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A Study On A Box Of Belongings Art Essay

In this contemporary era where everything changes rapidly, people no longer relates themselves to just one disciplinary but cross-disciplinary. In the process of transition, the exchange of culture as well as information, the experience that one has and the knowledge that one gains is almost an instant experience. Often these instant experience and knowledge that one absorbs are incomplete due to the cutting short of information and over-emphasizing on the main point which subsequently result in a losing gap in between the original information to what we received. One might feel a sense of lost in time, history, memories and the lost in a sense of attachment, consistency, thus question our belonging; where is our home? How do we define belonging then? Can our belonging be fixed?

In chapter 1 of the paper, I will discuss home as a metaphor of belonging; an anchor point. However, in this contemporary era, to name a place as the home that we belong can be superficial as the place that we belong are often not fixed. What give us the sense of belonging then? To discuss about belonging, unavoidably we associate it to a space. This

Dissertation paper discusses two kinds of space – the tangible space and the intangible space. Often, Space as an abstract notion seems boundless; we think of space as just air between one object and the other.[1] Space speaks more than just air molecules. Space with boundaries can be seen as a form or a thing. Space as an idea can be regarding individual perceptions which can be both conceptual and physical. These individual perceptions can be seen as the collective memory through one’s experience. How do spaces give us a sense of belonging if our sense of space are often relate to the sense of place which are often unfixed. Despite of the uncertainty of our sense of place, what might give us a sense of continuity is probably the memory that were collected in the space which thus give us a sense of belonging. Memories exists in the past, present and future which thus creating a sense of continuity in a human existence timeline.

Moving on from individual home to a nation, Chapter 2 addresses the lost of memory in city due to the urban development in Singapore. It will look into a brief history of Singapore Urban housing and city development, the significant of building as a time-marker that give us the sense of belonging and how the constant construction and destruction of building and places resulted in the lost of fixed identity. Is the lost of memory – a lost of our belonging and identity or has it build a unique belonging and identity for Singaporean?

As often been said, our belonging and identity are often been cultivate through arts and culture. In that sense, our local museum thus holds an important role in cultivating, preserving and passing on histories and cultural values to the masses. As much as we perceive the knowledge and history in the museum as a fact passing through from generation to generation, can the museum display and exhibition not be political constructed? Hence, even though Singapore government tried to preserve our “local identity” if we have ever or belonging through the form of arts and culture, the belonging that we perceive is still a constructed identity. Hence, a paradox and it seems like our identity is always in a confusion. Where do we belong?

Chapter 1:- Belonging; Memory

Belonging has been expounded as a possession, a member of a group such as a family, a school and a nation, ultimately belonging is about the relation of human being. Through the relation with people’s group, spaces and structure, human being thus creates their own identity. The sense of belonging and identity will also suggest a sense of security and stability. Hence, this sense of belonging becomes crucial in human life. Often, the sense of belonging has its relation associated with ‘rooted-ness’ – a sense of attachment towards a space; an attachment to our home.

‘For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the world…’[2]

Author Gaston Bachelard explained in his book – The Poetics of Space that the notion of home is a space where one is born and lives permanently. Home has often been idealized as an utopia space where there is a sense of continuity, security and perfection. Permanence is an important element in the idea of home as it suggests rooted-ness and a sense of immortality. In Space and Place – the perspective of experience, Yi-Fu Tuan argued that home is the centre of the world; home is the focal point of a cosmic structure[3]. Both author explained home as the centre of one’s world and it makes sense to say that our belonging is very much about our attachment to our roots; our home. The word ‘centre’ will means ‘origin’ which carries the meaning of beginning which is what Bachelard mentioned as the first universe; the centre of one’s world. When and how do one has a sense of home then? Often the notion of home is blurred with the notion of house.

