Archive for the ‘Singapore art history’ Category
The Gillman Barracks opens in September.
For those who can’t wait, a detailed write-up in The Straits Times today.
The final price tag ? – ten million big ones. Gotta love Singapore.
ENGINEERED FOR THE ARTS
Will the planning of Gillman Barracks arts hub by the government stifle or help the arts in Singapore?
By Adeline Chia. Published February 16, 2012.
The vision for the Gillman Barracks is a brave and ambitious one: a cluster of top art galleries from around the world, housed in quaint historical buildings nestled in leafy surrounds.
The art on show is a mixture of the cutting edge and the established, including A-list artists such as Takeshi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Annie Leibovitz.
It aims to draw visitors from the jetsetting art collector to the window- shopping man on the street. In other words: ‘an iconic international destination for contemporary art in Asia’, according to the official literature.
Gillman Barracks is the bold new step in Singapore’s continuous march to become a global arts city – by building an arts district akin to Beijing’s 798 Art District, South Korea’s Heyri Art Village or New York’s Chelsea.
The difference is that these art districts abroad have sprung up naturally while Gillman is a government-led project. Its development is planned by the Economic Development Board, Jurong Town Corporation and the National Arts Council at a cost of about $10 million.
In the past few years, Singapore has grown pretty serious about contemporary visual art.
Two international art fairs, the high-end Art Stage Singapore and the mid-priced Affordable Art Fair, have taken off. International galleries have also started moving in, such as Art Plural Gallery opened by Swiss art dealer Frederic De Senarclens.
In terms of arts infrastructure, things are buoyed by the development of the $80-million Singapore Freeport, a storage space for art, with international auction house Christie’s as the main tenant.
In 2015, there is another biggie: the much-anticipated opening of The National Art Gallery, a 60,000 sq m gallery that will be housed in the City Hall and the former Supreme Court buildings. The institution will focus on South-east Asian art and its renovations will cost an estimated $530 million.
With Gillman Barracks, scheduled to open with a bang in September with all the galleries ready for business, Singapore’s art race goes into turbo mode. But even before the cluster throws open its doors, sceptics are asking if it is possible to engineer an arts hub, Singapore-style, by using a committee to choose a winning combination of tenants.
Thirteen galleries form the first wave of tenants in the former colonial army barracks located off Alexandra Road.
They include Ota Fine Arts, representing Japanese superstar artist Yayoi ‘polka dot’ Kusama; Sundaram Tagore Gallery, carrying the works of Leibovitz and American abstract painter Frank Stella; and ShanghART Gallery, representing top Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi.
The galleries are supposed to pay commercial rates and those approached by Life! said they have not been given discounts or other monetary incentives to set up shop here. In a call for applicants released by the Economic Development Board last year, rental rates were cited as between $31.50 and $35.50 a sq m a month.
Most arts observers welcome the list of galleries in Gillman. Mr Wang Zineng, 30, a South-east Asian specialist at Christie’s, calls it ‘an exciting mix that promotes inter-Asian interactions and conversations’.
But he is worried about the ‘long-term sustainability of the project’. ‘In any such project, there is seed money. After that money is spent, what happens? The commercial viability remains a question.’
A challenge is overcoming the ‘saturation of the art market in Asia’, including Hong Kong’s buzzing commercial art scene and the India Art Fair. ‘There are a lot of art fairs and auctions around. How do you sustain the interest of collectors?’ he adds.
Prominent Malaysian gallerist Valentine Willie, 57, is blunt in his assessment: ‘In a sense, Gillman has already failed.’
He owns four galleries in South-east Asia under the Valentine Willie Fine Art name.
‘Places such as Chelsea and 798 grew as a result of a need or a demand. Here, the Government is manufacturing the demand,’ he says.
He points to Hong Kong, where rents are exorbitant and yet the city attracts top-shelf international galleries such as London’s White Cube, whose roster includes well-known British contemporary artists Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and Gagosian Gallery, a supergallery chain owned by influential American dealer Larry Gagosian.
Mr Willie says: ‘No government was there to give you some nice old buildings. Hong Kong is just where the action is. You can’t manufacture that. EDB of all agencies should understand basic economics: you can’t manufacture demand.’
He adds that the Economic Development Board should instead help existing arts clusters such as Artspace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark, a 70,000 sq ft warehouse space owned by Helutrans, an arts handling firm.
The Singapore branch of Mr Willie’s gallery is situated there, together with three other galleries: Galerie Steph, Ikkan Art International and ReDot Fine Art Gallery.
He says: ‘Instead of trying to harness the energy of an existing hub and helping it, they are trying to kill it. It’s unfair competition.’
Another Artspace@Helutrans tenant has a different view. Japanese art dealer and gallerist Ikkan Sanada, 61, who moved his long-standing New York base to Singapore, says: ‘I don’t believe in government intervention, especially in art.’
But he says that sometimes some initial help can ‘kick off arts activity’.
He opened his gallery in May last year and shows works by top names such as photographer Cindy Sherman, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and British ‘bad boy’ Damien Hirst.
He says: ‘I welcome the Gillman Barracks. It provides a diversity of galleries, which is good for the arts community.’
He says that the next two to three years will be crucial in testing the commercial viability of the cluster.
‘While the market can be influenced and improved by initial investment, you can’t control or force the public to start buying art. If the buyers don’t come and sales don’t materialise, then some galleries may have to leave. We have to wait and see.’
An EDB spokeman says that the Gillman Barracks was chosen as a venue because, according to industry feedback, ‘a successful arts cluster should have unique architectural and/or historical characteristics’.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority then proposed the Gillman site because of its 14 low-rise military-style buildings and lush green surroundings. The entire development will yield 9,000 sq m of space for lease, with a tenancy term of three years with an option to extend for another three years.
Dr Eugene Tan, 38, programme director of EDB’s Lifestyle Programme Office who is overseeing the Gillman Barracks’ development, says that it was necessary for the Government to step in to ‘address the failures of the open market’ to develop a successful arts cluster.
‘Many arts clusters which have been left to develop freely by private developers have succumbed to short-term pressures to lease spaces to the highest bidder,’ he says.
As a result, art businesses are priced out by high-end bars and restaurants.
‘This issue is particularly pressing in land-scarce Singapore. As many commercial tenants compete aggressively on price, there are limited options for emerging clusters of art businesses to grow organically over the long term.’
He adds that Gillman Barracks is not modelled after any particular arts cluster abroad.
The Gillman galleries certainly buy into his dream. Many of them say that they have chosen Singapore to be closer to their South-east Asian clients, and because Singapore is an emerging centre for the thriving art market in Asia.
Mr Ota Hidenori, 52, whose Tokyo- based Ota Fine Arts is opening its first 108 sq m outpost in Singapore, says: ‘Singapore is just starting out and I want to be one of the first players here.’
His gallery carries the work of artists such as Kusama and video artist Hiraki Sawa.
He says Singapore is a good base to tap into the booming art market in Asia, given its multi-cultural identity and the quality of its public museums and arts professionals.
New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore, who owns an eponymous chain of galleries in New York, Beverly Hills and Hong Kong, also believes in Singapore as an emerging arts hub. Its central location in Asia leaves it well-poised to tap into his collector base from Dubai to Australia. His gallery space in Gillman is about 4,500 sq ft.
The 52-year-old says that his gallery was not given any financial incentive, but the power of EDB ‘collectively marketing’ the Gillman Barracks as a serious arts cluster with a strong roster of galleries is attractive to him.
As for the place being master planned, he says: ‘Singapore doesn’t have the benefit of history, unlike the great centres of art such as New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo. When you are trying to create things speedily, you need a stimulus. Here it happens to be the Government. If you wait for organic development, you could be waiting forever.’
ShanghART’s Swiss director Lorenz Helbling, who is in his 50s, says that he decided to come into Singapore because it is an ‘emerging, interesting place’.
‘So many cultures come together here. As a market, I don’t know how bright it is. Who knows? But most of the time, we don’t do things for commercial interest. It’s difficult to know what collectors want. We just do our bit and hope that collectors follow.’
ShanghART is one of the most influential galleries in China devoted to contemporary art, and it was chosen as one of the top 75 galleries of the 20th century by Taschen, the German art and design publisher.
Singapore is its first gallery outside Shanghai and its repertoire features some of the biggest names in Chinese art such as Zeng, Chen Xiaoyun and Ding Yi. Its space in Gillman is just over 100 sq m.
Mr Helbling did not consider Hong Kong as an option because ‘there’s too much shopping’.
‘In Singapore, I feel that you can develop an artistic kind of feeling, it doesn’t feel too commercial.’
Most arts observers say that it is early days yet, but agree that this is a high-stakes game that requires careful management.
Curator and art consultant Lindy Poh, 41, acknowledges that government agencies face a ‘double bind’ when engineering arts clusters.
She says that art clusters such as Soho and 798 had a strong indie vibe (‘an X factor’) at certain points of their development, which ran counter to state intervention, which suggests bureaucracy and surveillance.
She says: ‘Our art market is very small and benefits from certain boosts, and government agencies have their own pressures to deliver on key performance indicators.
‘But if agencies are perceived as engineering the creative sector excessively, they are also seen as stripping it of its aura of independence.’
Dr Tan has a delicate task ahead, but he has grand plans for Gillman Barracks. He says: ‘Apart from making it an international destination and marketplace for contemporary art in Asia, I want it to be the place where you can see and experience the best and most innovative art of your times.’
Is this a beautiful dream or the prophecy for a brave, new chapter in Singapore’s arts development? Only time can tell. But Mr Jasdeep Sandhu, 45, owner of Gajah Gallery, says that government support gives the Gillman galleries ‘a bit of a tail wind’.
He adds: ‘It’s a business decision that these guys are making to come here. They are sharp business people who see its potential. It means they have confidence in Singapore as a spot for art.’
‘Places such as Chelsea and 798 grew as a result of a need or a demand. Here, the Government is manufacturing the demand. Instead of trying to harness the energy of an existing hub and helping it, they are trying to kill it’
Malaysian gallerist Valentine Willie
‘Singapore doesn’t have the benefit of history, unlike the great centres of art such as New York, Tokyo. When you are trying to create things speedily, you need a stimulus… If you wait for organic development, you could be waiting forever’
New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore
Galleries at Gillman
EQUATOR ART PROJECTS (Indonesia)
Gallery directors: Deddy Irianto and Tony Godfrey
Artists: Agus Suwage, Arahmaiani, Ay Tjoe Christine
FOST GALLERY (Singapore)
Gallery director: Stephanie Fong
Artists: Chun Kai Feng, Chun Kai Qun, Tang Ling Nah, Namiko Chan Takahashi
KAIKAI KIKI GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Takashi Murakami
Artists: Takashi Murakami, Anri Sala, Aya Takano, Mr.
FUTURE PERFECT (Australia)
Gallery directors: David Teh and Jasper Knight
Artists: Adam Cullen, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ho Tzu Nyen
MIZUMA GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Mizuma Sueo
Artists: Makoto Aida, Konoike Tomoko, Ikeda Manabu
OTA FINE ARTS (Japan)
Gallery director: Ota Hidenori
Artists: Yayoi Kusama, Hiraki Sawa and Tomoko Kashiki
PEARL LAM GALLERIES (China)
Gallery director: Pearl Lam
Artists: Zhang Huan, Zhu Jinshi, Li Tianbing
SHANGHART GALLERY (China)
Gallery director: Lorenz Helbling
Artists: Zeng Fanzhi, Chen Xiaoyun, Ding Yi
SILVERLENS (The Philippines)
Gallery directors: Isa Lorenzo and Neli Go
Artists: Patricia Eustaquio, Frank Callaghan, Wawi Navarroza
SPACE COTTONSEED (Korea)
Gallery director: Janice Kim
Artists: Moon Kyungwon, Lee Seahyun, Choi Hochul
SUNDARAM TAGORE GALLERY (US)
Gallery director: Sundaram Tagore
Artists: Annie Leibovitz, Robert Polidori, Frank Stella
THE DRAWING ROOM (The Philippines)
Gallery director: Cesar Villalon Jr
Artists: Jose Legaspi, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Kawayan De Guia
TOMIO KOYAMA GALLERY (Japan)
Gallery director: Tomio Koyama
Artists: Yoshitomo Nara, Franz Ackermann, Mika Ninagawa
You know, that commonplace: ““The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
So I guess I’m grateful, in a manner of speaking.
A friend recently brought this to my attention: a simultaneous dissing and out-ing on Facebook. (See screengrab above.)
Curator Tang Fu Kuen clearly is not a fan of my work on this site. This is what he has to say: “An example of a bad sophomoric art blog that imagines it’s contributing intellectually to the SG visual art scene. He calls himself Louis Lardpants!”
I suppose a snarky one-liner is hardly much to get riled about, but that second statement got a little too personal for my taste.
To every critique (although this hardly counts), a rejoinder:
1. Disagreement is perfectly legit. After all, I pull no punches on this blog, so I can hardly expect my readers – and critics – to concur with my opinions, or even my approach. However, this needs to be said: my writing is NEVER about snap judgments, or personal vendettas. (Thank goodness I have few of those.)
It’s about ideas.
The primary impulse behind the direction that this blog has taken in the last year or so derives in large part from what I see as a deficit in critical articulations regarding local art, and local art historical canons: aside from the work of a handful of veteran scholars and foreign academics, there are, sad to say, but a few commentators and critics of Singapore art writing today who are possessed of lucid voices, a tendency to lateral reflection beyond those tired boundaries demarcating the facile notion of autonomy which cloaks the artistic object, and a familiarity with the critical praxis of the Anglo-American academy (since we are hardly heirs to an indigenous tradition of criticality).
In short, I DO view myself as “contributing intellectually to the SG visual art scene”, quote unquote.
That is not a defense, by the way. My work speaks for itself – any claims I muster on its behalf are necessarily inadequate, and the best recourse would simply be to the writing as such. Go read.
In that vein, I invite Mr. Tang – if he, or any acquaintances, happen to be reading this – to an exchange on the pages of this site: a frank, civil discussion of what art criticism and writing in Singapore is, can, and should be, or perhaps regarding any one or more of my reviews on this site, which he may have issues with. Zippy labels like “sophomoric”, while understandably fun, are hardly convincing – unless, of course, as a prelude to a more considered evaluation, which, unfortunately, does not seem to be the case here. I may have deployed a couple of those in my time, but only always as lead-in to careful analysis, and serious commentary.
As I recently mentioned to someone, I believe in reasoned judgment – but, more than that, I believe in dialogue.
The invitation to an exchange is, hopefully, ample demonstration of that fact.
And, hopefully, Mr. Tang, too, knows how to walk the walk. Otherwise his talk may not be worth much.
2. Now this is where the comments rankle. You’ll notice that he makes an allusion to my Facebook handle; indeed, “Louis Lardpants” is how I’m known on FB. (Feel free to look it up, but most of it is accessible only to people in my contact list.) That is quite CLEARLY a reference to – and a deliberate puncture of – the anonymity that I’ve maintained on this site thus far. Now, quite a few regular readers already know who I am, and those with whom I’m not personally acquainted will probably have been clandestinely apprised of the fact by those who are. It doesn’t matter. My identity isn’t a big secret, but the reviewing process being what it is – i.e. not always resulting in a positive verdict – it does save a lot of in-person hassle when I go to shows if I remain faceless. Which explains the continued charade.
I understand that Mr. Tang may have a beef with my opinions as they are expressed here, but surely my choice to remain anonymous should be considered personal, and to be respected as such ? (Even the exclamation mark – “He calls himself Louis Lardpants!” – seems to suggest mockery of that sobriquet, which is, I think, hitting below the belt somewhat.) Again, I stress that writing published on this site, and the critiques contained therein, are directed at (a) publicly expressed opinions, publicly exhibited works of art and publicly accessible exhibitions, and (b) institutions, or individuals as representatives of said institutions or in their capacity as professionals in the art world. In other words, I would NOT look up someone’s Facebook profile and post it on the pages of this blog, or on my own profile – especially not if a preference for anonymity is palpable. (“What bad art! And he/she calls him/herself XXX!”)
I don’t do that … but apparently others do.
Some of you are going to say that Mr. Tang’s comments were made on Facebook, and – privacy settings aside – only for the eyes of his contacts. I do wish to point out that if limited visibility was indeed a consideration here, these remarks would have been made using the Message function, or put on some form of limited setting – not out in the open on the wall of a profile, where word of it got back to me within an hour or so.
I suppose the only conclusion is that Mr. Tang intended for me to be publicly out-ed.
Which is why I decided to put this up here. If he does not wish to respect another’s privacy, then I guess I should feel no qualms about a direct address on an open forum like the present one: Mr. Tang, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.
I definitely welcome a candid conversation about art matters, or my writing, or specifically regarding The Longue Duree … blog – but everything else is pretty much off limits.
I hope that much at least is taken to heart.
An interview with Eugene Tan – formerly of ICAS – in today’s Straits Times.
Local artist Ho Tzu Nyen is on record as saying: “In Singapore, where a habit of anti-intellectualism is unfortunately pervasive in the cultural sphere and judgment about art is often determined solely by the market, Eugene’s knowledge and integrity are extremely significant.”
By Adeline Chia. Published: 30 January 2012.
It is a blisteringly hot day at Gillman Barracks. The leafy area, which contains several old colonial-type buildings, is quiet and deserted but for several contractors.
Dr Eugene Tan is taking Life! on a short tour of the area, which he seems to know like the back of his hand.
We stop at Block 7 and inside, the temperature drops by a few degrees. The room has gigantic black beams running along the ceiling and windows that open up to a scene of tropical wilderness.
In about six months’ time, the space will be home to Kaikai Kiki, the art gallery owned by Japanese A-list artist Takashi Murakami of Louis Vuitton handbag fame.
In neighbouring buildings, other top international galleries will march proudly into this former British army barracks off Alexandra Road. They include Shanghai’s ShanghART Gallery, one of China’s most influential galleries carrying the work of top artist Zeng Fanzhi; Japan’s Ota Fine Arts, representing the work of Yayoi ‘polka dot’ Kusama; and New York’s Sundaram Tagore Gallery, which carries works by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz and abstract American painter Frank Stella.
Later in the year when these galleries open, the space will become a vibrant arts cluster, a place drawing collectors and interested browsers.
Well, that is the plan anyway. And the man executing this vision is none other than the soft-spoken, unassuming Dr Tan.
Although he operates under the radar, the 38-year-old is an influential player in Singapore’s art scene. His official position is programme director of the Lifestyle Programme Office at the Economic Development Board. His actual job? To spearhead the Gillman Barracks project.
That means he is helping to write the next chapter of Singapore’s cultural policy. The plans for Gillman, together with high-profile contemporary art fair Art Stage, are part of Singapore’s bid to be a centre for contemporary art in the region.
In his short career, Dr Tan, who has a PhD in art history and archaeology from the University of Manchester, has made an impact on the local contemporary art scene in several high-level jobs.
He was founding director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Lasalle College of the Arts, refreshing its dated programming to reflect cutting-edge trends; programme director for Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, where he set up the master’s programme for contemporary art; and exhibitions director for prominent Osage Gallery, which has branches in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.
He was also co-curator of the inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006 and curator for the Singapore Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale.
He is one of the most well-liked people in the Singapore visual arts scene, both for his knowledge of contemporary art and his gentle, polite manner.
Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen, 35, who has known him for seven years, says the arts administrator is a ‘true soldier of contemporary art’. Dr Tan has included Ho’s works in several group shows and was the artist’s gallerist during his Osage stint.
Ho says: ‘In Singapore, where a habit of anti-intellectualism is unfortunately pervasive in the cultural sphere and judgment about art is often determined solely by the market, Eugene’s knowledge and integrity are extremely significant.’
He adds that because not everyone can understand contemporary art at first encounter, it is important to have ‘mediators who can ensure that these new ideas are diffused into the public sphere’.
‘Eugene has the perfect set of knowledge, skills and personality to fulfil this crucial task.’
Indeed, when Dr Tan curated Singapore conceptual artist Lim Tzay Chuen in 2005′s Venice Biennale, he handled all media queries on behalf of the artist.
Lim, known for his aggressively conceptual art, proposed to move the Merlion to Venice for the Singapore booth. The Singapore Tourism Board, which owned the 70-tonne half-lion, half-fish statue, declined to give permission. Lim’s exhibition ended up being a documentation of his failure to move the Singapore icon to the prestigious Italian art show.
It was a controversial and bold submission. The ‘Is this art?’ type of questions were lobbied around by the public and journalists, but Dr Tan took them in his stride.
He says: ‘Singapore is still very young in terms of its understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. I don’t think people here really understood why this was art, trying to move a big public monument all the way across to the other side of the world. In time, the work may be appreciated much more.’
Life! meets him for an interview at the Economic Development Board’s headquarters on the 28th floor of Raffles City Tower.
Dr Tan, in his black shirt, dark blue jeans and black sneakers, does not look like your typical bureaucrat. He admits that like many people working in art, he is ‘not a morning person’ and his mostly black wardrobe attests to that. ‘It’s out of convenience. I don’t have to decide what to wear. It simplifies things when everything’s the same colour.’
In master-planning Gillman Barracks, which is developed at a cost of less than $10 million, he adds that while many other art gallery clusters in the world develop organically, some degree of central planning in land-scarce Singapore is essential.
He says: ‘Every little bit of land in Singapore is accounted for. Where land is highly regulated, it’s very difficult for such a project to grow organically.’
There is some scepticism that the Gillman project would work – only one Singapore gallery, Fost, has taken up a space although many others have been approached. But he says things are slowly changing: ‘A lot of people don’t naturally see Singapore as an arts centre.’
An oft-cited observation that Singapore is losing its edge as an arts hub is that Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the two international auction houses, stopped holding auctions here in 2007 and in 2002 respectively, though both still have offices here.
Dr Tan says things are changing with the introduction of the Singapore Biennale and the high-end art fair Art Stage, as well as Singapore’s arts infrastructure in the development of the Singapore Freeport, a storage space for art, arts logistics firms and art insurance.
In fact, he drops a tantalising hint that he has had ‘some very productive meetings with big companies and organisations’ during Art Stage, which ended two weeks ago.
He adds that he met Mr Francois Curiel, president of Christie’s Asia, who was ‘impressed by the potential here’ – though he keeps mum about whether this means that Christie’s will start holding auctions in Singapore again.
Also, prominent Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye, who moved to China after the Belgian authorities ruled that his pig tattoo art projects were illegal, is considering setting up shop here.
There is a lot of speculation about the amount of the Economic Development Board’s investment in Art Stage, which has received mixed reactions this year. Dr Tan refuses to be drawn into revealing a figure, ‘but I can say that it’s not a lot’.
He says Art Stage is ‘totally Lorenzo’s project’, referring to the fair director and Swiss national Lorenzo Rudolf.
He is happier talking about how he began his love affair with art. His father worked in financial services – he last was a management consultant in a financial firm – and his mother was a nurse. They sent their children, Eugene, then 13, and his older sister, 14, to England to attend Concord College, a well-known boarding school.
In 1989, he enrolled at Queen Mary College in the University of London to pursue a degree in Economics and Politics, a safe choice because he was unsure of what he wanted to do in the future.
It was in the British capital that he encountered art in museums and galleries. He was hooked. He took art electives in university, read up on art history and even took painting lessons.
‘But I soon realised that I was better at writing and thinking about art than I was in making it,’ he says.
He also met his Taiwanese wife there in 1991. She was studying fashion design and a friend of his sister. They eventually got married in Singapore in 2003.
He and his wife Heather, formerly a specialist in modern Chinese art in Taipei’s Sotheby’s and now a housewife, have one daughter aged seven. He declined to reveal his wife’s age.
He did his master’s in post-war and contemporary art, and later, a PhD in art history and archaelogy at the University of Manchester.
His tastes lay firmly in conceptual art, in which an artist’s ideas take precedence over what was traditionally considered aesthetic, such as the ability to paint realistically or sculpt beautiful forms.
He juggled his studies with arts writing and curating, but decided at the end of 2003 to return to Singapore. ‘Life was getting hard in London. Things were really expensive there. It was very crowded, the weather was very bad and the food was very bad. I was ready to explore something new.’
He applied successfully for the job of director of Lasalle’s Earl Lu Gallery and returned to Singapore. One of the first things he did was to rename the gallery the Institute of Contemporary Arts to reflect its new programming slant.
In 2008, he hopped over to Sotheby’s Institute of Art when it opened its Singapore campus. He helped set up its contemporary art master’s programme, with Western and Asian canons in its syllabus.
He was there for about a year before he joined Osage as exhibitions director in 2009 and had to move to its headquarters in Hong Kong.
That was when his wife decided to move to Taipei with their daughter as she did not want to live in crowded Hong Kong, but Taipei was still close enough.
She and their daughter will both move back to Singapore later this year.
Tan lives with his retired parents in a condominium in Tanjong Rhu when his family is away and he flies to Taipei often to visit them.
He speaks fondly of his daughter, Nathalie, who is getting an artistic upbringing, following her father to art openings and dabbling in drawing.
He relates a funny story of how, in kindergarten, she had to say what she wanted to be when she grew up. She first said ‘princess’ but after some years, her answer has become ‘curator’.
In a sense, he hopes that the Gillman project – despite its glitz, the money thrown at it and its place in Singapore’s high-stakes bid to be an arts destination – will be an educational space which inspires the young to see that there is a future in the arts.
He says: ‘As a child, there was not much art for me to see. It’s not something my generation was easily exposed to.
‘That’s what I really want to change in Singapore, which I think will happen at Gillman. Not only is there a lot of art to see, it’s also something that could become an alternative for families to going to shopping malls on the weekends.
