By Marcus Yee
(872 words, 8-minute read)
A time capsule of a film on time capsules, Tan Pin Pin’s latest film In Time To Come is underpinned by a confounding observation: Singapore’s national obsession with time capsules, despite the nation-state’s short post-independence history. The otherwise plotless film follows three time capsules, the sealing of two time capsules for the occasion of SG50 and an anniversary celebration of SIM University (now Singapore University of Social Sciences) respectively; and the opening of the SG25 time capsule, which received as suggestions for inclusion a styrofoam cup, a cassette-recording of a karaoke session, dentures and tampons. Instead, we find an assortment of artefacts from a copy of Yellow Pages to an outmoded mobile phone, back when they were still crowned with an antenna.
In its attempt to compress an entire material world into a stainless steel cylinder, embalming a slice of time in nitrogen, time capsules pose a series of historiographical problems: what is included or excluded? Which objects could be considered artefacts, and which, miscellany? Whose stories would be told, and whose would be cast like ashes into the winds of cultural amnesia?
Tan’s archive fever could be traced to her previous works including Singapore Gaga (2005), on local soundscapes from the vernacular to the avant-garde; Invisible City (2007), on chroniclers of alternate histories in the nation-state; or the banned To Singapore With Love (2015), on political exiles who fled from the prospect of detention without trial. In Time To Come feels different altogether. The film sets itself the task of encapsulating the mundane, venturing instead into the profane everyday to find something from near-nothing.
After all, the time capsule is not a museum collection, and must cast its net over everyday materiality in order to speak its public. Insofar that the mere curation of artefacts representing national History with a capital ‘H’ is inadequate, the Yellow Pages and packet drinks could sit comfortably beside military medals and paraphernalia from government social campaigns. In Time To Come follows such a soft historiography, mixing the poignant with the quotidian, where scheduled rituals of tree pruning are placed side-by-side with the felling of the memorable Malayan banyan tree behind the former Substation Garden, now replaced by a bar. The conventional monumentality of ceremonies, such as the opening ceremony of the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE), are banalised through the filmmaker’s lenses, which opts instead to capture the restlessness of stage-hands waiting for the guest-of-honour or leftover confetti whirling in the wind. The banal and the monumental of history become an indistinguishable pair.
The charge of nostalgia presents a Gordian knot for the film. Time capsules are often aligned to the nostalgic cultural production of nationalist, institutional or commercial narratives in Singapore, as they are vessels of cultural memory, indispensable to identity formation. The filmmaker does not offer any convenient solutions to the conundrum of nostalgia, except in keeping her collection utterly singular and subjectivised. The exclusions from her cinematic time capsule, for instance, were equally as important as the inclusions. One conspicuous absence were the ceremonial processions of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, despite Tan’s admittance of shooting many hours of relevant footage.
In Time To Come deviates from nostalgia’s caprices through estrangement. Rather than submerging audiences into the complacent bath of nostalgia, the film places the present behind glass, one that is both alienating and alluring at the same time. Comparisons to Tan’s present day Singapore with a science-fiction future therefore ring uncannily accurate: bulldozers trawl through the earth, empty expressways resemble particle accelerators and artificial snowfall in shopping malls. Understated is the film’s crystalline sound design, one that heightens the foreboding atmosphere of these hyperrealist scenes. We watch, with a sense of detached curiosity, as the polar bear Inuka perform underwater laps in the Singapore Zoo, where climate-control technology overcomes the mercurial reality of tropical weather, surfacing a snow-globe spectatorship that inflects the entire film.
At its most luminescent, the film reveals what it is not: a reflection of time. Scenes that capture the patterning of social life through daily rituals, such as flag-raising ceremonies or morning greetings by staff in the bookstore Kinokuniya, unravels an atemporality that recalls the postmodern affliction of losing temporal coordinates, the inability to organise the self according to a concrete past, present and future, pace Frederic Jameson. Time is absent, empty and homogenous when encapsulated. During scheduled fire drill exercises, we hear the incessant alarm-ringing saturating the school campus and shopping mall and yet, shoppers and students continue to saunter languorously across the frame. With empty time plagued by the perpetual state of emergency, emergency no longer induces panic, urgency, or even preternatural courage, but becomes habituated, a precarity normalised.
If nostalgia is the sentimental and automatic attachment to the past, Tan’s backward glance remains oriented toward futures yet to arrive. The final scene ends with the hiss of pressurised argon pumped into a ‘time cube’, acting as a preservative agent for artefacts inside the cube. Perhaps driven by an overactive imagination, there is something else to this threatening hiss reverberating through the cinema, as though the aluminium walls of the cube would bend and buckle from this build-up of interior pressure, its form and content exploding into a million fragments. It remains unknown, if time would truly arrive then.
In Time To Come runs from 28 September 2017 to 11 October 2017 at Filmgarde Bugis+. The filmmaker will be present for Q&A sessions for all timeslots on Saturday, 10 October 2017. More information on the screenings and the film’s trailer can be found here.
Guest Contributor Marcus Yee is an artist and writer from Singapore. His artistic research takes an interest in materialisms and their contradictions. He has participated in group shows in LUMA Westbau, Zürich; BANK Gallery, Shanghai; and in Singapore. He is a regular contributor to ArtAsiaPacfic and Arts Equator and maintains an art-writing blog, Right Afters.