Poltern Newsletter 002
15 April 2021
Welcome to the second installation of the Poltern Newsletter! This week’s issue includes a creative writing piece on feminity and corporality in works by Rembrandt and Alice Neel, Generosity in Looking, as well as an interview with Artist and Ruskin MFA Candidate, Jaq Chase, both by Victoria Horrocks; a review of the wonderful woodwork of Bob Knowles by Meg Elliot; and a thoughtful feature on the role of architecture and nationhood, Marina Bay Sands — Monumentalising Singapore’s “Place in the Sun”, by Goh Wei Hao.
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The Poltern Team
Generosity in Looking | Creative Writing
by Victoria Horrocks
When I first moved to Oxford last autumn, I visited the Ashmolean Museum with new acquaintances to see the exhibition Young Rembrandt. Nearing the end of the show’s winding path, I stopped at a sketch of a naked peasant woman. She had a sagging belly, rolls of flesh tucked beneath her breasts, and folds along the natural crease of her elbows. She sat, contorted, with a relaxed look on her face. One of my male friends came up behind me and asked earnestly, do women really look like that?
I surprised myself with my own need to grapple with his question. Yes, women do really look like that, but as a 22-year-old woman myself, how would I know? Rarely do we see women as they are.
Rembrandt had a vibrant affection for what one might consider “imperfections” of the human body. His sketches revere the elderly, with dignified wrinkles and pronounced creases—the indicators of a life lived. He conveyed this peasant woman as she was, real and postpartum, nude and unidealized.
Rembrandt’s display of realistic female bodies was deemed “innovative” and “radical” by the curators of the show—a choice of words most revealing of the status of the nude throughout art history, and perhaps more significantly, the status of the female body. I do not herald Rembrandt, as many do, for simply painting people as they were. But this conception of his work felt fraught to me. While the idealized female figure has changed in size and shape across time and place, rarely have aspects of the body, like wrinkles, divots, lines, lumps, sags, creases, etc., been represented, leading my newfound friend to a question he might have been able to answer by the rudimentary powers of observation.
Ironically, it is often in categorically “unrealist” portraits of people that I find accurate depictions of bodies. A few weeks ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened Alice Neel: People Come First. The retrospective contains more than 100 paintings, drawings, and watercolors of streetscapes, still lifes, and interiors. But, most compellingly, it contains the portraits, sometimes nude, of many people Neel met in New York. Although Neel has been considered a “painter of all things human,” her realism is often described as “radical” or “distorted.”
Roberta Smith, an art critic for the New York Times, describes the first portrait viewers encounter in the exhibition, a portrait of Margaret Evans in the final months of her pregnancy, as “daring visitors to enter.” I am curious as to why a woman in the late stages of her pregnancy is something daring, rather than something familiar. Perhaps the two are not diametrically opposed, but they certainly get at something different.
I’ve seen this image many times before, but have never found it to be something of a scare tactic. Instead, I find in Neel’s work an affection and a tenderness. Smith notes Evans’s reflection in the mirror behind her, revealing a deflated representation of her rounded body to indicate the transformation Evans will experience post-pregnancy. This contrast between the engorged body and the deflated one acknowledges the plasticity of the female form, this thing made home for both others and the self. It asserts that the body is elastic and resilient—a skin bag with stretches and tears in the fabric, faded from wear and wash cycles.
In Margaret Evans Pregnant, Evans stares back to the viewer—this eye contact being at one point directed at Neel but now at us—with engorged veins, breasts, belly, and eyes. Still, she dawns a soft, content smile. Despite a stiffness to her body, she appears at rest with the radical changes of her form. I remain, however, stuck on her eyes.
Neel once said, “the self, we have it like an albatross around the neck.” I read into Evans’s wide eyes a wrestle with the self—one that gets at some familiar feeling of being unable to reconcile with or recognize the bodies we inhabit. Yet, we carry them wherever we go and tote around in them the slippery mind it harbors. They are both intricate vessels and complex homes with leaky roofs and broken bathroom tiles.
Neel’s portraits have been said to display “bodies as distantly imperfect,” but I wonder: imperfect compared to what? When I look at Margaret Evans, I see dips in her frame, discoloration where blood might have rushed, and a collar bone twisted like a bent wire hanger. When I see Pregnant Woman, depicting Neel’s expecting daughter-in-law Nancy, I see the grooves of ribs and fleshy divots of her legs. But most importantly, I see two women. If my friend had asked me again, “do women really look like that?,” the answer would be “Yes.” And then I would add, “and this is what I sometimes feel like inside the female body.”
