Kathy Anne Lim, Wayside, from the series White Noise, 2020
Famed for its skyscrapers, the densely packed city-state is also home to a burgeoning photo scene. Photographer and lifelong resident Calvin Chow guides us through the cultural highlights
Touchdown in Singapore. The flight attendant welcomes you to the Garden City over the aeroplane intercom. Most travellers visit for a short holiday, or perhaps for a taste of modernity before heading to other South-east Asian destinations. But I have lived here all my life and realise that time is what you need most to properly uncover this city’s multiple facades. An ultra-modern skyline with spotless streets and orderly skyscrapers built on the legacies of colonialism, the city’s blend of greenery and steel is unparalleled. There is, however, a human hand involved at every turn.
To see Singapore is to look at the amalgamation of immigrant histories, native cultures and sacrifices of the natural world. The photography scene in the region began with an ethnographic intent in the 1800s, but has since morphed into a contemporary force. Pushing boundaries and distilling life into art, photographers have not only recorded the meteoric rate of change in this city, but what it means to live in Singapore and South-east Asia at large. When new train lines and homes compete with areas of nature, priorities become apparent in the city. Pragmatism is perhaps the name of the game, but life, unlike new condominiums, moves at a much slower pace.
In Singapore, we find comfort in food. A national pastime is to venture to the different hawker centres (an open- air complex of food vendors) in search of delicacies. From Malay to Chinese cuisine, our food celebrates multiculturalism. The ubiquitous chicken rice is simple in its premise, yet its fragrant rice with juicy chicken meat has fed generations and is the dish I crave most when overseas. Food means so much to Singaporeans because it allows us to hold on to our culture and history.
In this guide, I will give you an idea of how I see the place. Of course, you should visit the popular sites – such as the hulking metal flowers at Gardens by the Bay, or the Avatar-esque waterfall at Jewel Changi Airport – but the beauty found in structures built by the genius of humans can easily be matched by that of nature. I encourage you to spend some time in the ‘jungle’, such as at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, where you will find crocodiles, birds and monitor lizards. In short, Singapore is whatever you want it to be. On a Monday morning, you could be fighting for standing room on the subway, or sipping champagne at the infinity pool on the top of Marina Bay Sands. You could eschew glass-and-steel in favour of nature but never be more than an hour away from an air-conditioned mall. If you are just here for a short time, hit up the highlights and leave but know that what you saw was all built for you: a facade of a city twisting and bending its beauty, appealing to the eye of the beholder.
Artist-in-residence: Kathy Anne Lim
Upon encountering Kathy Anne Lim’s work, one experiences a sense of lightness and an almost dreamlike state. The ordinary Singaporean cityscape takes on an ephemeral form, drifting in and out of consciousness. For her series White Noise (2017–2020), Lim followed the fumigation teams that control mosquito populations within housing estates. The result is a work that has a sense of foreboding, accentuated by the sculptural form of fog. A control against dengue fever – a common yet lethal illness in Singapore – the white mist encroaches and seeps through every nook and cranny, until “the familiar becomes abstracted beyond recognition”, as she describes it. Lim’s poetic work on themes of memory and displacement is a critical component in considering the fabric of the nation.
Singapore International Photography Festival
Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF) is a biennial public event that brings together installations of contemporary photography, workshops, talks and a photobook showcase. Aiming to introduce critical thought and academic discussion about South-east Asian photography, the festival takes a global approach by showing local, regional and international photographers alike. Entries to the festival are competitive and have been a catalyst in exposing Singaporeans and tourists to contemporary photography. Entering its ninth edition in 2024, the SIPF is the premier photography festival in the region and an unmissable event.
Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film
With a gallery inside a heritage chapel, Objectifs is a visual arts space dedicated to film and photography, as well as a bookstore selling local and regional works, and a place for workshops. Founded in 2003, the organisation has shown work by rising and established artists from the region, leading the way in nurturing future talent. From its youth programmes to professional mentorships, Objectifs is a stalwart of the contemporary photography and film landscape in South-east Asia. The building is located in the Bras Basah.Bugis precinct, the creative arts and heritage district, near museums and art colleges.
Knuckles & Notch
This Risograph print studio is renowned for its bold graphic prints, and its products can be found at book fairs worldwide, from Tokyo to Los Angeles. Supporting local and international artists, Knuckles & Notch is run by the artist duo Marilyn and Djohan, and is a mainstay for handcrafted art books and prints. From photography to illustration, the studio and its gallery, Chaos, provide a unique space for artists to experiment across multiple mediums. Visit Knuckles & Notch and Chaos gallery to experience work that stays true to the heart of independent publishing.
Singapore Art Book Fair
Held annually in April, the Singapore Art Book Fair is a vital part of the local photography scene as it provides a physical space for zine makers, artists and publishers to sell their books and network in the community. In space-constrained Singapore, rental prices are often out of reach for independent publishers, such as Your Local Newsstand and Nope Fun, placing even greater importance on the fair. Founded in 2013, the multi-day event was the first of its kind in the region and is now firmly established as one of the key book fairs in Asia.