Tay Tong, Director of Sector Development (Visual Arts), NAC. Courtesy National Arts Council.
Beginning in 2013 as a modest affair of over 50 events, the annual Singapore Art Week (SAW) has since become a pinnacle event in the region's visual arts calendar. This eleventh edition (6–15 January 2023) sees the city come alive with a line-up of over 130 programmes involving more than 700 practitioners from the Singaporean and international visual arts community.
SAW is helmed by Singapore's National Arts Council (NAC), and is a critical aspect of Our SG Arts Plan, a five-year overarching blueprint charting the path of Singapore's arts and culture sector launched in 2018. As the Plan commences its second lap (2023–2027), SAW is set to remain a prime focus for the visual arts landscape in driving growth for the ecosystem.
This edition, conceptualised around the theme of play, sees the fruition of numerous cross-sectoral collaborations, with artists manifesting new forms of art and practice beyond their comfort zones, such as Art x Design, Art x Tech, and even Art x Food x Heritage.
The diverse array of events includes two major art fairs—the inaugural ART SG (12–15 January) and the fifth edition of S.E.A. Focus (6–15 January)—as well as the return of the Singapore Pavilion from the 59th Venice Biennale. In bringing together international and local audiences to connect through a common love for art, Singapore takes centre stage this season as a global destination for the arts.
In this conversation with Tay Tong, Director of Sector Development (Visual Arts), NAC, Ocula Magazine learns about the workings of SAW, event highlights, and his views for the future.
SPSAW 2023 is part of the second iteration of Our SG Arts Plan (2023–2027), a five-year plan to support and foster the arts community in Singapore. The groundwork had been laid with the launch of the Singapore Biennale (2006) and Gillman Barracks (2012), among other projects, followed by the launch of S.E.A. Focus (2019) and now the inaugural ART SG during SAW 2023.
Reflecting on these developments, and looking towards the future, what do you see as being the next most important priority for Singapore in building upon its reputation as a global arts destination?
TTOur SG Arts Plan represents Singapore's strategic roadmap for national arts development. The first Arts Plan (2018–2022) laid the foundations and formed the building blocks to achieve our longer-term vision of building a home with diverse and distinctive arts that inspire our people, connect our communities, and position Singapore globally.
We have seen great success in this starting phase, which helped steady our local arts sector as we steered through the challenges of Covid-19. The next Our SG Arts Plan (2023–2027), which will launch in the first quarter of 2023, is co-developed by NAC, our local arts community, the people, and private and public sectors.
SAW has been a sturdy platform for the last 11 years in developing the arts ecology domestically and regionally by bringing together practitioners from near and far to present their best works. We are now mid-way through SAW 2023 and have seen such a great wave of energy coursing through Singapore in the past week. Alongside the Singapore Biennale named Natasha, which runs till March, the inaugural ART SG and our homegrown art platform S.E.A. Focus have collectively hosted numerous artists, curators, and leaders from world-class international arts institutions such as Tate Research Centre, Gasworks, Mori Art Museum, the Biennale of Sydney, and Museum MACAN.
The field of thought leadership has also been abuzz with ongoing panel discussions and talks featuring invited experts in the field to share their experiences and insights on art today. Singapore is growing as a distinctive city for the arts and a convergence point for critical discourse. SAW aspires to keep these strong interests and synergies going.
The visual arts and SAW are just one of the many art forms and events that we have in Singapore that contribute to the vibrancy of our nation. Our literary arts and performing arts ecologies also host highlight events such as the Singapore Writers Festival and the Singapore International Festival of Arts.
This reflects how the arts scene has grown and thrived through the years, and we hope to build on this momentum as we chart the next five years together with the arts community to build a connected society powered by a creative economy and establish Singapore as a distinctive city for the arts.
SPCommissioned by NAC for the Singapore Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book by Shubigi Rao returns to Singapore and will be showing during SAW. Can you discuss the importance of presenting this back in Singapore, and how it will build upon the showing in Venice?
TTThe Venice Biennale is one of the oldest and most prestigious contemporary art platforms in the world. Participating in this has been a source of pride for many Singaporeans; for many Singaporean contemporary artists, this also represents the pinnacle of their artistic aspirations.
