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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

A Malaysian under lockdown reviews Singapore Art Week 2021

By Ellen Lee
(2,500 words, 9-minute read)

Looking through the 35-page programme booklet for the 9th edition of Singapore Art Week (SAW), I was fully struck by my Malaysian-ness. Never before have I gone through a brochure for any art event with so much content – 100 events across both physical and digital spaces featuring over 300 Singaporean and international artists, all happening across 9 days?! I don’t think even our Vision 2030 (deferred from 2020) would be able to achieve this. 

Every day, I’d look through the collaterals again, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Then I wondered: Was I taking this programme too literally? Was the whole point of SAW that I’m supposed to feel overwhelmed, that I’m supposed to fail to cover everything, so that by the end of the week I’d have a sense of FOMO for all the great stuff I didn’t get to see? Is this what next-level Singaporean PR & marketing is like?!

This is the first edition of SAW to have a dedicated digital platform, and their commitment to digitalisation was certainly not an empty promise. So, from the comfort of my home – Kuala Lumpur is under our second strict lockdown and, as of time of writing, new cases average between 3000–4000 per day – what I did manage to catch was: S.E.A. Focus, the anchoring art fair of SAW since 2019; Leap of Faith, a series of interviews with major international art collectors by Art Outreach; For the House; Against the House, an interactive debate by OH! Open House; and several digital exhibitions hosted on dedicated websites. 

S.E.A. (South East Asia) Focus by STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery is still a young programme, having made waves in the art world ever since it was launched in 2019, on the heels of the abruptly cancelled Art Stage Singapore. This year, the fair, which spotlights galleries from within and beyond the region that deal in Southeast Asian art, is split into two elements: its physical platform at Tanjong Pagar Distripark and a digital platform on artsy.net.

This is where it gets a bit complicated. S.E.A. Focus Curated – the physical offering also titled “hyper—horizon” –  appears to be structured more as an “exhibition experience” rather than an art fair. In fact, the word “art fair” is studiously avoided in S.E.A. Focus’ press materials except to say that it’s different from an art fair. Organised in partnership with Artsy, S.E.A. Focus Digital was really more of a complement to hyper—horizon. Artsy doesn’t claim to be anything more than an online marketplace and database for fine arts, and S.E.A. Focus Digital’s presentation reflected this blunt commercialism. So while S.E.A. Focus Curated could maintain the illusion of being an exhibition experience instead of an art fair, S.E.A. Focus Digital could not be anything other than a marketplace. All of the artworks are viewed with their price tags attached. 

Screenshot from S.E.A. Focus Curated virtual tour, featuring (from left to right) Tobias Rehberger’s Mother without child 3; Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled 2016 (nothing); and Kristoffer Ardeña’s Ghost Painting (Cracked Category): National Bookstore

The Artsy collaboration was perhaps played up a little too much, with the effect of undermining S.E.A. Focus’ other, more effective, digital offerings on its own website, such as the e-catalogue, with Joyce Toh’s curatorial statement, and a 3D virtual tour of the physical exhibition. This virtual tour, made by stitching together several panoramic shots of the exhibition, allows you to get a better sense of the hyper—horizon experience. You start from the shipping container facade (painted in the pastel blue-green hues of surgical masks) and click your way into the exhibition space where you glimpse little moments of site-specific brilliance, like the combination of Tobias Rehberger’s Mother without child 3 (2019) against Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled 2016 (nothing) (2016). Or the soft pastels of Hilmi Johandi’s luxe oil pool-scape and Ha Ninh Pham’s intricate watercolour fantasy-scape together in one room. 

There’s no better advocate for site-specific contexts than Leap of Faith, the fourth edition of the IMPART Collector’s Show by Art Outreach, which also offers both physical and digital viewing options this year.  

Screenshot from Leap of Faith 

Instead of a physical showcase of the collections as would have been the norm pre-COVID, Art Outreach decided to film six short video interviews with the collectors among their collections, with a focus away from conventional wall art such as paintings, onto works that would be logistically difficult to transport and showcase outside of the collector’s residences. 

The featured works included a 12-metre long moving bridge with a custom lighting set-up, by Chinese artist Xu Zhongmin in commission for Singaporean collector Woffles Wu, and a conceptual installation by Deni Ramdani of a massive plastic fish-bag perpetually leaking onto a mound of soil beneath it, in the collection of Indonesian collector Wiyu Wahono. Wiyu confesses to leaving the plastic bag empty most of the time and refilling it with water and goldfish only when entertaining visitors. Amidst amusing anecdotes such as Suzanne Syz commissioning Andy Warhol for a portrait, what came through clearly is that maintaining a contemporary art collection is tiring work, but these efforts are worth it.

