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Journal of Maritme Geopolitics and Culture, 2 (1&2), 2011, 115-137


Yvonne Low
University of Sydney (


This case study on Singapore‟s Contemporary Art highlights a global condition

for nations competing for a place in the present international art world of
Biennials and Triennials. By tracking the development of Contemporary Art in
Singapore beginning from 1970 to the present moment, this paper shows how
Contemporary Art is a local response to a global phenomenon, and in particular,
to economic globalization such that the State now plays the roles as both patron
and mediator. Its development cannot be viewed as separate from a global
phenomenon nor from a local one for it is on one hand circumscribed by global
aesthetic trends and on the other by local socio-economic developments. Its
consecration also took place in tandem with the State‟s effort to develop a global
arts industry such that it is difficult to map a local stylistic discourse without
reference to a global context. As such, this overlapping of the local Art World
with the local/global Art Industry had reconstituted the need to position „art‟ as
cultural products. „Identity‟, then, became its accompanying market positioning.

Keywords: Contemporary art, Singapore, Conceptualism, Performance art,

Globalisation, State intervention


My overall point is that Contemporary Art has come, on the level of

official culture, to replace modernism and postmodernism as the general
category for the art of the present and the recent. On this level, it is
the new Modern Art.
- Terry Smith (2007)

Contemporary Art, as a recent discourse in Singapore, was represented in the following

manner – as art of and for its time where artists respond to the urgent concerns and
issues of their times; as historically heterogeneous such that there is no one single
teleological origin and trajectory; as being culturally specific such that discourses are in
continuous dialogue with a range of historical, cultural and political elements that are
unrelated to, indifferent to and/or critical of modernism; as espousing criticality as an
essential condition such that critical issues engaged may include those of artists‟
subject positions, aesthetic conventions of making and the complicities of art in its various
contexts; as lacking and often actively rejecting the autonomies of modern art; lastly, as
drawing on, responding to and complicating globalization (Nadarajan, 2007). Such

Journal of Maritme Geopolitics and Culture, 2 (1), 2011

representations of Contemporary Art follow a global trend to comprehend the

manifestation of forms and practices by artists who may choose to conceptualize an
artistic concept through the use of one or more of the following media – painting,
sculpture, installation, video, performance or other more complex types typically
generalized as multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary.
Singapore‟s discourse of Contemporary Art predicated a much wider field of
international production discourse generally described as „visual culture.‟ It was
characterized by the use of commodity images and visual technologies exchanged across
and between countries in the form of international art shows. Beginning from the early
1990s, the development of Contemporary Art saw exponential progress, particularly in
2000s, such that the boundary by which aesthetic practices are circumscribed within this
canonizing category was constantly shifting. Its development was implicitly affected by
decisions made by the National Arts Council (NAC) who is the officiating body
controlling the distribution of national funds for resources in all facets of aesthetic
production and development in Singapore with the objectives to: (1) provide total
support to nurture artistic talent, (2) promote the practice and appreciation of the arts
among Singaporeans, (3) build up artistic and management capabilities and resources,
(4) facilitate internationalization and (5) advocate the values of the arts to stakeholders
and the public (National Arts Council, 2006). Underpinning these objectives was the
vision to “develop Singapore as a distinctive global city for the arts.” Even so, revealing
insights by various contemporary artists‟ struggles to seek out platforms to practice
contemporary art had led to the necessary expansion of the artist‟s role to encompass
that of a curator, writer and art organizer; many such works of collectives, p-10 and
TAV, were self-curated or co-organized by members of the group.1
Singapore‟s Contemporary Art, as a modality of modernity, includes the adaptation
of certain Western „Postmodernist‟ concepts and art forms, responses to national and
transnational agendas, and functions predominantly within a localized arts industry
catering to a globalized art public. The operations of global capitalism had apparently
given rise to certain conditions conducive for the production of contemporary localism
which one author had described as being “a postmodern consciousness, embedded in
new forms of empowerment” (Dirlik, 1996, p. 32). Although it is no longer adequate to
map the globe into so-called “binary zones of center and periphery as an eternally
Manichean space of colonial victimization,” globalization has created new centres that
function in new ways (Wilson & Dissanayake, 1996, p. 2). It is clear from the following
examination of Contemporary Art that it has been conceived along the lines of an
international code of interpretation, one which is administrated in the English
language,2 but not necessarily governed by a Western centre. This „centre‟ reinforces its
position by ensuring that local art practitioners of Contemporary Art define their „art‟
themselves. It ensures that no one form or media is privileged over another; and in
doing so, the centre is assured currency. Because English is the working language (and
Common language) in Singapore, keeping abreast with contemporaneity using the
global language has masked the imposition of any centre on Singapore‟s art world such
that even if there is one, it is not viewed as being imposed upon but as being in
collaboration with it. Further, globalization, argues Jameson, is essentially a
communicational concept, which “alternately masks and transmits cultural or economic

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

meanings” such that communicational development is not of „enlightenment‟ but of new

technologies (1998).

Art Education

The establishment of art institutions – NAFA in 1937 and LaSalle in 1984 – which
offered tertiary- level arts training3 appeared to be insufficient or inadequate in keeping up
with more contemporaneous training found in other developed countries. It was common
for graduates of both institutes to pursue higher education overseas if they could afford
to. Because of close relationships between NAFA teachers and I‟École Nationale
Supérieure des Beaux-Arts teachers, Paris was a popular choice to NAFA graduates
particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.4 Lee Sah Yang, Chan Soon Yean and Sim Lian Huat
were among the artists who left for Paris and exhibited their works in Singapore with
support by the French Embassy, SAS, NAFA and others (Art exhibition by Lee Sah
Yang, Chan Soon Yean & Sim Lian Huat, 1973). Cheo Chai-Hiang remarked that he was
deciding between England and Paris and having spoken to returnees, found those who
returned from England more articulate about what they were doing than those from
Paris.5 Cheo was among the group of artists who had chosen not to attend local institutes
but European or American institutions. Both Cheo and Tang Da Wu made the decision
to go to England during the 1970s and were influential in initiating „new‟ approaches
to art-making. Vincent Leow was among the pioneer batch of students graduating from
LaSalle. However, Leow‟s influence as a Performance artist and Sculpture lecturer was
significantly accentuated after he returned from his studies at Maryland Institute‟s
College of Art, Baltimore, in 1992 with a Masters in Fine Art. When Leow attributed
the influence of the Artists Village as a push factor for seeking further education
overseas, claiming that “there was no better way to learn than to go abroad and see for
myself…the real thing” (cited in Lee, 1997), it was clear he felt that his training at
LaSalle was not contemporary with the „source.‟
In the early 1990s, Australia became a popular destination. Chandrasekaran,
Salleh Japar, Amanda Heng, Suzann Victor, Lim Tzay Chuen and Matthew Ngui were
among those who went there.6 Leow was awarded a doctorate in fine arts in 2005 by
RMIT University. This shift in destination was indicative of global socio-economic
developments, revealing as well that the perceived centre had shifted into the global
arena. The internationalisation of Contemporary Art, along with the advancement
of technology and communication forms, had rendered it unnecessary to learn
contemporary art overseas. LaSalle, in light of such contemporary developments,
was able to confidently announce that it had “successfully constituted a sense of
contemporary art by way of selectively drawing on those cultural and aesthetic
elements that have come to condition creative activity in Singapore without reference
to the problematic East-West divide” (Nadarajan, 2004). Instead, artists in the late 1990s
and early 2000s left Singapore often to seek platforms that could provide them with
opportunities to make art rather than learn art.
Because local artists had chosen to seek art education in various Western countries,
it was only to be expected that they bring back with them concepts learned from abroad.
This indicated that it was only a matter of time that aesthetic practices recognized as

