I was pleased to be invited to discuss more in depth with the directors of 222 Queen Street and 51 Waterloo Street, Andrew Lau and Rachel Teo. Read on below:
Nicola: The anniversary has been marked with the creation of six heritage murals. Vibrant and detailed, these artworks give us a glimpse into the history of the area and the heritage of 222+51: from the red bricks of the original National Library, to a depiction of Father Becheras, the founder of the former Catholic High School campus, which stood at 51 Waterloo Street – and even depicting more sensory recollections such as the delicious ‘ice ball’ (precursor to the local Ice Kachang). How did this collaboration with the artists come about and what made Yip Yew Chong and Yuen Kum Cheong the perfect fit?
Andrew & Rachel: We were looking to do something and also looking for mural artists at that time. It just so happened Calvin (from Campers Corner) introduced us to Yip Yew Chong. After seeing the type of works he had produced in the past, we felt that heritage themes worked with the site. What we wanted was for an artwork to be related to the building, to be sympathetic towards it, so we felt that graffiti wasn’t suitable on this side.
Nicola: The murals are depicted on door panels which open and close to give us two views of each scene. How have businesses and visitors at the 222+51 interacted with the artist’s works?
Andrew & Rachel: We very much see the murals as an interactive art piece with a surprise element to it. People have really engaged with these murals, they have come to see what they look like, opening and closing each set of doors to discover the full narrative and the stories that they tell. The public has been very inquisitive about these works and for many; they evoke a sense of nostalgia and are of course a reminder of the history of Bras Basah. At the 80th anniversary event, several alumni from Catholic High School came with their families and told their children stories about their time here, and their childhood, relating back to the imagery in the murals. It’s no surprise that we have seen quite a few people come to take selfies, it is a really colourful and attractive work. Maybe we should also put some seats there for people to sit and admire them. We hope that with increased foot traffic, more people will discover the interesting tenants we have in the building and in the surrounding area.
Nicola: With a space like yours, there must be a certain balance between preserving the old and developing the new, both in terms of the physical building and the more intangible energy and life within it. How have you achieved this with 222+51?
Andrew & Rachel: We have definitely preserved the physical built, the bricks and mortar of the building but we have also changed it. We have allowed for new entrances to the building to adapt the space for its current use. At the beginning, there was only one entrance, and that was at Queen Street. We created 51 Waterloo Street as a separate entity, but before it was just an extension and it didn’t exist as an individual address. We have also restored the five-foot way that faced the lane; which previously was all boarded up. They had extended the ground floor so that the rooms on the ground floor had been extended into the five-foot way. The windows have also been replaced with elements that are sympathetic to the building. For the upper floors, you may notice that they have these bars so we tried to get some lattice-work, instead of putting a plain sheet of glass. It’s on the top floor, it’s not very obvious, but all the windows are new. When you walk around, most people never really look beyond two stories, the ground level and the first floor; so most people won’t notice it.
Nicola: Any challenges, discoveries of new histories or quirks along the way?
Andrew & Rachel: When we embarked on the renovation of the building, we did make a few discoveries. There were a lot of little nooks and corners that we stumbled upon, for example, The Armoury (on the third floor above The Private Museum), and there was a connection between the two buildings on the floor above. We also found old copies of the newspaper, The Malaya Catholic Leader. Our copies date back to 1936, 1937 and 1938, which was a lucky find and through this we learned a lot about the history of the building. Perhaps they were kept in the library (where School of Thought is – 222 Queen Street) and were forgotten so we inherited this historical documentation when we took over the building. The murals in the Singapore Ballet Academy were another discovery. They were painted by the Catholic High School boys in the 1960s. There was also a dark room for photography, a small corner room on the third floor (where Functional Training Institute is – 222 Queen Street)
Nicola: What is at the beating heart of 222+51 – it’s mission?
Rachel: The vision is to have a thriving art centre that supports local art initiatives. It was always important for us to provide a space for local art to thrive independently.
Andrew: Art is not just visual, we want to portray all forms including performing arts like dance or music. Here all art forms can co-exist under one roof. Within the building we have a huge variety of tenants, our newest include the Nanyang Culture and Art that offers lessons and appreciation sessions on Chinese culture and the Serendipity Centre, which provides art and therapeutic workshops, and Acapella Society. Other tenants include dance and music studios, as well as art galleries and a gem museum. “We always like to stress that we are one of the few private sector initiatives, including places like Helutrans and Mount Emily, that are supporting the arts. We would like to be recognised internationally as multi-faceted art centre and for developing a self-sustainable model to promote the arts.
Nicola: With quite diverse genres at 222+51, I am interested in what happens when creative elements and lifestyle businesses come together, do you notice or encourage crossover or collaborations happening organically?
