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The Visionaries Who Are Changing Singapore’s Arts & Culture Scene
Meet the group of creatives from the realms of theatre, film, music and art, who have carved their own paths in a city that often overlooks the important contribution of artists.
By Terence Poh
Art & Design
Entertainment & Culture
/26 August 2020
In bahasa Melayu, the term mesra denotes the closeness two people share. Within the culinary context, mesra also describes the interaction of two different ingredients to form a new state or achieve a new consistency — “think making pancake batter, how different ingredients are put together and mixed to form the batter,” says the sound artist Bani Haykal. For Bani, who is passionate about working with text and music, mesra suggests “a process of transformation and of absorption, which is such a useful definition, in the way we think about being intimate that is not just a process of being close, but something which relates to change.”
“My childhood was maybe a bit strange. I had difficulty fitting in and relating to school,” says Bani, who spent time as a child obsessed with cardboard, morphing the material into a variety of things. He would hunt for supplies, collecting discarded, large refrigerator boxes or abandoned ones from an electronics store in his neighbourhood. His ensuing creative contraptions ranged from Ghostbusters-like weapons to pushcarts. “Cardboard was my canvas, my material of choice. It is just sturdier and more exciting than paper,” he says. “This sort of carried on for a while."
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“I'm never bored on this job,” says Karen Tan, the founder of Pocket Projects, a creative development consultancy and management company. “I’ve been extremely stressed, I’ve been on a high, I’ve been down. I’ve been all sorts of things, but I’m never bored, and I’m really happy with that fact.” Tan’s work focuses on the regeneration of urban areas and heritage buildings, transforming blind spots, dilapidated buildings and forgotten spaces into ones relevant to current urban conversations and times.
“At some point when I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and design the sets of theme parks,” says Tan, who went to architecture school in Melbourne. “But I left in the second year and moved to London [to] read economics at the London School of Economics (LSE).” Then, she became a real estate investment banker, before working for a boutique developer in London, doing small property projects.
Although Boo Junfeng is presently one of Singapore’s most successful and recognised filmmakers, he never thought of himself as a professional in the industry until the making of his first feature film, “Sandcastle,” in 2010. “I remember when I was making short films, I would still introduce myself as an aspiring filmmaker,” he says. “Even though, on hindsight, I was already doing it professionally.”
In 2015, Boo attended the Asian Film Academy in Busan, South Korea, and the experience has remained the most transformative of his career. “The Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao Hsien was the dean of the programme and he opened my eyes to a different school of thought on filmmaking,” he says. Hou’s remarkable style of lengthy one-takes, with minimal camera movement yet intricate actor and spatial choreography, has been frequently replicated by admirers — including Boo.
Emi Eu has worked through weekends for most of her career. As the executive director of Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), Eu is used to responding to emails, answering phone calls and setting off on business trips any time of the week. When Covid-19 hit and she was stuck at home, she discovered that she could accommodate many more hours of focussed work into her day. Yet, “I’ve never felt time become so elastic. It was like you’re in two or three different time zones,” she says. “However, what I’ve been noticing is that on weekends, I am actually not looking at work emails. Now it’s just like I’ve given everything that I had to give this week, and I don’t want to look at anything anymore.”
Eu oversees programming for the gallery as well as the creative workshop at STPI, in which artists are given the opportunity to work with new mediums — such as paper and print — and challenged to make something different from what they normally do in their studios. “Then we bring them out to the public through our exhibitions in the gallery,” she says. “We also participate in international art fairs, though this year has been very, very challenging.”
Consider trailing a wheelchair user in his daily commute. He traverses the city on wheels, navigating the contours of streets and alleys from point to point. He encounters, from time to time, an inability to enter buildings and spaces: an uneven pathway, an absence of ramps, a missing elevator. And these devices, when present, as alternatives to what is normal, often require some roundabouts to access.
“I always talk about the social model, which doesn’t look at a person’s disability but at the barriers in place,” says Grace Lee-Khoo, the founder of Access Path Productions, a company based in Singapore that works with disabled communities to produce theatre productions, participatory drama workshops, and Disability Awareness Through the Arts (DATA) training. Lee-Khoo recognises that disabled persons, present in all societies, are yet often overlooked — and punished for their perceived abnormalities. “It’s because there aren’t accessible features. It’s not the person’s medical condition, but the infrastructure and the environment that are disabling,” she says.
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