This edition marked the first solo presentation by a women artist for the Singapore Pavilion, and our first-ever all-female artist-curator team. Such a collaboration mirrors similar presentations in the Venice Biennale, such as a larger representation of women artists' works shown for the first time in the exhibition The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani. We continue to see more representation of diverse voices and communities internationally and in Singapore as well. It is a testament to the rich diversity of Singapore's visual arts scene, which has continued to grow and mature, encompassing new forms of digital expression, collaboration, and commerce as we have seen in recent years.
For the 59th edition, the exhibition Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, created by artist Shubigi Rao and curated by Ute Meta Bauer, was a key highlight of the national pavilions featured in Venice. By the time it closed on 27 November 2022, the Singapore Pavilion in Venice saw a record high of over 240,000 guests.
Returning to Singapore, the exhibition presents aspects of its Venice iteration. It focuses on Rao's film Talking Leaves (2022) and book Pulp III: An Intimate Inventory of the Banished Book, Volume III of V (2022), bringing the work to audiences who couldn't visit the Singapore Pavilion in Venice.
Filmed over five years in various locations, including Venice and Singapore, Talking Leaves highlights the tales of those at the forefront of the effort to save books and libraries through personal confidences and elegiac reflections, as well as incendiary documentary and mytho-poetic languages.
As a project that investigates the history of print, the work looks at structures in place that make available or deny access to information and knowledge; these aren't 'local' issues specific to Singapore but point to a wider exploration and documentation of humankind. Such universal themes are core to the project, and we are excited to have audiences in Singapore experience and find meaning within the work.
SPThe thematic focus of SAW 2023 is 'Play'. Can you discuss the title and what it means to you?
TTThe title relates to looking at the world with a sense of wonder again, and being infected with a sense of lightness, especially after the last two years, which have been particularly challenging for many of us.
It also encompasses notions of celebrating how far we've come, and how an art season created by the city and for the city has blossomed, with many in the visual arts ecology coming together to present their latest ideas and works.
In these diverse projects, art serves as a medium through which to pause, take a step back, and inject some vitality and humour into the way we look at the world around us. Through play, we hope to open ourselves to intimacy and try new experiences. Many of these works transcend the regular white cube gallery space to reach into the heart of everyday life—one of SAW's main objectives—to create more access to art for those living here.
Take for instance, Process: Roving Ideas (6 January–5 February 2023). Led by artist Goh Chun Aik, it is an endeavour inviting audiences to reimagine the potential of everyday spaces through site-specific instructional art across the island, contributed by 37 artists. We also see the launch of the first-ever Shoebox Sculpture Biennale (6 January–2 April 2023), helmed by established and emerging sculptors, featuring site-responsive installations by over 70 artists at a new independent art space: Sculpture 2052.
SPCould you introduce another collaboration or event that you think will differentiate this edition of SAW from its predecessors?
TTThere have been more partnerships seeded with organisations to develop tours and consolidate existing trails for the public to discover. For instance, United Overseas Bank (UOB) has launched a self-guided Art Trail in the Civic District.
The journey starts from the UOB Art Gallery, which currently houses two art exhibitions—2022 UOB Painting of the Year Regional Winners' Showcase and Singapore Emerging Artists' Showcase—to a scenic walk along the historic Singapore River, where participants get to discover sculptures by renowned artists, such as Homage to Newton (1980) by Salvador Dalí, Bird (1932) by Fernando Botero, and Vitalità (2022) by Anna Chiara Spellini.
Delving deeper into unique spaces and diverse communities in the urban cityscape is ARTWALK 2023, a public art festival organised by LASALLE College of the Arts in partnership with the Singapore Tourism Board. Through striking, site-responsive artworks such as wall murals, workshops, live music, and performances, ARTWALK celebrates the vibrancy and flavour of local heritage. In addition, students from LASALLE's postgraduate programme MA Asian Art Histories will be conducting guided tours for SAW audiences at Waterloo Street/Bras Basah.Bugis precinct and Yew Tee/Woodlands areas.
Nouri restaurant and the creative interdisciplinary space Appetite have also pitched in with a solo show featuring Spain-born, Singapore-based artist Carmen Ceniga Prado, and a group exhibition on food culture at their spaces.
