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Independent & Alternative Art Spaces in Singapore: ––Tom

BySeet Yun Teng
Independent & Alternative Art Spaces in Singapore: ––Tom

Photo courtesy of ––Tom.

This article is the third in a series which will focus on independent and alternative art spaces in Singapore that have emerged and become a key part of the arts ecology in Singapore. Such spaces are differentiated from galleries or museums in that they are primarily non-profit, relies minimally on or not at all on institutional support, and often presents the work of artists with alternative or experimental practices, who may not be well-represented in larger institution spaces. You can read the first article here, where an introduction into independent spaces in Singapore is covered, with a review of I_S_L_A_N_D_S at Peninsular Shopping Centre, and the second article here, which reviews Coda Culture at King Georges Avenue.

This article looks at artist-led space –Tom, housed in Block A in the old Lasalle (Winstedt) campus grounds. —Tom is a slightly enigmatic space that opened in August 2018, in one of the studio spaces operated by LASALLE, but functions independently. One of the key provocations —Tom poses is: can we think of a space as a person? A child? A cat? The list goes on, on how we can personify or give life to an indefinite subject – one that is barely a subject at all, of physical space bounded by walls. Is life given to a space by its users, or can it exist autonomously, to have a personality or character? What does it mean, then, to care for, inhabit and make use of this space? These are the questions forefront in my mind when I consider —Tom and the way it considers itself (himself? herself? themselves?). However, the lifespan of —Tom was shortlived, closing on 27 October 2018. In their final poetic ode to the space, a return is made to —Tom’s initial beginnings as a provocation to —Tom as a person, one that speaks to the multi-faceted, complicated, and constantly changing nature of living beings.

Image courtesy of ––Tom.

A physical space is the infrastructure in which we inhabit and build our lives around. Brick and mortar stand in cold, stark contrast to the flows of bodies, non-human lifeforms and shifting factors like temperature, humidity, weather. It provides legitimacy and structure to activity, it is the places in which we organise and congregate, for strangers, or friends, or communities to gather within, a border drawn with the outside world. Significantly, Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical meditations in The Poetics of Space (1957) explores the intimate connection of psychological landscape with the physical infrastructure in which people inhabit. In his excavation of houses as “topographies of our intimate being” and the phenomenology of dwelling, the importance of the enclosed, inhabited space as an abode of consciousness is reinforced.

In Singapore, physical space is challenging to acquire. Every square metre of land is valuable within its limited land size, and beholden to the forces of capitalism. Pragmatism prompts owners of space to maximize the value of the land, such that we witness, day in and day out, the constant and interminable destruction of buildings in Singapore, some only having had a lifespan as short as five years, to be replaced by another, relatively more profitable venture. A common discourse today as more and more buildings disappear from Singapore’s architectural landscape is to lament the loss of ‘heritage’, which treat them as symbolic spaces in which historical memory inhabits. This is not to say that they are not structures for memory, but to disavow the agency of the spaces and to often see them as only apparatus to be mobilized for narratives of conservation and ‘heritage’. Perhaps this is why I find —Tom to be so resonant as an alternative way of thinking of space, one that does not take for granted the constructs and engages in an experiment in considering space to be like a living being, constantly in flux and resist definition.

In treating ––Tom as a young and changeable person, space is given to ––Tom to learn and grow, not just a singular subject, but also from the friends and community it exists in.

A quiet subversion takes place within —Tom, in reconciling the permanent, passive and static nature of architectural space with the treatment of the non-human to be equally active agents within an intimate ‘enmeshment’, one that theorised by Timothy Morton in The Ecological Thought (2010). This inextricable entanglement with all entities and dimensions of life necessitate a different way of viewing the world in a vast, interconnected ‘mesh’. It also reconciles our peculiar relationship and interaction with these “strange strangers” that are constantly and simultaneously intimately bound, yet withdrawing from our comprehension of them in their lack of a fixed identity. In treating ––Tom as a young and changeable person, space is given to ––Tom to learn and grow, not just a singular subject, but also from the friends and community it exists in. At the same time, a constant understanding that ––Tom is equally susceptible and vulnerable to time, to fatigue, to failure, and eventually death.

—Tom had ambitions, as an art space. They were started by Lai Yu Tong and Yoo Seung Ji, supervised by Jeremy Sharma partly as a testbed for curatorial ideas, and partly as a platform for the team to negotiate the education system that they were subject to within LASALLE. The conditions of the education environment influence how they curate shows and run the space, and it was a way for them to be active in supplementing what they felt was lacking in their experience within LASALLE. It provided a valuable platform to challenge audiences and challenge formats, but more importantly, the vital need to take charge of one’s learning and development, in order to self-organise and challenge the institutional structures we find ourselves subject to, or subjects of.

Exhibition view of "Tom, Dick and Harry", photo courtesy of ––Tom.