Yvonne Low

„Conceptual,‟ „Minimalist‟ and „Installation/Performance‟ be introduced to the

Singapore art world by these artists, if not through other mediums. It is important to
note that these practices may have differed from their originating forms; the
understanding of these sources can be “varied and at times questionable” and the
“undiminished enthusiasm” in “transforming them in order to suit particular aims and
ambitions” may need to be considered as well (Sabapathy, 1991, p. 27). How the artists
interpreted such forms (more accurately, aesthetic ideologies), transformed (applied)
them and then claimed sole ownership to originality remains the crux of the issue.

From Conceptualism to Contemporary Art

Cheo Chai-Hiang‟s infamous 1972 rejected submission, Singapore River, is a good case in
point to illustrate how a concept perceived as alien can accentuate the role and possible
function of dominant gatekeepers – in this case the representatives of the Modern Art
Society. The concept of „readymades‟7 refashioned as „art‟ was initiated as far back as
1913 by French artist, Marcel Duchamp, who created the self-distancing alienation typical
of modernists of their time. A urinal signed “R. Mutt” and titled Fountain in 1917 Paris
would elicit no less controversy in 1972 Singapore. Cheo‟s work predicates a fundamental
concept spearheaded by Duchamp that the idea comes before the visual example. Because
this position was viewed in Singapore as essentially a Western concept having taken place
in the West, there was a tendency to resist this concept (in the guise of certain aesthetic
forms). Such essentialist viewpoints ignored the events that had resulted from such
influences and failed to consider the reasons why this concept had gained currency in
many countries between 1917 and 1972.
Singapore River was rejected by the Modern Art Society on the grounds that it
had failed to “possess a special intrinsic quality in order to strike a sympathetic chord in
the hearts of the viewers.”8 The artwork consisted of instructions for the exhibitors who
had to draw a square that was five feet in dimension and in a manner such that it was
partially on the wall and partially on the floor. That year, Singapore initiated the first
ASEAN Art Exhibition held at the Victoria Memorial Hall in conjunction with the 5th
ASEAN Ministerial meeting. Jek Yeun Thong, then Minister of Culture, hoped the
exhibition would “contribute significantly to the creation of regional goodwill and
understanding.” 9 According to a broadcast review, the artists representing Singapore
artists were “outmoded in their thinking” and their work paled in comparison to the other
ASEAN members who were “busy reaching out for new interpretations to old themes”.
The report continues:

As I see it, there appears to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the

Singapore selectors to retain this old image as typical of Singapore art.
While this may be historically interesting, it is not doing justice to those of
our artists who are responsive to the emotional climate of our times,
and who try to react to it in the new language that is made possible by
science and technology (Chia, [1972] 2002, pp. 26-27).

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

The increase in prevalence of Conceptual-based and Performance-based artworks in the

1980s indicated that the gatekeeping role held by certain art societies, such as the
Modern Art Society, was either losing precedence or showing less resistance to alien art
forms. It is significant that the practices of such art forms had led to artists being more
concerned with finding an avenue to practise and with obtaining state funding. The State
could arguably be viewed as the primary audience and the general art public, the
secondary audience. The general art public functioned as collaborators with artists; their
participation and responses had at times been conceived as part of the artwork. This
tenuous relationship binding these three groups will be examined.
The following example shows that State interventions played a dominant role in
the consecration of Contemporary Art. In 1976, Cheo submitted a 3-dimensional object
made from a wooden washing board with a roughly hewn log of wood attached to it with
hinges, titled And Miles to Go, to a national sculptural exhibition. Although it was initially
rejected, the jury accepted the entry in the end (reasons were not provided). The audience
was allowed to flip open and close the board like a book. On the inside surface were the
concluding lines of Robert Frost‟s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,
stencilled in red. It reads: “Miles to go before I sleep; And miles to go before I sleep.” (see
Sabapathy, 2000). In an interview, Teo Eng Seng, a sculptor, described the work as “a
washing board, a lock and a tree trunk” and remarked that he was glad it was accepted by
the jury although his own submission (which also included a mini performance) had been
rejected.10 The „sculptures‟ by Teo and Cheo experimented with ready-made objects and
were conceptualised to provoke critical responses from the audience; such departures
questioned the conventions of sculpture and art-making as an aesthetic practice.
Three decades later, Donna Ong presented a series of four site-specific
sculptural installations titled secret, interiors: chrysalis (19) (20) (21) (22) at the
inaugural 2006 Singapore Biennale. Secret, interiors: chrysalis (21) (also Flight
machine on a desk) used ready-made objects such as stationery, transistors and
everyday items to construct the interior of a plane. She said: “Enter the work, be quiet,
and let the work tell you what it is, not what you think it is… I believe every artwork
should contain a surprise for the diligent viewer” (Singh, 2008). In terms of medium and
approach, there were stark similarities between Cheo‟s 1976 work and Ong‟s 2006 work –
both had re-worked ready-made objects into meaningful objects (art) and both required
their audience to understand their work by engaging with it physically. To what extent
was Ong‟s work then considered new (modern) and contemporaneous remains to be
examined in context; what is significant is that State agencies had commissioned her to
make such art. Conceptualism, this example shows, is a precondition to the generic and
canonizing category of Contemporary Art.
It is possible then to loosely separate the developments of Conceptual-based and
Performance/installation-based art into two periods – the first being some time between
1976 and 1988 and the second being some time between 1989 and 1996. The position
undertaken by the State during the first period was one of ambivalence and
passiveness, and art support, when given, generally privileged established, mainstream
aesthetic forms. The second period saw clear State interventions of support and control
of so-called „alternative‟ art forms largely through the institutionalisation of „fringe
art.‟ It will be clear that the precondition to Contemporary Art finds roots in such art
forms; the extent at which Conceptual-based and Performance-based aesthetic practices

Yvonne Low

were supported or restricted by the State played a role in shaping the development of
Singapore Contemporary Art in the 2000s.

