[Singapore Biennale '11] At the Merlion Hotel
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The Merlion Hotel is just brilliant.
The brainchild of Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi, it transforms one of Singapore’s best known national symbols into a luxury hotel room – available for the duration of the Biennale at the rate of 150 SGD per night. (All booked up though, sorry.)
Is it Art ? Commerce ? An “uncanny encounter with a public monument in the intimacy of a hotel room” ? A re-imagining of the connections between citizen and symbol ? A grandiose declaration of Swingin’ Singapore’s new-found fame as a playground for the rich and ritzy ? All of the above ? None of the above ? Who knows ?
Which is why I love it. A stroke of genius on Nishi’s part.
First, a brief history of the Merlion, taken from an article on Singapore Infopedia:
The Merlion logo had been designed by Fraser Brunner, a member of the Souvenir Committee and the curator of Van Kleef Aquarium. It became the emblem of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) on 26 March 1964 and its registration as a trademark was finalised two years later on 20 July 1966. Although by 1997, STB had acquired a new corporate logo, the Merlion is still protected under the STB Act and the use of the Merlion symbol requires permission from STB. ……
The Merlion is an imaginary creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. This half-lion, half-fish sculpture rests on undulating waves. The lion head alludes to the legend of Singapore’s founding by Sang Nila Utama, a Palembang Prince who, on his arrival on the island, saw what he thought to be a lion and thereafter renamed Temasek, Singapura or “Lion City”. The fish-tail represents Singapore’s links to the ancient sea-bound island which was Temasek and its long and successful association with the sea, reflecting how our forefathers traversed the oceans to come to Singapore and our subsequent dependence upon it as a port.
Image from the Biennale site.
And that’s the story of our country’s most visible icon – it started life as a tourist logo. Isn’t it fitting then that it’s commercial origins are in a sense being recuperated and paid tribute to here ?
The work, which has been constructed with scaffolding partly on land and partly in the water to accommodate the Merlion, instantly conjures a series of binaries and hybrid identities: land/water, lion/fish, art/economics, private space/public symbol, fleetingness/permanence, contemporaneity/myth. Somewhere at the nexus of these competing ontologies is the Merlion Hotel, a makeshift structure literally erected around the statue and incorporating its top half into the opulence of the room itself, open to art-gawkers by day and closed for hotel occupants by night, extant for a mere two months during the Biennale and accessible thereafter only in photographs and other forms of documentation. These ambivalences of purpose, which render the significance of Nishi’s piece inherently unstable, suspended in the flux of so many divergent semantic strands, also speak less directly perhaps to Singapore’s status as a perpetual anomaly: an English-speaking, Chinese-majority sovereign nation outside China (discounting Taiwan, of course), a tiny island stuck in an Islamic sea, with Malaysia to the north and the massive Indonesian archipelago to the south. In the words of former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, the man who is generally credited as having transformed post-Independence Singapore into the first world player it is today:
We faced a bleak future. Singapore and Malaya, joined by a causeway across the Straits of Johor, had always been governed as one territory by the British. Malaya was Singapore’s hinterland, as were the territories of Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah. They were all part of the British Empire in Southeast Asia, which had Singapore as its administrative and commercial hub. Now we were on our own, and the Malaysian government was out to teach us a lesson for being difficult, and for not complying with their norms and practices and fitting into their set-up. …… Indeed, how were we to survive ? Even our water came from the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor. ……
We had never sought independence. In a referendum less than three years ago, we had persuaded 70 percent of the electorate to vote in favour of merger with Malaya. Since then, Singapore’s need to be part and parcel of the Federation in one political, economic, and social polity had not changed. Nothing had changed – except that we were out. We had said that an independent Singapore was simply not viable. Now it was our unenviable task to make it work. How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia ?
