Few art galleries can boast of having the 10 Courts of Hell as neighbours, but a temporary creative space in Singapore has staked that claim.
Housed in a building within Haw Par Villa, the storied kitschy park filled with sculptures and dioramas built by the late Tiger Balm tycoons Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, weeks-old contemporary art venue Latent Spaces is a stone's throw away from the gardens' best-known attraction: the gruesome 10 Courts, depicting what happens to bad folk after they die.
In lurid scenes populated by stone statues decorated with Technicolor (albeit now peeling) paint, demons torture the dead: exam cheats get their guts pulled out; prostitutes are drowned in blood; food wasters get sawn in two.
Such gore and mayhem, however, is a far cry from the cerebral works in the minimalist new gallery. Walk through Latent Spaces' glass doors and one is greeted by art pieces such as a signed baseball mounted on the wall, a video projection of cabinets, some aluminium drink cans strung up along the cornice, and fragments of LED signs.
Apart from the wallpaper preserved from the building's past life as an exhibition hall for the Aw brothers' jade collection, the room is bare but for the art, so spare that even wall texts are not in evidence.
The brainchild of three curators - twin brothers Chun Kai Qun and Kai Feng, and arts educator Elizabeth Gan - the gallery opened on April 5 and will remain until October.
"I've been fascinated by this place," says artist Chun Kai Qun, 32, standing among the artefacts in the gallery on Easter Sunday. Unlike many Singaporeans of his generation, who spent quite a few childhood hours in the 1970s and '80s mugging for the camera next to Haw Par's mystical figurines, he first visited the park when he was in his late 20s. He had been making a lot of dioramas, and someone suggested he check out the villa for his research. Once there, he was so transfixed he wrote his master of fine arts thesis on the villa for the Glasgow School of Art in Britain.
"You just wonder why there are so many people into such retro landmarks. Is it because of the influx of immigrants?" Chun asks, referring to Singapore's population growth of foreigners in recent years, which has led to a backlash from some citizens. "Perhaps you think your experience of Haw Par Villa as a kid differentiates you as a true-blue Singaporean, sets you apart from those who did not grow up here."
Since it was built in 1937, and opened free to the public for both pleasure and moral edification, the villa in Pasir Panjang has gone through a number of incarnations. In 1990, the place was redeveloped into a S$80-million theme park with a dragon-shaped water ride and performances, but by 1998 it had chalked up losses of S$31.5 million. It finally closed in 2000. Six years later, the S$7.6-million Hua Song Museum, which chronicled the stories of early Chinese migrants to Singapore, opened within the park. It closed in 2012.
In December last year, Chun sent an e-mail to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), which owns the park, to suggest setting up a gallery there. "Our strategy is to reoccupy these idle spaces and use them for making art," he says of the Latent Spaces project. "If you [mount a show at], say, the Singapore Art Museum, you are expected to perform, and that stifles creativity. You need to show established artists, tried-and-tested works." An unconventional setting such as Haw Par Villa can serve as a platform for experimental works.
"After all the failures [in Haw Par Villa], contemporary art coming to it has nothing to lose," he adds.
The curators and their friends refurbished the building earlier this year, doing much of the hacking and painting themselves, with STB helping to cover S$35,000 of the makeover cost, he says. They will occupy the space rent-free until October. The STB will then open a tender to rejuvenate the tourist attraction. When the time comes, Latent Spaces hopes to move to another building - a former prop-making workshop-cum-warehouse - in the park.
"By turning it into an artists' nest, we can help to maintain the site, too," Chun says.
Before that they will hold four exhibitions. Their maiden show, "Nameless Forms", is on until next Sunday.
Like Haw Par Villa, the gallery is facing the challenge of attracting human traffic. Since the inaugural exhibition opened, Chun says, about 100 people have visited.
That Easter Sunday, Chun was interrupted several times during our interview by tourists wanting to buy ice cream from the freezer at the gallery's entrance. "It pays the bills," he says of his brisk popsicle business. "And it's keeping us afloat until funding comes in."