beware numbers and noise

All images in this post by J.

Almost every weekend there is a run/race event or two, sponsored by a corporation, a cause or even a cartoon character. At the Toa Payoh sports centre this Saturday, the stadium was hosting a sports events, so was the swimming pool. At the Toa Payoh HDB hub, there is another organised activity - in anticipation of Singapore's 50th birthday next year. On average per day, according to official statistics, there are some 70 arts performances and exhibitions - big or small - taking place. 

There is a fear, I think, of silence and stillness.

The races provide a goal - a definite finishing line. For some it is about strength and speed, and for some, endurance. A number helps define these limits. It is clear. We can achieve. 

The events, be it official or commercial, even artistic, generate activity. It generates "vibrancy" for a city, whose populace and visitors can be entertained and stimulated and fed. The marketing tells us we are missing out if we do not attend to this abundance, this (over)exuberance of life. We can consume.

There is comfort in the numbers. And in noise.

I must be careful, I tell myself, not to be lured by the numbers and the noise. 

The arts can be celebratory. The arts can entertain. The arts can soothe and heal. The arts can, arguably, even be counted. But we miss the point and deny its real power when we deny its silence and stillness - even in the loudest of celebrations. A painting or sculpture or photograph demands that we stand before it, even if for a moment, in stillness.  Music when performed asks that we listen. A dance, even in all its movement, asks for a certain stillness in entering the dance. A book invites us to first sit and read. A film pulls us into its frame of light amid the still darkness.

J's found art - pineapple sculpture Ong Lai Liao! 

A society that allows for the silence and stillness of the arts encourages its members and citizens to appreciate and care for the eternal around them - be it compassion for another, the beauty of sunlight, the community in a shared footpath. 

I struggle if eternal is the right word. Art is not my god after all. But it seems to me the closest word I can find to counter in the extreme this tyranny of speed, noise - and numbers. The eternal defies time, sound and arithmetic.

Friday evening as I left the office and popped by the outdoor theatre Esplanade, I bumped into O, a choreographer whose training is in Malay dance. He has organised an annual festival that gathers Malay dance practitioners in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in a series of free performances over the weekend at the Esplanade's outdoor theatre and concourse stage. 

There were crowds at both venues. And I found myself tempted to count their numbers! The office air was still in my lungs. Until of course the music, the banter and the faces of people who stopped to listen distracted me. It was far more rewarding than counting.

O and I chatted for a few minutes. It must have been more than a year since I last saw him. I congratulated him on pulling all this together. He explained to me why he felt he had to do it. I asked about his intention to revisit the choreography of our earliest Malay dance groups. 

He said he was watching all his young dancers and how their bodies moved. Their speed. It was alright, he qualified, and quite good, their new moves. But he wanted to introduce to them a language that was slower - it had more - he struggled for the right word... Grace, I ventured to add. Yes, grace and strength, he said.  It was easy for the young, we agreed, to think less of movements that were slow and graceful, not understanding that it required more control and strength.

We need the arts and artists like O to play to a village or a city its music and dance, and to teach its young about grace, control and strength. And to not always hold against them the measure of numbers and noise - but allow them and ourselves the chance of stillness and silence. 


if you marked your time in breaths

Two years ago, J bought a camellia bonsai grown on a ball of moss. It was a most beautiful thing. This solitary tree with its windy branches, proud and silent on its own planet and surrounded by a narrow watery reflection.

Some four months ago, the leaves on one of branches started to wither. And in less than a week, the camellia was dead.  There was no explicable cause.  The conditions that had kept it alive had not changed. At least not to the human eye. J snipped the weak branches off but continued to keep the dish filled with water. But other than that, we did not pay much attention to the ball of moss with the deadened plant. It was partly out of habit that J watered the moss, and partly out of hope - if it had died so suddenly, there could be a chance it would just as suddenly revive.  And so, with such gentle encouragement, the bright green carpet moss continued to grow and glow, joined soon by one or two other species of moss-like weed.

A month or so ago, another new life sprouted. It looked neither like moss nor the camellia. And it steadily multiplied, this weed with its leaves of purple hearts. At night the hearts folded, slept. In the day, they opened to receive the sun. Maybe it had lain in the ball of earth, waiting for the right time to emerge. Or maybe the winds carried it here.

It was also almost four months since our last run at the Macritchie nature reserve. Our last run was when I had just started on my new job. Four months is a long time, a third of a year. Time moves along faster when you are busy navigating a new environment and people.

So although we woke up this Saturday morning to a light drizzle and a uniform grey overhead, J and I persisted. We were determined to make it to the reserve. Packing our bags for a quick shower after the run was, at least for me, like getting ready to meet an old friend. And even the louder-than-usual tourists and the busier-than-normal crowd of fellow morning runners didn't raise a complaint from either of us. This was a day to wake up to.

It is difficult not to romanticise and objectify nature. It is the antidote to our plastic urban lives. Or it is that mirror to our concrete jungle. It is the life-giving mother, inscrutable but ever generous. It is where we are meant to be, that garden and eden. It becomes its own religion. It is mysterious. It is beastly. It can kill. It does not care. It suffers our not caring. It is ____.

