Printed in How do we deal with constant change? (FOCA, Singapore)
The flats in Teban Gardens are only 35 years old. Yet, as early as 1997, they were considered old and shabby enough to be torn down. The flats now lie in their final stage of en-bloc, waiting to be demolished.
Perhaps it was the cheap materials that had been chosen when the buildings were constructed. It seems that no long-term plan existed for the maintenance of these buildings to last a lifetime. Such low-cost assembly is indicative of utilitarian, effective function at the cost of durability.
The rapid replacement of buildings in Singapore means, for members of the community and society, loss of identity, memory and cultural values. Architecture is associated with history- the familiar places we inhabit give us a sense of who we are. Tear them down, and we are displaced.
When an en-bloc deal is closed, flat occupants receive an attractive sum of money in return for their removal (bodily and architecturally) and replacement. Occupants proceed to shift their memories and belongings into storage, preparing to shift habits of a lifetime to new locations.
It was in this context that Free of Charge Artshow (FOCA) transformed a flat in Teban Gardens into a gallery site/ exhibition space where people collectively discussed the notions of change, progress and loss, and the rapid replacement of buildings. In a sense, this was a political response to the en-bloc situation. With no ultimate say over the transformations in our landscape, it might nevertheless be possible to reclaim the space, albeit for a brief period, and to occupy present space and time, in order to stake a place in our heritage.
As part of the exhibition, Riya de los Reyes had transformed the kitchen counter and cabinet into a repository of books. I was especially excited to have the opportunity to review this conceptual art piece of a kitchen library, given my love of books and my interest in socio-cultural development.
Beginning with the question, ‘which cuisine(s) do you want represented at the dinner table?’, Pot(luck) sought to explore rapid social change as a parallel to rapid transformations of the building landscape. In particular, Pot(luck) focused on the influx of foreign talent and migrant workers permeating Singaporean society.
Underpinning the continuous upgrades and replacement of old buildings is the belief that the better off one is, the more opulent is the home one inhabits. Something old is overtaken by something new. Upgrade from a three-room to a five-room flat. Vacate the HDB flat, move into the greener pastures that the condominium offers, complete with gym, swimming pool and function rooms.
The rapid replacement of buildings is a quick fix for a country whose constant emphasis is survival in a globalised world. To get ahead, we welcome renewal without any scepticism regarding its possible disadvantages. The deliberate methods through which Singapore is urgently and continuously modernised suggests that diversity (old and new) in the urban landscape has been sidelined.
In a similar vein, at the root of increased labour mobility is the belief that attracting talent from abroad or filling the need for workers to perform menial work is required for remaining competitive. But this has resulted in an intertwining of the Singaporean identity with flows of foreign nationalities. It reminded me of Singapore’s position as hinterland, in particular, Singapore’s economic relations with Malaysia and Indonesia that reconfigure social and political ties.
Semantically, the term ‘potluck’ suggests individual contributions to a meal. Within this arrangement, however, exists contingency and uncertainty. Which food items will appear? Likewise, Pot(luck) narrates ambivalent consequences. The outcomes of movement and migration that result from Singapore’s liberal foreign policy are undefined.
The kitchen-library saw several books deliberately arranged on the counter top. My attention was drawn almost immediately to a pile of cookbooks effectively lit by a desk lamp illuminating their presence. They featured cuisine from a plethora of countries: French, Italian and British sat proudly at the top, Japanese and Korean occupied the middle, while Bangladesh was situated right at the bottom. Plagued by the stark absence of a local cookbook, I contemplated my own status. Where should the Singaporean stand in the midst of foreigners in his own country?
A separate set of books about Singapore lay on the table. The separateness of the foreign from the local books was strangely unsettling, seemingly suggestive of a gap between the social and economic status of foreigners and Singaporeans. Or perhaps it was a recognition of the failure of foreigners to smoothly integrate into Singapore society. Singapore as a Port City. Capitalist Development and Culture in Singapore. Territorial Transformations… Singapore’s Hinterland. The titles themselves were enough to unnerve, unleashing concern after concern at the viewer.
But as a piece meant to connect with the en-bloc situation and to explore notions of past, change, progress and loss, I was unable to see a strong or direct message. The books presented were current writings on Singapore, with no space on the counter for possible or future books, representing future concerns.
There was no clear indication that the art piece had engaged with the notions of change and nostalgia for the past, whether in reference to the building landscape or to society. But perhaps this should have been addressed, particularly in the environmental setting of an en-bloc situation. The questions of whether or not and how much we should latch on to the past, and how much we should let go in order to advance, could have been aptly highlighted, perhaps by inclusion of relevant books such as David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country.
As a standalone piece, however, the kitchen library by Riya de los Reyes is not without its merits. If understood as a catalyst to stimulate and provoke thought on migration and mobility, population demographics and national identity, it has sufficed.