Open to the public for the first time, historical landmark Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter transforms into a public art space for Raid, an exhibition featuring the works of eight young and up-and-coming Singaporean artists. Since its construction decades ago, the shelter – used by residents during the Japanese bombings of World War II – has been practically untouched. We chat with the showcase's co-curator Daniel Chong to get his thoughts on the space.
Why did you guys choose such an unconventional space such as the Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter for the showcase?
This is a tricky question to answer. Before I approached the respective authorities and liaised with them about the space, at that time, we were also looking into other alternatives. We actually started out by selecting the artist first. And the impetus of all this was really just to find a space for artists where they can create artworks that were unabashed and without much restrictions. How the site came about... was actually by chance. I saw the air raid shelter in an article online and I thought since it was unused why not try my luck? Turns out, out of all the venues I reached out to Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter was the most accommodating.
What is it about the space’s history that inspired you to make an art response to it?
This would definitely defer from artist to artist and I need to answer this question from both the role as an organiser and that of an artist. As an artist, I was more interested in the history of disuse in the space. And when you dig deeper, much of the site’s history has gaps within it. I guess that ambiguity aligned with my interest and exploration of themes of absence and lost aptly. From an organiser's point of view, the space was big – which was good for many of the sculptors in the show – but also had multiple points of entry to interpreting the site. Firstly its physical characteristics – the raw red brick or the quirky spaces within the shelter. Secondly, its history couldn't be ignored. You just feel it when you enter the space and there's so much to take from it. And lastly, the idea of its habitability – people were meant to live in the shelter. The possibility of living in such a place was probably what most of the artists picked up on.
Und Sein. Artwork: Nhawfal Juma’at.
"The ambiguity of Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter's history aligned with my interest and exploration of themes of absence and loss"
How did you guys prepare the site to house the exhibition?
Beyond basic cleaning and mapping of the space, I had to work with Town Council to secure the lighting and electrical within the exhibition. Also, I had to source for battery operated lights for the darker areas and prepare contingencies in the event of a power failure. It was quite a challenge logistically.
How did you pick the artists to feature?
We've either worked with some of the artists before or have greatly admired and respected the work they do. A number of them have already worked in unconventional spaces such as shophouses, a cemetery and even a toilet, prior to this exhibition so we knew they could handle this space well.
What type of works can the audience expect at this showcase?
They can expect a mix of light-based installation, sculptures, photography and even painting. The works also encompass a range of materials from flowers to fabric or oxygen canisters to used cloth. We also want the audience to experience the air raid shelter itself. It's impossible to ignore the space the work it is in and that navigating in the space – sometimes in darkness – to encounter the artworks is an adventure of its own.
Untitled. Artwork: Zulkhairi Zulkiflee.
Have you been observing the reactions of the audience so far? How has the response been like?
The response has been overwhelming. I come down almost every other day and when we open there are at least about a dozen people waiting at the door. We generally get very positive reactions because even if people don’t come for the art they enjoy the experience of the space. Also, the demographics of the audience has been hugely varied. From families with children to elderly couples, to art enthusiasts and history buffs. One interesting thing to note is that we often get locals who have lived in the area for years popping by. It has truly been an amazing journey to meet with a diverse audience who are also very willing and excited to share their experiences – which is quite rare for an art exhibition!