Lost City 3

Featuring Hong Sek Chern, Tang Ling Nah, CK Kum and Geraldine Kang

19 November - 6 December 2015

Introduction

by Samantha Segar

“Lost City is about unravelling and understanding our urban environment (and architecture) by looking at the city through the eyes of the artist. Through them, it may yet be possible to recognise and engage certain ‘truths’ about our urban environment that, in the haste toward attaining the goals of globalisation, perhaps most have ignored.” Arthur Sim, Introduction, Lost City 2004

Lost City was conceived by architect and journalist Arthur Sim in 2004 to explore the intersections between art, architecture and urbanism in the hope of unveiling overlooked realities about the urban environment. In 2008, Lost City 2 expanded on those ideas and addressed the fluid and ephemeral states brought on by living within a full-fledged globalised city.1 While Lost City 3 taking place during Singapore’s jubilee anniversary is purely kismet, reflection, celebration, and taking stock of all that Singapore has become seem the pervasive sentiments of the day, though it is worth noting that the Lost City exhibition series has been addressing these ideas since its inception eleven years ago.

Lost City 3 asks the artists to revisit how they see and understand the built environment and consider the temporal component of its overlaps and transitions, how they, and we, register the speed of the city.

In Singapore “speed” is an essential facet of the master plan. While the city boasts of having “transformed itself into a modern metropolis”2 within the space of a single generation, and critics chide its “needs-to-happen-tomorrow”3 mentality the tiny nation-state goes merrily onward in a manner that is simultaneously “quite successful and quite awful”4 as one artist notes. How does the relentless momentum of Singapore’s built environment influence our experience of the city?

Using Chinese ink, pigment, and collage on rice paper, the works of Hong Sek Chern aggregate the city into a discernible yet unsettling urban-scape, liberating the built environment from the restrictions of the physical world and focusing on the planar aspects of urban growth.

Tang Ling Nah also plays with perspective in her installation work MY CHAR-CITY, constructing miniature cityscapes out of charcoal fragments and projecting its exaggerated outline. The shadow play seeks the truth of presence within our perceptions of the environment.

Geraldine Kang’s photography installation documents the interior of a typical HDB flat and marks the space before and after the passing of a family member. This highly personal record serves as a reminder that the lived experience of place and its material structure are intertwined, and that absence is a subjective concept.

Also addressing built space as integral to the lived experience, artist and architect CK Kum presents reclaimed artefacts, remnants of a now demolished Joo Chiat stage house and a series of photograph-based paintings recalling the “life” of the wooden structures, both memorialising and extending their existence.
Through the use of installation, photography, painting, and Chinese ink, the artists of Lost City 3 consider the contrasting and overlapping experience of time within the built environment and once again, attempt to capture Arthur Sim’s ‘truths’ about our urban environment that might otherwise prove fleeting.

  1. Although not participating here, earlier iterations of the exhibition included Singaporean artists Francis Ng and Ahmad Abu Bakar. The former noted for his photographic and sculptural explorations of space within the built environment and its transitional nature as related to both the human and inanimate. The latter whose ceramic sculptures serve as almost poetic representations of the balance to be negotiated between form and structure.
  2. Livable & Sustainable Cities A Framework, Centre to Livable Cities 2014, Forward. Available at http://www.clc. gov.sg/documents/books/ [Accessed September 2015 clc_cscliveable&sustainablecities.pdf]
  3. C. J. W. -L. Wee. 2003. “Creating High Culture in the Globalized “Cultural Desert” of Singapore”. The MIT Press: p. 87.
  4. In conversation with Ahmad Abu Bakar, 3 December 2014.

LOST CITY 3

by Lai Chee-Kien

I once attempted to write a sequel to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” a seminal literary work that sparked my journey of imagination as a young architecture student. To that end I have, since that time, written fifteen similar city descriptions and also tried visiting Esther Calvino in Rome (his widow wasn’t in). While my project remained uncompleted, the analyses by different scholars of Calvino’s work had been unabated. The 55 cities that Marco Polo narrated in the author’s voice were, in fact, revealed as fragments of just one city: his own beloved Venice. As Michael H. Gass wrote: “… it is … a Venice which has become plural, dispersed, ephemeral again, because it represents far more cities than those, real or imagined, mentioned in Calvino’s elegant and ruthlessly patterned text.”