The collector is certainly a conflicting figure in the art world: on one hand, the radical credentials of most artists are challenged by the fact that their works exist in a niche market for the mega wealthy. (Art Outreach attempted at demystification, but it did feel slightly disingenuous not to include the collectors’ professions in their biographies.) However, the IMPART series tried to rehabilitate this conflicted position by highlighting collectors who invest a great deal into the works they own – financially, but also emotionally and intellectually. In the right hands, an artist’s intention doesn’t evaporate once it passes into a private collection; rather, the collector takes up the responsibility of caretaker for the longevity of that vision and intention.

Screenshot from Leap of Faith

Another one of SAW’s art-educational efforts was the digital experience of OH! Open House’s For the House; Against the House. Taking its cue from artworks in the private collection of two enigmatic Singaporean collectors, Jo [no last name] and Duo Collection, curators John Tung and Syed Muhd Hafiz wove the artworks into two interactive debates on topical issues in Singaporean art, written in the style of gamebooks. 

The first experience, “Passion Made Possible,” (a dig at a Singapore Tourism Board slogan) is about the extent to which individual ambition is allowed to flourish in the Singaporean arts before it is crushed by the government or some capitalist overlord. The second proposition, “Judging Labels” focused more on making Singaporean art history vicariously accessible to players, offering some insights into major tensions that influence the local art market, such as between figurative and abstract art, or Nanyang Academy of Fine Art graduates and Western-educated art graduates. The curator seemed to suggest that there is no future for any artist hoping to make it as a painter in Singapore, which I found striking: this is the complete opposite of the situation in Malaysia, where painting flourishes while conceptual and new media works falter. 

Another noteworthy thing: the first choice in “Judging Labels” asks if you’d rather be born in the 1960s or 2000s, and, after playing all the options for the 2000s and still coming up with, at best, a C-grade or  “50/100” on my artist report card, I surmised that to be a millennial artist in Singapore must be very bleak indeed. Even worse if you’re a millennial painter

Screenshot of For the House; Against the House digital experience 

In the online exhibitions I caught during SAW, there were, indeed, no paintings and lots of new media works, which I found refreshing. I only caught one exhibition that was strictly online-only, which, ironically, happened to be one all about nature and rainforests. If Forests Talk is an online exhibition curated by Kent Chan, featuring old and new works by Yeo Siew Hua, Nina Djekić, Kray Chen and Melinda Lauw, and Zarina Muhammad and Zachary Chan. For this exhibition, the artists were asked to revisit their old works that relate to the theme of nature and produce new works in dialogue, like a tree growing another ring of age. 

Yeo Siew Hua’s An Invocation to the Earth (2020) features performances by Chloe Chotrani and Eng Kai Er, narrated by a litany of multilingual whispers like the sound of rain through a forest. This strategy of whispered narration was also utilised by Zarina Muhammad and Zachary Chan in earth, land, sky, and sea as palimpsest (2021) to less evocative results, possibly because their piece was more cerebral in contrast to Yeo’s movement-driven work. An Invocation to the Earth retells a well-known fable of Sang Kancil, one of the region’s most beloved folk figures, outwitting the hungry Sang Buaya — only, in this version, the law of the jungle prevails over anthropocentric wit and Buaya ends up killing Kancil. But the final scene of a burning effigy in memory of the 150 environmental activists murdered in the Philippines since 2016 reminds us of the ultimate triumph of the bestial destructive impulses of human nature. Neither Kancil nor Buaya ever stood a chance.  

Screenshot from Yeo Siew Hua’s An Invocation to the Earth 

The works by Nina Djekić and Kray Chen – both offering new audio stories made in response to older short films – come from a distinctly urban perspective. The audio stories utilise lush forest sounds like twigs breaking underfoot and branches rustling overhead, heavy humid wind gushes and rain patters, viscerally playing up these natural elements that may seem foreign in a tiny, hyper-capitalist city-state such as Singapore. In Chen’s Durian-Picking (2015) and Waiting for Durian (2021), the urban millennial children express anxieties as they follow their avid durian-picker father into the thick jungle night, while their father just laughs and tosses off folk wisdom such as, “The durian have eyes. They’re making us wait to see if we’re worthy.” 

