THIS ARTICLE IS A RESPONSE FROM ARTIST LEE E MAE AFTER A VISIT TO THE BOTH SIDES, NOW EXHIBITION, TITLED CLOSER IN 2018 AND LISTENING TO SHARINGS BY THE EXHIBITING ARTISTS ALECIA NEO, HAN XUEMEI AND SHIRLEY SOH AND JASMINE NG.
CLOSER WAS HELD AT SINGAPORE’S CHONG PANG NEIGHBOURHOOD FROM 19 SEPTEMBER – 7 OCTOBER 2018. BOTH SIDES, NOW RETURNS IN 2019 IN TELOK BLANGAH. FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE CURRENT EXHIBITION HERE: http://www.bothsidesnow.sg
My family has always been rather shifty around the topics of death and growing old. My dad in particular, thinks it to be inauspicious or bad practice to talk about such heavy topics; hence, dinner table conversations never venture into such terrain. I remember my dad picking me up from school a few years ago. Instead of taking our usual route back home, he made a slight detour, swerving left into an adjacent lane only to join the main road again after a big loop. When I asked him why, he said that there was a wake going on at one of the houses, and that he didn’t want to drive past the ceremony. I still remember this incident because it revealed to me how awkwardly adverse he is to anything surrounding the conclusion of life. Should the topic of death by avoided so deliberately, so adversely? Is death something we should only start thinking about when we get close to it?
Intrigued as I was about Closer, I knew that this was an exhibition that I could probably not bring my dad to see with me. I could just imagine him waiting for an opening when I wasn’t paying attention, so he could scoot off to the nearest coffeeshop for a Teh-O. This didn’t hold me back from experiencing the exhibition for myself, of course.
Closer is a socially-engaged art festival, part of the Both Sides, Now initiative. The initiative, in its 6th year running, aims to provide opportunities to have honest conversations about end-of-life issues in a community-based setting. As the name Closer suggests, the community was encouraged to get closer to the taboo theme of death and what it might mean to “live well and leave well.” The art installations of Closer emerged from a series of art-making workshops led by four artists – Alecia Neo, Shirley Soh, Jasmine Ng and Han Xuemei, in collaboration with residents of the Chong Pang community. The works were installed between Block 108 and 115 on Yishun Ring Road in Chong Pang.
In Alecia Neo’s Kindling, photographs were adhered to the pillars of void-decks. These pillars support stacks upon stacks of homes that rest atop them. The photographs seemed not to be chronological, instead they were fragmented and floating. Arranged in undulating lines, at eye-level, the images jumped from pillar to pillar, narrative after narrative. In Alecia’s workshop, participants were invited to a photography shoot in which they posed with objects they hold dear. Larger photos of the participants covered entire walls, alongside hundreds of smaller ones, taken by the participants themselves.
I found myself lingering in front of a pair of photos – two images of a hand. They were placed next to each other, one alive with movement, blurred with motion, the other in focus and resting on a vintage sewing machine. A hairline crack in the wall trailed behind the images. I guessed these images were taken at home; there were hints of furniture present in the background – a bright red wall hanging, a personal sewing machine.
After a conversation with Alecia, I learned that Guo Ning, who took these photos, was due to move out of her flat in Chong Pang. The stories and the images form an uncanny relation. The fleeting quality of each blurred photo suddenly took on a new meaning. Guo Ning’s inevitable dislocation became apparent in piercingly poignant imagery.
The next trio of images caught my eye; a fuzzy selfie, a hand tenderly laid upon a woven wedding basket, a vegetarian meal for one. Alecia explained, “if you look carefully at the photos, you actually discover very interesting things about the neighbourhood as well as the seniors’ lives.” The collection of images was a visual time capsule of each senior’s time with the camera: the neighbourhood stray cat, photos of photos of their younger selves, misty shots of the moon. The photographs exuded nostalgia, an insight into what it is like to grow old. Through the photographs, Alecia shared, “we are looking into their past, present and future.”
As I continued to walk around the Closer exhibition, I saw pierced into the earth bamboo support structures from which colourful patchwork quilts hang. The were multi-colored with messages in English, Chinese, and Malay. The fabrics used were patterned with floral prints, polka dots or geometric forms. They reminded me of the fabrics my grandma used in the clothes she would make me when I was little. The installation of these quilts struck me as peculiar; like acupuncture needles that penetrate the environment of this quiet HDB estate. They seemed to both resist and exist with the elements, billowing in strong gusts of wind, dripping with rain in a downpour, fluttering at ease in the sunlight. Participants collaborated with artist Shirley Soh for the creation of these quilts in To Cherish and To Hold. It must have been a rather strange task to make a patchwork quilt about death, and one’s own death at that..
