Singapore gets its art groove

Observing the restless, ever-changing nature of post-war Berlin, former French culture minister Jack Lang once famously remarked, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin”. The same could be said of Singapore. Even in the context of breakneck development in many Asian countries, the tiny island nation stands out not just for the way the skyline can change overnight, but in the way wholesale aspects of the culture have been rapidly transformed. One of the most remarkable changes has undoubtedly been in the visual and performing arts, with the scene today virtually unrecognisable from that of 10 years ago. Tour leader Robert Veel takes a closer look…

In the 1980s Singapore was jokingly referred to as a ‘fine city’. You could be fined (or perhaps caned) for spitting, littering, J-walking or any other number of misdemeanours. Apart from a few seedy blocks of ‘entertainment’ in the Bugis district, it was also notoriously stitched up socially. Yet this very strict social conservatism, together with the rule of law and excellent central planning, made it stand out from its neighbours – a good place to raise a family and a good place to do business. But for travellers, artists and entrepreneurs, there were far more interesting places to be – the freewheeling, late-colonial entrepot of Hong Kong, bustling Bangkok or any other of the Asian ‘tiger’ economic capitals.

Historically, there’s also been something of a cultural cringe in Singapore – something that Australians can relate to very well. Singaporeans have perhaps a very modest opinion of their creativity. Filmmaker Sherman Ong, for example, asserted as recently as April 2018 that “Singapore has always been a very pragmatic place – it’s a very commercial city. The population still does not see how arts benefit them materially. Of course, the government is working very hard to change that, and you can see these changes, but it still needs time.”

The Paradox of Beauty, on display at the Singapore Contemporary Art Show

Government funding…and control

By the 1990s Singapore’s government was perfectly aware of the country’s straight-laced reputation and the risk this posed for economic and social stagnation. In typical fashion it decided to confront the issue head on. Strong funding for the visual and performing arts was one plank in a strategy to ensure that creativity and dynamism were not being sapped by the heavy hand of central government. Theatre companies popped up, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1979, received a major funding boost, private art dealers were encouraged to set up shop and a museum precinct began to develop around the colonial buildings that faced the Padang, the colonial-era playing grounds near the mouth of the Singapore River. Expats who have worked in the cultural sector in both Australia and Singapore are delighted to discover the healthy level of government support for the arts compared to Australia, where funding for the arts in real terms has been in decline since the 1980s and it is hard to find champions among either the right or left of the political class.

Creativity requires a measure of freedom. One of the challenges that the Singapore cultural scene faced, and continues to face, is how to maintain cultural spontaneity in an environment where the government likes to maintain a fair level of control over most aspects of daily life and also subsidises up to 85% of the art scene. Although censorship is not explicitly enforced, Singaporean artists refer to ‘OB markers’ – out-of-bounds issues of politics, race, religion and sexuality. In an article published in The Guardian (9 Sep 2017), theatre producer/director Ong Keng Sen puts it this way: “Singaporeans are very aware of where they should align themselves without being told. You’re not told what’s not possible, but you are given an indication that that’s not the way you should go, and you just internalise it, and co-ordinate yourself and your desires.”

In spite of the concerns about the potential stymying effect of the government’s role, it appears that for many the strong funding outweighs concerns about implicit censorship. Yes, there have been a few failures (such as the Singapore Arts Festival, in retreat for a decade or so, and Art Stage, probably a result of bad management more than anything else), but there have been many successes too, such as Singapore Art Week and the magnificent venues that have opened recently.

Street art commissioned for Singapore Art Week

Singapore, Shanghai or Hong Kong?

One of the most fascinating aspects of the rise of the arts in Asia has been the cultural arms race between competing centres of influence. Traditionally, Hong Kong has been the centre. Before it was handed back to China in 1997, major English auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby had set up shop there, and major art fairs were established, including Art Basel Hong Kong, still the leading annual commercial art fair in Asia. As the central Chinese government slowly asserts its authority, however, one cannot help but feel that Hong Kong is becoming increasingly provincial, a troublesome child at the margins of China’s ascendency. While Hong Kong keeps its head above water, the government has been pouring millions of dollars into Shanghai, always the most outward-looking of the mainland cities and a major gateway for visitors. Major art museums of both traditional Chinese art and contemporary art have sprung up. The Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair has become a firm fixture on the international roster and there are an ever-growing number of commercial galleries in the M50 and West Bund neighbourhoods.

Although it does not have the economic resources of the Chinese government in this cultural arms race, Singapore’s independence and multicultural society give it a major edge moving forward. Like Singapore’s renowned vibrant food scene, which is often seen as a celebration of its thriving culture, the Singaporean government has ensured that these aspects of the society are bought out in the arts, with space for Chinese, Malay, Indian and English voices and a carefully calibrated balance between institutional and private projects.