Singapore was a small island of 214 square miles at low tide. It had thrived because it was the heart of the British Empire in Southeast Asia; with separation, it became a heart without a body. Seventy-five percent of our population of two million were Chinese, a tiny minority in an archipelago of 30,000 islands inhabited by more than 100 million Malay or Indonesian Muslims. We were a Chinese island in a Malay sea. How could we survive in such a hostile environment ?
(From Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew [Singapore: Times Editions, 1998], pp. 21-3.)
Dark days indeed. Both the Merlion symbol and the Merlion Hotel, in their hybrid configurations, gesture at the exigencies which gave rise to the heterogeneous contours of modern Singapore – racially diverse, linguistically complex, geographically and historically cut adrift from its age-old moorings. As has been pointed out – on numerous occasions – the template for a national narrative has traditionally been constructed around a core of hybridized identity or “bi-culturalism.” Local historian Derek Heng, for one, echoing LKY’s sentiments, has pointed out that
It is not difficult to extend this model [hybridization] to the post-independence period of Singapore, and to draw similarities between the localized Chinese of Temasik and the Chinese population of the nation-state of Singapore, and between the Chinese traders of old and the present sojourning population of migrant workers in Singapore. Hybridization is therefore a useful approach in understanding and explaining the construction of coherent city-state nations that are open to regional and international forces and groups.
Indeed, hybridization was not ignored in the early political rhetoric in the immediate period before and after 1965. The concept of Malayanism encompassed the acceptance of the localization of immigrant groups in Malaya, and the indigenization of the people of Malaya by adhering to certain shared values that were drawn from the various social groups and the artificial construction of shared socialist values. David Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister, in the 1950s argued for the creation of a coherent social group of Singaporeans that was based on the assimilation of the key charcateristics of the dominant social group in Singapore by the various ethnic groups represented in Singapore, even though it was not apparent which ethnic groups were being referred to … Similarly, in the early post-independence years, Singapore’s political leaders attempted to construct a society based on the eventual combination of various cultural aspects of the social groups represented in Singapore.
(Derek Heng Soon Thiam, “From Political Rhetoric to National Narrative: Bi-Culturalism in the Construction of Singapore’s National History” in Reframing Singapore: Memory – Identity – Trans-Regionalism [Amsterdam University Press, 2009].)
In fact, the Merlion logo, as its very inception, was intended to convey Singapore’s cross-cultural ties, its “links to the ancient sea-bound island which was Temasek … reflecting how our forefathers traversed the oceans to come to Singapore and our subsequent dependence upon it as a port”, which probably accounts for the mutation of Sang Nila Utama’s lion into a bizarre looking feline-fish. Nishi’s stroke of genius consists in his amplification of the fundamental instability at the heart of our national symbol, into the hybrid entity that is the Merlion Hotel – which looks and behaves like neither one thing nor another, partaking of a miscellany of roles, functions and effects.
However, at its most immediate and intelligible, the Merlion Hotel probably serves best as a symptom of the new Singapore. And just what is this new Singapore ? Flush (the world’s fastest growing economy as of 2010), fancy (now boasting two fabulously glitzy resorts with the country’s first casinos), and demographically and sociologically evolving at light speed, the population on the whole growing from some 3 million to 5 in the last two decades –a jump of 66.6% in 20 years – but with the number of resident aliens positively ballooning from 0.3 million in 1990 to 1.3 million in 2010. (See here for figures.) In other words, a playground for the wealthy, both local and foreign. In fact, the iconic Marina Bay Sands resort, located just across the bay, is prominently featured both on the wallpaper – along with the Merlion logo and founding father Sir Stamford Raffles – and as part of the panoramic view from the bathtub. The triple towers, exemplar par excellence of the new, moneyed, swingin’ Singapore, thus become enshrined in the country’s repertoire of emblems, their signalling of new economic trajectories taking its place alongside our most cherished historical images in a gesture of symbolic suturing.
The one sour note ? – Nishi emblazoning his name across the bathroom floor, which I can only imagine remains unavoidably visible the whole time you’re relaxing in the tub or on the can, doing stuff one does in the privacy of one’s own toilet.