The AS8 building (officially launched in October 2017) houses departments and clusters for Asian studies and is also part of the larger body of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences within Singapore’s National University. In early 2016, a committee was tasked to curate this large wall space in what might be the first phase of more curatorial and artistic projects to follow on the many walls and link bridges in the building. Any curatorial endeavour for this space would have to consider key themes which define Asia historically, geographically and culturally. In addition to these vast themes, the University’s own history, physical location and community became crucial anchors in shaping the project. As a result, this mural locates itself at the intersection of themes which resonate with Asia as well as NUS. Preliminary discussions at committee meetings were distilled in a keyword compilation: Asia, NUS, trade, travel, exploration, voyage, maps, space, time, sea, land, tropical rainforest, flora and fauna. The curatorial and artistic direction of this project refrains from an over-determined storyline; its visualization, choice of materials and forms rely on “fluid” and “open-ended” articulations of Asia vis-à-vis the “reductive”.
Discovering the Mural
Our first point of departure is shaped by ceramic artist, Suriani Suratman’s idea of “connections” forged across Asia through the sea and its maritime networks. She associates the idea of connections with expeditions, voyages and trade; as a result, she visualises interwoven masses of land, sea and sky which are translated by mural artist Margaret Tan in broad, sweeping brushstrokes to provide a riveting backdrop. Suriani (trained by master ceramist Iskandar Jalil) and Margaret (a Fine Arts graduate of RMIT/Lasalle College of the Arts), both faculty members of NUS, enliven the abstract idea of connection through this first-of-its kind artistic collaboration on Campus.
The mural finds its second conceptual idea in the medieval European map, i.e., mappa mundi. As is widely known, the mappae mundi did not serve as accurate maps or navigational charts; instead, these were schematic maps and learning resources which incorporated illustrations of people, trade networks, maritime routes, and natural history. Despite their sometimes miniature scale, they allowed for a highly imaginative space. Interestingly, Suriani drops the conventional square or rectangular format for the mappae mundi. She opts, instead, for a circular form which allows her to court the concept of time alongside that of travel and space. These circular clay discs also symbolise the cycle of time in a mandala or cosmic diagram, which forms the basis of several Asian philosophies.
Suriani, together with two other ceramic artists, Agnes Lim and Ng Hwee Kee, guided NUS students, staff, faculty and their family members to illustrate the ceramic discs at a collaborative workshop conducted at the Jalan Bahar Clay Studios, at the site of the historic Guan Huat Dragon Kiln built in 1958. Each disc is the producer’s pictorial imagination of travel in ancient and medieval Asia pinched into clay or constructed through coiling of clay balls and strips. Images of food carried on ships, volcanoes, agricultural settlements and grotesque marine creatures encountered on voyages are rendered variously in relief or incised patterns to build further on the imaginative potential of the mappae mundi. The interpretive and tactile possibilities of these circular maps invite the viewer to embark on a visual discovery across the 12.93 metres of the mural. “Reading” each of these discs is akin to reading an illustrated timeline which celebrates the incessant circulation of people, goods and ideas. The subtle gradations of colour achieved through a mastery over firing techniques add a whole new dimension to the visual discovery. Physically moving back and forth between these clay discs makes the reading process more circular than linear, thereby echoing the circular conception of time in Asian cultures. Their sometimes dense, and at other times sparse placement suggests contact, congregation and divergence. The overall arrangement of the discs in a giant, wave-like form echoes the ocean and its networks, which eventually connect us to the land.
Our eyes come to rest on a delightful forest painted by Margaret and her assistant, Sharyl Lam. Margaret’s formal engagement draws on a meaningful initiative, “Campus in a Tropical Rainforest”, undertaken by NUS Students Against Violation of the Earth (SAVE) and the Office of Environmental Sustainability: their project is a call to the NUS community to undertake photo-documentation of floral and faunal species sighted on Campus. This community-authored archive, which is shared periodically through e-flyers, becomes an important visual resource. While Jezebel butterflies, Sunda pangolin and the Tembusu tree celebrate the unique biodiversity of the microcosm that is the University Campus, they also link it with the larger island and its National Parks.
If loosely defined as a public art work, this mural, like all public art, becomes part of an extended island-wide network of public commissions and their collective concerns, expressions and responses: Margaret’s Oriental pied hornbills, plantain squirrel, greater mousedeer and migratory great egrets underscore this mural’s links with two of Singapore’s visually most accessible identities, City in a Garden and Renaissance City for the Arts and Culture or Global City for the Arts. While the first identity, City in a Garden is captured in Margaret’s visual representation of the tropical rainforest, Global City for the Arts shines through the cosmopolitan personality of this mixed-media collaboration in mural painting and ceramic, and through the use of hybridised batik motifs.
The tropical forests and its inhabitants are outlined in white to mimic the resist-dyeing technique of batik fabrics. Just as these forest creatures appear to hide and emerge from the vegetation, a medley of motifs, hidden by distance, awaits discovery upon closer viewing. Geometric patterns from the hand-woven patola sarees of India and Asian paisley, the latter was widely utilised in Manchester trade textiles, create rich surface patterns in the tree branches and buds of plants. The Chinese and European-influenced Buketan Pelangan pattern, characterised by stylised veins on leaves, the hand-drawn Hindu-Buddhist influenced Semen Klewer pattern, enriched with dots and dashes, and the laborious rice-grain pattern, found in both Japanese and Pekalongan batiks, present a stunning contrast of fine, painstaking brushwork that offsets the stark, rugged backdrop. While these motifs reflect constant movement, re-articulation and hybridity of patterns, to the point of shedding their provenance, they also represent “contact” and global encounters of ancient, medieval and contemporary Asia. The mural imbibes the twinned identities of its immediate location and the macrocosm to which it belongs: it remains locale-bound, associating actively with its host institution, national and regional environment, while simultaneously steering clear of confined categories of provenance, medium and genre. This melding of stylistic influences, materials and artistic practices lend to the mural an innovative and experimental spirit, which is characteristic of a global arts hub and its burgeoning public art commissions.
Ceramic: Suriani Suratman with Agnes Lim and Ng Hwee Kee
Mural: Margaret Tan with Sharyl Lam
Suriani Suratman, Margaret Tan, Priya Maholay-Jaradi
Members of Committee
Loy Hui Chieh
Ho Chee Lick
Johnson Irving Chan
Phua Pei Pei
Lim Tiong Nam, Marcus