Critics’ Picks

View of “A Luxury We Cannot Afford,” 2015.

View of “A Luxury We Cannot Afford,” 2015.

Hong Kong

“A Luxury We Cannot Afford”

Para Site
22/F, 677 King's Road, Quarry Bay Wing Wah Industrial Building
September 19–November 29, 2015

The group exhibition “A Luxury We Cannot Afford” provides a rare survey of art inspired by Singapore. The title is a quote from a 1968 speech by former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, speaking about the role of arts in the then-fledging nation.

While framed as an essay on Singapore’s ideology of a capitalist democracy, the exhibition does more than just reflect on the island’s economically driven politics. Honing in on the political project of culture, the exhibition includes YouTube videos such as National Night, 2012, a Mentos commercial that parodies Singapore’s campaign to encourage a “procreative” citizenry; FOCAS, a defunct journal on contemporary art; Lim Mue Hue’s modernist painting of a Chinese female smoking; and Ho Rui An’s Screen Green, 2015, a commissioned lecture-performance inspired by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2014 National Day rally speech that saw him speaking against a green screen. Ho’s work explores the penchant for green botanical backgrounds that Singapore’s politicians favor when addressing the people, and the use of the cinematic green screen as a functional site to be filled with speculative representations of the future.

The significance of an independent art space charting a historical trajectory for the political project driving much of the art on view suggests a question: Why is this exhibition not in Singapore? The question resounds in Cheong Kah Kit’s interventional series, “gently,” 2015: Three mats, emulating tiled floors in the Singapore Art Museum, transpose a state-sponsored cultural space onto the physical ground of the exhibition.

Yet, the exhibition leverages, precisely, its position outside of Singapore to bring together an exceptional selection of material and to redirect the banal narrative of Singapore's authoritarian censorship toward a productive analysis of practice in light of a state’s neoliberal push. “A Luxury We Cannot Afford” is exemplary of what a delocalized context for exhibition-making can in fact afford.