From now till 25 April, a truck carrying precious cargo will travel around Singapore, hoping to enchant you with its treasures and stories. Titled The Bottled City, this orange-hued truck contains art and design works curated and created in response to books by Singapore authors. Inspired by the concept of a cabinet of curiosities, the installation features artworks, sticker packs, miniature kueh sets, terrariums, paper works, an origami folding activity and more. It also functions as a travelling library, containing 60-70 books which you can pick up and read. The Bottled City is part of Textures by The Arts House, an annual festival that celebrates Singapore literature, popularly known as Sing Lit.
The Bottled City itinerary:
Now till 28 Mar: The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament, S179429
30 Mar to 4 Apr: SAFRA Jurong, 333 Boon Lay Way, Singapore 649848
6-11 Apr: 765 & 766 Yishun Ave 3, Singapore 760765
13-18 Apr: SAFRA Toa Payoh, 293 Lor 6 Toa Payoh, Singapore 319387
20-25 Apr: Location to be revealed
Opening Hours: Tue-Sat: 10.30am-9.30pm. Sun: 12pm-8pm
Below are interviews with some of the creatives involved in The Bottled City, when their works were still in progress:
Oo Xin Man
Xin Man, also known as @handxmade on Instagram, created a sticker pack based on the stories in the anthology In This Desert, There Were Seeds, edited by Jon Gresham and Elizabeth Tan.
Honestly I didn’t know much about Singapore literature. I’m a very fantasy novel person, I like young adult fiction. I’ve never really thought about literature. I don’t know why, but I grew up thinking that literature is like poems that I don’t understand – just very deep writing that I don’t think I’ll ever really have a deep understanding of. I’ve never really gone and looked for it. But because of this project, I read the book and it was quite an eye-opener. It’s quite amazing that Singapore has so many authors that can write all these stories, while putting elements of Singapore inside them.
I didn’t think that it would be a story that you could easily digest, because my English is not very good, but this book helped to broaden my experience with Singapore authors. There are stories about post-apocalyptic Singapore – like if Singapore was submerged in water. I thought it was pretty cool.
An artist and poet, Jason is the first guest artistic director for Textures. He is also the founder of independent art space Grey Projects.
I’ve always wanted to do a travelling library project. There’s a lot of focus on enlivening the civic district, but I thought this would be a good chance for the Arts House to go out and maybe find a new audience. Another starting point was the pandemic – there’s this feeling of being enclosed and bottled up. And I thought, why don’t we just begin with that as an occasion for curiosity, for exploration? Since we were looking at the smallness of our world, I thought let’s just really go small, and find things that will literally fit into a bottle.
I would just love for more people to discover the stuff that’s written in Singapore. How can we really love ourselves if we are not reading ourselves? For me, even growing up as a child, the book was always the window – for us to really understand each other, especially people we walk past every day whose lives we never thought to understand. I’m hoping that folks will come and see a part of themselves reflected in these books. And also see a little bit of Singapore in them.
Quek Hong Shin
Hong Shin, who writes children’s picture books, did the artwork murals that you can see on the truck. These were inspired by Animal Season by Cyril Wong and How to Cook Everything Singaporean by Denise Fletcher.
Jason told me about Wunderkammer, which is a cabinet of curiosities. So I tried to make whatever’s in the bottles a bit strange. For the recipe book, my strategy was to pick out certain dishes that I thought were representative of Singapore and the different ethnic groups, like satay and kueh. Whereas for Cyril’s poetry – which is a twist on Aesop’s Fables – I just let the text soak in and think of the visuals. So you see scenes from Cyril’s poetry, and the ingredients in each recipe, encased into a bottle, for example.
I always believe Singaporeans write in a certain way – there’s always a little tinge of politics in it. When we talk about Sing Lit, you always think about fiction, like poetry, novels, short stories. This project got me to read a recipe book. This is considered literature as well. It’s a record of our culture, being passed down over generations, and is equally precious and representative of who we are as a nation.
Ashley created two papercut works – book plates based on the novellas The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven, which are part of the Tensorate series by JY Yang.
It’s a very narrative-based story. The genre is silkpunk. There’s actually a lot of elements from the book that could be used to be part of the book plates. I wanted to maintain elements like chrysanthemums, which can be seen in the work – the author uses things like “chrysanthemum” and “jade” to describe colours, for example. I wanted to include the more intricate elements, like the “threads” of power featured in the book. I thought it would be interesting to visualise them. I also really wanted to feature the protagonist twins from the story.
I don’t usually work with things with a lot of narrative. So this was quite nice. I usually work with geometrical patterns and patterns from nature. This is the first time I’m working with portraiture, with human faces. I’m a big fan of Singapore literature. I think it’s just really encouraging to see Singaporean writers putting this kind of content out there. It’s kind of unexpected. I think it’s good.
Quck Zhong Yi
Zhong Yi is the set/installation designer of The Bottled City. The design is inspired by the book The Infinite Library and Other Stories by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo.
In this book by Ocampo, there isn’t actually a story called The Infinite Library. It reflects this kind of meta-structural idea. It reminds me of one of my favourite short stories – Un Cabinet d’amateurs by Georges Perec. It translates as “a collector’s cabinet”. The story is about a painting in which there’s a room full of paintings. And the story keeps going down into each individual painting within the painting, and within that painting is another painting. It’s one of those mind blowing stories. So for this truck, we decided to make a series of rectangle cubes that just goes smaller and smaller into infinity.
I’m an architect and interior designer. When we do interior design, we do pay attention to the smaller details. But to design a space where there’s such an intense collection of fine, small objects – this is a first time for me. Architecture and writing – we don’t usually work closely together. At the same time, architecture is so influenced by writing, there’s so many novels that have inspired architects, like Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The literary world has always given us such imaginative, wondrous spaces.
Textures 2021 runs till 25 April. You can also check out Textures online, with components such as an interactive murder mystery game, podcasts and more.
This article is sponsored by Arts House Limited.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.