The “Little Red Dot” in the International Art World

By Amelia Abdullahsani

Feb 05th, 2017 8:42 AM

Sarah Choo Jing's "Art of Rehearsal" video installation, recently opened at Gallery 10 at the National Museum of Singapore. Photo credit: Sarah Choo Jing

In 2016, Singaporean artists actively participated in numerous international exhibitions, biennales, and in museums and galleries abroad. Last year alone, artist, writer, and curator Heman Chong had a solo exhibition at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai and participated in the 20th Sydney Biennale. He ended the year with a solo exhibition at FOST Gallery in Gillman Barracks in Singapore. Apart from his local renown, Heman is also represented by London gallery Rossi & Rossi, who regularly brings his works to international art fairs such as Frieze New York.

Photo of Singaporean artist Heman Chong. His solo show, “Portals, Loopholes and Other Transgressions” ran from 28th October until 29th December 2016 at FOST Gallery. Photo credit: Nguan

Another globe-trotting artist is Ming Wong. Based in Berlin, Ming exhibited last year at the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Queensland and at the Passerelle Centre d’art Contemporain in Brest, and was commissioned by the Frieze Film Commission for a new film exhibited at Frieze London and broadcast on UK Channel 4’s Random Acts.

Established artists are not the only ones who are exhibiting abroad. Emerging artists in their twenties have already spread their wings and have been participating in biennales and galleries abroad. Artists Luke Heng and Hilmi Johandi, have exhibited both at home and in Paris, inspiring more young Singaporean artists to enter the European art scene. Sarah Choo Jing, a multidisciplinary artists, just 23 years of age, recently won the prestigious Prix de la Photographie Paris for fine art photography in November last year.

While we admire Singaporean artists for their global exposure, we wonder why and how Singaporean artists have become savvy in navigating the international art seas. For one thing, Singaporeans – both citizens and residents of this fair isle – are globe-trotting passport-toting travellers. So it’s no surprise that artists reflect the island’s jet setting habit. In addition to travelling abroad, it is increasingly common for Singaporean students to spend a chunk of time studying abroad. Singaporean artists are no exception. Jack Tan, who participated in last year’s SAC Public Arts Programme at Gillman and is currently exhibiting at the Singapore Biennale 2016, is one such example. In 1992, he moved to Yorkshire to read Law at the University of Hull. He then went on to study ceramics in London and is currently pursuing a PhD in the Department for Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Roehampton, London.  Besides exhibiting and curating shows in London, Tan also lectures in Sculpture and Fine Art at various universities and art institutions in the U.K., further paving the way for Singaporean artists to establish themselves as experts in the field of contemporary art on a global scale.

However, the appeal of Singaporean artists in the international art scene runs deeper. Rather than simply a reflection of our travelling and study habits, the works of Singaporean artists transcend boundaries. Coming from a place of multiculturalism and world-class education system, Singaporean artists are equipped to deal with issues that are of concern not only in Singapore but also throughout the world. These artists are engaging themselves with philosophical enquiry and converging concepts from various disciplines such as music, as in the case of conceptual artist Ang Song-Ming, also based in Berlin; literature as seen in Stephanie Burt’s work; and even the legal profession, as in the case of Jack Tan. The works of these and other Singaporean artists adopt symbols and artistic language that translates well in the international art circuit.

Panoramic view of the Singapore Pavillion at the 56th Venice Biennale with Charles Lim’s multi-media installation “SEA STATE”
Image courtesy of National Arts Council

How then does Singapore represent itself – as an entity or as a subject – at international biennales? In the 56th Venice Biennale, in which Charles Lim represented Singapore with SEA STATE, and for the upcoming 57th Venice Biennale this May, when Zai Kuning will represent Singapore, a common thread between the two artists has surfaced – both artists investigate Singapore’s relationship with the sea and its maritime history. After all, Singapore is an island – we can’t escape the water! Yet, the sea does not play an active part in our everyday lives.  Both Charles and Zai convey an aspect of Singapore’s history and identity that is complexly woven on the island state’s geographical nature and fluid identity.

A former Olympic athlete who represented Singapore in sailing, Charles is as comfortable on land as he is in water. SEA STATE, his work at the 56th Venice Biennale, explored the borders of Singapore, which is not delineated on land but are marked by buoys in the waters surrounding Singapore.

As for Zai’s work for the 57th Venice Biennale, while his presentation for Venice does include the surrounding waters and its commercial implications – part of his presentation includes his decade-long research and creation with and about the Orang Laut, the original inhabitants of the land and the sea of the surrounding areas in Singapore’s vicinity – his work touches on the forgotten history of the Malay culture in Singapore and Southeast Asia. For the past 700 years, the Malay culture has been inherently associated with Islam. This has resulted in the region’s collective amnesia on the Malay Archipelago’s pre-Islamic roots. Titled Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, Zai’s installation in Venice will continue his exploration on his ship series, inspired by the ancient seafaring ships of the Srivijaya Kingdom.

Artist Zai Kuning's decade-long research into the maritime history of the region and the ancient shipbuilding traditions of the Srivijaya Kingdom has led to several renditions of the replica of an ancient sailing ship, built only with rattan, beeswax and strnig. For the Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, the artist will be presenting his largest rendition of the work to date.
Image courtesy of the National Arts Council

In light of Singapore’s fluid identity, the creative population is not limited to solely Singaporean artists. As with other industries in Singapore, the artistic scene in Singapore is fuelled also by residents who have made Singapore their home. For years, artists have been coming to Singapore and have contributed to the art scene here.

A well-known example is the husband and wife artist couple Delia and Milenko Prvacki. They have been living in Singapore since 1990 and took up Singapore citizenship in 2002. Milenko was the recipient of the prestigious Cultural Medallion Award for the Visual Arts, the highest accolade awarded to Singaporean artists, in 2012. Both artists, now in their sixties, have been actively teaching and have influenced a couple of generations of young Singaporean artists.

Not all artists who live in Singapore take up citizenship or permanent residency, but their contributions are pertinent to the art landscape here. Artists Mike HJ Chang (from Taiwan and the US) and Merryn Trevethan (from Australia) now call Singapore home. Mike is not only actively exhibiting but also teaches art in Singapore, educating a younger generation of Singaporeans about art. Merryn too has been exhibiting, most recently at the Australian High Commission, demonstrating that art is not only a tool for education but also a form of diplomacy between Singapore and the rest of the world. Merryn was also commissioned for an artwork for the new Facebook offices at the South Beach Tower, which she recently completed in 2016.

Now, what about us – the art lovers? What can we do to support Singapore’s art scene? In 2016, there has been an increase in the number of visitors to art fairs and museums in Singapore. Singaporean art lovers are also increasingly travelling to Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Stage Jakarta in support of Singaporean artists. However, what artists need are not simply art lovers and art viewers but also art buyers. Ultimately, the best way one could support Singaporean artists is to buy works by Singaporean artists. Investing in the works of Singaporean artists and artists who call Singapore home provides them with financial support that artists need in order to support themselves.

If contemporary art is history in the making, then buying local contemporary art is an investment in the future of Singapore art and its cultural landscape.