2017 was an eventful year for the arts in Singapore, full of the promising and the problematic. While there were the good, such as new projects and plans to develop the cultural landscape in exciting ways, there were also the not so good: controversies or conflicts that have spawned endless debates and infinite scrolling through Facebook comment threads. ArtsEquator asked Jackie Goh of The Fingersmith Letterpress to create an visual recap of the year’s top ten news makers – arts incidents that have been seismic enough to have broken out into wider public space.
In late 2016, anonymous attacks on the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017 program surfaced online. The IMDA subsequently refused to issue ratings to M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017's performance-lecture Naked Ladies by Thea Fitz-James and Ming Poon's Undressing Room, unless elements of the works be modified. The Fringe organisers pulled these shows out of the programme, to preserve the integrity of the works. More recently, ahead of 2018’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, the organisers drew flak for removing a film screening presented by The Glory Hoes, who claimed in a statement that it was an act of censorship. The Fringe responded with a statement explaining their reasons for withdrawing the event.
Kirsten Tan's debut feature film POP AYE, became the first Singaporean film to win the prestigious Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting in January. The film is a road trip tale about the bond between an aging architect and an elephant, set in Thailand. Her victory was lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and marks the growing international recognition of Singapore filmmaking, with Boo Jun Feng's Apprentice (2016) and K Rajagopal's A Yellow Bird (2016) having enjoyed acclaimed screenings and accolades at numerous film festivals, including at the Cannes Film Festival.
In Feb, an WWII exhibition, titled Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies was to open at the former Ford Factory. Previewing the show, The Straits Times noted that the title "Syonan Gallery" was a contentious choice. Members of the public too expressed their discomfort with the use of the name "Syonan", invoking as it did, memories of the trauma that Singapore suffered under the Japanese occupation; to use the name thus seemed to glorify this period. A day after the opening, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim announced that "Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies" would now be renamed "Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies".
The Golden Staircase
In March, a LASALLE College of the Arts student, Priyageetha Dia, gilded a grey cement staircase on the 20th floor of her HDB block. The golden staircase divided the internet (of course). Some saw an inconsiderate act of vandalism, others, an insightful and resonant artwork. The Town Council declared the work not permissable, but were interested in engaging with Dia for future projects. In response to the furore, Dia published a Facebook post explaining her work, some days after which she removed all of the artwork save for one square of gold foil. In a similar vein, School Of The Arts student Calleen Koh's guerilla tribute to her former teachers, an installation of folded paper planes scrawled with their names, was removed by the school for "not complying with guidelines."
SIFA Changing of Guard
In March, it was announced that Gaurav Kripalani, the Artistic Director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre, would succeed Theatreworks Artistic Director Ong Keng Sen as Festival Director of Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). This changing of guard foretells a significant shift in approach to programming and presentation choices: Ong is known to favour presenting works that are more unconventional, experimental, cross-genre, while Kripalani is known to present mainstream plays and blockbuster musicals. The response from the arts community has thus been divided; while some feel that more accessible, digestible and well-known works is a change that is welcome, others fear that the risk-taking quality of art that provokes questions and new, unusual perspectives, is threatened. Time will tell.
Stamford Arts Centre
The previously defunct Stamford Arts Centre, located in the vibrant Arts Heritage District, is undergoing a $7 million redevelopment process under Arts House Limited, which manages other cultural venues such as Aliwal Arts Centre. It is set to be a new hub for the traditional arts, with studio spaces, residency spaces, and a multi-purpose hall. The National Arts Council announced an open call for prospective tenants in the second half of 2017, and the names of chosen groups will be released in February/March 2018. Other new spaces announced in 2017 include Wild Rice's theatre in Funan Mall (2019) and waterfront theatre at the Esplanade (2021).
In May, actor Shrey Bhargava, 21, shared on Facebook his experience auditioning for the latest Ah Boys To Men, where he was told to exaggerate an Indian accent and "make it funny". His post pointed to the proliferation of racial stereotyping and caricaturing in Singaporean cultural media and the need for more nuanced representation of minority groups. The viral post stirred discussions on racial diversity and an interrogation of Singapore's long-held belief in its "racially harmonious society". Bhargava received lots of support and sympathy, but also a string of comments that ranged in intensity from "Stop stirring racial issues" to "You should be sent to jail for causing racial dispute." So threatened were some members of the public that Shrey was even reported to the police.
Graphic novelist Sonny Liew made history as the first Singaporean to win at the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the "Oscars for comics", held in July 2017 at Comic-Con International, San Diego, USA. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which retells the life of a comic artist growing up in pre-independence Singapore, won not just one but three awards: Best Publication Design, Best Writer/Artist, and Best US Edition of International Material – Asia. The National Arts Council Singapore drew flak for what many perceived to be an expression of half-hearted congratulations on Liew's accomplishment, especially in the shadow of its withdrawal of funding for the book's publication in 2016, due to concerns about its "political content".
National Youth Council
National Youth Council's public engagement program, in September, "For Your Consideration" misappropriated the techniques and methodology from theatre group Drama Box's The Lesson (which took place across three weeks in July). This was not the first time authorities recycled or re-appropriated artworks or artists' concepts without permission or acknowledgement. At the Singapore SEA Games in 2015, the Organising Committee used a semi-circular ping-pong table that bore a strong resemblance to artist and Cultural Medallion winner, Lee Wen's 'Ping Pong Go Round'.
Visual artist Seelan Palay was arrested outside Parliament House on 1 October 2017 for his performance art piece "32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror". The performance, which ran from 2 - 4.15pm, was a tribute to former Elected Member of Parliament, Chia Thye Poh, who was detained for 32 years without trial. Seelan Palay turned 32 this year. The performance began at Hong Lim Park, where Palay had obtained a licence to perform, before he proceeded to the National Gallery Singapore and then towards the Parliament House, where he stood presenting the mirror. Police officers attempted to persuade Palay to leave, before they arrested him. Palay was released the following day on bail of $5000.