"Will the real Singapore art please stand up?
- Lee Wen
Presented during “Post-Ulu”, The Artists Village, December 1999, The Substation, Singapore
Its my schizophrenia, its my paranoia, its my "i don’t want to be me" syndrome, its my "i wanted to be naked but was asked not to, so i am doing this instead" thing again, its me, its me, its always been me. No No No! It’s my home, my country, my job, my mother, it’s my family.
How many questions do you wish to ask? The question mark again?! That crooked hook that ends with a dot. Where did that come from? Once, I commented to a friend how I am intrigued by the question mark and place it as the most important invention ever. He replied "Ah!... and was it not created only to be thrown away at last!"
"Why is art in Singapore so American?" I was confronted with this question in Japan once which I hesitated to answer at that time. I felt that the questioner had no idea what she was talking about. First of all she asked the question based on seeing only one installation from Singapore in an Asian group show in Tokyo, which does not happen very often anyway. To make such a generalization from just one sighting is preposterous and to me it was downright arrogant. But at the same time I lacked the confidence to dismiss her immediately as there have been many works I have seen by artists in Singapore that strongly resembled what you might see of American or European contemporary art.
Could it be that placed next to a Thai artist, or Filipino or Indonesian, its hard to accept that a Singaporean work could be so urbane and devoid of any implication of the exotic other? The "developed" world is inclined to view contemporary art from "developing", or "third-world" (some Singaporeans may resent these adjectives today) countries like Singapore with various presumptions and preconceptions. The perception that the Singapore art scene is immature, derivative of western art hence lacking of historicity is commonly held. Worst of all this perspective is sometimes accompanied with a sneering, superior complex. It would be advantageous for the Singaporean to change the subject and talk about our "world class" local zoo instead. (1)
So what is Singapore art or art scene really like? Singapore is a multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural society. Its present political definition only began thirty odd years ago. Hence, we have our idiosyncrasies of having new nationalistic tendencies and yet trying to keep up with the globalization that is inevitably going on all around us. Singapore is one among many global cities in the world. However, if we look at this list of global cities -Amsterdam, Bangkok, Tokyo, Seoul, Mexico City, Berlin, London, etc.. - are all cities within some larger country. In the case of Singapore it is a city-state. Perhaps this could be a major contributing factor to the often perceived tightness that this ship is being run by its captains. Some may find such a situation enviable, as it does seem to be steering a smooth and swift course.
The Nokia Singapore Art 1999 professes to showcase visual art culture in Singapore. Some 400 artists are represented in a national parade of visual art in the form of 26 exhibitions in 15 venues. It is designed " to ensure that the widest net is cast to capture the amplest extent in art production and reception." (2) Such a manifestation does not necessarily be just a celebration of pluralism. Visual art is a visual representation of what Singapore is and Nokia Singapore Art 1999 says volumes or at least attempt to do so. Curiously, SAM’s curator, Ahmad Mahshadis reading and over-emphasis on Salleh Japar's entry in the curated section titled "Cultural Sinkholes..." shows the consistent social engineering of national identity via the state. (3) In asking us to adhere to the political correctness of looking at culture from a racially delineated program in order to preserve purity, heritage and identity hints of an inferiority complex of feeling that we are less mature and sophisticated than the more culturally developed old worlds of Europe and also more particularly to a glorious long historical and cultural linkage to China and India. However, when I look at Salleh's Japar's "Cultural Sinkholes", it also seems to lead us into some unknown vacuum. But I wonder if both artist and curator have got the title and reading right. Instead of sinkholes it seems to me a subconscious desire to see them as flowers in our garden city. Each in its entirety, separate and mushrooming to be these centers of our major ethnic groups of Chinese, Malay and Indian and what exist in between is seemingly hollow spaces.
Reality as such does not exist. In the face of what recently happened at the ARX 5 (artists regional exchange 5) and the infamous AGA affair in 1994, artists have been cautioned to work within certain boundaries. (4) These incidents may have led us to more discussions about the dos and don’ts of critical art practice in Singapore. Unfortunately the discussions hover desperately around the question of censorship and tend not to allow it to go further. No matter how one may try to reassure us that every social structure has its boundaries, they all still have their own peculiarities. If we still cannot accept it and hate it why should we tolerate it? We hate it and yet we love it because they tell so much about ourselves. It’s the narcissistic gaze in an "Art is a mirror" idea, which binds us. Perhaps one might get a different insight and see differently if we use art as a hammer or changkol or discursive weapon instead of a mirror.
