A fantasy city on the far side of the world, Singapore combines modern planning with intimations of tropical escape. It acknowledges our jaded taste for luxury while arousing utopian dreams. Is it also a center for art? Since hosting its first Biennale in 2006, the government has invested heavily in the arts, developing Gillman Barracks, a complex of 17 international galleries in a former British military base, and inaugurating National Gallery Singapore to house the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art. During a visit this year, I was able to participate in Art Week, featuring Singapore’s fifth annual Art Stage and related exhibitions, celebrating its stature as an Asian arts hub.
All art fairs cultivate a festival atmosphere, but few have as spectacular a backdrop as Art Stage Singapore. Set on the bay within the Marina Sands hotel complex with its whimsical surfboard roof, opposite the gleaming skyscrapers of Singapore’s financial district, it exemplifies the city’s flair for public display. The bay becomes a theater, an adult playground, and a shiny urban showroom for the island state’s cultural accomplishments. Coincident with Art Stage, Moshe Safdie’s lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, nestled in a pool beneath his hotel, hosted an extravagantly installed loan exhibition of 13 pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus. Leonardo’s fusion of art and engineering and his visions of an ideal city couldn’t help but reference the gardens outside, where artificial “Supertrees,” festooned with vines and solar panels occupy reclaimed land enclosing the bay (which has been transformed into a fresh-water reservoir).
The flashiness of Marina Sands can inspire thoughts of Las Vegas, of quickly acquired wealth and superficially applied culture, but Singapore is as serious about art as it is about business. Its efforts may seem whimsical, but they’re grounded in well-funded infrastructure. Its top-down approach has been criticized, but its students are world class, and young artists trained in Britain or America have brought Singaporean theatricality and technological expertise to the international scene. Unencumbered by the long traditions of China or Japan—village scenes from Bali, on display in Imagining a Nation at Lasalle College of Art, give a glimpse of its regional origins in the 1930s—it’s not surprising that Singaporean artists can produce smart, high-tech works like Ho Tzu Nyen’s “Pythagoras” (2013), winner of the 2014 Signature Art Prize, an immersive, multi-media installation set in an empty, mechanized theater with hidden voices and four-channel videos that combine clips from The Wizard of Oz and 2001: A Space Odyssey with images of John Milton and Isaac Newton.
Free of the world-weariness that afflicts late capitalist art in the West, Singaporean artists seem inspired by possibilities, but also search to inflect internationalism with the weight of lived experience. If Ho’s disembodied media extend the da Vinci exhibition’s exaltation of technology, Robert Zhao Renhui’s installation, “Eskimo wolftrap often quoted in Sermons” (2013), another Signature Prize finalist on view at the Singapore Art Museum, confronts us with a bloody knife emerging from a floor covered in salt representing snow—a low-tech but equally theatrical gesture with visceral impact.
Can international art also be local? Singaporean technical and conceptual sophistication is impressive in the Prudential Singapore Eye exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, where Adeline Kueh’s photos of the old railroad station and Charles Lim’s documentation of the fishing industry actually bring Singapore into view, albeit through the international lens of documentary photography. The artist Mintio moves documentary photography toward abstraction in layered prints of urban façades. Paintings equally indebted to European conventions of abstraction and process can be appreciated in the lushly layered, red panels of Kumari Nahappan, or in Jane Lee’s collapsing blue wall of extruded pigment. What seem particularly Singaporean here are Lee’s wit and flair for dramatic gesture, echoed in the playfulness of Lee Wen’s circular arrangement of ping-pong tables and the whimsy of another Ho Tzu Nyen video, which stages Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a mock trial in the old Singapore Supreme Court.
Play extended to Art Stage Singapore at the Convention Center, where Director Lorenzo Rudolf, a developer of Art Basel, welcomed 159 galleries from around the world and urged Singaporeans to seize the moment. Visitors entered the vast marketplace through a colorful set of spinning carwash brushes (Singaporean cleanliness) installed by Mike HJ Chang, and beneath a corridor of swinging chandeliers choreographed by fellow Singaporean Suzann Victor. But beyond theatrics, more complex perspectives on internationalism emerged via a specially curated Southeast Asian exhibition and a show dedicated to European surrealist André Masson, whose mixing of styles and interest in Buddhism provided a framework for the culturally diverse, multi-media installations all around.
