Shadow spaces: Photographs of the Old Supreme Court by Sean Dungan

This was a bit of a hit and miss.

The teaser on the brochure promised a revelation of “rough, ephemeral beauty” and “naturally illuminated empty spaces of the Old Supreme Court and other buildings”.

But what I did encounter at the Asian Civilisations Museum were naturally empty spaces in its under-visited gallery.

Jokes aside, Los Angeles-based photographer Sean Dungan takes photographs which interests but not intrigues. His large format, digital (I’m guessing) photos of interiors of the neo classical Old Supreme Court are eerie and shrouded in an aura of mystery.

We are told he used ambient light and long exposures, up to 45 minutes. All the better to capture the minute details in each shot, and reduce the noise in the photographs. Dungan’s skill in capturing interiors and architecture is unquestionable.

Alongside the Old Supreme Court photos were photos of the old Kallang Airport, a building also designed by Frank Dorrington Ward of the Public Works Department. Interesting fact: Amelia Earhart landed on the grass runway of good ol’ Kallang in 1939, just weeks after its opening, and a month before she disappeared.

I loved that Dungan tried to personify the buildings he shot in his written description of the photos – the “wrinkled surfaces of the old rubber floor tiles” had the “appearance of skin”. And I felt exactly what he was describing as I stared at the bistre and rust-coloured floor tiles, so life-like in size and appearance. The building could even be said to be molting, as I observed the skeletal-like scaffolding in a photo of one courtroom, and pictured in my mind how Singapore’s National Art Gallery would look like once that scaffolding was removed.

Another photo caught my eye, one of the second floor corridor of the Old Supreme Court, which appeared insipid at first glance. The beauty of this shot was in its symmetry against the greenish glow of the Court’s skylights, and the lack of distortion in capturing the majestic  corridor.

Some of the photographs were really not memorable at all, or looked as if Dungan had dragged in his tripod and taken a shot arbitrarily just for completeness’ sake. But Dungan’s composition in certain captures were masterful. Look out for these when you visit.

One of my bugbears was the curator’s following comments: “These images are not concerned with the colonial past or its decades of service as the nation’s highest court. Rather the empty spaces exist in their own time and have a completely separate identity.

There was a slight disconnect between the above comments, and that of Dungan’s own introduction: “Vacant interiors reveal signs of wear and the sediment of the past. We can read these places as texts, with multiple interpretations. Well-used public buildings possess this multivalence more deeply, while their architecture asserts how their makers wished to see themselves. When the fabric of a building is disturbed, stories begin to appear. Through these photographs, I attempt to convey what a place feels like to me, and also to engage its history.

And I agree with Dungan; a building cannot be divorced from its use in history. Just take a read of Edward Hollis’ The Secret Lives of Buildings.

Dungan created his own disjunctive narrative with just empty spaces and shadows in the Old Supreme Court. But the exhibition to me was more an archival one of the building’s current state, rather than an artistic one.

Shadow Spaces: Photographs of the Old Supreme Court is currently on exhibit at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore from 24 March to 16 September 2012. For more information and a sampling of Sean Dungan’s work, please visit http://www.acm.org.sg/exhibitions/eventdetail.asp?eventID=783.

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