Art review: | Singapore Survey 2015

Valentine Willie's latest Singapore Survey show, titled Hard Choices, includes Heman Chong's The Singapore Flag (foreground) and works by Nguan. Photo courtesy of the artists.
John Clang's photo of an SIA flight attendant at The Exhibition. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Robert Zhao Renhui's View Of Marina Bay Sands at The Exhibition. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Bernice Wong's I Believe I Can Fly at The Exhibition. Photo courtesy of the artist.
From photographs to flags, we check out two exhibitions on Singapore
Published: 4:17 AM, August 22, 2015

SINGAPORE — Despite the conclusion of the nation’s 50th National Day, there’s still a good chunk of the Jubilee year left. This translates into one final push for SG50-related events, which in terms of art exhibitions means we can look forward to a few more surveys of Singapore’s past, present and future. Two that have stood out in recent weeks are The Exhibition at the Esplanade’s Jendela Gallery, and the latest edition of Valentine Willie’s celebrated series of Singapore Surveys titled Hard Choices.

Given that a survey involves examining a thing and recording its salient features, it is perhaps appropriate that takes the form of a broad photographic survey of Singapore, through the eyes of 20 photographers each presenting 15 photographs. Over the past two years, each photographer’s contributions have been published in thematically organised photobooks, with the last two yet to come. In being dispersed across time and among sometimes widely divergent perspectives, the project comes across as an appropriately contemporary counterpart to the mammoth photographic publications A Salute to Singapore (1984) and Singapore: Island, City State (1990), which once commemorated Singapore.

It’s certainly not all nationalistic chest-thumping, with such images as a conventionally saccharine photo by John Clang, of an SIA flight attendant in a flower shop, subtly overlaid with the jarring handwritten text: “I don’t want to die. Help me.” The possibility of critique and ambiguity also emerges in other stand-out photos, such as Robert Zhao Renhui’s View Of Marina Bay Sands, which composites images of Singapore with other metropoles, resulting in a megacity of overwhelming dreariness, or Bernice Wong’s I Believe I Can Fly, a portrait of the urban poor, which evokes both dread and whimsy. In this wealth of striking images, some fall a little flat, like Matthew Teo’s A Little Bit Of Me From Everything Else, while the non-book portions of the exhibition feel rather like an afterthought by comparison.

As far as surveys go, one of the most significant in recent years has been Willie’s Singapore Surveys, which first began amid the financial crisis in 2008 — arguably a far more timely starting point for critical reflection than a coincidence of decimal neatness. On hiatus since the closure of Willie’s eponymous gallery in 2012, the survey’s latest edition takes its title from a volume of essays by Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh, which examines the assumptions underlying the brand of Singapore exceptionalism that has come to inform the ways we imagine and discuss Singapore.

Fittingly enough, the exhibition brings together some stellar works by contemporary artists such as Genevieve Chua’s Oscilla and Chun Kai Feng’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know, which, though addressing very different subjects, stand apart in their free-floating monumentality, spectacles both sensory and intellectual. If the show has a weakness, though, it’s that it seems a little disconnected from the overarching theme of the underlying myths of Singapore and the hard choices which arise in tackling them — running the risk, oddly enough, of being just a collection of great artworks.

Some works that do address these myths include Heman Chong’s The Singapore Flag, which decomposes the sacrosanct national symbol into its vexillogical, textual description, which seems a little like — to borrow from The Wizard Of Oz — paying attention to the man behind the curtain. In a similar sense, Jimmy Ong’s 2 Hock Lee and Study for Rampogan Macan, which, respectively, address the police response to the Hock Lee bus riots and the practice of hunting tigers in pre-modern Singapore, almost seem to come together as one; a fevered dream of historical violence often left out of SG50 events. The Exhibition runs until Jan 3 at the Esplanade Jendela, while Singapore Survey 2015: Hard Choices runs until Sept 13 at Artspace@Helutrans, 39 Keppel Road. Closed on Mondays to Wednesdays and public holidays. Free admission for both.