Sep 25 2012

New Contemporary Arts Enclave Opens in Singapore

by Marybeth Stock

Opening night of the Gillman Barracks arts center. Courtesy Singapore Economic Development Board.

The press invite to the Gillman Barracks opening specified “comfortable walking shoes.” I figured I’d been given the green light by no less than Singapore’s Economic Development Board to shop for shoes—the kind of shoes that could handle the rigors of Singapore’s newest arts center. 

The Gillman Concept

I did buy comfy shoes, and good thing, too: the Gillman Barracks layout is extensive. At 6.4 rolling hectares (that’s about the size of nine soccer fields), trekking around to each of its 13 newly opened galleries is a bit of a workout, especially in Singapore’s notorious humidity.

Fortunately, on opening night it was possible to fortify oneself with treats at each venue. In fact, my first-time Gillman experience did remind me a bit of the trick-or-treat scenario as I cruised into one gallery after another, each more delightful than the last . . . not only are the old colonial-style buildings utterly lovely (that would be thanks to the SGD 10 million makeover), but almost every gallery offered a brilliant inaugural exhibit of contemporary works, defined by an eclectic range of established and emerging Singaporean and international artists. Treats indeed.

This quiet, leafy site is  prime real estate, surrounded by towering skyscrapers and busy highways; yet rather than construct another high-rise, the area was preserved, nominally because of its historical context (the barracks were originally built in 1935 by the British), but mainly because, for the last decade, the Singapore government has been very generous—and very single-minded—in its desire to forcibly construct a culture of the arts here.

The Gillman Goal

Gillman is not your DIY community arts center, and it’s not the longterm result of deep-rooted organic growth and talent. This is the Athena of arts centers, sprung fully formed and ready to champion its role as Singapore’s new “contemporary art destination in Asia.” As the brainchild of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), the JTC Corporation (JTC) and the National Arts Council (NAC), Gillman Barracks will, according to the EDB, enhance Singapore’s position as a “world-class city to live, work and play.” And that is why Singapore has been gifted with this beautifully renovated enclave that overflows with local and international galleries, trendy restaurants and, intriguingly, a new Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), set to open in January 2013.

The CCA, the “hub” of Gillman Barracks, is to be overseen by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), better known for its science and engineering programs. Under the government arts stimulus, NTU will beef up its graduate arts studies and establish a range of ambitious arts residency, research and exhibition programs through the CCA. (It should be interesting to see how this NTU/CCA project distinguishes itself alongside similar activities at Singapore’s existing arts schools, most notably LASALLE College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.)

Another research facility at Gillman is the Singapore outpost of the privately funded non-profit Yellow River Arts Centre. The USD 279 million base in China is not due to open until 2014. The Centre’s Gillman space is airy and tranquil—perfect for exhibits, lectures and symposia. There’s already a full calendar of seminars and events: see www.yrac.cn.

Installation view of “Blended by Desire” at Michael Janssen Gallery, Singapore, 2012. Courtesy Singapore Economic Development Board.

The Gillman Galleries

Currently, 13 galleries are pretty much up and running (well-known Shanghart Gallery is still getting its act together: I strolled in and was surprised to find myself in a walk-in closet with three meager works by Zhang Enli). Two more galleries are expected to open next year.

Most of these venues are geared toward the high-end contemporary art collector. There have been some comments regarding the abundance of well-established Japanese galleries, relative to those from southeast Asia and Singapore—particularly given the vibrant arts scenes here and in Malaysia, Indonesia and India. The continued presence of emerging regional artists at Gillman Barracks, however, will add some diversity and may tempt even window-shoppers. Look to Singapore’s FOST Gallery, only a few years old, with its reputation for innovation, while The Drawing Room, based in Manila, features a spirited cast of interdisciplinary artists. Also keep an eye on Equator Arts Projects, which focuses on experimental works by regional artists. 

When the CCA is up and running, presumably its multifaceted programs will inspire the more established galleries towards greater innovation in their choice of exhibition, while keeping the overall energy at Gillman Barracks high, as its dozen or so residencies fill with both regional and international artists.

Ultimately, the EDB hopes “to encourage greater art literacy and appreciation among the general public, through exhibitions and education programs at Gillman Barracks.” Well—maybe. Gillman reeks of the established art world, the very same realm that Singapore rejected outright in its unexpected pullout from next year’s Venice Biennale.

My guess is the first couple of years at Gillman should be enlightening as well as entertaining . . . and I expect to get a lot of use out of these new shoes.

Gallery Listings

Equator Art Projects (Indonesia)       

“Marcel Duchamp in Southeast Asia” (until October 28); Duchamp-inspired pastiche of conceptual works by 44 international artists.

FOST Gallery (Singapore)             

“‘Untitled’ (Singapura #90)”  (until October 30) New works by 7 Singaporean contemporary artists.

Future Perfect (Australia)                           

“We Bury Our Own” (until October 14)   Self-portraits by Australian artist Christian Thompson.

Kaikai Kiki Gallery (Japan)    

Opening date to be announced.

Michael Janssen Gallery (Germany)

“Blended by Desire” / “Stereomongrel” (until September 30); Works by four Indonesian artists / film by Luis Gispert.

Mizuma Gallery (Japan)

“Crossing Gazes” (until November 18); Solo exhibit by Korean artist Hyung Koo Kang.

Ota Fine Arts (Japan)

“Yayoi Kusama: Metallic” (until October 28); New works: Kusama goes Aboriginal.

Partners & Mucciaccia Gallery (Italy)

“From Picasso to the New Roman School—The Never-Ending Cult of Beauty in Contemporary Art”  (until November 30); Beautifully curated selection of distinctive works by some of the world’s greats.

Pearl Lam Galleries (China)

Opening date to be announced.

ShanghART Gallery (China)

PART”  (until October 30); Zhang Enli solo exhibition.

Silverlens (The Philippines)

“Beautiful Pain” (until October 14); Pop surrealist Luis Lorenzana.

Space Cottonseed (Korea)

“Prelude” (until October 21) / Five artists from Korea, Singapore and China.

Sundaram Tagore Gallery (USA)

“The Big Picture” (until November 10); The Big Names of photography.

The Drawing Room (The Philippines)

“Short Memory” (until October 24); Exuberant collection of works by 15 Filipino artists.

Tomio Koyama Gallery (Japan)

“Masahiko Kuwahara, Yoshitomo Nara, Hiroshi Sugito” (until October 21); Establishment Japanese contemporary art.

Also throughout the Gillman Barracks site:

“Gillman Barracks: Encounter, Experience and Environment” curated by Dr. Eugene Tan, (until November 30); New works, debut presentations from Singaporean and international artists.