Masson recalls the fertile interwar years in Europe, when artists questioning Western art found common ground with anthropology in what cultural historian James Clifford has called “ethnographic surrealism.” That convergence culminated in 1989 with the Centre Pompidou’s Les Magiciens de la Terre, an effort to establish dialogues between Western and indigenous practitioners. It also laid the groundwork for today’s international market, where tribal cultures mingle with globalized references to pop culture and post-colonialism. Photography extends these developments, establishing an aura of digital remoteness that objectifies otherness and enables artists anywhere to assume an ethnographic stance towards their surroundings. Among Singaporeans at Art Stage, Choy Ka Fai cultivates ethnographic fantasies with 3-D printed “artifacts” of a lost Chinese kingdom in Borneo, while Chong Weixin evokes tropical forests with layered scans of living plants and botanical illustrations applied to hanging plastic sheets.
Other artists ground globalization in what they can learn for themselves. In his wall installation, “The Closest, Softest Thing” (2014), Mike HJ Chang brings ethnography close to home through interactions with everyday objects, while abstract painter Ian Woo is inspired by transitional spaces and chance encounters. His diaphanous layers of colors and loose calligraphy arouse thoughts of Baudelaire’s evocations of tropical climes in an urbanizing Paris. Singapore’s scale of development and equatorial heat pose challenges to the casual flâneur, but its constant rebuilding leaves scraps that arouse the imagination.
Issues of the local also arise at Gillman Barracks, another staged environment, at some distance from the bay. There, visitors explore international galleries set like epiphytic plants among the lush vegetation, with opinions divided as to whether enough pedestrian traffic can be generated for art to take root. Anchored by Sundaram Tagore, a pioneer in the Asian art market, where Japanese painter Hiroshi Senju showed glamorous waterfalls in blue florescent pigments, festivities for Art Week included a performance by Gilbert and George at Berlin-based Arndt, upholding a British heritage of provocation.
But some galleries encourage the more robust inter-cultural dialogues envisioned by Magiciens. Mizuma, a Japanese gallery, reminded visitors of living village cultures with abstract paintings from Indonesia, including Nasirun’s majestic “Abstraction of Nature’s Aura” (2014), invoking nature spirits and recalling André Masson with colored shapes embedded in rich pigment. Tony Godfrey’s Equator Art Projects cultivates lively interaction across the straits, showing punchy, cryptic flags by S. Teddy, that combine whimsical invention with gritty Indonesian realities, along with Hahan’s refreshingly outspoken commentaries on the international art scene (“It isn’t art until it’s sold.”).
Yeo Workshop, one of Gillman’s two Singapore-based galleries, supports local programs and research and led up to Art Week by sponsoring “Drive,” a competition for paintings on Gillman’s walls, in a welcome effort to cultivate urban expression and to bring more people to the galleries. Initiatives like these, or like Open House, a project conceived by curator Alan Oei that sponsors tours of art installed in people’s homes, actively encourage integration among the different levels of Singapore’s evolving art culture. By focusing on neighborhoods, Open House develops a sense of place and introduces art more widely into the everyday scene.
Transnational might be the best term for Milenko Prvacki, a painter from Yugoslavia stranded in Singapore during the Bosnian War, who looks both inward and outward. His abstracted images refer to voyages and dislocation. Now a Singaporean citizen, Prvacki brings international students each year to study Singapore in his Tropical Lab. I visited his studio in the north of the island, in a huge industrial space near the channel separating Singapore from Malaysia, where one senses the weight of geography and history. Islands make good laboratories, and Singapore’s artists offer lessons in articulating the layered identities that engage us all.
Hearne Pardee is an artist and writer based in New York and California, where he teaches at the University of California, Davis.