1976-1988: Seeking an audience

Art, to the Singapore State, could be a means to develop socio-cultural ties with other
countries. The National Museum Art Gallery (established in 1976) regularly held
themed exhibitions of contemporary art from various countries and often, contemporary
art in this instance referred to aesthetic experimentations of Western Modernist painting
styles. The 1978 „18 Young Belgian Artists‟ exhibition which included Hieronymus
Bosch, Fred Bervoets, and Stan Van Houtven was one such example. It was reviewed as
showing “no hurry to throw overboard, established values” (Chia, 2002[1978], pp. 85-
86). Collaboration between embassies and the National Museum was not uncommon.
That same year, Helen Frankerthaler, an abstract expressionist, exhibited and was
reported as giving “a very good insight into the attitude and philosophy behind this
form,” introducing to the local audience the concept where the act of painting itself
was the subject (Chia, 2002[1978], pp.87-88). Reviews of such exhibitions were
published in a local paper New Nation (now defunct). Further, the United World College
of Southeast Asia also held exhibitions with the aim to “expose students to the many
modern art forms practised by artists here and abroad.” The report continues:

The show is deliberately slanted towards modern art idioms simply

because these are of our time. Young minds that are exposed to 20th
century technology should have the opportunity to view imageries that are
the outcome of working with modern tools and materials [my italics].11

In 1979, Tan Teng Kee, held an outdoor „picnic‟ as an informal means to showcase and
sell his art. He sold paintings, one of which was 100 metres long that would be cut
into manageable pieces for respective buyers, and so-called “3-dimensional
constructions,” one of which was incinerated. This, according to T.K. Sabapathy, was a
phenomenon “singular in Tan‟s artistic career and unique in the story of art in
Singapore” (Sabapathy, 1991, p. 26). It is unrealistic to assume local artists were
completely cut-off from the rest of the world even if they had not traveled overseas
and to assume that exposure to alien forms took place only from such channels. It
seems more beneficial to identify the occurrence of conditions supportive of such art
forms rather than debate the specific instance when such art forms were first observed
in Singapore. What was clear was that such practices took place largely through
artists‟ initiatives and continued to incite controversy and debate with regards to its
definition, origins, influence and function in the local art world. Teo Eng Seng, who
had supposedly “performed” – for personal reasons – as early as the 1950s, made a
pertinent point regarding the tenuous relations between artists and audience:

…If you want, especially if you want to be a pure performance artist,

firstly, you actually have nothing to offer in terms of survival, in terms of

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

money and all that. You can‟t expect people to pay you when you have
nothing to sell, other than your ideas. So, to it‟s a luxury…12

Yet, Performance Art, to Tang Da Wu, is not complete without the audience for in a
performance, the audience is to him “number one.” He said:

You make your own stage and the audience is there. Something happens
between audience, space and yourself, or if not, yourself, your company,
a few people. And you do your things. All the time, you are aware of the
audience there, all the time, you are aware of your chosen space there
(Low, 2001).

Tang was invited to present at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1982. Described as
having “most emphatically marked the arrival of performance art and earth art,”
(Langerbach, 2003, p. 183) Five Performances could well be the ideal outcome – a state-
funded luxury for the artist and audience. Opportunities such as these were few and far
from ideal if practitioners of Performance Art intended for this form to subvert the
institutionalising role of museums. This seemed to be the intent at various points of
the artists‟ practising career. Tang explained: “Of course, in the art gallery, anything that
goes into the gallery can be art. You know I do not need that…the gallery is not always as
good as a street performance” (Low, 2001).
At the workshops of the 5 th ASEAN Youth Painting Workshop and Exhibition at
Singapore‟s National Museum, Tang met various budding artists who were described as
“keen to explore in directions that the rigidity of the local art schools‟ curriculum did
not encourage” and who “questioned the teaching methods and the conventions of art
that made up the schools‟ curriculum around the mid-1980s.”13 The workshop was led
by four Singaporean “master painters” – Goh Beng Kwan, Tang Da Wu, Chua Mia Tee
and Thomas Yeo – who gave young artists an opportunity to “learn from their colleagues
and try new approaches” (Schoppert, 1987). It was likely Tang had established formal
relations with some artists for it explained how many participants of that exhibition
later visited his studio at Sembawang during the late 1980s. The concerns of these
artists differed from those of the State, as evident from the popularity of exhibitions such
as the Asian Contemporary Art Exhibition in the mid-80s. Held at the National Museum
Art Gallery, it was conceived as an ambitious undertaking designed to present “the
stylistic complexities and refinements of Asian art today.” The report continues:

It lives up to the standard set by the other events on this year‟s Arts
Festival calendar. The tone of the show is decidedly Western in concept
and origin despite the Asian backgrounds of the artists. Most of the
works, both local and foreign, are composed on the basis of styles learnt
from the West…But nowhere is the blend of East and West more evident
than in the works of Singaporeans Chen Wen Hsi and Tan Swie Hian.
Both think Chinese but execute their ideas in the Western way or in an
adaptation of Eastern and Western methods (Chia, 2002[1986], 102-104).

The following year in May 1987, five recent NAFA 14 graduates held a non-

Yvonne Low

commercial exhibition, Quintet, at the Arbour Fine Art gallery. Among them were
Salleh Japar, Goh Ee Choo, and S. Chandrasekaran who presented assemblages and
installations using found objects through which themes of spirituality and cosmic forces
were explored. A review by Chua Beng Huat indicated that the show was “a fresh
break from the works of increasingly established local artists who are by now
reproducing their signature style, substance and media. The „break‟ lies in the quintet‟s
overall interest in symbolic art, executed and expressed in polymorphous ways” (Chua,
1987).15 The significance of this exhibition is the common recognition among artists to
fight for greater autonomy for aesthetic practices, not taught in institutes but clearly
available in other countries. In March 1988, Salleh, Ee Choo and Chandrasekaran
initiated an exposition titled Trimurti at the Goethe Institute where they exhibited
pictures, sculptures and installations, and held performances. It was accompanied with a
post- exhibition document which “consisted of a number of texts in which intentions,
concepts and procedures were explained in considerable detail, although not always
clearly or congruently” (Sabapathy, 1998, p. 23). The Trimurti artists had distinguished
themselves from Tang (and to an extent TAV), as being locally-derived and not
“Western-oriented” in their approach to Contemporary aesthetic practices (Mashadi,
That same year, Tang Da Wu and Vincent Leow were involved in a Festival
event, Arts Commandos, while Lim Poh Teck, Chng Ching Kang, Tang Mun Kit and
Baet Yoke Kuan were involved in More Than 4. Such works recalled the use of similar
forms – „ readymades‟ refashioned into sculptures or installations that were conceived to
incite audience participation. Cheo, after several years of absence, showed an installation
and event titled, Gentleman in Suit and Tie, at the National Museum Art Gallery that
same year. The growing prevalence of such non-institutional art practices at an official
level was significant. The Committee on Visual Arts was also set up in April 1988 as
one of the four Committees under the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts aimed
to develop Singapore into a “gracious, cultured and well-informed society, appreciative
of its multi-cultural heritage” (Committee on Visual Arts, 1988). A list of
recommendations ranging from art education to promotion of public access to visual
arts by the government and private sector was made and the importance of art was
justified in the following manner:

