Magazine article The Spectator

Safety First

Magazine article The Spectator

Safety First

Article excerpt

Every nation seems to be at it. Japan, Portugal, Hungary, Brazil, Sweden - all have recently promoted or are promoting arts festivals in London in order to further our awareness of their cultures. When so many countries are vying for our attention, and when so much native art is happening at the same time, these festivals sometimes seem more like rallying points for expatriate communities than events that will imprint something indelible on our notoriously insular collective mindset.

But at least those countries just mentioned do possess distinctive cultural identities. What about Singapore, though? In February and March, London will be hit by the Singapore Season. The Singaporeans can hardly be accused of flooding the market. Just four groups from the densely populated tropical-island city state are visiting. Rest assured, they are no village idiots. That wonderful, erudite, charismatic maverick Ong Keng Sen - a celebrity in the world of radical experimental arts - will offer a season from 2 February to 12 March at the ICA, curating a programme of films, installations, video, music and even a clubnight, as well as directing his own company TheatreWorks's docudrama The Global Soul, a presentation that features a multinational cast in its examination of what national identity means. He's also in charge of a Singapore Film Week from 7 to 13 March. (Will we see some of the work hitherto banned on the island?)

The excellent Singapore Dance Theatre gives a triple bill of Asian and Australian choreographers' works at the Peacock Theatre from 16 to 18 March. The T'ang Quartet, a lively and excellent young ensemble that should go far and deserves serious European representation - what about an EMI Debut Series disc? - gives its Wigmore Hall debut on 26 March. And the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Tsung Yeh, gives a concert at the Barbican on 1 April which includes a new work by Michael Nyman and a 'Calligraphy Concerto' devised by Singapore's best-known artist - and philosopher and poet - Tan Swie Hian. To judge from what the SCO played for us, we might be in store for an overdose of American-style epic emptiness rather than anything very oriental in feel. But let us wait and see.

Just four groups, then. Is that because that is all Singapore has to offer? Far from it. During my visit to the island I was shown a plethora of activity. Facilities are superb. First and foremost, there's the stunning new Esplanade concert hall (home of the fine Singapore Symphony Orchestra, alas not visiting on this occasion) and theatre complex, designed jointly by Michael Wilford & partners and Singapore's own DP Architects and known locally as the Durian after the pungent local fruit because of its gracefully curved, prickly outer skin. There's the Arts House, converted handsomely from George Coleman's 1827 Parliament House. There are small experimental galleries like the quaintly named Plastique Kinetic Worms and a plethora of ethnic arts and dance organisations. There's a smallish but perfectly formed and sensitively curated national art gallery, the Singapore Art Museum. There's the Singapore Repertory Theatre, and a new Drama Centre due to open next year. There are designated 'arts belts' in Chinatown and Little India. And so on. The message to us was that there's an awful lot going on here, and it's all generously supported and encouraged by the National Arts Council, the government department responsible for matters artistic. They aim to make Singapore a destination for arts tourism, a Global Cultural City, as the mandarin speak would have it. …

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