Singapore Art Week stresses the Southeast Asian hub’s cultural and artistic diversity
Multi-media and multi-culturalism is the norm in a country known for its ethnic mix
By Lisa Movius. Web only
Published online: 27 January 2015
The questions of nationality and cultural identity figure nowhere so intensely as in Singapore. It boasts Asia’s most racially diverse population, with its mix of ethnic Chinese, Indian and Indonesian-Malay. A former English colony, which marks its 50th anniversary of independence this year, it is experiencing a new wave of multi-culturalism, with immigrants and expatriates accounting for almost half of its population. This diversity can be seen in the country’s artistic community as well, and was a draw of the recently concluded Singapore Art Week.
“Singapore is too small to have a vibrant scene that is all locals, but it works as a melting pot,” says Lorenzo Rudolf, the director of the fair Art Stage Singapore. “It is stable, it has infrastructure, and it has money.” Many of the artists and other creative types who live and work in Singapore came in search of both literal and figurative space: large studios beyond the dense port city and more freedom of speech, behaviour and identity, despite the country’s reputation as a nanny state. Perhaps it is no coincidence that women and gay artists are better represented in Singapore than in many other Asian art scenes.
The work produced by Singapore’s artists is equally eclectic. Ho Tzu Nyen’s (b. 1976) disturbing installation of disembodied voices, Pythagoras, 2013, won the Signature Art Prize last week, awarded by the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation and the Singapore Art Museum, where his work is on view along with that of the 14 other finalists for the prize (until 15 March). At the Art Science Museum, Prudential’s Singapore Eye exhibition (until 31 March) highlights some of the more experimental art being made in the city. A standout is Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s (b. 1976) sound installation Bottles and Fans, 2010, which uses remote controlled fans that create music by blowing air across water-filled plastic bottles. Sound and found objects also feature in the work of the Berlin-based Ang Song-Ming (b. 1980), such as his “You and I” series, for which he composes music to accompany anonymous confessional letters.
The London-educated, Malaysian-born Heman Chong (b. 1977) heavily uses text, as in The Forer Effect, 2008, which examines how vague statements can feel universally personal. Language is also central to the work of Dawn Ng (b. 1982), whose gentle Pop art intersperses familiar Singapore slogans and sights. While retro science fiction is the centerpiece of the elaborate films, installations and performances of Berlin-based Ming Wong (b. 1971), who directs and acts in his impressive oeuvre of films.
Up-and-comer Genevieve Chua (b. 1984), a finalist for the Prudential Eye Award’s emerging drawing category, takes a sculptural approach to the process of drawing and painting, creating “ultrasounds of landscapes”, says the Centre for Contemporary Art curator Vera Mey. Drawing also shapes the abstract work of Ian Woo (b. 1967), and of the US- and Jogjakarta-based Jimmy Ong (b. 1964), who subverts Singapore’s colonial iconography.
Other media-blending pioneers include Jane Lee (b. 1963), who mixes painting with textiles and sculpture, and the Australia-based printmaker and installation artist Suzann Victor (b. 1959). And Koh Nguang How (b. 1963) is a documentarian of early Singaporean contemporary art whose installations incorporate photography and slides. “He is emblematic of Southeast Asia, critiquing its history yet preserving it,” says Mey. “It is art history by an artist.”
Yet no one artist represents Singapore quite like Lee Wen (b. 1957), whose seminal performances gained local recognition well before his Ping Pong Go Round, 2013, stole the show at Art Basel Hong Kong last year. He was a finalist for last week’s inaugural Balestier Awards for the Freedom of Art, presented by the US Embassy and Art Stage Singapore, for his fight against the country’s prohibition of performance art during the 1990s. “Lee Wen’s performances continue to be very visceral and effecting,” says Mey. “The content is still relevant.”
Part of the accommodation for this coverage was provided by the Prudential Eye Awards and Singapore Eye.