As cities become brands and deploy art to create identity, can culture exist as a contested space?

Artist and curator Alan Oei on the difference between a public and an audience

By Alan Oei

Lee Wen, Dream Boat, 1998, performance with bathtub at the Werkleitz Biennale, Tornitz and Werkleitz, Germany. Photo: Andrea Costas Otero. Courtesy iPreciation, Singapore Exterior view of the Substation, Singapore. Courtesy the Substation

Housed in two handsome colonial buildings that once served as the City Hall and the Supreme Court, the National Gallery of Singapore is an imposing presence in the civic district. Who is the audience for the US$400- million gallery? It appears mostly empty on the occasions I’ve visited; and weekend crowds seem to be bused in by grassroots organisers. I’m beginning to wonder if it even needs people. To be a ‘global city for the arts’ – I borrow the terminology from our government – our National Gallery is about historicising Singaporean art to a global audience. Therein lies the problem. Singapore’s art history, like its national history, is an invention necessitated by the fall of the British Empire. In the twentieth-century configuration of nationalism, originary cultures are the mythometres that give the nation-state legitimacy. Our art history – and thus our own cultural legitimacy – is projected outwards, not inwards.

Taking a leaf from our borderless economy (built on shipping, logistics and finance), the National Gallery extends its curatorial framework beyond Singapore and to Southeast Asia in particular. The teleological arc of the curating simultaneously desires and constructs the global city-state as the leader-organiser of a regional Southeast Asian identity.

The National Gallery isn’t the issue; it’s only symptomatic of the larger, structural conditions of the cultural economy. The art market and industry repeat the global discourse of inequality. The few, the big and the branded exert outsize gravity. Singapore is especially primed to take advantage in both summoning and signalling its symbolic capital through the arts and culture. Our state is particularly efficient, willing and able. The government invests heavily not only in infrastructure, but also in publicity, through well-greased agents and media junkets. Who knows of anything beyond what the state wants and projects?

Smaller art institutions, like the Substation, of which I was recently appointed artistic director, struggle. Founded in 1990, it is Singapore’s first and oldest contemporary and multidisciplinary art space. Many Singaporeans had their first encounter with the arts here. At a time when many Singaporeans were also grappling with our own cultural identities within an authoritarian state that dominated all aspects of our lives, the arts became the perfect way for us, both as artists and as a people, to say, ‘There are other versions of the Singapore story’.

In the contestation and reclamation of cultural authority in Singapore, I would argue that the Substation was a key catalyst to a cluster of new cultural infrastructures in the 1990s: Singapore Art Museum (1996), Asian Civilisation Museum (1997), the Esplanade (2002). Kuo Pao Kun, our founder and theatre doyen, created this space with the tagline ‘a home for the arts’ (italics mine). He envisioned not this pouring of millions into monolithic state institutions, but a more open and plural Singapore that could accommodate and even come to cherish the arts. In such a society, one could have many, many homes for the arts.

The truth is the Substation hasn’t quite been able to keep up. People tend to think that our biggest struggle is financial sustainability. In fact, it is the lack of ambition and meaning in the public and cultural sphere.

Virtually all the art institutions in Singapore are heavily reliant on government grants. It’s both boon and curse, because money comes with strings attached

Virtually all the art institutions in Singapore are heavily reliant on government grants. It’s both boon and curse, because money comes with strings attached. Like a driver pulled over by the cops, we’re asked to walk along a straight line. We stumble left and right, because the ‘key performance indicators’ (KPI) keep shifting. The line isn’t about going somewhere; it’s purely performative – have we met our funding guidelines and performance indicators? Have we brought in x number of visitors, and x number in outreach, and x degree of artistic excellence, and x percent of visitors satisfied?

That’s why there are no people at the National Gallery. Like our grants system, it’s about keeping up appearances. As British cultural theorist Mark Fisher suggested in Capitalist Realism (2009), funding guidelines and the perpetual circuit of control creates ‘not a direct comparison of... performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output’. As grant recipients, we inevitably become more interested in performing the representation. Our programmes are shaped by the KPI rather than our visions.