‘With young children becoming used to going to art galleries, hopefully, the next generation would consider the idea of being in the arts, whether as an artist or as an arts professional.’
What does the art connoisseur have in his collection? He says he has only about 40 to 50 pieces and buys when there is ‘something I really like and can afford’. He has the work of some British artists as well as Singaporean ones such as Jane Lee, Donna Ong and Robert Zhao.
His most recent purchase was at Art Stage, a drawing by noted German artist Carsten Nicolai, who is sort of an artist’s artist, exhibited in major shows and in important collections, but a name which is still under the mainstream radar.
It is clear that Dr Tan lives and breathes art. Even during his personal travels, he visits museums and galleries to the point where ‘I don’t know whether it’s work or pleasure’.
So, he has made a resolution to go on ‘real holidays’ with his family. He says: ‘We will go to places with very little art… maybe a deserted island.’
my life so far
‘That was my decision, because of the problems around Old School that we were facing. When Osage first opened there, it was told that it was a gallery cluster, similar to what we are doing in Gillman. But it turns out that Osage was the only gallery there, the rest were creative business offices. There was a lot of uncertainty about the lease, which meant that we could not plan and make improvement to the spaces’
On why he closed Osage Singapore when he was exhibitions director at the gallery
‘If you look at art districts such as Beijing’s 798 or Chelsea in New York, which have grown organically, the artists start moving in there, the galleries come, the restaurants, cafes and eventually the fashion designers come. The galleries all get priced out. So we want to safeguard and ringfence the space at Gillman for galleries’
On why there is a need for masterplanning an art district at Gillman Barracks instead of leaving it to develop naturally
‘I know there has been some speculation in The Straits Times, but no’
On whether he has been approached to be director of The National Art Gallery
‘We have very good artists in Singapore. I don’t think there have been enough galleries here that know how to develop them and promote them internationally. Which is why Ming Wong, one of our most well-known artists, is living in Berlin and not in Singapore’
On why the top galleries in Gillman will force local galleries to up their game
The latest name in contemporary art hereabouts: the Gillman Barracks.
Apparently the shortlist of galleries to be featured at Gillman has some up in arms – the latest expression of a post-colonial hangover that simply refuses to die. Or, as an earlier piece by fellow blogger 23princessroad on TNAGS’ search for a new director dubs it, the Pinkerton Syndrome.
A letter in today’s Life! section of The Straits Times sums up that position (below).
MAKE SPACE FOR LOCAL ART
I refer to Adeline Chia’s story Art’s Big Names Fall In At Gillman (Life!, Jan 13).
After the list of commercial galleries awarded the privilege of holding court at Gillman Barracks for the next three years was officially announced, many in the arts community were disappointed, myself included.
First, there is a grand total of one Singapore gallery.
Tight curatorial control may have been exercised over the selection of the galleries but I find it inconceivable that only one local gallery made the cut.
Some prominent local gallerists who applied were turned down.
Other galleries which were apparently encouraged to apply simply did not in the end.
So much for elevating the status of local visual arts endeavours.
This only reinforces the notion prevalent among many in the arts community that locals are being bypassed in the Government’s bid to become world-class.
Second, the mix of galleries is lopsided as four out of the 13 galleries are from Japan.
I adore contemporary Japanese art but having four Japanese galleries is definitely an overkill, especially considering there is no gallery from the Middle East, Indochina, South America and Europe.
Considering that there is so much emphasis on Singapore being a hub for South-east Asian art, the paucity of galleries from the region is also disconcerting.
As about 20 galleries in total have been planned for the enclave, I hope that the imbalance will be addressed so that when the Gillman Barracks finally becomes fully operational, we will be proud to call it our own.
Was at the ArtScience Museum this morning for a sneak preview of the upcoming iLight Marina Bay festival, which happens in March next year. (The projects by Chinese artist Li Hui and Indonesian Wiyoga Muhardanto look especially promising – do check out the link.)
Anyways, the sight above – the reflection of canopied struts on curved glass - stopped me dead in my tracks.
… Anthony Poon, anyone ?
The convergence of art and life doesn’t get any more serendipitous than this. Living proof perhaps that Poon’s trademark wave patterns (below) – geometric, methodical sinuousities that made his name as Singapore’s premier abstract artist back in the ’70s – may lend themselves to more than mere formalist considerations.
Apropos of the Sub’s big milestone – which, as JW remarks, means that the institution has now reached official adulthood – this piece by former NMP and ex-artistic co-director of the Sub, Audrey Wong, has been popping up with clockwork-like regularity on my Facebook feed.
It’s worth the read. Some of it is perhaps a little too personal for me – or I just happen to disagree – but there’s a bit in there about how Singaporeans tend to “unconsciously shackle our own imaginations.’
Truer words were never spoken.
The personal angle does provide a nice counterpoint to Pete Schoppert’s ST piece though.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SUBSTATION !
By Audrey Wong.
So I’ve finally read the article in The Straits Times about The Substation’s 21st anniversary (8 Sept 2011), and the headlines made me sigh – once more, yet another press article about whether The Substation is “relevant” today. The media keeps harping on that. I’m sure Adeline Chia (the reporter) did as much as she could, but I think that our national newspaper could do so much better and come up with more insightful editorial angles. Two other things struck me personally: one, Weng Choy was barely mentioned (not quoted even – perhaps he wasn’t available for an interview, but perhaps the national paper should really go for an in-depth perspective even if it took a little longer to get the story?); and two, my quote (taken from a 20-minute chat with Adeline) was about Timbre. Ha.
But back to the ‘relevance thing’. I’m not so interested in this – I’m really more interested in thinking about ‘what is the art that happens at The Substation and how and why this has connected with people all these years’. And thinking about that took me down the road of thinking about what’s now going on in Singapore’s arts development – not at the level of arts policy, but at the level of the everyday reality of the arts-goer and artists. One clear development that’s taken place since the 2000 Renaissance City Report and the opening of the Esplanade in 2002 was the increasing ‘mainstreaming’ of the arts in Singapore. Once the government said, ‘it’s a go!’ we steamed ahead, and in the top-down fashion of Singapore, it became a game of numbers and hype, in order to win approval – from policy-makers, influencers, the media, and ultimately the masses. The NAC, for instance, always issued a press release after the Singapore Arts Festival which focused on audience numbers and ticket sales, with hardly any discussion of the ‘artistic’ aspect of the festival. Such habits of thought and practice (of looking at numbers, and using numbers as a measure of how much an audience ‘took to’ the artistic work) have become second nature to many Singaporeans and affected how we accept, receive, and perceive the arts. The highly materialistic and results-focused society that’s Singapore has bred a consumerist mentality towards the arts. We’re susceptible to the next big spectacle, the next ‘new’ thing, hype. A lot of present-day culture, especially popular culture, is built on the ‘new’ and the newsworthy: just think of the emphasis in the movie industry and across all the media, of a movie’s opening weekend box office take. When one thinks about it rationally, what’s the actual purpose of this emphasis? It’s not really about whether a movie is good or not, or even whether it’s worth watching; it’s about driving even more ticket sales and grabbing media attention. It’s about pushing the sale of a commodity and driving consumption, and everyone’s bought into this game. But, as Weng Choy reminded us years ago, the ‘new’ had become normal business in contemporary arts in the 1990s. (“The Substation’s Place in Singapore Arts”, http://www.substation.org/about-us/artistic-mission). And sometimes, certain genres of art, artists, places, events, become media darlings because of the spectacle, the money it earns or other reasons, garner the lion’s share of media space and thus, the public mindshare.
What is it that drives people to seek out alternatives to mainstream entertainment? I think it’s something intangible that unfortunately, we don’t discuss a lot in the public sphere. Not in Singapore. But, artists and arts groups might see it through audience responses and feedback forms. What’s this intangible thing? At the risk of sounding overly romantic, it’s about any of these: it takes us out of our narrow banal everyday concerns and our selfish concerns; it provokes us to think about the world; and it just gets us beneath the surface of life and its glittering temptations. I was very moved when one of my students told me about what was recently, his first experience of ‘serious’ theatre in Singapore. He was someone who had always focused on bread-and-butter issues, but he attended the “Remembering William Teo” event at The Substation and subsequently went to see TheatreStrays’ performance, “What the Dog Knows”. He responded to the performance directly, emotionally and intellectually, and developed an interest in and admiration for William Teo and other practitioners who passionately dedicated themselves to the craft of theatre without consideration of material rewards. In short, it was a deeper experience of life.
