Singapore: In the Thick of the Pause
By Louis Ho
Full text also available in Chinese.
After trundling along listlessly for months in 2020, battered from the effects of a Covid-19 circuit breaker, a faltering economy, and the recent loss of a number of institutions and spaces, the Year of the Ox started off with a bang for Singapore’s otherwise enervated visual arts community. The ninth edition of the annual Singapore Art Week (1/22–30), coinciding with the initiation of a nation-wide vaccination program, featured a deluge of exhibitions and events. Highlights included “Singapore Ceramics Now” (1/20–2/13), curated by artist Jason Lim, a show that inflected the titular medium with sound, installation, and performativity; “ON/OFF/SCREEN” (1/21–2/18) by the Moving Picture Experiment Group (MPEG) at DECK, which expanded the possibilities of the moving image; and “Baroque Archipelago” (1/22–3/7) at Mizuma Gallery, where curator Tan Siuli juxtaposed the syntaxes of fashion and fine art, an increasingly visible trajectory.
These shows stood out for the fact that, in their finite, measured ways, they pushed at the established parameters of art- and exhibition-making. At a time when too much of what we have come to expect from life in the 21st century has been relentlessly thwarted, there is little reason why art and its display should continue to play by prescribed rules. If one fundamental lesson could be gleaned from the cacophony of hand-wringing and sermonizing that attended the pandemic, it seemed to be this: that an opportunity to think outside of the box had presented itself, a chance to explore alternative modes of seeing, doing, and organizing. The fate of The Substation, which vacated its home on Armenian Street in July after three decades, seemed to hold out the promise of new beginnings amid the gloom. With the shock revelation in March that the institution would not be carrying on, members of the arts community rallied to come up with proposals for its continuation, the outcome of which was the formation of Substation 2.0, helmed by a new board. The communal effort to hold on to a beloved local entity demonstrated that self-organization in the arts at the grassroots level is entirely possible—even in Singapore, where such activity is hardly a given.
Beyond January’s art week, exhibitions that attempted to reimagine the confines of curatorial practice included a two-part show that I put together at Yeo Workshop, “only losers left alive (love songs for the end of the world)” (7/10–31, 8/7–29). The project was an experiment in curating by mood, its visual atmosphere derived largely from dystopian and postapocalyptic science fiction. The space of the exhibition was sonically marked by a soundtrack, and the set-up a meta-textual reference to various films, including Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). STPI’s “On Time” (9/25–10/24) featured the work of four local artists who had been in residence, including Ian Woo and Adeline Kueh. There, guest curator Marc Gloede spoke persuasively of the need for a return of “spatial craft,” a consideration of the aesthetic interface of object and exhibition space. The result was an almost hypnotically minimalist presentation. Earlier, “Between the Living and the Archive” (3/9–28), a pop-up show at Gillman Barracks, had examined silence both at a thematic and interpersonal level. The idea of silence that persists between living cultures and institutionalized discourses reflexively informed the dynamics of dialogue, with co-curators Fajrina Razak and Syaheedah Iskandar acknowledging that “the manner of listening (and seeing) is more crucial than wanting to extract answers.”
And then, of course, there was the meteoric rise of the NFT, soaring to a crescendo of speculative hype with a collage by digital artist Beeple fetching USD 69.3 million at auction in March. Singapore was not immune to the tsunami. Digital art, driven by the twin engines of blockchain technology and enforced social distancing, took on new prominence. The inaugural edition of the Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize, dedicated to the digital image and open to artists across Southeast Asia, saw local filmmakers Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen take home the top accolade in the moving-image category, and artist and photographer Robert Zhao win the second prize for still images. An exhibition of cypto art, “Right Click + Save” (11/7–14), ran at the Le Freeport compound, featuring a roster of international names, Beeple included. Graffiti artist Speak Cryptic made the news for being the first Singaporean to sell a work in the NFT space, while others, like abstract painter Wyn-Lyn Tan, embraced the digital format and AI as a means to extend her visual language.
Not unlike blockchain’s utopian promises—a recent editorial by Tina Rivers Ryan in ArtReview noted that “in theory and in practice, technologies are not neutral, code is not law, and decentralisation is not inherently democratic”—the cautiously optimistic outlook that kicked off the year did not last. The vaccination program failed to prevent a subsequent uptick in new infections in September, which led to a “stabilization phase” that lasted nearly two months. The good cheer that came with news of vaccinated travel-lane arrangements with various countries was then dampened by the appearance of the Omicron variant. This state of oscillating affairs perhaps sums up the mood of the moment, both for Singapore and its visual arts ecology. Whatever small steps taken at the moment, from curatorial experiments to digital art-making to quarantine-exempt travel, the shape of the future remains a question mark, and the present, a thick, protracted pause in which we keep our collective fingers fervently crossed.