SINGAPORE ART WEEK, or SAW, began in 2013 as an attempt to create hype around a young art fair. State organs—the National Arts Council, the Economic Development Board, and the Singapore Tourism Board—rallied local arts organizations by providing funding and marketing to ensure the visibility of even the smallest exhibitions. (The intention was to build that frantic, adrenaline-induced excitement worthy of an arts metropolis.) Now in its fifth year, alongside a shrinking Art Stage Singapore (“the flagship art fair of Southeast Asia,” according to its website), the supporting act has eclipsed the star attraction.
Challenging the common assumption of the importance of a marketplace for any art scene, SAW offers glimpses of an alternative to the systematic financialization of art that defines most art arenas in the Global North. Here, the scene, as well as its small market, is made buoyant by state funding; the political project of art is not an existential crisis of meaning based on capital flows but a lived reality built on recreational consumption. It is no surprise then, outside the status quo of a populist-light art festival in the civic district and an art party in Gillman Barracks, that the real high points of SAW were performative, site-specific, and affective interrogations of the politics of the Social.
Fever Room, a projection-performance by Apichatpong Weerasethakul—presented by TheatreWorks Curators Academy, a regional curator workshop—is a cinematic exercise that deconstructs the relationship of the viewer to the screen. A demanding but immersive ninety-minute-long experience, it transitions from a multichannel screening related to Weerasethakul’s 2015 film Cemetery of Splendour to a surreal breaking of the third wall as the screen retracts into darkness, showing an empty, smoke-filled auditorium and the reality that the viewer is in fact on stage.
Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness), an installation curated by Silke Schmickl and made up of a bamboo maze and a specially constructed teahouse, opened at the National Gallery of Singapore with performances by Tiravanija’s longtime collaborator, the Japanese performance artist Mai Ueda. In twenty-minute slots from 2 PM to 5 PM, Ueda entertained four guests in her tearoom, which she explained was made by Tiravanjia for her and her practice. She served Japanese tea with watermelon juice in earthenware, also made by Tiravanjia. The space and Ueda’s performance was as much contingent on the relationship to her famous friend and collaborator as it was about the process of navigating new social codes between four strangers sharing tea.
Opening as part of SAW, “Foster Emporium,” an exhibition-cum-concept shop, is a three-month reinvention of the FOST Gallery as a retail store selling work by its artists, such as wearable sculptures by Grace Tan and a series of products and furniture by Singapore-based designers. Particularly notable was Heman Chong’s Asus ZenFone Go (January, 2018), where a smartphone priced at 2,266 SG is packed with 2,266 autobiographical photographs, which are played on a loop until the device breaks. The phone work, with its data, charger, and the electricity running through it, is both a commodity and a system.
In light of Art Stage Singapore’s decline, FOST’s self-reflexive attempt at presenting its role as an intermediary for trade is a political redirect that points to middle-class consumption—not the luxury consumption of A-R-T by High Net Worth Individuals for a “real” sustainable art market. And though the gallery had goods for sale, it managed to transform dead-eyed consumerism into something experiential, ephemeral.
Off the beaten path and tucked in a public housing estate was “The Past Is Not the Present” by a young artist named Erica Chung. The two-day show was presented through Coda Culture, a small artist-run space, during the final weekend of SAW. Chung prepared blocks of ice printed with images from newspaper reports of protests in Singapore. In the tropical heat, the blocks melted into pools of water and black ink within the first half hour of the exhibition’s opening.
SAW began as a support for a fair built on the material exchange of art. But it proposed an alternative economy based on experiences, pointing the way to how art—beyond the national borders of the island—can thrive outside the marketplace.