At the time of the Artists General Assembly, it was a celebratory event, which turned sour. 2 people were charged and found guilty in the court of law. Since then, Performance art and Forum Theatre became taboo in Singapore. Whereas theatre groups could resort to various alternative practices in order to continue receiving their grants, performance artists will still be doing performance art except that they have to call it something else in order to get a grant from the National Arts Council. It is interesting to note that "Post-Ulu", the current exhibition by the Artists Village have uncovered that performance art events could still be held without the direct support of the National Arts Council. Also earlier in this series of talks, recent returning PSC scholar and now trainee teacher, Felicia Low had single-handedly made a performance in a public place. Showing us that things could be done if we go about it systematically through the bureaucratic processes of applying for permission from the relevant authorities like PELU, property owners and private funding bodies.
If contemporary Singapore art looks similar to American, it could be that we have some similarities as multicultural and plural societies in relationship to the old world cultures and at the same time being in the thick of globalization too. In fact, there are some who would even say that all contemporary art look alike these days and hence shunning it for more traditional stuff to satisfy their nostalgia. Laments have been made of how every modern city look alike these days. However, these complain come from those who look at art only as landscape paintings or pictures of the skyline. If one were to take this view seriously then you can just as well say that any city or contemporary art and culture for that matter look alike then why is it America is taken as the reference point?
The Japanese curator who saw it that way also says something about what Japan is in relationship to Asian cultures. There has been an increase in the Japanese’s interest in Asian cultures recently. However it is difficult to gauge how much is understood beyond an exotic gaze. Anything, which is "different" in a way, which includes some preconceived “Asian ness”, in terms of ethnicity, is looked at in awe and wonder. Those that wish to put that aside and deal with the aesthetic, social or political issues are seen by some as an immature consciousness and dismissed for imitating the west. Another sign of an America-Euro centric tunnel vision.
Hou Hanrou the curator for "cities on the move" defended the Chinese artists as not just using exotic elements of Chinese culture in their work but adding a new vocabulary to contemporary art. (5) These are contentious points. However, I find it difficult to dwell alone with my own "Chinese ness" being from Singapore and perhaps not only that but lately I have felt that I have to go beyond just dealing with my identity as being from Singapore. An artist from an African country once confronted me that I should not make complicated the issue of my identity. To her, I am simply a Chinese and there is no other way about it. I tried to explain that it is not that simple as I am very much different from a Chinese from Mainland China, or Taiwan or Hong Kong or America etc. There is such a thing as diasporas and it does make a difference to ones identity. She refused to accept it. At the end of two or three weeks during that symposium where I met her, she still could not accept my explanation and she came up to me the last day during breakfast and said "You are a Chinese. Full stop." (It is times like these that make me feel that I need to keep on doing my "Journey of a yellow man" series although each time I present it, I tell myself that was the last one.) But again does not that kind of perception also say something about her identity as an African artist from a post-colonial state trying to also make sense of the globalization which is affecting the younger generation and which she thinks are now making things unnecessarily "too complicated" for her.
Even if we could convince people of our uniqueness as an individual, be it from China, Africa or Singapore, at the end of the day we strive to define ourselves as in the values we see fit to be. But we do not exist in empty spaces. And neither do we exist without spaces. As such, we need our positions to stand on. However, there are some which would be deemed to be non-existing in certain contexts or not allowed to exist.
It’s my existence. It’s my resistance. It’s my responsibility. To be me. It’s always been me.
1. "Monkeys Right To Paint-and the Post-Duchamp Crisis" BAYKAM, Bedri, Literatur 1994. Baykam is a Turkish artist who lashes out at western hegemony in contemporary art in his self-published book.
2. Kwok Kian Chow, " Overview" - Nokia Singapore Art 1999 Catalogue, pg.6
3. Ahmad Mashadi "Cultural Sinkholes: Landscape and Ethnic Representation in Singapore" - Nokia Singapore Art 1999 Catalogue page 16 - 23
4. Zunzi, one of the participants of ARX5 1999 from Hong Kong had his work censored an hour before opening time. Josef Ng was fined for obscenity in a performance during "Artists General Assembly” a 1993-4 year end event co-organized by the Artists Village and 5th Passage.
5. Hou Hanrou - "On the midground: Chinese artists, diaspora and global art" pg.191
"Beyond the Future" catalogue for The Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art 1999.