The arts should not be pursued only for their own aesthetic values as they
impinge on all aspects of society – social, cultural and economic. It is like
the barometer that can be used to measure the vibrancy and spirit of the

1989-1996: The State becomes patron

The late 1980s and early 1990s recorded important milestones for the development and
the reception of Conceptual-based and Performance/Installation-based art practices. The
following is a brief summary of related events that took place mostly through State-
driven initiatives or collaborative efforts between state agencies and artist groups. The
Artists Village (TAV) could have started out as an informal artist enclave, conceived by

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

its proponents as an avenue to experiment aesthetic practices that were of interest to

individuals, rather than an institute or an art public. But it later became recognised as
the cultural face for alterity,16 and a body which various state authorities see value in as
representative of culturally authentic „contemporary‟ art. The extent of cooperation
between the two may not always be clear, as Tang had emphasized that TAV was
never intended to be a formal collective where membership was necessary. 17 The
coining of the name „The Artists Village‟ only came about in January 1989 when the
artists hosted their first Open Studio Show, six months after Tang and his family had
moved into a relative‟s chicken farm in June 1988. According to a report, about 12
artists made up the “artists‟ colony”; one full-time artist rented a room from Tang for
a nominal fee of $50. 18 Apart from the regular “12 Village artists,” 14 other guest
artists also showed their works at the Open Studio Show, held four times a year. 19
Despite Tang‟s insistence that he did not have the intention to organize a formal group or
society, TAV was viewed as a collective in a short space of time. 1989 saw a string of
collaborative events between TAV and various state agencies; and it remains unclear
whether all 12 members of TAV partook in such events or only a few. 20 It is
significant that the attention was focused on the collective as represented rather than on
individual artists. TAV was invited by organizations in the region for example in March
1990, Hong Kong QU Art Society invited them to show in QU Art Support II and in
December 1990, Bangnan Dato Jaafar invited them to show in Gateway to Malaysia.
Following the eviction of the “Villagers” in March 1990, 21 TAV continued to be
associated with Festival events but it was unclear who the members of the group were
as many had left for overseas. Various artists associated with TAV were making
inroads in the international arena and were showing at art shows in various countries.22
TAV as a body continued to be engaged in local events such as The C.A.R.E. Show at
the Singapore Festival fringe event in June 1990 and Tour de Art Lah! in June 1996.23
The latter event, a joint effort between TAV and NAC, featured installations by Tang
Da Wu, Jason Lim and Noor Effendy Ibrahim. Response from HDB residents, according
to a report, was “mixed.”24
Against the backdrop of this sudden prevalence of non-institutional art practices,
the State contributed $1 million to the building of The Substation in 1990, a project by
notable playwright Kuo Pao Kun. The Substation was conceived as an official
„alternative‟ site, and has since then been regarded as the principal venue for
experimental forms and for propagating non-mainstream exhibitions such as the New
Criteria. 25 It was promoted at the official Singapore website as “Singapore‟s only
alternative and multidisciplinary arts centre” and where one could “escape the
mainstream and go for the funky and cutting edge.”26 Perhaps, The Substation embodied
„alternative-ness‟ simply because it enabled audience and artists to consider art without
boundaries and this is best illustrated by Tang‟s frank remarks: “I use The Substation a
lot. I like performing here because the venue allows you to explore, to fail and to make a
fool of yourself” (Sian, 2000).
An all- woman exhibition – curated by Susie Koay – was held in 1991 at the
National Museum Art Gallery featuring works by Chng Seok Tin and Amanda Heng.
Heng‟s She and her dishcover, was first shown at the exhibition titled “Women and
their Art”. That same year also saw the establishment of the statutory board, National
Arts Council (NAC). In 1992, TAV registered as a non-profit art society under the

Yvonne Low

Societies Act. Doing so would enable TAV to become eligible for participation of
certain officially funded events and “the application for funding and space under the new
rules of the National Arts Council” (Singapore Art Museum, The Artists Village, 2008).
Their proposal to NAC to hold a visual arts exhibition in conjunction with the
Singapore Arts Festival submitted one year earlier was approved. Together, TAV and
NAC organised the “first artist-run alternative art space”, The Space, which exhibited
over fifty artists from Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and Burma. Throughout the
month-long exhibition at the Hong Bee Warehouse, there were slide presentations,
forums and a series of performances.27
Following the end of the event, the Villagers proposed to NAC and the Urban
Redevelopment Authority (URA) to have the converted warehouse as their permanent
space but approval was not given despite much extensive discussion on its feasibility.28
Reasons for the rejection were not made explicit by authorities, and thus speculation
needs to be judicious. Perhaps there was concern of the extend of support by the art
public, especially in light of the overall response from the recent National Sculpture
Exhibition at the National Museum in November the previous year. Articles such as „But
it IS art‟ and „Interesting works…but is art?‟ in local newspapers cast doubt on the
readiness of the art public and indicate a gap between State expectations and public
expectations of innovative art. 29 Nonetheless, the 1991 sculpture symposium in the
National Museum Art Gallery marked the inauguration of “collaboration between a
national institution and the individual”; Tang Da Wu was the convener for the two-
week event.30
Although TAV was unsuccessful in securing a permanent space, subsequent
artists‟ groups appeared to have in retrospect sought out creative ways to secure a
platform. In 1991, Suzann Victor, Susie Lingham, Daniel Wong and Iris Tan
established the 5th Passage, the first corporate-sponsored artist- run space. It was located
rent-free (for two years) in Parkway Parade, a major shopping complex in the city‟s east.31
The function of such artist collectives versus an individual artist has yet to be explored
but it was clear from the increase of such initiatives that the practice of certain
contemporary art forms might at times have required a group effort. In 1996, Vincent
Leow, Yvonne Lee and Jason Lim formed UTOPIA (United Together to Organise and
Provide Interesting Art) which lasted six months before Leow and Lee collaborated
again in 1998 to establish Plastique Kinetic Worms (PKW) which is currently described
as “one of the most prominent artist-run initiatives in Singapore” (Storer, 2007).32
The 90s may have recorded an increase in State support for non-institutional
art practices in the provision of various platforms such that a denial of one could be
interpreted as a form of state regulation. Independent initiatives such as the 5th
Passage, w h i c h r e l i e d o n c o r p o r a t e r a t h e r t h a n g o v e r n m e n t
s u p p o r t , had hoped to secure greater autonomy to practise. However, the 1994
Artists General Assembly event organized by TAV and 5th Passage, which sparked much
controversy, marked a turning point for the development of performance-related
contemporary art in Singapore. The no-funding proscription on Performance Art and
forum theatre was a result of two performances, Coffee Talk and Brother Cane, which
took place in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Both were sensationalized by the local media
for presenting art performances that were obscene and deemed offensive to the public;
details of these events have been fully described elsewhere.33 Suffice here to note that

