“Where Did All Our Art Gogh?”: Forgotten Art in Bishan-Marymount and How We View Art’s Worth

This was written in collaboration with EJC Press as part of Issue 2 of Cross Island Impressions, an inter-JC Press collaboration. You can read Issue 2 here.

By Jolene Leow (20-E1; EJC), Samyak Jain (21S03A; RI), Thet Hninn Zin (21A13A; RI)

If you have been in Raffles Institution (RI) or Eunoia Junior College (EJC) for at least a year, you have probably passed by the mural below. As you walk from the North-South line towards the gantry at Bishan MRT station, a bright hue of pink hits you with quirky characters, oversized cats (who doesn’t love that) and even a reference to Junction 8. Despite the thousands of commuters who pass by this mural repeatedly every day, few would have stopped to try to understand the meaning behind this piece of work. 

Mural located at Bishan MRT station, the physical nexus between EJ and RI students.

Yet, many of us do go to places like the National Gallery or the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) to appreciate the pieces of work there. Thus, perhaps unwittingly, we have placed a judgement call to construct a hierarchy of our perception of art—where art in museums is much more rarefied and appreciated, whilst the more accessible art scene, like murals at MRT stations, continue to be neglected.

This article hopes to open your eyes to the art that pulsates through the concrete jungle that we navigate in our everyday lives.

Where and why is art valued? 

When we think of art, our minds tend to jump instantly to the framed halls of art museums and galleries where everything there has been presumed to be of a high standard. When we think of art, it is hard not to immediately zoom in on the High Art that has been curated by people who are literally paid to pick out art that has value. 

In actuality, art is all around us—not just in museums but also on the walls of our HDBs and shophouses,  decorating our shopping malls and MRT stations. There is a litany of artworks, termed “Neighbourhood Art” that can be found in our daily lives if we just stop to look out for them. 

According to Mrs Jane Loke, SCGS IP Art teacher, the value of art lies intrinsically in that “it is a part of our history and cultural heritage, it is a way to raise awareness of the issues in our present society and represents our hope for the future”. What better way to express the history, culture, and hopes of our society than by looking to the art that decorates our streets and everyday lives?

Neighbourhood Art is important because it provides a vivid, diverse representation of our society, expressed solely through the way the artist interacts with the viewer, and not affected by the viewpoint and biases of a curator who has their own overall narrative in mind when curating an exhibition. Art that’s found around the neighbourhood is free to stand by itself as its own voice.

Taken from Comma Space.

Dr Wang Roubin from Comma Space—an artist-run experimental space in the Bishan-Marymount area that makes art, curates exhibitions, commissions projects, and supports contemporary artists—believes that art is a critical part of society that allows us to reach out to and thus connect with others. She believes that art is important because it allows one to pour their soul into something, to have a passion that helps them find beauty in their life. In this sense, it is clear why Neighbourhood Art and smaller galleries like Comma Space exist. They exist to ensure that smaller up-and-coming artists have a space to share their work and express themselves. Even for established artists, these spaces can give them a place outside of the highly curated environment to express themselves with as little limits as possible. Dr Wang recalled working with another artist, who said that spaces like Comma Space “give him freedom, and even a playground for him to do what he wants to do”. Overall, these spaces allow the artists in Bishan-Marymount to make art that they think is worthwhile.

For the average teenager, however, where is art valued? As a whole, art seems to be generally more valued by EJ-RI youths in the major art museums and galleries rather than in such neighbourhood spaces. 

Why is art in public spaces perceived to be of lower value?

This might be attributed to the fact that many of us do not even know how to begin judging the value of art. The most convenient avenue to become a new-age art connoisseur then is to appreciate art that has already been curated for us by museum directors or placed in special collections by governments. These pieces consequently have a perceived societally accepted value attributed to them. In contrast, public art which has been put in place more organically is not considered to hold any special value given the ease with which they can be viewed. Thus, while viewing art in museums has become an opportunity to showcase our holistic renaissance man image; in community spaces, artworks have become nothing more than a backdrop to our daily lives rather than being the art itself. 

Popular mural art in Haji Lane (taken from SMU, School of Social Science’s website).

While the undervaluing of community art amongst youth may be a product of general societal mindsets, Dr Wang also attributes such devaluation to a very practical reason: Neighbourhood Art by nature is displayed in public causing it to undergoes wear and tear at a much higher rate than collections kept in temperature and humidity-controlled galleries. She mentions that “art has categories and community art is treated as the lowest category.” The fading murals washed away by years of rain and the slowly chipping installations worn down by human touch give the impression that certain art does not have meaning and is not worth preservation. However, is this tactility not what makes community art particularly evocative?

