+ Teban Gardens, Block 8, #1-52
+ 12.01.13, 19:00
+ Untitled by Tan Peiling (sound installation)
I was invited by Jane Koh to attend an art installation by a group of artists at the soon-to-be demolished Teban Gardens. A look inside an over-crowded four room flat, here I was amidst a gathering of youthful people, most of whom seemed to be in their 20s and 30s. The irony of place and persons wasn’t lost on the audience, at least not for one of its members, who vehemently spoke about his tiredness at the young artist’s hypocritical preoccupation with nostalgia for moments not lived. It did feel like a funereal send-off for things that one never owned or inhabited, but it made me wonder if that isn’t what art is concerned with - a way of grieving and making sense of what may not have been ours in the first place? Perhaps the fetish and fascination that the young have for the old and residual stems not from mourning their own memories, but those they never had time to encounter, from finding the new in the old or a presence in the past.
While dialogue continued in the living room, I found myself in one of the posterior rooms, a reconstruction of an all-but bare space. Entering the space, the first thing one sees is text, five lines in block letters, an annunciation of closure. Two hollow cement walls are positioned off-centre in the room, forming a tunnel from which two speakers emanate a loop recording of (de-)construction sounds. A green scaffolding net is suspended over the window on its outside.
In Tan Peiling’s work, Untitled, a sound installation, what is mourned is not so much the subject of loss but the failure of visual archival, a mourning of Loss itself. The artist herself says, the eagerness to photograph kills the event. Sound is the only testimony of an event veiled to our eyes, in this case the demolition of Teban Gardens.
The site of the work is interesting - once it was a high-rise flat built for industry workers; in its transformation, it is now a different kind of worker, the cultural one, who steps in to rework, reconstruct and interpret the space. The paradoxical title teases as a double entendre, at once indicative of both the stripping of linguistic excess and a stripping of place.
Is it true that one sees before hearing? How is hearing, no, listening, essential to one’s experience of an event? How does it transform our view of place or non-place? How does one in an obsessively visual culture re-present experiences which are un-photographable? These are some questions I think the artist asks in her work. But Tan's installation somehow also made me think of death, or sleep, that moment of slippage from the conscious to unconscious that one finds almost impossible to record. Yes that too, for we one day will vanish.
Standing between the hollow cement walls and speakers (first mistaken as two projector beams of light) - an experience akin to being entombed within a vertical coffin - what one hears is a recording of industrial sounds, a soundtrack stitched together from several places. These are common sounds, unmappable because everywhere. For one bearing witness in this sound enclosure, time slips and intermingles - what we hear is the has-been, the present and the to-be. For isn’t this the din of the daily, the pounding of an upstairs neighbour’s renovation works, the building of a new condominium across the road, a soundtrack for walking through the park? In our nation state, construction and de-construction are cross-referential polarities, twin signifiers of progress. (It is this twinning which the artist herself probes in sound curation - one speaker plays the sound of Housing Development Board (HDB) construction, while demolition sounds issue from the other speaker.)
Tan’s interest and sensitivity towards sound and its meanings has roots in her personal experience of working as a volunteer amongst deaf people. This made me ask, what might the experience be like for someone who cannot hear? He or she would see, and perhaps feel or imagine vibrations. A blind person entering the space might “see”, if not by words, then by sound. For either, it may be that the suggestion of sound or sight alone would suffice. Ultimately for us, the performance of demolition plays like an industrial magic show - tamed with a green shroud, the block of flats register the invisibility of change, and come undone with a mechanical hum. (Un-)veiled, the green nets advertise the force of human agency and progress, an act beyond the haphazard functions of nature: this is renewal, not disaster.
As I listen to the closure of sounds from a four minute soundtrack, an applause erupts from the living room signalling the end of the evening’s presentation. People smile, then disperse. It is as if mourning itself could be celebrated.