Singaporean artist Melissa Tan isn’t kidding when she hints that her country is built from almost nothing, quite literally. The island nation creates land to call its own, methodically stitching together material obtained from elsewhere as an extension of itself.
And when things threaten to fall apart, they are patched up as efficiently as only the island country can do.
Tan combines many elements in her work, but this is one of the key ruminations: what makes up the urban landscape of her home country, texturally and contextually.
Her first exhibition in Malaysia, Back To Where We’ve Never Been, is currently on at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur. It is an extension of her work presented at the Singapore Biennale in 2016, where she offers a take on Singapore’s urban landscape and terrain in the form of intricately hand-cut paper sculptures and laser-cut metal ones.
Back To Where We’ve Never Been takes it a step further in its exploration of roads as a mode of commute and a means of forming connections.
“For this body of work, I am looking at how pathways connect and allow us to move from place to place efficiently, but at the same time form a physical barricade. Roads, pathways, bridges and features we encounter during our daily commute undergo extensive reparation such that it constantly feels brand new. There has been extensive upgrading of the island’s infrastructure that it almost feels as if we are a self-regenerative city,” she observes.
It was after her last body of work that she began noticing little details of the land, Tan, 29, relates.
Things like that patchwork of cement on the sidewalk, or the darker shade of tarmac on the road being a dead giveaway of its recent melding with the existing.
“With so much change occurring, it gives a strange sense that the same ground we tread on might have been grafted from another land we have never been to before, making the pathway familiar and yet not so,” she says.
Visually speaking, the series presented at the Singapore Biennale and her solo show in Kuala Lumpur finds a common thread in the repeated patterns on the wall works casted from road fragments.
“I wanted the works to echo the found road fragments and give the impression of repetition in both series, even if the mood is different. For the previous work shown at the Biennale, there was a certain lightness even in terms of the sound produced. However, for this series, the works are heavy, created by the blackness and the mass of the resin of the sculptures moulded from road fragments,” she explains.
Tan is a Fine Arts graduate from Singapore’s Lasalle College of the Arts. Prior to the 2016 Singapore Biennale, she participated in the National Art Council and Dena Foundation Artist Residency program in Paris in 2013, and was included in The Singapore Show: Future Proof at the Singapore Art Museum in 2012.
Back To Where We’ve Never Been showcases Tan’s first series of work that use actual road fragments. These sculptures have her trademark intricately-cut metal bits embedded in the asphalt, and echoes her interest in geographical landscapes, the land we tread on and the textures of the ground.
“I am interested in cities, in particular how complex its networks and systems are, and in the materials that make up our environment especially because they are sourced from all around the world to make the city vibrant and ever-changing,” she says.
The exhibition title is a curious one, and Tan is quick to point out that it is also a contradictory one: How can one return to where they have never been?
But perhaps you can in a world not governed by the rules and restrictions we know.
“I very much like science fiction and this title is derived from a science fiction television series where the plot leads to the finding of a parallel world. For this series, the narrative behind the show also hints at this idea of a ‘parallel world’ or the idea of how our world should look like. We shape our landscape to achieve an idealised city and we are always moving back and forth from our physical world and this metaphysical ideal place,” she says.
Tan hopes that Back To Where We’ve Never Been will prompt visitors to ponder on the idea of the shifting geographical landscape and how there are different perspectives and ways of seeing that people take for granted.
“It will be nice to notice more about mundane things in our everyday life or everyday commute that we normally overlook,” she concludes.