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A Letter From Singapore

By Sherman Sam  |  Singapore, 18 October 2013

I left Singapore to go to art school some 25 years ago, then as I’ve been telling people this past month, there was one museum in town and a handful of “commercial galleries” in the form of framing shops. The museum, the National Museum, displayed everything from tribal artefacts (that is spears to the layman) to stuffed dead animals and local history. Then there were two little spaces in the back that displayed some art, usually paintings.  

Today the National Museum of Singapore still takes in the occasional exhibition, at present Princely Treasures from the House of Liechtenstein graces its walls, but it has long seceded being the main focus for the visual arts to the Singapore Art Museum. Situated in a former school building, SAM’s – as it is fondly monikered - primarily focuses on the contemporary arts of the region as well as foregrounding local artists in regular exhibitions such as the Presidents Young Talent Art Prize – the 2013 version being currently on view -  and also by organising the upcoming Singapore Biennial. But SAM is not going to be the big brother of the scene for much longer, the long gestating National Art Gallery will finally open in 2015 under the stewardship of Eugene Tan, the inaugural director of the ICA and currently heading up the EDB’s (Economic Development Board) gallery project at Gillman Barracks. The question is what relationship will SAM have with the National? Will one be a kunsthalle to the other’s collection? Or will it be like a Whitney vs MoMA square up? Irrespective the competition can only benefit the artists. 

Small versus large is also a key aspect to the strength of every art world. It is the tiny (read here “flexible” or “mobile”) institutions like the ICA that search out the emerging and missed talent. While older independent spaces like The Substation have created a platform dedicated to supporting the performative, and film and video aspects of the visual arts. Even a little specialist museum like the Peranakan Museum – a small cultural museum devoted to a specific Malay-Chinese cultural group unique to South East Asia -  has commissioned the Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei to create the inaugural work for their foyer. The participatory work requires viewers to drop a piece of ceramic down the three floors. For Lee, it is the sound of smashing plates, but the activity of breaking things in a clean and orderly Singapore is also not to be missed.

However a cultural scene requires much more than public spaces. A vibrant (and bitchy) commercial market is just as important to create the necessary buzz and challenge among players and artists. The government has continued to hothouse this scene with various initiatives, for instance encouraging art fairs, as well as bringing in Ken Tyler’s print studio to create the Singapore Tyler Print Institute – a site for residencies and exhibitions. More recently, adding to the gallery scene through an EDB initiative to create an art park on grounds of an old British army barracks with the aim of bringing in more international galleries to diversify the youthful gallery scene: Korea, (Space Cottonseed), China (Shanghart), Singapore (Fost), Japan (Mizuma, Tomiyo Koyama, Ota), the Phillipines (The Drawing Room, Silverlens) and Indonesia (Equator Art Projects), as well as gallerists from Germany (Michael Janssen, Arndt) and Italy (Partners & Mucciaccia) to add a Western sensibility among others. This is not to suggest that these galleries are only exhibiting artists from their homelands, in fact this past month almost every gallery had a Singaporean artist in its group show, while Fost was presenting a one person show by French artist, Vincent Olinet, and Arndt had a Phillipino artist, Geraldine Javier, and Michael Janssen just about to open an Ai Weiwei exhibition. Such is the diverse nature of the artworld not just in Singapore but everywhere, rather it is more a question of each galleries particular sensibilities rather than their nationality. 

The Gilman Barracks scene, though a welcome addition to the growing gallery culture, is not the first gestation of galleries grouping together. There is an older grouping in the port area near the city. Galerie Steph, run by Stephanie Tham, has an emphasis on young upcoming locals blended with older Western artists like Botero, while a former Japanese private dealer in New York, Ikkan Sananda, has organised large group shows with a mix of blue chip and maturing artists at his Ikkan Arts. Both Tham and Ikkan bring experience from the New York artworld to the local scene. Along side these galleries there have been several art fairs, but Art Stage Singapore run by the colourful Lorenzo Rudolf  - a former ArtBasel director – currently commands centre stage. The question on most minds is will the government keep encouraging the commercial scene? And do they expect things to eventually pick up in a small country? Will the Gillman Barracks scene generate enough critical mass for public footfall, and will that be necessary for survival? Of this only time will tell.

So the stage is set, all we need is for the artists to out perform themselves. In reality the richness of an artworld is not determined just by local talent, but by the international nature of the “market”. In this I mean artists and galleries from abroad involved in the local scene and local galleries and artists adding to the discourse abroad. Hence participation in art fairs and biennials are essential, as well as exhibiting in galleries everywhere. After all that is how arguments and ideology, in the form of artworks, are put forward and fought over. The success of the now Berlin-based and internationally represented Ming Wong, for example, winning an award at the Venice Biennial is one marker, just as having Mike Nelson’s elliptical and savagely attacked plinths, Le Cannibale (Parody, Consumption and Institutional Critique), 2008, at the 2011 Singapore Biennial another.

The most interesting event on the Singaporean art calendar however is Alan Oei’s OH! Open House, a curatorial venture which situates artwork in homes or offices. Hence seeing the art requires viewers to be taken on a walking tour, and the event becomes as much about local history and conversation as it is about participants discovering artworks in houses. Needless to say that as an independently run curatorial project, with the help of lots of volunteers, large doses of diplomacy is necessary. The 2011 version involved just 6 flats and 12 artists, while the 2012 edition took place in office buildings in the old banking district. What other opportunity is there to prance around Google’s Singapore offices while being admonised regularly – oh how Singaporean - not to photograph anything except the art work. Oei is an artist-curator and the freshly appointed director of Sculpture Square, but his Open House, which annually struggles along to find homes for artworks, performances and interventions, not to mention finances, is probably the most active agent in bringing art together with it’s public. What better sign of a growing scene than such curatorial and artistic endeavour.

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