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15.03.17

Suppose there is, A: Report from a visit to Singapore's emerging art scene

by Alexander Storey Gordon
 

I emerge from Singapore’s Changi Airport into a wall of humidity. It feels like I’m underwater as I wait for the no.24 bus to carry me the 13 stops to my hosts’ home in Kembangan, a leafy residential suburb in east Singapore. I am here to install a new three channel video work as part of a group exhibition Suppose there is, A curated by Stephanie J Burt (an artist previously based in Glasgow) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore. Featuring works by Kari Robertson, Tan Gao-Lieng, Mike Chang and Stephanie herself, the exhibition focuses on common themes held across our artistic practice. The shared themes emerged from a mutual interest in the French new wave film ‘Last Year in Marrinbad’ by Alain Renais including ideas around gesture, loss, memory, time, and materiality.

I am staying for two nights with fellow exhibiting artist Mike Chang. Little did I realise as I stepped into Mike’s house/studio at no.71 Lengkong Empat that I had arrived at one of those most unassuming of cultural hubs; the ‘artist’s flat’. The house, which has been passed from artist to artist for as long as anyone can remember, is currently populated by a host of creative people. I quickly meet Dinu Bodiciu, a Romanian fashion designer who has designed clothes and accessories for Lady Gaga among others, followed by Tomoko Kasai who I am reliably informed is the ‘art scenes’ hairdresser’, and alongside Kasai, her soon to be husband Hilmi Johandi who is a gifted painter. Finally, closer to 12pm, I meet Mike’s remaining flatmate Anca Rujoiu, a curator of publications at the newly created Centre for Contemporary Arts Singapore.

I draw attention to this living situation as it is a rare occurrence in Singapore; in part due to prohibitively high rental costs a lot of unmarried people stay with their parents. More importantly though, this flat also provides an example of the significance of living situations and immigrant communities, often unmarked by art history, in making an art scene vibrant and truly successful.

Artist Song-Ming Ang in his studio while on residency at CCA NTU, Gillaman Barracks. Alexander Storey Gordon, Singapore 2017
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Artist Song-Ming Ang in his studio while on residency at CCA NTU, Gillaman Barracks. Alexander Storey Gordon, Singapore 2017

A clear understanding of this type of artists’ network and the creative environment it engenders lies behind the exhibition Suppose There is, A. The ICA exists as an integral part of the La Salle Art School University in the civic district of Singapore. Under the directorship of Bala Starr, the ICA has given an elevated platform to artists as curators through numerous shows over the past three years. The visibility of projects curated by artists has a direct impact on students whose classrooms and social spaces border the three ICA Gallery spaces. However, it is clear that Starr is also interested in the influence that artist curated exhibitions have on the creation of a more interconnected and self-supporting grassroots art scene.

In recent years Singapore has stated an aim to position itself culturally as a south pole to the northern art hub of South Korea, seeking to provide representation for not only Singaporean artists but also the nations that surround it; Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bruni, Cambodia, Taiwan and the Philippines. This ambitious strategy is clearly signified by the creation of the National Gallery Singapore: Southeast Asian Art Museum which opened its doors in 2015. Housed in the architecturally spectacular old supreme court buildings, the gallery holds over 8,000 art works and has a broad exhibition programme. Beyond the architectural facades, what stands out most when walking through the galleries is a sense of how little Singaporean art is on display, with more space dedicated to Southeast Asian art in general. Far from being considered negative, many curators and artists I spoke to noted that Singapore is in a sense quite liberated, particularly from the contemporary art world’s fascination with the archive and its own history. It appears that there is perhaps an opportunity, however slight, for artists and curators to have a real stake in shaping and creating their national art history. National Gallery Singapore joins other previously established organisations in the cultural civic district, including Singapore Art Museum, which hosts the Singapore Biennial. Also in the civic quarter is the National Museum of Singapore founded in 1849, which currently has an excellent exhibition featuring Hans Haacke and Martin Creed.

Sky Line of Singapore, Alexander Storey Gordon 2017 Singapore.
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Sky Line of Singapore, Alexander Storey Gordon 2017 Singapore.

The civic district is one of three ‘creative clusters’ across the city including Gillman Barracks and the Tiong Bahru district. Gilman Barracks is situated in the north west away from the city centre and is home to Art Outreach, the Playeum Children’s Centre for Creativity and 12 commercial art galleries. By far the most significant space at the barracks is the CCA NTU which was founded three years ago and is based inside the Nanyang Technological University’s campus. Much like ICA Singapore, or Talbot Rice Gallery and Cooper Gallery in Scotland, CCA gains a degree of financial stability and independence through its host university and is also recipient of a grant from the Economic Development Board that allows it to operate on an international level. Directed by the influential Professor Ute Meta Bauer, CCA has quickly made a reputation for its high profile exhibitions and its innovative residency programme for artists and curators which forms the backbone of the organisation’s creative output. The CCA’s activities also include a research centre and academic programme providing support for MRes and PhD candidates in the areas of museum studies and curatorial practice. The CCA project is geared towards creating a centre of excellence and research that will both encourage Singaporean and Southeast Asian artists to develop a regional network and research that is contextually specific, and to create international scholarship. This nurturing ethos is less apparent in the commercial galleries which are dotted around the CCA in the rest of Gillman Barracks. These spaces have a particular international art market in mind, however, two notable galleries originating in Singapore, FOST and Yeo Workshop, are making a consistent effort to support and develop emerging artists’ practices by providing increasingly more time in their gallery programmes and developing market interest in local art.

