Getting Onboard with Art

When was the last time you came across and admired a piece of art? We tend to think that art belongs on a wall in a museum, but if you regularly use the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system in Singapore, like our senior librarian Luke Chua, you would have come across more art than you realise.

MRT stations do not immediately come to mind as places to encounter art, but with more than 400 artworks by 96 artists in 92 stations across Singapore,¹ there is a high chance that you have already seen some of these works.

Artworks have been part of MRT stations as early as 1987, when the first phase of the MRT system became operational. Installed in selected stations, these works were mostly large paintings or free-standing sculptures.

This article in the December 1987 issue of Trackline, an in-house newsletter by the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation, highlights the artworks at six stations.

In 1997, art became more integrated within the stations when the Land Transport Authority (LTA) launched the Art in Transit programme. This was the first time that artists worked directly with architects and engineers to include art into MRT station buildings.

If you are keen to know how the artworks were assimilated into each station while addressing different artistic, structural and safety considerations, check out the volumes published by the LTA on the North East and Circle lines respectively. Information on the artworks along the newer Downtown and Thomson-East Coast lines can be found on the Art in Transit website.

Read more about the artworks along the North East Line in Art in Transit: North East Line MRT — Singapore.
Find out more about the artworks along the Circle Line in Art in Transit: Circle Line MRT — Singapore.

Nothing beats seeing the works in person, but keep your eyes peeled as some of these artworks have been so seamlessly integrated into the station’s architecture that you might not notice them immediately.

For instance, Eng Tow’s The Trade-off unassumingly spreads out across the floors in Kovan MRT station. Inspired by the changing topographical maps of areas around the station and informed by archival research, two large floor maps constitute the artist’s reflection of how natural vegetation has been replaced by urban infrastructure over the years. If you don’t pay attention, you might miss this artwork during your daily commute, in the same way that we may not notice how rapidly our environment is changing around us if we do not pause and look.

The Trade-off in Kovan station (left) and a sketch of the area by the artist (right).
Images taken from Art in Transit: North East Line MRT — Singapore.

Some of the artworks were inspired by the locations of MRT stations, such as those at the sites of historical events. For instance, posters of an imaginary film on war hero Lieutenant Adnan Saidi can be found throughout Pasir Panjang MRT station, which is located near the site of the Battle of Opium Hill during World War II. Deploying the language of film marketing that many are familiar with, these posters present Singapore history in a refreshing way. Passengers might even be encouraged to visit Reflections at Bukit Chandu, a World War II interpretative centre located near the station.

Lieutenant Adnan by Ho Tzu Nyen. Image from Art in Transit: Circle Line MRT — Singapore.

Before you set off on your (train) journey to explore more art, I leave you with a poem from SingaPoetry: An Anthology of Poems on Singapore, the accompanying publication to NLB’s 2015 exhibition “Poetry on Platforms”, where commuters were treated to poetry at City Hall MRT station platforms.

“Missed Connections: The One From The MRT” by Ian Chung

You were sitting in a Reserved seat, even
though our train carriage was completely empty,
so I decided to do so too.

My guilt made me
temporarily too
perturbed to ask:

Is your ankle sprained?
Or are you pregnant?

Are you judging me?
Do you even care?

Too soon, our train
reached a busy station
and filled up fast.

I stood up for an old blind man at the same
moment you stood up for a woman who was
indisputably pregnant, not fat.

SingaPoetry: An Anthology of Poems on Singapore

Eloquently giving voice to our quotidian struggle regarding that reserved seat on the MRT, this poem reminds us that not every train journey has to fray our tempers to the point of frustration. Sometimes, we only have to look around with curiosity to find that art, beauty, history, and perhaps even humour are also our travel companions.

Luke Chua is Senior Librarian at the National Library. He is part of the Arts team and focuses on the visual arts collections.

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This is the blog of the National Library, Singapore. We post about stories and fun facts from our shelves.

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