For instance, both art students (young people who don’t know the Substation’s history) and well-meaning administrators tell me that the Substation is a space for emerging artists. Since when, I ask? Weren’t we about the fringe, the experimental, the countercultural? Working on the margin does not automatically translate to emerging artists. The fringe is like Michel Foucault’s madman or leper, a kind of ‘lost truth’, once firmly part of heterogeneous public life, now excised for a new kind of disciplined, moral order.

Now there is no more fringe. The Substation is normativised, subsumed under the terminology of the administrator: part of the ‘art ecosystem’ and ‘value chain’. In our fear of losing funding, we come up with more programmes for emerging artists, more for outreach, more for this or that KPI. Can you really blame people for calling us an ‘incubator for emerging artists’? Before you know it, the difficulty of keeping up with the grant system has evolved our identity.

Precisely because art bypasses the binary of the emotive and rational, and because it is irreducibly layered, it is valuable and necessary for the public sphere

The Substation’s vision, our history, has always been to be an independent and critical centre for art. Allied to that, in early years when there was once precious little space for civil society, the Substation also supported humanitarian causes: LGBT rights, animal welfare and other issues. When art is set free, it can point to both the topical (like migrant worker rights) or the universal, existential experience. Precisely because art bypasses the binary of the emotive and rational, and because it is irreducibly layered, it is valuable and necessary for the public sphere.

In harking back to the Substation of yore, I want to address performance art in the 1990s as a way of thinking about space. The Singaporean pioneers of performance art did not need brick-and-mortar institutions – their space was the streets. Their concerns were what mattered to the public. Centred around the body as both an expressive medium and a site of resistance, Singaporean artist Lee Wen became known internationally for his Yellow Man performances (in which he painted himself yellow from head to toe and went on ‘journeys’ in different cities). Coming at a time when postcolonial governments in Southeast Asia were actively proscribing ‘Asian values’ as an alternative to Western-style democracy, with its emphasis on individual rights, Lee Wen’s performance actively inscribed on his body a topos of ethnic and identity politics.

Another artist, Amanda Heng, has, in multiple performances, worked again and again with objects stuffed into her mouth. Using, variously, raw meat, high-heeled shoes and mirrors, her performances reference simultaneously the hegemonic silencing of the female subject and the desire to communicate (titles of her performances include Let’s Walk, 1999–2009, and Let’s Chat, 1996–). Moreover, many of these works happened in the interstitial spaces between public and private. The critic Lee Weng Choy argues persuasively for the complex and fluid relationship between art and audiences, between being a participant and a member of the public.

Heng and Lee cared tremendously about speaking with the public. They didn’t treat audienced as passive receivers. Set against the backdrop of culture wars and identity politics, their art had incorporated what was really and urgently at stake for the community.

Increasingly, it feels like most artists are happy to be image-makers for the global city and audience. By and large, many artists have become defined by the narrow metrics of art fairs and festivals. We care not about the local; we care about the global. When we make art, it’s for the global audience that is in fact narrow: the institution, curator, collector, media. It’s to participate in rhetoric and operation of the global cities most typified by the sprouting up of biennales all over.

In S,M,L,XL (1995), Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas identified Singapore as a ‘generic city’, one that effaces its own history and particularities. It was less a critique of Singapore than an attempt to chart how the West was haunted by the ghost city of the future – witness how Western cities are inexorably becoming more like Singapore. It is not only the indignity of Koolhaas’s critique – for this generic city, he chose an image of a blurry, yellow-and-black-painted bumblebee of traffic light – but also the realisation that ‘local’ and ‘culture’ matters in the global economy. Here, our audience is the global elite – that’s why I said the National Gallery doesn’t even need Singaporeans. Our city’s prestige projects are designed not for the res publica, but for public relations and imaging. In the flatness and contained edges of digital pixels for the media, there are no in-betweens, no contested histories or territories.

Let’s begin with local publics, not audiences. The state will do as it does; we artists have to ask how much responsibility we have to the public sphere. Is it enough simply to be cultural producers – and according to whose terms? I ask that artists recognise our complicity in the rhetoric of global city-making; that power is not only asymmetric. What’s at stake isn’t whether independent artists or institutions can survive in the shadow of large, prestigious and often colonial buildings; it’s about how small and irrelevant our dreams for art have become. I remember something Lee Wen once told me: “It is not that artists want to change the world, it is that we won’t let the world change us.” 

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia