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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.

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.


THINGS IN THEMSELVES

Meanwhile, the remaining two artists’ shows are preoccupied with specific materials as they look at states of things and the processes involved in them.

To create the photographs that comprise I am a seed though a different one from you, which is currently up at Galerie Sogan & Art, Lavender Chang hung out not with people but with… beans.

Her MO is simple: For one year, she tried growing different kinds of beans in a variety of mediums and conditions, such as milk, Chinese ink, a watermelon, Fanta Grape, rock music, her own blood. She then records the results as photographic still lifes awash in white. These are poetic records of growth and decay.

Because of the beans, I initially thought I am a seed was an extension of one of her series that deconstructed hawker food dishes into its many ingredients. But actually, it’s more in line with her works about time, such as Unconsciousness: Consciousness’ time-lapse portraits tracking single bodies through a single night.

I am a seed seems like a scientific experiment, but it’s not — Chang says she’s not concerned about, say, the chemical reactions that occur when beans come into contact with blood. Rather, blood seen as a metaphor for life. The photographs of these elegant tendrils sprouting up (or wilting), therefore, can be regarded as conscious (but random) artistic commentaries rather than scientifically valid findings. While the various liquids contribute to the beans’ reactions to a point, the absence of context in the predominantly white photographs (apart from the titles that describe the kind of bean and the liquid) mean it doesn’t really matter whether it’s in coffee or milk — except as some metaphorical device.

In Grace Tan’s exhibition, however, the poetry is *in* the materials she uses. In The truth of matter at FOST Gallery, she meticulously grapples with various types of paper and pigments to create sculptural works. Actually, “grapples” is the wrong word to use — Tan not so much shapes and struggles with her materials as respectfully work with these to create the final product, whether it’s steel, fabric or loop pins (which make a cameo here courtesy of a version of her familiar “cloud” sculpture that was also at the 2013 Setouchi Triennial in Japan).

Stacks of paper are painstakingly sliced piece by piece to create slivers of paper, or brushed or sanded, and then dipped into or brushed with different pigments. She allows the materials themselves to partially dictate the shape and colour of the final product — whether they be delicate pieces that seem like wood shavings, or paper discs that seem precariously stacked one over the other, or rough blocks of paper.

The titles themselves — just numbered — hint at extreme detachment and the final sculptures are highlighted as pure objects that seemingly float suspended on plinths so that you could even see its bottom, a pure three-dimensional view of a three-dimensional object.


***
Points Of Departure runs until April 28 at the National Library Building, Level 10 Promenade. Free admission.
How did we get here runs until May 3 at Chan Hampe Galleries, Raffles Hotel Arcade. Free admission.
I am a seed though a different one from you runs until April 11 at Galerie Sogan & Art, 16 Mohamed Sultan Road. Free admission.
The truth of matter runs until May 3 at FOST Gallery, Gillman Barracks, #01-02, 1 Lock Road. Free admission.

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