‘Here space is everything, for time ceases to quicken memory… Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.’[4]

Home as an abstract notion can be boundless. In the quotes above, Bachelard explained that what is being ‘housed’ in the space (home) is the memories that has been created in the space. Home is a space where we root ourselves at and the most important element that gives us that sense of rooted-ness or attachment to a home is ‘memory’. Memory would also mean knowledge, history and memories; memory is an attempt to remember, recall or to record events, objects or even emotion. It is through these collective memories of a space that give us that sense of attachment and a kind of certainty toward oneself. As such, I would draw a boundaries that home is an emotional-mental state of belonging. Memory exists in the past, present and future which create a sense of continuity or immortality. Memory thus gives us a sense of security and certainty.

As what Yi-Fu Tuan had mentioned in his writing, the value of a place is the experience that one created in that space. It is through the intimate human relationship and the familiarity of a space that one created a sense of attachment towards a space. Belonging, like memories should be fixed so as to attain a sense of stability. Memory is an abstract notion that requires to be objectified in order to be seen or understand and house plays the role in objectifying these abstract memories, it is a place that helps giving the meaning and value to home. House on the other hand, is a shelter that one goes to when sick, where intimate activities happen; a place or location that helps us to relate our past history and event. House in this case is a physical state of belonging.

In a lot of ways, objects can be seen as spaces with boundaries and is malleable.[5] Objects in a house are like footages that give a trace and history of the inhabitant that once presence. The following images are a series of photograph by Singapore photographer, Ho Hui May. This series of artwork entitled Domestic Dystopia, 2007 presents a purview interior of an abandon house.


Domestic Dystopia

Ho Hui May

Photography series, 2007

In this series of photograph, Ho presented abandon objects of the domestic space after the inhabitants had move on. Those abandon objects suggests the lifestyle or characteristic of the inhabitants, almost like a 3-dimentional narrative of the past. For example the forest wall paper at the bottom right side represents 2 layers of nature. One layer of the wall paper can be seen as a natural ongoing process of ageing and decaying due to elements such as sunlight, water, oxygen and other natural substances and is peeling, fading and tearing off from the wall. Another layer of the wall paper presents an image of the forest which can also be read as the owner’s desire to have a piece of nature while living in a city. Hence, objects such as the wall paper gives clues of the life of the inhabitants. Objects inhabit space, and when attention is directed to an object, it is also directed to the space it occupies.[7] The function of the house thus is also a place to keep and collect object. These functions can be seen as the collection and re-collection of memories. Objects in our life thus give us a sense of home and belonging.

However, objects are originally neutral and meaningless. It is through the experience and relation of objects and people in that space, we insert our emotion and meaning to it and hence creating sentimental values to the object. Therefore, the question now is to what extend are those objects valuable when the meaning of it are constructed? Our house is also an object that is physically constructed and can be politically constructed as well. In that sense, how can we have a true sense of home and belonging if the memory and experience that we perceive are constructed?

In Ho’s series of photograph; objects in the image are discarded. House in this case is also an object that has been discarded. If the objects in life are significant in provoking or capturing memories, why do people still abandon objects? Choosing objects to be abandoned and objects to be brought along are essential in the cities.

Chapter 2: Urban development: abandon and constructive memory

The city is a place of large settlement; a community of houses and buildings. Walking from one end to the other end, we can easily recognize the features in the cities. There is a sense of familiarity in the city that we lived in. Familiarity is to recognize, to remember or to recall things. It is through that sense of familiarity; the personal memories and the cultural history that we collected in the city that gives us a sense of belonging. The city that we lived in and return to eventually thus is our ‘hometown’; the centre of our world. Our hometown is a place where we rooted ourselves in.

Unlike home which is built upon the individual experiences and personal memories, the city herself has an image to portray, the city that we lived in is being shape politically and economically so as to achieve economic growth and progression especially that of urban cities. In this chapter, I will like to take Singapore urban development as a case study and local artist’s responses to the issue of urban development and housing to discuss about the lost of memories and thus the lost of a fixed belonging to the Singaporean.

Tracing back from the early days of Singapore Independency till today, she had boosted rapidly into a developed country. In the early days, the fundamental objective of Singapore housing development is to provide a shelter for every citizen. With the problem of housing shortage in the beginning of Singapore Independency, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was established to provide the citizen with adequate standard of living, the local architect also strike for freedom to promote culture to the mass through national building.[8]

With the increase of standard of living and income of the citizen, they no longer just desire for basic amenities but desire for a higher standard of living which result in a constant construction and destruction of buildings in Singapore. Shifting and relocating thus become common.