If Forests Talk proves how much a digital exhibition can do once it commits to being digital instead of trying to straddle two separate dimensions. It was self-contained, while the hybrid exhibitions were a bit looser. My head is still reeling from all the Instagram Lives, Facebook streams, and Zoom conferences I missed without even realising… 

I did, however, manage to catch an “Instagram Live performance” by Singaporean dance artist Sudhee Liao (@dancingwithenigmaticperception) titled Going Live: Enigmatic Perception, as part of the exhibition Networked Bodies by Supernormal Space. It was not exactly a “performance” so much as an appearance, where her audience of followers were invited to pose challenges to her, like how many push-ups she can do in a minute (if I remember correctly, 38) and how long she can stay in straddle splits between two chairs (6 minutes).

The entire thing descended into the realm of the grotesque when Liao pulled a nude stocking over her head and started applying make-up over it while asking viewers questions like, “Do you think I’m beautiful?”, and making ironic pouts at the camera. Then, she pulled off the stocking, make-up smeared all over her face, and challenged herself to fit as many blueberries into her mouth as she can before ending on one final act of surreal grotesquery by eating all (25) of them. I expected more, but I guess there’s not much else one can be expected to do on Instagram Live. Frankly speaking, these little challenges were more flash than substance, reflecting little of Liao’s artistic practice, and reinforced my belief that Instagram must be the most cursed medium for post-Internet art. 

Screenshots from Sudhee Liao’s Going Live: Enigmatic Perception

The last hybrid-exhibition I caught was Shifting Between by Our Softest Hour, a tender greeting to 2021 after a year of unprecedented chaos and insecurity. The overall feeling among the works by Clarice Ng, Diva Agar, Machineofthe, Nor, Planeswalker, and Softslabs. is one of renewal. In particular, Nor’s Acts of Friendship (2019–ongoing) is a soft, outstretched hand to new friendships and collaborations, while Softslabs.’s The Grounding Project (2021) says a resounding goodbye to emotional baggage being left behind in 2020.

Clarice Ng presents some instructions for mindfulness activities in Notes on Quietness (2020), a work that is well-intentioned but also feels dissonant with the fast and irony-laden nature of the Internet. Bluntly put, her heart seems too pure for the Internet. At the start of Divaagar’s Alive Stream 2.1, you get the impression that it’s going to be another piece on mindfulness, as the screen is taken over by a looped video of rainwater dripping into a pond, accompanied by tranquil plink-plink sounds. After a while, a female voice starts speaking over the dripping sounds, saying she “knows that times are tough right now”, and the audio slowly builds into an obnoxious crescendo of YouTube vloggers talking about “wellness” and “self-care”. The persistent dripping, still in the background, seems now to emphasise the hollowness of what the curatorial statement terms “wellness capitalism”. The voices are like leaky taps running towards total waste, dripping with the cookie-cutter vapidity of most YouTubers. “I’m doing my best and I want you to do your part to do your best,” one of them mechanically intones. 

For all the claims of achieving accessibility via the Internet, no one wants to address the elephant in the room – that accessibility is the problem; that the pre-millennium imagined utopia of technological hyper-interactivity has been replaced by the post-millennium ennui and attention deficiency. After an intensive few days trawling through the digital labyrinthine networks of SAW, this work in particular offered some welcomed comic and ironic relief. 

Screenshot of Divaagar’s Alive Stream 2.1

It was a herculean effort on SAW’s part to bring so much online. After surveying some of the pickings, I’m still not sure who it was all for, and whether it was all totally necessary. We don’t really need to worry about accessibility; there are already so many ways in and no ways out of the Internet. The questions we’re asking about the Internet and digital connectivity in the light of COVID-19 are the same ones that the rise of the Internet has always posed. 

This Internet existentialism comes from my post-SAW awareness of how much brilliance there is to be found in the Singaporean art scene. In Malaysia, many of these events would have been worthy of their own individual press coverage, but the fact that I couldn’t cover all of SAW (I can’t imagine trying to cover all the physical stuff too) made me wonder whether the sheer volume of events actually improves awareness of the arts amongst the general public, or if it simply reinforces established in-groups and sub-groups within the scene. Nevertheless, even my partial, outsider experience of Singapore Art Week 2021 was more than enough to fill me with cross-Causeway jealousy at all the ways that Singaporean artists, designers, and curators continue to thrive and innovate. 

(Unless they’re a millennial painter.) 


Singapore Art Week runs until 30 January 2021. More information about programming can be found on their website.

Ellen Lee is an independent writer based in Kuala Lumpur. She mostly writes reviews, analysis, and opinion pieces on visual arts in Malaysia, along with the occasional exhibition text.

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