Sky Duet

Seelan Palay

After walking through a metal detector and having my bag scanned, I made my way to the one thing I once vowed never to step into: the Singapore Flyer. If I weren’t familiar with the incisively critical nature of spell#7’s body of work, I might have thought that these were artists trying to take advantage of the state’s desire to feature “some art for cultural credibility” in its new $240 million tourist attraction. Experiencing the work itself, however, definitely disproves any such speculation; this work is both cunning and complex. 

Sky Duet is a site specific audio artwork produced by the aforementioned Singapore-based performance company and sound artist, Evan Tan; it was newly commissioned for this year’s Biennale. Presented to the listener through a pair of earphones connected to a minuscule mp3 player, the work’s most tangible form is in stark contrast to its installation site: the world’s largest observation wheel. After being ushered into one of the twenty-eight capsules of the massive machine and told to “enjoy my flight”, I pressed the play button to listen to my audio companions for the thirty-minute revolution. 

A husky male voice followed by a melancholic tune set the mood, making me realise that I was going to have quite a different experience compared to the family sharing my capsule, who were by now taking photographs and engaging in casual chatter. As I started to get an actual sense of the escalation, a dialogue began between a man and a woman — one which would continue for most of the ride. As the Flyer crept up and out of the boarding bay, I was bombarded by a heap of visual information, faced with a panoramic view of the city that apparently stretched up to parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Confronted with my first real look at what has been and is being done to this part of Singapore, I struggled to bring my attention back to the sounds being played. The couple’s conversation carried on, sharing their thoughts on various experiences and observations in a way that seemed both attached and detached, leaving me a helpless listener trying to make sense of them and the estranged cityscape around me. The sprawling of massive construction sites, the various “places of interest” and the richer sectors of Singapore society, when paired with the reciprocal weaving of noises, made for a slow and painful but tragically beautiful ascent. 

Unlike spell#7’s previous audio works, which involve more movement from the audience, the siting of this work keeps the listener stuck in place — listening, watching, pondering. Especially at certain points of the soundtrack’s over twenty-minute duration when there was a sudden, complete silence, and I was left alone for moments confronting the view, I came to realise how far above I was, and could let the experience really sink in.  

Upon reaching the highest point of elevation, the mp3 audio stream overlapped with an announcement made through the capsule’s loudspeakers. “You are now on top of the world”, said the machine. It’s a statement which inadvertently reveals where the Singapore state wants to be as well — on top of the world, a global city, a hub for anything and anyone (including perhaps even members of the widely despised Myanmar junta). The mp3 audio track then burst into a wall of intense sounds, one strong enough to make me imagine that I was surrounded by a raging storm in the sky, the entire facade around me crashing down. 

With the work opening to the public on September the 11th and with a title like Sky Duet, one might assume the work is making some sort of reference to the collapse of the World Trade Centre Twin Towers seven years ago. But according to the artists, the ideas that inform this soundtrack are of “machine and the body, the body and the landscape, of fading memories in a fading body, of life cycles and the elements”. These ideas surface at various points in the work, where the listener could can easily find a relation between the spoken and reproduced sounds to the surrounding physical space.  

Taking many research rides, the three artists involved — Kaylene Tan, Paul Rae and Evan Tan — approached the project with individual perspectives and formed distinguishable responses that successfully amalgamate Evan Tan’s synthesised melodies. A sense of acute observation and active engagement with the environment is evident throughout this collaboration. 

Sky Duet is being presented at a time when the Singapore state has made obvious its desires to promote the financial prospects of contemporary art and the F1 Grand Prix race (I’m surprised they didn’t coincide these events with the Great Singapore Sale as well). In spite of the risk of being co-opted within the state’s designs to exploit the confluences of art and wealth, one leaves the experience of Sky Duet with an appreciation of its artistic integrity intact. The art work makes full use of its situated space and cultural context, and engages both space and context critically and sensitively. 

The recording and its relations to the multifarious barrage of sights gives the work the capability to notably alter one’s journey to the “top of the world and back”. This is not quite the complimentary and “wonderful” image that Singapore is trying, quite literally, to carve out for itself. Sky Duet nudges the listener to address the reality of their experience and question where they, and the city around them, are really going.    

Mr Seelan Palay is a local visual artist and activist.
He has written for the previous issue of Article and FOCAS 6 and writes his own blog: This article was originally published in The Singapore Biennale Review. 

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