Eugene Tan: New Art Environments in Singapore and Southeast Asia

Cover of the publication »Contemporary Art and the Museum«

The effects of globalization for the art environment of Singapore and Southeast Asia cannot be overstated. One important consequence is the significant role that financial flows and investments play today. Among other things, this can be seen in the growing interest in Chinese and Indian art in recent years. There is a strong correlation between the economic power that a country wields and interest in the art that its produces. It is no coincidence that interest in contemporary art from China and India has increased in recent years, which has been fuelled in no small way by the growing economic interest in these countries, where their large, as yet untapped and increasingly affluent populations are seen as potential markets for multinational corporations and investors. Sadly, this has had the opposite effects for Southeast Asia. Since the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, which was precipitated by currency speculation and resulted in the massive out-flows of speculative capital from the region, and leaving many economies in Southeast Asia weakened and vulnerable in its wake. As a result, there has been a discernible lack of economic interest and the waning of interest in art of the region. The director of a museum in America recently intimated to me that even though he wanted to do ex exhibition of art from Southeast Asia, it was difficult to do so, just because he would not be able to find the sponsorship that is necessary, on the other hand, it would be much easier to secure sponsorship for an exhibition of Chinese or Indian art.

So regrettably, Southeast Asia is better known internationally these days as one of the breeding grounds for Muslim extremists, in the American-initiated ‘global war on terror’.

The correlation between economic potential and interest in a country’s or region’s art also demonstrates the importance of the market for the art world. This situation highlights the relationship between economic power, the art market and the development of contemporary art, which reflects the importance of the art market for the development of art in the new global art system. While the market has always played an important role in this respect, in recent years, the market’s role has come to assume a new and greater significance, one reflected in the ways in which contemporary Chinese art and Indian art have developed in recent years due to the rapidly growing demand for the work, fuelled not doubt to some extent by speculation. This is in effect a conflation of economic globalization and cultural globalization, where art has now attained the status of an international asset class. The importance of the market has resulted in the disproportionate power that collectors now hold, in the complex and intricate power relationship between gallerists, curators, art critics and collectors that determines the way the art world functions. While this is a power balance that changes over time, where one group will exert more influence over the others, for example, in the 1950s, it was the critics that were influential, while it was the curator in the 60s and 90s, and the galleries in the 80s, in recent years, it has definitely the age of the collectors.

Another effect of globalization is the desire by many governments to develop cultural tourism. Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China are some of the countries in Asia that have explored having a Guggenheim Museum in their cities. This is undoubtedly inspired by the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the desire of these countries to have an instantly internationally recognized cultural institution, one which will put them on the world cultural map and hence attract tourism to their countries. Here, art is seen as a tool and instrument for economic development and progress. However, as it has been highlighted, this can also lead to problems for art development. One consequence is the way this strategy leads to a kind of cultural homogenization, the establishment of an international language of contemporary art, or more specifically, a reinforcement of the hegemony of art discourses that originate from Europe and America.

This further affects the perception of art from regions outside of Europe and America, both from the outside as well as from the inside. Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia also have to deal with the complex situation with the West which other post-colonial societies are also coming to terms with, one of which is relationship of influences in art. As with much art from Asia, Africa and other post-colonial societies, due to its diverse histories and traditions there has always been difficulty contextualising the art that is produced in Southeast Asia. Part of the problem lies in the relationship contemporary art in the region has with art in Europe and America. It is generally accepted that despite isolated incidences where artists have attempted to introduce contemporary practices and discourses in their respective countries, contemporary art in Southeast Asia emerged in the 1980s and 1990s; sometime later than it did in Europe and America. It has also been acknowledged that contemporary art, or at least the Euro-American derived version of it, developed in Southeast Asia largely through artists who lived and worked in art centres in Europe and America, before returning to their respective countries and introducing conceptual and other post-modernist discourses and practices there. Therefore, in the West there is the difficulty of understanding how artistic styles that have developed through linear art historical modes function when they are removed from this genealogy and inserted into unfamiliar contexts. Furthermore, this is a difficulty faced by both sides. For Southeast Asian artists, there is also the burden or baggage of having to either explain away or affirm their belated adoption of an artistic style or language derived from the west. While post-colonial theories have been used to explain this relationship and the art that is produced, it has not resulted in more relevant ways to understand and perceive the art from Southeast Asia.

