Your piece consists of an installation with film projections â€“ but what does it actually show?
Talking heads, the act of remembering, emotions and feelings, age. Architectural motifs, religious icons, passage of time, parallels, deterioration â€“ [these] are words that came to my mind when I saw the film projections.
How was the piece conceived, and what were you inspired by?
The piece was not conceived like the way Newton discovered gravity after seeing an apple fall from a tree; it was not an immediate surge of inspiration, but rather a long drawn journey of research, interviews and looking at the installation site. It is a project that evolves at every step of the way, even right now. I did quote from Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" in my artist statement, and I think that in recent years, my practice had been drawing more influence from literature compared to any other art forms.
Did you choose to centre your work around SAM because that is where the exhibition will be hosted, or have you got any other â€“ perhaps more personal or sentimental â€“ attachment or curiosity about the place?
When I first received the commission, I visited SAM and walked through the site where the Panorama exhibition was still on. More than looking at the art works, I got interested in the construct of the gallery space; how the place assumes this neutral state of a white cube and recedes into the background as the art pieces take center stage. Inspired by the SAM building and architecture, I decided to make a work about SAM because I don't want to see it as a Museum. I am curious; I want to investigate the history of the place through the process of art making.
Do you think, after having completed this project, that the past and present of buildings can be reconciled?
I don't think that it is about having any form of reconciliation between past and present, because time is always presented as a continuum in everything around us. New things grow old as old things disappear. One very interesting discovery was that the newly constructed buildings in SAM contain architectural motifs that are a simplified or stylized version of the ones in the preserved/restored buildings. It helps distinguish the past and the present, to make clear the very distinct periods of history. After all, the building's current identity as a Museum will also eventually become part of its history, and an even larger one at that.
To what extent do you believe that buildings should be preserved, rather than demolished to make room for the new? Is there a balance?
I must admit that I began the project as a cynic, thinking that there is a certain bias towards our colonial legacy in the preservation process in Singapore; colonial buildings tend to be favoured for preservation while modernist buildings like our former national library and national theatre have to go and make way for development. But as I move on in my research, I realised that these debates are much more complex, and like all other people, we want to simplify things because it makes it easier to justify our cause: whether it is preservation or progress. Preservation is also a doubled edged sword at times; a building may be preserved and restored in its physical form, but depending on the new social function or institutional identity it assumes, perhaps a certain spirit or aura about the place will be lost, that I feel is more precious than anything else. I think that the more important question that we should be asking ourselves, is why are we preserving, and what does progress mean to us?
What were some of the difficulties you encountered in putting the work together?
Working on a close-to-obsolete medium like film is very challenging in this part of the world. I had to purchase most of my second-hand film equipment, and to process and print the film in America. It is also challenging because film is not a medium I usually work with - the last time I used celluloid film was in 2006 as a student in Chicago. There were many things and processes I have to familiarise myself with again in order to get the project going.
Liao Jiekai's Brother's Quarter is on display at SAM until 15 Sep as part of the President's Young Talents