What to see:

Singapore Art Week
The annual Light to Night festival takes place during Singapore Art Week

Held in January each year, Singapore Art Week has emerged as the main showcase for the visual arts in Singapore. Venues around the city host special events, such as the popular Art After Dark at Gillman Barracks, a gallery-crawl-cum-street party that attracts tens of thousands. There will be a major international show at the National Gallery and all the international-level commercial galleries will ensure their walls are adorned with some of the big names in contemporary art. Around the Padang, buildings are illuminated, rather like Sydney’s Vivid Festival, and there are concerts and special theatrical events. It’s a great way to experience the city at its best.

National Gallery of Singapore
Former Supreme Court Terrace in the National Gallery of Singapore

If any project signifies Singapore’s striving to catapult itself into the international art scene, it is the magnificent National Gallery of Singapore, opened in late 2015. Two colonial buildings – the Supreme Court and the City Hall – were incorporated into the modern structure, which has a floor area of 64,000 square metres, comprising atria, galleries and a wonderful open roof, with sculpture installations, gardens and swish bars and restaurants. In the courtrooms of the old Supreme Court building there is a compelling display of historical images and artefacts of Singapore and a retrospective of southeast Asian art from the 19th century to the current day. You can easily spend a full day here.

Singapore Art Museum (SAM)
Many Biennale installations are housed in SAM – more than 3,000 pots and pans make up this piece from artist Subodh Gupta

Before the National Gallery opened, the smaller Singapore Art Museum was the main public venue for art in the city. Like the National Gallery, it is housed in a colonial structure, in this case the 19th-century St Joseph’s Mission School. Since the opening of the National Gallery, SAM has dedicated itself to contemporary art, and was the organiser of the Singapore Biennale in 2011, 2013 and 2016. During Singapore Art Week, SAM has an entire building given over to film, with video and mixed media artists from around the region.

Gillman Barracks
A mural by the urban art duo UCA at Gillman Barracks depicts the coexisting cultures of Singapore

Located about 10km west of the city centre, Gillman Barracks was built on a swampy jungle site in 1936 to house the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, Loyal Regiment of the British Army. After Singapore’s independence and until 1996 the 6.4-hectare site was the property of the Singapore Armed Forces. The site was then occupied by restaurants, cafes and furniture stores until in 2012 it was reborn as a contemporary art precinct, with 15 galleries, including some leading international brands. During Singapore Art Week, Gillman Barracks comes alive, with some excellent commercial shows. Outside of Art Week, sadly, the site is struggling with falling visitor numbers, so January is definitely the time to visit.

Asian Civilizations Museum
Discovered in 1998, the Tang Shipwreck from nearly 1100 years ago is housed in the Asian Civilizations Museum

Having opened as long ago as 1997, the Asian Civilizations Museum is the grandfather of Singapore’s major public cultural spaces! Housed in the late 19th-century Empress Place Building on the Singapore River, the museum presents a survey of history, decorative and fine arts from Indonesia, Malaysia, Indochina, Thailand and China. The gracious, airy galleries contain impressive displays of decorative arts, textiles, ceramics and sculpture from around the region. One of the most impressive displays is the artefacts of a Chinese shipwreck of Tang Dynasty period (8th-9th century CE) found in the waters of the Straits of Malacca and recovered by Singaporean marine archaeologists.

Esplanade Theatres and Victoria Hall
A close up of the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay, inspired by the durian fruit

There are many smaller theatres and performance spaces scattered around the city, but the ‘Big Durian’, as the 1996 Esplanade Theatre of the Bay is affectionately known, is Singapore’s flagship performing arts venue. The 1,600-seat concert hall is home to the highly-regarded Singapore Symphony Orchestra, while the 2,000 seat lyric theatre hosts opera, musicals and other shows. There’s also a 240-seat recital studio and a theatre studio for experimental dance and drama. Because of Singapore’s status as a major air transport hub, there is a regular roster of international performers each year. If you are lucky, you may also catch a performance at the smaller Victoria Hall, adjacent to the National Gallery. This colonial-era concert hall has been beautifully restored and is sometimes used by the Singapore Symphony and for chamber concerts.

About the writer

Robert Veel is a director and tour leader for Academy Travel. Robert has visited Singapore more than 20 times in his decades of international travel. Robert researched, designed and is leading Academy Travel’s inaugural tour to Singapore Art Week in January 2019.

Robert Veel

Robert Veel

Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director. Robert continues to teach occasionally in Continuing Education courses.

Upcoming tours led by Robert Veel

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