This tumultuous self-recognition, the constant grappling with the body’s forms, is complicated by the constant need to repossess the self under the male gaze. Feminist critic Linda Nochlin wrote that Neel appropriated the genre of erotica for women by rejecting the male gaze and repositioning women as agents of desire—making the pregnant nude and the elderly nude subversive. Similarly addressing the so-called “unidealized nude” (meaning: the nude that is unsubjected to the male gaze), feminist art historian Cindy Nemser wrote in reaction to Pregnant Woman that the unidealized nude “[defies] the comforting mystique of childbearing” and “dwells on the very unnaturalness [of] incipient motherhood.” And yet, what is natural if not incipient motherhood? Perhaps we do not actually know, or do not care to know the natural woman.
But Alice Neel does. Throughout her career, she aimed to reveal the realistic human body to any audience. She also fought against social discrimination, advocated for gay rights, and spoke out against racism. In her portraits, Neel presents us with human vulnerability alongside its exposed flesh. Hilton Als, who curated Uptown, an exhibition of Neel’s painting in 2017, wrote most poignantly of Neel that “what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered in her studio.” He continues to say that the show he curated, the first comprehensive look at Neel’s portraits of people of color, “is an attempt to honor not only what Neel saw, but the generosity behind her seeing.”
The generosity Als reads in Neel’s work is an acceptance of the natural person. It is one unmarred by a harmful gaze, and it is an invitation to share with her, and with us, the body in all its nakedness. Neel not only renders what the body looks like, but also the experience of how it feels to inhabit one. Her self-portrait, painted when Neel was 80-years-old, is no different. She portrays herself sitting nude in an armchair and wearing the body she has lived in all her life.
With a stern warmth, Neel offers us this visual, bearing an honesty of age, of warped muscle and bone, of loose skin and soft flesh. In showing us her form as it is, she offers us her self. If the self, to Neel, is an albatross around the neck, it is in this self-portrait, completed towards the end of her life, where she attests that such a weight might find relief in a body unmarred by any harmful gaze. Should we see the body as it is, ignited by the desire of its own inhabitant and honestly represented, we might find the ability to recognize ourselves.
Victoria Horrocks is currently a Candidate for the MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Victoria’s thoughtful rumination on the plasticity of bodies, particularly pregnant bodies, reminds me of Senga Nengudi’s iconic R.S.V.P series of sculptures made of stretched nylons filled with sand. Watch a video on themes of love and loss in Nengudi’s R.S.V.P I with MoMA conservator Megan Randall, here, in which she notes the artist’s invaluable contribution to the discourse of corporality and motherhood. Further, author and curator Kellie Jones has written extensively on Nengudi’s practice and I highly recommend Jones’s South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s.
Davis-Marks, Isis. “Alice Neel’s Portraits Put People First.” Smithsonian Magazine, March 30, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-alice-neels-paintings-put-people-first-180977358/
Kino, Carol. “A Grandson Paints a Portrait of a Portraitist.” New York Times, April 22, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/22/arts/design/22kino.html.
Neel, Alice, and Hilton Als. Alice Neel, Uptown. New York: David Zwirner Books, 2017.
Smith, Roberta. “It’s Time to Put Alice Neel in Her Rightful Place in the Pantheon.” New York Times, April 1, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/01/arts/design/alice-neel-metropolitan-museum-review.html.
Bob Knowles | Review
By Meg Elliot
Wood is the medium currently occupying Bob Knowles; more particularly, that of a fallen oak at the edge of a large estate that borders his home. Bob is the latest of a series of locals to take from the oak tree, leaving enough damp wooded ground to provide a home for the small creatures that thrive in its undergrowth. From this wood Bob turns bowls, carved in his Shropshire studio. He finds joy in the warped beauty of his works, some bulging and others cracking in dark, wounded splits along upright grains. Each is different from the last, but all are connected absolutely to the land from which they came. This connection is rooted at the core of Bob’s practise.
