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Arising from the Covid-19 outbreak, when many establishments were grounded to a halt at the peak of the pandemic last year, I found myself exercising outdoors more by brisk walking, and in the process, have rediscovered some amazing public art sculptures in Singapore.
As the Art Custodian for Changi Airport, where my main role is to oversee the airport’s art collection, I’ve always had the passion for how art plays a key part in creating a sense of place. At the airport, artworks are designed to elevate the overall airport experience and give visitors the chance to see exhibits they might not otherwise have had the chance to see. Plus, it's an avenue to showcase works by local and international artists.
It is not uncommon to hear people say that art is “atas” (a Singapore colloquial term that means ‘high-class’) and only certain people can appreciate it. On the contrary, I believe that art is for everyone.
From outdoor locations like Gardens by the Bay and Ion Orchard, to indoor spaces such as the Promenade Circle Line train station, and Jewel Changi Airport, not only do these places display art pieces that spark joy, they believe that art can build communities too. Establishments are seeing the intrinsic value of art to enhance the overall ambient experience. So who’s to say that you can only experience art in galleries?
Here are seven of my favourite artworks you should check out the next time you’re thinking of doing an art trail in Singapore. Behind all of them are unique stories that will make you smile. Before you embark on your journey, make sure you have your earphones on you. There’s nothing quite like a good playlist to accompany your adventure!
1. First Generation, c.2000 (Bronze)
Just like the river which brings us life, I can almost hear the five young boys in the buff jumping into the Singapore River with playful laughter.
This nostalgic artwork is one of my favourite pieces. It reminds me of how carefree those days were when children played outdoors; a far cry from today where they are either glued to their computer games or the television.
Did you know that the Singapore River was the bloodline for most immigrants in the early days? With the completion of the colossal Clean Rivers project in 1983, families, hawkers and bumboats were removed from the area, and the innocent laughter of the swimming boys faded too.
About the artist: Chong Fah Cheong is a self-taught artist who loves exploring his Asian, specifically Singapore heritage. He has a whimsical side too. His works often portray a sense of humour that can be appreciated by everyone. In 2014, Chong was awarded the Cultural Medallion, an accolade presented to Singaporeans whose artistic excellence and contribution and commitment to the arts have enriched and shaped Singapore’s cultural landscape.
Location: In front of The Fullerton Bay Hotel (along the Singapore River)
2. Mother and Child, c. 1996 (Bronze)
I had almost forgotten how colossal the Mother and Child sculpture was since I first saw it at the Tampines Central Park in 1996.
Recently, I rediscovered this beauty in the Singapore Civic District. The distinctive three-metre-tall bronze sculpture features a mother in the intimate act of holding her child. Over the years, the local artist has created many variations on the theme of parent and child such as this, experimenting with different compositions, materials and dimensions.
This sculpture was gifted to the National Gallery Singapore in 2019 by the artist’s family. Framed by the neoclassical architecture of the old Supreme Court Building steps, the relocated sculpture now overlooks the beautiful Singapore skyline. Take the liberty of experiencing Singapore’s lesser-known heritage trails while you’re out and about!
About the artist: Singaporean sculptor Ng Eng Teng is remembered fondly as the ‘Grandfather of Singapore Sculpture'. He was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1981 and an honorary doctorate by the National University of Singapore in 1998. He passed away at age 67 in 2001.
Location: In front of National Gallery Singapore
3. Planet, c. 2008 (Painted bronze and steel)
I’m completely spellbound whenever I lay eyes on this floating baby. A hefty seven tons (it weighs as heavy as a Tyrannosaurus rex), this impressive large-scale bronze sculpture, named Planet, measures nearly 10-metres long and almost 4-metres tall.
I was surprised to learn that the oversized baby is a reproduction of the artist’s own son, Lucas, at seven months old soon after he was diagnosed with a severe milk allergy.
At first glance, we see the baby hovering over the ground as if impossibly suspended. Little do we know that the sculpture’s weight is masterfully balanced on the infant’s right hand, creating the illusion of weightlessness. Despite its emphasis on the fragility of life, the sculpture’s enormous scale disrupts our sense of time and space.
About the artist: Marc Quinn is a leading British contemporary visual artist whose work includes sculptures, installations and paintings. Today, Marc’s work is held in important public and private collections institutions around the world such as the Tate Gallery in London, the Fondazione Prada in Milan, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.
Location: Gardens by the Bay, near the meadow
4. Dreams in Social Cosmic Odyssey D.I.S.C.O, c. 2010 (Customised stainless-steel discs)
This tongue-in-cheek art installation in an indoor train station resembles giant mirror balls, hence its name Dreams In the Social Cosmic Odyssey, or D.I.S.C.O in short.