—Tom had two shows, the first, a mysterious solo show “Apple Rations” by Jaden Sharma (17 August – 1 September 2018), and the second, “Tom, Dick and Harry” (26 September - 27 October 2018). “Tom, Dick and Harry” was initially meant to be —Tom’s first show, and beyond an amusing jibe at this common phrase and its relationship to the name of the space, was a show that loosely explored ideas of the body and identity. Four artists, Mike Hj Chang, Nina Djekić, Sia Joo Hiang, and Yeyoon Avis Ann, were invited to respond to two texts linked to the title of the show: the first, the Wikipedia definition: “Tom, Dick and Harry” as placeholder names for multiple unspecified people, and the second, referring to three tunnels that British prisoners-of-war (POWs) dug in order to escape from Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp in World War II. In order to keep the tunnels secret, they were code-named Tom, Dick and Harry. Within the space, raised wooden platforms intersect and divide —Tom, disrupting perhaps an expectation of a white cube gallery space. A curatorial decision, it was ambiguous how these platforms were meant to be interacted with: while it pushed me to the boundaries of the space, in close proximity to the works, for others, it provided a path with which to navigate the space, slightly elevated above regular ground.

Apple Rations by Jaden Sharma, photo courtesy of ––Tom.

Apple Rations by Jaden Sharma, photo courtesy of ––Tom.

Nina Djekić’s “Bather Bather” consisted of wooden frames with blue netting, cut and overlaid into various organic, curving forms, plays with light and shadow; whilst tempting a formalist reading, the materials evoke a domestic sensibility, simultaneously functioning as dividing screens or as landscapes on canvases, or theatrical backdrop set pieces. Positioned at two opposing corners of the space, “Bather Bather” resonates with Yeyoon Avis Ann’s expressive watercolour sketches on paper of headless figures whose forms curve and undulate. Mike Hj Chang’s “Shitbirds and Some Drawings” was a fascinating and beautifully simple motor-powered sculpture. Set on a tilted rotating conveyor belt-like device, a variety of objects run in a circular fashion: drawings, photograph collages, and some three-dimensional wire mesh bird-like sculptures. As they pass round the top of the conveyor belt, these objects get transformed in different ways - the wire mesh birds appear to be travelling upright, then they defy gravity and continue their path upside down on the underside of the device; on the other hand, the drawings, especially a cartoon of a face, humorously elongate and warps as they fold around the circular end of the conveyor. Within this cyclical, moving ‘gallery’ contained on a moving belt, a whimsical and enigmatic proposition is presented to the viewer, one that is quite happily self-contained. This resonates with Sia Joo Hiang’s “Elena”, a one-page comic on paper that takes on a similar mood. Perhaps a curatorial decision to mount “Elena” on a protruding box of wood, as well as the recurring use of unpainted wood, created surfaces of coherence that allowed the individual works to obliquely resonate within the space.

"Tom, Dick and Harry", photo courtesy of author.

Another element to add to the mystery was the return of Foxriver, a peculiar gallery first started in 2010 by artist Mike HJ Chang. Foxriver is truly a fascinating space – in the four years it ran until 2013, it occupied a pigeonhole in a school, inviting artists to imagine and inhabit this small shoebox-space as if it was a life-sized gallery. The level of realism and imagination that it produced is quite astounding – it gave the artists the ability to produce ‘large-scale’ works that they never otherwise would have been able to produce logistically. It also challenges radically how space is perceived, and what is considered a ‘gallery’, transforming the potential of literally any space, sufficiently bounded and contained, to be a space for showing and producing art. Foxriver, though not known to most, can also be credited by the team behind ––Tom as one of the driving inspirations for ––Tom’s inception.

This time, Foxriver made its appearance “subletting a zero temperature space” within ––Tom’s premises, featuring “Suck it up” by Xie Shangyi. True to Foxriver, “Suck it up” inhabits the freezer compartment within ––Tom’s fridge, consisting of surplus breast milk from the artist, casted in various forms and which is dependent on the freezing temperatures in order to persist. The work transforms over time, with some sections having partially melted and refrozen, and other sections having a thick layer of ice crystals. While its premise is simple, “Suck it up” speaks to me of the bodily experience of pregnancy, the demands of nourishment from a mother, of freezing as a means to prolong perishable food products that we consume on an everyday basis, but made complicated when the product is the highly charged material of breast milk.

Image courtesy of ––Tom.

It is with great sadness that such an exciting space as ––Tom is seeing its last days so quickly. While Foxriver’s continued programming will be sustained, ––Tom is a space that is a person who lives, and eventually dies. In its subtle subversions and the art practices they presented, they sought to challenge the way art is perceived or presented within the education system in Singapore, and to present alternative ways to think about art outside of what might necessarily succeed within such a system. In doing so, ––Tom, for me, is also a new way of thinking about spaces, beyond the dominance of human-centred, pragmatic or productive structures, and to suggest a more sensitive, emotional, complicated and vulnerable form of self-organisation – like a person, like you or me. To end with a last quote from ––Tom: “Can we begin to think of Tom to be one of us? A person who lives, a person who learns, a person who tries, a person who fails, a person who gives, a person who takes, a person who shares, a person who loves, a person who hates, a person who runs, a person who rests, a person that, like a space, eventually dies.”

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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