The monumental estate where the tree lies is worked by a series of farmers labouring on one-year tenancies. I walked the landscape with Bob, noticing the monoculture of the grassy lawns maintained by hordes of sheep, dying trees scattered around and the undulations of a hill suggesting possible medieval plough lines. Talking to Bob it is evident he is a people person, with an immeasurable amount of kindness, energy and interest in the places and people that compose his home. His passion has naturally drawn devoted followers to his cause and with them in mind he has set his sights on a small corner of the estate bordered by trees, ripe for conscious rewilding in collaboration with the surrounding community.
Bob evidently sees his bowl-making as part of a wider project of re-connection with his landscape. He sees creativity and re-formation as ways to write anew the stories that keep our landscapes degraded. By challenging people to re-engage with this estate and to look at it creatively and curiously, with eyes that turn trees into bowls, fields into meadows and fences into hedgerows, we can empower one another to make change to this most necessary environment. Bob, his bowls and his desire to educate local people on their landscapes are small but monumental steps towards caring for the land not as individuals.
Bob’s project is ongoing and later newsletters will consider his progress and future interactions with the people and landscape at the heart of this bourgeoning project!
Artist Interview with Jaq Chase
by Victoria Horrocks
A few weeks back, I spoke with Jaq Chase, a 56-year-old artist currently based in Oxford at the Ruskin School of Art. We spoke about the dynamic and resistant nature of her practice, from questioning authority to grappling with the line between fiction and non-fiction. In discussion of her ongoing mixed media project, Jaq addresses the concepts of authority, agency, and power.
Victoria Horrocks: You talk about the different ways you engage with the art world, not just as artist but also as a fellow of the British Arts Council at the Venice Biennale, you spend a lot of time in the studio, but also on the river with the Christchurch boat club, and you are both mother and contemporary artist, perhaps one fueling the other, as you mention that is a big part of your identity. Would you mind speaking to how these many identities make their way into your art practice?
Jaq Chase: What I find is that I paint better if I’m not just doing one painting. In a studio, I normally have at least three paintings in a series going, so there’ll be a similar theme happening. There’ll be something stringing them together, whether it’s the palette or the subject. So when I get stuck on something, I just move immediately to the next canvas and then the next. It’s not so much of a production line as much as it’s sort of a circuit breaker for when you get stuck. Because what happens if you carry on at that point, you just ruin the work—you’re not in any way in any intuitive place. You’re kind of guessing and hoping: I hope this works. Will this fix it? When in fact you’re better to stop and move away. And I think that the other activities are a broader sense of those canvases. I think I usually have a lot of projects going on, and whilst I’m working on one thing, the problem on the other one is actually getting sorted. I think the role of that flurry of activity that’s going on in every area is actually an active meditation on the other work when it’s not happening, because when I come back to it, it’s easy.
VH: Seems like good life advice, too.
JC: Yeah, I always think of things like Christmas lights. You know when they get into a really massive tangle, you’re better to get far away from the big knot and start making progress around there and loosening things. Then, all of a sudden, the whole thing just goes. It’s a bit like that. I think it is exactly that: it’s a life thing, and it’s an art thing. It’s a recognition that there’s two ends of the stick, and the problem is at one end and the solution is at the other. And if you’re at the problem bit, you’ve got to find something else to do for a while to get beyond it.
VH: Definitely. I love that image of the tangled Christmas lights. I’m gonna hand-stitch that on a pillow or something.
You also mention that you’re interested in concepts of power, authority, and agency. How do you see those themes manifesting in your work right now?
JC: When I was trying to explain to one of my tutors about this idea of, you know, when you’re sort of asking permission: Can I do this? And you go: Who are you asking? He said: When you approach what you think of an authority or a force that is stopping you doing something, it sort of dissolves as blue smoke. I think that is my relationship to it. I suppose that in real terms in art, it has to do with art theory, and the things that you can or can’t do. It’s the sense that you have to somehow fit beneath these umbrellas of theory, or you’ve got to figure out where you fit, and then say it’s okay for me to do this because, you know, Foucault says this, and this one says that, and I can contextualize it in a way that justifies my existence as an artist. Or you think, maybe I just don’t bother with that. Maybe I make it up as I go along. And my work may reflect ideas within theory, but I’m not necessarily using theory as my compass. It’s not my guiding light. If it so happens that there’s a resonance—and there’s a lot of resonance with different artists or theories—then so be it. It’s not that I’m “anti” the contextualization, but it can’t be your guiding light, is my feeling. And that’s really the authority that I’m addressing. It’s not like somebody is saying You have to do this! But there is a sense of it. And the more you know about theory, the more you get hog-tied by it, to some extent. There’s more a sense of: Why make anything? Why do anything? You know?
