GENEVIEVE CHUA, Ultrasound #1, Foster Children, 2012, acrylic and screenprint with enamel on linen, 118.5 × 180 cm. Valentine Willie Fine Art, Singapore.

GREEN ZENG, Union Jack, 2012, oil and silkscreen on wood panel, 122 × 122 cm. Courtesy Chan Hampe Galleries, Singapore.

LEE WEN, Journey of a Yellow Man No.6: History and Self, 1995, mixed-media installation documenting artist’s “Yellow Man” performances. Collection Singapore Art Museum. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum

HANDIWIRMAN SAPUTRA, Ujung Sangkut Sisi Sentuh II. Contact Points II, 2012, mixed media, 142 × 119 × 11 cm.Courtesy Singapore Tyler Print Institute.



Known for its strict political and moral censorship laws, as well as its tight control of the media, Singapore—which has been under the same political regime since independence in 1965—has been relaxing certain regulations in an attempt to become a globally competitive creative capital since the launch of its “Renaissance City” initiative in 2000. In 2010, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) initiated the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which seeks to grow local audiences for art. This community-based reorientation of state policy had several major repercussions in 2012.

A parliamentary reshuffle of institutional responsibilities was enacted in November. MICA was restructured so that much of its arts purview was transferred to the newly inaugurated Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), which will oversee the National Heritage Board, the National Art Gallery and the National Arts Council (NAC), while MICA has been renamed the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). Commentators have noted that “the arts” have vanished, subsumed under a broader umbrella of culture and community with a view to building a stronger sense of national cohesion.

This new focus on engaging the local community through visual arts led the National Arts Council (NAC) to announce in late August its decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 2013 Venice Biennale. MCI Minister Yaacob Ibrahim pointed out that despite having spent
SD 850,000 (USD 696,000) on the Singapore Pavilion in 2011, “Only a handful of our artists and curators have been able to capitalize on the opportunities and prestige that their participation has brought.” An open letter signed by almost 300 members of the local arts community urged the NAC to reconsider, defending Venice as “one of the most important and invaluable channels through which Singaporean artists can connect with the international art world on our terms.” The ensuing debate pitted the NAC’s apparent commitment to redirecting funding toward domestic events such as the Singapore Biennale, against support for artistic excellence displayed on a more internationally visible platform. 

Strict censorship and unforgiving spatial constraints inhibit artistic expression and are a perennial problem in the city-state. In June, on grounds of vandalism, police arrested Samantha Lo, a 25-year-old accused of painting graffiti and pasting stickers with humorous Singlish (local English slang) phrases on traffic-light buttons. Member of parliament Janice Koh urged authorities to handle the case leniently, especially given the innocuous nature of most of Lo’s interventions. 

Such incidents reinforce Singapore’s reputation for limited freedom of expression, but the government continues to offer generous subsidies and opportunities for developing the local art scene. Despite the terms attached, such funding always finds eager recipients. 

September saw the launch of Gillman Barracks, a leafy enclave of 13 commercial galleries from Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Korea, China, Germany, Italy and the United States, and the international office of the Yellow River Arts Centre, a privately funded museum that will open in China, in 2014. A SGD 10 million joint initiative between the Singapore Economic Development Board, the NAC and the developer JTC Corporation, the renovation of this former military facility is aimed at consolidating Singapore’s position as a regional center for kunsthalle-style projects. A Centre for Contemporary Art, to be administered with the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University, will open in late 2013, hosting residencies, organizing symposiums and offering the country’s first master’s degree program in art history. 

The opening exhibitions at Gillman Barracks offered an eclectic selection, including a sprawling group show entitled “Marcel Duchamp in Southeast Asia” (9/15–10/28) at Equator Art Projects that explored the influence of the conceptual master in a regional context, while Berlin’s Michael Janssen Gallery gave most of their space over to “Blended by Desire” (9/15–11/22), a site-specific installation of Indonesian pop and street art curated by Rifky Effendy. Two additional galleries, Pearl Lam of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki, will open in early 2013.

Another component of Singapore’s arts patronage is the government-backed art fair Art Stage Singapore (1/12–15), held at the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) resort with over 130 international galleries in its second edition. Although sales were mixed, commentators noted the more regional orientation of the fair, with a particular focus on Southeast Asian and Indonesian art. 

The MBS complex also houses the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum designed by Moshe Safdie. The highlight of its 2012 program was “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” (3/17–10/21), featuring works from the 1940s to 1980s.

The lavish refurbishment of Singapore’s former City Hall and Supreme Court building proceeds apace. The result is slated to reopen as the National Art Gallery (NAG) in 2015—the search for a new director continues. During this interim period, the NAG has been mounting exhibitions at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), which focuses mostly on modern and contemporary art from Singapore and the region. One of the highlights of SAM’s own program was
a retrospective of pioneering artist Lee
Wen entitled “Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real” (4/20–6/10), focusing on his performance works. Other major exhibitions at SAM included “Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili” (7/6–9/23), a solo presentation of video, paintings and works on paper by the young Chinese artist, and “Thai Transience” (10/26–1/6/13), a multimedia showcase inspired by traditional Thai artifacts curated by respected curator Apinan Poshyananda that included works by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yuree Kensaku and Kamin Lertchaiprasert.

Since its reopening in 2006, the National Museum of Singapore has rivaled SAM, gaining a reputation for cutting-edge shows. One highlight of its program was “A Life of Practice: Kuo Pao Kun” (9/15–2/24/13), held to mark the tenth anniversary of the passing of Singaporean dramatist and activist Kuo Pao Kun, whose life and career were traced through archival materials.

