Caleb Ming talks about Plot, his project documenting areas of empty land in Singapore and their significance in this fast-developing country.
I got the idea for Plot after my last project, Rain, which I did 13 years ago. I shot an image of a piece of land that was completely clean, with no construction. It has since been built over. I’ve always looked at this image and thought it amazing that things in Singapore have changed so much. I looked around me and thought that there must be a lot of things around me that will be gone some day.
In Singapore, land to be developed is demarcated by greenery. The Urban Redevelopment Authority takes care of these spaces, which are already slated for development. People ask why I take photographs of the park and I tell them that it’s no park. No one goes there and has a picnic there. So instead of showing how dense Singapore is, I’m showing the greenery and space that we do have. As you can see from these images, they are little sanctuaries. In time, they would be views we wished we still have.
This piece of land is untouched for now. What I’m interested in is the space. How do you photograph wind? Air? It’s that kind of feeling that I’m going for. Right now, you are only seeing this boring patch of green but in ten years, when I’m done with the project, you can look back at what it used to look like. If you are just seeing it in a book with no explanation, no one will know what it means. But if you have the comparative visuals, then you wouldn’t require any explanation.
The first plot I shot is not far from where I live now. In the last ten years, there have been four attempts to buy out the place which I’m renting, but none of them have been successful. If 80% of the residents sell, it’s called en bloc, a developer will buy it over and rebuilt. I love this place and I don’t want to move but I have no say as I am only renting. Across the road from where I live is a huge plot of land with a big banner saying a new condominium is coming up. That was another trigger for the Plot project because of the possibility of me having to move and seeing this potential development coming up. That was in 2012. The plot is still there, empty.
We do have space and that is why the government is planning for 6.9 million people in 15 years. We have 5 1/2 million now. Is that number sustainable? Economically, it would make sense but how would the people feel? All this is part of the story that I want to tell about Singapore through its landscapes.
If I was thinking like a typical Singaporean, empty land is a waste of space because it is not commercially viable. Land is potential, it’s got money in it. That’s the pragmatic way of thinking. But as a person, I think it’s beautiful space. On one particular trip back from Hong Kong, I thought to myself, I love Singapore so much because Hong Kong city is just crazy congested and developed.
Since Independence, much of Singapore’s development happened in the late 1970s to 1980s. After that, it slowed down for a bit until the 2000s. Since then, there’s been an explosion of buildings, especially around the Marina Bay area. Apart from building on reclaimed land, we are also tearing down old buildings. Like the Rochor Centre, which has been around for 40 years because it is in the way of the new expressway. The government has the power to clear it to make way for more roads. It’s the same story as Bukit Brown cemetery, which was cleared because it was in the way of the expressway. When you hear stories like this, increasing productivity here is so important that the government is willing to sacrifice the things that are in the way.
This particular plot was shot last year during the general elections. I’ve been wanting to shoot plots like this. No one uses this plot of land for recreational purposes even though there are signs saying that you are allowed to enjoy the space. Someone will come along occasionally and play football here. If you look carefully through the project, the people using these empty spaces are foreigners. Singaporeans are too used to the shopping malls, the air-conditioned areas. It’s too hot to have a picnic at these plots as most of them don’t have trees.
Someone pointed out that my work seems to show the last of the free land in Singapore. I think the word he used was ‘democratic’ land because it is the people’s land. Once these places are developed for a certain purpose, we no longer have the freedom to use the land as we wish for leisure or recreation. The irony is that no one sees the value in them yet because they are empty land but the fact is that on these lands you are free to do what you want.
Published 15 March 2017