VH: It seems to be a point of liberation or a point of breaking through systemic norms. Again, perhaps more life advice.
JC: I can’t separate the two. That’s the thing! You can’t.
VH: The age-old question: Life vs Art. These things are so intertwined.
JC: I was watching an interview, or maybe it was something I read, but Duchamp stopped making art, you know. And somebody like Joseph Beuys really rebelled against that and said: you know, the whole world—not art—but the world needs you to be making art. You’re needed in this environment because we can’t fix the world without you. Beuys viewed it as a betrayal and held a kind of protest against the silence of Duchamp. But the truth of it is that Duchamp said years later that he never stopped making art. Obviously at the end of his life he did reveal there was a painting that was showed after his death that nobody knew about. He structured it so that nobody would see it until he died, and make of it what you will—figure it out yourself, he wasn’t going to help. But he wasn’t really talking about that. He was saying: the way I play chess, the coffee I drink, the conversations I have, was all art. That was my art. And I think there’s a lot in that. I think that you can feel like you’re going to go to a certain place and make art, that a studio has got to be in a place, it’s got to be in an institution, you’ve got to have these things. Or, you could be doing it sitting in your bedroom. You could be exactly in that engagement which is actually making art. And certainly, in lockdown, the sense of losing those structural things allowed me to question: Do you need a studio to make art? Because for painting, you really do. You can’t make it in a nice flat where you’re like oh my god my landlord is going to kill me! I’ve just ruined everything! But then how do you make work? And do you let that limitation or that authority in—as in, I do have a space. Can I make art in it? It’s not the right environment. It’s not a domestic activity, is the truth of it. So then how do you keep working in art? Or do you just say you can’t? But the answer is you can make art. You have to find a way around that limitation though.
VH: This is making me think of something you said in your bio you’d sent to me—that you think of yourself as a painter, but you’ve also spent lots of time working with other media, like photography, writing, film, and installation work. Do you see that authority concept and the breaking of those boundaries fused with some of that more accessible practice?
JC: I always thought of it as research for painting, but I’m beginning to realize that it’s not really just research for painting. It’s kind of claiming its own agency and authority in these different practices. Most of the rowing thing is a written project. It’s a written piece that’s actually almost a fiction in that quite often I write it up in different ways, and when I write it up people say, Is this true? And I think it is actually true, but I don’t necessarily want it to be as pinned down and defined as it is definitely true, because it’s sort of absurd and I find it really funny. I’m not wanting to present it as a solid fact, linked to dates and times and schedules and things like that, even though that’s actually what it is. But the sense of the writing of it has been really interesting. It was about finding how to deal with that subject. It was never going to be a visual project feeding into what I was feeling about maybe authority, or agency, or belonging. It was a play and a humour, because it’s kind of mischievous and funny. And I still believe I don’t belong there, but I’m still there! And still, even now, we train three times a week together on Zoom, and we’re doing non-stop Strava and all sorts of other stuff, and I feel like this is insane! I still feel like that, but I do it because I’m committed. I’m in. I have to finish the project.
VH: That concept of truth in fiction can feel slippery, but at the end of the day, to me at least, truth isn’t necessarily: it has really happened, detail to detail. I think a truth can also be an honest representation of how we feel, maybe. Even within fiction we pull at threads of true experience.
JC: Yes! I find that border really interesting. And that’s why when I present that piece of writing in different ways I don’t like to present it as an absolute fact. One of my tutors read it and she was saying: Is this a fantasy? And I said, I don’t mind if you read it like that, but it’s not a fantasy.It’s actually something I do. There is that aspect of fantasy, but bizarrely it’s so normal, you know, in so many ways. I find it really strange because I’m thinking: to me, this seems bizarre!I can’t believe I just been accepted in this environment. It seems very strange to me because everybody there is in their twenties. And it’s really funny. They’re really nice and I like it. And they’re obsessed in the same way that artists are sort of obsessed, you know. But their obsession is different to art, because it’s very linear; it’s: get strong, go faster, do everything you can to go faster, and there’s very clear rules. You have to do this and you have to do that. Whereas in art, the whole of the theory is just untangling your brain. You’re like what the hell do I think? Or what do I do. Whereas with rowing you go into that environment and you sit there, row for 90 minutes, and do it again tomorrow. There’s a completely different world there, and I want to keep saying to them: Why do you keep doing this all the time? And then I’m doing it! But I feel like I’m an interloper; I’m not really belonging here. I don’t see myself as in their environment, really, but it’s very interesting to me that their commitment is amazing.