Suspended under a skylight over escalators, the droplets playfully reflect rays and create a moving kaleidoscope on the station floors. These waves of light mirror the ebb and flow of commuter traffic and reflect the interaction of passengers in transit with the art piece - so if you’re all for taking selfies for the gram’ be sure to bring your mobile tripods and monopods with you!
The sculpture is part of The Art in Transit (AIT) programme - Singapore's largest public art exhibition which integrates artworks by leading local artists into the MRT network.
About the artist: PHUNK is a contemporary art and design collective based in Singapore. Having 25 years under their belt now, this award-winning design collective was awarded ‘Designer of the Year’ by the President’s Design Award in 2007, the highest accolade for designers in Singapore.
Location: Promenade MRT (Circle Line)
5. Nutmeg and Mace, c. 2009 (Bronze)
I am fond of this artwork because it contextualises the outdoor space very well. Situated in the heart of the city, this two-tonne red patina bronze sculpture narrates the humble beginnings of the site and the nutmeg. The Orchard Turn integrated development sits on Singapore’s main shopping belt, Orchard Road – named after the orchard and nutmeg plantations of the 1830s until commercial development cleared the site in the 20th century.
Today, few are familiar with the evergreen nutmeg tree or the sight of its seed – so distinctively protected by the mace. The nutmeg native to the Indonesian Spice Islands, was once traded as a highly prized spice and essential oil, and its supply source was a tightly guarded secret. Through this artwork, I learnt that the nutmeg was a symbol of trade and prosperity in Singapore’s early history.
About the artist: Kumari Nahappan is an established contemporary artist in Southeast Asia whose practice encompasses inter-disciplinary genres like paintings, sculptures and installations. Kumari has received many accolades including the 2011 Artist of the Year Award (15th edition of the Shanghai Art Fair) and was also awarded the Singapore Indian Artist Icon Award 2014 by Act For Hope organisation.
Location: Entrance plaza of ION Orchard
6. Flora Inspiration, c. 2008 (Han Bai Yi Marble)
Situated at Changi Airport Terminal 3, this pair of white sculptures exude an aura of zen-like calmness. Did you know that the artwork was commissioned for the opening of the terminal in 2008? The form bears reference to Singapore as the Garden City that continuously sprouts and flourishes.
The artwork is hewn from “Han Bai Yu” which is a stone that is indigenous to China’s Yunnan region and has close similarities to White Jade.
Resembling a cluster of seed pods, their corrugated surfaces assume the naturalistic texture of botanical organisms. Interestingly, the sculptures’ exterior form is particularly attractive to me, because they look like “white fossil-like tentacles'' intertwining and looking at you mysteriously. Upon closer inspection, you would also notice that the sculptures sparkles and glitters too.
About the artist: Sculptor and local artist, Han Sai Por, is well-known for her sculptures carved in stone, and figurative forms and organic shapes hewn from stone. Awarded the 1995 Singapore Cultural Medallion for her contribution to art, the internationally-exhibited artist has art works on permanent display in hotels, libraries and train stations in Singapore, as well as parks in Malaysia, Japan, England and the United States.
Location: Terminal 3 Departure Hall (near linkbridge to Jewel)
7. Grains of Thought, c. 2015 (Acrylic paint on carbon fibre sculptural forms)
This artwork was the artist’s response to the opening of a new wing extension at the Asian Civilisations Museum in 2015. Inspired by the museum’s white porcelain collection and the gallery itself, she was drawn to a single grain of rice, its simple form and potential for multiple associations. The artwork was later gifted to Jewel Changi Airport in 2018.
I first encountered this artwork at the museum and later at Jewel. It never failed to amuse me at how a simple idea of a grain could be extrapolated many times over to surprise and to tickle the minds of the viewers. It certainly lends new meaning to the adage food for thought. Looking at the artwork, it elevates rice beyond the mundane, calling for a closer examination of its role in history, economies and the construction of cultural identity. While you’re walking around Jewel, grab a couple of drinks with your friends or partner and make a date out if it!
About the artist: Eng Tow is a prominent female artist. Her early career revolved around textiles painting or “cloth reliefs”, for which she won critical acclaim in the United Kingdom and Singapore. Her extensive portfolio also includes printmaking and papermaking, to sculptures and mixed media installations.
Location: Jewel Changi Airport, South Gateway Garden
Going beyond art museums to experience culture in Singapore
Gone are the days where you’d have to pop by an art exhibition or museum to get a taste of what local and international artists are producing. Art is everywhere, if you know where to look. Let us know what other public artworks in Singapore are worth checking out in the comments below!
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, Daniel Foo.
About Daniel: A food enthusiast with a passion for art, architecture and design. As the Art Curator for Changi Airport, Daniel combines superior airport experience and story-telling to build a strong brand.