Led by chief curator Ahmad Mashadi, the National University of Singapore Museum organized “Calendars (2020–2096)” (12/02/11–2/12) by Heman Chong, an installation of 1,001 color photos of empty public spaces in Singapore. Also of note was “Semblance/Presence: Renato Habulan and Alfredo Esquillo Jr.” (6/29–1/13/13), an exhibition of films and other works that explored the role of Manila’s Plaza Miranda as a site of political and cultural significance.

The School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University inaugurated its newly renovated ADM Gallery with “Intersecting Histories: Contemporary Turns in Southeast Asian Art” (9/27–11/24). Curated by art historian TK Sabapathy, the exhibition focused on precise historical moments when a consciousness of “the contemporary” was demonstrated during the 1970s through artworks, movements and pronouncements from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore by artists such as Jim Supangkat, Redza Piyadasa and Cheo Chai-Hiang.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, directed by Charles Merewether, presents up to 40 exhibitions per year that span visual art, film, music, dance and performance. Two of its galleries are devoted to Asian artists, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. Highlights included “Apropos: Jeremy Sharma” (4/11–5/11), the artist’s exploration of picture, image and object through oil paint, lacquer and beeswax.

Several of Singapore’s most prominent commercial galleries are multinational organizations with branches in other Southeast Asian countries. With headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Valentine Willie Fine Art (VWFA) presented its annual survey of Singapore art at “New Strange Faces” (8/10–9/2). Curated by Valentine Willie, the show explored attitudes of inclusiveness and “othering” with respect to the city-state’s burgeoning foreign-born population through works by senior artists such as Jimmy Ong and Lee Wen and younger talents such as Zhao Renhui, Loo Zihan and Alecia Neo. Starting in 2013, however, VWFA Singapore will become a temporary space under the name VW Special Projects.

The Singapore branch of the Malaysian gallery TAKSU presented “No Empire Lasts Forever” (12/1–1/3/13), a solo show of assemblages made out of found text and images by veteran Filipino artist Norberto Roldan. More than 15-years old, Gajah Gallery focuses on the Indonesian scene, while Element Art Space presented Triyadi Guntur Wiratmo satirical paintings  in “Emo Ergo Sum” (11/16–12/6).

Chan Hampe Galleries focuses on Singaporean art from its space in the Raffles Hotel Arcade. Green Zeng’s “Chinese School Lessons” (9/27–10/18) explored the history and iconography of Chinese-language education and schools in Singapore, while Jason Wee’s “Master Plan @ Raffles Hotel” (1/18–2/12) featured a towering thicket of black pyramids, cylinders and columns made out of paper and wood, reimagining the urban landscape of the city. Yavuz Fine Art presented “Heterotopia 2012” (9/8–10/7), a selection of candy-colored paintings by Ugandan-born artist Ketna Patel that mixed hybrid cultural motifs and references.

With both government funding and commercial sales revenue, the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) is known for its residency program that invites international artists to explore experimental printmaking. This year, STPI hosted, among others, Indonesian artist Handiwirman Saputra, who produced “Suspended Forms” (2/18–3/17), an exhibition of translucent paper pieces and ephemeral sculptures, as well as “My Universe” (3/31–4/28) by Chinese sculptor Zhan Wang, who shattered synthetic rocks coated in metallic chrome. 

Alongside this strong commercial scene, Singapore’s nonprofits remain active. The Goodman Arts Centre, a mixed-use development housing the NAC, galleries and studios that opened in 2011, held the third installment in a series of exhibitions by Tang Da Wu, “First Art Council Third Chapter: Waiting” (4/5–9), which explored the complicated relationship between artists and society.

The Substation, Singapore’s first nonprofit arts center, organized “Darshan” (6/22–29), a collaborative effort between Catalan artist Mariona Vilaseca and Singapore-based Indonesian artist Kelvin Atmadibrata created out of the ash residue of a fire ceremony—staged as part of a residency program involving Grey Projects, an independent space in the River Valley area run by artist Jason Wee.

The directors of Post-Museum, the only independently run art space to subsist without government funding, which was forced to give up its premises in August 2011, organized “SOS Bukit Brown,” a yearlong project including exhibitions and other events opposing the government’s decision to begin exhumations at one of the oldest Chinese cemeteries to build a highway.

Curator Alan Oei of curatorial program Salon Projects continued his series of “Open House” art projects with “OH! Open House: Occupy Tiong Bahru” (2/18–26), in which photography, installation and video were installed in one temple and the rooms of six conserved apartments in an Art Deco-inspired public-housing neighborhood. 

Soon to launch in Singapore are two fledgling art-writing and criticism projects focused on Southeast Asia—Seam, which is associated with Grey Projects, and Locale, which seeks to enhance the level of art discourse in the region.  

Singapore made an impressive showing at international art exhibitions this year. Heman Chong exhibited at “Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past” (5/18–9/2) at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and at the seventh Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane (12/8–4/14/13); the artist also held a solo exhibition in London at Rossi & Rossi Gallery (2/23–3/30) and a collaborative show with Anthony Marcellini at Wilkinson Gallery (11/24–1/27/13). Ming Wong showed his video installation Making Chinatown (2012) at REDCAT in Los Angeles (2/5–4/1), while young collective Vertical Submarine showed at the Gwangju Biennale (9/7–11/11). Michael Lee participated in “What a Wonderful World: Visions in Contemporary Asian Art of Our World Today” (3/24–5/13), held at Hiroshima’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Looking ahead to October 2013, the next Singapore Biennale has a regional focus, with 27 appointed curators from nine Southeast Asian countries. In May, STPI will exhibit Haegue Yang’s prints made during a November 2012 residency.