November 23 – 24, 2011
It was said that public art reflected the identity of a place. In the case of Singapore, its strict rules, economic progress, and antiseptic sheen could gloss over the city’s intangible heritage and unseen realities, but I had the chance to get acquainted with the city-state through the many sculptures that defined it for me.
Rising quickly as the most developed country in Southeast Asia, Singapore had since been known as the affluent but rather uptight member of the region. What a refreshing irony it was, then, to see, from Cavanagh Bridge near the Fullerton Hotel, the spontaneity and abandon depicted in Chong Fah Cheong’s The First Generation: a sculpture of a group of boys jumping into the river, a sight still common in my country but unimaginable in present-day Singapore. Anyone caught doing such these days would more likely end up fined or, worse, caned.
The bronze plaque thus explained:
The Singapore River plays a pivotal role in the history and development of Singapore. It was where our first migrant communities settled to pursue their dreams of a better tomorrow and where work and play co-existed. It was the lifeline of Singapore.
For the children living by the riverbanks, it was one giant swimming pool – the source of simple pleasure and high adventure alike. The sight and sound of naked boys, swinging from the trees that lined the river and jumping with gusto, breathed charm into the area. They swam in large numbers for safety and quickly learnt to manoeuvre the muddy depths and avoid the bumboats criss-crossing the river.
The polluted waters, full of garbage that occasionally included animal carcasses, did nothing to deter the boys. They swam at high tide when the river was marginally cleaner, often taking off from this very spot.
With the completion of the colossal Clean River project in 1983, families, hawkers and bumboats were removed from the area, and the innocent laughter of the swimming boys came to a quiet stop.
It was a surprisingly nostalgic description, but Singapore had risen from the murk and barely looked back. Where had the boys gone? Had they become one of the suits living and working high up in skyscrapers beyond the reach of the tides?
Further upstream, the backside of a rotund bird beckoned. The sculpture beside UOB (United Overseas Bank) Plaza was perched on a heavy plinth overlooking the river. Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s Bird conjured up an avian sumo wrestler, legs apart and rump raised, poised for confrontation. The symbolism went over my head, it turned out. The plaque inscription read:
The bird is traditionally associated with peace and serenity. This three-dimensional Bird by Botero also signifies the joy of living and the power of optimism.
The UOB believes that so long as there is peace and optimism among its people, Singapore will continue to grow and prosper.
I supposed such satisfaction and optimism should be kept robust in a country lacking in area and natural resources, hence the beefed-up dove of peace. Historically, city-states in the region had either been abandoned or usurped by their larger neighbors.
Botero’s sculpture allows one the pleasure of caressing reality. There is a sensual complicity that the artist has with his creation which is shared with the public.
We didn’t have “the pleasure of caressing” this Bird, considering its size, but we did ham it up for photo ops around it, especially under its puckered butthole.
A few steps up to the UOB Plaza, an arresting sculpture filled the space. The figure looked disfigured: a human form with a hollow torso and skull, one of its arms twisted to the opposite side. According to the plaque marker:
In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity. Legend tells us that the origin of this most important and fundamental physical law was initiated by the falling of an apple, represented in the present work by the ball falling from the right hand.
Salvador Dali, one of the most important surrealist artists, takes the liberty to go even further in paying homage to Newton by opening up the torso of the figure and suspending the heart to indicate ‘open-heartedness.’ The open head represents an ‘open-mind.’ These are two necessary qualities for the discovery of important natural laws as well as for the success of all human endeavors.
An homage to science seemed incongruous in a financial institution. Perhaps it conveyed that thinking out of the box necessary for scientific advancement was likewise required for economic progress, but at a price: the attendant inhumanity, as evidenced by the defaced and disemboweled figure. Overthinking much?
Over at Orchard Road, right at the doorstep of a mall known for combining art and commerce, ION Orchard, the context was more obvious. A tableau of six larger-than-life figurines, each of a particular color and identity, represented the modern Singaporean: professional, stylish, worldly. They would have been whimsical if the actual people they were based on were not walking past them.
As I posed for photos, the exaggerated height and sheen of these sculpted urbanites cut me down to size, literalizing a controversial dynamic between local employers and thousands of my countrymen, some professionals back home, taking on blue-collar jobs and working in the service industry in this city.
These art pieces contextualized in public spaces, as opposed to those confined in museums, provided a personal insight into the city I only had a few days to see and know. What I lacked in meaningful experiences afforded by a longer stay, I had gained through an engagement with public art. I knew I had barely scratched the surface of this young and modern city; nevertheless, my experience went beyond the Merlion, the icon of Singapore known the world over.