VH: It’s very left brain—right brain, but there’s still shared experience. That obsession is such a real thing. It’s like a hunger. There’s always more to push.
JC: It’s so fascinating, and there’s so much excitement in it all. And I’m thinking they’re all mad, but they’re probably thinking I’m mad. I really like it. They’re really nice, and it’s very inclusive. They’re incredibly amazing in all their fitness, and it’s a really nice environment actually, when maybe from the outside I might’ve thought they’d be unfriendly or nastily competitive. I think the competition is quite funny, you know. There are definitely different colleges they don’t like. They have these weird mini rivalries with each other, which again I find hilarious. It’s really funny and I guess it works across the university, and it’s a way of relating to different colleges. It’s inclusive in that way.
VH: Which brings me to another question I have, since you mentioned not belonging and inclusivity, exclusivity. You said when you first got to Oxford you wondered whether or not you belonged both at the institution and in the art world as perhaps a greater institution. Of course, your art and your practice say otherwise, but what precisely seemed incompatible to you? What about the “art world” as concept or “Oxford” as concept seemed incompatible?
JC: I think predominantly it was an age thing, of feeling like, my god, I’m doing an MA but most women my age in the art world are long out of the institution and they’re established. They established their credentials maybe in their twenties or thirties, and I’ve had this enormous interruption of child care and so forth. Then, how do you position yourself now to start at this stage? It’s not so much an egotistical, imaginary thing. From the Ruskin, you get some notifications about prizes that come up or things you can enter or stuff you can do, and they’ll say “emerging new artist up to the age of 35.” And you go: okay, that’s interesting. I’m not rebelling against it or complaining about it. I think it’s nice that there’s a structure to help younger artists. But there is a sense of going—well, what if I’m establishing myself now and I’m over that age. What does that mean? What does that experience mean? It doesn’t really bother me, but I just thought that that kind of exclusion wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else. You couldn’t say, “unless you are from that region of the world,” or “unless you are this age,” “unless you are….” It’s slightly weird. And it’s a hangover from a final vestige of exclusion. But I’m not actually arguing for it to be changed. I just accept it and go—okay, when things like that come in I kind of realize that I’m not the norm here. And I’m not, because there’s nobody else my age at the Ruskin, and I expect—I don’t actually know—but I expect that I’m actually the oldest person they’ve had on the MA. It’s only been running for 5 years, so I’d be surprised if there’s somebody older than me. I don’t mind it, but I realize the outside world might have an issue with it. And that’s why I thought, well, I’ll go somewhere I definitely don’t belong on the basis of age—the rowing—because it was justa project to do and to get that little letter and stick it on the wall of the studio from Christchurch saying: Thank you, but no thank you. But then I got in. I was like, shit, now what? So that sense of—again sort of what I was talking about with authority—those limitations on you are self-imposed. It’s a nice excuse to say: well I can’t make it in art now or be taken seriously because I’m a certain age, and you go well, who said that? It’s not saying I want to change those things, it’s about maybe I don’t want to recognize them. It’s not my experience. I actually am here, they did say yes to me on the basis of my art, not saying let’s let somebody in that’s that age.
VH: It’s a kind of reassertion of agency to use those themes you were talking about before.
JC: Yeah, and again having a belief system that supports what you want to do, instead of eroding it or destroying it or sabotaging it. It’s that sense of: If I believe the deck is stacked against me, it will be. And just in that experience, and deciding to challenge it, it was like the joke was on me that they said no no, in you come. And I thought, oh no! My god, this is a disaster. And then I was saying to my tutor, Can I leave? Do you think I should leave? Have I done enough here? And she said, you tell me. And I knew I hadn’t. That I didn’t feel, in a weird way, the resolution. You know when a painting is done, because you go, yeah, that’s almost there. I feel like it’s done. It’s not 100%, but it’s okay. And with the project with the rowing, there was a sense I don’t know what the resolution actually ought to be once they caught me off balance by saying you’re in. But how do I resolve this now? Do I just walk away? That just seems ridiculous. Because I had sincerely tried. I didn’t want to do it in a half-arsed way. And then when I got in, I thought you know what?... So it’s been a really funny, ongoing, not-quite-sure how it finishes type of thing.