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

following the State‟s decision to revoke the licence of the organizer, impose a lifetime
performance ban on Josef Ng34 and Shannon Tham and revise the Public Entertainments
Licensing Unit (PELU) act, meant that Performance Art as an aesthetic practice ceased
to enjoy its original freedom. Artists were legally obliged from thereon to be
responsible for their art even as they – in Tang‟s words – “should be free, totally free
and do what [they] want, performing all the things that [they] believed in” (Low, 2001).
It was only 10 years later that the no-funding proscription was lifted and the
Future of Imagination (FOI) was the first such artists-initiated performance event held
at the Substation to receive funding from NAC in December 2003. Nevertheless, arts
groups wanting to stage performance art must still apply for a license from the Media
Development Authority (MDA) and put up a $10,000 bond. 35 Following the
proscription, seeking corporate sponsorship became difficult. It was as Sasitharan had
said, “In Singapore, if the NAC refuses to support an art form, it is unlikely to receive
any form of sponsorship.”36 While the situation had improved after the lifting of this
rule which Kai Lam had observed took place after the signing of the free-trade
agreement between the Singapore and the United States government (Lam, 2007), the
autonomy to practice is still circumscribed within the citizenry duties of each individual
to uphold the nation‟s values, as best illustrated by the response of an NAC
spokesman when asked if Ng were to have performed now instead of then,

As a public arts agency, NAC is obliged to prioritise financial support

away from projects which erode the core moral values of society,
including the promotion of permissive lifestyles and depictions of
obscenity or graphic sexual conduct. NAC would have to consider
funding the event based on these criteria (Narayanan, 2008).

Seeking international platforms

The relationship between a vigilant government and a gently resistant

critical avant-garde is an intricate and seemingly contradictory one,
where government funding is sought and received by numerous
alternative spaces, collectives, and artists, and critique is tolerated to a
certain extent.
- Russell Storer (2007, p. 15)

It is not immediately clear whether Singapore‟s censorship laws had indeed removed
viable platforms for alternative art such that outside state-driven initiatives (for example
The Singapore Arts Festival) or state-approved sites (for example The Substation), the
practice of Performance Art in particular was significantly reduced, or that its
unpopularity as an aesthetic practice was because it had yet to gain solidarity as a
meaningful art form among the general art public. Audience participation in performance
activities, according to artists, was generally positive (Low, 2001). However, it is difficult
to construe positive participation as „support‟ because the local art public was never
expected to be the paying patron and as such was unable to effect support for this art
form even if they had the intention. Artists who sought international opportunities in the

Yvonne Low

1990s37 had a significantly different mindset from those who did so in the 70s or 80s
when Singapore had yet to invest in so-called „hardware‟ and „software‟ for the arts
industry. International and regional developments in promoting Contemporary Asian Art
had also created artistic platforms for the local artists such that any move outwards was
only logical and expected. As early as 1987 there were regional efforts from Australia
to develop cross- cultural initiatives and the Artists‟ Regional Exchange (ARX) was
one example. Based in Perth, it aimed to bring artists, critics, curators and relevant
professions on the field from the region in order to facilitate the fostering of cross-
cultural relationships through visual arts practices. ARX organized biennial forums
since 1982 for Australia and New Zealand artists, and the invitation to Southeast
Asian practitioners extended in 1987. Both Sabapathy and Goh Ee Choo represented
Singapore at the 1987 meeting.38
Rapport was an example of the increasing number of exhibitions in the late
1990s which showcased collaborative efforts between Australia (universities) and
Singapore. 39 Both Japan and Australia were noted for spearheading and driving such
initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region beginning first with the Fukuoka Art Museum‟s
Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in 1979/80 (initially as an event every 5 years and later in
1999 every 3 years) and the Queensland Art Gallery‟s Asia-Pacific-Triennial (APT) in
the 1990s (1993/93/99). As museum-based exhibitions, both distinguished themselves
from other Biennales and Triennales by initiating the concept that “a museum can be a
forum for opening up ideas about our changing world and a place for audiences to
engage with other cultures and to learn about those cultures” and showcasing art that
“presented a fundamental challenge to the concept of a universalising global culture.”40
The impact and significance in creating new cultural milieu should not be overlooked
either. 41 For reasons discussed and others, Singaporean artists welcomed such
opportunities – Lee Wen, Amanda Heng, Suzann Victor, Zai Kuning, S Chandrasekaran
and Vincent Leow had exhibited in the Asia-Pacific Triennials in Brisbane; Heng,
Victor and Lee Wen were included in the Havana Biennials; Matthew Ngui was
included in the Sao Paulo Bienal, Cities on the Move and Documenta X; and Tang Da
Wu was included in the Johanneburg Biennial and major exhibitions in Japan.42 More
recently, Tang and Leow showed at Venice Biennale in 2007. Opportunities provided
within the region (particularly Australia and Japan) and beyond had jumpstarted for the
artists important platforms to practice and be recognized for their art. The Fukuoka Asian
Culture Prize for example was set up in 1990 to honour the work of individuals and
organizations in Asian cultures. Tang Da Wu was awarded a prize in 1999 for his
contribution to the development of contemporary art in Singapore and Southeast Asia.43

Creating a ‘Global City for the Arts’ for a Global Economy

Jameson‟s view of globalisation as being fundamentally a communicational concept
highlights two critical characteristics – there is the cultural dimension where the
communicational signifier is endowed with a “more properly cultural signified or
signification”; and the economic direction where “new networks begin to swell with the
commerce of some new and allegedly more flexible capitalism,” transforming this
concept into “a vision of the world market and its newfound interdependence”
(Jameson, 1998, p. 56). Singapore‟s vision to become a global city and to develop itself

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

into an international business hub is pegged closely to this vision of a world market. A
number of strategies were undertaken, including the aggressive promotion of English-
education in 1970s which had cut through linguistic divisions while plugging the nation
into the international network of business, finance and tourism (William, 2001). The
development of modern art – and hence the consecration of Contemporary Art – was
circumscribed within such visions as evident in the government‟s plans to turn Singapore
into a „Renaissance City‟ –

