The Esplanade Tunnel is probably one of the most difficult places to configure for installation art. For one, it is inconveniently narrow, with just enough space to accommodate the droves of concert-goers making their way to the halls. It’s also furnished with some of the most banal contrivances of urban design: ceiling grids concealing unsightly air-con vents, turquoise glass tiles separating the tunnel from the underground carpark, huge cylindrical pillars and so on. Evidently, it’s a space designed more for transit than anything else, slotted between the bustling world of commerce and the hallowed grounds of a prime arts monument. It resides in a contextual vacuum, belonging neither to the ideologically charged sanctum of the museum nor the hustle and flow of public life. It is effectively a non-space; and the fate of a work exhibited within it is, more often than not, its reduction to kitsch, serving as a fancy backdrop for the Kodak moments of the passers-by.
But through artist Tang Ling Nah’s sleight of hand, the Tunnel is transformed into a living space which not only breathes, but also thinks. This self-reflexive turn would not be possible if not for an artist like Tang, whose works have always examined transitory spaces such as corridors and staircases. The Tunnel is a perfect venue for the extension of her inquiry.
Tang’s The World Outside is an installation spanning the entire length of the passageway. It is divided into three sections or “rooms” and each features charcoal drawings done directly upon the two walls of the space. To accomplish this, wall panels were specially mounted on the side of the tunnel occupied by the obtrusive glass tiles. Seats have also been installed to encourage the viewer to pause, sit down and contemplate the works. The monochromatic drawings mostly feature the vernacular architecture prominent in Tang’s oeuvre such as the angular staircases, rectangular pillars, sewage pipes and drains commonly seen in our housing estates. The structures criss-cross and overlap, creating dense, intricate constructions.
But the work is certainly not just a formalistic interplay of two-dimensional planes. As its title suggests, Tang’s piece is about looking beyond the surface of the wall to the world that lies outside it. It strives to rekindle the imagination which has been so suppressed by the pragmatic pursuits of urban life. In her drawings, the artist imbues seemingly banal architecture with a gentle but evocative sense of possibility: layers of walls, each with an opening or doorway, opens up to a new space beyond it, creating an unending sequence of exits and entrances, of departing and arriving. It is tempting to describe Tang’s illusionism as a trompe l’œil, but her work is so much more than a visual gimmick. While a trompe l’oeil forecloses the mind, Tang’s work does the exact opposite: we wander beyond the illusion on the wall to enter the multiple spaces in our imagination.
This is helped by the transformation which occurs when we move from one “room” to the other. The first depicts the architectural elements at their most distinct and identifiable, as if transplanted straight from our void decks. But in the subsequent “rooms”, a visible abstraction occurs. Planes of flat greys begin to dominate as the scaffolding of each depicted scene appears to disintegrate, leaving us with isolated fragments instead of a coherent whole. The architectural vernacular specific to our local urbanity begins to give way to constructions that appear more generalised, or at times, even rustic. In the last “room”, one window opens to a blurry pastoral landscape outside, another to a vague swarm of darkness. There is a sense of the space itself escaping from itself, opening up its structure to be reconstituted anew by our minds.
Furthermore, imbued within the environment is a curious self-reflexivity. Here is a transitory space about transitory spaces. In the first “room”, framed “pictures” of certain architectural forms are seen upon the “wall” depicted in the wall drawing – an instance of a picture within a picture. They appear to be close-ups of chic, modern architecture. One wonders: are these the “aspirations” or “idols” of the banal architecture that is the subject of Tang’s drawings? Taking this analogy farther, can the drawings upon the physical walls be read as an expression of what the Tunnel as a whole may be thinking of? When inscribed upon the very skin of the Tunnel, the charcoal gains a potent immediacy, as if it were surfacing from its epidermal pores. It is as if we have caught the Tunnel in the very act of contemplating its own “tunnel-ness”. Suddenly, this seemingly utilitarian space of the Tunnel is endowed with a touch of humanity. The Tunnel is pensive; the Tunnel thinks.
The fusing of charcoal drawing with large-scale installation produces some interesting effects. While from afar, the labyrinthine construction (seen more in the first “room” than the others) appears to overwhelm and take you away into a wide, escapist universe; at close range, the work draws you instead towards the infinitesimal black grains clutching onto the surface of the wall. Tang does not attempt to obscure the unevenness of her canvas or the marks of history upon it, allowing the charcoal to interact with these imperfections. In fact, charcoal marks run across the wall in brusque trails, making visible the very coarseness of the surface. As we scrutinise the grains of charcoal, they each begin to tremble with poetic possibility; and from taking the leap into an external fantasy world, we begin to retreat into a world of a wholly different character – the melancholic, private world of drawing. This introspection is compounded by the two lyrical poems on love and love lost exhibited in between the “rooms”. As we withdraw from the monumental into the intimate, it begins to seem that the world outside really lies within.
The nature of Tang’s practice situates her work at certain critical nodes in the complex system of artistic production, where the artwork and its document, public and private and intervention and creation intersect. Drawing is usually an intensely private activity, often confined within the artist’s studio and used more as a preparatory sketch than a final product. It rarely even shows up in a gallery setting. So what happens when the drawing is taken outside the studio into the public domain? How does charcoal drawing fit within a public space so dominated by site-specific sculptural works, of which most (those of a more edgy, contemporary ilk) invite audience interaction? As such, there is always a level of uncertainty with regard to the extent to which the audience can engage with the works of an artist like Tang. Can they touch it, to engage with the tactile qualities of the charcoal? But when the very act of touching a work leaves a literal mark, how much marking is permissible? What are the limits to the interaction between the audience and the artwork?
Furthermore, by drawing on the very surface of the Tunnel, Tang enables her work to take on the most intimate attachment possible to its space. It is not just displayed against or mounted on the walls, but inscribed upon them – the ultimate form of propinquity between the artwork and its exhibition site. The mutual intervention between the two enables new and exciting ways for us to engage with charcoal – a medium which has truly transcended the drawing board to enter the world outside.
The World Outside is currently running at the Esplanade Tunnel from 12 November 2010 to 2 January 2011. Admission is free. Images taken by Arron Teo.