Here’s a quick question for the “average” reader out there – one who finds themselves browsing through an art magazine at this very moment, I might add: When was the last time you saw a piece of art in real life that is not in a museum or a gallery?

For those bitten by the travel bug, it may be the kinetic rain sculpture located right at the entrance of Changi Airport Terminal 1 (Read fellow writer Mansi’s love letter to it here!). For those who frequent the CBD, it will probably be that fat bronze sparrow that perches right in front of UOB Plaza, side-eyeing the waterfront. For some lucky heartlanders, it may even be right at their void decks and stairwells!

Cheeky, mesmerising, or even heartwarming – it goes without saying that these are the pieces that line our public memory of spaces. Cavenagh Bridge just wouldn’t feel the same without Chong Fah Cheong‘s little boys skinny-dipping in the Singapore River with pre-adolescent glee, would it?

Chong Fah Cheong’s spirited First Generation, 2000. Image courtesy of Public Art Trust.

But here’s a non-rhetorical question, what makes the art you see outdoors feel so different from, well, the art indoors?

Definitions help. Public art, termed by the Association for Public Art, 

“is not an art “form”… Placed in public sites, this art is there for everyone, a form of collective community expression. Public art is a reflection of how we see the world – the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are.”

Challenging the conventional way of showcasing art in a white cube, the accessible and immediately communal experience of viewing, or even interacting with, public art situates the work in a time and space that just can’t be replaced.

Due to this specificity of context, the act of commissioning and curating public art could be said to be an art unto itself as well—an art whose principle medium is the perception to a greater whole that comprises other works. If this is starting to get a little confusing, bear with me, we are just getting to the good part.

The fact is that commissioning bodies are political institutions. No, this does not mean that museum directors and VIPs signing off on statue-making are going to run for presidency (Though they could, should, and on occasions, have, incidentally.) Yes, this means that having art made and plonking it in a place is political. And why is it political? It is all in the history and responses, you see. From #RhodesMustFall to Fearless Girl, art in all the wrong places by all the wrong artists asks all the right questions and dares us to think about how things come to be.

Fearless Girl was installed last March, the day before International Women’s Day, across the iconic Wall Street Charging Bull sculpture in New York City. The temporary addition is meant to draw attention to the gender pay gap and lack of gender diversity on corporate boards in the financial sector. Image courtesy of Anadolu Agency.

Given the occupancy of public art in a public place being a political (or historical, which also concerns itself with much politics) act, the big question looming over everyone’s heads is thus what constitutes a public space, and what is the primacy of having politics permeate an ostensibly apolitical place.

As noted in The Guardian,  

“[a]lthough they are seemingly accessible to members of the public and have the look and feel of public land, these sites…are not subject to ordinary local authority bylaws but rather governed by restrictions drawn up the landowner and usually enforced by private security companies.”

With private enterprises clamouring to integrate art into their infrastructure and programming (including but not limited to spaces like ION Gallery, Marina Bay Sands, and the upcoming Funan), one cannot help but wonder: who is the art really for, and what is the agenda behind it?

This brings us to D/SINI which, as I have written at large and in bits and pieces before, is a 9-month-long arts festival. Almost long enough for those who mix procreation and recreation to go from childless to sleepless in one sitting, this festival—the brainchild of Khai Hori, the curatorial director and partner of organiser Chan + Hori Contemporary—is a unique opportunity to fully explore the notion and function of the public art given both its location and duration.

Out of the 13 outdoor works showcased, 3 are by Singaporean artists while the remaining 10 are by international artists. There were a total of 2 murals, 9 installations, and 2 performance pieces. Installations dominate by volume, with the largest work, Nenas Estate, most striking for its sheer scale, meant to perform double duty as both an artwork and the festival pavilion. There were also open calls for Action Parties: action-based art presentation hosted within Nenas Estate by D/SINI.

Apart from being an Insta-worthy #OOTD spot, Nenas Estate houses a series of Action Parties, where the provided space is a call to action. Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary.

With D/SINI’s distinct agenda being to “activate thoughts embedded by landscapes surrounding Gillman Barracks,” the public art of the festival thus have a very definite purpose in their roles: to prompt responses pegged to places and public memories, real or imagined.

If we are to look at how these works, well, work in context, it is useful to take a look at them where they sit:

Dawn Ng’s Pinball, itself an excerpt from a longer series, drawn “from a quotidian Q&A project between [Dawn Ng] and a stranger — an Israeli child psychologist whom [she] barely knew, over a year. It is a fossilised, fleeting exchange shared by two women, from different pasts, presents and futures.”

Dawn Ng, Pinball, 2017. Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary.

A huge 5-meter tall billboard visible from afar, it is printed such that the audience has to follow a specific path when reading or the words would be meaningless, reflective of the ‘ping-ponging’ motion in the text. Located smack in the middle of a road intersection by the Block 37 artist residency studios, Pinball is likely the first work one would see coming in from the main entrance, which is just as well, because of the way it conveys both a childlike sense of curiosity (through its bold typeface and pastel colour scheme) as well as disorientation—both key ideas that can inform the attitude and ways through which the audience may view the other works.

8 metres of zen. Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary.

Furthermore, the proximity of Pinball to Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s austere The Ground provokes a sense of an ongoing process of maturation: both works are like islands, isolated amongst nature or buildings, and it is this geographical similarity that serves to highlight a sort of spiritual evolution in perception and attitude to life—The Ground’s stark asceticism and simplicity is in direct contrast to the wonderment and playful textual outpouring in Pinball, just like the way that we are worn down to tend towards the basics as we grow older. Here is a synergy that was definitely noticed and cultivated.

Similarly, the fashion collective MASH-UP’s Nenas Estate (Quite literally, pineapple estate) works in relation to its location right next to Block 7—as the designated festival pavilion, the loud, fun space is a far cry from the relatively more standard white cube Gillman galleries. Shaped like a pineapple, which traditional Chinese culture considers a harbinger of prosperity, it is a direct homage to the nearby Haw Par Villa as well as a playground formerly present at Tampines Central Park. Its bright cheery illustrations and aquatic design flourishes also brings to mind the also nearby Sentosa and ocean. The Estate serves to enhance the experiences and raise the spirit of visitors, as well as to serve as a very distinct marker of the heritage around the precinct.

Performativity is also an especially interesting, more underrated facet of the public art programme. Defined in a big way by their temporality and transience, the series of Action Parties and performance art component are valuable additions to the more visual component, one which decidedly privileges what is immediately “visible” or obvious.

The fabulous Pope Alice who is also a staple of Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras. Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary.

In The Divine Cosmos, the artist Luke Roberts performs…something (Ritual? Calligraphy? Interpretive dance?) while inhabiting the persona of Pope Alice, a recurring alien messiah figure in his works.

Swathed in white and flanked by garlan-ed acolytes, his act is bewildering in the best way—you cannot quite tell whether it is a specific commentary on organised religion, conspiracy theories (and their theorists), extraterrestrial behaviours, or any combination of the aforementioned and more, but how is it public art? While some onlookers stood and stared, others took out their phones for some of that sweet social media content, and some even seriously got into the mood; this seems fitting as a possible theme too—the nature of participation in a public act.

I will posit however that the best part of finding art outdoors, away from the rarefied indoor settings that could seem intimidating, is really the sense of camaraderie one has with fellow audience members, or passer-bys milling about. In such a situation, one finds oneself away from the trappings of institutional affiliations, but still engaging with the history and physicality of the place itself. In an era where social orders and good sense have all seem to turn topsy-turvy inside out, that the appeal is undeniable for those who just want to get away for the moment, and be on the outside looking in.

Don’t miss a thing!