top of page




Making History Present

Curatorial essay in Site Situation Spectator 2009 exhibition catalogue (Singapore: NUS Museum, 2009), pp.6-8.

... we have become unstuck from more than land. We have floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time. 1

History is not something one can simply appreciate. It remains abstract, academicand rarified until it is lived through, experienced, and more so, made available to be worked upon. Like a plant, history grows when the right conditions are able to accommodate it. In turn, one must lock horns with it, if possible, keeping it at a less than reverential distance. That said, history cannot be captured, or at least, it is not limited to the province of objects. It marks time and lineage, a past and a certain sense of rootedness. It is also prescient of a future, and can only be remembered when the historical subject - you, me, us - genuinely feel that we have a stake in it. Etymologically, to 're-member' is to make something a part of the body.' Memory and history make sense only when they become visceral.

This is especially tough in a city like Singapore where two decades feels like a lifetime, and where historical traces in terms of terrain and built environment are ceaselessly manipulated, reconfigured, or erased. With this, history becomes a tenuous subject even if it is tirelessly
evoked, and sometimes over-determined, as part of state, and increasingly capitalist, rhetoric. This history is slippery. It does not stick. It cannot be appropriated. It is intangible. Yet it is ironically 'complete' - a history which belongs to a nation.

One's concept of history may be linked to cine's concept of space. Teleological, progressive and linear histories have been the stock narratives of imperialists and colonialists. So it is disturbing when postcolonial history too may be seen running along the same routes of time, substituting new facts, faces and figures from the margins, and from below, systematically rebuilding a new centre in the mold of the old. Using similar methods and frameworks but operating from an oppositional perspective, postcolonial history runs the risk of appearing only adversarial for the sake of 'getting even'. 'The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house'.2 We need new tools for history. What is required may VI/ell be a fresh concept of time, which could make history an embodied experience again.

This is not a new argument. Let us rehearse similar perspectives following the theses' of Walter Benjamin, and latterly, Gilles Deleuze. For Benjamin:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way really was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a. memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger .... In every era, the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from the conformist that is about to overpower it. 3

Benjamin's notion of history is radical. He sees history already in a state of advanced decay suspended in 'a moment of danger', and thus, needs to be wrested away to avoid a degenerative status quo, which will only relinquish history to an abstract relic or useless commodity. In all this, Benjamin's sense of time is not of the but crucially grounded in the present moment. History must be brought into the present, and understood in a context relevant to us now, today, To do this, Benjamin offers an almost architectural solution:

The true method of making things present is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space) .... The same method applies, in essence, to the consideration of great things from the past - the cathedral of Chartres, the temple of Paestum - when, that is, a favourable prospect presents itself: the method of receiving the things into our space. \f\/e don't displace our being into theirs; they step into our life. 4

In this sense, history is always only ever in the 'now'. Architecture as a spatial endeavour, unlike historical work, is privileged since multiple histories and multiple pasts, reside and are thickly condensed within any one given space. Through space, the past and the present are made contiguous, existing side-by-side. This idea is given another conceptual form by Deleuze through his notion of 'time-out-of-joint'.5 Time, or for our purpose here, historical time, does not exist as neutral nor equal but surges as differently assembled 'compositions' and 'intensities' so we may say that a particular point in history may be more resonant or more 'present' for one person compared to the next. In this scheme, spaces may aid such 'compositions' by resounding with different intensities of historical time, depending on the configuration of their contexts, objects and traces. In a situation where time is 'out-of-joint', history is always wrested away from conformity since history becomes personal, internalised, bodily, visceral. Through space, academic history defined by national consensus, monumental figures and glorious victories may be investigated, contested and given different, cacophonic' voices.

The four works in this exhibition set out to interrogate space, taking as their subjects the Singapore River and the sites of bygone kampongs (~Malay for 'village'), long replaced by omnipresent public housing. Along the way, four architecture students discover history. Not the history of the textbooks but something much messier, risky and latent. Consequently these histories, as they exist always in the plural, needed to be politicised, or to borrow Benjamin's words, to be wrested away from the risk of conformity.

The devices and strategies used to convey such politics inevitably spring from present practices. In these projects, large scale photographs, monumental line drawings, glossy Images, seductive models and absorbing soundscapes have been re-appropriated to communicate what is essentially visceral history, something lived, and remembered. Techniques of representation are crucial here. The capacity of architectural representation through its conventional use of photographic images, line drawings and scale models are tested, stretched and in some cases, abandoned. Yet, this is not to say that the other techniques used here are alien to architecture. The principles of spatial imagination remain constant in these works as they do for the discipline. In all four projects, attention to the exigencies of site include a consideration for its physicality, that is, as it exists today. Thus, each site has been carefully staged to allow the past and the present to be placed side-by-side, using photographic images, drawings, texts, models and sounds.

Each project aims, in its own way, to render the complete and nostalgic notions of history questionable, if not obsolete. Each work strives to enable our entry into these sites and their histories from within our present terms of engagement. For this to happen, the interventions operate through minor but persistent fragments, or scraps of unrelenting material wrested from the past - oral accounts, urban myths, anecdotes, miscellany - the detritus of history brought into the present. The intention is not about subversion per se. It is about understanding how other evidences may lead to narratives, which may have been unwittingly obscured by history itself. It also investigates whether chasing this evidence to its conclusion may make history stick. That is, a history which is bodily, and which could matter for the future, and the present.


​1. Salman Rushdie, Shame, New York: Random House, 1984, p.91.

2. Audre Lorde, 'The Master's Tools will Never Dismantle the Master's House' in Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and lain Borden (eds.) Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, London: Routledge, 2000, pp. 53-55.
3. Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' in Harry Zohn (trans.) Illuminations, London: Pimlico,
1999, p. 246.
4. Walter Benjamin, 'The Collector' in Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaugh (trans.) The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 206.
5. John Rajchman. 'Constructions' in Constructions, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 1-9.

bottom of page