A More Romantic Side of Urban Redevelopment Authority :)

In this blog article, I recounted a recent visit to the URA centre, how it unfolded the tale of the Singapore River, as told by the paintings there.

URA is a statutory board that oversees the use of the land, what to build, what to demolish, and what to stay. In Singapore, this may sound like a practical business. The land here is pretty scarce, it is not surprising if the consideration is pretty much based on the necessities at the time and what brings the most economical benefit above all else.

As we gathered there at the lobby of the URA Centre, we were welcomed by a conservation management officer who struck immediately as an architecture-trained person, for the fact that he talked well about the artworks with the fine sensitivities of an art curator (and the fact that he was dressed quite architect-y :p). He explained that ministries and stat boards collected artworks which document and reflect the change of life in Singapore over the years. So it is no wonder and so fitting that the artworks at URA revolve around buildings and landmarks.

The triptych (three-panel painting) of Singapore River above the reception desk at the lobby stood out with its bloody red paint. And that, the guide of the day explained, was the very reason the painting was put there – to catch attention. Hopefully people will stay there a few seconds longer to ponder, and then decide to read the description and reflect on its significance. The redness symbolizes the forgotten cost of building a country, the tears, sweat and blood of the people whose voices were often not seen and heard. It is indeed an unconventional and interesting choice for an entrance painting.

“Horizons of change no.28 (Singapore River)” by Chankerk Teh, 2013

There was another triptych hung somewhere on another level of the building which shows a less ‘upsetting’ scene of the river. I admire this one for a different reason. At one glance, the brushstrokes may appear unfinished and rough, but the next moment you realize that they are forceful strokes with a thoughtful colour palette that brings out the play of the bright afternoon sunlight on the river bank, making you want to squint your eyes for real . Read the description below for the interesting meaning of the three panels.

“The River” by Boo Sze Yang, 2013

The description of Sze Yang’s painting

As we went upstairs, we also saw a series of maps of Singapore from as early as 200 years ago. A map is considered as an objective piece of document, as it points out the geographical phenomena of a place. However what is put and what is omitted are decided by the authority that makes the map, which in turn is influenced by the necessities of the time and the expectations of the city. A lot of maps back then put Singapore River as the centre of the maps, being the hub of the trade at that time. That was how we started the discussion topic on how artists’ choices influence what the future generation sees as important and beautiful.

One of the maps on display

Three water colour paintings by Lim Tze Peng: The Corner of Clarke Quay, Singapore River (Near Riverwalk and Galleria) and Amoy Street show the romantic spots in Singapore that were frequently painted by artists at that time. The guide noted that there is a preference to draw Singapore as it was in the past, and not so much the modern  buildings. Are the modern buildings so unattractive to draw? Is modernity not something worth documenting (now that we have handy and advanced photography)? Also, if artists’ influence on people’s perception is so great, must there be more paintings on relatively more bland public housing to make people more affectionate of it? As we nodded away and reflected on these questions, I could not help but to think of groups like Urban Sketchers who go around drawing Singapore… so their role now is like that of the artists in the past: the custodian of memories of the future generation. However, to what extent it will be the same, is still a subject of an interesting discourse.

The three water colour paintings by Lim Tze Peng


There were many other prolific paintings being shown to us. This particular oil painting below is interesting as there is more than what meet the eyes. The dark foreground looking out out to the bright background of Singapore, airy, clean and safe represents the artist (and the country’s) aspiration and positivity for a brighter Singapore. I also like how the painter cleverly inserted the year of the painting (1982) as the name in the boat.

I did not get hold of the details of the painting, my bad! Tried to run a few searches online, but still have not found it.

The tour was aptly sealed with us doing a panoramic city sketching on the highest floor of the building (from which we could view the city around us). Geared with the newfound insights from the paintings we did earlier, we observed the buildings with a deeper understanding.


