Singapore’s Art in Transit

Catch art on the go at Singapore’s MRT stations via the Art in Transit Programme.

Art in Transit, Singapore’s largest public art programme to date, is brightening up the daily commute for the inhabitants of the city-state. Works by artists such as Lee Wen and Chua Ek Kay are popping up all over the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations.

phunk studio, 'Dreams in Social Cosmic Odyssey', at Promenade Station.

phunk studio, ‘Dreams in Social Cosmic Odyssey’, at Promenade Station. Image courtesy the author and Art Outreach.

Singapore has been abuzz with art events in recent years. The Singapore Biennale 2013 and Art Stage Singapore 2014 concluded in the early part of 2014, and the Affordable Art Fair and Singapore Art Fair will be coming up in the next few months. The galleries at the Gillman Barracks are a relatively new addition to the growing art scene, and The National Art Gallery of Singapore is set to open its doors in 2015 as the home of Southeast Asian art from the early 19th century onwards.

All these initiatives are part of the government’s aim to make Singapore a global city of the arts, and not just a financial and economic hub. Visitorship at these events has gradually risen over the years as the island’s population becomes art-aware and, while the increasing number of such events certainly helps raise awareness and interest, the role of public art in raising this interest cannot be sidelined.

Ian Woo, 'Enigmatic Appearances', at Harboutfront.

Ian Woo, ‘Enigmatic Appearances’, at Harbourfront Station. Image courtesy the author and Art Outreach.

The Art in Transit (AIT) programme, which to-date is the largest public art project in Singapore, has done much to bring art into the daily lives of Singaporeans. Launched in 1997 by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) with the development of the North East Line (NEL) on the country’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway system, it now covers the Circle and Downtown lines as well. Covering more than 50 stations, the AIT programme is a huge permanent and public art exhibition, which showcases Singapore’s origins as an entrepôt and its emergence as an economic and financial hub.

The programme integrates art into the architecture of all the stations on the lines, through collaborations between the artists and architects to ensure that both find a good fit. Each station on the line features the work of a local artist and tells the stories of the communities that live or have lived in that location.

Wang Lusheng, 'Memories', at Outram Park Station.

Wang Lu Sheng, ‘Memories’, at Outram Park Station. Image courtesy the author and Art Outreach.

For instance, at Outram Station graphic artist Wang Lu Sheng’s works draw inspiration from the Singapore General Hospital located nearby, as well as from the community groups and clan associations that lived there in the early days of Singapore. Wang also uses motifs from Chinese opera or wayang, which was the main form of entertainment for the area’s early migrant settlers, to create vibrant, vitreous enamel medallions.

Sun Yu-Li, 'Universal Language'

Sun Yu-Li, ‘Universal Language’, at Dhoby Ghaut Station. Image courtesy the author and Art Outreach.

An example of art that not only serves an aesthetic purpose, but is also functional is at the Dhoby Ghaut station and interchange. The six routes leading to the trains are marked not by numbers or letters, but by primitive symbols of the fish, rider, dancer, hunter, bird and deer.

Universal Language, by artist Sun Yu-Li, uses a visual lexicon that can be understood by all. The symbols serve as pathfinders and help the commuter find their way in or out of the station and to the trains. All six motifs also come together in a vibrant mural in the centre of the station.

Milenko and Delia Prvacki, 'Interchange', at Dhoby Ghaut Interchange.

Milenko and Delia Prvacki, ‘Interchange’, at Dhoby Ghaut Interchange. Image courtesy the author and Art Outreach.

As an interchange, Dhoby Ghaut is also home to the mosaic and ceramic works of Milenko and Delia Prvacki. Colourful Peranakan and blue-and-white Chinese ceramic pieces form a mural in Delia’s signature style and Milenko’s mosaics adorn four columns and the floor near the escalators in a pattern that guides the travellers. Though the duo worked independently to create their pieces, the repetition of certain motifs and colours creates harmony between their four works.

Chua Ek Kay, ' The Reflections', at Clarke Quay.

Chua Ek Kay, ‘ The Reflections’, at Clarke Quay Station. Image courtesy the author and Art Outreach.

At the Clarke Quay station, Chua Ek Kay’s brush paintings capture the vibrancy of Singapore’s early days, when the Singapore River was the lifeline and central site for most of the island’s activity. Since Singapore’s history is inextricably linked to its geography, the maritime theme emerges again and again in the works of the artists: it can be seen at the Harbourfront station in Ian Woo’s work, at Mountbatten station in Jason Wee’s work and at the Bayfront station in Lee Wen’s work. The contrast between the old and new Singapore is another popular theme, and is captured in the works at Paya Lebar, Kovan and SengKang stations.

Lee Wen, 'When the Ship Comes In', at Bayfront Station.

Lee Wen, ‘When the Ship Comes In’, at Bayfront Station. Image courtesy the author and Art Outreach.

With works by established and emerging, modern and contemporary Singaporean or Singapore-based artists that capture the collective histories and future aspirations of its people and culture, a walking tour is the best way to see this exhibition of Singaporean art. The art charity Art Outreach, in collaboration with the LTA, offers walking tours of some of the stations – subject to a minimum group size – and is a great way to understand the stories behind the art and architecture.

Lim Mu Hie, 'A Piece of Ice-Clear Heart', at Esplanade station.

Lim Mu Hie, ‘A Piece of Ice-Clear Heart’, at Esplanade Station. Image courtesy the author and Art Outreach.

By bringing art into the public domain and into the everyday life of Singapore’s train users, the AIT programme effectively exposes people to art who might not otherwise come into contact with it. The project also personalises a hugely automated system and makes it relevant to the histories, geographies and culture of the communities and people using the MRT. As Mae Anderson, Chairman of Art Outreach Singapore, says, “it is through our art that we tell people who we are.”

As part of the Singapore Tourism Board’s 50th year celebrations, 3 FREE tours will be open to the public as follows:

  • Saturday, 5 April from 10.30am-12.30pm
  • Saturday, 10 May from 10.30-12.30pm
  • Saturday, 7 June from 10.30-12.30pm

Durriya Dohadwala

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Related Topics: Singapore art, mosaic art, street art, public art, art and urbanism, events in Singapore

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