Strange Bedfellows: Art Finds Itself in Odd Places by Bruce Quek
Art finds itself in odd places
In the comparatively brief span of Singapore’s art history, various groups and collectives have pushed to expand our notions of what art is, and where it can be found. Whether by necessity or not, the trail has been blazed for the present generation of artists to experiment with enlivening public spaces far from the confines of official institutions and commercial galleries. One such collective, Atypical, recently drew on a previous experience working with people with physical disabilities to hit upon a novel solution to the potential inaccessibility of art galleries. In their recent exhibition, ‘Dwellers’, artworks went straight to the void deck of a public housing flat, bringing art directly to the heartland community.
Experimentation with non-traditional spaces is by no means restricted to the visual arts. For instance, in last year’s edition of ‘State of Motion’, artists, writers, and other creatives were asked to respond to depictions of Singapore in foreign films, in sites such as Golden Mile Food Centre and Far East Plaza. In the latter, independent music label Ujikaji installed ‘Melantun Records’ in a unit occupied by a much-loved secondhand bookstore, Sunny Books.
The precise nature of ‘Melantun Records’ is intentionally hazy, by turns a pop-up record store, experimental music venue, and art installation responding to Gerry Troyna’s ‘Ricochet’ (1984), reflecting on Far East Plaza’s long association with musical subcultures in Singapore. In the brief span of its existence, this once vacant space buzzed with performances by some of Singapore’s best experimental artists and musicians. By virtue of being set in a shopping centre just off of the island’s main commercial drag, these experimental artworks and performances became more accessible to people who might otherwise never have considered seeking out such art and music.
Complementing the idea of bringing art to everyday spaces, some recent exhibitions take a related tack of responding to spaces that people might not ordinarily see. In the case of ‘RAID’, organised by Daniel Chong and Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, that would be a disused air raid shelter in Tiong Bahru. In its dim, brick-and-concrete confines, the venue offered challenges unlike anything that might be found in the air-conditioned white cubes which galleries default to, allowing for truly novel experiences for artists and visitors alike. Despite working within such an enclosed, forgotten pocket of Singapore, Chong cites The Artists’ Village’s interventions with Singapore’s public monuments and the rural island of Pulau Ubin as inspirations.
Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, ‘RAID’, ‘Dwellers’ and other such interventions in public spaces draw on a long tradition of artists challenging the status quo on art’s place in society. It’s a tradition that dates to a time when space was far scarcer, the public perception of what could be art far narrower, and the authorities more heavy-handed. Perhaps the most infamous example of artists running afoul of such boundaries is that of 5th Passage. In 1994, they were an artist-run space in Parkway Parade Shopping Centre, a particularly quiet passageway that would otherwise pass unused and unremarked-upon.
That year, they hosted the Artists’ General Assembly, a week-long festival organised in collaboration with The Artists Village. Among the works presented were two performances which protested a recent incident of police entrapment of gay men. Sensational media reports of these performances ignited a storm of controversy that ultimately culminated in a withdrawal of funding for unscripted performances for the next ten years, and a more explicit ban on performances by two artists in particular, Josef Ng and Shannon Tham.
While by no means as harsh, the artists behind ‘Dwellers’ also found themselves at odds with the law. Finding the necessary permits unreasonably onerous, they decided to go at it guerrilla-style, only to have their exhibition shut down within an hour by a passing police officer. Similarly, when Samantha Lo was arrested for vandalism for her unauthorised, satirical public artwork, a significant groundswell of support erupted online, with one online poll finding just 14.5% of respondents decrying the work as mere vandalism. Ultimately, Lo was charged with mischief and sentenced to 240 hours of community service, down from the possibility of jail time, had she been charged with vandalism. If there is a positive side to these incidents, it’s that the state’s response to unauthorised public art seems to have been tempered over the last twenty years, de-escalating from broad, harsh crackdowns.
Even when sticking to the straight and narrow approach of getting all the necessary permits, there exists ample opportunity for everything to go wrong, especially when dealing with an alphabet soup of stakeholders.
For instance, the artists and organisers behind ‘PPC | 珍珠坊: A Public Living Room’ in 2015 found themselves drastically adjusting their plans with less than three weeks to spare, when a deadlock in the permit process dramatically changed the exhibition layout. Originally slated to occupy a portion of the carpark of People’s Park Complex, the exhibition instead found itself occupying the rooftop bar Lepark and its immediate surroundings. Having been one of the artists involved, this entire chain of events induced everything from cynical disappointment with the obstructions posed by a byzantine bureaucracy to some excitement at facing the challenge of adapting to the exhibition’s changed circumstances.
Regardless of how far arts groups and artists have come in carving out spaces for creativity in Singapore, incidents like these suggest that we still have a ways to go yet, and that the present system of permits and licenses might be tangled and burdensome enough to stand in the way of a truly creative Singapore.
Correction: The original print article in Art Republik 18 was attributed solely to Bruce Quek. The story is co-authored with Chloe Ho.
This is part of ‘Better Together’, a series of conversations about how people have banded together in innovative ways to create, exhibit, teach, discuss and archive art in Southeast Asia, brought to you by ART REPUBLIK both online and in print.