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003/2007: A City With No Memory
Summary: Essay on Capitol Building

Description: The city, sociologist Rob Shields once argued, is always "a 'crisis-object' which destabilises our certainty of the real". Indeed, cities are sites of constant change. Sanjay Krishnan, a literary scholar, remarked that in Singapore "scaffolding seems the only unchanging feature in a city that sees itself in permanent transition".

Even landmarks are not immune from crisis and change. The Capitol Theatre was originally built as a theatre -- for performing arts -- in 1929. It was taken over by the Japanese during the Occupation, damaged by a bomb in 1944, then converted to a "picture palace" by the Shaw group. Those from my father's generation (or even older than that) may have fond memories of going to see the movies there, or meeting their dates at the Polar Cafe. But for a long while now it has closed its shutters and the good times have stopped rolling at the Capitol.

In 1998, it was listed for preservation as a conservation building, and was returned to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Nothing much has happened during that time. However, its central location at the intersection of Stamford Road and North Bridge Road means that the theatre, or rather, its residence, the entire Capitol Building, has remained as a highly visible landmark in the heart of town.

Now in 2007, for the Singapore Art Show, the Capitol Theatre will be used for yet another purpose: a site for art. On August 31, Mohammed Arif Zaini (Ryf), Faisal Rizal Alias, Rizman Putra, and Muhammad Sufian Bin Hamri, together with students and graduates of LaSalle College of the Arts, will present The Last Wayang -- a one-night-only show which incorporates MTV-style montages, video performances, interactive installations and graffiti. Milenko Prvacki, Dean of Fine Art at LaSalle, is the project's curator.

The Capitol Theatre was chosen because of its iconic status in the Singaporean movie-going experience of the sixties and seventies. The artists aim to highlight old buildings and spaces -- especially to the younger generations who did not have had the chance to experience the Capitol Theatre during its glory days. And by utilising the site for this purpose, they also seek to "question the previous functions of historical buildings and sites with their new functions".

Unlike most other instances of "graffiti", The Last Wayang will not involve any alterations to the cityscape. This contrasts with the two other site-specific projects curated by Prvacki as part of this year's Singapore Art Show -- Forest and Paper Boat. The former involves the installation of a copper simulacrum of a forest in Sungei Buloh Park, while the latter involves filling up the old and closed-down River Valley Swimming Complex with origami paper boats.

And unlike the very physical interventions in Sungei Buloh and River Valley, at no point will any of the works in The Last Wayang actually be physically attached to the Capitol Building. There will be no physical traces of the artwork to speak of. The only evidence of the "graffiti" after the event will be in the memories of the audience.

The use of light and film projections is a particularly appropriate choice as the medium for an art work that questions the history and place of buildings in Singapore. French theorist Roland Barthes once tried to articulate his own discomfort with regards to film when he said that it "follows, like a garrulous ribbon: statutory impossibility of the fragment".

Just as there will be no physical residue left behind from the Last Wayang performance, there are also no physical qualities to the memories which are responsible for transforming a "space" into a "place". These elements remain wholly intangible in the same way the moving images in film continually create multiple layers of meaning.

Film, in all of its versatility, serves well as a metaphor the physical landscape of Singapore -- layered with a multiplicity of invisible meanings, a plurality which is at once collective, and yet highly variegated in the readings we derive from it. And this form of light-projection graffiti tagging, while having much more flexibility than typical forms of graffiti in terms of dimensions and mobility, raises lots of questions. Can this actually be called graffiti if it does not physically alter the object? Are the memories of a night's performance still attached to a building if we cannot see any marks or traces of the event? Which leads to the bigger question: what happens to our memories of a place when a building is destroyed?

Urban planning in Singapore has always been very focused and utilitarian because of the government's contention that a small young nation cannot afford the luxury of retaining old spaces at the expense of newer developments. It is an ethos which has arguably served Singapore well in its early years of building up its economically-competitive "world-class" infrastructure. But this attitude towards change has, as a consequence, undermined the sense of attachment that many people who've built their lives here have to places.

This year alone we will have to say good-bye to many familiar structures. The National Stadium: closed on 30 June 2007, to be demolished to make way for the new Singapore Sports Hub. The Mitre Hotel: a beautiful but very poorly maintained building built in the 1870s that is likely to face demolition after its plot on Killiney Road was recently put up for sale on 6 August 2007. The Specialist Shopping Centre: a shopping centre built in 1970s but recently closed, to be demolished for redevelopment. And thousands of homes will be lost this year and in the near future due to the current en-bloc sales craze -- the horseshoe-shaped Pearl Bank Apartments atop Pearl Hill, and the prefabricated boxes of The Habitat 1 & 2, just to highlight a few.

As sites where we enact our everyday lives, the intrinsic value of our buildings may not be missed until many years later. And as is often the case, the meaning of a building extends far beyond the purpose for which it was built. The Last Wayang takes us back, lures us into interacting with the old Capitol Theatre. At the same time, the project reminds us that if Singapore is destined to be a city with no memory, it will be entirely up to its own people to keep the memories alive.

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© Debbie Ding 2009