City Beautiful: Understanding Art, Understanding Singapore

One of my young Singaporean friends declared the other day that she finally understood what art is for.  After 20 years of thinking it was merely a way of beautifying our surroundings she realized that it can actually be used to make a statement about something which we may not be able to say with words.  Of course this led to a much longer conservation about how art can be used to communicate simple ideas with graphic design, communicate how to use something through industrial or product design, or it can simply exist to convey more complex, controversial, and even perhaps politically charged ideas.

With her revelation in mind I wanted to share two recent works of art by young Singaporeans which I thought communicate some uniquely Singaporean urban phenomena.  The first work deals with the Singapore’s limited land area as an island, and thus limited space for landfills, through a study of trash.  The second piece draws attention to how Singapore’s “multi-ethnic, multi-religious” population often lives in very dense highrises without actually knowing each other at all.

Republic of Pulau Semakau

Zinkie Aw’s “Republic of Pulau Semakau” highlights one of Singapore’s pressing environmental problems — limited landfill space.  She uses a series of portraits with filled trash cans in place of individual faces to present “things owned and disowned by people.”  She describes her work:

Pieced together, this body of work anchors to issues of waste management in Singapore — to realise things that we as individuals discard, will collectively contribute to Singapore’s only landfill on the offshore island of Pulau Semakau. In 1999, after having exhausted the landfills on mainland Singapore, Singapore then created a Semakau landfill by enclosing Pulau Semakau and a small adjacent island with a rock bund. In this light, we, could all be considered ‘Founders’ of this reclaimed portion of the island. It has never occurred to us where all these rubbish end up in land-scarce and over-populated Singapore. Hopefully these dustbins will form a reality check for all of us.

My favorite portrait in her series is “Ms Mamashop,” named after the neighborhood convenient stores, mamashops.  The trash in this image is mostly packaging, but by being set in a shop this piece highlights how the waste problem is not just about the items that we own and then choose to disown.  Instead it reflects how our each day consumption of  conveniences items contributes greatly to our ecological footprint.

At Our Doorsteps

Although photographer Sam Kang Li lives in a high-rise tower block with 44 other families he admits that after living there 17 years he “could barely count on one hand the number of residents [he] could readily recognize.”  In his photography project, “At Our Door Steps” he seeks to meet all of his neighbors and to take a family portrait for each of them.  Through this project he mentions not only meeting neighbors for the first time but also discovering old family friends that had been living in his block all along.  He describes his work:

…this is never a project about me, nor is it a self-expression piece. This is a project that aims to bring out the best sides of the residents of my block. So it is really satisfying for me to see people actually inviting themselves into the pictures and inviting themselves into the conversations.

Although Kang Li doesn’t directly mention this in his documentary or its description, but his work indirectly reflects the outcomes of Singapore’s efforts to create a “harmonious” society where people from multiple ethnic groups and religions live together in HDB tower blocks because of a quota system.  In an effort to prevent marginalizing minority groups Singapore implemented quota policies long ago to help promote a more integrated society. However as Kang Li’s documentary shows these policies have not led to as much integration as one would hope. However I was very excited to see that Kang Li was able to get all of his neighbors to participate in the project because they wanted to know their neighbors better.

Even though art such as these projects is considered beautiful, I hope that its story does not stop with aesthetics qualities.  I hope these projects inspire more us to invest in our city, be it through environmental improvements or by simply getting to know our neighbors.

– Melissa

All photos are from the photographers Zinkie Aw and Sam Kang Li



  1. Hey there! I stumbled upon this post in my search for Singaporean blogs on wordpress.

    I have lived my life in Singapore, and I think it’s a great place to live in. There are many aspects of the society I can complain about – the education, the politics, or even the ugly side of Singaporeans, but there is much to appreciate as well.

    Two years ago, I came across a news article (titled Great hawker or great scholar for a great city?) on an interview of Joel Kotkin, who wrote “The Next 100 Million: America in 2050”. This article came up to my mind when I read this post. I wish I could link you the article, but I only have it as a clipping.

    What Mr Kotkin emphasized was that a city needs to have a ‘sense of self’ to be sustainable, to be one of the great cities of the world. I wouldn’t say Singapore is the best city in the world (despite some rankings drawing from misleading statistics), but in many ways it is enviable.

    In my opinion, to sustain itself as an ‘enviable’ city by establishing a sense of self, art is indispensable. Art expresses the spirit, the values, the culture that weave the social and moral framework of any society. It doesn’t define it; it merely reflects it.

    I am no artist, but I believe in the value of art in our ever pragmatic society.

  2. Pingback: Basically Sessions: Hosting Singapore’s Arts Community | Encountering Urbanization

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: