Is the air-con strong enough for the polar bears?


I came into the makeshift cinema at 8Q at SAM in the middle of Tan Pin Pin's Snow City. Because the films were on loop and there were 6 of them, I decided to just sit down and watch because to see the beginning would require another patient 1 hour wait. Frozen in time was this office scene which was intentionally mundane yet pregnant in its meaning. It was a rather old-fashioned office with some IBM-looking computer terminals in view. There were a few moving bodies in the background, a token expat in the frame and lots of the everyday office ambience filling an otherwise empty shot.

Not entirely sure where it was bringing me, I continued to watch on and try to draw the connection between this and the scene shot at Jurong's Snow City following it. I myself, shot a documentary called 'Water Cycle' 3 years ago that attempted to capture how life interacts with weather/nature hoping to elicit some typical Singaporean sensibilities from the footages. One of my footages captured Snow City. It documented how Singapore has managed to do a 'climatic transplant' by building Snow City, capturing shots of the plastic reindeers, the 'Snow is Slippery' sign and most of all, the liberated expressions of many heartlander Singaporeans, whom I suspect have yet to see snow. Pin Pin's 'Snow City' captured something similar, but of course, pieced together with the other shots, was pitched at a different angle. I had to wait to find out while I watched the rest of her works.

One of the things that capture me about Pin Pin's works is how she goes about building them. Instead of already knowing a point to make and finding the evidence that drives that point, she simply collects anythings that interests and intrigues her. Many things intrigue her and bearing the stripes of an artist, she is often able to see the irony in facets of life we have so taken for granted as matter-of-fact.

Moving from the remnants of 'Snow City', I sat there like a history student enthralled by a history textbook of an alternative kind. History after all, is subjective and if you have Pin Pin's 'Invisible City' you might agree that history from the authorised textbooks is painted with a certain colour, ambience, values and voice. I sat there thoroughly entertained by her presentation of a bevy of sights, sounds or slants unfamiliar and undiscovered to Singapore. '9th August' is a collection of footages from the Singapore National Day Parades over the years, slanted towards the effect of a scrutiny on selected rituals of the pageant. These include the men in white making their entrance (whose hair grew whiter by the years), the display of military 'we are vulnerable in the SE Asia region' might as well as the obedient mass displays. While these footages are not new, the very pointed scrutiny with the apocalyptic music made it immensely entertaining! Equally entertaining was watching the evolution of the Prime Minister's role played by the 3 Prime Ministers we've had.

A more sublime and mysterious piece was excerpts from 'Ivan Polunin's Sound Archive'. As Pin Pin rightly identified, while visual images tend to inspire, sound speaks directly. Dr Polunin captured sound scapes from the 1950s, a Singapore where dialects were still widely spoken, HDB flats were non-existent and areas meant are Mother Nature's territories were not tampered with. The 51/49 equation between sound and visual holds true here where sound tends to tip the scale against visuals in terms of transporting the immediacy of the scene to the audience. Even the hokkien sounds different in the early days, a subtlety that visuals would fail to capture.

This series of screenings also gave the audience a chance to witness Pin Pin's early fictional attempts. She made a film called 'Rogers Park' about a boy who was exploring things in the house. This included wrapping his head up in clear plastic wrap which was a novel visual touch I thought. 'Moving House' following that, has been one of Pin Pin's signature pieces, which when put together with the other documentary pieces adds to the rhetoric about how Singapore's desperate attempts to abandon and reinvent.

'The Impossibility of Knowing', possibly the main showpiece of her Biennale collection, was a piece that bore the most potential in terms of artistic concept. It strings together several ordinary, non-descript-looking locations in Singapore. Without the help of narration (by Lim Kay Tong below), one will not appreciate the emotional weight each of these locations carry. Each of them have had an episode of trauma that's happened there. Probably the closest way to understand this is to recall a time when someone tells you so and so died there and suddenly that ordinary corner of the void deck didn't seem ordinary anymore.


It is slightly strange that a film that sought to raise questions about our emotional attachment to spaces didn't quite manage to hit an emotional threshold. Told in an objective, news-reading tone of voice, I suspect the film does not attempt to dramatise the event of trauma but focuses on raising questions about the seemingly peaceful environment we live in. This is arguably an artistic choice given that many of Pin Pin's works have their sensibilities in keen observation and raising questions, but never making a pointed and strong stand. Having said that, it would be a waste if someone did not take home the material and make it into a horror film!




Finally, I got back to the end of the loop with the early part of 'Snow City' that I missed. A group of civil servant-types gather around a stage where the guest of honour makes a speech. One can be forgiven for thinking this is Channel 5 new footage for one of its news staples is often ministers officially opening various venues, big and small. In a wryly comic and satirical way, Pin Pin's choice of focussing on the tedium of ceremony and the very dramatic and literal unveiling of the Fort Canning Tunnel makes a strong point about the state of the 'man-made' in Singapore. And she has also chosen to avoid the salient, opting instead for us to read in between the lines of seemingly mundane scenes.
So from Snow City to Polar Bears, it seems I have come full circle in a proxy kind of understanding or observation of life in Singapore. One that the polar bears, plucked out of their natural climate and plonked in man-made, pseudo-temperate enclosures would share.

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