Singapore's scale models

Singapore's high property prices have made artists rethink their methods and scale of their work, writes Clara Chow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 2:35pm

Singaporean artist Frayn Yong's recent work can fit into a few plastic containers, no bigger than a standard document box. It's not that he's a laggard. It's because his works - painstakingly fashioned out of pencil lead - are small and delicate.

Assembled in his room in the five-room public housing flat Yong shares with his parents, the lead sculptures look nerve-rackingly fragile: one clumsy move and whole cities - essentially slim scaffolding glued together from this stationery-store staple - are crushed.

Exhibited at an art walkabout, named OH! (short for "Open House!"), in the skyscraper-bound Marina Bay district earlier this year, the architecturally inspired sculptures are a delicate echo of the soaring Singapore skyline, hinting at the impermanence of all that is man-made in the face of eternity.

Yong, 29, had been sketching with a mechanical pencil when he realised the thin graphite lead could itself be the artwork. "I was experimenting with the material itself, dealing with the concept of death and materialism," he says. "After all, carbon - of which graphite is a form - is the primary material of life. It is in our bones."

The artist, who also runs the UNDR interior design firm, adds: "I would love to do bigger work, but they would be a problem to store in Singapore." Still, he dreams about one day redoing his sculptures in a different, larger format. Perhaps "a whole landscape" of these works, if he can find suitable studio space to work in.

In Singapore, where soaring property prices over the past few years have made it tough for young people to buy their own homes, the lack of affordable residential and commercial space is also being felt by artists. This is a familiar story in Hong Kong, where space is equally precious and expensive. But in Hong Kong, artists can still find and share space in the numerous industrial buildings (thanks to the city's past as a manufacturing powerhouse) scattered in the more remote, and less costly, areas such as Fo Tan, Chai Wan and Kwun Tong.

In Singapore, old warehouses and industrial buildings tend to be turned into hipster enclaves of bars, restaurants and creative industry offices - which earn landlords more money than artist studios.

So artists such as Yong are dealing with the limitations of their physical and financial environment: they have been experimenting with methods that are compact in footprint, but not in creativity.

The results are all the more interesting in that they avoid the obvious - and the kitsch - associated with straightforward miniaturised products.

Although not a response directly to the space issue in his home country, artist Michael Lee, who splits his time between Singapore and Berlin, has been working since 2005 on a series of paintings that depict floor plans of solitary spaces, abandoned, awaiting demolition or partially collapsed. These include the New Jersey State Prison, the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, and the homes of individuals, including a "one-legged woman". The acrylic-on-canvas paintings are ironic two-dimensional monuments to endangered three-dimensional spaces, while rendering real rooms flat and metaphorically compressing an area.

"There are so many empty industrial units in Singapore but their prices are not getting lower despite being empty," says Lee, 41, on the mystery of where all the cheap loft spaces coveted by artists have gone.

I've known artists who've had to work to be able to pay rent then found themselves unable to find the time or energy to use the space productively
Shubigi Rao

According to figures from Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority, sale prices of multiple-user factory space increased 24.5 per cent last year, while rents went up 9.7 per cent. Average asking prices for residential rents - for artists who want a place to live and work in - range from S$600 (HK$3,700) to S$8,000 per month, according to property website

Subsidised rent for artists and creative professionals are available, in the Goodman Arts Centre near the east coast (where Lee has a studio), and the government-owned industrial landlord JTC runs Wessex Estate, a cluster of colonial-era bungalows which serve as homes and studios for a number of artists. But supply is limited.

Artists and twin brothers Chun Kai Feng and Chun Kai Qun, 31, used to work out of their parents' housing board flat, making table-top sculptures, prints and other works that could be completed in the 15-square-metre room that used to be their sister's until she married and moved out. "For an artist, property prices are always high," says Kai Qun. "But it has got worse during the past three years."

