Singapore Fling

Nicolas Trembley around Singapore Art Week 2020

Nicolas Trembley receiving a birthday cake from Hans Ulrich Obrist. Photo: Rita Targui.

I FOUND MYSELF on a recent Sunday evening in a Singaporean mall, at a dinner hosted by ShanghART gallery, meeting the country’s arts impresarios over Peking duck and century eggs. Dealer Lillian Wu and Rosa Daniel of the National Arts Council spoke of the country’s expanding arts scene—words such as “global platform” and “art hub” were as plentiful as the bonnes bouches on offer. And such talk is warranted. For readers unfamiliar with Singapore (as I was a couple weeks ago), I hereby report that the city-state is booming, enjoying new streams of money diverted from Hong Kong. On January 12, the educational nonprofit Art Outreach kicked off Singapore Art Week (SAW) with their third annual Impart collector’s show at the School of the Arts (SOTA). Curated by Boon Hui Tan, the director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, the exhibition showcases local and international collections, featuring works by Jakkai Siributr, El Anatsui, Bharti Kher, and Kehinde Wiley, among others.

The art fair is called S.E.A Focus (for South East Asia), and is a kind of plan B. Plan A, an expo called Arts Stage, founded by Lorenzo Rudolf, was canceled abruptly last year. More “curated event” than fair—galleries are invited to participate, rather than apply—the whole thing is orchestrated by the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI). They love acronyms over there.

The next day, at a chic rooftop lunch for the national arts council at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS)—not to be confused with the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), currently under renovation, or the National Museum of Singapore (NMS)—we ate beautiful, minimal Cantonese dishes with the minister of culture, Grace Fu. Around the table at Yan (one of NGS’s eleven restaurants) were exhibition organizers including Clara Kim from Tate and Centre Pompidou’s Catherine David, cocurator of a show of paintings by Latiff Mohidin, one of Southeast Asia’s leading modernists, at the Pompidou and the NGS. I also spotted Ute Meta Bauer from Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA). As a postprandial indulgence, we toured the Sixth Singapore Biennale, this year fielded by Patrick Flores and six others.


Afterward, I trailed collector Andreas Teoh to the Arts House, located in the old parliament building, where he had commissioned a transfixing installation by Yinka Shonibare, curated by Singaporean Artforumer Zehra Jumabhoy. After taking in the work—a vibrant, melting-pot take on the gilt bronze Lady Justice atop London’s Old Bailey courthouse, featuring Shonibare’s hallmark Dutch wax batik patterns—we had a low-key chicken and rice dinner at a street-food joint, where, alongside Pace’s Tamara Corm and Stephen Friedman’s Karon Hepburn, the jet lag started to catch up with me.

No rest for the wicked, alas. On Tuesday, London-based architect Simon Heah, whose father built Singapore’s first-ever Shangri-La Hotel in 1971, kindly invited me, art adviser Cordula von Keller, and MONAD curator Olivier Varenne for lunch at the lavishly tropical suburban residence of collector and curator Peter Lee. En route back to the center, we stopped at the Goodman Arts Centre, an “arts hive” managed by the nonprofit Arts House Limited (AHL), which is in turn an affiliate of the National Arts Council (NAC), to visit the studios of young painter Luke Heng and sculptor Han Sai Por. We didn’t have much time: The incognito owner of the DRAT collection, whose holdings span from Picasso to Kusama to Team Lab, had organized a limited-hours viewing in the hypersleek Singapore Freeport, a highly secured depot that’s been on the market for four years and boasts a forty-one-yard-long Ron Arad sculpture at its center.

Post-tour, we ate Peranakan cuisine at the famous Violet Oon restaurant at the nearby Changi airport (SIN) in a new, insane terminal by Moshe Safdie—complete with gardens, infinite shops, and a rain vortex. Among those present were artist Minjung Kim, Art India president Sangita Jindal, Alessio Antoniolli from Gasworks, and archeologist Agnes Hsu-Tang (who is also the executive chair of 2020’s Art Triennial of Asia in New York). Some of my companions were checking in for their flights at the table, already off to Taipei for the city’s annual fair.


While S.E.A Focus, Wednesday’s showcase of contemporary art from Southeast Asia, counted only twenty galleries, its solo shows—Danh Vo at Vitamin Creative Space, Rirkrit Tiravanija at neugerriemschneider, and Pinaree Sanpitak and Melati Suryodarmo at STPI, the institution helming the fair—didn’t fail to impress. The fair unfolded under a tent pitched at Gilman Barracks, a onetime British military camp now home to galleries, restaurants, artists’ studios, the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), and one of the biennial’s many exhibition spaces.

Thursday was a blur: I caught off-site exhibitions including “Emerging,” a display of up-and-comers from the mysterious Duo Collection (its owners, much like the entity behind DART, prefer to remain anonymous) at the Private Museum, and “Strange Things,” a show of “unfamiliar entities and alien objects” at 2 Cavan Road, a temporary venue in an abandoned shipyard overseen by the Singapore Arts Club—plus “State of Motion,” a program produced by Asian Film Archive and curated by Cheong Kah Kit, Selene Yap, and Tan Guo-Liang at an old depot now reborn as the Warehouse. It goes without saying that there was no time to shop for the upcoming Chinese New Year (that of the Rat).


That evening, we were back at NGS to help launch Cao Fei’s rooftop commission, a wooden ship filled with brine. We were told that it rocks back and forth, splashing its bilgewater on the ground. Unfortunately, the mechanism that controls the vessel’s movement was on the fritz that night. But I did run into Glenn Lowry, who was there to speak at one of the weeklong talks, pinned to such weighty themes as “The Museum and the Twenty-First Century.” Dinner (and generous pours of sake) were offered by Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel Asia at Bincho at Hua Bee, a tiny, delightfully crowded yakitori spot in Tiong Bahru Market.

On Friday, Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO) arrived at STPI at 6 AM to give a talk as part of “SEAspotlight,” a series of conversations with assorted artists such as Dinh Q. Lê, Robert Zhao Renhui, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and Ade Darmawan. Obrist raised a slew of questions about the future of exhibition-making, then possibly answered them by announcing a Serpentine collaboration with K-pop group the Bangtan Boys (BTS). He also presented me with a cake, for my birthday, in public. At 10 PM, he flew away, due west for Digital Life Design (DLD), a tech conference in Munich. Even the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was astonished! I decided to fly back with him, and fell asleep immediately after this very dense and very rewarding SAW.

Artist Minjung Kim. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.

Writer Allese thomson and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.

Curator Clara Kim and gallery director Tamara Corm. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.

National Gallery Singapore Director Eugene Tan. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.

Collector Peter Lee and curator Olivier Varenne. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.

Artist Robert Zhao Renhui. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.

Art Triennial of Asia Executive Chair Agnes Hsu Tang and Lilian Wu of ShanghArt Gallery. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.

Artist Han Sai Por. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.

Museum of Modern Art Glenn Lowry and his wife Susan. Photo: Nicolas Trembley.