Magazine article Artforum International

Self-Preservation: Philip Ursprung on the New Singapore National Gallery

Magazine article Artforum International

Self-Preservation: Philip Ursprung on the New Singapore National Gallery

Article excerpt

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TODAY, THE OPENING of another art museum--even one designed or transformed by a starchitect--is nothing exceptional. The parade of spectacular new institutions, most of them private, that started in the mid-1990s continues apace. And the appeal is clearly still growing, as the continued echoing in the media of last year's Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition, which attracted nearly two thousand entries, has proved. However, the opening of a new national gallery, as in Singapore this past November, is unusual. The singularity of this event provides an opportunity to look beyond platitudes about the global museum boom and ask fundamental questions about the role of both art and architecture in our globalized economy and culture. How can a museum articulate national identity, not just in the context of postcolonialism but at a time when art tends to be considered the very emblem of cosmopolitanism? How does a small city-state such as Singapore--characterized by ethnic and cultural heterogeneity, decolonized in 1959, and independent from Malaysia since 1965--deal with the challenge of national representation? And how does Singapore position itself in the race to create signature architecture and iconic buildings in relation to Asian competitors with equally ambitious plans for cultural primacy such as Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and Abu Dhabi?

Despite the Singapore National Gallery's importance, its appearance has so far passed with little comment. The opening ceremonies took place without much public notice, and even the city's cabdrivers hardly seem to know where the new museum is. In part this is due to its location: The institution occupies adjacent buildings, the former Supreme Court and the former City Hall, which were erected by the British colonial authorities before World War II and used by the Singaporean administration until 2006, after which they remained unoccupied for almost a decade. The grim colonial buildings were never popular and cannot compete with such eye-popping tourist attractions as the Marina Bay Sands Integrated resort by Safdie Architects.

But the public's indifference is also due to the fact that art is a rather marginal concern for most Singaporeans, despite the government's best efforts. The "Renaissance City Plan" was launched in 2000 with the goal of developing culture as an important factor to distinguish Singapore from competing cities in Southeast Asia and as a key attractor for "talent, investment, and international attention." It was implemented rapidly: The Singapore Biennale was founded in 2006, Art Stage Singapore began in 2011, and an arts complex in the Gillman Barracks, a former British military base, was established in 2012. The recent opening of the National Gallery marks the culmination of these efforts. Although these venues are gaining international attention and serve as platforms for regional artists, they fail to attract talent on a long-term basis. Singapore remains a place where art is displayed and consumed, but not produced. Much more vital art scenes are emerging in surrounding cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Bangkok, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hong Kong.

This stagnation might be rooted in the fact that Singapore's cultural administrators, including officials at the Ministry of Culture, the National Heritage Board, and the Tourism Board, consider art as a given, a kind of resource to be managed and controlled. Art, it seems, is perceived as a commodity, and the assumption is that, like so many other goods--from water and oil to consumer products--it can generate wealth merely by being channeled through the harbor city. But this top-down policy drives away many Singaporean artists, who find themselves drawn to cities with better conditions for production. Gillman Barracks is a good example of the ambivalence of Singapore's encouragement of the arts: It houses mainly galleries and restaurants rather than studios. …

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