Shooting for the Stars
Platform’s photography exhibition in Istanbul unveiled hidden facets of Singapore, while revealing how a world-class show could be staged through cross-cultural teamwork.
BY TAN KENG YAO
here is a lot more to Singapore than the ostentatious lifestyle that’s depicted in slick Hollywood hit Crazy Rich Asians.
And that is what Platform, a Singapore photography collective, hoped to show when it displayed its works at Istanbul’s Pera Museum in April 2018. The prestigious private museum has exhibited works by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo.
Entitled Singapore Unseen, Platform’s photography and video exhibition showcased images that could be described as gritty and unglamorous: MRT commuters yawning during rush hour and haunting shots of former cemetery Bidadari.
Nonetheless, they show an authentic slice of Singapore life, with the 165 photos and videos by 34 photographers from Singapore tackling contemporary concerns and issues in the country. The works were selected from two Platform book projects created between 2013 and 2016.
“Going with the ordinary and unseen parts of Singapore was a no-brainer because Platform’s core mission is to champion the independent spirit,” says exhibition curator Tay Kay Chin, a veteran photographer and co-founder of Platform.
CLICKING THROUGH COMMONALITIES
While the scenes captured by Singapore Unseen were unfamiliar, the striking visuals nevertheless struck a chord with Turkish audiences, who could relate to its commentary on national identity.
“An important question asked by many of the photographers in our project was: ‘Who is a Singaporean?’ We know that many Turkish artists ask themselves similar questions,” explains Tay.
“We learnt to work alongside partners of a different culture, leveraging on both teamsʼ abilities to work quickly without compromising on quality.”
Tay Kay Chin, curator of Singapore Unseen
Yasemin Ulgen, Pera Museum’s project manager, says that although many of the museum’s visitors have never visited Singapore, they got the opportunity through the exhibition to see and think about the various hidden details that help define the country. Furthermore, the images also got them to view their own country’s issues through a different lens.
“The themes explored in the exhibition, such as urban transformation, inequality, language and family relationships, are familiar issues for the Turkish audience. We hope exhibitions like this will be used as a tool to continue to develop intercultural dialogue,” she adds.
The idea for the exhibition was sparked by architect and staunch Platform supporter Tan Kay Ngee, who is based in Istanbul several months every year. In 2016, he linked Tay up with his contacts at the Pera Museum to explore a potential collaboration. However, despite the museum’s interest in the works, talks stalled as exhibition slots were fully taken up then.
Then, much to the team’s delight, in January, they were informed that a window had opened up for early April. This gave Tay less than three months to put together an exhibition that would normally have taken two years to set up.
From then on, it became a whirlwind of activity as he rushed to assemble a core team to handle production- related issues, and also a curatorial advisory panel whose role was to challenge his approach, choices and plan.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Despite the demands of a hectic schedule, the exhibition, which was funded by Pera Museum, was successfully staged – 20,000 people caught it in the six weeks it ran in Istanbul. This was thanks to the close collaboration of the two teams.
“THE THEMES EXPLORED... ARE FAMILIAR ISSUES FOR THE TURKISH AUDIENCE. WE HOPE EXHIBITIONS LIKE THIS WILL BE USED AS A TOOL TO DEVELOP INTERCULTURAL DIALOGUE.”
The partnership presented both teams with opportunities to bounce ideas off a cross-border network of arts professionals. Throughout the experience, the teams thrived on a smooth and forthcoming working relationship, exchanging ideas to improve the show. “Our Turkish friends were respectful and sensitive to our needs and feelings. They asked for my input on any suggested changes, even minor ones,” shares Tay.
Both teams also got invaluable insights into each other’s culture. “One thing that registered firmly with me is how passionate the Turkish are about life and society. They take their work very seriously and have great pride in it,” shares Tay.
In less than a month, for instance, the museum put together a mini Singapore film festival to coincide with the exhibition. It showed eight films by Singapore directors, such as the critically acclaimed Apprentice (2016) by Boo Junfeng, and Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013).
In turn, the Turkish team expressed admiration for the Singaporeans’ work ethic. “Singaporean photographers are meticulous and disciplined. Thanks to Kay Chin’s efforts, the process of setting up the show was enjoyable. Although there was a lot of physical distance between the two countries, we were able to work closely,” says Ulgen.
Technology was a great help in overcoming the geographical distance – the teams communicated mostly through email and text messages.
After the show closed, Tay received files from Pera Museum containing detailed reports on the show’s attendance, press reports and online responses – a testament to the conscientiousness of their Turkish counterparts.
Looking ahead, there are talks about showing Singapore Unseen in Ankara, where Pera Museum has a presence. Platform has also sent its books to other institutions around the world, hoping this will lead to more cross-cultural collaborations.
“We learnt to work alongside partners of a different culture, leveraging on both teams’ abilities to work quickly without compromising on quality. These are greater highlights than just the end product,” concludes Tay.
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