The URA Center is located at the Maxwell Road just across the Maxwell Food Centre. The last time I went there I remember there was a very long queue outside a chicken rice stall by the name of ‘Tian Tian Chicken Rice) who got even more famous after the chef won the cooking contest against Gordon Ramsay. I decided to try it after my tour as the queue was not that bad on that day. It tasted quite good, fragrant rice and tender meat… though it is more expensive – 5 dollars per plate, as compared to 3 dollars per plate from another chicken rice stall next to it (but then also, my untrained tongue would have not been able to tell the difference between them :p).

Yayoi Kusama and The (Irritating?) Interactors

The first time I heard of her was when my prof in university showed me her work as a reference a couple years ago. Still a vague-sounding Japanese artist to a noob student like me then, she became more and more well-known in Singapore, with her work printed on Louis Vuitton bags and now, the ultimate mass publicity of all, the exhibition Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Life is a Heart of The Rainbow’ in the National Gallery. This is perhaps the most popular exhibition I have visited so far… in terms of the most number of visitors, most photographed, and most hashtagged. When I went there on a weekday afternoon after work, the queue at the ticketing office was longer than usual, and the staff admitted they had been busy for ‘the past few months’.

The walkway from the MRT station that leads to the National Gallery – conspicuously Kusama.

Polka dot… and mirror. Two of the most important elements in Kusama’s work

I am not going to describe so much about her work to avoid spoiling the experience of those who have yet to visit. So I will just share some snippets of my experience in the exhibition in relation to the fellow visitors:

The first hall contains paintings from her formative years of pattern exploration. I leaned forward as I was wondering how she executed such perfect brushstrokes and shapes, examining the little details and imagining the possible methods… when I saw a lady touching another painting next to me with her index finger.

I felt irritated instantly. What is she doing and why?? I mean, even if you don’t know basic museum etiquette, shouldn’t you stay away from touching something that is barricaded for a reason? Since she stopped doing that immediately, I just rolled my eyes and walked away. Even if you feel that your fingers are clean and you only touch gently, or if the tactile quality of the artwork make your hands itch), just don’t touch anything (unless you are specifically invited to do so). It may not even be only about artwork per se, but also things in general. If something does not belong to you, what gives you the right to disturb it? Our fingers have a thin layer of oil that may accelerate the degeneration of the paint. Or for whatever reason. Just keep your hands to yourself.

One of her ‘Infinity Nets’ large-scale paintings

The closer look at the painting

Then I arrived at the first installation, which is a yellow room of black polka dots with a mirror box in the middle called ‘The Spirits of The Pumpkins Descended into The Heavens’. I managed to enter the room after 20 minutes of queuing, and I waited again for my turn to take a peek into the peephole on the mirror box that was put in the middle of the room. There were a mom with her two small kids waiting behind me, and the kids were left wandering inside the room. Of course the kids were curious of what was inside the box and started to attempt to climb the steps that led to the peephole, slightly obstructing the people who were having their turn. What made me roll my eyes was the fact that the mom did not do anything to stop her children… So she just let the situation run its course, as if it was cool if her kids cut someone else’s turn. Erm… ok.

Waiting to enter the polka dot room

The next hall houses the famous light room ‘Infinity Mirrored Room – Gleaming Lights of The Souls’. Similar with the previous installation, I was queueing for about 20 minutes to enter this room. I did not know what to expect of what to see inside, so I just made a mental note to myself not to ‘touch the lights’ or ‘get off the platform’ according to what the signs said.

Suddenly something happened. Around 5 minutes before my turn to go in, someone shrieked from inside. The visitors froze for a while. What happened inside? Should we be worried? The museum staff went into the room to attend to the matter. Did they knock on something? Did they step out of the platform? I wondered. Is something broken? Are they going to close down the installation? (just before I can go in!) But people in front of me continued to talk again, as if nothing had happened. No announcement. Nothing. The queue moved forward again, so I concluded nothing serious had happened. And indeed it was the case, as my turn to go in finally arrived.