“Unless artists are capable of grappling with the full and unmitigated force of the complications of history, the dilemmas of modernity, the complexities of life as it is lived collectively by men, women and children, they will never be capable of making great art … There can be no great art, no living culture, without great lives, at least lives lived not just expansively but also more deeply.”
Living deeply, perhaps, is what attracts us to the arts. And maybe we Singaporeans could do with a reminder about this, every so often. Earlier this week, during consultations for first-year BA Arts Management students at LASALLE, one student told me that she enjoyed reading an article about how the media’s depiction of women affects social norms and influences the self-image of young women and girls. She had not seriously thought about these issues before, she said, and she was glad to have gone beyond the surface, and glad that it showed her truly what it meant “not to judge a book by its cover”.
Another aspect of living meaningfully has to be about making connections with our deeper selves, humanity, and others. I think of the artists who continue to gravitate towards The Substation even after 20 years. Although Keng Sen said in the Straits Times article that The Substation hadn’t maintained its relationships with artists who were there at the start in the 1990s, there are actually artists from the old days who continue to do work with The Substation … Effendy being one of them, some others being Lee Wen (who was an Associate Artist in the first decade of the 2000s) and Amanda Heng (who presented “I Remember” in 2005 for SeptFest and presented another in her “Let’s Walk” series with The Substation in 2009). As for why some artists stopped being / working at The Substation, well, I can offer three reasons: not enough space to accommodate all; some artists getting bigger and better stages, or their very own space; and – something else which we might call an artistic director’s prerogative, or an artistic direction. More recent artists who are “still there” include Raka Maitra, Sherman Ong, Daniel Kok, Elizabeth de Roza …and hopefully the newest ‘additions’ like Bani Haykal continue the relationship.
I’d venture to say that one aspect of this ‘relationship thing’ is that it’s not merely transactional. Many artists do not go to The Substation just to get something back; if anything, the “getting back” has to do with the artists’ work … the work of constantly making, trying, failing, reflecting, persisting … There was a conversation among the programming team a couple of years ago about the selection criteria for Open Call, which concluded with the thought that the artist(s) selected should not look upon the programme as simply a chance to get exhibition space or get funding. It was about a deeper engagement, with the work, with The Substation as a space, with the ideas, with the public.
Another aspect of the relationship, and perhaps this has to do with the value of an alternative space, I can only explain this way: some years ago, a theatre artist I met talked about the image of stray dogs and why they matter and where there can be space for them. That struck me. You never know how a stray dog might turn out. It’s a life after all, and life should matter. There will always be those who, by choice or circumstance, are left out of mainstream culture and arts, and society has to make spaces where they can be heard, where they can gather. They’re not lesser because they are strays; they might be more interesting.
Maybe what bugs me most about our consumerist mentality, is that we Singaporeans often unconsciously shackle our own imaginations. I’ve begun to understand this a little better, as I’ve met young people who have been trained to conform to the certainty of fixed structures, and habituated to repeating what the teacher wants. Unfortunately, as we train young people not to stray from a prescribed frame, we also train them in self-limitation. This isn’t about censorship; it’s really the shackles we ourselves put on our imaginations out of habit, we don’t permit ourselves to reflect deeply or to play.
“Expectations, memories, nostalgia, frustrations, a potential in real limitations. Our resources are very limited. And to a large degree, our imagination – the Substation’s , everybody’s — has been kind of battered, with the loss of the garden, funding, cultural policies… In a way our imagination becomes restricted, reduced. The challenge now is to recognize the physical limitations and really see how small the space is, and at the same time find the potential of that space that has not been tapped yet.” – Noor Effendy Ibrahim.
Ultimately, the arts can’t be a hegemonic thing, prescribed to us by the powers-that-be or those who just happen to have money and social influence. It’s about the “more” in all of us, perhaps it’s the “more” that keeps me awake at 2am typing this out after a 12-hour workday and a late night trip to the supermarket – because this matters to me, and I want to share it with others. Out of these little “more” moments that we carve out of our lives, perhaps, we find “the potential” of the untapped, the chink in the shutters of our minds.
Remarkably, I see that I’ve managed to write about The Substation without quoting Kuo Pao Kun! Perhaps that’s what he’d have wanted – if The Substation can go on without him, that’s probably proof enough that it’s needed?
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.
It’s yesterday once more.
Ahmad Mashadi, director of the NUS Museum, has a piece out in the latest issue of Third Text, which embeds certain emergent art practices of the 1970s in their historical moment. The ’60s and ’70 were turbulent times for SE Asia in general, the anti-colonialist movement sweeping the region irresistibly towards angry, uneasy independence for many of its fledgling nation-states, and Mashadi seeks to realign art historical and socio-political narratives. While this piece is essentially something of a rehash of his earlier essay for the Telah Terbit catalogue, it’s still nonetheless a fascinating read — if only because there isn’t very much like it out there.
Shoobie doo lang lang …
A shoutout to JW for the link !
FRAMING THE 1970s
This article attempts to shed light on the critical artistic practices taking place in Southeast Asia during the 1970s. The ﬁrst part outlines the contexts of social and political transformation in the region within which developments in prevailing artistic practices and conventions took place. The tenor or intensity of such conditions varied across locations, yet they broadly informed the emergence of artistic discourses marked by newer attitudes towards the role of artists and art, as well as the constitution, the materiality of art, and the considered references made to society and notions of publicness.
Towards this end, we may consider two historical premises, both of which are critical in understanding ‘why Southeast Asia in the 1970s?’. First, Southeast Asia might be perceived as a set of emerging nations whose domestic social, economic and political concerns often appear vexing and tumultuous, yet nevertheless intersect with prevailing discourses of international politics, in particular with Cold War ideologies. The project of decolonisation also brought into play rhetoric intended to exemplify the independent nation-state and its destiny. Such rhetoric has greatly, if not fundamentally, affected the formation and reception of culture, history and self-perception in the region. Second, artistic developments in Southeast Asia from the 1950s on were affected by an increased access to Euro-American artistic models and an eventual shift towards ‘internationalism’, expressed through the pervasiveness and institutionalisation of abstraction and formalism as dominant modes of expression. The institutionalisation of these modes of depiction was both an indication of the extent to which they were celebrated as universal languages enabling cross-border interactions and an expression of progress that could be shaped according to the will of a given state.
As a practice marked by criticality and reﬂexivity, the contemporary locates itself within these horizontal-synchronic references to the present and social contexts, and the vertical-diachronic autonomy of artistic discourse as it unfolds over time. In order to explore the potential of such readings, the second part of this article will provide a chronological description of key developments during the 1970s in Southeast Asia, a time when the synchronic and the diachronic came together in a highly explosive way.
The Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa stencilled these words onto an otherwise empty plinth in 1976: ‘This is a statement about form.’ In doing so, he attempted to bring into focus the need to rethink ways of perceiving art and its mediatory element, the object. The latter, rendered absent, no longer functioned as a carrier of intrinsic meanings or value, therefore undermining the absoluteness of aesthetic and critical judgements. Pablo Baen Santos paints an image of the New Christ (1980), a blue-collar common man cruciﬁed on a dollar sign, with an American ﬂag waving in the background. It is ﬁgurative, conceived to communicate effectively and to connect emotively to the ongoing economic and political struggles in the Philippines. Decidedly leftist in its politics, the work is informed by anti-capitalistic and anti-American sentiments. If these works are to provide a cursory snapshot of contemporary practices in Southeast Asia during the 1970s, then such practices characterised two broad approaches – conceptualism and statement-making – as well as realism and forms of activism. However, these approaches should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but instead as trajectories founded upon shared contextual currents.
