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Archive for June, 2011

soaring bald eagle

Pic: NASA/Rothstein

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves­.”
Abraham Lincoln

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Elegant facade Tanjong Pagar

The beautiful facade of the station. In earlier days, the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) train was one of the main means of transport that enabled Singaporeans and Malaysians to visit each other's country.

Singapore, May 2011: I knew that I had to visit the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. This would probably be the last visit for me before the building stop operating as the railway station that I had once known very well, during a time in my life when I made many trips on the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur route.

It was late morning. The station was quite empty, the most obvious folks were there snapping photos, rather than the travelers.

I was doing the same, seeing for the first time some details that I had missed while hurrying to catch a train, or rushing to go home after disembarking from the train.

I wanted to snap a photo of myself with the ticket counter behind me. I approached a woman and her teenaged son for their help. They were happy to oblige.

The boy took a photo of me with my digital camera, but he was not happy with it. With youthful enthusiasm, he asked me to pose for another one.

It occurred to me that youth and train journeys share a common quality. They symbolize adventure and new discoveries. And that’s the way it should be.

Some of the train journeys of my youth held that adventure. On train journeys with friends, there were lots of laughter and funny, kooky observations as we hovered around the threshold of adulthood. A train ride with my father created a quiet, peaceful kind of bonding. And the train rides taken alone were early experiments in independence. When there was a shift in our family structure, though, some train journeys became tinged with more complicated emotions than just adventure.

I heard and read that many Singaporeans have taken a final train ride to Malaysia before the tracks would be closed for good in July. A friend suggested that we take such a ride. Sounded like a logical thing to do, but I didn’t have a strong desire to do so. Perhaps, it’s because the many trips are somehow still fresh in my memory. I can recall the feel of the seat, the chugging vibrations of the train’s movements, and looking out of the windows with their slightly murky panes.

And somehow, the station, rather than the train, seems to play a bigger role in my imagination today.

Walking out of the entrance, I passed the taxi stand. It was still situated where it had always been all these years. I stood there for a while. And I could see the scene during the station’s heyday when the taxi line was long with the returning passengers, eager to catch a taxi onwards to the comforts of home.

Then I left the station and started walking towards the bus stop. This time, I had no baggage.

Goodbye to a long-standing landmark. Captured in my camera, and in the pages of my personal history.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

A ticket to ride. A train journey is unique. I loved being able to glimpse at the snapshots of lives as the train passed by smaller towns. Passengers on the KTM train were often friendly. I had met and conversed with several interesting people on the trains.

train journeys

During the station's heyday, crowds of passengers would rush through this gate when the train from Kuala Lumpur or Penang arrived.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

A detail that I noticed for the first time.

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Yee I-Lan, "Sulu Stories".

Nguyen Van Cuong, "Porcelain Diary 2".

Identity and politics. Two powerful themes.

I’ve always been fascinated by how contemporary Southeast Asian artists contemplate these and other issues in their art.

A dichotomy of East and West; how ideas and institutions from these two influences interact form much of the basis behind the art. This melding itself is reflected in the form of the art. These contemporary artists use local or Asian aesthetics to comment, reflect or dissect on salient issues. And for me, therein lies the fascination.

Recently, I had the chance to get a look at this artistic tradition again through the exhibition “Negotiating Home, History and Nation” held at the Singapore Art Museum. The exhibition continues till June 26.

It features the works of 54 practitioners of contemporary art from six Southeast Asian countries  (Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines), covering a broad range of media including installations and photography.

I find that, as is often the case, the works of the Indonesian artists are among the most powerful and forceful in their presentation. An example is Mella Jaarsma’s costume installations.

In “I am Ethnic”, she challenges the issue of gender bias in a lean, provoking manner. Jaarsma utilizes an entire goatskin to focus on the ritual of sacrificing two goats for the birth of a male baby and one goat for a female baby.

Nindityo Adipurnomo uses the konde, a traditional Javanese hairpiece, to comment on Javanese culture and tradition. He recreates an oversized rattan konde mixed with various media.

Apart from being a decorative hairpiece, the curator’s notes explain that the konde is also “worn on special occasions …and is associated with woman’s ideal place in society”. In the konde, Adipurnomo sees both reflections of sensuality and limitations associated with a woman.

The konde is also his commentary on the future of traditional crafts in the increasing onslaught of commercialism.

I’m always drawn to topics of memories and personal history, and thus I find the works of two Malaysian artists Zulkifli Yusoff and Yee I-Lan quite compelling.

Yusoff’s “Koleksi Ibu” (Mother’s Collection) is an emotive collage. He combines images of entertainment magazines, childhood recollections and covers of spiritual books to record personal memories that belonged to his mother, and which were also a part of his childhood. There is a sense of joie de vivre and of simpler times underlying the collage.

Yee is from Sabah and her photo images center on the sea, and its role as an artery that has influenced history, trade, immigration and politics in the region of her birthplace.

For the time that I was in the exhibition hall, it was like taking a unique trip, glimpsing into the psyche of Southeast Asia, a region which I truly love. I would have liked to see more paintings, but on the whole, the exhibition is certainly worth a visit.

Zulkifli Yusoff, "Koleksi Ibu". (All NHHN Art Exhibition photos courtesy of Singapore Art Museum)

Agus Suwage, "Give Me More Questions 1".

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