Sep 09, 2013

    For memory's sake, I chose not to break pots

    MY FRIENDS and I had arrived at the museum to break pots. But first, in true "auntie" fashion, we had to shop.

    "Oh, so cute!" I squealed, picking up smooth, cream-coloured, lantern-shaped pottery from a display in the lobby.

    The context: We were at the Peranakan Museum in Armenian Street for Taiwan-born, New York-based artist Lee Mingwei's interactive art installation.

    Luminous Depths, on till Sept 22, invites museum visitors to buy ceramic pieces for $5 each. They are then to toss them into a netted funnel down a three-storey, sky-lit atrium. The entire exercise has a contemplative, elegiac and cathartic tone - conducted to the dramatic notes of Schubert's lieder, Night And Dreams.

    My friend Ms F had bought a flying saucer-shaped specimen, I had bought a set of three (UFO, lantern, two inverted bowls stuck together), and Ms S had bought four (one to toss and three to take home). Clutching our precious cargo, we trooped upstairs to the third floor, to chuck them down and listen to them smash on the first floor.

    Ms S went first. She took off her shoes, stepped up onto a rectangular platform, then aimed her pot through a large hoop above the drop. A slight smile played on her lips. A satisfying "ping" is heard as the pot lands on clay shards in the ceramic cemetery waiting below.

    Then, it was Ms F's turn to divest herself of a new possession. Afterwards, all three of us peered over the balustrade. She pointed out where her pot lay, miraculously unbroken, amid its shattered compatriots.

    They turned expectantly to me. "I'm not tossing mine," I said. Part of me felt bad that I wasn't getting into the spirit of things and participating properly in the artist's work. After all, the 5,000 pots made for the installation were simply by-products of the art - five prototypes modelled on artefacts in the museum.

    At the work's heart was a shared experience, a memory - Lee had said the lightwell reminded him of his grandmother's home in Puli, Taiwan, and that making the work has influenced that memory, and vice versa - between artist and audience.

    The art was also performance: each person stepping up to the platform staged a unique scene for onlookers. I was behaving in the traditional mode of a collector coveting a material object instead of appreciating experimental, thought-provoking conceptual art.

    Still, it was the Singaporean in me that stopped me from breaking my pot. Not in the sense of being kiasu (Hokkien for scared to lose) or gian peng (eager for a freebie or bargain), but in being part of a local generation nostalgic for a past that is fast disappearing because of our rapidly changing urban landscape.

    I am loathe to destroy any limited-edition objects, however disposable they are meant to be, because I have felt the pang of losing buildings and other public, tangible reminders of home and history. I want, selfishly perhaps, to turn something meant to be communal into something private, that I can hide and preserve.

    "In a way, I am giving my own artistic expression and having you transform it into something better," said Lee about the work in an interview with The Straits Times' Life! I'd like to think that he will understand that my refusal is also a kind of transformative act.

    The three pots I didn't break now sit on a shelf in my bedroom. Some day, when my children ask me about them, I will have a memory to pass on to them.