IT WAS RAINING by the time I arrived in Terminal 1 at Singapore’s Changi Airport. Not an unusual state of affairs for the self-proclaimed Garden City, where afternoon downpours are par for the course. But this “kinetic rain” had a somewhat unexpected quality: It was artificial. Produced by art+com, 608 metal droplets fell gently from the ceiling to the accompaniment of soothing Muzak. Stepping up to the check-in counter, it occurred to me that the silvery, liquidlike baubles offered a perfect metaphor for my experiences of the past few days: Even the apparently natural was actually cleverly orchestrated.
I had been in Singapore for the launch of the Gillman Barracks on September 14 (with attendant “satellite events”—aka wining and dining at various art institutions—on the 15th and 16th). The Barracks is the city’s first major art district; there, creativity shakes hands with social engineering under the benign auspices of the Singapore government. The remodeled 1930s military camp, named after British general Sir Webb Gillman, has been converted into a space for peaceful cultural encounters (we hope). Its current occupiers include thirteen galleries from ten countries (Indonesia, Germany, Japan, China, and Singapore, among others). And they’ll be joined shortly by other heavyweights: Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki and Hong Kong’s Pearl Lam are due to land in 2013.
Thus far, the gallery lineup appeared imposing enough (especially on paper): Sundaram Tagore flaunted photographs by Annie Leibovitz and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Building bridges among various “Asias” was something of a battle cry, since the government has plans to make Singapore “the cultural hub of Asia.” Are there naysayers who think that Hong Kong has stolen a march on the Lion City in this regard? Hong Kong has many prestigious art districts and a growing number of nonprofit research centers (like Art Asia Archive) besides. But the Barracks has noncommercial elements too. The Centre for Contemporary Arts (organizing residencies, research, and exhibitions) will be operational by January, while the Yellow River Arts Centre’s Singapore branch is already charging ahead. “The Gillman Barracks, with its unusual array of galleries and nonprofit spaces, epitomizes the thinking in Singapore about new ecologies of art,” said Kwok Kian Chow, the YRAC’s deputy chairman. “If the crowds and impossible parking at the opening night is any indication, there is an insatiable demand for contemporary art here,” added Tan Boon Hui, the Singapore Art Museum’s youthful director, jumping up and down gleefully.
Whether the crowds came to sample local delights in the form of art, food, or booze was anyone’s guess. Nevertheless… “What a lot of people!” I overheard a perspiring journalist gasp as she toiled up the hilly terrain. (Talk about social climbing!) Wandering around the verdant environs afforded the sweaty pleasure of bumping into old school friends (and their relatives); I waved to Lord Mervyn Davies of the Royal Academy Trust (around for a lunchtime talk on art patronage hosted by the cultural charity Platform) who was engaged in a chat with colorful curator David Elliott (attired in frog-green). Lorenzo Rudolf—now the ubiquitous director of Art Stage Singapore—buzzed around, while curators Hou Hanru and Charles Merewether hurried over the undulating landscape. Meanwhile, Eugene Tan, the handsome Commander of the Barracks, hovered omnisciently over proceedings. Whew!
Unfortunately the galleries didn’t always quite live up to the hype. Given that Yayoi Kusama’s red-spotted fiberglass tentacles can be seen at most Louis Vuitton outlets this season, it wasn’t exactly novel to find a room stuffed with her crazily patterned flower-vegetable hybrids. Nor did Korean painter Hyung Koo Kang’s Crossing Gazes at Mizuma Gallery hold our attention for long—portraits of staring celebrities notwithstanding. Standing under a gigantic black-and-silver picture of buxom Marilyn Munroe, I felt dwarfed and bored.
Of course, there were some high points (besides the pink champagne). Berliner Michael Jannsen’s gallery was one. Since his unrenovated premises are currently open to the elements, he invited Indonesian curator Rifky Effendy to “let in” street art. The result was “Blended by Desire,” a clever cocktail of graphic design, graffiti, and video. Ricky “Babay” Janitra’s input was scribbled over a blank wall: A geometric woman with jigsawlike appendages throbbed with projections of colored lights. “The Gillman Barracks was very well organized, even though the quality of galleries and spaces was mixed,” said Tushar Jiwarajka, owner of Mumbai’s Volte Gallery. Rumor has it that he was offered a space here. “I’m planning to open in Singapore next year at another gallery hub,” he added mysteriously. By and large, it was lucky that the opening did not depend on the commercial venues for its intellectual kicks. Also on view throughout the Barracks was Eugene Tan’s curated contribution, “Encounter, Experience, and Environment,” in which sixteen artists homed in on the vast district’s nooks and crannies. In one dusty room, army beds with white mattresses hung suspended from transparent cables tethered to the high ceilings: Singaporean Donna Ong’s eerie And we dreamt we were birds.
By late in the evening on opening night, French champagne mingled happily with Kek Lapis, but not all my ruminations on cultural mixing were agreeable. I wondered what Singaporeans were going to get out of this “international art district,” where only one Singaporean gallery, FOST, has gained admittance. Is the Barracks a means of importing that which local policymakers don’t want to bother fostering within? The issue is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the spiky-looking Esplanade–Theatres By The Bay (aka “the Durians”), an “international” complex built in 2002. There were fears that so much well-funded competition would put Singapore’s budding thespians at a disadvantage. But it turns out that not all the criticisms leveled at the Esplanade were merited, since government plans to give Singaporean performers a higher profile have borne fruit. Similarly, the Barracks could facilitate Singaporean artists getting exposure. FOST might be the only Singaporean gallery dedicated to local flavors, but other institutions attempted to vary their menu too. (Consider YRAC’s exhibition of conceptually rich drawings by the Singapore-based Indonesian artist Boedi Widjaja.) So maybe I’m being too quick to smell a rat, when really it’s just… a durian?