Renaissance Singapore will be creative, vibrant and imbued with a keen

sense of aesthetics. Our industries are supported with a creative culture
that keeps them competitive in the global economy. The Renaissance
Singaporean has an adventurous spirit, an inquiring and creative mind and
a strong passion for life. Culture and the arts animate our city and our
society consists of active citizens who build on our Asian heritage to
strengthen the Singapore Heartbeat through expressing their Singapore
stories in culture and the arts (Renaissance city report, 2000).44

The sharp increase in prevalence of state-driven initiatives in the late 1980s and early
1990s was a clear indication of a marked shift in focus. The Ministry of Information
and the Arts was formed in 1990 and the National Arts Council the following year –
both with aims to help develop Singapore into a global city for the arts. Brigadier-
General (Res) George Yeo, then Minister for Information and the Arts, expressed at the
Singapore Art Fair hope for Singapore to be “a centre of culture in East Asia”
(Singapore: global city for the arts, 1995). There were many examples in the late 1980s
and early 1990s indicating that the art public was unprepared to accept the notion that
art as a concept was defined by the artist, rather than by an institute. That Tang was
unable to propagate his approach of art-making at an official level (at LaSalle) spoke
volumes of his institutional possibility of his practice. Similarly, at the 1991 National
Sculpture Exhibition, responses indicated in newspapers recorded feelings of outrage
and hilarity toward the recognition of everyday objects as „art.‟45 A recent retrospective
show, The Artists Village: 20 years on, also drew mixed responses from the public and
media.46 Yet the notion of „alternative‟ art and presence of such aesthetic practices were
constituents of, if not desired in, a global arts centre. The issue at hand lies, not in
whether „art‟ (in Amanda Heng‟s terms) can have an “extended definition” but in the
ingenuity of the State to re-circumscribe the conditions of the art world such that it can
sustain a culturally vibrant arts industry and develop Singapore into a global arts centre.
As early as 1991, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) concept plan outlined broad
strategies for the next 40 years a vision for Bras Basah and Bugis shaped into an “arts,
cultural and learning hub” and where more “cultural centres” would appear.47
The institutionalisation of alterity by providing support to art practitioners
making „experimental‟ art such as TAV, the Substation or the „Festival Fringe‟ was one
such possible means. The irony should not be missed when Tang, as recipient of the
Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize, bringing as it were glory for the nation, was practising
an art form that is “de facto banned in Singapore” at that point (Oon, 2001).
Similarly, Heng was described by Eugene Tan as “instrumental” in “highlighting
the important discourses surrounding feminism in art in Singapore”; yet support for her

Yvonne Low

art, she revealed, had not been adequately given:

But people still do not want to recognise an extended definition of art.
Nobody wants to take that seriously. When you work with a certain
curator, sometimes you are treated like dirt. They don‟t respect you as an
artist. They have no conception of what a professional artist is all about,
and these are professional curators in the national museums. These are
very common experiences. When you realise that you are not taken
seriously, the only thing way to show your work is to organise your own
event. If you go through my records, you will see that most of the events
were created by myself (Ang, 2001).

When TAV was told to vacate their Sembawang premise, NAC, under the arts housing
programme, assumed responsibility by supporting the artists with studio spaces. The
old classrooms in Telok Kurau were converted into 25 individual studios, rented out to
artists at a subsidised rate and left to the management of a committee of artists.
Although artists had expressed gratitude of having proper studio space to work in other
than their HDB homes, the space comes not without a price. Apart from being
accountable for maintenance, security, sinking fund and utilities fees, artists who under-
utilize the studio or fail to comply with NAC‟s regulations would not have the tenancy
renewed.48 According to a recent report, artists are requested to submit activity reports
every six months, indicating their artistic output and participation in events which
should include at least two solo exhibitions annually.
Despite such restrictions, many artists are on the waiting list as other subsidized
(such as at Kampong Eunos) and non-subsidized (such as Chip Bee Gardens and the Post-
Museum) studio spaces are full (Tan, 2008). By reconstituting non-institutional art into an
official „fringe‟ component of the annual Festival event, the State successfully managed
to create platforms for the sustenance of an arts industry without affecting the status
quo of institutional art forms as perpetrated in the local art world. The Festival Fringe
was by 2007 recognised as “an avenue for the development of performance art” and
Tang Da Wu‟s return to Singapore was described as having “earmarked an
international flow of aesthetic sensibilities that sought to explore the organic and
performative dimensions of visual art-making and to work through art as a medium of
research” (Purushothaman, 2007, p. 59). Further, the Festival Fringe was positioned as
having played “a central role in achieving audience numbers and increasing the
popularity of the Festival.” 49 Such strategies had enabled the State to instill a fair
amount of control such that the degree of autonomy permissible for „alternative‟
aesthetic practices is subject to regulation and as determined by the Censorship Review
In 1997, an International Relations Unit (NAC) was formed to “take care of the
international dimension” and to proactively identify artists and their work so as to set
them up in international events as “part of its effort to go global” (Loh, 2001, p. 243). It
is very clear that by the 2000s, the arts industry was to be taken very seriously as a form
of state investment so-called “cultural capital”. Then MITA Acting Minister David Lim

[T]he Arts…creates new affiliations in our society that cut across

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

demographic groupings, and in so doing strengthens our social network.

The strength of our social network, and the ingenuity of our people, are
components of what we can call the “cultural capital” of Singapore. In
the new economy, increasing cultural capital is a key competitive
strategy. The money and hard work that we have put in to develop the
Arts should therefore be seen as an investment in our future

In 2003, the Sub-Committee on Service Industries of the Economic Review Committee

produced a report, Creative Industries Development Strategy, that mapped a vision of
Singapore by 2012 – to develop the creative industries into a significant growth engine,
increasing its GDP contribution from 3% in 2000 to 6% by 2012; to develop
Singapore into a „New Asia Creative Hub‟ – a creative ecosystem which offers ample
opportunities to creative people to fulfill their diverse aspirations; and to “propel
Singapore closer to the league of creative cities such as San Francisco, London and
New York, which are abuzz with ideas, experimentation and entrepreneurial energy”
(Purushothaman, 2007, p. 71). A clear example of such investment is the inaugural
Singapore Biennale in 2006, organized to coincide with the International Monetary Fund
and World Bank Meetings.