The outcome may be described in relation to the emergence of the ‘aesthetics of rejection’ and ‘aesthetics of empathy’. It is not a bifurcation of artistic trajectories, but rather an intertwined proposition of the contemporary. Criticality, conceptualisms and activism describe these interests, best expressed by David C Medalla in 1975. When asked by interviewer Cid Reyes what he wanted Philippine artists to ‘rebel against’, Medalla stated:
Well, against authority. One should not just accept authority in anything, least of all in art. I don’t mean one should rebel merely for the sake of rebellion: that will be absurd. That is to say, only after having examined reality can one accept certain fundamental concepts. Our young artists should immerse themselves in the lives of the people. They must be thoroughly critical, not only of what is currently fashionable but also of all those artistic forms they are adapting from abroad. They should learn to integrate themselves with the needs of the masses of the people. I think it can be done. 1
These interests are signiﬁcant and broad ranging, not only in their relevance to art from the Philippines, but also to our discussion on contemporary art in Southeast Asia. They may be explored along several fronts: as critical responses to conventions and modes of ‘internationalism’; through questions pertaining to institutions and institutionalisation of art; and through regional and national political developments. As a cultural projection of nation, earlier modern developments as expressed through abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to reﬂect notions of national ‘progressiveness’ by displacing the conservatism of earlier styles. In turn, such developments sought to capitalise on the language of abstraction in order to facilitate international engagements. The idea of international fraternity often played itself out through biennales and other large-scale, recurring international arts events. Relentlessly, according to Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, founder of the Art Association of the Philippines in 1948, the drive towards internationalism and international recognition:
. . . took the form of a desire to compete. . . to crash the international scene, it was believed that one had to paint in the international style. The feeling grew that the Filipino artist was as good as anyone.2
Some of the many artists who participated in international events included Vicente Manansala and Nena Saguil (Spanish-American Biennale, Cuba, 1958), Napoleo´ n Abueva and Jose´ Joya (Venice Biennale, 1962) and Arturo Luz, Lee Aguinaldo (Sa˜o Paulo Biennale, 1971). These participations were undertaken at considerable cost and effort, yet as Kalaw-Ledesma recalled, ‘our entries were lost in the sea of similar works, each working in the same school of abstract thought’.3
Disappointed by the outcome of the Sa˜o Paulo participation, Arturo Luz lamented:
. . . in my opinion the Bienal de Sa˜o Paulo is a showplace for the big nations determined to gain prestige and rather expensive exercise for the small participating nations. . . My own guess is that international recognition will come if we win an award or send an exhibition which is truly original and outstanding by international standards.4
Nevertheless, the trend towards abstraction and formalism continued. Mediated by the various searches for national and cultural identities, this trend was inﬂected by the local through references to indigenous motifs and philosophical frames. Declared a universalist language, abstraction became subject to institutional appropriation and reiﬁcation and thus to critique. In locating abstraction as part of the project of nation, Syed Ahmad Jamal claimed:
The Merdeka [Post-Independence Malaysian] artists of the ﬁfties and sixties subscribed mainly to the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. The immediacy and mystical quality of the mainstream art of the 1960s appealed particularly to the Malaysian temperament, sensitivity and cultural heritage.5
The statement projects an attempt to locate Malaysian art within the fraternity of the international. But the reference made to the ‘Malaysian temperament, sensitivity and cultural heritage’ makes clear the anxiety underwriting the problems of situating the abstract in Malaysia and resituating the same back into the global discourse, a process characterised by its inherent unevenness where Asian abstraction art was often regarded as ‘derivative’ by the hegemonic West. For contemporary artists during the 1970s, these contexts and contingencies provided points of introspection, opening new grounds for critique and generating new points of departure. On the one hand, considered references to ‘universalist Western’ perspectives that privileged notions of progression provided ground upon which to form discourses leading to a range of aesthetic investigations and developments, concomitant with the emerging regard for the sense of the self within the broadening sphere of the modern experience. On the other hand, the perceived uneven relationships underlying internationalist engagements coupled with speciﬁc and localised communitarian needs posed considerable challenges in catalysing theoretical and artistic developments. In Indonesia, the relatively open developments during the 1970s had been made possible by the fall of President Sukarno in 1966 and the subsequent removal of the Communists from the cultural landscape. A cultural manifesto known as Manikebu (Manifesto Kebudayaan), which was introduced in 1963 by a group of cultural activists arguing on behalf of freedom of artistic expression in contradistinction to the directed approaches of cultural productions of the past decade, was rejected by Sukarno and attacked by LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat), the Communist Party’s cultural arm, then closely tied to the Sukarno government. The inﬂuence of LEKRA diminished along with the displacement of the Sukarno government. A failed coup known as Gestapu took place on 30 September 1965 with the military targeting suspected Communists and leftists, often through the involvement of Islamic militias. Left-wing artists including writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and painter Hendra Gunawan were imprisoned.
Tainted by his links to the Communists and implicated in several events associated with the attempted coup, President Sukarno eventually ceded his powers to Suharto who established a New Order government in 1966. The new president oversaw a series of policy changes including a more hospitable attitude towards the US. With the left-wing rhetoric of LEKRA removed from the cultural discourse of Indonesian art, and Sukarno’s spectacular fall from grace, the entire ediﬁce of Communist aesthetics imploded as well. The effects were immediately felt with the dissipation of the discourse between the Yogyakarta and Bandung schools. In its place arose a less polemical articulation of the introspective self and culture as mediated by formalism. Those harassed by the left during the late 1950s and early 1960s welcomed the opportunity to explore concerns relating to individual expression associated with high modernism. Indeed, the government-run Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) Art Center opened in 1968 with little incident. Although state-controlled, the Center provided a place for artistic practice relatively free from the undue inﬂuence of any one ideology. Aesthetic experimentation and formal references to indigenous cultures consequently ﬂourished in the Indonesian artworld. These kinds of sites and the gradual erosion of politics as a key concern for artists later gave rise to another group of practitioners eager to redeﬁne the trajectory of Indonesian art so that it more closely related to the country’s history and society.
In 1969, a year after the opening of TIM, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) opened in Manila. Its construction, supported in part by the US, resulted in a building that initially hosted groups and shows from abroad. The visual arts initiatives offered an internationalist orientation focusing on high modernism and new experimental forms, including conceptual and performance art which were seen as extensions of an emerging Filipino modernity that seamlessly embraced a dynamic spirit inherent within regional and indigenous cultures. The early history of the CCP coincided with the increasing political tensions within the Philippines; in 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and the establishment of a Bagong Lipunan (New Society), ostensibly in order to safeguard democracy and introduce ‘law and order’. The CCP positioned itself as an institution intended to promote criticality in artistic and curatorial practices connected to the practices of Roberto Chabet and Raymundo Albano as well as with their associates. Yet the Center’s links to the Marcos regime and the apparent exclusion of artists identiﬁed with the political opposition compelled many to view the CCP as merely a cultural extension of Marcos’s rule. The political opposition dubbed the CCP a monument to a morally bankrupt elite and throughout the 1970s the Center was approached by some artists as afoil against which to express resistance to the Marcos government. 6 A case in point is Kaisahan (Solidarity), led by Pablo Baen Santos, which initiated protests against the Marcos government and American patronage by incorporating strategies taken from realism and street art. The group issued a Declaration of Principles, which stressed the creation of nationalist art intended for the people and reﬂective of their aspirations.
Such art was to function as a means of communication, an imperative that extended to the production of banners and posters used in demonstrations and marches, as well as to political cartoons published in various popular media venues. Realism was deployed in order to critique the state’s patronage of the arts through such institutions as the CCP, which tended to favour abstraction and conceptual practices that for many appeared artiﬁcial, mannerist and overly indexical of international movements.
Across Southeast Asia, the end of the Second World War also meant the beginning of decolonisation, which proved to be a period of intense change and turmoil. Although the transfer of power from colonial rulers to emerging indigenous elites was relatively peaceful in the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya and Singapore, in Vietnam and Indonesia it was not. The 1960s and 1970s, when numerous transformative and tumultuous social and political shifts took place, complicated the picture further. This period of transformation coincided with the Cold War, a struggle that involved global politics of patronage as the US and USSR lent their support to particular political factions in those countries they hoped to inﬂuence. Instruments of diplomacy and foreign policy became tools for imposing a narrow binary perspective on political doctrines, many of which resulted in violence, death and untold trauma. The US extended both direct and indirect forms of support to regimes considered critical in stopping the advance or inﬂuence of Communism, particularly after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. In practice, these interventions also involved aiding or assisting regional governments in order to neutralise the inﬂuence of the political left, even if it meant disregarding the will of the popular electorate. 7
Key political events were often read in relation to these patterns of support. The imposition of martial law in the Philippines, and the military actions against students at Thammasat University in Thailand in 1973 and 1976, as well as actions undertaken in Indonesia in 1978, galvanized a range of popular struggles that included the formation or consolidation of artists’ groups afﬁliated with the political left. Inspired by leftist politics and anti-Americanism, student protest groups were widespread, especially in the Philippines and Thailand. In the latter, these protests emerged through a form of criticism articulated through Surrealism and at times powerfully combined with images of religious signiﬁcance. The works of Somchai Hatthakitkoson and Thammasak Booncherd directly refer to what they regarded as the imperialist presence of the United States in Thailand. Somchai’s The Goddess Kali of the 20th Century (1972) was conceived as a metaphor of public indignation directed towards the prostitution of Thai women to US soldiers.
