwhile, in September, Singapore Art Museum will be unveiling 5 Stars, a contemporary art project that revisits Singapore's founding values of justice, progress, democracy, peace and equality. Inspired by the Singapore flag, four commissioned artworks by contemporary artists Suzann Victor, Ho Tzu-Nyen, Matthew Ngui and Zulkifle Mahmod have been commissioned, alongside a presentation by art historian TK Sabapathy.
"SG50 is a wonderful opportunity for us to commission key Singapore art luminaries to think deeply about what it means to be Singaporean, and re-examine the five values that have grounded Singapore's guiding principles as a nation," explains Susie Lingham, director of the Singapore Art Museum.
"Through this reflection, we also recognise them as universal and complex values that others in any part of the world can understand and share. By commissioning five luminaries of the local art scene to reflect afresh upon these values at this significant turn in Singapore's history, the process enables new artworks to come into being," she adds. "These notions of 'creating' and 'expression' are very apt here as they echo how societies and nations are formed, and find form."
Even shopping malls are getting in on the act. Some retail destinations are looking beyond paraphernalia in red and white and are instead roping in young homegrown artists to interpret the story of The Little Red Dot. One Raffles Place Shopping Mall has roped in Noise Singapore, a National Arts Council initiative to promote artistic expression among the young, local artist-run institution INSTINC, and arts, design and advertising company Word Your Story, to work on a series of artistic creations that will be showcased in the mall.
"Often, the millennials may come across as apathetic or even cynical," says Ng Lay Pheng, general manager of OUB Centre Ltd, which manages the shopping spot. "However, at One Raffles Place, we believe that it is important that the rest of the community understands their thoughts as they will be the next generation of leaders to take Singapore to greater heights."
A series of photographs, as disparate as an image of the artist's father lighting a joss stick at a home altar, to a montage of time-lapse shots of crowds surging past the gigantic rotating globe in front of Universal Studios, presents varying takes on scenes that are uniquely Singaporean.
"I use photography as a channel through which the Singapore story can be told. To me, photography is so ubiquitous in our culture now. Most people have their mobile phones with them and are not alien to clicking the digital shutter button to capture a shot. Photography has empowered many of us," says Zinkie Aw, a graduate of the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information whose portraits of Singaporeans playing the puzzle video game Candy Crush Saga will be showcased in the mall.
"Photography, via snapshots and formal photographs, has helped us to interpret what we like, what we would record, what we would share on social channels or face-to-face with people, and what we think is the 'highlight' of our daily lives," she says
This October, the Singapore River Festival 2015 will also see the three quays (Robertson, Clarke and Boat Quay) transformed with art installations, exhibitions, music, food and performances by local and international artists. Themed "SG River Stories", and playing on the unique history and heritage of the Singapore River, 20 local artists will be invited to transform the back alleys around Boat Quay and Circular Road using various art forms to create a large-scale visual showcase.
"From large urban murals to hidden guerrilla installation art, visitors will get to see surprising artworks of both big and micro scales," says artist and creative director Steve Lawler, who will be curating the alleyway artworks. "Art is great at defusing language barriers. Regardless of where you come from, you will be able to appreciate the beauty of the various works, which act as a visual language describing Singapore's past."
Likewise, the Singapore Souvenirs exhibition communicates the nuances and facets of local society through the variety of works on display - and the message they convey. While many designs such as The Singapore Deck and kueh tu-tu-shaped erasers may be relatively light-hearted, other works seem to probe a little deeper into our heritage.
Designer and educator Hans Tan took the idea of traditional blue-and-white Chinese porcelain and created Singapore Blue, a vase adorned with blue illustrations executed by a dry erase marker, which is inserted into the vase through a small receptacle that is part of the vase. The ephemeral nature of the design might raise the question of Singapore's fast-changing identity and landscape - a contrast to the historical object from which the work is inspired.
"I have never really considered design as a platform for social commentary, as that may seem to be the purview of the arts, but would say that design promotes social change," says Mr Tan. "Design is meant to solve problems and well-designed products promote change by providing a better solution to an existing issue. Hence, its message is often more subtle and would not hit you in the face the same way that the media, Internet or the arts would. But your behaviour and perception could change as design introduces different ways to approach existing issues you may have."