Byline: Blake Gopnik
Is Singapore open to fostering disruptive art?
Singapore is so dedicated to tidiness that chewing gum is forbidden, or so goes an old cliche that, as it happens, is also a fact. The city-state also has strict rules about carrying open durians, the fruits loved by locals for their nauseous stink. Even the tiny food stalls in Singapore's vast hawker centers, possibly its greatest cultural treasures, come stamped with health-department approval.
And now there are signs that Singapore's rule makers want to disturb all this order with the mess of the avant-garde. Last month they threw their weight behind Art Stage Singapore, a commercial fair and festival of contemporary art. Also hitting its stride is Gillman Barracks, an old British military site that authorities renovated into a contemporary-art complex, with room for 17 commercial galleries and a nonprofit center. Stretching over 15 acres, Gillman feels like the white cubes of New York's Chelsea scene transplanted to a polo club. "There's an acknowledgment that for Singapore to be a developed society, arts and culture have to play a role ... We want to make art a bigger part of the lives of people here," says Eugene Tan, the elegant Singaporean who runs Gillman for the Orwellian-sounding Lifestyle Programme Office of the Economic Development Board, which fosters the business end of art making. Singapore also has an eager Tourism Board, which sells local achievements to foreigners, as well as a generous National Arts Council, which helps fund artists and nonprofit spaces. There are plans for an absolutely massive National Art Gallery due to open in a few years. The bones of an art scene are there, clearly, but there's still considerable doubt about whether any soul is in sight. Is a society that controls the chewing of gum likely to fill the half million square feet of its new museum with art that has bite? After all, this is a place where every exhibition and performance has to submit its plans and seek a permit from the censors at the Media Development Authority.
"The art is an adjunct, a barnacle to this whole tourist environment," says Valentine Willie, a Malaysian art dealer and adviser who has had galleries across Southeast Asia and has been called the "mayor" of the scene there. He points out that Singaporeans love the term "controlled environment"--and that it applies to their art scene as much as to their air conditioning. When he put up one of his influential surveys of young Singapore artists, he was told he had to seek special approval for an image of a government official. He cites a nude performance piece that came to an unplanned end at the 2011 edition of the Art Stage fair and a gay-themed installation at the Singapore Art Museum whose erotica was censored. He points out that vexed issues of identity are at the heart of the most advanced works in Southeast Asia (this was true even at Singapore's latest commercial art fair), and yet race, religion, and sexuality are the topics Singapore's authorities take most exception to. "You are in the most educated country in the region, the richest in the region, and yet you can't speak freely," says Willie. "Art as commodity is their model."
This is something you hear again and again in Singapore art circles. Even Tan, charged with helping that commodity succeed at Gillman Barracks, acknowledges that market forces have played too big a role on the Asian art scene: "When the market becomes too dominant, it affects what artists make," he says. (Tan can hardly be accused of being a market lackey, despite his current position: his Ph.D. was on notions of time in conceptual art, and he has spent most of his career as a curator at nonprofits.)…