My night with Merlion

Two weeks ago, when I first entered in the Merlion Hotel, Tatzu Nishi’s art installation that is part of the Singapore Biennale, it triggered some childish instincts in me and I wanted to jump around on the bed.

Unlike the millions of tourists that come to Singapore and pose by the statue, I’ve never been that enamored with the half fish-half lion beast. But then again, I have never been up the Eiffel Tower despite living in Paris for over 20 years. Buildings and monuments become so much a part of our visual landscape we barely noticed them after a while, which is exactly what Nishi is trying to change with his installations.

The Japanese artist, who is based in Germany, creates rooms around well-known monuments to invite viewers to look at them differently, in a way “rediscovering” them. As soon as you walk into the Merlion Hotel, you are taken by the urge to take photos, behaving exactly as a tourist. But Nishi’s installation is more than just bringing us face to face with the seven-meter tall white cement beast. Trying to put the Singapore icon into context within the room, he has designed a fabulous wallpaper (red for good luck) that juxtaposes several local icons in a toile de Jouy pattern: The water spouting Merlion, Sir Stamford Raffles, a Chinese temple and the Marina Bay Sands. Attention has been given to the room’s detailing that gives it a luxurious feel.

While the space is open to the general public during the day, it is utilized as a fully-functioning hotel room at night, an extension of the nearby Fullerton Hotel. Reservations filled up quickly and within an hour of the phone lines opening all nights had been fully booked. I was one of those lucky enough to secure a night’s stay and on paying the $150 for two, breakfast included, I was issued my reservation with its gentle reminder of the Merlion’s status as a "landmark of Singapore".

Spending a night with the Merlion was quite a surreal experience. First, it brings mixed feelings: on one hand you feel extremely privileged to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity yet you also feel a bit self-conscious as people outside take photos of you. Suddenly, you become part of the artwork, part of the Merlion’s fish bowl, performing for others. Sure you can close the curtains, but really what would be the point. And then after an hour or so you treat the space as just another hotel room. You’ve become familiar again with the icon, and your attention wonders off. Soon the spectacle is outside, the night view around the bay, the bumboats passing by, and the people sitting on the promenade, chatting late into the night. One of the highlights was taking a bath - with the lights out so as to keep the bathroom curtains open - and take in the view, all the while looking back to take in the sight of the Merlion through the open bathroom doorway.

But for me, the “rediscovery” of the Merlion happened the next morning, after watching the sunrise over the bay (a truly special sight). The park around the Merlion was now empty and with no one in sight, the area was very peaceful, just the faint background-buzz of traffic. The early-morning’s sunrays bounced off the still waters of the bay and reflected on the Merlion's face and that’s when I actually looked at him in a different way, I enjoyed seeing something in him I’d never really noticed before…