Australian artist Gary Carsley installs digital photography mural to escalators in leading Singapore shopping centre

Indesign ran this piece in a section about unusual – and international – visual art works

Australian artist Gary Carsley installs digital photography mural to escalators in leading Singapore shopping centre

In the aftermath of brutal economics, it is perfectly acceptable to seek a point of difference in the commercially gentle yet persuasive milieu of public art. Singapore’s Orchard Central, the first new shopping centre to open in the famous retail belt for 10 years, has over S$9 million of artworks – sculptural, digital, light and sound, static and dynamic, video and wire – promoted as being the largest number of public art installations commissioned by a commercial development.

“The idea to go big on art was deliberate,” says Susan Leng, director of retail management, retail business group at the Far East Organisation, which developed the S$700 million complex with its shopping clusters and “focus on new retail concepts, new rules and new shopping experiences”.

The works from seven international artists are integrated throughout from the membrane facade and 24-hour rooftop garden to a landscaped retail and performing arts promenade called Discovery Walk and entrances for people movers and passageways. Ultimately this centre will be linked to other shopping precincts, 313@Somerset and a hotel and retail development by OCBC Bank, so shoppers will be able to stroll along Orchard Road under cover, undeterred by the weather.

The centre’s emphasis on connectivity lends the stunning illuminated mural that envelops the three-storey escalator on the corner of Killiney Road and Orchard Road a prime gateway location. The juncture, says Australian artist Gary Carsley, makes “it possible to see the building as a singular unit, almost as a piece of sculpture”. Individuality within the collective is something with which Carsley can identify.

His D.88 Istana Park depicts an arbour of indigenous, life-size trees from the nearby Istana Park, which houses the Istana, official residence of the President of Singapore and, in a typical Carsley layering of meaning and representation, once the colonial home of the British Governor. Nothing is quite as it seems with his work.
On one level this is acknowledging the influence of history and nature. There were spice plantations and a flowing canal through the Orchard Central site. One of the aims of curator, Low Kee Hong, was to tie “the memories of the past with the experience of the present”. Hong, of the National Arts Council, was also general manager of the 2008 Singapore Biennale, where Carsley’s I.K.E.A. Draguerreotypes assembly and decoration of IKEA flat-pack cupboards and wardrobes was a great success.

They showed images of local parks as well. “I only do parks,” says Carsley of his work since 2002, beginning with the Monticello garden of Thomas Jefferson and including others such as Parramatta Park which inspired the Parramatta Justice Centre mural in west Sydney.

Carsley likes the way nature and culture mix in a park but he is more attuned to them as “simulacra, explicit attempts at place making, complex and heavily coded with traces of colonial and pre-colonial history”. He compounds this imitation by digitally reconstructing photographs of the parks with scans of faux timber veneer and wood grains then printed in high resolution on contact adhesive film and applied, as with the 250 square metre D.88 Istana Park (296 differently sized panels), to the glass panelled shopping centre entrance.

Carsley culled 200 digital images of trees from the 1,600 he took alongside aerial views from Google Earth. He replaced the original image, conceived of as an “entire continuous garment resonant of lace accessories”, with this intricate “confection” of colours and patterns of wood grain inlay (intarsia) from his vast library mostly found in “mom and pop places” around the world.

All his works are one-offs and in a bow to the unreproducible daguerreotype form of photography, his pastiche layering, overwritten, artificial “karaoke” version of the landscape, is likened to a “dragging” of images known as the “draguerreotypes”. “Just by adding the ‘r’ it’s a form of hacking,” he says. It signifies his interest in subcultural performance and genre.

He also loves to see people whipping out their phones and taking pictures of themselves on the 2 minute and 48 second ride up and down the escalator, an Orchard Road tree canopy line visible on descent. Even without the mirror effect he wanted, the journey is “fairly breathtaking with the light sequenced to change gradually every 1 minute and 20 seconds”.

Carsley, in his trademark panama hat, lives between Amsterdam and Sydney. His work is held in permanent collections in Europe and Australia. Drawn to Singapore, he believes that while both the city-state and Australia suffer from “the same anxieties about dislocation and belonging to the West, Singaporeans are capable of projecting images of complex pluralism much more pervasively than we are”.

BREENSPACE represent Carsley in their gallery and public art practice. They were the public art project managers for D.88, mainly working closely with DP Architects, who “never retreated at all from the commitment”, Carsley says, and Carsley’s studio manager who helped coordinate production on site.

As well as the importance of collaboration and involvement of the artist as early as possible in a project, Carsley is excited by “the new form of literacy that has emerged from digital platforms”. Rather than working with A4 hand-annotated dimensions or tiff files, architects, artists, designers, cabinet makers and others are beginning to speak the same, critical language through CAD, Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. “The possibilities that will grow out of this will to a greater rather than lesser degree determine the broader relevance of architecture.”