The museum sitter ushered me in and told me that I only had 20 seconds inside… I suddenly felt a jolt of panic. I quickly prepared the camera function on my phone, trying to capture the scene quickly and to have enough time to enjoy it with my own eyes without the camera. And then they knocked the door three times. The time was up. The description in the brochure that says it ‘invite(s) contemplation in an infinitely repeating, expanded space’ is questionable. There was just no time to contemplate.

My effort in taking a picture in the light room

When I moved to the next hall, a child (who happened to be in the same group of the lady who touched the painting) brought in an opened packet of biscuits into the gallery. The museum staff happened to see it and and politely told the kid to finish it before he could go in to see the exhibition. To be frank all the museum staff that I met that day were friendly and helpful, despite some difficult visitors that I described.

The next hall has a lot of big paintings. And when you have a lot of big paintings, people tend to make it a background to their picture, because they are big, and they look really good (to be fair the exhibition so far had been Instagram-worthy). However, many were just taking too long, snapping many poses at different angles. I mean I am not trying to be this puritan art critique who feels artwork has to be enjoyed in its purest way: looking at a painting, thinking of what could possibly be the meaning while stroking our chin. By all means, take picture for documentation, take picture to maintain your persona on your Instagram account (the museum even provides a hashtag #sgloveskusama for social media purposes), but think of others who want to enjoy the exhibition as well. Perhaps you can step aside and check the string of photos you have just taken. Let other people approach the artwork before you resume the pursuit of taking the perfect photograph.

Having said that, I too decided to take a selfie in front of the painting in an attempt to recreate the publicity poster (see below). Due to the lack of red wig and sharp glare, the attempt failed ;p

Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Life is The Heart of A Rainbow’

The publicity poster

Despite all what I wrote above, the exhibition was a good one 🙂

Yayoi Kusama ‘Lide is The Heart of A Rainbow’ opens at the National Gallery from 9 Jun to 3 Sep 2017

Check out their website for admission matters.

Campus Concert and Some Old Memories

By Christy Kabul, reporting from Singapore

Last Thursday, my sister was in town, and her biggest reason: to binge on the concerts that she could lay her existence on. She had told me that she wanted to attend all the 3 concerts by Singapore Symphony Orchestra on the weekend, but on our way to the first concert at Victoria Junior College, she found out, to her slight disappointment, that the three concerts were going to feature the same song line-up. We started wondering if it could have been better if she had chosen another concert day with a location which would be closer to where we stayed, but since we were already on our way, we continued our journey to VJC anyway. I wondered why this particular school had been chosen as one of the venues other than the fact that it shared the same name with another concert venue – Victoria Concert Hall 😛 (a few days later, I asked a friend who is seasoned in the band world, and he told me that the school might have written in to SSO about its interest to host.)

This was my first visit since the last visit to the campus more than 10 years ago for the school open house (I am not an alumnus), and I could vaguely remember how it was like. After we alighted from the bus and followed the trail of some VJC students, we stepped in the school compound and were greeted by a pavement painted with (I would guess) the school anthem lyric that you could read line by line as you were walking in. This is a great display idea, I thought. Imagine students, worn out from long hours of night study, dragging their feet in and being reminded again of the spirit of the school.

JC kids were still hanging out at the canteen studying for the looming exams, or just lounging around, waiting for the concert. A couple of neck tie-donning JC students served as ushers, showing us the way to the auditorium. I remember that I, too, did that once when I was their age. A time when it was not that weird for a female to wear a tie :p

 In my younger days, when the baby fat was more abound and I served as an usher for a school event.

After buying a few CDs on sale outside, we joined the rest of the audience to stream into the audi. My sister gushes about how a school auditorium could be so sophisticated and nice. True, I thought, it is nicer and more well-kept even than some national concert halls in Jakarta.

