Art x Life: Twelve Reflections on Coping with the City

Note: This article was first published by, and for, the catalogue of the Singapore Contemporary Young Artists’ Fifth Group Show “SUM > Parts ‘When Artists Meet the Public”:


  1. ENLIGHTENMENT: We are either born or arrive in a city, to be moulded and shaped into persons of value – economic, cultural and social. An education system codifies values and conveys them to us, often unquestioningly. The truth is examined, graded, differentiated, segmented, placed on a bell curve and, like a backdrop, the city watches. The city comforts those of us who did not succeed and presents to us another reality. Streets, sun, crowds and activity; leaves, wind, couples and relationships: alternative truths to begin with, and alternative paths to enlightenment. (Artist x Teacher)
  2. MITIGATION: To exist in a city is to exist with things: people, creatures and machines. Sentience has an audible presence, which we grow accustomed to, like background noise in a waiting room. The sounds of a city have a) amplitude (read: proximity), b) frequency (read: rhythm) and c) period (read: pace). Have we evolved, as cyborgs of our city, to adjust our heartbeat, footsteps and breath to the proximity, rhythm and pace of things around us? To convert the cacophony of crowds into a polyphony of gatherings? To mitigate nuisances and adapt sounds to ourselves? (Artist x Biostatician)
  3. CONSTRUCTION: In comprehending our city, we refer to familiar shapes and objects: landmarks sedimented with the memories of repeated encounters. We color these landscapes with our thoughts, concerns and ideals. A common game to while the time, as we commute from origin to destination or wait for a companion, is to imagine we are in an urban simulation, and that our idle thoughts and feelings are solidifying and imprinting the rows and columns of buildings. Collective and intentionally, we construct and constitute with strangers an urban environment that is at once recognizable, meaningful and forgettable. (Artist x Watch Mechanic)
  4. EXPANSION: We live in a thick city, with corridors that buffer us from weather and enclose us with others. Habitats are clearly delineated and secured, to make explicit and implicit the spaces belonging to people, and those to capital. Space becomes our precious currency, resource and purchase. As currency, we trade space for comfort: a larger room for a smaller balcony, a larger home for a smaller garden. As resource, we populate space with the necessities of modern life: floors consumed by desks, beds and books. As purchase, we defend our space: project our worth into the cubic feet we own. Spaces extend our occupation of the city, expanding, yet constraining, the possibilities of home. (Artist x Real Estate Agent)
  5. CULTIVATION: At some point in our urban lives, we slow down. This can happen anytime, and unexpectedly, at twenty-five, or fifty, or ninety-one. We examine the gnarled root we have become and take active steps to resuscitate and rehabilitate the neglect. It is a curious activity, to cultivate oneself and commit to it every day, for the rest of our lives. We retrofit and renovate rooms where weeds bloom abundant, patiently uproot feuds and regrets, and revive kind deeds and success. The secret of staying healthy, it turns out, is to be attentive and mindful of one’s intentions and actions; a lesson learnt best through the practice of nurturing. (Artist x Elderly Gardener)
  6. TRANSFORMATION: In the city, we meet people and transform. To be more accurate, four people transform: (A) the person I see in myself, (B) the person my partner sees in me, (C) the person I see in my partner and (D) the person my partner sees in herself. Power is the undercurrent of the transformative process. I transform at home in the routine of preparation: I adjust myself, imagine what we will say,  prepare to leave. I transform when we meet: Your expectations are conveyed in expressions, and I react accordingly, or at least try. You transform when we greet: I judge your responses and intentions, and calibrate my feelings. The way our transformations appear to you, I can only imagine. (Artist x Financier)
  7. ACTIVATION: The relationship between humans and the environment, in a city, is inevitably transactional. We are merchants in a market of want, with nature a commodity to be priced, bought and consumed. The wild around us, we see as ornamentation. Are we blind to flowers and deaf to birdsong? In this condition, attention to surrounding life is a belated activation of our senses and sensibilities; in extending our tongues to taste edible landscapes, and our arms to forage edible forests, we reclaim our appetite for, and appreciation for, the urban life around us. (Artist x Environmental Activist)
  8. COHABITATION: If cities dehumanize, is it a surprise that we are drawn to non-humans? We live vicariously through our pets: enjoy their freedom, appreciate their counsel, reflect on their expressions and care for them as we would care for ourselves. The companionship between animals and (wo)men has a special quality absent in typical human relationships: the act of naming as a way of relating to, rather than claiming each other; the practice of living together a form of mutual comfort, rather than possession. (Artist x Pet Shop Owner)
  9. EMBODIMENT: A popular metaphor: the city as organism. We imagine pedestrian flows as a city breathing, exhausting people from their homes, and inhaling them into trains, buses and offices. We imagine development as a city growing up, and dilapidation as a city growing old; retrofitting as a city medicated, redevelopment as a city reborn. The city imprints itself on our bodies as well: in commute, our body tessellate with other bodies; in rest, our body comports to benches and pillars; in movement, our feet pivot on concrete, propelling us from past to future. (Artist x Culinary Chef)
  10. ADAPTATION: Our grandparents came from afar, migrated, to this city. Reflecting on their experience is, perhaps, like excavating the unedited film of their journeys. In one long shot, we imagine them leaving and watch as their familiar landscapes condense into scattered pixels, into a single point, before vanishing and resurfacing as the imprints of memory. We imagine their arrival, their first encounter with strange environments and watch them find their mooring as buildings come into sharp focus. We find the new city is already anchored elsewhere, in multiple cultures, foreign and local, precluding any possibility of a smooth transition. So, we adapt, now and again. (Artist x 3rd Generation Javanese in Singapore)
  11. CREATION: As an entity both real in its constraints, and abstract in its possibilities, a city is a well-suited subject of planning and object of assembly. At a larger scale, we manufacture the urban pattern; at a smaller scale, we craft the urban fabric. These are forms of creation. Could we unravel the process of creation, break down forms both concrete and conceptual into their constituent elements? Could these open new ways of making and re-making the urban experience? (Artist x Student)
  12. COLLABORATION: The underlying pulse of a city is interaction and its underlying impulse is a quest for meaning. In this context, what are the possibilities for art with/in life? In translating, transcending and transmutating our experiences and struggles through art, could we achieve a deeper understanding and appreciation of how they have shaped us? I wish to speak to you, to hear your answers, and so does the city…

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