Karolina Fryz examines Chun Kaifeng’s exploration of art as and within the built environment
A playground is built on ideals
It’s an essentially generous human act
A playground is a possibility space
These statements are projected above the audience, as Chun Kaifeng, the Singaporean artist whose works explore our everyday experiences, enters the dimmed, unlit stage; he bows down to his audience, camouflaged in all-black and wearing a dry, unashamedly pensive look.
“Today I won’t be giving a talk, but I will be performing my research and fascination with playgrounds, I want to demonstrate how playgrounds are used as possibility spaces and how they are essential to modern Singapore and its growing art scene,” the speakers (presumably using the artists own recorded voice) announce to the audience that has gathered in the forested edge of the megapolis in midnight hours of a Wednesday.
This performance-art piece takes place in Gillman Barracks, Singapore’s most refined contemporary art cluster situated amidst the busy, Asian metropolis that merges into tropics at the city’s edge, where the sounds of forest wildlife can be heard from close by.
All of this is married with the hums of rushing cars and the relative quietude of city’s MRT train network, which pleasantly dissolves into a cyclic ambience deep in the background.
Singapore – the second smallest country in Asia and the third richest world power by GDP – is somewhat known for its dogmatic political authoritarianism. It is a country fraught with rules and regulations which span from the $500 fines for drinking on the subway to imprisonment for acts of homosexual nature. The country’s most sacred value appears to be that of efficiency; it has sacrificed a lot (some basic civil liberties, quite evidently!) in order to catch up with the Western world in just the 52 years of its post-colonial independence. Yet this post-colonial reality is not an easy one for those who wish to realise an artistic existence.
In this setting, the artist Chun Kaifeng shows us how hard it is for native Singaporeans to access the creative mindset when from their educational conception they are pushed into the tertiary-sector-expectations. In a dog-eat-dog economic landscape, there is limited space for the artist’s sensitive input. No time for the poet’s cries of adoration. No Keatsian sensitivity here please. Go write your ‘Ode on Melancholy’ somewhere else. Sculpture and acrylic don’t fuel capita growth, so don’t make the mistake of thinking about it for too long.
This economically-driven mindset is only further reinforced by the architectural style of the country. With approximately 80% of this being what the natives call ‘HBD housing’ (a government housing scheme where each block bears a number) and legislative restrictions on building style, it’s a hard space to find room for urban exploration without getting a sense of something akin to hyper-modern brutalism encapsulating you. The public housing looks like it has given up given up on certain ideals; it feels like looking at a tired face. The tired face of Apollonian realism gone rogue with a concretised reality.
(Yet it is a pastel-coloured brutalism – the sweetest take on the béton brut movement I have ever seen. Where quasi-imitations of the Trellick Tower can be observed from any station in their concretised shades of mento pastel.)
Chun Kaifeng thus praises playgrounds as uniquely free spaces in Singapore where children are allowed to interact with their surroundings in creative ways like nowhere else. He posits that in a playground the child is actively allowed and encouraged to exercise their free mindset – to think and interact with space in an interpretive and expressive manner, through a series of abstract mannerisms.
One need only think back to their own childhood to remember the exciting twisting, bending of the body; all the unnecessary movements necessitated by sand pits and swings where you would throw your legs up higher and higher as they reach that new spatial peak. Chun claims that such oddities are “creative visions” of the child who learns to “interpret the reality in an expressive manner”. A playground is a space where one’s perceptual habits are emancipated.
Such interaction is an act of performance making; it is a moment of creative understanding and interaction with the increasingly concretised landscape. Chung’s artistic point draws on what the likes of Fred Shumm and Yayoi Kusama have explored in their works. Fred Shumm’s Space Age playground sculptures in Colorado Springs and Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin Playhouse in Naoshima are works which demonstrate how a play-space can come to encapsulate very personalised imaginative ideals.
Meanwhile, there has been a growing history of recognition regarding the relation between a spatial environment and one’s internal mindset, and the playground is increasingly a uniquely influential space in a person In a fascinating move, the Italian artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude dedicated their lives to creating ‘environmental works of art’ which would sometimes stretch miles long, making their art quite physically merge with the realism of everyday existence. The intention is to show that a three-dimensional space can in itself be an art form within which one can seek an existence. So why not a playground, too? Playgrounds have penetrated the art scene when produced by renowned names, yet now Chung wants to remind us that they still remain creative spaces even when they are standing in the corner of an estate without a newspaper crew to accompany it.
It seems the playground is an illusory space, one based on child-minded ideals, forged to re-shape the humdrum existence of the present (to borrow Nietzschean philosophy on aesthetics from The Birth of Tragedy) as would seem from Shumm and Kusama’s works. So maybe we really ought to re-think playgrounds as spaces for art-makers. A hedonistic stage where the Dionysian spirit can finally take hold. Surely, there is similar thought behind the Tate Modern staging a set of swing sets for public’s use down in the Tanks?
Yet it is uplifting to see that Singapore has a strong practice of playground-building to this day, even as part of the HBD housing, it turns out. Chun grew up surrounded by new playgrounds and their diverse possibilities as he had a history of frequently moving between estates. “So let’s keep on building playgrounds, and try to see them everywhere” Chun concludes as he bows on the stage, having just finished piecing together a real, wooden playground in front of the audience with his bare hands, on his knees, drilling and sweating as he made his favourite structure from scratch. He bows in the blackness of the outdoor stage, wipes his tired forehead, and walks off peacefully.
Now all we see is the silent silhouette of his wooden playground amidst the long horizon of office buildings and business outlets – all lit up in full pride, all glimmering with electricity as lifts ascend upwards to top floors in the predictive, tranquil motions of a machine.
Image credits: Karolina Fryz