As we were looking ideal seats, the emcee on stage had already started with the introduction of the musical pieces that were going to be presented. There was no program booklet, which is to me a very good idea to save resources (if you are interested to find out more about the program, you can check it out in their website somewhere). So if you are early for the concert, you just listen and you stand a chance winning something from the trivia quiz later on. The crowd, which consisted of the students, members of the public and little kids, was quite game for the quiz. It soon became clear, the educational undertone that the whole program was framed in. Instead of hoping the public to go to classical concerts, they bring music to them, and try to groom the love for it since they are young.

Casually dressed in black shirt, jogger pants and sneakers, Conductor Jason Lai, took over the stage, effortlessly making jokes and givinv the introduction to every song. With a fluent speech like that (a cool accent is a plus!), he could easily become a radio DJ and a TV presenter (which is true, he is involved in a BBC travel programme). I always admire a conductor who can engage with the audience very well.

Spotted in the make-up of the band were a sizeable number of foreign musicians (China and some European countries?). I guess this makes sense. Their presence is needed to boost the cultural and artistic scene in Singapore which is relatively still young and developing.

The names of the pieces were not familiar to a musically average person like me (I only knew the composer Brahms, and had heard about Cinema Paradiso from one of Josh Groban’s songs), but upon hearing them being played, I went ‘oooh’. The first two classical pieces can be considered pop icons, being frequently adopted into movie soundtracks (I think I heard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” as an opening to a cartoon film before). The next two items are original pieces from movies (West Side Story and Cinema Paradiso). Each item was perhaps played for 5-10 minutes, making it very enjoyable and accessible for the public who might be very new to the world of symphony music. (As a comparison, I once attended a more hard core classical concert in which one song lasted for 45 minutes).

The list of songs for the night. 

Then there was a special section when the conductor invited two volunteers to come to the front to try their hands on conducting. To my sister’s slight disappointment (as she also wanted to be picked), two teenagers were chosen. They were taught how to start and end an orchestra (not as easy as it looks!), and how to maintain a tempo, using a very suitable and fun song Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance”. It turned out that one boy was totally new to conducting, which made it funny when he (deliberately?) slowed down the whole professional orchestra at his command. The other one was perhaps a student conductor from VJC band as he was more at ease with the movement (and the fact that many were cheering for him). It was quite fun and I was glad that we came to this particular concert.

One more cool thing about this campus concert was I got a chance to take photos with some SSO personnel, and had a chat with Jason Lai, who quickly inquired about martabak upon discovering the fact that we came from Jakarta. It almost felt surreal, meeting people that you usually see on social media, and now they were in front of you, talking to you as if it was a normal thing to do.

With Jason Lai and his thumb-up 🙂

 Talking like an excited little chipmunk

With Ng Pei-Sian – one of the famous cellist twins

Then it was time to say good bye. We walked out of the school passing the same lyric pavement, now unreadable, obscured by the dark surrounding like how the black-clad figures started to disappear from the area together with their instruments and magic. This had been fun, as I thought of the night’s concert and the old memories that visited me again as a result.

 All in black – with my school percussionist gang backstage, circa 2006

About spinners, slime, squishies, and the human’s need to fidget

In my line of work as an educator, the first time I saw a fidget spinner was somewhere a few months ago, in a classroom, when I was conducting a lesson. I don’t really remember who’s exactly the soul who dared to play it under my nose.

And as any other irritated teacher would do, I folded both of my hands, summoned that soul and asked him to put that spinning thing on my table. And that was my first encounter with the wheel-like thing.

At the end of the lesson, while giving the errant student a piece of advice, I tried my hand on the fidget spinner, and to be honest it feels quite… nice (but I still returned it to him at the end anyway).

For the subsequent month, the trend seemed to have caught on. My curiosity grew as I confiscated a few more of these spinners.

So I made a search online to find out more about this phenomenon. It turned out that the spinners have been around as early as 1990s and there is no definitive reason as to why they become especially popular nowadays. A fad just pops into existence as some trend-setting kids get them, then more kids see those things in school (and on their social media too) and ask their parents to buy, and so on and so forth.