VH: And it just proves that some of those boundaries are so arbitrary. Again, when we think about them and we challenge them, you think—wait a minute. Why are we subscribing to these things? Why are those things there when they don’t have to be, and they’re limiting?
JC: Enormously so. I remember when I came for an interview at Oxford, I remember going past a café called the Grand Café on the High Street. And there were all these people there, maybe around the time of graduation, and it just seemed to be one of those heavenly days and everybody seemed to be celebrating and drinking champagne and wearing beautiful clothes. And I remember thinking, God, I’d love to one day be able to go in there. I don’t know what I was thinking! Because now every time I go by it I think, it’s alright. I don’t know why I thought that was such a magical place. The bar can be so low that you go, could I get into there? And I don’t know what I was thinking that day that made me think that was a goal or something unreachable.
VH: I think we all have those signposts of—that will be when I know I have made it. But when we think self-reflexively about it, we’re like…wait a minute…
JC: It’s ridiculous! So I suppose it wasn’t really about the café, it represented Oxford and getting in and I hadn’t even done the interview. And I was thinking oh god, if only it could be like that. But now to me it’s become just the café. I think, for God’s sake, I used to think I couldn’t walk in this door, but it wasn’t really those doors. It just always strikes me as funny now because it’s become the café. For God’s sake it isn’t even that good.
For more on Jaq’s work, visit her website or Instagram (@jaq_chase).
Marina Bay Sands — Monumentalising Singapore’s “Place in the Sun” | Feature
by Goh Wei Hao
When I tell people I meet overseas that I am from Singapore, to prove their knowledge of the country, many will reply with, “I know! Marina Bay Sands!”. Most of my friends who visit from overseas will either want to stay at the integrated resort (IR) or visit one of its attractions.
But for the past few decades, tourism in Singapore was identified with the Merlion. Flocks of tourists visited the statue daily to take pictures with the half-lion half-fish creature, and its image was reproduced on the cover pages of travel guides and every type of souvenir imaginable: keychains, snow globes, t-shirts, even chocolates. The chimera dominated the imagination of visitors before it was slowly replaced by a new national monument, Marina Bay Sands – or, more commonly known by its acronym, MBS.
What is a monument?
Which begs the question, what exactly is MBS a monument to? A national monument is commonly understood as any building or area protected by the government due to its importance to a country’s history or culture. In this article, I argue for the expansion of the definition, including any structures that encapsulate hegemonic ideologies, practices and histories, particularly those that the state believes necessary to defend. This definition of a national monument includes Merlion and MBS because of either structure’s prominence in Singapore’s culture and the central role that the state played in each one’s formation. For instance, short of designing MBS themselves, the state planners crafted design guidelines “to enforce certain architectural forms.”
The state’s involvement is more overt in the case of the Merlion as it was carefully designed by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB, previously known as Singapore Tourist Promotion Board) to narrate two dominant myths of Singapore: the fish alludes to the idea of Singapore beginning as a fishing village while the lion refers to the sighting of a lion on the island by the Javanese prince, Sang Nila Utama, leading him to rename the island Singapura (which means “lion city” in Sanskrit).
The Singapore government, however, was not as explicit in creating and controlling the narrative for MBS. To understand what ideologies MBS encapsulates, we must look at the state’s intervention into the urban planning of Marina Bay, and how MBS itself was designed and conceptualised.
Marina Bay Sands
MBS is the namesake of the land parcel the resort sits on, Marina Bay, a 360-hectare waterfront development situated at the southern tip of Singapore. While waterfront developments are common in many cities, Marina Bay stands out for the level of state involvement in its development, as it is developed entirely on reclaimed land, the use of which is determined solely by the government.
The assembling of Marina Bay was led primarily by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore’s urban planning agency. Construction began in the 1960s when state planners began reclaiming three parcels of land in the southern tip of Singapore. The goal of the waterfront project was to create a waterfront with a “distinctive image” with “international landmarks” that could become a “focal point for the city”.
