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'Aestheticity': An exhibition by Kevin WY Lee at DECK

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'Aestheticity': An exhibition by Kevin WY Lee at DECK
Installation view of 'Tapestry of Tents' in Aestheticity, Kevin WY Lee. Image courtesy of the author.

To hear Kevin WY Lee speak about his exhibition Aestheticity, one finds it difficult to envision what his photographs would look like. In conversation with Gwen Lee found in his exhibition booklet, he states, “I (also) often hear people say Singapore is boring and that they find it unphotographable, I wanted to prove them right.” An endless series of uniform white walls come to mind. The actual photographs are both far from it, and yet exactly that. 

Aestheticity is part of the ongoing TRACE series featuring Singapore image-makers. Lee presents two bodies of work, located in Gallery 1 and 2 of the art space DECK. The first series of photographs is titled Tapestry of Tents (2014-2018), “exploring the tapestry and temporality of tarpaulin tented spaces in our land-scarce city”. The second comes from his publication Suddenly The Grass Became Greener (2016), a book of photographs “made in Singapore during her 50th year as a nation, and the coincidental death of her gardener”. 

Installation view of 'Tapestry of Tents' in Aestheticity, Kevin WY Lee. Image courtesy of the author. 

In the exhibition booklet, Lee expects the photographs “may not be to everyone’s taste with its mundanity and lack of spectacle”, but they allow “moments of one’s own sense of being and environment.” Photography as a medium of art would appear not to allow mundanity — however dull the subject matter, the photograph as artwork becomes the site for focussed interest and spectacle. As a definitively Singaporean image-maker, Lee’s photographs of the landscape are atypical views to read and find one’s own perspective. 

Alliterative allure aside, Tapestry of Tents especially celebrates the mundane. The subject matter is ubiquitous: the white tents one would see anywhere and everywhere, whether beside an MRT station, in the middle of a wide open field or occasionally at that empty space in front of Ngee Ann City. Few will not have a memory of being in a white tent, so varied are their uses. Yet the temporality of a white tarpaulin tent makes connection of the event to a specific place and time difficult. What arises seems to be antagonism between ubiquity and transience, captured by Lee through the unique character of each instance of a white tent.

Installation view of 'Tapestry of Tents' in Aestheticity, Kevin WY Lee. Image courtesy of the author. 

The cross-section of white tarpaulin rolls is the defamiliarised starting point in the evolution of white tarpaulin to tent. The rolls approximate the mundanity of repetition but does not achieve it — the rolled-up tarp appears dormant rather than dead, ready to emerge from its coiled-up slumber to be put to use. And while Lee claims a lack of spectacle, what he captures arguably highlights the opposite. One group of images highlight the improvised, haphazard ways in which these white sheets are joined for construction. There is drama in the extremes of shadows on white, engagement in the intersection of lines. Among all that, nothing says temporary quite like being held together by safety pins — temporality is inherent in this aesthetic. In noticing these peculiarities, Lee identifies little anomalies in what would otherwise evince uniformity.

Aestheticity, Kevin WY Lee. Image courtesy of Kevin WY Lee and DECK. 

The series I enjoyed the most was of tarp negotiated around trees. For one, I found headless trees to be a humorous sight, how unabashedly the dweller has been excluded from an upcoming event. On another note, having to work around the tree highlights the temporality of these tents — that Singapore’s fast shifting landscape will not bend to the tent is testament to its transience. While events may be associated with certain places with the potential to be revisited, whatever takes places within the tent will remain only in name and spirit. Perhaps in asserting the aesthetic uniformity of Singapore and insisting on its “unphotographability”, Lee pushes us to look closer. The word tapestry itself suggests richness and complexity. Where we see temporary white boxes, Lee exposes the weft and weave of each tent.

Installation View of 'Suddenly The Grass Became Greener' in Aestheticity, Kevin WY Lee. Image courtesy of the author and Kevin WY Lee. 

A copy of Lee’s book is available for perusing at the beginning of Gallery 2. A specific quote is emphasised:

“Plant and soil experts came to Singapore in 1978 to study our soil conditions. Our harsh equatorial sun and heavy Southeast Asian rains were not favourable to growing healthy green gramineae. The rains would wash away our topsoil and leach all nutrients. The experts recommended constant layering of heavy compost fertiliser and lime to our porous soil. The gardener at Istana tested this on his lawns. Suddenly the grass became greener.” 

The last line provides the title to the series of works and is an affecting statement. Lee Kuan Yew wanted to turn Singapore into a Garden City, and a Garden City it became. Gardens are necessarily man-made. In Singapore, the unruliness of nature is tamed — trees are held in place by ropes, growing out of perfect rings of earth, and soil is dug up and protected by tarp (shoutout to white tarp). Perhaps the most telling of the extent to which our environment is controlled is an image of wires leading to a box buried level with the ground. 

Installation View of 'Suddenly The Grass Became Greener' in Aestheticity, Kevin WY Lee. Image courtesy of the author and Kevin WY Lee. 

The experts recommended constant layering of heavy compost fertiliser and lime to our porous soil. The gardener at Istana tested this on his lawns. Suddenly the grass became greener.

Suddenly The Grass Became Greener showcases a series of photographs of the period when the politician Lee died. The photos are mostly squared, all printed on a roll of paper with excess rolled onto the floor. With the fact that 454,687 people participated in this “great Singapore queue”, the roll represented the queue that wrapped around the civil district. Lee’s photographs are distinct from its photojournalistic peers due to the definitive lack of overwhelming sentiment. On view instead is the environment his words sculpted, enveloping people en masse with no particularly discernible emotions. The ubiquity of greenery in Lee’s photographs not only parallels, but literally is the effect of Lee Kuan Yew’s hand on the landscape of the city. In photographer Lee's series, he is omnipresent.

Photographer Kevin WY Lee's interest in Singapore's "temperament, aesthetic and growing pains" is perceptible through his unique viewpoint. I very much appreciated this, especially in Tapestry of Tents. The white tarp provided the perfect canvas to foreground the quirks and perculiarities perhaps few notice, but now may be seen and celebrated. 

 


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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