Review: Big Towers at Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore

Written By Rachel Tan

22nd Mar 2018

Category: Review

Big towers is the first exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore by newly appointed curator Caterina Riva. Much like Riva who sought to address her encounter with another geography and context, I was invited to reflect on the experience of my own urban environment and city.

Upon entering the exhibition space, Francesco Simeti’s lush velvet Curtain (2017) instantly caught my attention, its brilliant rich colours rendering a shimmering quality when illuminated by the gallery spotlights as well as the sunlight entering the exhibition space. Just as quickly, the meditative music and steady narration in Bedwyr Williams’ video animation, Tyrrau Mawr (Big towers) (2016), diverted my attention. And, as if on cue, Joanna Piotrowska’s I-XXX FROWST (2013–14), a projected series of photograph slides positioned in the opposite corner clicked noisily in time. The sensory overload within the space mirrored the experience of the never-ending assault of sights and sounds on a city dweller’s senses.

Bedwyr Williams, Tyrrau Mawr (Big towers), 2016. Installation view: Big Towers: Joanna Piotrowska, Francesco Simeti, Bedwyr Williams, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2017. Photo: Weizhong Deng.

Williams’ Tyrrau Mawr (Big towers) drew me in first. Almost filling the wall, the 20-minute video projection depicts a fictional city from day to night with familiar buildings such as the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Waiting for the video to loop, I watched the sun rise over the imaginary metropolis, captivated by a city so familiar yet foreign. This fascination was gradually eclipsed by a sense of unease as Williams’ voice-over began again, tracking the lives of the city’s imagined inhabitants, some of whom displaced and forgotten with the city’s rapid urbanisation. I realised that Williams was conveying a reality that may not be so imaginary or distant after all.

Williams’ narration was an apt accompaniment to the rest of the exhibition. Simeti’s Curtain depicts a combination of Eastern and Western art historical motifs, as well as famous monuments and buildings. I was examining the work when I heard Williams’ voice: “cigarette butts, cigarettes boxes, stones from the mountains, […] bits of building material”. The forms on the curtain evoke an image of strange war-like chaos amidst the ruins of mountains and rocks. With Simeti’s manipulation of size and scale, the reds, yellows and oranges stand out, as do the larger soldiers that feature in some of the images. The spindly trees appear torched with fire and the clouds often look like smoke. These associations were undoubtedly influenced by Williams’ voice-over, bringing the images of cigarette fire, smoke, rocks, and stones to the foreground.

Francesco Simeti, Curtain, 2017. Installation view: Big Towers: Joanna Piotrowska, Francesco Simeti, Bedwyr Williams, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2017. Photo: Weizhong Deng.

Installation view: Big Towers: Joanna Piotrowska, Francesco Simeti, Bedwyr Williams, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2017. Photo: Weizhong Deng.

Next to Simeti’s Curtain were three photographs by Piotrowska. Untitled (2016), the photographs show women curled up in “shelters” they have made in their homes using cherished books, clothes and furniture. These unassuming black and white photographs contain an irresistible pull, the constructed shelters inviting a contemplation of the physical and psychological spaces that these women inhabit. The style of analogue photography also recalls images in a newspaper, uncovering and documenting the unseen stories within the faceless homes of a city. The photographs were housed within wooden frames; a form of display that made me feel as if I were peering through the windows of apartments and houses.

Projected on the glass wall of one side of the gallery was another series of analogue photographs by Piotrowska. Titled I-XXX FROWST, these uncomfortable photographs portray family members in various configurations and positions: in mid-embrace, squatting on the grass, sitting on another’s lap, lying next to each other, reaching to caress another’s cheek. The various positions of the family members convey the ambiguous dynamics of familial and social relationships, delving beneath the surface of social relations. Projected on glass, the images also had a fragile and transparent quality. I wondered—could these images also convey the stories that occur behind the glass exteriors of apartments and houses in any city?

On left: Joanna Piotrowska, I-XXX FROWST, 2013-14. Installation view: Big Towers: Joanna Piotrowska, Francesco Simeti, Bedwyr Williams, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2017. Photo: Weizhong Deng.

From left: Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2016. Installation view: Big Towers: Joanna Piotrowska, Francesco Simeti, Bedwyr Williams, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2017. Photo: Weizhong Deng.

Despite being an intimate exhibition of four works, Big towers was by no means small. Playing with time, light, scale, the hidden and visible, and the internal and external, the exhibition enabled a dialogue between the works, communicating stories as layered and varied as the proverbial towers which housed them. I found myself once again in front of Williams’ Tyrrau Mawr (Big towers) and aware of two other visitors who were separately engaging with different works. I wondered what their stories and experiences were, and if the works that they were looking at had resonated with them. I considered my own space and experience in my city, with its own big towers. Williams’ voice-over echoed through the space:

“as he allows himself to go into a trance

a trance like the trances of his childhood

when he would drift off listening to a bath being run in another room

a few thousand people in their apartments and houses are in a shared similar trance

listening to the city”


Big Towers: Joanna Piotrowska, Francesco Simeti, Bedwyr Williams was installed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts, from Nov 2, 2017 To Jan 30, 2018. For more information, click here.  


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