Some concluding remarks

So naturalized has the capitalist culture of marketing and commerce
become that what constitutes “Asian” cultural products, apparently, can
only be defined in terms of their career as commodities on the global
market-place – that is, a matter of market positioning, niche marketing.
- Ien Ang (2001, p. 43)

Singapore‟s Contemporary Art was clearly a local response to a global phenomenon and
in particular, to economic globalization such that the State now played the roles as both
patron and mediator. Conceptual-based and Performance-based aesthetic ideologies and
practices were preconditions to the development of Contemporary Art. Its development
cannot be viewed as separate from a global phenomenon nor from a local one for it is on
one hand circumscribed by global aesthetic trends and on the other by local socio-
economic developments. Its consecration also took place in tandem with the State‟s effort
to develop a global arts industry such that it is difficult to map a local stylistic
discourse without reference to a global context. As such, this overlapping of the local
Art World with the local/global Art Industry had reconstituted the need to position „art‟
as cultural products. „Identity‟, then, became its accompanying market positioning.
The adoption of such postmodernist techniques had empowered the artists to
comment on history (and identity) instead of making history. Further, the use of the
English language in the representation of aesthetic practices had on the one hand
dehistoricized it and on the other rendered it as being Western- derived. It was clear that
both Tang and Cheo‟s interpretations of Performance-based and Conceptual- based art
were original aesthetic responses that predicated personal experience. Neither of their

Yvonne Low

works could be constitutive as being nationalistic. Because their art was also necessarily
cultural products of the modern nation-state establishing herself as a Global City for
the Arts, it had been positioned as Singapore‟s modern art. The positioning of an
identity for this purpose – to have a unique selling point in the global market – was
problematic precisely because it depended on a future and not a past. In which case,
finding a positioning for „Singapore art‟ had proven to be difficult in light of the
postmodern condition – particularly in the appropriation of select histories for the
purposes of creating identities such as the re-invention of an Ideal Chinese identity
(among others). 51 How Contemporary Art will be developed to sustain a global/local
arts industry in the future and the resourcefulness of the artists to acquire means to
sustain their practices without compromising their beliefs remain to be seen.


The author thanks her supervisor, Professor John Clark, and the University of Sydney for
the opportunity to research on this topic. The author also thanks Dr Thomas Berghuis,
Prof T.K. Sabapathy and Cheo Chai-Hiang for their support and comments. All errors
belong to the author. This paper is based on the research conducted for a thesis
submitted for the degree of Masters of Arts (by research) with the Department of Art
History and Film Studies, University of Sydney, on 3 February 2009.

See for example, Lam, Kai. (2007). Observations on artist collectives work in Singapore (1999-2007). In Future
of Imagination 4 [catalogue] (pp. 20-23), Singapore; see also transcripts of interviews conducted with Amanda
Heng and Tang Da Wu in Open Ends (2001-ongoing), a n d conference transcripts in Art vs Art: Conflict &
Convergence [1994] (1995) and Space, Spaces, Spacing [1995] (1996).
It has been argued that the English language is the world‟s first truly global language and is viewed as a
principal weapon for a “cleverly disguised phase of Anglo-American imperialism” that of “globalisation”. See for
example Starrs, R. (2002). Introduction. In R. Starrs (Ed.), Nations Under Siege: Globalization and Nationalism in
Asia. New York: Palgrave.
See Creative Singapore: A renaissance nation in the knowledge age. (1998). Singapore: Committee to upgrade
LaSalle and NAFA. The report made recommendations on how LaSalle and NAFA can be upgraded to play a
central role in the development of creative and artistic manpower. Both institutes offer certificate and diploma arts
courses ranging from Fine Art to Music. LaSalle collaborated with Australian universities such as the Royal
Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT) and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to offer
undergraduate and postgraduate courses since 1993 and 1995 respectively.
See Crossroads: The making of new identities. (2004). Singapore: NUS Museums, pp. 22-24. See publication for a
good overview of artists pursuing local and overseas education. There were close links between NAFA and the
I‟Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts during the 1960s due to the friendship between Georgette Chen and
Chapelain Midy. The lack of state intervention and support in visual arts in the form of scholarships and grants also
spurred the artists to seek for opportunities overseas.
Lee T. S. Interview with Cheo Chai-Hiang. In Transcript (unpublished) (1997). Oral History Centre Archives
[Online], p. 7. The other practical reason for choosing England was because Da Wu was already there; Cheo said,
“…he was very encouraging…helped me a lot to prepare myself to go to UK.”
Reasons for going to Australia were varied and numerous, and in all likelihood personal. Heng took night classes
at LaSalle and continued with research at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in the United Kingdom
and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Curtin University of Technology in Australia; see Not just another woman: Don‟t
pigeonhole artist Amanda Heng, who strives to create artwork that lives and breathes. (2006, June 21). Today, p.

