For Mr. & Mrs. Children: A Generational Nostalgia
I don’t like nostalgia unless its mine
Kaifeng and Kaiqun are of the 80’s generation – like myself. In fact, the three of us were born the same year in 1982. Thinking about our generation, I am reminded of a new colleague of mine, a slighter older lady born in the 1970s (she wouldn’t reveal which year) who disapproves of our generation. To her, we are individualistic, self-centred and impatient to get somewhere – all of which are supposedly antithetical to the values of kids born in the preceding decade – the 1970s – and manifested more problematically in larger proportion with the 90’s generation. You cannot quite get us to concur with her, obviously. The unsurprising truth one is reminded of from this is the fact that generational gulfs exist; each generation speaks circumspectly of its own thrills and biases; its own heroes and villains; its own aspirations and insecurities.
This kind of generational variegation is what drives nostalgia, or more specifically, the particular appeal of nostalgic exercises. They don’t “speak” to everyone; and that is their particular charm. Nostalgia is, in effect, a form of exclusionary connection – reaching out (only) to those who bear shared experiences, to thosewho were there, who saw and touched and felt and were moved. And this is in fact one of the most delightful things about the ideas and the works in Kaifeng and Kaiqun’s first joint exhibition, For Mr. & Mrs. Children. The duo does not purport to any kind of universalism or broad mass appeal; they do not seek out grand historical episodes to dissect, and neither do they quote perfunctorily from current affairs. Instead, the twin brothers draw their materials and locate some of the essences of their works from particular childhood episodes familiar to a typical 80’s generation Singaporean child. In this regard, their works assume to speak most poignantly to their generational peers – and unabashedly so.
The duo speaks simply and fondly, and one wonders whether it is the same for all those who bear a tender regard for the past. In an e-mail inviting me to contribute a catalogue essay, they stated simply and without adornment that “what ties the works [in the exhibition] together is that they are all ‘children’ things”. And seemingly so – but with interpretative twists and a distinct character we increasingly come to associate with them. Their three-dimensional works, carefully and painstakingly assembled, are faithful to craft’s emphasis on the skill of the maker’s hands. There is an unmistakable fastidiousness in their process. Like a child cradling her precious teddy bear, they handle each exhibit, half-done or complete, lovingly and speak of it with overflowing exuberance – twinkles in their eyes – on the ideas that belie the works.
For the exhibition, Kaifeng has meticulously assembled various household odds-and-ends like hair curlers, orange juice squeezer, scissors and pens into vehicular toys that look seemingly ready for war. His Untoys, a series of ten sculptures, distill the mock seriousness in children’s play, reaffirming how it becomes a microcosmic world of belligerence, competition and victory – values and phenomenon manifest in the adult world. But these values are further percolated in child’s play and become more pronounced. The whimsical imaginary is strong in Kaifeng’s works as he comprehends and physically realises new functions for commonplace objects. Beneath the veneer of cuteness in his scrupulously-made scaled-down Ferris wheel in The Ride Of A Lifetime! is a metaphorical reminder of the lingering presence of an Uncle Sam-type policing state that grants one freedom, but a freedom that is conditional and bounded.
Kaiqun’s Race For The Prize, a miniature installation of a drain (Long Kang, as we call them) harks back to those days of child’s play when the storm canal was the great, venturesome alternative to the playground. Even as bumbling unconscious children, we knew the canal to be the edge of safe play, where transgression meant plunging to the depths of lurking danger. But the canals were where the tadpoles and the guppies could be found in their elements; and that gave us such indescribable thrill. Race For The Prize dramatises the sense of danger; what with the watercourse replete with all conceivable forms of nasty physical obstacles. Overcoming these obstacles become the chief objective of players. In the work, what is formerly fun and unmediated then comes to assume a serious visage. Kaiqun makes pointed reference to the first Formula One race to be held in Singapore in September this year. The latter is the embodiment of a certain type of “unfun” the brothers feel strongly against – fun estranged from spontaneity and given to intense commodification and conscientious design upon commercial and tourism revenues.
In these works, the duo recalls the spirit and specific features of play not unfamiliar to a similarly-aged young Singaporean person. Memories begin from the playgrounds of childhood. Instead of stowing them in the past, Kaifeng and Kaiqun think and work with them as entities in the present tense, relating them with a contemporaneous immediacy. At its core as an exhibition, For Mr. & Mrs. Children plumbs a pervasive feature of life – when play becomes leisure, and fun becomes recreation. A value is tagged on the simplest of pleasures, transforming the naturalness of play into a ritualised and systematised entity. If our (budding young) adults are in actuality outgrown children, having had the magic carpet of play pulled rudely from under them and thus incarcerated from having fun, then the question begging to be asked is clear – what about today’s kids?
Cast us back to those days
of children’s play,
in 1980s and early 1990s Singapore.
Less than 5 feet tall were we all
it never seemed we should recall
today what stowed tales
mean in history’s pale.
It may be trite to repeat but indeed, history repeats itself. More so in the context of urban Singapore than elsewhere. One’s memories of the past, especially of childhood, is progressively being effaced in the choruses of voices propagating the remaking, repositioning, repackaging, and reinventing of Singapore. Architectural critic Rem Koolhaas’ infamous declaration of Singapore as tabula rasa springs to mind. Singapore – a razed plane for a genuinely new beginning? Kaifeng and Kaiqun’s works – overtly concerned with the fleetingness of play and bygone days of childhood – do, at a fundamental level, express a deep-seated consciousness of the violation exercised upon Singapore’s physical landscape. The duo’s lament over lost play reflects a resistance to the erosion of one’s mental landscape caused by urban flux and dislocation.
The official and definitive tagline of Singapore’s urban aspiration – a great city to live, work and play – highlights the inherent artificiality of Singapore life which my generation has imbibed whilst growing up. The Singapore Flyer and the Formula One race here in September are only the two most recent manifestations in a long train of “experiences” and “representations” created and peddled by the city’s urban and tourism planners. In drawing and commenting upon them, Kaifeng and Kaiqun decry the effacement of natural play. No longer do people know any other way of having fun except in a consumerist way.
And so Kaifeng’s model, Parklife and Kaiqun’s series of five drawings, Unfinished Adventures, are presented as fictive nightmarish arenas – the abode of ghouls, ghosts and injurious grief; where fun begins to harm. Parallel to this message, they are also symbols of overbearing urban experiences – egoistic and tyrannical conscription of urban life, which erases unscripted urban possibilities with total and militaristic efficiency. What we need is exactly opposite to these. We need works that subvert predictability, certainty and familiarity. With For Mr. & Mrs. Children, the twin brothers reinscribe the innocence of play, liberating its paradoxical and poetic elements.