In a lot of ways, our sense of place or location gives us the sense of identity, belonging and pride to the city that we lived in. Building of different time thus stands an important role in marking history of a city; they are almost like artefacts that connect us to our past; a reminder of historical event that once took place, the political and personal experience that once present. Two of the remarkable buildings in Singapore is the City Hall and Old Supreme court. over the years, Singaporean had witnessed many political events such as the japanese surrender, the national day and many more and the building together with the old Supreme court is currently preserved as a Singapore heritage building. Though building is being preserved but the function is not there anymore. (explain)It becomes a trademark of history, an attraction for tourist but no longer function as how it should be. What is the point of preserving when the function is no longer there?

Singapore is a country that has been lost and found, found and lost again. (Quoted from Ho Tzu yen film) Many of our local artists have responded to the rapid urban transition with their art. One of our local film/ documentaries maker – Tan Pin Pin has responded these issues in her documentaries such as the Invisible City and Moving House. Moving house speaks about the lost of tradition in the midst of Singapore land development. The documentary focuses on the Chew’s family who went to pay a visit to their parent at their tomb. That visit to the tomb was the last as they would have to dig out the bodies as the government had decided to develop that piece of land.

“We should have a permanent cemetery so that the tradition can continued…tradition had die off.” quoted from Mr Chew.

As of a tradition, it is necessary for dead bodies to be buried underground as a respect for the death. Each year during special occasion such as the ‘Qing Ming’ festival, the Chew family will visit their parent’s tomb, almost like a ‘picnic’ as Mr Chew mentioned. The bones of their parent were then cremate. What is lost is not just the lost of tradition but also the joy of gathering that they used to have.

Singapore land development can be endless. Reason being that more public housing is required to cover population needs. There is no limit to our desire for space. After development is re-development, moving is re-moving whether or not it is voluntary, is no longer important. Moving house had highlighted our endless desire for space and better standard of living and in the mean time, highlighting our yearns for the past to be continue, a contradicting feeling in the midst of progressing into a world class society. Hence, the transforming of cityscape had also result in a lost of history. It somehow prompts us the question that in order to progress, do we have to discard the past? Are we ready to do that? Is it necessary to abandon/ disregards our past to pursue a ‘better’ future? How much can we give up actually?

Over the years, we slowly identify the issue of urban development through the local artwork. Many lost memories were represented again as a form of art. Not having a fixed memory and belonging had affected artist in many way. Many had approach it in a sentimental manner, sometime in quite a negative way. Many of them chose to have our local HDB flats or construction sites as their subject matter. Interesting, the following photographer that I am going to introduce does not took the usual gigantic boxes as his subject matter instead, ‘junk’ that he collected as his subject.

Chua Chye Teck’s wonderland, 2007 is a series of photograph of junk, unwanted, abandon objects that he collected, to date this series consists of 500 pieces of images. Through these images, there are two main opponents that we have to take notes on; the idea of collecting and the idea of abandon in relation to the city. The idea of collecting plays an important part in this work as a way of indicating our social stature, professional affiliation, value system and personal taste. Another thing to consider is the objects being abandon; the ownership of physical object that hints our loftiest longings and deepest anxieties. With each purchase, we throw something away; by existing, we throw; because we move on, we throw. Also to note is that Chua does not keep any of this object as well. With each that he had collect and photograph, he abandoned it as well. Lastly, we consider the methods of presenting it – first, objects are placed individually on a clean turquoise background, almost like lifting the value of the junk, giving it a new life. Every object or set of objects, here was no less exquisitely cared for and to read the image as objects existing inside a camera frame – almost as preserved memories.

