Of course, if you're at all connected to the land of the living, you'll know...
Dirt-strewn lots covered in random debris don't normally beg a second glance, but these ignored and abandoned spaces in Singapore are central to Philipp Aldrup's series of photographs which he dubs Gezeitentümpel or "tidal pools". In an artist statement, he describes these liminal places as "caught between the extremely different forces of land and sea; they know the silent glare of sunlight and the surging power of ocean tides. The forces around them change constantly, yet they remain the same. I have photographed tidal pools beneath Singapore's highways, and in its abandoned buildings and cemeteries. These tidal pools, however, are metaphorical spaces caught between the logical forces of the rational and the unpredictable forces of the absurd." The "absurd" is Aldrup's nod to the writings of Albert Camus, where the author posits that the human tendency to seek meaning in life and the human inability to find any is paradoxical and inherently futile.
Born in Germany, Aldrup moved to Singapore eight years ago and like any new inhabitant, he immediately set out to explore the foreign land he would temporarily call home. Most of the sites that he photographed were discovered, occasionally by accident, over a period of three years on long walks that he regularly took. Observing Singapore's fast-paced rate of urbanisation, he says, "Often I would visit the sites again for better light conditions. Sometimes they are paved over or turned into a construction pit." His love affair with the old and ignored is evident; past projects also include the documentation of Golden Mile Complex and the now-defunct Mitre Hotel. He speaks to us about Gezeitentümpel and on being a "local foreigner" in Singapore.
What inspired you to tackle this subject matter of “tidal pools”?
I am convinced of the symbolic significance of those shabby, hidden, dilapidated and neglected spaces. In a city like Singapore, where huge areas have been straightened, cleaned, organized and abruptly eliminated from a collective memory, a former vibrant character has been lost and eroded, over and over. I see the places I call “tidal pools” as vessels in which history, stories, sounds, dreams and perhaps light rays of times to come are washed up. They serve as pools for an alternative historiography – like sunken lighthouses that force our eyes open to look beyond our own immediate finite, and often oblivious existence – and at the vast space of time before and after us. One must delve further and explore the hidden depths to get a broader perspective.
What analogies do you make between your images and the Singapore of the present?
The images are distinctly Singapore and at the same time, they could very well be taken in many other parts of the world. The tension between them being purely local and still global is important for me – and it might also be the analogy to Singapore on a wider scale. The question, from which point of time and under which circumstances we perceive something as local or foreign, in a country that is constantly intermixed with external influences, is mind-boggling and worth exploring. The fact that we see an old shophouse or the few post-independence buildings as an essential part of local history, and for example Marina Bay Sands as a generic, globalized megastructure, raises pertinent questions regarding their origin as well as the extent of how they connect people to their home.
What does it reveal of your own philosophy of living here and in a larger way, life itself?
The images of anonymous earthy nooks and crannies make me think about the issues of home and history, being a foreigner, a local or a “local foreigner” – and thereby about the overall confusion we feel in a world of rapid changes we seem to have no influence on. My photographic explorations in Singapore seem to be an attempt to excavate things I am missing, times I have missed – even times I am going to miss after leaving this place – or this life. I do feel like an archaeologist, who is looking for traces and remnants of unknown civilizations and eras. It is an enjoyable but doomed endeavour, since nothing much can be found in those temporal spaces between former places and places-to-be, where concrete has just been scraped off to briefly reveal soil and rocks before everything will be covered again. So it became rather metaphorical excavations. I am trying to find a closer connection to this land by looking beneath the concrete – to re-connect this current city with its "pre-development" history and its possible "post-developed" future in order to try to come to terms with its present. I imagine both states to in part, look the same, like a place under the AYE; rocks and soil, soil and rocks.
Your images, past and present, feature largely “neglected” areas of Singapore, why is that so?
The "tidal pools" are to an extent, a quiet rebellion, a sign of discontent and a homage to places and people that can't, don't want to or are forced to catch up with a short-sighted drive towards perfection and functionality. At first glance, the spaces look bare and uninhabited, but they do show signs and traces of life, of present human activity. As much as I face them as places per se – as the 'losers' of urban development – they are also a reflection of the underdogs of our social and economic model. Both the neglected spaces and the outsider, the homeless person and the migrant worker gravitate towards one another, creating new and leaving behind old stories that are rarely part of the country's records. I enjoy freely imagining these possible narratives and interweaving them with the local history – as much as I enjoy following 'real' stories when doing documentary work on people's lives.
Do you feel that old locations like Golden Mile and Mitre Hotel tend to be romanticised because of their scarcity?
Yes, I guess they are romanticised at times. The “good old days” are softened in a sentimental way, which is understandable in places where massive transformations have been happening within a relatively short span of time – where one outlives the environment and not the other way round. In fact, I tend to romanticise them, too. But without actually having experienced those places back then, I think I can do it more or less deliberately. I love the art of the Romantic era in Europe in the 18th and early 19th century. This movement was basically a reaction to the industrial revolution and the establishing rationalisation in the Age of Reason, which was perceived as a painful breach in the world's harmony, as a divide between human beings and nature. Just as the individual might be longing for the lost world of the childhood, the 'romanticists' tried to reconnect to a childhood of mankind through mysticism, fairy tales, folk music etc. When opposing that with the writings of 20th century philosopher Albert Camus, on what he calls the Absurd – the impossibility of healing and reunification with an estranged world – the contradictions of our lives in today's world and perhaps especially in modern Singapore become quite apparent. The longing for a secure place in life and a familiar home at home as well as the yearning to reconnect to a seemingly happier, simpler past meets an increasing alienation from the environment and the feeling of helplessness towards the powers that design our fate.
How does your perception of Singapore contrast with that of your home country, Germany?
What a difficult question! Well, Germany still feels very much like home, only that the way I perceive it has slightly changed. The experience of being a foreigner living in a far away part of the world and my ongoing attempts to make Singapore more and more my second home, also made me a bit of a foreigner back in Germany – and I don't mean that in a bad way at all. I am seeing Germany with new, very curious eyes again. However, I guess in Germany I feel free and limited; in Singapore I feel limited and free. Familiarity is comfortable and soothing, but it can also become a constraint, when one doesn't feel the impulse to step out of it once in a while in order to discover. I only learned that here again, or rather I learned to enjoy that. That is the freedom I feel in Singapore. The limitation is my role as a foreigner, which I might never be able to shake off completely. As much as I value the perspective as an “outsider” I still do long for a sense of belonging, which my friends would give me, but Singapore as a whole will not. I miss the freedom of speech, which I took it for granted in Germany.
Gezeitentümpel by Philipp Aldrup is showing at Objectifs Gallery, 56A Arab Street, until 9 March