Contemporary art occupies a vexed position in Singapore. Much of this derives from its position in Southeast Asia and the relationship between art and the state. One important factor is that since the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, there has been a noticeable lack of interest economically in Southeast Asia and, regrettably, international interest in the region in recent years has largely revolved around the American-initiated global 'war on terror', where Southeast Asia is seen as one of the breeding grounds for Muslim extremists. The region has not received attention for its economic potential in the same way that other parts of Asia have; namely China and India. Due to the correlation between the economic power that a country wields and interest in the art its produces, it is no coincidence that interest in contemporary art from China and India has increased in recent years, fueled in no small way by the growing economic interest in these countries, where their large, as yet untapped and increasingly affluent populations are seen as potential markets for multinational corporations and investors. This also highlights the relationship between economic power, the art market and the development of contemporary art, which reflects the importance of the art market for the development of contemporary art in the new global art system. While the market has always played an important role in this respect, in recent years, the market’s role has come to assume a new and greater significance,. The buoyancy of China’s and India’s art markets is something that the government in Singapore is attempting to emulate in Singapore’s contemporary art scene, through its development of the creative industries, which is seen as another potential source of economic growth.
Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia have also had to deal with the complex situation with the West, which other post-colonial societies are also coming to terms with: one facet of which is the relationship of influences in art. As with much art from Asia, Africa and other post-colonial societies, due to its diverse histories and traditions there has always been difficulty contextualising the art that is produced in Southeast Asia. Part of the problem lies in the relationship contemporary art in the region has with art in Europe and America. It is generally accepted that despite isolated incidences where artists have attempted to introduce contemporary practices and discourses in their respective countries, contemporary art in Southeast Asia emerged in the 1980s and 1990s — sometime later than it did in Europe and America. It has also been acknowledged that contemporary art, or at least the Euro-American derived version of it, developed in Southeast Asia largely through artists who lived and worked in art centres in Europe and America, before returning to their respective countries and introducing conceptual and other post-modernist discourses and practices there. Therefore, in the West there is the difficulty of understanding how artistic styles that have developed through linear art historical modes function when they are removed from this genealogy and are inserted into unfamiliar contexts. Furthermore, this is a difficulty faced by both sides. For Southeast Asian artists, there is also the burden or baggage of having to either explain away or affirm their belated adoption of an artistic style or language derived from the west. While post-colonial theories have been used to explain this relationship and the art that is produced, it has not resulted in more relevant ways to understand and perceive art from Southeast Asia.
Notwithstanding the problems Singapore faces as part of Southeast Asia, it also has problems in relations within the region. Singapore emerged out of the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s in a better position than many of its neighbours; a reflection of the better economic position that Singapore has always had in comparison to other countries in the region. This relatively high level of economic success has, however, also bred envy among neighbouring countries and, within Singapore itself, a certain sense of arrogance in its perception of its neighbours. The state in Singapore perceives itself as more developed than its neighbours, and more in line with first world, developed countries. However, economic success also brings with it its own problems: this state-dictated drive towards economic progress and prosperity has been the overriding priority in Singapore at the expense of all other aspects. Economic and financial value becomes the yardstick for just about everything, even the success and failure of an artist, and the culture industry has in effect been replaced, not complimented by the notion of creative industries. Art and culture, and, for that matter, everything else, are only considered useful if they contribute to the economic development and prosperity of the country. A good example of this attitude can be seen in the government’s recent decision to proceed with legalising gambling, via the development of two casino resorts. Even though the government considers gambling immoral, it is being tolerated in the interests of the economic benefits it brings. As such, not only are the real benefits of art sacrificed for economic prosperity ─ where only art that is seen to have financial potential is promoted ─ but even morality is sacrificed.
Another significant explanation for the position of contemporary art in Singapore is the perception of the tightly controlled and restrictive nature of Singapore. How can art production thrive in an environment where censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, exists? Apart from its controversial episodes of capital punishment, Singapore has made the headlines in the international press with the heavy handed censorship of films by documentary filmmaker Martyn See based on the prominent former political opposition leader Chee Soon Juan and, more recently, long-time political detainee, Said Zulhairi. And indeed, contemporary art has had an uneasy relationship with the state in Singapore. This came to the fore in the early 1990s, when severe restrictions were imposed on performance art and set the tone for the relationship between contemporary art and the state in the years to follow. The restrictions followed controversy surrounding performances that took place during the Artists’ General Assembly at the end of 1993, an event jointly organised by two artists’ collectives; 5th Passage and The Artists Village. As a result, Josef Ng, one of the artists involved, was arrested on public indecency charges. The National Arts Council also condemned the performances and suspended funding for all performance art. Legislation was also passed requiring a license from the police for all performances to be presented in public, which, in turn, required that a script be approved by the authorities beforehand. These restrictions were only eased at the end of 2003, some ten years later. This heavy handed behaviour by the state invariably had negative fallout for the artistic scene. Apart from resulting in many artists leaving the country, it also set the tone for the state’s relationship with, and tolerance of, contemporary art practices.