As much as we are reluctant to give up on what is valuable to us, we still ought to do so in order to progress… is this voice of the citizen or the voice of government? Chua’s work is interesting as it reflects on how much we had abandon in the process of urbanization and to collect it again is to recollect memory, thus memory being lost and found. As compared to Pin Pin’s film, it reflects how one has to give up in the the process of urbanization despite of one’s resistant to change. In the process of change, one long for a sense of permanency, a fixed belonging.

What image is Singapore trying to portray at the end of the day when its limited history are slowly faded away over the years? Whether or not Singapore has a rich history and culture are not important as compared to economic growth. This prompt the question of whether the progression and development into a better yet ever-changing rapid lifestyle changes our view of what is to be casted off and what is to be collected in the process? Has Singapore come to realize the lost of memory in the city??

To question about what has been lost, what do we discard in the process of progression, what we yearn and what we desire to retain goes down to the question of choice and it was clear that we had chosen for economic growth than having the history that give us a fixed belonging. These choices might not be make by the citizen but the government.

The government has probably realise the crucial needs to cultivate our national identity; our belonging. As much as our short history had been constantly being buried underneath with the rapid urban development, Singapore in the mean time is trying to construct identity. As often been said, where we belong are often cultivate through the arts and culture that we belong to. Thus, one essential ways to input these lost of history or memory is through local art. What is the role of arts and culture in cultivating our national identity then?

Chapter 3: The paradox

What is singapore culture?

Multi- culture. Mixture of east and west. Rojak. Anything and everything becomes our culture.

The Renaissance city plan[9] is a proposal that the government come out every five year and the recent plan will be to go all out to developed the image of an global art city. With this proposal, lots of funding were put into art spaces, schools and institution such as LaSalle college of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts(NAFA), the Singapore Arts Museum(SAM), Asian Civilian Museum(ACM), the National history museum as well as the National art gallery that is opening this year. The aims of this proposal is nevertheless to be an global art city, however what is contradicting is that as much as Singapore aims to go global, it still want to retain the sense of local through event such as Singapore art show. So what is Singapore aiming at the end of the day? She wants an image of everything and anything. She is trying to give encouragement for art yet maintaining tight restrictions on arts and culture.

Through inclusion of artwork in public spaces and the incorporation of tasteful design and landscaping in the neighbourhood, we can widen people’s exposure to and appreciation of arts and its relevance in everyday life.

(esplanade for cultural activities, government funding for art institution BUT still maintaining tight restrictions on art and cultural work)

(wanting to go global and in the mean time wanting to stay local…what is local?)

However, can we really perceive the memory that we collected in the museum as our belonging when the exhibition can be politically constructed or frame? In that sense, what we perceive as our belonging; our home is constructed. Hence, how the city is shaped somehow shape that we are as an individual being.

more and more….more art spaces, y? Culture, preserve memory, art as memory, passing memory, museum.

(Politics behind it:- art as business. So in the end it is still about money)

Memory can be constructed, belonging can be constructed, y not? A lot of time local artist felt a threat because of the uncertainty of their own belonging. ‘Singapore art’ is never Singapore art. Can art not be a constructed identity as well?

(through awareness, we make a choice ) Urban development to history… we chose to developed than holding the past. No resistance. Who to blame?

Memories as narrative of past

through narrative experience, we then understand the space.

  1. Lynn C. Robertson, Space, objects, minds, and brains (New York, N.Y. : Psychology Press, 2004), 1.
  2. Gaston Bachelard, The poetics of space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston, Mass. : Beacon Press, 1994), 4.
  3. Yi fu tuan 149
  4. Ibid, 9.
  5. Robertson, 3.
  6. Domestic Dystopia provides an insight into six interiors of dilapidated houses in Singapore. Each photograph reveals the traces of footsteps and impressions left behind by previous occupants, encapsulating these moments in their personal histories in a snapshot of time. Most of these houses have been abandoned and are left in a state of disrepair. By becoming a translator, Ho takes on the task of translating the deep sense of loss and nostalgia she feels when she is inside these houses onto a series of photographs.

Picture credit: Curating lab: 100 remix workshop organised by the National University of Singapore museum partnership with National Art Council of Singapore

  1. Robertson,
  2. From building dream- tan pin pin
  3. explain

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