Attempts to deﬁne art according to broader ethical and religious constructs often involved incorporating a range of iconographic signs, then repurposing them in order to allude to contemporary concerns. Buddhism, for example, was denoted through images of the Buddha or through decorative motifs associated with the practice of Buddhism. Such tactics were put into practice by groups such as the Dharma Group, led by Pratuang Emjaroen. Pratuang undertook a series of paintings addressing the violent suppression of pro-democracy student protests in 1973 and 1976. 8
In Red Morning Glories and Rotten Riﬂes (1976), the head of the Buddha has been pierced, stained with blood and placed amidst alandscape of riﬂe butts and muzzles. Pratuang describes his intent thus: [they] symbolise the feelings of confusion and disbelief at the sight of such horriﬁc scenes. There are crying faces and a sky with heavy black storm clouds. Tears stream endlessly down the face of the Buddha, a symbol of the Thai people under threat. 9
Red Morning Glories and Rotten Riﬂes was shown in the third exhibition of the Dharma Group at the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, which opened on 5 October 1976. Coincidentally enough, a student protest against Thai military rule was violently quashed by the state the day after the show’s opening, a grisly echo of a similar confrontation that took place in 1973. The exhibition was closed soon after.
The recourse to religion and tradition may also be seen in Malaysia following the race riots of 13 May 1969. In the aftermath of the political and cultural anxieties arising from the riots, the National Cultural Congress convened in Kuala Lumpur from 16 to 20 August 1971. There, the proposal that art be mobilised to serve economic and social objectives rather than the individual was made. It was a controversial proposal, provoking numerous responses that recalled the 1969 riots, including Redza Piyadasa’s May 13th, 1969, which in his words harboured an intimation of a certain sense of nation. 10
A more direct response to the emerging cultural policy aimed at healing the rifts of a multi-ethnic Malaysia appeared some years later. In the years immediately following 1969, Piyadasa worked on various projects that may be described in relation to their afﬁnities to conceptualism and situational practices. In 1974, he, with Sulaiman Esa, authored Towards a Mystical Reality. Although it need not be seen as a direct attempt to critique state views of culture, the manifesto proposes an alternative aesthetic that enables new ways of producing and apprehending art outside Western-centric rationalist positions. The manifesto is noteworthy for proposing an artistic ideology based on cultural and philosophical traditions in Asia; in anticipation of realising this ideology, the authors aimed to ‘sow the seeds for a thinking process which might someday liberate Malaysian artists from their dependence on western inﬂuence’.11 For example, the artists reiterated their quest to redeﬁne parameters by realigning them to borrowings from Asian philosophical notions that enable Asian art production to converse with international concerns; not through a style or formal criteria but an attitude that is mystical and can be unpacked to support new art concepts and productions. By the late 1970s, a strong interest in the Malay culture and Islamic consciousness had emerged in Malaysia. As a Muslim convert of Sri Lankan descent, the 1970s was also a period of introspection for Piyadasa. He began to reﬂect on the vexing question of cultural and national identities in his works, one that had been conditioned by the complexities of colonisation, migration and ethno-nationalism. Piyadasa used archival portrait photography as a basis of his investigations, re-rendering them in ambiguous terms with motifs and colours to engage the viewers’ attention in rethinking the binarist bumiputra (indigenous)/nonbumiputra divide that surfaced in post-1969 Malaysia. 12
During the late 1970s, Sulaiman Esa was drawn to synthesising a conﬂation of ethno-nationalistic modernity with individual expression. He produced a seminal series of prints entitled Waiting for Godot, based on Samuel Beckett’s famous existential play. The series of photoetchings explored a deep personal dilemma regarding the question of artistic purpose and faith, with the prints juxtaposing two contrasting markers of aesthetic and philosophical values through images of the nude and the arabesque. The series foreshadowed the artist’s move towards a Malay-Islamic orientation which became a dominant trend in Malaysian art during the 1980s, coinciding with the rapid rise of pan-Islamism in Southeast Asia. The politicisation of artistic practices may also be located in artistic developments linked to nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of earlier decades. Although the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) emerged in Indonesia under the relative calm of the early phases of Suharto’s New Order, the increasing social tensions and militarism of the late 1970s prompted artists like Dede Eri Supria and F X Harsono to address critical issues such as economic exploitation, global capitalism and social suppression. The group’s manifesto ‘Lines of Attack of the Indonesian New Art Movement’ proposed a rejection of ‘the concept of art that is universal’, insisting instead on a recognition of cultural and historical contexts and social concerns. 13
This critique against increasingly lyrical, mannerist and formal tendencies is paralleled elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Yet these aesthetic positions and notions of criticality in favour of communitarian perspectives may be located within a trajectory of critical positions deﬁned by earlier groups such as the nationalist Persagi (Persatuan Ahli Gambar Indonesia, founded by S Sudjojono in 1938) and LEKRA, the Communist party’s cultural arm, defunct by 1965, both of which were signiﬁcant for their articulations of the rakyat (the people) and its realities.
The artistic movements described above may be seen as a collective critique against the formality, un-reﬂexiveness and repetitiveness of what was called ‘international abstraction’ and ‘provincial lyricism’ which had dominated art-making. While theoretical positions concerning the function and independence of artistic practices tended to differ, they also shared an interest in addressing the conditions of art-making, such as the reception and development of Euro-American models from a postcolonial perspective, as well as the need to challenge the values upheld by institutions and the art market. This helped introduce new forms of practice, in terms of both medium (installation and performance) and content (the explicit invocation of political, gender, religious and environmental issues). Since the late 1970s, the performances and installations of Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu have consistently addressed the profound impact of urbanisation evidenced through the destruction of nature and the trafﬁcking and consumption of wildlife in Asia. Elsewhere, the political activism and protest art seen through seni rupa di kaki lima (street art) incorporated strategies of performance and happenings. As such, the re-emergence and preoccupation with the ‘ﬁgure’, associated with the radical left, need not be seen as mere counterpoints to more conceptual practices. This complexity was highlighted by Patrick Flores in 1998:
The agenda of Philippine art history and criticism through the years has been caught in the vise of antinomies: craft and art, indigenous and colonial, conservative and modern, social realist and conceptual, form and content. While these oppositions may attempt to dramatize discrepancies among competing modes of knowing art and putting it into practice, they cannot even begin to discuss the complexity of the conﬂict, the possibility of encounters, and the art world’s overlapping – because combined and uneven – modes of production. 14
The manifesto of the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru ﬁts within the agenda of art history and criticism as deﬁned in relation to a broader postcolonial history and culture whereby the new can be made meaningful, detached as it is from the imperatives of Euro-American theories and histories:
To [inspire] the growth of ‘Indonesian’ art by privileging research into the new Indonesian art history, that has its roots in the art practices of Raden Saleh. To examine ways of periodising such history, to study critically its evolvement, to consider its future developments. To acknowledge that in the new Indonesian art history, there are contexts that are unique, so much so that these may not be referenced in ‘imported books’, useful in contextualising Indonesian art, making it conducive for further development.
To aspire to artistic growth that is referenced in the writings and theories of Indonesians art critics, historians and thinkers. To reject totally the perception that Indonesian art is an index to world art, a claim that art is universal, that places Indonesian art contingent to international discourse. 15
Here we may return to the impact of the race riots of 13 May 1969 (the ‘May 13 Incident’) in Malaysia as a foundational point in the development of Malaysian art in the 1970s and 1980s. For many, the incident was signiﬁcant in revealing the limitations of modernism vis-a` -vis the cultural articulation of nation and community. Some declared the need to emphasise communitarian interests that would express a national identity and its values, interests that might correspond with the Rukun Negara (National Principals), a set of national values introduced by the government in 1971 as a response to the May 13 Incident. For T K Sabapathy:
. . . overtly and covertly, events of May 1969 and the Cultural Congress (1971) began to shape thinking and practice among artists; they were far too shattering and fundamental to be ignored. Throughout the 1970s, artists began the difﬁcult, painful process of rethinking their positions, and recasting their perceptions of culture, language, race, state/nation and identity. . . the stakes were too important and consequential not to be involved. 16
Artists sought to engage with this search by oscillating between various dogmatic and critical perspectives. Those associated with Mystical Reality and conceptual approaches tried to explore the limitations of modernism within the local milieu while also engaging with what they perceived as the international. Their works in the early 1970s investigated the assumptions of nation and community, making direct and oblique references to the events of 1969 and the National Cultural Congress of 1971 that had shaped the cultural debates during the period, placing special emphasis on examining and reﬂecting tensions and contradictions between individualism and communitarian interests. The May 13 Incident shattered the positivist complacency of post-independence, bringing to light the problematic of cultural decolonisation and its role in positioning the contemporary. Kaisahan’s manifesto aptly preﬁgures these vexing questions:
For us, therefore, the question ‘for whom is art?’ is a crucial and signiﬁcant one. And our experiences lead us to the answer that art is for the masses. It must not exist simply for the pleasures of the few who can afford it. It must not degenerate into the pastime of a few cultists.
