See Saw

Wong Bing Hao on Singapore Art Week 2021

Choy Ka Fai’s exhibition “CosmicWander: Expedition” presented by Singapore Art Museum at Tanjong Pagar Distripark. All photos unless noted: Wong Bing Hao.

ABOUT A DECADE AGO, the Tanjong Pagar Distripark, an unassuming warehouse turned gallery hub whose tenants included Galerie Steph, Ikkan Art International, and Valentine Willie Fine Art, was touted as the “edgy” gathering spot for the Singapore art scene. Not long after, in late 2012, Gillman Barracks, another visual arts cluster home to local and international galleries and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, was inaugurated with much fanfare. After the confetti fell, both art precincts publicly dealt with their fair share of tribulations: a revolving door of occupants, criticisms of unnecessary competition, and lukewarm public and commercial interest.  

At this year’s Singapore Art Week (SAW), the tides appeared to be shifting back in the older venue’s favor. Flagship art fair S.E.A. Focus decamped from the Barracks, where they had operated for the past two years, to the Distripark. Eschewing the singular booth format to showcase artworks in a large exhibition fashionably titled “hyper-horizon,” the fair boasted a strong lineup of both regional and international galleries, including Edouard Malingue Gallery, ROH Projects, and Bangkok CityCity Gallery. Currently undergoing a revamp, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) also mounted an impressive array of video installations by Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai in one of the Distripark’s many commodious spaces. With a nod to trending topics like spirituality, embodiment, and dance (the show also hosted a “multicultural voguing party”), Choy’s central six-channel installation featured footage of an occult shamanistic ritual filmed on the night of a full moon in Yishun, described in the video as Singapore’s “most dystopian suburb.” At the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), SAM also presented “Escape Velocity V,” a theatrical display of Zai Tang’s psychedelic drawings and sound installations, which drew on the artist’s meticulous, decade-long field recordings of Singapore’s near-extinct wildlife species.

Gen Z–led projects arguably defined this year’s SAW, with more than a few exhibitions and artworks extolling the purported radicality of care and digital culture. Timeliness triumphed, but depth, originality, and situational awareness lagged behind—with some exceptions. In their contributions to separate group shows, artists Aki Hassan and nor both engaged the contingencies of process. Hassan, who experiments with sculpture as physical and conceptual support, presented new powder-coated, welded steel works that reified the fragility and fatigue of a body. In nor’s Acts of Friendship, 2019–21, participants, after acquainting themselves with the artist for up to six hours, were asked to write letters reflecting on existing friendships in their lives. The missives, exhibited in the gallery space, captured a quintessentially youthful brew of diffidence, angst, and naivete.

Off the beaten path, I was encouraged to find rigorous, research-based projects exploring the nuances and tensions of global solidarity movements. “In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War,” an ambitious group exhibition cocurated by Kathleen Ditzig and Carlos Quijon Jr. at Nanyang Technological University’s ADM Gallery, juxtaposed works by promising regional artists with archival materials, attesting to the curators’ skillful intertwining of scholarship and praxis. Vuth Lyno’s three-channel video, 25, 2018, records a poignant conversation between three individuals of Afro-Cambodian descent twenty-five years after their fathers—all of them peacekeepers for the UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia)—abandoned them for their respective home countries. In a particularly discomfiting scene, a protagonist’s frank confession of mixed feelings toward UNTAC is met with uneasy silence, an allusion to the awkward irresolution of Cold War legacies.

Although Covid-19 has undoubtedly shaken the art world, the virus is cautiously under control in Singapore, and over three-quarters of SAW’s hundred-plus programs were conducted in real life—business as usual was a welcome reprieve from Zoom fatigue. Lavish vernissages and parties were, however, understandably forwent, and last year’s jet-setting glitterati, which included the likes of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija, were conspicuously absent due to ongoing travel restrictions.  

Nonetheless, state officials and artists alike were at pains to herald the novelty and relevance of all goings-on, and understandably so. Faced with the double whammy of a global recession exacerbated by an insidious pandemic last March, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth announced the disbursement of S$55 million to sustain arts and cultural sectors, resulting in the salubriousness witnessed in this year’s copious and commendable offerings. More than a forgotten fling for a coterie of itinerant elites, SAW 2021 demonstrated an art scene’s fortitude. Whatever topic, celebrity persona, or arts venue is in vogue, Singapore’s art ecosystem has and continues to admirably weather proverbial storms.

Artist Fyerool Darma with his work for “In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War,” ADM Gallery.

Artist Guo-Liang Tan with his work in “Strange Forms of Life,” a show he curated at STPI Gallery.

Tang Fu Kuen, artistic director of Taipei Arts Festival.

Actress Victoria Loke.

Artists Aki Hassan and nor

Artists Zarina Muhammad and Tini Aliman.

Curator and art historian Carlos Quijon, Jr.’s virtual presentation at ADM Gallery. Photo: Kathleen Ditzig.

Curator and art historian Kathleen Ditzig with artist Heman Chong.

NGS and SAM senior curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa.

NGS Curator Qinyi Lim and SAM curator Kenji Praepipatmongkol.

NTU CCA curator Magdalena Magiera.