Fusing elements of the Chinese tradition of funeral blankets and the Western craft of patchwork quilting, these hybrid creations appeared to pivot between light-heartedness and mournful weight. When introducing the work, Shirley shared “the workshop was inspired by the funeral blankets that I always see at wakes, and I used to admire them even though I didn’t know much about them.” Upon further exploration, Shirley discovered that these blankets are usually given to comfort the family of the deceased as part of a Chinese customary practice.
A yellow quilt was stitched with a printed monochrome photograph of a still life flower arrangement, reminiscent of a memento mori painting – a reminder of one’s own mortality. Flowers waning in their life cycle from bud to bloom, a cascading piece of fabric, a line of broken beads and a small vase of incense sticks. The stillness of the image was chilling in contrast to the cheerful yellow fabric that it was sewed into. Accompanying this image was the phrase “Everything has its time and place” in English and Malay.
The imagery sewed into the blankets depicted what the participants held dear, especially in contemplation of the end of their time on this planet. There were scenes of dearly pruned houseplants, pet fish, and the neighbourhood temple. Perhaps seemingly random to an onlooker, but loaded with personal value and memory for the person who made it.
In the tradition of quilting, there is a practice whereby mothers, grandmothers, and aunties personally make them as gifts for others in the family. “I always thought that it was such a lovely gift to have something like a blanket made by a member of the family, a loved one,” said Shirley, “and for that person to have invested time and love and care to make this blanket, and to give it to a grandchild or child to use.” The union of the tradition of quilting and the Chinese practice of funeral blankets draw out the similarities between the two, which is that both are made as gifts to loved ones. “The whole workshop was about trying to recreate this intimate gift,” Shirley shared, a painstakingly-made object that could bring comfort to a cherished loved one.
In Akan Datang, artist Jasmine Ng created a series of short films with resident collaborators. The exhibition atmosphere buzzed with excitement, and people of the community naturally drifted towards one another. Akan Datang means ‘oncoming’ in Malay, and it alludes to the inevitable conclusion of life. When prompted to think about what stories they might want to share, Jasmine explained, the seniors look back to the past regarding how things should be done. “But at the same time, they also treasure the next generation. They say, ‘Okay! You can change for the next generation,” Jasmine said, showing an openness to growth and change for the future which was also reflected in their stories told through the films.
I watched a film about Choon Hui and her grandson, Ah Ken. The split-screen conversation between the two family members captured an endearing dialogue about Choon Hui’s deceased husband, the burning of paper offerings, and the belief that these burnt offerings reach their beloved on the other side. Ah Ken urged Choon Hui to be updated with the times, convincing her to get an iPhone X paper offering to burn for her husband. Throughout the conversation, Choon Hui maintained a bright and calm composure, observing Ah Ken with familial tenderness. Ah Ken’s expression was playful and curious until Choon Hui mentioned that one day, she too would pass.
I ended my visit to the exhibition at Han Xuemei’s installation titled The Gift. The neighbourhood cat joined me on my visit.
The installation was nestled within a pavilion in the neighbourhood. Bamboo was used to line the perimeter of the shelter and to construct a table in the middle of the enclosed space. I say enclosed, yet the afternoon breeze still passed through the space, activating the windchimes just above us.
“The question I asked them was a very simple yet difficult question,” Xuemei shares. “If there was a last gift you were to give to someone in your life, what would it be?”
Eight wooden display boxes placed on the benches of the pavilion housed the objects created in response to this question. They included objects like a patchwork quilt, a handmade plastic flower that could never wilt, a hand sewn pouch and a recipe book. Each box was accompanied by a set of headphones with which we could listen to the stories behind the objects, as told by the participants themselves.
“A lot of them want to pass on life lessons and experiences to people that they care about,” Xuemei explained. It is no surprise that the objects which fulfill this criterion are not chosen for their monetary value. One participant, Louis Tan, explained “I had never given any thought to what to do with my belongings.” Asked to consider which physical objects he would leave behind, Louis thought of the objects he had inherited himself. His display box included photographs of his late father’s stamp collection and his late mother’s rosewood furniture.
When I returned home from my visit to the Closer exhibition, it was just in time for dinner. I thought this might be my chance to bring up the tricky topic of death over the dinner table. I sat down, asked my parents about their day, and began to share enthusiastically about mine. I trod carefully and talked about each of the pieces at Closer, the ones I enjoyed the most and the people I met along the way. My parents nodded, simply happy that I enjoyed myself. The conversation stopped, so I probed further –
“Let me know everything I need to know when it comes to you two getting older okay?”
“Okay,” my mum responded. My dad just nodded.
A small success in my opinion. This I say knowing that they would be thinking about it before they went to sleep that night, a baby step in the right direction.
I am fascinated by the longevity of Closer, living on not only in the impressions it left with me, but also in the string of conversations that would emerge from it. Longevity may seem to be an ironic word considering the nature of the works, yet I can’t help but feel that this encounter with Closer marked the beginning of many more meaningful conversations.