Government Stays Steady on Singapore Art Development


Following the opening of the inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006 (SB2006), doubters questioned whether the equatorial city-state was committed to continuing the high-profile international art event or supporting local art infrastructure. However, several recent developments suggest that the government-run National Arts Council (NAC) is steadily pursuing long-term plans to build a fertile creative culture in the city.

At the opening of the Singapore Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in June, NAC officials announced that Fumio Nanjo, director of SB2006, would oversee the 2008 edition. Nanjo will again team up with younger curators, this time choosing the highly-regarded Perth-based Singaporean artist Matthew Ngui and Manila-based curator Joselina Cruz, formerly a specialist in Filipino art at Singapore Art Museum. The re-appointment of Nanjo, director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, suggests NAC is seeking continuity in the early phases of the biennial program. Nanjo navigated issues of potential censorship that arose during the inaugural edition, mediating between government sensitivities and artistic license on several occasions.

NAC is also behind the biennial Singapore Art Show, initiated in 2005 in the run-up to SB2006. The second edition of the two-month-long citywide event opened in August with a generous SGD 1,000,000 (USD 661,000) budget. Singapore Art Show 2007 (SAS2007) is centered around the Singapore Art Exhibition, hosted by the Singapore Art Museum, and extends to 47 other venues through diverse NAC sponsored programs and satellite events.

The Singapore Art Exhibition (SAE), curated by Low Sze Wee and Seng Yu Jin, brings together 20 artists under the theme “Imagining the City,” with a range of sensibilities from Chua Ek Kay, a contemporary ink painter born in 1947, to younger artists such as Francis Ng, who works in photography and mixed media. But all eyes will likely be on the SAE’s open section for young and emerging artists, which includes an International Residency Prize providing $50,000 for one artist to travel and work anywhere in the world. A second artist prize of $5,000, My Favourite Artwork, will be determined by votes cast by exhibition visitors.

Perhaps as a preview of next year’s biennale, Joselina Cruz has organized “You are not a tourist” as part of SAS2007’s “Curating Lab” section, inviting artists, an architect and a filmmaker to create and record personal “routes” through the city. Also for “Curating Lab,” artist Heman Chong, who recently returned to Singapore after several years in Berlin, commissioned new video works about time, space and memory from artists Ho Tzu Nyen, Lynn Lu and Ming Wong, to be displayed in shop units at Vivocity Shopping Mall. Chong is also behind “WE,” a five-artist show he co-curated with National University of Singapore Museum director Ahmad Mashadi.

On top of this, the highly respected LASALLE College of the Arts has moved to 1 McNally Street in a downtown area designated as the city’s arts, culture, learning and entertainment hub. The new campus features Singapore’s largest contemporary art exhibition and gallery space, totaling 1,500 square meters.

Discussing SAS2007, Lim Chwee Seng, NAC’s director of visual arts and resource development, stressed the organizers’ desire to make art accessible and engaging to a broad local public, stating to ArtAsiaPacific, “From experimental projects to re-presentations of traditional and ethnic forms . . . many Singaporeans will be pleasantly surprised by the activities we have in store. These aim to encourage people to encounter the arts in a fresh, non-threatening way.” However, detractors critique that SAS2007 lacks a strong curatorial direction and sensationalizes contemporary art. Plans for an SAS2007 art-themed reality TV show, announced in 2006, never saw fruition.

Controversy also broke shortly before SAS2007’s opening when it was revealed that Lynn Lu modeled her video work for Chong’s project on a performance by the San Francisco based artist Jason Mortara. Both artists had participated in the same one-night art show in San Francisco in 2003, where Mortara performed Memories Revisited, for which he recorded life memories in ink on toilet paper, which he then burned over a candle. Lu’s video, originally entitled X, depicted her writing names of past acquaintances on toilet paper with apple juice and then exposing the paper to a candle flame, causing the names to briefly appear before being consumed. Mortara argued that Lu had plagiarized his original concept, and the two reached an amicable agreement to retitle the work X (after Memories Revisited by Jason Mortara) and share the grant Lu received to make the work. However, the work was eventually withdrawn from exhibition.

The ambitious scope of SAS2007 has likewise been circumscribed by uncertainty surrounding the fate of influential artist-run residency and exhibition space Plastique Kinetic Worms, established in 1998. Founders Yvonne Lee and Vincent Leow announced this summer that they would close the space, which receives yearly grants of $75,000-82,000 from NAC, in spring 2008, citing lack of funds. However, since the news of PKW’s closing became public, several potential patrons have stepped forward and, according to Lee, negotiations are underway to keep the space afloat. Whatever the outcome, PKW’s management is likely to change, as Leow is already a fulltime teacher at LASALLE and Lee confided to ArtAsiaPacific, “it’s time for someone else to take over.” A decision on whether PKW will continue operating is expected by the end of the year.