Armenian Street, polarized?
Owner of the Singapore Public Art site – and my sometime correspondent – Peter Schoppert had a piece in last Saturday’s ST (Sept 10), which considers the dichotomous impulses seemingly at play on Armenian St. today, with venerable indie arts space, The Substation, on one side, and the moneyed, sleeker-than-silk Art Plural Gallery, the new kid on the block, on the other.
Actually, Pete’s point is that neither represents a mutually exclusive position in the spectrum that is the arts industry, here or elsewhere. He notes – astutely – that independent collectives and resource-rich institutions are simply two points along the way for most artists, with sites like the Substation playing the role of nurturing materfamilias, and high-end galleries representing the best of highly visible, trans-global cultural capital. In the interest of full disclosure, the article does mention that he’s on the board of directors over at the Sub, and it does seem as if Pete is, in the final analysis, rather more oriented towards the communal spirit that that institution consciously cultivates, but he does give Art Plural its due for doing what it does. After all, the arts scene is – or should be – a diverse playing field, and any expansion of the limits that come with a circumscribed market/audience like Singapore’s can only be a good thing.
One quibble though: this may be a personal opinion, but I hardly see the fight on Armenian St. - so to speak – as a two-way affair. What about the Peranakan Museum? Art Plural is a privately-financed outfit; the Sub, as the article points out, is partly funded by government moolah (rather than being completely independent, a fact sometimes lost to popular view), so why not take into consideration a fully public establishment as well, if one is discussing the variety of institutions that constitute the arts scene? If anything, governmental organizations probably represent the biggest and most influential players on the field, so it does seem as if developments occurring within our museums are a pretty good gauge of the prevailing state of affairs – rather than just a single private gallery. Also, the connections here are more subtle than just a series of oppositional stances represented by two antithetical attitudes: the mini “lifestyle” renaissance fostered by the museum along Armenian St. – with its pricey gift store and the opening of the upscale Nonya restaurant, True Blue – seems perfectly aligned with the takeover of the Sub’s much-loved garden space by bar and restaurant (and contributor to general noise pollution) Timbre, not to mention the blue-chip art market catered to by Art Plural. In other words, all three institutions may have as much in common as they do differentially …
Nevertheless, Pete Schoppert’s article is a valuable contribution to the flurry of opinions being bandied about in light of the Sub’s upcoming 21st birthday. Reproduced below.
A TALE OF TWO ART SPACES
Substation, which turns 21 next week, is Singapore’s angel investor in the arts. By Peter Schoppert for The Straits Times.
There’s a stretch of Armenian Street that perfectly captures recent changes in Singapore’s art scene. On one side, opened in 1990, the Substation, Singapore’s first independent arts centre; on the other, opened in 2011, Art Plural, 12,000 sq ft of high-end art gallery, featuring artists such as Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Robert Longo, and Thakral [sic] and Tagra.
When you walk into Art Plural, you are greeted by polite, well-dressed and well-informed young art students working as gallery attendants.
You never know who might (or might not) greet you in the Substation: a grouchy poet, our artistic director wearing a pair of angel’s wings, a post-punk rocker, an artist inviting you to join her in making an installation out of feminine hygiene products, or Mrs Chua, our iconic, laconic caretaker.
On a recent evening, great gouts of white noise, fuzz and howling came pouring out of the Substation, in a performance by musician and circuit bender Mel Araneta, from the Philippines, collaborating with a group of Singaporean sound artists. Roaming performance artists perplexed passers-by, wrapped in plastic, shaving cream covering their heads.
Art Plural is a much more discreet neighbour, with its “ring doorbell to enter” sign.
The contrasts are obvious: foreign versus local, polished versus rough, art market stars versus uncelebrated art workers, private bankers versus skinheads, discreet versus attention-seeking, art that was once shocking but is now a commodity versus art that sometimes strives – and sometimes succeeds – to actually make people uncomfortable.
The Substation celebrates its 21st birthday on Sept 16, but its theatre has not had an upgrade in many years; Art Plural is up-to-the-minute.
So is the Substation the past, and Art Plural the future of arts in Singapore?
Actually both aspects of the art world are important and interdependent. The art world stars presented by Art Plural once depended on independent art spaces like the Substation to provide them support, feedback and that crucial first show. Robert Longo started his career in an artist-run space in an old ice factory, the Essex Arts Centre in Buffalo, New York, with his fellow student Cindy Sherman.
In a recently fashionable view, a city’s arts scene is part of its cultural capital, a key asset in the global competition for talent and investment. If Art Plural represents the world’s top artistic brands, their success validated and revalidated, in New York, Paris or London, you might say that the Substation is early stage angel investment in Asia. In this view, Substation develops and nurtures artists at crucial phases of their career, when spectacular failure is as likely as success (and more valuable in some ways).
Indeed, prominent Singapore artists, people like Ho Tzu Nyen, Matthew Ngui, Zhao Renhui, as well as film-makers like Royston Tan and Tan Pin Pin all had early or important showings at the Substation. The list of local artists who’ve worked at Substation is a long one, and covers performing arts and music as well [as] visual arts and film.
Still, this economic lens on art is only part of the story. Kuo Pao Kun’s founding vision of the Substation sees the arts as a vital source of energy and understanding for Singapore society. By providing a home for the arts, for mid-career artists as well as younger ones, the Substation attempts to create a space for artists to operate as a community, on their own terms. Under artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, the Substation is renewing its mission of “nurturing and challenging Singapore artists”.
We believe that an artistic community works to open spaces for dialogue and new understanding within society, inside and between other communities however defined. Under Effendy’s Associate Artist Research Programme, our artists are asked to engage directly with a real community unfamiliar to them, whether that be scientists in Biopolis or an underprivileged group.
Keeping the mission fresh and relevant is not necessarily a simple matter. We have lost some key assets – our garden, now rented out, the kopitiam across the street, now Art Plural’s ground floor, which was the venue of so many meetings of artists, film-makers, dancers, musicians and people just hanging out.
And the Substation can be a bit of a headache at times. We believe our mission requires us to offer a safe space for the artistic expression of marginalised groups, and – sometimes – for a testing of the relevance of art in the social and political realms. Government grants provide us with about 20 per cent of our annual income, but the Government sometimes seems only 20 per cent comfortable with our total vision. Arts grants are now linked to notions of “acceptability” of content of the art, but this criterion is rarely the highest on our list.
Art Plural shows works by artist Jean Dubuffet, part of a movement known as Art Brut. In the 1950s and 60s, he wrote of the cultural asphyxiation created by Europe’s arts institutions. He demanded “a teeming diversity” of art, which would require “a crusade against taste and decorum”. Art Plural now sells his works in their very tasteful gallery, but if he were a Singaporean artist starting out today, I bet he would have had an Open Call show at Substation. At the very least, he would appreciate Substation’s contribution to the diversity of the arts in Singapore.
The writer is on the board of directors of the Substation. Formerly with McKinsey & Company, he is an entrepreneur and publisher.