art and soul

The tree in the outdoor section of Dome Cafe is wild in detail, and wild on the whole. From its twisted trunk its limbs are further twisted on their own axis, and also in relation to one another. Such a tree—rapt in a dance that takes, perhaps, a few years for every move—they have bound trunk and limb with a tough translucent tube with tiny lights in it, and converted the beauty into a creature of the night.

Singapore: Orchard RoadI was in its shade, sipping cappuccino and watching the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on the other side of Queen Street. I’d come in after an hour in the Singapore Art Museum to which Dome Cafe is attached, after spending time in the permanent gallery of Wu Guanzhong, and the most time I’d spent there was before the scene of night by the river, in which black is cascading on darkness under a thin crescent-moon, and the river is fluid and gray and strong, but the sensuousness in the scene comes from the sharp-tipped reeds and grass on the viewer’s side of the river, curved and risen and also bent, etched into the oil painting with a knife.

The museum was behind me and behind the museum, Waterloo Street, facing which is the Spanish restaurant of Museum, where yesterday the waitress fixed for me a vegetarian soup and paella, which last tasted much better than any Indian pulao I’ve ever eaten. To mention Queen Street again, it runs down the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and becomes Armenian Street with another fine church on it. On the section where I’m sitting there are more churches, and in sum in this district there are as many churches as there are malls on Orchard Road. I saw an aggressive one, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, on whose walls red banners ask in white letters, “Called to Belong? Be a Catholic!” Right before this church is the Grace Church, which is exceedingly modest, or is lacking funds.

It does not seem necessary to sell aggressively in this nation where shopping is the national pastime, and where tourists arrive with the malls in mind, and try out their acquisitions soon after the purchase. But every business has targets that it must surpass. At dinner at the Outdoor Cafe by Peranakan Place on Orchard Road a band of youngsters dressed in dark and white hawk for Taka Jewelers, handing out flyers doggedly to every passerby—many pedestrians hurry past their corridor. I watched a long time and the youngsters didn’t score a single hit—people accepted the fliers but not the invitation to step inside. Over the sounds of the one-way traffic, in the cool of the evening, came the strains of Coldplay, and a clear voice trying to sound exactly like Chris Martin’s. It didn’t matter that the struggle came through stronger than the song; the applause was positively appreciative. From which bar the music came I cannot tell, there were a couple next to my cafe and several behind it. The bar next to me was Howl at the Moon, whose sign was a wolf on its haunches on a keyboard, baying to the heavens while a swollen orange moon shone behind it.

In the museums, the artists seem to decry the unstoppable push toward globalization and consumerism, of which movements Singapore is the apogee, as anyone will admit. In the annexe to the Singapore Art Museum on Queen Street the current display is “Classic Contemporary,” in which there is a curious exhibit of a full dress suspended on a hanger, with a hat and a pair of shoes on the floor. The dress, and the hat and the shoes are all laminated in mock $1000 bills, and lacquered. The creation is of Vincent Leoh, who performed in that dress in 1992, in the role of a three-legged toad holding a coin in the mouth. He who comes to possess such a toad is expected to soon receive great riches and Leow’s purpose was to criticize his materialist and consumerist society which will subscribe to every superstition to feed its greed.

Not too many were coming in to see these exhibits, so I wonder if they should have been out in the malls, or in other public places, like the works of that other Singaporean celebrity, the late Anthony Poon.

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