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Sarah Choo
Photography Sarah Choo

Singapore and the realities of growing a new contemporary art scene

We speak to a handful of local and Singapore-born artists about what its contemporary art scene needs in order to level with other Southeast Asian countries

While Singapore holds world-leadership status in the white-collar worlds of finance, in global comparison, it appears that its cultural landscape has been in a drought. "I think (the government) is finding that a culture of art-making and appreciation cannot be developed as if it were a piece of land,” local photographer Nguan told CNN earlier this year in response to the cancellation of Art Stage Singapore – which still remains without official explanation. It’s a blow given neighbouring countries such as Thailand, with several new private museums and a biennale opening just last year, have found their feet within the global art landscape.

However, Singapore’s desire to stake its claim in Southeast Asia’s art landscape is nothing new. In 2000, the government accepted The Renaissance City Plan (RCP) which – on top of its annual arts funding – injected $50 million (Singapore dollars) over five years in a bid to cement the city as an arts and culture destination of Southeast Asia. It’s clearly on the agenda, but, almost two decades on, a quick Google search will present mixed opinions.

For every article celebrating Singapore’s “blossoming art scene”, there is one cutting it down at its root. The latter often points to the fact that, while there are some great art-focused initiatives, such as Arts in Your Neighbourhood, Art Reach, and Silver Art, which focus on bringing the arts to Singaporeans of all ages in different forms, it’s an approach which is oppositional to that of the world’s most artistically renowned cities. In creative hubs such as London and New York, contemporary art has been born in the underground and, eventually, syphoned from the top. “Singapore’s art scene is not organic,” criticised Lorenzo Rudolf, founder and president of Art Stage Singapore in an interview with Southeast Asia Globe. “A successfully sustainable, functioning art scene can only grow from the bottom up. Never in history have you seen an art scene which has been built from the top down functioning.”

“There is no doubt that our contemporary artists are pushing boundaries and consistently challenging the status quo” – Sarah Choo

Despite this, there is evidence that emerging artists are benefiting from state-funded initiatives. In 2018, the National Arts Council launched the SG Arts Plan, as well as Orthodox, which was held during Singapore Art Week (SAW) in January – an exhibition focused on work inspired by issues surrounding faith and belief exclusive to 20-something artists. The seventh edition of the Singapore Art Week ran for nine days and staged events and openings across the island, from galleries and museums to art precincts, and independent art spaces. Alongside this came the announcement of a partnership between the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Frieze, which included S.E.A. Focus – an initiative set up by STPI Creative Workshops & Gallery as a platform for Southeast Asian artists to present their work in the pop-up spaces. There is also ART SG – a new art fair for Singapore and Southeast Asia debuting in November and coinciding with the Singapore Biennale which aims to spotlight young artists.

Photographer Sarah Choo’s work was shown at a talk with Audrey Yeo, S.E.A Focus Project Director during Singapore Art Week. Choo explains that her images centre on social alienation and isolation by employing themes such as the “gaze of the flaneur, voyeurism, and the uncanny”. Over email, she reveals a positivity about Singapore’s developing interest in the arts. “Art appreciation is definitely on the rise,” she writes. “It’s encouraging to know that we do have a generation of young collectors, taking on an active role in the art community. The creative scene is a small, tight fraternity, but extremely diverse and vibrant. There is no doubt that our contemporary artists are pushing boundaries and consistently challenging the status quo.” She states that Singaporean artists are forward-thinking but they also see the importance in embracing the artistic traditions of the country’s past: “These circumstances create for complex art-making and reception in a relatively young nation.”

Choo also applauds the government’s support for art’s future in Singapore. “Compared to our counterparts in the world, I do see significant support from the Singapore government in recent years,” she explains. This, she adds, has come in the form of opportunities to participate in exhibitions and showcases both locally and internationally. However, she notes that it is not just the government’s responsibility but that Singapore’s society at large which needs to elevate the importance of creative work in relation to its economy. “Young artists need time and space to experiment, fail, learn and develop,” she explains. “We need to embrace failure and uncertainty – these take time. That is how we build sustainable, complex ecosystems for the creative arts to thrive.”

Artist Su-en Wong, who born in Singapore but is based in New York, makes work around power, vulnerability, assimilation, and individuality while shaking off common stereotypes of Asian women through playful, satirical drawings and paintings. Her work is currently being exhibited at the Art Porters Gallery in an exhibition titled Domestication II – her first solo show in her homeland. While she is excited by the local scene, she voices her uncertainty over its financial future. ”I think the Singapore art scene is vibrant and there is a true interest in art, but it is still a challenge for gallerists to convince art lovers to build collections and consider art as a rewarding investment.”

Painter Yeo Tze Yang believes that it comes down to the scene figuring out how to holistically respect its past, present, and future. “It perhaps ties in deeply with the fact that this is a young nation that is still trying to grapple with its cultural and historical identity. Sure, there are many museums and galleries in Singapore, but there has yet to be something very distinctive about Singapore’s art scene that distinguishes it from the rest.” He notes that the country and its surrounding region are still “fairly conservative”. “It’s not just the authorities who censor, there have been incidents of the public voicing disapproval of certain non-conventional artworks which led to the artworks being taken down,” he says. “This definitely impedes the artist and the art scene from growing towards new frontiers and diversity. You may ultimately get only conventional artworks deemed as acceptable in the eyes of the authority or the public, with no breakthroughs.”

Statistics collected on Singaporean’s values shed light on Yang’s concerns. While cities worldwide are tackling issues such as gender, sexuality, and race in their artwork, Singapore’s anti-gay laws – which 55 per cent of Singaporeans were in favour of last year, are a harsh reminder of the status quo many Singaporeans aren’t willing to shake off yet. Overall views on sex before marriage and divorce don’t help either, with 72.5 per cent of Singaporeans reported to believe that falling pregnant before marriage was wrong when asked in a poll conducted in 2014.

Despite this, Singapore’s government funding and art-focused schemes are inspiring. With Britain’s austerity cuts hugely affecting the arts – particularly in education – it’s an indication of the UK government’s priorities, which certainly isn’t the young nor the arts. But just how much can funding alone grow a respected art scene? A ‘trickle down’ system places the wealthy at the top, with the intention of inspiring the underground – a system which flips the traditional structure of globally recognised art movements. Money provides materials and spaces, but it cannot guarantee a well-established art scene. While Singapore’s issues with censorship are mellowing, traditional beliefs still hang heavy, and it becomes more apparent that building an art scene in a conservative state is no easy feat. There are not just creative barriers but systemic ones to break first. Without more artistic freedoms guaranteed from the government, alongside the financial ones already in place, as well as the backing of Singapore society at large, Singapore could just be building on a scene which will be forever fractured by its growing pains.