“EVERYTHING MUST GO (?)”
Reflecting on the Artist’s Residency at dblspce
by Joshua Tan
I suppose everyone has their own stories of growing up with old malls like Peninsula Shopping Centre. I bought my sport shoes for secondary school here, my first guitar while in my National Service uniform, my 35mm film for hobby shoots as a young adult. But as I have learnt this past month, there is a substantial difference between being a fleeting visitor and an (albeit temporary) inhabitant. My time here on artist’s residency has forced me to reconsider my perception of these older spaces, and consequently of my own thoughts on loss and liminality.
As I began my time at dblspce, located in the heart of Peninsula Shopping Centre, it was so easy for me to approach the place with a bumbling nostalgia, seeing it as a space frozen in time, or to pity their struggle with competition from online retail and the shiny, new malls next door. On an initial visit, I was stuck by a sale sign in a shop here: “EVERYTHING MUST GO”, it declared. “What a perfect phrase to start with” I thought to myself then, “to contemplate a place caught in transition.” How ignorant of me.
The one thing that has consistently struck me during my residency at Peninsula, is just how much life there still is here: whether it comes in the form of regular customers dropping by the tailors, musicians heading to the basement stores, sneaker-heads browsing the sports shops, lunchtime classes at the exercise studio or migrant workers hanging out over the weekend. “At least got somewhere people can gather” said one shopkeeper cheerfully. It is tempting to think of liminal spaces as static places, but the reality is that they are incredibly dynamic. Yes, there is a clear struggle to survive. But life goes on in the borderlands. It has to.
During my residency, I had hoped to run an open studio and paper-making workshops with the public. One resident had asked me optimistically to ““ask all [my] friends to come,” and I had been very much planning to. Yet, as time progressed, I found myself thwarted by the heightened COVID-19 situation and unexpectedly, by my own health struggles. Diagnosed with a serious heart condition midway through the residency, I was challenged in my physical ability to make art, and interact with people.
Instead, I was forced to take a gentler, more reflective route in relating to this location and its diverse inhabitants. Over the next few weeks I interacted with it through the day-to-day: borrowing a trolley from the tailor next door, making paper to the beats of trampoline work-outs, buying discount shoes from the sports shop around the corner, developing camera film at a hole-in-the-wall basement shop, and eating my lunch at the coffee-shop downstairs, where the stall owners even put my meals put on tab when I lacked the money. “Pay me back later,” said a food seller with a laugh, “I’m here every day. I’m not going anywhere.”
The more I engaged in casual conversation with the space, the more I became aware of a sense of trust and authenticity that I realised I had not seen in the new malls – one perhaps bred from familiarity, and time. As one shopkeeper put it, “We all know each other. [They’re] all my kakis”. I could not help but relate this quiet sense of hope in the face of loss with our wider journey through the pandemic, and consequently, my own struggles to survive.
As my own health condition worsened, I retreated deeper into a safe space here to make and understand my predicament. The process of making the multi-coloured, abstract works was a reflective, soothing one that I likened to painting, but with paper. There was something poetic, I think, about taking what is often seen as just a surface for artwork, and using it as the artwork itself. It echoed my wider artistic practice of making new works from items that are initially lost, discarded or broken.
Much like the laundry lint of forgotten receipts, tissues and fibres that form in our pockets, these multi-material paper works I created on residency served as a record of the uncertainty and day-to-day detritus of the pandemic: from COVID-19 rapid test packages to daily news statistics, Stay Home Notice instructions to disposable masks, mail envelopes to food delivery packaging. Each piece was a snapshot of liminality and loss. “Nowadays, we cannot know for sure…” I overheard one inhabitant lament recently about the situation, “It is not for us to say.”
One day, we hope, this too shall pass. Everything must go. Or… must everything go? Perhaps for now, everything can simply go on.