Saluting legends

THE year 1972 was certainly a period with convention-breaking ideas and new innovation. Andy Warhol was making waves, Singapore Airlines took flight, the first handheld calculator hit stores, and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was born.

In retrospect, these developments that surrounded the birth of the Royal Oak seem befitting. After all, in a time when the horlogerie world was used to warm colours and dainty, curved shapes, the Royal Oak boasted a cool steel exterior with an angular look thanks to an octagonal bezel, geometrical tapisserie guilloche-patterned dial and an integrated bracelet with intermediate links.

This year, to celebrate the 40th birthday of the "rebel", Audemars Piguet put together an exhibition in Royal Oak fashion — confident, unique and exceptionally conceptualised. Entitled Royal Oak 40 Years: From Avant-Garde to Icon — A Journey through the Origins of an Iconic Timepiece, it concluded its tour with a showing in Singapore from Oct 10 to 14 after travelling to New York City, Milan, Paris, Geneva and Beijing.

The Singapore leg took place at the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. "I didn't want a hotel ballroom or a space in a mall. It had to be something unique!" says Audemars Piguet Asia managing director Oliviero Bottinelli. "I was cracking my head wondering where to have it and then drove by the station and thought, 'Of course!'," he chuckles. Located just outside the city, the iconic landmark was built by the British in 1932 and ceased operations last year.

However, there were a number of refurbishments that had to be done to prepare the station for the exhibition. The floors had to be strengthened to sustain the weight of the exhibition's structures and air conditioning had to be installed. After all, visiting the exhibition meant being immersed in the experience, which took at least 30 minutes.

An immersing experience was exactly what the exhibition was, thanks to the works of artists Sebastien Agneessens, Quayola and Dan Holdsworth, who used installation, sound, film and photography to bring to life Audemars Piguet's origin in Switzerland's Vallée de Joux, its artistry and journey through time.

Dark clouds loomed nearby on the muggy afternoon we were ushered into the exhibition, where Holdsworth's pictures of Vallée de Joux before dawn greeted us at the entrance. Inside, it was dim and an ethereal calm filled the space. Agneessens' words from a panel discussion earlier that day came to mind: "A valley might seem cold from the outside, but as you enter it you see the warmth of the village and its people."

At the exhibition were six blocks that together made up a large metallic rock. Each had a specific function, just like a watch. There was a watchmaker's workshop, three vitrines displaying Royal Oak watches since 1972, a video station explaining the craft of watchmaking, and a unit dedicated to Audemars Piguet's other famous watches.

For something to be an icon, you have to be unsure of it at first and then it has to grow on you, says Bottinelli (inset).

Playing on a high wall was Quayola's video, Matter, which depicted the continuous transformation of Rodin's The Thinker, chosen because it is deemed an icon, like the Royal Oak.

"For something to be an icon, you have to be unsure of it at first and then it has to grow on you It has to be out of the ordinary and above all it has to live for a long time. People might not like it at first, but it perseveres," says Bottinelli. The Royal Oak no longer has to "persevere" today. It's sought after by watch enthusiasts of all ages. Bottinelli tells me that a few days before the exhibition, the local boutique had sold a Royal Oak Offshore to a 17-year-old. Bottinelli seems to still be a little surprised himself.

Soft, meditative-like music plays in the background, as Bottinelli speaks. It is based on the beats of the watch, which have been decomposed and integrated with recordings from the valley Agneessens had described. The installation that emits the music is composed of pipes of varying heights, symbolising the valley's forest.

The hustle and bustle of Singapore seemed a world away and it was easy to get absorbed in this Vallée de Joux. The exhibition was certainly about saluting legends that have "persevered" through time. Leaving the exhibition, one couldn't help but feel what Bottinelli said earlier, "At the end of the day, it will be sad to see it leave".

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Oct 22-28, 2012.

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