Not only is there an upswing in public-private partnerships, independent arts groups and organisations beyond the city centre have also been stepping up to work together spontaneously. One example is after/party (17 December 2022–28 January 2023), which involves a series of joint activations and programming assembled by two creative spaces, Supper House and Starch, who happen to be neighbours along Tagore Lane. I find this reciprocal culture of co-sharing and co-creating heartening and reflective of the strength and impact of collective, grounds-up efforts.
We hope that these initiatives will help increase access to SAW and its events, and encourage appreciation of the arts.
SPSince 2014, NAC has engaged with various communities and neighbourhood spaces across Singapore in the initiative #ArtsInYourNeighbourhood. This year, SAW 2023 presents the inaugural SAW x PAssionArts 2023 collaboration, which engages with five neighbourhoods in Singapore. Could you discuss this collaboration, and what we can expect from this project?
TTOver the last few years, we received feedback from the community that they hoped to see arts activations not just in the city centre, but in the heartland communities across Singapore during SAW. We hope to build upon Arts in Your Neighbourhood (AYN), which is one avenue of integrating art in spaces where we live, work, and play.
In our engagements with People's Association (PA), who runs PAssionArts, we learnt that they were looking for collaborators to empower volunteer community groups to learn how to run their own arts programmes with the help of an artist. And so, our collaboration was born! The initiative pairs an artist who has experience working in the community with a community arts and culture club—a volunteer organisation comprising art lovers who come together to organise arts and culture activities for their communities.
NAC and PA worked together to conduct an open call for artists to propose community engagement programmes that would result in an arts exhibition that is co-created with the communities. The result is five projects we are presenting in January that will reach out to more Singaporeans where they live!
One can take a walk into nature with Insect Inventorium (6–29 January 2023) at Bukit Gombak Park, an artistic collaboration with residents that lends a scientific and artistic lens on inhabitants that nestle into our surroundings, often forgotten or overlooked in daily life: insects. The collection of specimens and artefacts amassed opens a fascinating window into our interactions with and imaginations of biodiversity inside a highly urbanised environment.
Another example is Forgotten Fragments (6–15 January 2023) at Yew Tee CC. An interactive installation inspired by the practice of archaeological excavations, it sets the stage for participants to reconstruct demolished landmarks and landscapes lost to urban development, and contemplate the significance of preserving our fragile architectural heritage and memory.
SPAs with the 10th edition, SAW 2023 will be accessible online as SAW Digital. Can you discuss the relationship between the physical and digital experiences of SAW?
TTWe really had to rethink our audience's relationship to the digital realm in the last two editions. In 2021 especially, we had to consider how best to deliver SAW, given the restrictions. We landed on SAW Digital as a platform to provide much access to SAW events.
In the 2022 edition, from the large number of visitors we attracted, we do understand that most of our audiences are keen to experience the numerous exhibitions and works in person. However, there are also mediums and programmes that lend themselves to the digital; we will have some exhibitions continue to have a digital presence, to engage with those who might not have been able to make it to Singapore physically this time, too.
Furthermore, we will be consolidating the talks and panels that our partners are organising under the 'SAW Dialogues' umbrella, the majority of which will be recorded and uploaded online.
In addition, we are also embarking on a collaboration with NFT Asia for Urban Screens, to draw attention to artworks that are developed for the digital platform. Even though we are collaborating with NFT Asia, the works will not be NFTs, as we want the public to recognise that the digital medium can offer artworks that are not NFTs—that the two are separate entities.
SPIs there another exhibition you consider to be a personal highlight of SAW?
TTA personal highlight of SAW is the energy of the arts community that can be felt across the city. It is truly exciting to see that there are exhibitions happening in industrial areas like Woodlands and Tagore Lane, as well as the heartlands. This is on top of major institutions like National Gallery Singapore presenting Liu Kuo Song and Singapore Art Museum presenting the Singapore Biennale (16 October 2022–19 March 2023), along with Pulp III returning to Singapore. That 2023 is a bumper year is what is most exciting for me, and I love experiencing the electricity of SAW in January! —[O]