The creation of the CCA and the National Gallery in the past three years, and the rebranding of the ICA which predated them in 2005, really heralds the emergence of Singapore onto the international art scene. However, like Glasgow this innovation in the arts is built on the hard work of grassroots organisations and activity. In 1990 Kuo Pao Kun, a playwright, theatre director, and arts activist, set up an arts space called Substation in the civic district. In a way which might seem analogous to Tom McGrath founding The Third eye centre in Glasgow in the 1970s, Substation became an anarchic mix of theatre, film, dance, art, music and activism. It also became a place for artists and misfits, or ‘punks’, to coalesce and share culture and find common cause. Today much like the Third Eye (now Centre for Contemporary Art) Substation has become a more structured space with core funding from the National Arts Council to support an array of programming. Similar to the CCA Glasgow, it has also retained some of its more anarchist tendencies; it remains open to proposals, runs drop in recording sessions, has a theatre and a gallery, and this year has given over the first three months of its gallery programme to a cooperative of young artist activists who are busy running free workshops and translating Malay language newspapers into English.

Substation sign explaining the spaces, ethos and history of the organisation. Alexander Storey Gordon 2017 Singapore.
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Substation sign explaining the spaces, ethos and history of the organisation. Alexander Storey Gordon 2017 Singapore.

Further west in the Tiong Bahru district there are other more recently founded independent spaces where you will find artist led gallery Grey Projects and independent publishers Books Actually among design shops and small cafe’s of Singapore’s first civic housing scheme. Grey Projects was initiated in 2009 by artist and poet Jason Wee, and was originally run from his flat in River Valley. Now run by a two person committee, Grey Projects has a busy gallery programme and a local and international residency programme for artists and curators which runs from an artist’s flat and studio attached to the gallery. The gallery also boasts a fantastic collection of art periodicals and publications that chart the grassroots art scene in Singapore. Their residency programme is particularly impressive and is run through open calls, often in exchange/partnership with other spaces in Barcelona, Shanghi, Bogota, and Banding. This year they have also acquired a property in Berlin which is hosting residencies as of May 2017.

A recent development in Singapore sees artists moving out with the defined ‘cultural clusters’ or residential areas to find affordable creative space. Soft Stud Walls is an artist’s studio library and project space set up by Stephanie J Burt, Kenneth Loe, Luca Lum, and Weixin Chong on the top floor of a screen printing factory in Geylang (red light district). Soft Stud Walls hold informal performances, have a lending library and are starting a rooftop screening programme of artists’ moving image works, leading them to work in a way which seems new and novel in Singapore.*

Artist Gao-Lieng in Grey Projects's Library of Art and Poetry. Alexander Storey Gordon 2017 Singapore.
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Artist Gao-Lieng in Grey Projects's Library of Art and Poetry. Alexander Storey Gordon 2017 Singapore.

Whether you are functioning on no support like Soft Stud Walls or under state support like Substation, funding in Singapore works in a very similar way to public funding in Scotland and is partly based on a UK model of public patronage (putting aside the strict state censorship laws which are not a concern in the UK). Applications can be made by Singaporean artists and organisations to the National Arts Council which is by far the largest funder of artistic projects. Organisations can apply for three year core funding or on a project by project basis, and there are a range of individual grants made by the NAC to support individual artists and their projects. There are also a large number of open award submissions for artists which are applied broadly from concept films on safety awareness at work, to fine art photography and painting prizes which play a more significant role than in the UK in supporting artists’ practice. In addition both Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute also fund and support projects that meet their criteria, and the British Council Singapore are approachable, though are currently not working directly with British Council Scotland.

I am told numerous times by many different people while in Singapore that the Singaporean art world and its funding is notoriously hard to access without a connection to artists or curators working and living in the city state. However, it is a testament to all of the artists and curators that I met and worked with while in the city that I feel the reverse is true, that Singapore is in fact far more open to collaboration, especially in an international context than you might expect given its conservative governance. This is evidenced not only through the numerous residency programmes offered to both artists and curators, but also the willingness of early to mid-career artists, many of whom have studied art outside Singapore and returned to live and work in the city, to build global connections that can enrich the local art scene.

Making local connections is essential in order to realise projects in Singapore, but with many shared cultural ties, including of course a shared language and similar cultural infrastructures, this can be achieved relatively easily and smoothly, with time and travel being the main but surmountable barriers to collaboration. Singapore is a place which, on the surface at least, seems dynamic, full of optimism and open to collaboration.

*When talking about artist-run space in Singapore there are also two spaces which closed in 2008 and 2011 which are also of importance, Plastique Kinetic Worms PKW (1998-2008) run by Vincent Leow and Milenko Prvacki and Ana Prvacki and Post Museum (2008-2011) run by Woon Tien and Jennifer Wei.