Apart from these problems resulting from globalization, the situation has also given rise to certain anachronisms in the way governments in countries such as Singapore perceive the function of art and their attempts to develop the local art environment.

For many governments in Southeast Asia, attracting foreign capital and investment is still an important priority in spite of the potential dangers of globalization. The state-dictated drive towards economic progress and prosperity has been the overriding priority in Singapore at the expense of all other aspects. Art is often not only employed in the service of this objective, but also often ends up being a casualty. For example, art and culture is used as part of a strategy to make the country more attractive to foreign investors, to attract multinational corporations to set up their regional headquarters there. There is a feeling that if the state is able to present the country as a culturally vibrant city, it will be better able to attract these investments, in addition to other considerations such as the stable and conducive economic and business environment.

And just as importantly, this has also resulted in a situation where economic and financial value also becomes the yardstick for just about everything, even for the judgement of art and the success and failure of artists. The culture industry has, in effect, been replaced, not complimented by the notion of creative industries. Art and culture, and, for that matter, everything else, are only considered useful if they contribute to the economic development and prosperity of the country. A good example of this attitude can be seen in the government’s recent decision to proceed with legalising gambling, via the development of two casino resorts. Even though the government considers gambling immoral, as it has declared in the past, it is being tolerated in the interests of the economic benefits it brings. As such, not only are the real benefits of art sacrificed for economic prosperity _ where only art that is seen to have financial potential is promoted _ but even morality is sacrificed.

There is also the belief that art and culture can enhance the creativity of a society and hence making it better placed to compete in the globalized economy. This stems from the idea of the ‘Creative Economy’, where apart from the creative industries, creativity is seen as being able to benefit the wider economy, by enabling creative ways to business ideas and solutions, giving a society a competitive edge.

And apart from the emphasis upon economic development, art and culture is also seen as a way to further raise the country’s profile and prestige. This derives from the anxiety that is felt by the state in Singapore, because of its small size. There is an anxiety of being left out of the international community, of being irrelevant. The result is that the museums and institutions that are established are based on models derived from the West, often with the aim of making these museums and institutions ‘world-class’, to be recognized internationally in the same way as the original museums they are based on, which as we know can only end up being inadequate copies. Take the proposed National Art Gallery in Singapore as an example,

Two years ago, the government announced plans to turn the former City Hall and Supreme Court in Singapore into the National Art Gallery. These are two imposing Colonial buildings which are of historical significance for the country. City hall is for example, where the Japanese surrendered to the British after the Second World War, and later, where independence was declared. City Hall was also one of the main venues for the Singapore Biennale last year, and which I belief will also be used for the biennale again next year, which will be curated by Fumio Nanjo.

The Art Gallery is due to open in 2012 and they have just begun an international search for the director. So for any of you that are interested, do contact the Ministry of Arts. 

The Ministry’s model for the National Gallery is, not surprisingly, the National Gallery in London. They have often said that their aim for the National Art Gallery is for it to become an internationally renowned institution. They have also said that its focus will be on Modernist Southeast Asian art, and frighteningly, that it will have very little, if at all any engagement with contemporary art. This is unsurprising given the historical and symbolic significance of the buildings and the government’s uneasiness with contemporary art, which I will elaborate upon later. As such, it remains to be seen how beneficial the Gallery will be for the arts in Singapore.