Throughout the decades-long development process, URA hosted many international competitions to invite overseas architectural and development firms to submit their designs for the waterfront. Although the competitions appeared to be open to different ideas, they were, in reality, only looking for designs that were “visually stunning enough to propel Marina Bay into the global arena”. This is the result of the intense inter-city competition which drives cities to create “spectacular landscapes” as they have become synonymous with ‘success’.
Marina Bay Sands
Likewise, one of the reasons that Las Vegas Sands (LVS), an American gaming company, succeeded in its bid to build an IR at Marina Bay is because of its unique design which was deemed capable of creating a “memorable image and destination attraction for Singapore”. Designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie – known for designing social housing and cultural institutions – the IR includes three 57-storey hotel towers, a 120,000-square-metre convention centre, the lotus-shaped ArtsScience Museum and two “floating” pavilions. The goal for Safdie and his team was to “create an architecture that was so strong and memorable that it would represent Singapore.” He was inspired by the Sydney Opera House as “everybody says Australia when they see [the opera house].” To achieve this, LVS spent S$8 billion, making MBS the most expensive casino property in the world when it opened.
Arguably, the most notable architectural element of MBS is the rooftop observation deck that links the building’s three colossal towers. It was reported that when the founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first saw the SkyPark, an awestruck “Wow,” escaped from his mouth.
The rooftop of the MBS, which spans three football fields, was recently featured in the STB-sponsored movie, Crazy Rich Asians. The Hollywood film tells the love story between a Chinese-American economics professor from a modest background and her fellow academic who turns out to be the heir to one of the richest family dynasties in Singapore. To celebrate their engagement, friends and family of the couple gathered at the rooftop to sip champagne, dance and watch a performance by synchronised swimmers in the infinity pool while fireworks littered the night sky. In their review of the movie, The Economist rightly called this scene, “wealth porn”.
The everyday reality of MBS is not that far off from the ostentatious display of wealth in the movie, as the currency required to navigate the IR is money. To experience any one of its world’s best, largest, most-expensive and/or first attractions, visitors will have to be ready to fork out large sums of money. For instance, a two-night stay at the hotel cost around S$800 and a three-course dinner at CUT by celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck will set you back S$200.
Money also played a huge role in the inception of MBS as the two IRs – MBS and Resorts World Sentosa – were conceived as a strategy to stimulate Singapore’s economy.
The construction of MBS, however, was met with skepticism and close public scrutiny as Singaporeans were worried about the social cost of legalising the operation of casinos in Singapore. Many were concerned there would be a rise in addiction, organised crimes and prostitution, which were prevalent during the colonial era when gambling was legal. To assuage their fears, the government promised that there will be safeguards to limit the negative impacts of casino gambling. For one, MBS will be a mix-use “integrated resort” that will feature many other “world-class” attractions, and the casino will only occupy 3 to 5% of the total floor area.
Architecture was also used to “sanitise the project” as every aspect of the casino is preceded by a more “palatable image.” Although the casino was the primary reason for sanctioning the building of MBS, the government crafted careful guidelines for LVS and its architects to ensure that there is “zero visibility” of the gaming facilities. The architects were also careful to avoid building Singapore’s version of The Venetian or other designs characteristic of casino properties.
Monumentalising a Place in the Sun
In a 2015 letter to The Straits Times, Prime Minister Lee’s wrote that “Small countries like [Singapore] have to constantly ask ourselves: How can we make sure that we survive and keep our place in the sun?”. I was reminded of this quote when writing this article as I think it perfectly encapsulates Singapore’s reasons for building the MBS.
First, MBS was built to ensure the ‘survival’ of Singapore. Prime Minister Lee was so convinced of the need to build the IRs to maintain Singapore’s economic relevance that he went ahead with his decision to build them despite public opposition and resistance from members of his own Cabinet. He was so convinced, in fact, that he went as far as staking his premiership on his decision, declaring that “As Prime Minister, I carry the ultimate responsibility of the decisions.”
