Shifting Dioramas

Solo Exhibition By Green Zeng

17 March - 10 April 2016

In his latest exhibition, Shifting Dioramas, Green Zeng takes us on a different journey across the island to look at the National Day billboards in Singapore’s Jubilee year and examines the connection between changing electoral boundaries, power and order.

Zeng presents a series of photographs taken in the still of the night across 27 electoral constituencies. Familiar National Day billboards with SG50 celebratory messages, smiling MPs and constituents are framed against the heartland landscape and interposed by constituency lines. In a way serving as markers of power and place, the tableau-like billboards allow the viewer to contemplate the changes of setting and players as the boundaries shift with each election. Like an unfinished drawing, the boundary of the constituencies remains a work in progress.


by Aloysius Tan

So there’s the first quality: absence. What the viewer encounters, almost immediately, is the photographic tableau. Take Holland-Bukit Timah GRC (Shifting Dioramas), for instance: the scene is a prosaic one, boasting all the requisite elements for identification as a typically Singaporean landscape (typicality being a contested notion, no doubt, but let’s assume some form of consensus here). There are the requisite blocks of public housing, clad in the homogeneous contours and anodyne colours of HDB-approved aesthetics, complete with a communal patch of green; there is the neon-lit glow of signage, writ large on the side of what is now the ubiquitous suburban mall; there is a fine example of the SG50 billboard that we all became so used to last year, here erected by the members of Parliament of the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency, or GRC, their beaming visages all lined up a row of pristine outfits and perfect coifs. 

The specificities of both place and time are alluded to: “Junction 10”, the neon luminescence in the background reads, which marks the exact location of the shot – the crossing at which the mall is situated, where Upper Bukit Timah Road morphs into Woodlands Road, and Choa Chu Kang Road gives way to Bukit Panjang Road. The SG50 sloganeering quite plainly suggests that the photo was taken sometime in 2015, during the nation’s golden jubilee celebrations, and the fact that the billboard is emblazoned with the gleaming inscription of “50th National Day” would seem to indicate the lead-up to the August 9 festivities. What’s missing then? … People, of course. While the human figure is certainly represented on the hoardings, it is twice removed from the viewer, reduced to being an image within an image. The carefully calibrated composition manages to efface human inhabitants from the nondescript, depopulated terrain that is its chosen subject matter – but the absence of the crowd is an observation to which we’ll return shortly. 

And then there’s that second noun: the abstract. Superimposed on the scene are ghostly apparitions in the form of geometric outlines, hollowed-out shapes floating in the foreground of the pictorial field, only barely discernible – yet obstinately present. There is a large silhouette resembling a recumbent profile, and, over that, a second, upright one, brighter of hue and slighter of scale. It may come as no surprise – the title gives the game away, really – that these spectral, disembodied entities are derived from political maps of the locale(s) concerned: the large shape is what the now-defunct Bukit Timah GRC at the time of 1997 General Election looked like, a five-member grouping which encompassed several former Single Member Constituencies (SMCs); the smaller shape adopts the form of the titular Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, as it emerged from the redrawing of electoral boundaries during the 2006 elections. Juxtaposed against the glut of visual information proffered by the photograph, the abstracted, excavated character of these purely linear shapes are thrown into stark relief. They provide little or almost no information about broader realities, in the way that maps do: beyond politically contingent notions of place – contingent, naturally, on electoral numbers – these largely artificial units are nearly completely self-referential phenomena. Shorn of all signifiers, these (quasi-)maps fail to communicate any sense of external space. 

Finally, we come to the abditive. Drawn from the Latin term abditīvus, which suggests being removed or separated from, the English word denotes the quality of hiding.

And this image, if nothing else, is reticent: it hides, it conceals; it is a sly, oblique commentary. 

There is, on the one hand, the fact of the absent crowds. Not unlike other works by Southeast Asian artists – say, Simryn Gill’s seminal series, Dalam (2001) or Heman Chong’s more recent Calendars (2004 – 2010) – Green Zeng’s Shifting Dioramas features, at its core, a deliberate, articulate lacuna. Here, the non-presence functions as a vocal void. The chief element in the photograph – the billboard – alludes to the facts of political life in Singapore as it enters the sixth decade of independence, yet notably truant from the composition is that most salient aspect of electoral politics: the citizenry. The otherwise nameless, faceless crowd that nonetheless, paradoxically, provides the foundation of political power has been expunged from the picture, yet lingers on as, literally, a cardboard representation of itself, a two-dimensional replica rendered as lifeless and inert as its own material support. The trope of concealment is amplified in the maps of electoral constituencies, which cannily evacuates all manner of information, all visual cues that might provide any manner of data beyond the mere actuality of its abstract configuration, a configuration that has no correlate in physical reality. If, as Amy Propen notes, “the field of cartography has been rooted in an objective, standardized set of practices that purport to convey accurate and correct models for ways of knowing”, here is that ostensibly ‘correct’ object, the map, denying almost all objective forms of knowledge, with little to root in any sense of space, place, or lived realities.  

In other words, welcome to twenty-first century politics. 


  • Green Zeng












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