To chance upon a pocket of space in land-scarce Singapore is to have fortuitously arrived at an in-between moment in the city-state’s relentless urban march—a pause after something was demolished; a pause before a construction site emerges.
In that moment, the land is emptied but not empty. The urban fabric has opened up a space for contemplation: to think outside the boundaries of a city so neatly delineated by its state planners and real estate developers. As Singapore builds itself up to house a projected population of 6.9 million people by 2030, such temporary voids offer us a momentary frontier of possibilities, before they become concretized as urban structures again.
Framed up, wedged in a wallet, on a phone, shared online, etched in our minds—we hang on to these references that remind us of where we’ve come from.
It’s been almost two years since I’ve last seen Singapore. Away from home, all I’ve had apart from my own pictures are those from the news and what friends and family share online—snapshots of how home has grown through the lenses of my fellow citizens.
Marina Bay with its iconic “integrated resort” has overshadowed the Singapore River’s line of shophouses and skyscrapers as the shorthand for the nation’s success. Our list of old places has matured beyond colonial relics to include modernist complexes and even the iconic dragon playground. The index for the city’s pace of development is no longer the skyline of towering cranes, but how crowded our trains and streets have become.
The frames Singaporeans use to look at their home are changing. It shows in the subjects we picture, but also in what photography means to us today. Is picturing a Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian still the quintessential portrait of Singapore society? When did photographing and shaming online become our way of handling outrageous acts we encounter in public? Should photos of our nation’s late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew be restricted from public use?
These questions capture some of the issues Singapore faces today. Pictures of home are not just illustrations but also reflections of who we are, projections of how we see the world, and symbols of our community. A photograph’s flat surface belies its third dimension: as a platform for discussions on the people, places and things that matter to each one of us.
This social element is what defines contemporary photography. Making a picture is not just framing a subject and pressing the camera shutter (or in today’s case, tapping a screen), but also sharing it with others—a process that envelopes pictures with meanings beyond just the photographer’s point of view.
This is how our pictures of home are made: through the conversations we share about what we see, what we remember seeing, and even what we hope to see. While the realities depicted in pictures will one day fade or even be challenged, the meanings they hold for each one of us is what helps us see home clearly, wherever we may be.
An empty piece of land is not something that will catch our eye as we go about our daily lives, but for photographer Darren Soh, it sparked his on-going project that documents the building of Marina Bay Sands. Presenting at the inaugural PLATFORM, Darren showed a full-house crowd at Sinema his “progress pictures” of the integrated resort since construction began some four years ago. The photographer, who has made several photo collections of the Singapore landscape, said this island is one big construction site and that makes emptiness in Singapore’s landscape significant and something worth documenting.
Indeed, living in a country where everything is so transient, Singapore’s landscape has been extensively photographed. However, most works on it that I’ve seen focuses on the death of landscapes and its decay. It’s become a knee-jerk reaction for photographers living here — just look at the number of photographers who have been flocking down to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station now that it’s future is in limbo. Darren’s project responds to this Singapore condition from a different time frame — its beginning and birth. More importantly, his project freezes the never-ending construction work that we are seemingly surrounded with and allows us to reflect, and even marvel, the building of Singapore.
As a number, zero is neither negative nor positive but we often assign a degree of negativity despite its neutral meaning. A vacated site similarly lies in a liminal state with potentiality. However, architects have been taught that the only thing they could present to society is a building, to fill the void again. But what can they learn from the way in which individuals and groups appropriate empty sites in towns and cities? And in broader perspective, what can zero offer as we live through the Great Recession, when the myth of continuous economic growth is shattered, the assumption of ready capital for development can no longer be guaranteed and architecture students are taught only one mode of survival as a professional?