I won't deny that running in the Macritchie nature reserve carries with it some of these notions. And at the most basic level - for me - it is tied to breathing. To be precise, for someone who isn't all that fit and great at running, it is tied to the difficulty of breathing!

I started the run with a modest pace, reminding myself that it's been four months. And in this way I tried to keep my breath steady. For the first kilometre or so into the reserve, the damp from the steady morning's steady drizzle had seeped into the earth and was slowly rising. The air carried the smell of a slow decay - somewhere between laundry not properly aired and smoked tea. I cannot decide if I found it unpleasant or I was quite glad for its company.

If nature was indeed like a mirror to our concrete jungle, I thought, and as such, we have never quite left the jungle, we would be like the undergrowth, the saplings, the creepers, the climbers...Very few among us grow to become trees and to enjoy the sun. But even when trees fall, the jungle doesn't mourn. Ashes to ashes, rot to rot.

This thought didn't get very far. The slopes were becoming more punishing. And I had to concentrate on breathing - com'on, my body says, stop wasting energy on thinking and focus on getting oxygen to your calf muscles instead!

Soon the air grew lighter and just that shade of a degree celsius cooler. I stopped smelling the damp and decay. Okay, it felt like my body was getting used to this and I could go on running for a long time more.

But I had to stop. A tree had fallen, struck down probably during Friday's fierce but short-lived thunderstorm. It may still recover if it remained rooted to the earth.  If not, it was most certainly be dead. The topmost branches of the tree laid across and blocked off the trail path.

Thankfully, there were navigable gaps between the branches. Step over one, go between two, slide across another, brush off some leaves, and for the finale, duck under. In the process, take the chance to catch up on and slow down your breathing. Breathe deep. Exhale.

For those brief moments, it felt like being at the top of a tree. I thought, this must be what the banded leaf monkey feels like - high up on a tree top! The damp of the leaves and that smell - an incredible freshness of a fallen tree, but not death. This is how green smells like, that intensity of life - even if just before death or decay.

An old lady in track pants and t-shirt, and holding on to an umbrella, greeted me as I emerged through the branches. She asked why this had happened. I explained Friday's thunderstorm. She said it never did happen, paused, then agreed that there was a somewhat short and violent one. The weather, she shook her head, unpredictable the weather.  Then with the umbrella, she parted some branches and attempted to go on her way. I said something like "Be careful".  The rest of the run went on, as (un)eventful as each breath.


What I don't know about trees and art

View of trees from our living room window. Image by J.

My choice of a de-stressing excursion this Saturday evening was to Kinokuniya's nature section (again!). More specifically, it was to three packed shelves of books about trees - most of them appropriately printed on FSC-certified paper.  There were encyclopaedic books, collections of personal essays, excavations of histories, odes to trees, passionate arguments for saving them, scholarly research into their secret lives...

There's something about browsing books on a topic and by writers you know close to nothing about. Maybe it's the joy of discovery, the surprise, the wonder. Maybe there's a feeling of freedom in admitting ignorance - and with that, the permission to indulge your curiosity and imagination. (Of course, in a bookstore, there's the added lure of shopping...)

I think there's some similarity with the experience of visiting an art museum.  And so J and I decided to continue our real and imaginative excursions into nature the next afternoon at the Singapore Art Museum's show "Unearthed" (curated by Tan Siuli).

The Bukit Brown Index by Post-Museum', image by J.

Because it is so easy to be didactic about man's relationship to nature, the works that seem to fall into this therefore seemed least interesting to me. But there are those that added to this a formal invention or exploration; works that questioned their own methods or admitted their own limits; or works that simply investigated, and investigated.

Senja Road, Ang Song Nian, image from www.singaporeartmuseum.sg 

In this context, it was apt that the last room we saw on the top floor of 8QSAM showed the work of the Earth Observatory of Singapore at NTU (I didn't know such an institute existed on our island!). 8QSAM showcased the work of artists that the Earth Observatory had hosted for residencies.  

We are fond of pitching the arts against science, and vice versa. On this island, at 14 you choose either "the science stream" or "the arts stream". One seeks answers. The other questions. One proceeds by rational observation. The other by conjecture and leaps of imagination. One asserts a singular identity and intellect. The other a collective accretion of knowledge through time, endlessly referencing. After a while, the one seem to be equally true of the other. At least curiosity and imagination must have informed them both. 


the garden

It feels like insects have been inviting themselves to our home.

The first to arrive was a giant adult praying mantis. For a few days, it hung around the plants outside our house and on the gate of our front door - before deciding HDB living was not for it. Then a lovely green insect no larger than a finger nail which I suspect is a stink bug appeared by our kitchen window. A couple of days ago, J found a dragonfly resting on a wall in our bedroom. I shan't say more about a large German cockroach, the first of such visitors we've had in years, or our lizard "friend", brave to test J's  lizard extermination skills.

Maybe it is the lure of the plants that have been slowly colonizing our place. Or perhaps the ever present smell of ripening pineapples and bananas from the kitchen. Whatever the reason,  it's not an unpleasant experience - well, most of the time, after you get over the slight initial scare.

