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An Outsider's View of the Singaporean Contemporary Art Scene
by Tsukasa Ikegami, Curator, Otani Memorial Art Museum, Nishinomiya City
Published in Japanese in Shikaku no Gemba (Seosonal Opinions on Visual Facts), vol.9, Daigo Shobo, Kyoto, Japan, June 15, 2011, pp.20-21. Translated by Christopher Stephens and posted courtesy of author
Having gained independence in 1965, the Republic of Singapore is still a young nation and as a result, the history of contemporary art in the country is also comparatively short. But with an ethnic makeup composed primarily of Chinese but also significant Malay and Indian populations, as well as a variety of foreign immigrants, Singapore, whose official language is English, has now begun to set its sights on creative fields such as theatre, music, and art in its role as one of the main hubs in Asia, and a reflection of its political and economic stability.
The Singapore Biennale, held for the first time in 2006, is a large-scale undertaking that might be seen as a concerted national effort. With the theme of “Open House,” the third installment of the event was presented this year at the Singapore Art Museum and its annex, SAM at 8Q; the National Museum of Singapore; Old Kallang Airport; and the popular tourist attraction, Marina Bay. This international exhibition, presenting the work of some 63 primarily Asian artists, is comparable in size to South Korea's Kwangju Biennale and Japan's Yokohama Triennale. Among the various events at this year's biennale, the preview for Tatzu Nishi's installation The Merlion Hotel in Marina Bay, and the opening ceremony at Old Kallang Airport were attended by a large number of invited guests and media people as well as government officials, revealing the thriving nature of Singapore, which is still in the process of extensive urban development.
Yet, despite the success of the event itself, I was left with the haunting question of whether there was really any art there. Due to the overly broad theme of the exhibition as a whole and a feeling of déjà vu that persisted even though many of the artists were unknown to me, I was unable to sense the curatorial power to predict any new directions in art or the creative power in the works themselves to transcend already existent forms of expression. What I saw was undoubtedly art, and there were some individual instances of high-quality work, but the items on display were not in the least bit likely to break out of accepted notions of art today and were instead closer in appearance to a huge showcase, allowing them to be viewed with a sense of ease.
On the other hand, away from pomp and clamor, I did manage to find two interesting events. One, titled "Camping and Tramping Through the Colonial Archive: The Museum in Malaya," was at the NUS (National University of Singapore) Museum. It was an ambitious attempt to reconstruct what the colonists saw in the region and what they said about its history and culture by examining a variety of documents related to the creation of museums in British Malaya during the 19th century. Most surprising perhaps was the fact that the specimens, documents, everyday items, and art objects that the British had collected from the local people were displayed in their entirety like a huge storehouse of knowledge. The exhibition also focused on the process of creating the museum archive, which comprises written statements from the era, and documentary film footage and audio histories of the colony. In other words, the invisible, fictional structure of history had been given a visible form. Also included was a critical view of the act of curation as a means of conveying a narrative through displays, and an advanced form of documentation, which disclosed the type of thinking that informed the museum. Rather than conceiving of the material in the context of art history or ethnology, this effort to reexamine the significance and potential of displaying something within a wider field of vision, was extremely intelligent and creative, and called out for comparisons with current contemporary art exhibitions, which are growing increasingly devoid of any critical function.
The second event was an experimental film screening held at a nonprofit space called the Substation. This one-day-only event, titled "Flicker Orchestrated 2: Expanded Cinema," was a collaborative venture produced by the film director Lynn Loo and the visual artist Hun Ping. The small audience consisted of only a couple dozen people, but the performances by both artists were of great interest. With a wall or canvas as a screen, they simultaneously used a number of projectors, including one for 16-mm film and one for slides, and rather than merely allowing them to run, altered the positions of the machines, and devised more complex visual effects with filters and hand movements. The six short works made the viewer aware of the fact that film is essentially a phenomenon based on phases of color and sequences of frames. The event also created a strong contrast to most video works in contemporary art, which tends to focus on concept alone without reexamining method.
These experimental events, which occurred well outside of the regular art market at a university museum and nonprofit space, may not have attracted much attention from society at large. Seen from a slightly broad perspective, however, they allowed me to glimpse the diverse nature of Singapore's tolerant society and to ascertain that there are people active in the local community who possess a high ideal and clear vision. These circumstances, which demand the attention of all curators of contemporary art, are actually not that far removed from the field of contemporary art. And this is true not only in Singapore but also in Japan.