Its reputation as a safe, clean and efficient state is something Singapore worked hard to attain. But now the time has come to loosen up a little – with state-funded art
Dick Lim had to wait until he was all of 60 before he could fulfill his dream. “Becoming an artist just wasn’t possible when I was a young man,” he says. But eight years ago, he quit his job at an advertising agency in Singapore, rented a studio and became a painter. Now the quirky artist with the wispy beard shuffles across the concrete floor of his studio in cropped, paint-splashed trousers. “There was simply no interest in art,” he says, “but that’s changed.” He has just sold four paintings for 6000 Singapore dollars, roughly 4000 euros.
The new enthusiasm for art was decreed from above. In the 1990s, Singapore established itself as an economically successful state, but it was full of sterile shopping malls, so the government decided it was time to bring in some culture. In 1996, the Singapore Art Museum opened in a former mission school; the spectacular ArtScience Museum has resided at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel since 2011; and this month, the National Gallery is due to open in the extensively refurbished Supreme Court building. It will be the largest museum of its kind in the entire region – 64,000 square meters of space devoted exclusively to works from Southeast Asia, the idea evidently being: If we’re going to sponsor art at all, then on a grand, identitybuilding scale. But Singapore’s art offensive isn’t limited to large projects. The government has started all kinds of grant programs for artists. That’s why Lim’s rent is subsidized. In the USA or Europe, a movement will begin underground, grow and then seep into the mainstream. In Singapore, art is decreed from above, as a locational factor.
Lim has joined with other artists to form an artists’ enclave in the Wessex Estate , a neighborhood of white, boxy buildings with pointed gables and open stairwells that looks like an English garrison town transplanted to the tropics. Tourists seldom stray here, but twice a year, people come out from the city to trample the grass between Block 5, where Lim works, and the adjacent buildings housing other studios, as they sate their hunger for art – at Art Walk, for which the artists open their studios to visitors each spring and fall. Singapore’s 5.5 million inhabitants earn an average monthly income of 3800 euros, one of the highest in the world, and are increasingly investing in paintings and sculptures.
Meanwhile, the Affordable Art Fair is taking place in the Pit Building on Marina Bay. It’s a half-hour drive from Block 5, that takes us through the hipster Chip Bee Gardens district with its design shops and cafés, and on past the glass skyscrapers of the banking district. The first evening, there’s a veritable rush on the 74 galleries – who knows, maybe there’s a future star among the artists? “And plus, the white wine is free,” Daryl Goh adds conspiratorially, alluding to the high price of alcohol. The 27-year-old artist and curator is visiting some gallery owner friends, but finds the quality of what he’s seeing “mixed.” One artist has copied classics like the Mona Lisa but added cat motifs. Another work immortalizes in Warholian pop colors the state’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March. Lee was the country’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and it was the rule of iron discipline he imposed on his fellow Singaporeans that helped them achieve prosperity. Given his mantra,“The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions…inimical to development,” it’s no wonder that for a long time there was little demand for cultural diversity.
Later on, Goh calls in at the Timbre , a bar with several rows of tables and taut sunshades set out in front of a yellow-and-white colonial building on the banks of Singapore River. Goh has built up a group of collectors from financial circles. At the moment, he is organizing a program to provide artists with studios in an old printworks. People here, he tells me, still have o bonuses? “In their eyes, you either lead a glamorous life or you’re totally destitute.”
If there’s one place showing exciting art, it’s The Deck , says Goh. A container building on a small plot of wasteland, it was modeled on the Platoon Kunsthalle in Berlin. “We are the first establishment of our kind that wasn’t set up by the government,” says Gwen Lee, 38, curator and co-founder of the photo gallery. “And we aren’t commercial.” An unusual statement in a city where consumerism is the measure of all things.
Students wearing baseball caps wander through the exhibition blocks. Inside darkrooms, the founders demonstrate how photos were developed before the dawn of digital memory cards. Visitors to art openings behave differently here than in Europe or America. At first they are too shy to enter because they think they will have to buy something. Then they stand in front of huge paintings loudly engaged in Facetime phonecalls. Smartphones are ubiquitous. Whether walking, standing or appraising a picture, everyone is busy swiping or writing on some mobile device or other. Even visiting gallerists have adapted to this trend and now upload pictures onto Instagram in a bid to reach clients.
Lee is glad about the opportunities Singapore offers artists today, but she is also skeptical about whether every initiative makes sense. Gillman Barracks is a case in point. The former barracks was converted into a gallery complex in 2012 with the aim of bringing the international art market to Singapore. But for many, it feels alien, unconnected to the local scene. The barracks, built in 1936, still has its old entrance barrier, but instead of a soldier checking papers, today, there’s a machine dispensing car park tickets. Inside the leafy grounds, ShanghART from Shanghai, Mucciaccia from Rome, and Arndt and Michael Janssen from Berlin are just three of 17 galleries exhibiting their artists’ work. But the passing trade and crowds of art lovers out for a day’s stroll cannot compare to those in Soho or Kreuzberg, and openings are attended mostly by local buyers.
Although Singapore’s art scene has in recent years taken possession of some unusual venues, such as Gillman Barracks and The Deck’s containers, art is still not permitted to stray outside of the state-decreed framework. That goes for street art, too, as two sprayers from Leipzig discovered last year, after they graffitied a subway car – and ended up spending nine months in jail. Legal wall art does exist at the Blu Jaz Café in the Arab quarter, though. There, huge murals adorn the walls of the laneway, where tourists and locals sit at tables over wine and beer – talking, perhaps, about which painting they will buy next.
Addresses you’ll like
New Majestic Hotel
Boutique hotel in Chinatown with 30 rooms lovingly adorned with small artworks.
Sky on 57
Franco-Asian cuisine by top chef Justin Quek at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
The General Company
Still a rarity in Singapore: a craft shop that sells trendy regional design.
Blu Jaz Cafe
DUniversally popular bar with live music, open-mike events and gigantic murals.
These city tips are on Foursquare, too
Ulf Lippitz experienced travel restraints when living in East Germany, but once the borders opened, he was able to travel the world. A Berlin-based journalist for 20 years, Ulf’s reportage and interviews have appeared in publications like the Berlin Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.