Singapore: Art amongst the high-rises

Singapore is more known for its financial industry than its art scene. A jungle of hi-rises, 5-star hotels with rooftop swimming pools and vast quantities of air conditioned shopping centres. The population seems to be composed of armies of neatly dressed office-workers – both expat and locals. Young people here study under one of the most intensely pressured education systems and a supporting cast of foreign domestic workers is shipped in, to keep everything running smoothly.

In short, everything feels very much ‘under control’ and ordered. More than that, freedom of the press and expression are both strongly curtailed. There is a specified space, complete with neatly manicured green lawn – ‘Speakers Corner’, where citizens (only) are allowed to (somewhat) freely express their views. It is here, for example, the Singapore LGBT group, Pink Dot, meet for their annual picnic-cum-protest – a gentle but persistent force, who challenge a deeply conservative society.

A liberal, creative maelstrom, Singapore unequivocally is not. Yet the Singapore authorities have been investing in cultivating the arts . Perhaps inspired by the role the arts play in other dynamic global cities and I suspect, wanting a leading role in the rapidly growing Asian art market. I was curious to investigate Singapore’s art scene. What art is being made here today, by whom and what’s on their mind? What elements of an art scene exist? In a short visit, what could I discern and discover?

My first stop was STPI, the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, founded by Ken Tyler, a printmaker from the US. During his career, Tyler worked with a stellar line-up of contemporary artists including David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler and many more. On his retirement he established. These artists sought him out for his love of innovating with printing techniques, pushing the medium forward. This innovative spirit is still very much alive today at STPI with a wonderful workshop of skilled technicians and an active programme of artist collaborations and residencies.

Pulp paintings by Melati Suryodarmo

On show were works made by Melati Suryodarmo, an Indonesian artist, during her residency at STPI in 2019. Stumbling in to her cocoon of works, inspired by a local crumbling mansion, felt like stepping into another dimension. Here there was history, a record of time passing slowly. Hazy abstract ‘pulp paintings’ capturing the layers of abandoned faded glory. Her human touch recording tactile experiments with smears of charcoal across wet paper pulp. Delicate screenprints, etchings and collagraphs evoke her encounter with this abandoned space and moulded paper ‘casts’ record detritus and surfaces of this forgotten space. In the midst of hectic Singapore, it was a joy to soak in this beautiful slow contemplative work. To marvel at messy abstract, instinctive works made by human hands, a sensory response employing and experimenting with a world of traditional print and papermaking techniques.

Close-up of Suryodarmo’s charcoal and paper experiments. Imprinted with her gestures

STPI works with a broad range of international artists who come from many disciplines to encounter, experience and experiment with print and paper. Melati Suryodarmo, for example is more known as a performance artist, who trained under Marina Abramovic and Anzu Furukawa. Other artists who have participated in their residency programme include Ryan Gander, Cärsten Holler and Amanda Heng. And as I went on to explore more of Singapore’s art scene, it became clear that an openness to international artists, hosting and showing their work runs deep. Perhaps a natural parallel to Singapore’s successful financial industry, which likewise draws its strength from openness to international trade.

Next stop was Gillman Barracks, a large ‘arts precinct’ a short taxi-ride outside the city centre. An old military barracks converted by the Singapore authorities into a series of galleries and exhibition spaces. In its own words it aims to be ‘Asia’s destination for the presentation and discussion of international and Southeast Asian art’. Midweek it’s a strange and eery place, with few visitors. It’s nestled in tropical undergrowth with views across to a high-rise business park dominated by Google. It feels in many ways like an out-of-town business park itself, its galleries more like a series of sales show-rooms, disconnected from the daily life of the city and Singapore society. An art destination designed for an international art elite who value seeing a selection of South East Asian art in a convenient manner. A strategic property on the international art market’s monopoly board but unsurprisingly lacking somewhat in soul or edge.

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That said Gillman Barracks just about functions for non-elite visitors too. Of the limited galleries that were open on the Wednesday I visited (despite their websites suggesting otherwise), I enjoyed discovering the work of Chun Kwang Young, a Korean artist, at Sundaram Tagore Gallery. He makes dramatic colourful works, drawing on US traditions of Abstract Expressionism and fused with his own personal heritage. I also explored the works on show for the Singapore 2019 Biennale, directed by Patrick Flores under the sensitive title “Every Step in the Right Direction”. He is concerned with a sense that ‘the world is troubled’ and sets out to show that ‘to sense such a state of flux is to begin to face it’. He selects works that address a broad sweep of polemical issues, much like Ralph Rugoff’s curation of ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ at 2019 Venice Biennale. And by couching these in the quietly hopeful aspiration of a ‘step in the right direction’, he creates space for a dialogue in a deeply conservative society prone to heavy self-censorship. No mean feat.

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Standout works by international artists included wonderfully poetic ceramics, with searing social commentary by Kahlil Robert Irving, a US artist. I was also transfixed by Polish artist Karolina Bregula’s video work, a brooding meditation on community and intrusion, explored and set in Taiwan. But I was most keen to understand something about Singapore and the concerns of local artists. It felt somewhat telling that the prevailing selection of works at Gillman Barracks were by international artists, rather than local voices. Unfortunately I cannot comment on whether this is true of the rest of the Biennale. I was however thrillled to discover local artist Kray Chen’s brilliant video-piece, ‘5 Rehearsals of a Wedding’ which very wittily illuminates much of the suffocating tradition and status-anxiety seemingly endemic in Singapore.

Still from Chen’s video piece, 5 Rehearsals of a Wedding.

Last, but not least, Nabilah Nordin’s colourful riot of an installation was a real joy. It reminded me of one of my favourite artists, Phylidda Barlow, in particular her installation at the British Pavilion at the Venice festival in 2017. And I suspect Nordin’s work, titled ‘An Obstacle in Every Direction’, could easily serve as a metaphor for life as an artist in Singapore.

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