Art in Context: From Singapore with Asia on My Mind

Sherman Sam on the evolution of the Singapore art scene

By Sherman Sam

Nguyen Tran Nam, We Never Fell, 2010 (installation view, Singapore Biennale 2013). Courtesy the artist Song-Ming Ang, Backwards Bach, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Fost Gallery, Singapore Song-Ming Ang, Yesterday Mobile Karaoke, 2011. Photo: Tan Wee Kwang. Courtesy the artist and Fost Gallery, Singapore Heman Chong, Cover (Versions), 2014. Courtesy Fost Gallery, Singapore

In How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983), the historian Serge Guilbaut documents how a unique historical circumstance, the Second World War, allowed Manhattan to become not just a major centre for art, but to be eventually transformed into the biggest international marketplace for contemporary art. Even today, when you can casually dismiss more art per hour there than in any other place on the planet, New York is not the rule but the exception. Singapore, the country in which I was born, also lays claim to being one of the world’s most culturally sophisticated places. However its sophistication lies in each Singaporean’s palate, and its culture is expressed in its being one of the best places to eat in the world. The question I’ve often asked myself is what would it take to transform Singapore into the Manhattan of Asian art? After all, in Singapore, everyone is already a food critic. Can that oral sensitivity be transformed into a greater visual awareness so they can be art critics too?

My country is only a year older than I am. When I was a student, the only ‘art gallery’ to be found there was in a two-room subsection of the National Museum that otherwise contained bigger displays on history, anthropology and natural history. The ‘commercial galleries’ were really a handful of framing shops that hung some paintings on their walls. So what sort of circumstance would it take for a small but important international trading port, with a population just smaller than that of Ireland’s but with a landmass only slightly bigger than the Isle of Man, to gestate an art scene? Fast-forward 25 years, and Charles Lim will represent Singapore at this year’s Venice Biennale, where the country has consistently maintained a national pavilion since 2001 (except for 2013, when it took a hiatus – much to the dismay of the local art scene), while our own Singapore Biennale is now in its fifth edition. The Singapore Art Museum (SAM), located in an old school building, and which held sway over both the modern and contemporary scenes, will soon be joined by the long-gestating National Gallery – itself located in the former city hall and supreme court. With a mandate to show the cultural history of Singapore and Southeast Asia from the nineteenth century to the present day (albeit its collection will focus primarily on the modern period), it will allow SAM to take on a role that is closer to a kunsthalle, and challenge the smaller, more locally oriented Institute of Contemporary Arts ICA., technically the curatorial division of Lasalle College of the Arts), and the international outlook of the newly opened Center for Contemporary Art (CCA, part of Nanyang Technological University).

How is all this possible? Singapore is very well known for being a nanny state. Its cultural scene is closer to the British model than it is to the American one. That’s to say that the government funds museums and other public projects through the Arts Council, rather than relying, as do America’s institutions, on well-heeled trustees who help secure private funding and a very lively commercial market. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages, creating di.erent kinds of art as a result. In 1989, the Singaporean government began a programme to improve the arts, seeing it as an undervalued commodity and important social glue. At that point it was more about putting in infrastructure than exhibition programmes. For the visual arts, the second stage came in 2000, when funds were allocated towards building not just a commercial hub but also increasing the country’s international profile – this was manifested with moves towards founding the Singapore Biennale and the nation’s participation in Venice. Over the last few years the small commercial scene has been revitalised with the arrival of a group of international galleries situated at a former military site, Gillman Barracks. Tomio Koyama from Tokyo, Arndt and Michael Janssen from Germany, and galleries representing Asian interests (Equator Arts Projects – with whom I showed this summer – from Indonesia, ShanghART. and Pearl Lam from China or Silverlens from the Philippines) join the Singaporean-owned Fost and Yeo Workshop.