Andrew & Rachel: Yes, there definitely been a lot of crossover in terms of how individual tenants relate to the arts within their businesses. For example, Calvin from Campers Corner organises camping trips throughout the year and so this does mix with photography. They take some fantastic shots when they are out in the nature. They did embark on a collaboration with 2902 to put up an exhibition of people’s travels. They also had an artist talk for this show. The artists were the campers and they talked about their trip and their works.
The original pole dancing studio in the building, Bobbi’s Pole, performed at events like the Youth Olympics, National Day and at W!LD RICE balls. In those days, Double 0 (graffiti collective) engaged with Bobbi’s Pole quite frequently. The studio has since been renamed as Brass Barre and is now being run by one of the former students, and continues to work with breast cancer patients. There has also been various product and book launches with our tenants that have encouraged more people to visit the building. From the public sector, the National Heritage Board’s annual Night Festival is one such example of an initiative that showcases a cross over of art forms.
Nicola: With the opening of National Gallery Singapore this year, there has been a leap forward for the art scene in Singapore. How do you feel the scene has changed? Are there key ways that you have been able to take part in this shift and do you have continuing aims to help the arts develop?
Andrew: Art is not something you can fast forward and build, it takes time. We have been very patient, much like the tortoise. Our approach has been to develop an organic and sustainable platform that can withstand the pressures of the market, ensuring that the foundations that have been built are strong. For example, we have known 2902 from the Old School days after which they were based in 222 Queen Street for several years before expanding to their new location at DECK on Prinsep Street. That growth has taken 8 to 12 years. In addition, Yavuz Gallery started with us in 51 Waterloo Street and moved to Gillman Barracks last year.
We also strongly support local talent and have opened up our space for them to explore their practice, and in this way we have contributed to the growing art scene. With 222+51, we have maintained a reasonable rent as we recognize that this is one of the biggest problems facing art groups in Singapore.
Nicola: That’s a really valuable thing to help creatives in Singapore find space and even a creative community. While I was visiting I bumped into French artist Christophe Malcot, who is exhibiting an impressive new body of work in conjunction with the Voilah! French Festival Singapore. The images showed how the site of Chernobyl has changed, being taken over by nature and populated by foxes, greenery, and ghosts of the past. This for me was another example of a whole world that I could dip into and discover at 222+51.Nicola: Andrew with your background in architecture, your passion for arts and your support of local music and theatre, how do you feel the arts scene still needs to evolve to keep competing on the international stage? Have you noticed any difference in between genres regarding this?Andrew: I think it needs to find an identity of its own and I feel that it has always struggled with its identity. There isn’t a Singaporean benchmark per se, they compare themselves to the international community, like American music, European art. I feel that this has always been an issue and that it doesn’t show confidence with its own identity in art.From my perspective, an artist like Chang Shian Wei – who uses HDB motifs for ceramic ware – perhaps comes close, but the local cultures Malay, Indian, Peranakan, these have been little explored. There are artists for example, from the Chinese diaspora who reflect upon their background in their work. I feel it is not so clear with Singapore, and that they need to be confident and proud of where they are from.
Nicola: Rachel with your deep interest in the visual arts and your role as Director at the Private Museum, I’m fascinated to hear how you feel people and contemporary culture might be changing (or still needing to change!) as well as the arts itself – have audiences in recent years become more art savvy or perhaps shifted from simply art viewers to art collectors?
Rachel: Over the years people have been collecting. Now what we’re trying to do is to draw these collectors out to showcase their collections because if we can’t get these people out to show, then part of art history is also lost. I think that with contemporary art, there are people who collect it but there are those who collect just ink art. I’m glad to know there is a thriving market where people are still looking and buying, whether it is contemporary or ink. What we see is more multi-media art coming in as well and it is becoming an art form that collectors are looking to collect now.
Nicola: Do people gain a different type of insight from exploring the collections and private curations of others?
Rachel: Definitely. For example, the late Chua Ek Kay Estate collection, showcased the collection of the late artist himself, it was fascinating for people who collected to his work to see the artist collection and his influences. Chua Ek Kay is now currently showing at the National Gallery alongside the Wu Guan Zhong exhibition. He is probably one of the earliest and leading ink artist in Singapore pushing boundaries with ink art. I think that this is one of the more important private collections we managed to show. I hope that The Private Museum provides a very intimate environment, which encourages people to ask questions.
Nicola: Finally – Coming back to those bright new painted gems at 222+51, I have noticed that mural painting and graffiti has really come to prominence in the last few years locally with walls and buildings as artists’ canvas. Do you think this reflects a drive for artists to express themselves more publicly? Or is this drive coming more from the buildings and spaces that commission them?
Andrew: I think artists want to express themselves publicly but someone has to provide the canvas on which they can express themselves. I think that is what we have done, which is to provide a space for experimentation”.
Rachel: What could be interesting would to be to start an Art Walk Initiative, which may encourage other building owners to share their canvas.
Nicola: Thank you both so much for your time, and giving us such insight into 222+51. Congratulations on the building’s 80th Anniversary!