Rediscover: Telok Ayer—Another art walk?
As her final piece in a series of unique cultural experiences in Singapore, GRC reviewer Akanksha Raja previews yet another art walk. Laying bare the difficulties faced by artists digging for heritage amidst an increasingly gentrified and complexly interlayed city, she offers a close reading of each artist’s intimate relationship with the materiality of the works, and the stories with which they’re embedded.
Over the past five years, art walks, heritage trails, and district-specific creative projects have become staples of Singapore’s yearly art calendar. From annual or regular programmes like ArtWalk Little India and OH! Open House, to promenade productions like Drama Box’s Chinatown Crossings or The Theatre Practice’s Four Horse Road, there’s a clear desire in our cultural offerings towards deep-diving into the unique-storied histories of Singapore’s diverse neighbourhoods. These often take place in areas that are known for heritage architecture or defined by a specific community’s history. So it may be surprising to some to consider Telok Ayer to be the venue for such a project—not because it isn’t historically significant, having been a coastal settlement centuries prior, as its Malay name indicates—but because it’s now so inextricably associated with upscale F&B establishments and corporate office spaces, that it isn’t really the first area that comes to mind for heritage and art.
This conflation is what some of the artists featured in Rediscover: Telok Ayer had to navigate when responding to the site—finding points of connection between the contemporary and personal, the historical and public in one of Singapore’s most gentrified districts. Rediscover: Telok Ayer is a project by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and LASALLE College of the Arts, involving four artists who’ve spent the last few months creating works that respond to specific facets of neighbourhood, and Vikas Kailankaje, an architecture-trained designer, lecturer, and walking trail guide, who will be leading a historical-architectural walk through the area. I spoke to the four artists about the popularity of art trails, the idiosyncrasies of Telok Ayer, and their personal experiences working on the project.
Two of the artists’ works stem from intersections of their personal biographies with broader communal histories. Sarah Lin’s WELCOME HOME: Diaspora is a series of redesigned painted archway/doorway reliefs overlaid on original murals located along the shophouses on Stanley and Amoy Street.
It was initially a struggle for her to find a meeting point between her iconographic interests—tarot imagery, surrealism, and bold, liberated female figures—and the dialogue with the historicised space that the project was asking for. Her work has come a long way from its initial (rejected) sketches, which were of women sitting around drinking alcohol, an image that blends in more with the present ubiquity of bars in the area. “Looking back, it was my ego talking,” she reflects on her preliminary motivations for the project. “So I threw away those sketches and did some proper research.” After spending a weekend reading about symbolism in Chinese architecture and aesthetics, and the relevance of legendary sea goddess Ma Zhu to Telok Ayer’s history as a coastal settlement, “something started clicking.”
The title of Sarah’s work, WELCOME HOME: Diaspora, alludes at once to history, mythology,and autobiography—Telok Ayer’s social history as backbone to the development of Chinese and Indian Muslim immigrant communities, overlaid with Sarah’s peripatetic, third-culture sense of identity, having been born in Jeddah, holding a Taiwanese passport, and growing up in Singapore with a brief stint in the USA. Ma Zhu features prominently in Sarah’s pieces as well; her significance as a guide for migrants and travellers is enshrined in Telok Ayer’s Thian Hock Keng Temple, and embodied in Sarah’s work as a figure of feminist strength within male-dominated Chinese traditions.
Shirley Soh’s Lai Ciun Gua (Let’s Sing) is in part inspired by her family’s relationship with the namesake of Amoy Street—the city of Xia Men in Fujian province, from where she traces her Hokkien ancestry. Drawing inspiration from the Musical Box Museum in the vicinity, Shirley’s installation is a series of motion-sensor-activated “music boxes” playing Hokkien folk songs, located along Amoy and Telok Ayer Street. The panels in her installations display lyrics in romanised Hokkien for non-Hokkien speakers to follow the tune, even if they may not understand it.
While Hokkien folk songs may not have mass appeal, especially due to the diminishing use of dialects, Shirley feels they have contemporary relevance or points of relatability. One of the songs is Ti Or Or (The Sky is Getting Dark). “That’s one everybody knows,” Shirley shares, “and not because of the original tune, but because Stephanie Sun brings it into one of her choruses. Her song has nothing to do with the original lyrics, but it uses the same melody.” There’s another song about meat dumplings (Sio Bah Zang)—about the struggles of a young girl trying to make business selling dumplings. “I was quite surprised to find it had that social commentary on its time. It’s not too unfamiliar to today’s world.”
“I think there’s now a lot more interest in local history,” she says when we segue into talking about the increasing popularity of public art and heritage trails. “It’s refreshing to me to see younger people, and not just the usual art audience, coming for trails like this these days.”
Janus, by Dylan Chan, is arguably the most abstract of the four works. Organza veils hang from the arches in the walkway leading to Ann Siang Hill Park, falling just shy of the average pedestrian’s head, and colourless except for pixelated squares across the lower half in various flat shades of blue, brown, grey, green, and orange, suggesting the nebulousness and insufficiency of memory. They were intended to be full-length curtains, wherein a more immediately tactile experience could have been achieved, but it would’ve been too obstructive. “I wanted to use a sheer and light material,” he explains, “to give an almost ghostly or membrane-like feel to this transient space. The colour blocking comes from the surrounding buildings, skin tones … as well as seascapes, paying homage to maritime trade.”
Finally, Hazel Lim’s Stories of the Sea extends from her 2013 Singapore Biennale presentation A Botanical and Wildlife Survey – Singapore, in which she led art students in documenting images of natural habitats on porcelain plates. Stories of the Sea is, similarly, a “container of memories, or an archive of observed things that matter.” Porcelain plates are a meaningful symbol of memory for her—they are “things that are often excavated from wreckage” as relics embodying a forgotten past, but they’re also precious vessels of the present that would potentially preserve stories and messages for an unforeseeable future. The words and vignettes sketched on each plate draw from personal accounts and family histories of members of the Indian Muslim community in Telok Ayer, whom Hazel had met through the Nagore Dargah Heritage Centre, which has been a shrine and a gathering space for the south Indian Muslim community in the area since 1830. The plates are installed in cases on the wall of Eden Garden Cafe, close to where the old shoreline ran, bringing the work closer, in a way, to the histories of the individuals and families that still find community in some of the homely spaces of a neighbourhood that is relentlessly transfigured.
The artworks created for Rediscover: Telok Ayer will be on display for the next six months, so if you’re starved for art during, or after, the cultural drought that April will bring, there’s plenty of time to plan a trip to Telok Ayer to explore how themes of community, family, language, migration, multiculturalism, and spirituality intermingle and find form in this unlikeliest of spaces for art.