The “vulnerabilities” of being a small nation like Singapore is a common rhetoric purported by the government to rationalise its decisions, especially the ones that are not immediately popular with Singaporeans. This is usually backed up by examples of successful political gambles, particularly the ones that are measurable in economic terms. MBS has become a favourite case study of the government’s because judging by the economic returns of the IR, it is easy to declare it a success. In its first year of operations alone, MBS drew 19.6 million visitors and earned a revenue of S$560 million, and it continues to be one of the most profitable casino properties in the world.
Second, MBS reflects Singapore’s drive to position itself as a ‘world-class’ city. As illustrated above, MBS is part of the larger Marina Bay project that aims to develop a ‘world-class’ waterfront. The waterfront has become “a primary scene of experimentation in architecture, planning and urban governance” because of its visibility and tourism’s predilection for waterscapes. Together with the neighboring skyscrapers, MBS has transformed the Singapore River into a visual spectacle that represents the country’s progress and vitality. In STB’s own words, MBS helped to remake Singapore’s “staid image in the global imaginary.”
I enclose the adjective in quotation marks throughout this article because what constitutes ‘world-class’ is debatable. In Singapore’s case, it seems to suggest anything that indicates its relative wealth and technological advancement – seen as markers of the country’s progress. But what is the cost of attaining ‘world-class’ status?
Oftentimes, ‘world-class’ environments and activities are “targeted at communities with no previous connections to the place”. They are also designed to emulate the “best of the West” as most cities look to economic and cultural hubs in the West for inspiration. This is typified by MBS because arguably, it can be transported to any other waterfronts and it will not look out of place. There are no signs of vernacular architecture (to a layman like me, at least) or conscious efforts to reflect the history of its surrounding river. This is even more evident when you compare with the other monuments along Singapore River. For instance, although their versions of history are contested, the statue of Stamford Raffles and the Merlion reflect different ‘beginnings’ of Singapore.
Arguably, MBS was successful in achieving its goals to generate new interest in Singapore and to help create the image of a ‘world-class’ city. But as the city-state continues to grapple with the anxiety of being a small nation and its standing in the world, it will certainly not be satisfied with MBS for long. It is only a matter of time before the IR is replaced by another architectural marvel – which will soon be replaced by another. Undoubtedly, these monumental buildings will allow Singapore to secure a “place in the sun.” However, what we should be concerned with is the place of Singapore’s history and culture in the country’s endless pursuit to be ‘world-class.’
Goh Wei Hao is currently a Candidate for the MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford. He can be reached at email@example.com.
 Lee Kah-Wee, “Las Vegas in Singapore: Casino and Taming of Vice”  “Merlion is Fact and Legend, not a Fishy Tale”  Justin Zhang, “Marina Bay”  Erica Yap, “The Transnational Assembling of Marina Bay, Singapore”  Tan Chung Hong, “Planning for the Development of Singapore's Urban Waterfront.” The author wrote this book chapter on behalf of the URA to detail the agency’s plan to develop the waterfront.  Yap, “Marina Bay” Ibid.  Brenda Yeoh, “The Global Cultural City? Spatial Imagineering and Politics in the (Multi)cultural Marketplaces of South-east Asia.”  “Government Awards Integrated Resort at Marina Bay Project to Las Vegas Sands Corporation,” Singapore Tourism Board, May 26, 2006  “Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort.”  “President’s Design Award Singapore,” Singapore Design Council, November 10, 2011.  Philip Conneller, “LVS to Pump $3.3 Billion into World’s Most Profitable Casino”  Muhammad Cohen, “How Marina Bay Sands Transformed the Singapore Skyline and Global Gaming Landscape” Crazy Rich Asians, directed by Jon M. Chu (Warner Bro. Pictures, 2018).  “Crazy Rich Omission,” The Economist, September 1, 2018  Lim Hng Kiang, “Proposal to Develop Integrated Resorts”  Lee, “Las Vegas in Singapore”  Lee Hsien Loong, “Securing Singapore’s Place in the World.” Emphasis mine.  Lee Hsien Loong, “Proposal to Develop Integrated Resorts”  Loh Kah Seng, “Within the Singapore Story: The Use and Narrative of History in Singapore”  Jonathan Kwok, “Record Profit for MBS from Gaming”  Kim Dovey, Fluid City: Transforming Melbourne’s Urban Waterfront  Lee, “Las Vegas in Singapore”  T.C. Chang and Shirlena Huang, “Reclaiming the City Waterfront Development in Singapore” Ibid.
See full bibliography for further details.
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