It was against this backdrop and context that the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore was established as a part of LASALLE College of the Arts in 2004. Embracing a global, multidisciplinary, and diverse approach to the creation, presentation and interpretation of the arts of our time, ICA Singapore aims to be a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences. We set out to examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures and communities. As part of its objective to promote and foster greater understanding of the role of art in our society, our exhibition program centres around presenting international developments in art to audiences in Singapore, as well as promoting the work of Singaporean artists internationally. Our exhibitions have presented the work of artists including Antony Gormley, On Kawara, Wolfgang Laib, Lim Tzay Chuen and Yang Fudong, among others, while international projects, such as the Singapore Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005), ‘Cityscapes’ at ARCO, Madrid (2006), and the Singapore Biennale 2006, have also drawn attention to the work of Singaporean artists. The ICA Singapore’s publication program is also aimed at developing the discourses surrounding contemporary art in the region, most recently, with the publication of Contemporary Art in Singapore, the first attempt to systematically examine the historical and theoretical development of contemporary art in the country.
With the move of the ICA Singapore to its new expanded premises in the city, it is timely for us to reassess its position and role and re-examine our relevance to the changing context in which we operate. In view of this, ICA Singapore is organising a conference in September 2007 as part of a series of events that aim to examine the role that institutions of contemporary art play in Asia. The conference will examine to what extent institutions in Asia should be modelled after institutions in the West and how diverse kinds of institutions, in the wider sense of the word, that currently operate within Asia contribute to the development of art in the region. The organisation of this conference also outlines the greater role in research that ICA Singapore will play, specifically in fostering research into contemporary art and its development in Asia. This focus on research is supported by its publication program, of which currently in production are books by John Clark on modernities in Chinese art and by Patrick Flores, on contemporary curation in Southeast Asia. Other publications being planned include perspectives on aspects of contemporary art development in Thailand and Indonesia.
Given the increase in the size of ICA Singapore's new exhibition spaces to 10,000 sq ft, the exhibition program is also undergoing transformation, allowing us organise larger-scale exhibitions, as well as to stage multiple exhibitions simultaneously. The opening exhibitions in October 2007 will feature a series of three shows, including two solo exhibitions, one by Matthew Ngui and the other by Wong Hoy Cheong, together with our annual 'New Contemporaries' exhibition, which highlights emerging artists from Singapore. These exhibitions illustrate the greater focus that ICA Singapore will have on Asian art. The following exhibition is 'A Story of the Image: Visual Art as Visual Culture', which will present the work of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Flemish Old Master paintings alongside contemporary art, examining the relationship between art, images and the mass media, both during the sixteenth and seventeenth century and today. In doing so, it will also highlight the relationship that contemporary art has with art of the past; a relationship that is lost to audiences in Singapore, who see no such link. This is due to the way that contemporary art was introduced to audiences here, primarily through performance art, and also because of the negative way it was portrayed following the controversial episode discussed above, which occurred during the nascent stage of contemporary art development in Singapore.
In addition to exhibitions, ICA Singapore will also play a greater role in supporting the production of artists through its 'Article' series of projects, curated by my colleague June Yap. These projects re-examine the different ways in which institutions such as ICA Singapore can work with artists to realise projects that do not necessarily result in gallery exhibitions. They may instead take other unconventional modes of presentation. Current Article projects in development include Khairuddin Hori’s Trading Craft, an exhibition/performance that reverses the role of the curators and artists, thereby examining their roles and relationships. Another project in development is a full-length feature film by Ho Tzu Nyen.
Given the challenging context in which the ICA Singapore operates, we are mindful of the difficult task that lies ahead in our mission to develop contemporary art in Singapore. However, it is hoped that what we will, in some small way, make a difference towards not only improving the production and reception of contemporary art in Singapore, but also in highlighting the important role that art plays in society, particularly in mediating between the power of the state and the multifarious segments of society.
- Sun, 1 Jul 2007