The toy is claimed to be stress-relieving and to help people focus. I can see how this is so. One fine day, when I found a cheap spinner, I bought one for myself my brother (the regular price is about S$10, but the prices range from $2 to $700. Some come with lights, or are plated with gold perhaps). The spinner has been something that is useful while doing something that requires a lot of thinking – like writing an essay… or a blog (though I don’t have one right now).

The spinner I got for my brother.

It simply gives a pleasing sensory experience. Something that is satisfied by doing or watching a repetitive motion. It is like a replacement form of shaking legs, biting nails, scratching heads, or chewing snacks. The urge for a distraction is dissipated by (or rather channeled into) watching that spins and feeling the purring sensation in between your thumb and middle finger.

While this toy is useful when one is doing own work, I think it does not help as much when it comes to the class setting. That is why the fidget spinner has become teachers’ sworn enemy: they shudder and their blood pressure shoots up at the sight of it. The spinning, the humming sound it produces, while it may be helpful to the student who is playing it, are distracting to the teachers and students around.

This human fascination upon spinning things is of course not new thing. Marcel Duchamp, the legendary artist, once commented on his creation Bicycle Wheel: “to see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting… I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.”

Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913)


The second thing came to my attention because of my mom.

My mom got introduced to the world of Instagram some time ago, and she has been using it to explore her penchants for clothings and fashion. Other than that, she also got hooked to the unlikeliest trend plaguing women of her age: the slime.

My mom’s soap-smelling homemade slime

Slime is a dough-like thing which is more solid than pancake batter, but way more liquid than plasticine. The degree of elasticity can vary according to the composition of the ingredients that you set. And, yes, you can make it yourself with simple, everyday ingredients at home (except for borax, as I doubt you have it in your kitchen). Then you can put food coloring and sweet-smelling perfume into the dough to make your squeezing experience more exciting.

To investigate this matter further, I had the privilege to test out my mom’s slime. She demonstrated to me how it is usually played – press the slime around, pretend to make pizza, slam it on the table, trudge your fingers to make impressions on the surface, or basically any actions that your hands are capable of doing. However, it is rather hard to shape the slime into anything like what people do with Play-Doh (as it is too soft for that purpose). When you are done, put it back in the container, and it will settle back to its fruit yoghurt-looking state, and you can easily clean the residue that sticks on your fingers by plucking it off.

As you can see the fidget spinner and slime work on the same principle of absent-mindedness. Slime satisfies the urge to tinker, without having to fix anything. It is just there for you to press around and watch it flow absentmindedly, which is very relaxing.


Another way to enjoy: dip your fingers in it and just rest them there for a while… just don’t lick your fingers after that.



Another aspect of the enjoyment comes from listening to the squeaky sound that is produced by the slime when it is being kneaded. That is also why slime videos are very popular on Instagram. And all this generates a lot of online business opportunities to the entrepreneur-minded school kids out there.


Just last week, a package arrived and it was addressed to my mom. She was very excited when she received it. I helped her tear it open, and inside there were 2 figurines that she bought from a shop she found on Instagram (these are to add to the collection of one figurine she just got not too long ago).  
So other than slime, she is now obsessed about this toy dearly termed as ‘squishy’. As the name suggests, something special about the figurine is that you can squeeze it and it will rise back to its shape.

As you can see, it is something similar to slime, but in a cuter form. Have you ever got the urge to pinch the cheek of a very cute baby? Well, this toy may be just for you. Just don’t squeeze too hard and too often as after a while the colour on the surface may crack and the squishy will become dirty.

Some squishies are quite pricey though. A ‘collector’ rare item (like a birthday cake shape with a diameter around 25cm) can fetch to be as much as 40 dollars. It was quite surprising to me as I thought it was just a stress ball in a different kind of form. But perhaps making squishies requires a special material and a way more expensive mechanism to mould distinct shapes like those figurines. I don’t really know.


… harder.

Cute characters to add to the level of urge to squeeze.

