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Inside Singapore’s Demolition Art Movement

Talking to the artists turning temporary spaces into opportunities for uninhibited expression.

by Catherine Chapman
Aug 17 2015, 6:50pm

A Demolition Party at Singaporean design hub The Milll photo courtesy of Charles Osawa, 2015

In Singapore’s district of Tanjong Pagar, cranes and cement trucks have taken over the area where the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre used to be. Once home to local art groups and cultivated events, the historic facility has remained marked with a red sign reading "Changing the Landscape of Cecil Street" despite its closure in 2013. On this small island, a perpetual flow of urban development, where old buildings are replaced with new buildings soon-to-be demolished, has given birth to a movement: demolition art.

The act of transforming foreclosed properties into artistic spaces before bulldozers arrive has become something of a trend in the Southeast Asian country. Lasting anywhere between a weekend and a month, demolition art sees the gutted walls of buildings occupied with paintings, installations, and performances, making something new in an area set for change. Similar to street art, the act of creating temporary pieces—also referred to as ephemeral art—partners well with Singapore’s booming economy.

“Singapore is an extremely fast paced city,” Spencer Chen, a member of the Singapore-based art collective WeJungle, tells The Creators Project. “A huge number construction projects take place all the time.”

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WeJungle produces work reflective of nature, believing that, “creativity sparks from freedom." For them, demolition art incorporates street culture’s unrestrained boundaries of expression, opportunities that a lot of Singaporean artists don’t have today.  

“This trend is one of the only ways for young and budding artists to showcase their work, other than approaching galleries who usually already have their own contacts,” Chen tells The Creators Project. “Private investors and patrons are few.”

Before its demolition, walls of The Mill were covered with paintings and graffiti like work, photo courtesy of Charles Osawa 2015

In amongst the works of art displayed at The Mill, some of the demolition had already begun, photo courtesy of Charles Osawa, 2015

Ahead of the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre destruction in February 2013, WeJungle hosted a party to give up-and-coming artists the opportunity to exhibit. Some of the pieces stuck around until “the wrecking balls came,” as Chen puts it.

Of the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre event, Chen also says, “It wasn’t really meant to be a demolition initiative. But more a way to say goodbye to the building. Then it caught on and other people took over. It’s pretty straightforward and sort of pragmatic for these demolition initiatives to be taking place.”

Chen’s right—the nature of demolition art, where artistic value and abandonment is put into destruction projects, can be found throughout the world, including Tokyo and Seoul. But the trend in Singapore particularly, holds autonomous significance.

Art displayed at the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre. Photo courtesy of WeJungle.

“I think it is unique here because of the history of art in Singapore,” explains Chen. “It is an anarchistic reaction to the red tape and bureaucracy placed on the normally carefree islanders, where vandalism lands you in jail.”

While in practice Singapore has a representative democracy, it remains a largely conservative country that’s "partly free," according to 2015 Freedom House scores. Proposed artworks are reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the country’s Media Development Authority (MDA), who censor pieces if thought to go against the social cohesion of society.

“Self-censorship has become a very prominent act among artists in Singapore today in order to be more acceptable for public consumption,” says Chen.

Street taking over the walls of the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre. Photo courtesy of WeJungle.

Although the demolition art in Singapore steers away from topics that the MDA typically censors, buildings planned for decimation are nonetheless providing spaces for expression.  

“The legacy of art in Singapore has been suppressed for a long time,” says Chen. “As the country rushes to solidify its place as a first world nation, there is a huge amount of activity that has been pent up, now bursting out on the scene.”

Click here for more from WeJungle.

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