Gass’ suggestion of the “plural, dispersed, ephemeral” natures of cities is what makes this Lost City project relevant to consider as a series that seasonally interrogate and evaluate aspects that often elude even our seeing eyes and blasé attitudes in the Lion City. In Calvino’s reckoning, the fact that we are in a space, or in a city, does not necessarily prefigure our cognisance of its multifarious expressions. Much more has to be done to comprehend, experience, taste, and ‘read’ it. The idea that the city’s identity is dispersed means that one may need to be outside it for potential comprehensions, from a distance. The ephemeral nature of the city may be discovered in old condensed milk labels, movie tickets, dried up lakes, expunged cemeteries and even in a previous space called Singapore.

In writing texts for the previous two catalogues (2004 and 2008) of the Lost City project, Arthur Sim had accurately selected to discuss the advent and effects of entrenched globalisation and its corollary, circulatory capitalism; as key factors that homogenised the appearances of global cities as well as having deeply influenced the quotidian lives of its dwellers, besides the built environment and urban design policies. As an aspirant global city, Singapore is enrapt in having to play this game under various guises of ‘the creative city,’ ‘the sustainable city,’ etc., and many other such monikers that belie the accompanying class and economic problems embedded in their adoption and implementation. However, one can probably predict that this game will ultimately be won by cities with outer concentric / compliant servant regions complicit in their causes, and not by island-city-states with dissenting, neighbouring nations.

In the seven years since the last Lost City exhibition, many more layers of complexities have been added to those issues of globalisation and capitalism. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements as well as similar events around the world are reactions to address schisms created between those who have or do not have access to public funds, amenities, spaces and realms. Besides the frequent natural disasters, trans-national / cross-border environmental issues such as the annual haze ‘season’ are clouding political relationships between regional cities, with the attendant environmental devastation to both flora and fauna of adjacent areas. A younger generation questions its connections to the people and heritage of a very recent past, brought into focus by the nation’s 50th anniversary celebrations and the island’s first UNESCO World Heritage conferment. What tangible and intangible realms are being gained in their lifetime and even more so, what are being lost?

Structurally, Terry McGee, who had researched Southeast Asian cities since the 1960s, postulated in 2002 that there is a new hierarchy to the way cities function in relation to global cities, replicable elsewhere in the world. He writes: 

“… contemporary globalisation is creating a new global urban hierarchy within which “global cities” such as London, Tokyo and New York dominate and control the financial flows of the system while sub-global cities such as Singapore or Hong Kong play an intermediary role in the system facilitating the flows of foreign investment and assembling regional capital for investment.” What this means of course is that there are now tiered cities working in a strict hierarchical spatial order, with commodities, information, people and capital flowing between cities of a certain tier, competing to be different and aspiring towards the uppermost tiers.

With these in mind, the artists who return to this exhibition series may now broaden their concerns towards this more complicated praxis on which to launch and ruminate their works. Among the very fine works on display by some of Singapore’s best artists in Lost City 3, CK Kum’s work using pieces of the late artist Ng Eng Teng’s house resonated most with me, as I had not only spent many hours with students measuring the house to draw it up, but also had many conversations with the artist in his workspace before his passing, in order to design a museum for him at NUS. The artist and his house studio formerly at 106 Joo Chiat Place, and the fate encrypted in this work, are good or ironic illustrations of the challenges that is still faced by artists in Singapore.

One of the foremost sculptors in Singapore, Eng Teng’s works have not been so well treasured. Two 1984 works titled ‘Spirit of Man’ at the Changi Airport have not been seen publicly for a while, sparking rumours of their disappearance. An earlier work, ‘Balance,’ stands forlorn at Fort Canning Park without most admirers knowing this was part of a collection of works by artists from ASEAN. Other works have had to relocate. ‘Contentment’ and ‘Wealth’ were made in 1974 but they were moved from Plaza Singapura Shopping Centre to the grounds of the National University of Singapore. Even ‘Mother and Child,’ a work erstwhile at Far East Shopping Centre, was unceremoniously moved to a constrained spot outside Orchard Parade Hotel. After his passing, his house-studio was sold off, and efforts to ascertain both its historical and architectural value fell on deaf ears of the site’s ‘developers,’ and it was ripped apart.

As the above example shows, the dimensions to what the city has lost remain to be appreciated. All the works in this exhibition project this possibility, which must be individually understood if the future city has any chance to stand up to its claimed presences.

References

William H. Gass, “Invisible Cities”, in VIA #8 (Graduate School of Fine Arts,. University of Pennsylvania and MIT Press, 1986) pp. 136-155.

Terry G. McGee, “Reconstructing the Southeast Asian City in an era of volatile globalization.” In T. Bunnell, L Drummond and K.C. Ho eds., Critical reflections on cities in Southeast Asia, pp. 31-53. 2002. Singapore: Times Academic Press.

Artists:

  • Hong Sek Chern
  • Tang Ling Nah
  • CK Kum
  • Geraldine Kang