Still, the siblings managed to find a way around the situation: around Lunar New Year one year, they successfully bid for and rented a government-owned semi-detached unit with a backyard in the central Potong Pasir area, splitting the relatively affordable S$2,300 monthly rental with two friends.

The year-long lease allowed Kai Qun, who had been commissioned to do a few large works then, the space in which to finish his projects.

"But the artistic process is a very fickle one. You may end up just making videos and only require a desktop, so you don't really want to be tied down to a physical space anyway." And Kai Qun has been making more video works of late. Last year, he created If Only the World Had a Reset Button, a video piece that was filmed and edited in increments, depending on how much electricity he got out of the one pound he fed into the electricity meter of the Glaswegian flat he was living in as a postgraduate student.

Shubigi Rao, a visual artist and lecturer who recently mounted her 10-years-in-the-making "retrospectacle", agrees that it's "definitely tougher to rent spaces suitable for a studio at market rates".

"I've known artists who've had to work to be able to pay rent then found themselves unable to find the time or energy to use the space productively and have had to give it up," says Rao, who is sub-letting a Goodman Arts Centre studio for a year from another artist who is spending time abroad.

If you had met Rao at her retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore more than a month ago, amid the lovingly archived found objects that made up her installation The Study of Leftovers (which she describes as "an archaeological reconstruction of Singapore as an extinct civilisation"), she would have joked that she had to "recreate the garbage" - she had discarded almost all the work she made from 2003 to 2006, simply because she had run out of space to store them at home.

Over the years, Rao has had to make fewer large-scale installations, as well as restrict the size of her paper-based works, so that she can store them under the mattress of her box-bed. Commenting on how not having a studio has influenced the way she creates her art, she says: "I've learnt to break every large work down into composites and to make sure that I can easily disassemble every part for easy storage in cardboard cartons once the exhibition is over.

"I've also adapted to doing large paper works on the floor of my kitchen, using my bathroom tub to soak a hundred books in ink, etching a copper plate in a planter in my garden and then carrying it dripping through the house - not recommended - using common household objects to troubleshoot mechanical issues; all this stems from having to work at home."

Next month, the 38-year-old will finally get a proper studio of her own: "It isn't an exaggeration to say that I feel liberated from a limitation that has definitely hobbled my work. It also means I can work on projects simultaneously without having to repeatedly pack and unpack every time I switch between them, as I've had to do over the last decade."

Meanwhile, Ye Shufang, who had been making perishable art since 1997, recently announced she would not be making any more of her installations using the Asian jelly agar-agar, after her solo exhibition at The Private Museum, titled "The Loss Index: Perishables And Other Miscellanea", which ended last week. Ye had started exploring ephemeral works - often things she cooked or baked, which often decayed over the course of their display and were discarded after the show - after the lack of studio and storage space forced her to throw away some of the steel sculptures she did as an art undergraduate. "I did not want to be in a position where I lacked specialised equipment to make my work," says the 42-year-old artist, who then conducted a series of experiments at home using cooking equipment, when access to art workshop equipment proved hard to come by.

These days, Ye creates art at the dining table of her family's three-bedroom apartment, storing her new drawings at home. An arts educator who had led the master's programme at Lasalle College of the Arts from 2002 to 2007 and headed the School of the Arts (Sota) visual arts faculty between 2007 and 2010, Ye says her teenage students experience the relationship between art-making and studio space very differently from the postgraduates she taught six years ago.

Using social media platforms such as Instagram, creating short videos and posting them online came naturally to the younger, more recent cohorts at Sota. Ye says they evaluate their own posts as intensely as they conceptualise and execute paintings or sculptures.

"For this generation of young artists, the options are very wide. They engage with art-making and different mediums with great agility, and I think their creative process would adapt seamlessly within and without a studio space."

As for herself, having a larger social space would mean having "lots more physical space to explore scale, size, mediums, materials", Ye says.

"The artworks would develop differently. Not necessarily better, but definitely different."