We are aware of the contradictions that confront us in committing ourselves to this task. At present, under the conditions of our times, the audience who will view our works will mostly be the intellectuals, students, professionals and others who go to the galleries. But we wish to gradually transform our art so that it has a form understandable to the masses and a content that is relevant to their life. At present, it is inevitable that our art is sometimes commercialized. But we should use this as a means and not as an end for our artistic expressions. 17
As sketched above, these events crucially deﬁne perspectives of nation, community and self, expressed in a range of feverish, even manic, struggles for identiﬁcation and resistance often complicated by the production of cultural identiﬁers in sync with the project of nation-building that so preoccupied governments throughout Southeast Asia. The economic and social transformations that took place in the 1970s, moreover, necessarily inﬂected cultural discourse by compelling artists to reﬂect on a broad spectrum of social conditions. Such transformations also demanded that artists turn inward to focus on the condition known as the self so as to open up the potential of art as practice.
1. Cid Reyes, Conversations on Philippine Art, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila, 1980, p 149
2. Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Amadis Ma Guerrero, The Struggle for Philippine Art, Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, Manila, 1974, p 67
3. Ibid, p 68
4. Ibid, p 71
5. Syed Ahmad Jamal, Contemporary Malaysian Art, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1988, unpaginated
6. Benigno Aquino Jr, ‘A Pantheon for Imelda’, in A Garrison State in the Make and Other Speeches, Benigno S Aquino Jr Foundation, Manila, 1985, unpaginated
7. The Lon Nol government came to power in Cambodia through a coup d’e´ tat against Prince Sihanouk, bringing the country into an escalated civil war that ended in a victory for the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Suharto’s New Order, introduced in 1966 after the bloody purging of the Parti Komunis Indonesia (PKI), which led to an estimated one million deaths, was characterised by the dominance of the military across the economic and political spheres which only ended in the late 1990s. In Thailand, a brief experiment with democracy in 1969 gave way to the return of a military government in 1971, thus foreshadowing the violent suppression of student movements in 1973 and 1976. In the Philippines, President Marcos, sensing an electoral defeat, introduced martial law in 1972, hence precipitating a populist movement for the reconstitution of the democratic process which later culminated in the advent of People’s Power in 1986.
8. Pro-democracy student protests at Thammasat University in 1973 resulted in a bloody confrontation with the Thai military, an incident later commemorated as the ’14 November Uprising’. The ensuing events eventually led to a review of the Thai constitution for the reinstatement of civilian rule. However, the military reassumed power in 1976.
9. Sodchuen Chaiprasathna and Jean Marcel, The Inﬂuence of European Surrealism in Thailand, R Michael Crabtree, trans, Thailand Research Fund, Bangkok, 2005, p 36
10. See T K Sabapathy, Piyadasa: An Overview, 1962–2000, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2001
11. Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, Towards a Mystical Reality, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1974, pp 4– 5
12. See Sabapathy, op cit
13. The full manifesto is published in Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia, Jim Supangkat, ed, Penerbit PT Gramedia, Jakarta, 1979, p xix. Also see Telah Terbit (Out Now): Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Practices During the 1960s to 1980s, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2007, pp 50–51.
14. Patrick Flores, ‘Missing Link, Burned Bridges: The Art of the 70s’, Pananaw 2, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Manila, 1998, p 53
15. Telah Terbit (Out Now), op cit, pp 50–51
16. T K Sabapathy, ‘Vision and Idea Relooking Modern Malaysian Art’, Merdeka Makes Art, or Does It?, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1994, p 71
17. Alice Guillermo, Protest/Revolutionary Art in the Philippines 1970–1990, University of the Philippines, Manila, 2001, p 24
Welcome to Singapore, where history is reusable, state-sanctioned, and micro-managed.
Even the history of avant-garde art.
The Artists Village was the first artist’s colony hereabouts, founded in 1988 by Tang Da Wu in a then remote part of the island up north. A good number of artists associated with the village went on to wider renown in the ’90s and beyond: Tang himself, Vincent Leow, Lee Wen, Amanda Heng (recipient of this year’s Cultural Medallion), Zai Kuning, Koh Nguang How. Over the years, the idea of an avant-garde collective operating at the margins of artistic praxis and official approbation has become emplotted as a seminal moment in the narrative of local art history; it was also the subject of a retrospective at the SAM in 2008.
And now it’s being brought back to life, according to an article in The Straits Times today (below).
I suppose any sort of support for artists in Singapore is a good thing, but why the return to an older ideal ? The ’80s were more than two decades ago, and things have changed — vastly. An enlarged arts scene, with international galleries setting up shop here as well as a major new museum on the way; our very own biennale; ever-increasing awareness of the visual arts among the populace at large.
But I guess the ‘kampung spirit’ is an indigenous paradigm that’s hard to beat for commodified appeal.
THIS VILLAGE NEEDS MORE ARTISTS
Local artists will get a place to call their own with The Artists Village programme on Pulau Ubin. By Melissa Sim.
It takes a village to raise a child, goes the saying, and in Singapore, it takes a village … to nurture artists.
Well, not any old village, but an actual village that, back in the 1980s and 1990s, was a space in Ulu Sembawang for artists to work and exchange ideas, known as The Artists Village.
That village has long gone though it survives as a society created in 1992 called The Artists Village (TAV).
Now, the village concept is back, but this time on Pulau Ubin as a new village that, unlike the previous focus on local artists, will offer an international residency programme supported by the National Arts Council (NAC).
The “village” programme starts next month and will last for 11 months. TAV, which is spearheading it and has received an NAC grant of about $80,000, is calling for artists to apply for the residency. Veteran artists Tang Da Wu, who founded the original village, and Lee Wen will sit on an advisory panel for the project.
Local and international artists from any medium, whether sound, visual or performance, can sign up for a residency lasting one to three months. They will receive an allowance of $1,200 a month.
But it will still be a back-to-basics experience – the “village”, in the island’s south-west, has no electricity. Power comes from a generator turned on in the evenings.
It mostly consists of a wooden shack rented out by an Ubin resident of more than 50 years who goes by the name of Ah Kok.
More back-to-basics: Artists will share their toilet with him.
Tha shack has two bedrooms, a kitchen, a studio area, a bathroom and an open concept living area and can house two to three artists at a time.
Still, co-artistic director of the residency programme, artist Kai Lam, notes that TAV has put aside $10,000 to renovate the place. The other co-director is artist Jeremy Hiah.
Lam says it feels like TAV is “coming full circle” because for years it did not have a space of its own, and used public spaces and galleries for exhibitions or events.
Project manager and sound artist Arif Ayab, who goes by the name Reef, says: “It’s calming here, easier to get inspiration than in the city.”
Adds Lam who has sued the space for a five-day stretch: “Here you can just clear your mind and think of your work.”
Reef and his band, Under The Velvet Sky, have worked in the shack before and benefited from the laid-back environment. Recently, they produced a soundtrack for a 30-minute movie in under two hours.
Spotted last night at the opening of the Singapore Survey 2011: Imagine Malaysia show at Valentine Willie Fine Art: local artist and actor Loo Zihan’s performance of a piece he called Taman Negara (or National Park). It consisted of Loo alternately standing stock-still, and moving between two pillars, which were adorned with his old family pictures — perhaps taken in the Taman Negara in Malaysia – a tape recorder, and a screen displaying video footage of the artist and his father (I think). Accompanied by several chamber pots filled with water, he would, at regular intervals, drink from these pots, or transfer the contents from one to the next.
And when he felt the need to pee, he would. Right there in the gallery, standing motionless in front of a crowd of gawkers.
By the time I arrived, the front of his pants already showed large, dark, damp patches running down in between the legs, and small puddles were visible on the floor.
Apparently the piece, as someone explained it to me — but she was pretty sloshed*, so I dunno — was a reference to (an exorcism of?) an old childhood trauma. The exact intent behind it was not entirely clear to me just from watching, but I loved it. Performance art was proscribed by the authorities after the hijinks of Josef Ng, Shannon Tham and Vincent Leow back in the early ’90s. Ng, as most people might remember, snipped his pubic hair at a public performance in Parkway Parade, and Tham chewed up and threw up a copy of The New Paper (see here), while Leow, a year earlier, had taken a leak in front of his audience — and then guzzled it back down (here). The consequence of all this was, of course, official disapprobation, and censorship: the National Arts Council condemned Ng’s act, the artist was fined 1,000 SGD, and, most unfortunately, funding for performance art of all stripes was embargoed – a ban lifted only in 2003, nearly a decade later.
* The individual has since written in to protest my suggestion that she was doling out wrong information (see comments); I stand corrected.
Are we now witnessing a return to the sort of in-your-face stunts that performance artists of a previous generation espoused ?