In this vein, Dr Wang also mentioned a project she worked on—Arts in Your Neighbourhood. A collaboration with the National Arts Council (NAC), this initiative aims to bring art to the different communities’ doorsteps such as neighbourhood parks and malls thereby making it accessible to them. Dr Wang mentions that while working on this, she attempted to challenge the conceptions of community art as work that “that people can easily understand and interpret.” This points to the idea that community art is perceived as lacking the depth and introspection that is characteristic of appreciated art. Neighbourhood Art’s value is judged almost solely on its aesthetic merit, thereby limiting it to the realm of “bright colours” and “realistic depictions” instead of allowing it to make more expansive statements on the human psyche. 

Mural in Ang Mo Kio, depicting a common sight in Singaporean markets (taken from the Straits Times).

What can be done to help bridge this distinction between conventional art and community art?

With the paradigm shift towards developing the community art scene in efforts like ‘Arts in Your Neighbourhood’ and ‘Comma Space’,  the cherry on top comes in the fact that such pieces of art are a lot more accessible. Not only does this make the process of casually appreciating art within the hustle and bustle of Singaporean life a lot easier, it makes the art scene in Singapore less elusive and out of reach. The disgruntled Singaporean will have less room to complain about having to travel into the CBD area, or to make a conscientious trip down to the museum—especially when art is available all around the community.

Especially with the profound impact of the online sphere in proliferating information and salient pieces of culture, social media has become key in improving our understanding of art. As aptly resounded by Nicole, a J2 Art student, and Mrs Loke, an Art teacher, “the online sphere is democratising” and has become “the greater equaliser” in making art accessible to people of wide-ranging backgrounds. Considering how even a simple ‘ping!’ on our phones can draw our attention or how we intuitively click on posts shared by our friends, we can bridge the gap between youths and artists in Singapore on such powerful platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Furthermore, our education system could further reinforce this structural shift, as there could be changes made to the inherent attitude of youths towards art. Be it through increased curriculum time spent introducing local artists to students, learning journeys dedicated to exploring the local art scene, or government initiatives that feature the vibrant landscape of the Singaporean community arts scene. Through increased exposure to art, youths are more discerning and acutely aware of the art that envelops their community, whilst opening their mind and attitude towards the Singaporean art scene.

More often than not, the art scene in Singapore is depicted as being confined within the four walls of museums, or an ‘aesthetic’ photo spot. However, we should collectively expand people’s conception of art from the over-concentrated spotlight on typical museums and theatres, as art isn’t limited by the boundaries of physical space within these locations. Instead, we should expand the perception of art as something that can exist even within ‘hole-in-the-wall’ places in the community, or even at the void deck of a HDB block. 

Ultimately, the role that us youths have to play is to keep local art alive by keeping an open mind to our contemporary yet ever-growing art scene. Instead of dismissing art solely because of where it is located or the conditions it is stored in, we should embrace and keep an open mind to all the art that is present in our community. 

EJC H3 Art student Nicole Lim (20-O1) believes that art has been made more accessible by social media, which helps creators to find their spotlight. Indeed, 76% of the EJC and RI students that we surveyed responded that they did in fact mostly interact with art through social media. This thus posits that perhaps art has found another space, where it can be appreciated by thousands all at once, on social media platforms. This emerging space for art does however seem to be a starting point for teenagers to get interested or started in art, since it has a much wider and more accessible reach. Instead of passing by the art around us without a second thought, we should stop and ponder more about the piece, perhaps even sharing it with our friends on social media as what we would have done with art curated in galleries and museums. 

Conclusion 

Instead of enclosing our world view and blindly shutting a world full of potential art, we should open up and appreciate the beauty in what’s around us. Perhaps the easiest way to bring Neighbourhood Art out of the shadows would be to end our over-reliance on what others tell us art should be. Our conception of art should transcend societal constructs, where we utilise our own interpretation of what appeals to us, what we consider to be thought-provoking, or just simply, a nice sight to behold. Maybe then, we might find out that the most accessible pieces of art are actually what truly speaks volumes about our community. After all, authentic and heartfelt representations of local experiences are, after all, as important (if not more) than the pieces held behind the cold, concrete walls of our museums in Singapore.

Going back to the mural mentioned at the start of the article, it is an artwork by Mr Soh Ee Shaun cheekily named Move! He mentions, “Move! explores notions of travel, speed, progress and change amid a tableau of oversized people, tourists, scientists, flying commuters, gossip-mongers and creatures. A large part of my illustrations involve creating spontaneous and overcrowded habitats filled with characters that are interconnected and thriving, amid a surreal, humorous landscape. It is my response to a city shaped largely from systematic planning, but which at the same time is cluttered, constructed, and constantly in flux.” It is also worth noting that perhaps the art that EJ-RI students deem worthy, or are more interested in seeing, are all found online within the depths of Instagram, Twitter or even TikTok. As we ourselves are constantly changing and evolving with the times, the art scene in Singapore has to adapt and ‘Move!’ accordingly as well, for everyone to truly bask in the beauty and sense of catharsis that art can bring. The extent of thought integral to the creation of pieces such as Move! exemplifies the value community art can hold in our lives. If we youths are truly serious about understanding art better, then surely the best place to start would be to look around our very own Bishan-Marymount community and start moving in the right direction. 

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