In the bible's creation narrative, we are to name, know, love this nature, and in turn, for our bodies to be nourished by it. So power to those who try to keep such a relationship with nature!

This includes the folks behind The Edible Garden and 农Nong.

Today, on our day off, J and I decided to drop by their "pop up" rooftop farm and shop at the level 6 car park of the People's Park complex (they are joined by online marketplace Haystakt, which stocks Neighbourgoods' products!). The empty car park and an adjoining indoor space features pots and planters of herbs and vegetables, products by folks based in Singapore, and a priceless view of the cityscape.

To get to the rooftop, you will have the chance to take a trip up each floor of People's Park, still a time capsule of tattoo/massage/beauty parlours, maid agencies, travel agencies, money changers, and the "Overseas Emporium". A flight of stairs on the 5th floor will bring you to a door that seems to lead you to nowhere - but open it, and an expanse of ragged concrete and peeling paint will greet you.

If you plan to visit, do so before it disappears by end-March!


when giants fall


The cool afternoon lured J and I to the Macritchie Nature Reserve for a short run. The speedier J was way ahead of me, but we both had observed a beautiful spot along the trail and slowed to meet.

A large tree, its trunk looking like a meter and a half wide in diameter, had fallen. Perhaps it was  the rainy month of December that had weakened and uprooted the tree. As a result, a space to the sky had opened up in the forest canopy, letting in a generous circle of light. In the forest, it is difficult to miss a variation like this. The light is soft but distinct in the forest shade.

I have been reading about the nature reserves in Singapore for an ampulets art book project (look out for it!!), and remembered reading that this is not quite uncommon.

A mature tree, often overladen by creepers and ferns, will sometimes fall. We may bemoan the fall of what seemed like a sturdy, aged giant. Yet when it falls, it opens up space in the forest and lets in precious light that spurs the growth of the understorey, medium-sized trees. New life succeeds.

Nature has its way of enduring. So do we, though not always as graciously, generously, affirming. Both, nonetheless, by the grace and design of the creator.


both sides, now

"Instructions for my wife / 写给妈妈的信" from BOTH SIDES, NOW on Vimeo.

Some of you may recall reading on this blog about Ma J's struggle with stroke. Years later, we are re-living some of what she went through with her family in this little video made under J's design studio ampulets. It features from illustrations, J's story, and a juxtaposition with healthcare professional Kenneth's own instructions for his wife.

J's words on the video:
"My mother struggled with stroke for a few years. When she died, I felt relieved. Relieved that she no longer had to suffer the helplessness and despair.  
Stroke is a scary thing. I watched as it stripped her of her physical and mental self. We watched and felt just as helpless - we could not do much to help her.  
I remembered vividly when we asked my mother why her head was always hung low whenever we took out her out in her wheelchair, she told us that she looked like a ghost. It hurt so much to hear that she no longer regard herself as a human being.  
All these memories of my mother came back sharply when Jasmine (one of the organisers of Both Sides, Now) showed us the recorded interview with healthcare worker Kenneth. He spoke about the importance of planning for one's last days, not only for your own sake, but for your loved ones.  
 "写给妈妈的信 / Instructions for my wife" is a conversation between my memories and Kenneth's advice - one about the past, and one about what can be done for the future. Most of us will spend all of our time striving to live well, but we hope this short film will inspire some of us to also think about how to leave well too." - J

Catch the series of animated films by film makers and creatives such as Wei Keong, Zhuang Brothers, James Tan and ampulets, illustrating stories told by healthcare professionals about their encounters with death and what these have taught them about living. Titled "Living Well, Leaving Well", this is just one of the artworks that make up the immersive arts experience that will take place on site at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital from 16 Nov- 8 Dec. 9.30am - 8pm.

 Do visit www.bothsidesnow.sg for more information.


39 going on 40

Justin Bieber - a phenomenon us old folks will never understand. Story told to me by J, as we had our fairly decent coffee.
A good friend YM, when wishing me happy birthday, reminded me that this will be the last year we would both celebrate our 30-something. This had not crossed my mind. 

Since J and I have no children of our own, we are seldom reminded of our age. Growing old is something you often observe more in others than yourself. Whether in a child - "Ah, how tall you are... what, you are in Primary One already!" - or in your parents - "Wow, dad just turned 75, should really spend more time with him and take care of him." In this way aging is externalised. Until our bodies, flesh, start to fail us. 

Of course, this blog is also a marker of time. An external record of many internal journeys.

I took a day off from work. But unlike our more "adventurous" domestic travels in past years recorded on this blog, J and I settled for a more modest day of reading in bed, lunch at a Toa Payoh foodcourt, visiting the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and its gentrified neighbourhood where we had a fairly decent cup of coffee, before ending the day with a run and a home-cooked dinner...

What can never be repeated enough is this - that there is immense creative talent in Singapore, as with any other city or state - as long as we persevere and not let our environments or our insecurities and pride defeat us. And so it is with age. Until our bodies, flesh, lie to rest. 
copyright ampulets 2005-2011