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Independent arts centre The Substation knocks down walls in wacky experiment

It has literally knocked down its walls to explore the question of control and access, and the politics of space in the city.

The Substation has never looked more different. It feels as if the entire first floor and basement of the building have been gutted and reconfigured to disorientate anyone familiar with the 27-year-old independent art space. Walls have been knocked down and new partitions put up. The floor is carpeted with spikes to obstruct your way. And then, to add to your discombobulation, there are the artworks.

There is Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s strange white cube, which gives you an unique sensation of being in an infinite space. The edges of the room have been curved precisely to reflect light and prevent shadows, so you’re never sure where the borders are – you wander around it with your hands in front of you, afraid you’d bump into something hard.

The Substation

Debbie Ding’s A Brief History of the Trapdoor is an immersive artwork that takes you through a trapdoor and a dark passageway to explore how architecture controls and delimits you. PHOTO The Substation

And then there’s Debbie Ding’s rabbit-hole of an artwork A Brief History Of The Trapdoor, which requires you to carefully climb down an actual trapdoor on the floor, squeeze through a dark corridor of obstacles, and finally emerge in a bright room bombarded by gifs (short moving images) of trapdoors.

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The Substation’s new art exhibition, titled Discipline The City, is a thrill. Alan Oei may have courted trouble when he took on the position of artistic director in 2015 and announced major changes for The Substation, such as doing away its role as a cheap venue space for artists – a plan later revoked. But the trained visual artist and curator certainly knows how to mount a good exhibition.

The show, co-curated by architect and designer Joshua Comaroff, addresses the “question of control and access, and the politics of space in the city”, says Oei.

“Our founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, is also often called the ‘Architect of Singapore’. He understood how important the visuality of the city was. In a city that is constantly erasing and redefining itself, I think it’s really necessary we have a larger, national conversation. The recent events of Save Sungei Road, Oxley Road, Bukit Brown – all of these are indicators that we as inhabitants and citizens want to have a say in how our spaces are shaped.”

The Substation - Discipline The City

The Substation is engaging the punk community – whom it offended last year – by offering residencies to punks to create writings and artworks examining their subculture. PHOTO The Substation

Other artworks challenge Singapore’s architectural landscape more directly. In Jiehui Avery Chen’s very funny video, the artist tries to turn what she calls “crowd control objects” such as walls, barricades and fences, into unexpected playthings. Like a child with an overactive imagination, she invents little games in car parks, void decks and other mundane spaces, devising her rules, sometimes clever, sometimes nonsensical, on how to interact with them.

Similar in theme but even funnier are the videos of Taiwanese artist Kuang-Yu Tsui. Here the artist selects various features of urban design and repurposes them to hilarious effect – bollards become a fun dog-training facility; a cobblestone path meant to deter the homeless from sleeping on it becomes a foot-reflexology track.

Since assuming the artistic director role, Oei has stated his ambition to plug The Substation into the country’s current conversations. “It’s taken almost two years, but we are finally executing that vision,” he notes. These artworks interrogate how design elements of the city become cultural signifiers, shaping how we behave and think. But they’re done so humorously – they provoke without offending.

(RELATED: Outgoing SIFA director Ong Keng Sen reflects on four years of defiantly ‘arty’ art.)

If there are aspects of the exhibition that might stir controversy, it is the portions pertaining to the punks of Singapore. In 2016, Oei went head-to-head with the punk community who had long associated The Substation as a home for staging alternative music events – until Oei’s arrival. For a while, Oei was the most hated person among punks.

PHOTO The Substation

With this exhibition, Oei attempts to appease them by having sections devoted to punk culture. There is a punk-themed installation by international anarcho-punk artist Stevphen Shukaitis, as well as a beautiful display of black-and-white portraits of Singaporean punks.

More controversially, though, is the punk-in-residence space facing the street, which will be occupied by punks almost daily to do with it as they please. Not only is the space viewable to the public, there is also a surveillance camera trained on it. And the punks have to clock in and out when they enter or leave the space.

Vanessa Victoria, a punk artist set to create an art installation within the space, has mixed feelings about it: “Is it curated? Is it controlled? Are we now friends with The Substation? It’s so weird … but there is a huge irony to the concept that I enjoy.”

Discipline The City runs at The Substation, 45 Armenian St, from now till Nov 26. It is separated into three acts, with different exhibits in each. Act I runs from Aug 23 to Sept 24, Act II from Oct 4 to 22, Act III from Nov 1 to 26. Admission is free. For more information on the programmes and artists, go to disciplinethecity.sg

Story first appeared on The Business Times.

PHOTOS The Substation