From beaches to beans: Time and material in 4 shows
SINGAPORE — It’s been a while since I’ve gone gallery hopping, but I’ve finally managed to catch four at one go. Incidentally, they’re all shows by female artists, and their themes and subjects form a nice symmetrical dialogue with one another — Juria Toramae (in collaboration with Jerome Lim) and Tay Wei Leng’s respective investigations on time, memory and place, and Grace Tan and Lavender Chang’s forays into material and process.
PAST AND PRESENT
The main set of works comprising Toramae’s Points Of Departure (POD) at the National Library Building are composite photographs combining folks from old photos at the beach (the earliest from the `40s) superimposed on present day images of said places (Sentosa, Changi Beach, Pulau Semakau, East Coast Beach, et cetera). You’ve got a group of men striking a pose on rocks and driftwood or a group of children making sandcastles, for instance, while oil tankers ply the waters in the background.
Based on the personal memories of the subjects she interviewed, Toramae then allows you to specifically situate these photographs geographically (by way of QR codes that let you see where these moments from the past are found on Google Maps).
And yet, visually, they’re less easy to place. Part of the reason is that they aren’t quite seamless composites. Not only are you aware of the disconnect between the modern oil tankers and, well, the hairstyles and clothing of the folks in the photo, you’re also conscious about the difference in quality between the old and new elements of the photographs, whether it’s the tint, light, or even the cropping. (It’s less subtly reiterated in the exhibition’s video installation of Singapore’s shoreline, juxtaposed with sound recordings of the interviewees’ recollections — which extends the (light/sound/actual) “wave” metaphor, in a way, too.)
The show is, of course, a commentary on the changes in Singapore through the years and the uneasy relationship between past and present. It’s linked to the Singapore Memory Project and irememberSG (and while we’re at it, we should probably be mindful that the chosen images are of a specific group of people who had the ability to indulge in leisure activities like a regatta and had easy access to cameras).
But what struck me most actually was the presence of the sea, which Toramae has rightfully pointed as the constant (along with the islands that serve as markers). While land reclamation has somewhat made questionable the idea of islands as completely immutable, the sea retains its ahistorical, featureless presence around which everything else — the land and people that give these images a semblance of place and history — revolves and evolves. You could very well link this exhibition to other strong investigations into Singapore’s relationship with the sea, such as those by Charles Lim and Zai Kuning — the former’s maritime maps and the latter’s recent makeshift boats find resonance in the show’s Google Map tracking feature and a centrepiece “boathouse” sculpture, respectively.
Over at the nearby Chan Hampe Galleries is another show that seems the complete opposite of POD, beginning with its very title — Tay Wei Leng’s photography exhibition How did we get here.
In contrast to POD’s open seaside vistas and scrutiny of the past in Singapore, Tay’s assortment of images dwell on the present, urban and cramped situation of Hong Kong’s denizens.
Playing the role of voyeur (albeit willingly accepted into the subjects’ private spaces), the show is a continuation of her series documenting the lives of friends and acquaintances (she’s been based in HK for a long time now). Mostly interior shots, there’s a loose, intimate, and unforced quality to her images — a family gathered around a table in mid-party, a woman lounging in bed checking her laptop, a couple who are both lost in their respective thoughts. The images seem “ordinary”, taken in moments that seem uninteresting at first. But that, perhaps, is the point — the title implies a jolt, a heywaitaminute subtle sensation of unfamiliarity. In these shots, Tay seems to consciously frame the commonplace precisely as moments.