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. 


all good reasons

It's been quiet on this blog for a few years now. A filmmaker mentioned how it had seemed so alternative when she did a bloggers' preview for a film, but now some 6, 7 years later, the idea of a blogger seems terribly passe.

But it's been quiet on this blog because several projects over the years have been distracting J and I outside of work. The latest? Goodcraft, under Neighbourgoods (ampulets supplies' successor), the product label that spun off from J's design studio ampulets.

This little show opens on 1 November 2013, at Dwelling Concept's gallery space at 261 Waterloo Street, #02-30, and runs on 2-3 November from 1-6pm. 

J and I will be there for a chat and to say Hi. So don't be a stranger. 

Read on the Neighbourgoods website about the building and its hood. Because if you do make the trip to Waterloo Street, make sure you open your eyes and mind to the heritage of the area (you can download the WalkSingapore app for the Bras Basah and Bugis district here)

Plus you should definitely take a look (or more) at the Singapore Biennale 2013, taking place at the Singapore Art Museum, the National Museum, and Peranakan Museum.

You definitely have more than 1 good reason to be come by the Goodcraft show! 


The Union Cafeteria

Image by J

Bus interchanges are like airports for folks who don't fly for business.

Ok, the comparison doesn't always square, but like airports, it is a meeting place and a point of transit, a some time interchange for relationships and identities.

For example, when I transfer from the train to the feeder bus home at the bus interchange, I already start feeling that I am home in the queue - the work persona and everything associated with that public and professional space is shed.

The bus interchange at Toa Payoh has two eateries. One resembles a mini foodcourt, with a small seating area and contiguous stores manned by folks in uniforms. The other is a tiny cafeteria with 2 round tables in the middle and 2 small rectangular tables by the side. This cafeteria acts as the bus drivers' mess but is also open to the public. The cafeteria is run by the transport workers' union, or so it says on its sign. Like airport eateries, these eateries also serve as a meeting point, a time-filler, and a fuel stop.

In the mornings, the Transport workers' union cafeteria is a congregation of bus drivers, other working types, old men and old women, and the occasional homeless guy. The old men tend to sit with each other at one table, and the old women at another. That's just how it is. The bus drivers zip in and out, as with working folks - picking up their kopi, takeaway beehoon and snacks. Sometimes one of us working types would sit down at the tables with the old men or old women, according to our gender camps.

But we are strangers all. Our elbows may occasionally touch but we avoid eye contact. Once the drink or meal is consumed, most of us move off, swiftly, quietly. And if any of us should linger, killing time, the space seems to slow down with us too, and a single word spoken aloud may start to breed a conversation.

This morning I was feeling a little tired about missing my Saturday run for a work event. I knew I would need that Transport-Workers-Union breakfast - not just as fuel - but to help me shift into work-mode, kill a little time, and... to ground myself amidst this meeting place.

I found a spot at the old women's table - the old men colony was full and not looking too welcoming. Once seated, I realized that the old blind woman who sold tissue paper at the bus interchange was also having her morning coffee there. Sharing our table was a middle-aged woman in t-shirt, shorts and slippers.

Old woman: (loudly) Haiyah, I have already finished my coffee and he is still not here yet. (And getting no response...) Finished eating and my friend is still not here.
Middle-aged woman: (getting the hint) What friend?
OW: Ah, can you help me see if he is around. My friend is also blind.
MAW: (glances around) Your friend is not here yet.
OW: Haiyah, my coffee is finished already...... BOSS! (Getting no answer) Boss!
MAW: (turns around to look at the woman at the coffee counter) She is calling you.
Coffee Lady: I can hear. (Looks up, but only barely) Of course I can hear, but I am not the boss what.
OW: Oh. You are not the boss. Where is the boss?
CL: The boss is not here.
OW: Oh. One more kopi.
[Five minutes later...]
OW: (loudly) Haiyah, I am going to finish my second cup of coffee and my friend is still not here yet. (And getting no response...) It's so late already, my friend is not here yet, haiyah...

When I was done with my beehoon and kopi, I still had a little time to kill so I walked around the interchange looking out for her blind someone. But her friend was really not here yet.

This evening I shared the exchange with J over a tub of ice-cream. He promptly added, "you are here, but you are really not here yet."  I didn't confirm this with him, but maybe he meant this - that we are in transit, and this ain't the final destination.
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