When you buy a squishy, do not throw the plastic packaging that comes with it, as it does not only serve to protect the squishy from dirt, but also to produce the crackling sound that is claimed to add a degree of satisfaction when squeezing it. The packaging (termed as ‘crispy plastic’) is even sold separately.

Squishies in plastic bags

Squeeze for crackling sound!

So that’s the review on the 3 current toy trends. Absurd, but not so absurd. Perhaps all these give our brains and itchy hands gratification almost the same way doodling on your notebook does. I wonder what’s the next trend going to be like.


All photos of spinners, slime and squishies are taken by my brother @ivankabul

M.C. Escher Exhibition at ArtScience Museum

Journey to Infinity: Escher’s World of Wonder

A few days ago I visited M.C. Escher exhibition on another Educators’ Event conducted by ArtScience Museum, Singapore. (The museum has been religious in their effort to extend the wonder of art and science to its beneficiaries – the students).

M.C. Escher has been a household name in art discussions, and as far as my limited knowledge went, I had always known him for his optical illusion art. I am sure we are all quite familiar with some of his work:


‘Relativity’ (1953), which reminds me of Doraemon’s gravity paint…


Doraemon’s Gravity Paint’s effect. I love this chapter of Doraemon. Heartwarming ending (OK, different topic)

Some other popular works by Escher:

Penrose Stairs. Popularised by the 2010 movie 'Inception'

‘Ascending and Descending’ (1960), an artistic implementation of the Penrose stairs (one of impossible objects). Popularised by the 2010 movie ‘Inception’, and (I believe) the inspiration of award-winning, graphically-awesome game ‘Monument Valley…


One of Monument Valley mazes


The omniscient 'Sky and Water'

‘Sky and Water I’ (1938). You can spot this graphic printed on many places, most likely on a hipster’s tote bag.

‘Day and Night’. A very cool, mindboggling symmetry.

And this one…

Level of Reality

‘Drawing Hands’ (1948)

So yeap, I thought I was quite familiar with his body of work, and I thought I knew what to expect when I went there. But…

Have you heard of people saying that seeing real paintings is such an entirely different experience from seeing the pictures in books or online? Well, it was not until I went to this exhibition that I could really appreciate that saying.

Most of Escher’s works are not so big, and they are framed and hung on the walls of the exhibition space.  I got to stand really close to scrutinize his lines. Close enough to see that the work is done by Escher’s own hands, and at the same time to be mind-blown by the fact that it is looking humanely impossibly perfect. (Take note that these works were produced from around 1910s to 1960s during which no digital enhancement could possibly be done. What kind of sorcery is this? I thought to myself with mouth agape).  This exhibition is also an eye-opener to the potential of traditional printing methods (especially lithography and wood cut) in creating jaw-dropping works.

And there are works that made me feel amazed for the fact they looked very advanced for the time, and can easily pass for something that is done today.

‘Puddle’ (1952). A very unusual subject, feels very contemporary.

And then there is his brilliance in producing works that tickle the mind.

We are all familiar with a simple tessellation (an arrangement of shapes in a repeated pattern without gaps and overlapping) like this:

Your bathroom tile?

However, his works show that the term ‘tesselation’ can mean so much more:

'Horsemen' (1946). How... ?

‘Horsemen’ (1946). How on earth could he think of this?


And there are many other awesome works that I will not disclose further here. See them for yourself!

FYI. Like other exhibitions held in the fingers of the museum, this exhibition is divided into a few segments:

  • Early works: Art Nouveau and Nature (Escher was really into nature)
  • Metamorphosis
  • Tesselation
  • Commercial Works
  • Exploring The Infinity
  • Escher Mania (Escher-inspired works, mainly in pop culture)

At the end of the tour, the tour guide asked us which work was our favorite. I paused for a while, thinking, and I replied, “I don’t know, there are so many… (mention a few titles)…”

She asked again, “but which one do you like the most?”

I paused again, only to reply after that, “I really don’t know.”