And while there are these economic ambitions and aims for the arts by the State in Singapore, there is at the same time, the desire to maintain the idea of the traditional nation-state and to ensure that art does not lead to situations where its power and authority is questioned. Rem Koolhaas famously wrote, in 1995, about Singapore as a unique ecology of the contemporary, where everything is planned and where nothing is left to chance. This gives rise to the question as to how art production can thrive in such an environment. One of the ways this control becomes evident is the enforcement strict censorship, self-imposed or otherwise. In addition to its controversial episodes of capital punishment, Singapore has made the headlines in the international press with the heavy handed censorship of films by documentary filmmaker Martyn See, based on the prominent former political opposition leader Chee Soon Juan and, more recently, long-time political detainee, Said Zulhairi. And indeed, contemporary art has had an uneasy relationship with the state in Singapore. This came to the fore in the early 1990s, when severe restrictions were imposed on performance art and set the tone for the relationship between contemporary art and the state in the years to follow. The restrictions followed some controversy surrounding performances which took place during the Artists’ General Assembly at the end of 1993, an event jointly organised by two artists’ collectives, 5th Passage and The Artists Village. As a result, Josef Ng, one of the artists involved, was arrested on public indecency charges. The National Arts Council also condemned the performances, and suspended funding for all performance art. Legislation was also passed requiring a license from the police for all performances to be presented in public, which, in turn, required a script to be approved by the authorities. These restrictions were only eased at the end of 2003, some ten years later. This heavy- handed behaviour by the state invariably had negative fallout on the artistic scene. Apart from resulting in many artists leaving the country, it also set the tone for the state’s relationship with, and tolerance of, contemporary art practices. 

Therefore, in Singapore, there is an understanding by the State of the role that art now plays in the globalised world and the benefits it can bring, economically and in terms of international profile. There is therefore an anachronistic situation where the State wants the benefits of this new globalised economy and multinational capitalism, while at the same time, trying to assert control over the way it develops and in the process not allowing the scene the conditions it needs to develop.

The failure of state institutions and initiatives in Singapore and Southeast Asian countries has given rise to the emergence of private and artist-led organizations and initiatives which have taken on the role in driving the development of art in Southeast Asia. It is these organizations that have played and continue to play an important role in the development of art in the region.
 Cemeti Art House and Cemeti Art Foundation (renamed Indonesian Visual Art Archive), Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Founded in 1988 by artists Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo. The Cemeti Art House organises exhibitions, performances, discussions, and artists’ talks. In 1995, the Cemeti Art Foundation was founded, which maintains an archive of contemporary Indonesian artists.

Big Sky Mind, Manila, Philippines
Founded in 1999 by 3 young artists, it functioned as an artist-run space and gallery café. It supported the development of hybrid art forms, including visual art, poetry, performance, video and film. Occupying two floors in a departmental building, Big Sky Mind was a meeting place for contemporary artists working outside of the mainstream. However, it was closed in 2004 due to lack of funding. This is a common problem facing many non-profit and artist-run spaces. There is a lack of a culture of philanthropy in Southeast Asia when it comes to the arts.

The Substation, Singapore
Since its founding inauguration in 1990 by playwright Kuo Pao Kun. New, the Substation has supported a wide-range of avant-garde cultural activities from dance to concerts, from performance to poetry recitals. It is housed in a transformed three-storey former power station, and houses a theatre, a gallery, a dance studio and an open-air performance space. Through its annual Criteria programme, it presents new works by emerging contemporary artists.

Para/Site, Hong Kong
Para/Site was founded in 1996 and is a non-profit making art space run by independent artists in Hong Kong. It is also supported by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. It recently started an off shoot called Para/Site Central, which is being hosted in a commercial gallery, and is the smallest exhibition space in Hong Kong. It aims at promoting quality works by young emerging artists.

Apart from organizations working directly with artists, also organisations such as Asia Art Archive, who facilitate research in Asian art.

Asia Art Archive
AAA was set up at the end of 2000 by Claire Hsu. It grew out of her frustration, whereby information on contemporary art from mainland China was considerably hard to come by when carrying out my research in London at the end of 2000. It has since evolved into one that has generated a collective awareness of the urgent necessity for the documentation, interpretation and dissemination of knowledge in the field.
The archive now offers one of the most comprehensive and publicly accessible collections of material relating to contemporary Asian art in the world with over 22,000 items to include ephemeral, published and multi-media material. Its facilities are free and available to all via our website and physical space.

What I’ve outlined are some of the challenges facing the development of art in Singapore and the region. I think that governments need to be more honest as to their purpose and vision of the arts and perhaps learn more from the organizations who are working more closely with the artists and arts community, to find out what the community really needs to develop.

Last update: 07-11-2007 12:05