The highpoint of the commercial calendar occurs in January, during the week of Art Stage Singapore, located at the glamorous Marina Bay Sands Hotel (the Southeast Asian outpost of the famous Las Vegas casino). Run by the eccentric and larger-than-life former Art Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf, it is the main competition to Art Basel HK in the region and has led to the establishment of Singapore Art Week, a visual arts festival initiated and led by the National Arts Council in partnership with the Singapore Tourism Board and Singapore Economic Development Board. The Art Week is now so big it occupies the space of more than a week (nine days) and encompasses the conclusion of significant Asian art prizes such as the Prudential Eye Awards and its accompanying exhibition, Prudential Singapore Eye (a survey show of 17 Singaporean artists). The remit of the awards is to focus on emerging art from Greater Asia, with shortlisted artists in this edition from Japan, Indonesia, India and Turkey among other countries. The consciousness of a wider art scene has an impact on the fair as well, which in its 2014 edition devoted a large chunk of space to sections – ‘Platforms’ – curated by invited guests and focused on artists selected from commercial galleries within specific regions (Southeast Asia, Japan, etc). This was an unusual way of combining an expanded geography, the public sector and the private, but for a smallish art fair it proved an effective way to show art to a less savvy general public and to international visitors with limited knowledge of the region. The selection of Charles Merewether, former director of the ICA Singapore, for example, consisted entirely of videos from Central Asia; not very commercial, but very interesting. ‘We are not a fair that wants to copy a Western fair,’ Rudolf, who is Swiss, told the South China Morning Post recently. ‘People need to see the strengths of Asia.’

The greatest impediment to a young artist anywhere is developing sensibility and awareness of what’s going on in the wider world. If you’re a young student in Singapore today, leaving the country – as I once did – is not necessarily the only option: not only is there a more vibrant local scene, but the presence of the Gillman Barracks galleries as well as Art Stage allows every artist to have a glimpse of what’s happening within the rich and diverse cultures of Southeast Asia, Asia Pacific and beyond. If there is one contemporary artform that’s ahead here, it would be film. Directors like Eric Khoo, Royston Tan (whose short film was included in the last Singapore Biennale) and even documentary-maker Tan Pin Pin (a regular on the international short-film and biennial circuit) have developed fast because distribution and viewing happen very easily in comparison to the physically specific and temporal nature of displaying art.

At the last Art Stage, you could peruse the cutest Singaporean bijou conceptualism (Southeast Asia section), works from the 1960s French Supports/Surfaces movement (Galerie Bernard Ceysson, Paris) or the intensity of a Yayoi Kusama (Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo). Over the various Singapore Biennales, bigger international stars like Mark Wallinger or Mike Nelson have exhibited with younger artists from the region. The 2013 edition was predominantly a Southeast Asian a.air – itself a brave move. Even going to art school does not require moving away from home comforts – there is now an art school (Lasalle) a.liated with Goldsmiths – although that’s not to say the overseas study has stopped; every year there are a handful of young Singaporeans who pitch up at Goldsmiths in New Cross, London. Some are funded by the state, while others are helped by their parents – but this is in itself a big change in familial mindsets.

What is the state of Singaporean art then? The proof, in the end, is in the pudding; it is the artists that create the scene. Ming Wong, Heman Chong and Ian Woo are now midcareer artists, and in the case of the first two have represented the country at Venice, and show with Carlier/Gebauer in Berlin, Wilkinson in London and Tomio Koyama in Tokyo and Singapore, respectively – all good international galleries. Chong even had a project in the Extinction Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery, London, while a younger artist, Song-Ming Ang, will this year have a residency at London’s Camden Arts Centre. Charles Lim will be in this year’s Venice Biennale, while Ho Tzu Nyen, who represented Singapore at the Biennale in 2011, is on a residency in Berlin (both are showing in Prudential Singapore Eye). The Singaporean art scene, in short, is not confined by its geographical boundaries.

Back in 1993, William Gibson described Singapore as ‘an Asian version of Zurich operating as an o.shore capsule at the foot of Malaysia; an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.’ He obviously didn’t spend enough time sampling the best carrot cakes (a savoury white radish omelette) or arguing with his taxi driver over the best place to find a nonya meal. Zurich is perhaps a good point of comparison, however – a city with a small but strong international collection, various kunsthalles that any decent artist would want to launch his career with and a small but vibrant gallery scene. Singapore may not steal the idea of contemporary art anytime soon, but next time Gibson’s in town, he might find that comparing Song-Ming Ang’s Backwards Bach (2013) over the Joan Jonas videos at the CCA pops into his mind rather than the death penalty. 

Prudential Singapore Eye is on show at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore from 17 January.

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.