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

Following Marcel Duchamp‟s Bicycle Wheel (1913), which was arguably his first ready-made, the term
„readymade‟ was used to refer to everyday objects that had been nominated and designated by the artist as a work of
Ho H. Y. (1999) Besides Being New, Art should possess Intrinsic qualities in order to strike a sympathetic chord in
the viewers‟ hearts. In 美术论记衡 [Writings in Art]. Singapore: National Arts Council and Singapore Heritage
Board and Lee Foundation. See also translated article in Re-connecting: Selected writings on Singapore art and art
criticism, 2005. Ho is the president of the Modern Art Society. I propose to view Ho as the „gatekeeper‟ for he
appeared to speak on behalf of the „viewers‟ without giving the art piece a chance to be viewed. On the issue of
primacy of painting in Singapore, see Sabapathy T.K. (2006) and Seng Y. J. (2006).
Message from Jek Yeun Thong, Minister for Culture in 1972 ASEAN Art Exhibition [catalogue], 12-23 April 1972,
unpaginated, no other details. He stated, “This Art Exhibition marking the 5th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting is a
step in the right direction, and there is no doubt that it will contribute significantly to the creation of regional
goodwill and understanding”.
Quoted from “Teo Eng Seng” [transcript] in Sculpture in Singapore [catalogue]. (1991). Singapore: National
Museum Art Gallery, p. 60. Eng Seng said: “For my own piece, I was not that fortunate because I had a piece in
which I covered the body with an American flag. And I wanted young Americans to lie on the flag to show the
decision of men triumphant, not merely following conventional belief. At that time it was the Vietnam war. The
scene was quite lively, except that I think a lot of more provocative things were just simply pushed aside. And I
suppose with the political situation at that time it was also not permissible, making statements about the war.”
Chia W. H. (2002) [1979] Slanted to modern idioms, this display of quality. In T.K. Sabapathy (Ed.), Bits
and Pieces: Writings on Art (pp. 88-89). Singapore: Contemporary Asian Arts Centre. The article highlighted that
the works of Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi were “stamping their mark of distinction” in the Singapore
Quoted from interview transcript, Low J. (2001). (Non)Visible Bodies/Spaces. In Open Ends. Singapore: The
Substation and The Lee Foundation. Interview between John Low and Teo Eng Seng on 1 April 2001. According
to Eng Seng, he had „performed‟ at the Pasir Panjang beach in the 1950s when he was still “a schoolboy” and the
term performance was not popularized. It was not intended as „art‟. He said, “I was doing it simply to understand
the sound, the waves, the night and the beach”. The issue should be when „performance‟ is viewed as „art‟/
functioned as „art‟ rather than to identify the earliest instance of performance for personal reasons.
See Lee J. (1997) p p . 8-9. Author‟s interview with Vincent Leow and Wong Shih Way (Jan 1997) indicates
that those present at the workshop included Wong Shih Yaw, Johnny Tan, Goh Teck Hong, Vincent Leow,
Baet Yoke Kuan, Soh Siew Kiat, Lim Poh Teck, Tang Mun Kit, and Koh Nguang How, all of whom were
students and recent graduates of local art schools (LaSalle/NAFA).
A committee – chaired by Gwee Yee Hean – was appointed in November 1987 to look into the future
development NAFA so that it can “best respond to the needs of the country and region” and among the areas of
concern include defining the role of the Academy in nation-building, and taking cognizance of the need to preserve
traditional cultures and base the foundation on Asian values. See 南洋美术之父林学大 [Nanyang art’s founder Lim
Hak Tai] (1991).
Chandra, Ee Choo, Salleh were described to be dissatisfied with the prevailing methods of studying art at NAFA
which were determined by stereotyped categories, inflexible specialisations and indifference towards historical or
contextual parameters of art education and creative activities (see Sabapathy T.K., 1998, p. 25).
See Lee J. (1997) and Sabapathy T.K. (1993).
Low J. (2001) According to the interview, Tang said: “I think the Artists‟ Village just happened naturally, people
from LaSalle and NAFA, they came to see me and there was plenty of space, so, I invited them to use the space,
and during work we have a lot of discussion. …I realised that was nice and we learned things, so, we stayed like
that and make it more accessible for more people to come in. Just like that. It‟s not thinking about anything else, like
schools or groups. It just naturally happened.”
See Lee, S. H. (1989, May 28) Village Artists. The Sunday Times. Joanna Lee‟s essay (1997) also indicated
that other participating artists included relatively established artists Chng Seok Tin, and Han Sai Por, and emerging
artists and students Suzann Victor, Khairul Anwar Salleh, Katherine Ho, Koh Nguang How, Mary Ong, Tan Peng,
and Ken Quek.
To be precise, the first Open Studio Show featured 10 artists, and the second Open Studio Show featured 26 artists.
For an excellent pictorial overview of The Artists Village, its development and event details, see Koh Nguang
How‟s A brief Chronology of The Artists Village: Documentation by Koh Nguang How (downloadable pdf),
published on SAM website in conjunction with The Artists Village exhibition (retrieved on Sept 1, 2008).
In April, TAV was associated with Art Mart, an arts event organised by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board,
and with the local Universities – The Happenings took place at Nanyang Technological Institute in July and The

Yvonne Low

Happenings II took place at the National University of Singapore between July and September. The prominence of
Performance Art as an aesthetic form was also prevalent. In December, TAV hosted the Time Show which was a 24-
hour performance event.
The land, belonging to the Toh family (relatives of Tang), was acquired by the board for the Defence Ministry. See
article Artist Village closes land used as rustic retreat acquired. (1990, March 7). The Straits Times.
What remains unclear is how this informal artists‟ group organised itself without a site and how members (also
called “Villagers”) represented the „village‟ as a cohesive group in light of collaborations with official agencies.
Others included Eye 2 I, a Singapore Festival of Arts fringe exhibition featuring Amanda Heng, Baet Yoke Kuan,
Vincent Leow, Tang Dahon, Soh Siew Kiat, Tang Mun Kit at Art Base Gallery which was held at various
commercial galleries.
See report by Leow J. (1996, June 14). Art taken for a ride at HDB estates – around your place. The Straits Times.
A Toa Payoh resident “found the exhibits „strange‟ and added that most Singaporeans were not ready for
experimental art.”
“What does it mean to be alternative in Singapore when there is no mainstream? So, The Substation is
alternative by default. We are alternative because people want to see us as alternative; because we are doing
something different from what other people in Singapore are doing. But if you compared what we are doing
with fringe and alternative companies in London, New York, Tokyo, or even New Delhi, we are not alternative. We
are very mainstream!” Quoted in Joanna Lee, 1997, 32-33 [Source: Taped during an interview by a reporter
for the Television Corporation of Singapore‟s programme Artitude episode 13 first aired in Singapore in 18
November 1996].
See for example Singapore‟s official website, Uniquely Singapore:
entertainment/performing_arts_venue/the_substation.html (retrieved on Oct 12, 2008).
King N. (1996) Amanda Heng: Performing bodies. Art Asia Pacific, 3(2). The author cited at length the
objectives of the The Space as specified in the press release dated 10 March 1992, “The Space is the search
for „alternative space‟ that could readily extend art activities into the consciousness of everyday life. This
consciousness will be the prime force that would, we believe, catalyse the process of achieving a contemporary
artform with a unique Singaporean identity. We hope to achieve what the „Salon of the rejected‟ had achieved
for the modern artist of the western tradition…”
See the two-page cover story on this matter, Ong S. C. (1992, July 18). Let‟s make space for art. The Straits
Times; and Chia, H. (1992, June 18). Make space for art. The Straits Times.
See articles: Koh, B. S. (1991, Nov 29). But it IS art. The Straits Times and Ng, W. J. (1991, Nov 16) Interesting
works…but is it art?. The Straits Times. Disparity was apparent in responses: Senior Parliamentary Secretary
(Information and the Arts) Ho Kah Leong, who opened the exhibition, referred to the works as “very creative and
innovative”. Said Mr Calvin Tan, 27, a free-lance fashion designer: “I can appreciate some of the sculptures, but for
others, I think the artist has tried too hard. For example, in Study of Three Thermos Flasks, what is there to
study?”See also Chng, S. T. (1996) [1992] 三个热水瓶 [Three Thermal Flasks]. In 艺穂小拾 ( pp. 58-59). Singapore:
智力出版社. Chng Seok Tin reported that SAM had acquired the flasks. It is also interesting to note that this is
Singapore‟s second national sculpture exhibition – guest curated by T.K. Sabapathy – and the first was held in
30 (a 13-year gap).
Sabapathy, T.K. ( 1 9 9 3 ) Trimurti: Contemporary art in Singapore. Art & Asia Pacific, 30-35. Cheo Chai-
Hiang also exhibited at the sculpture exhibition, see Chng, S. T. (1996) [1992] 特殊的礼物 [A special present]. In
艺穂小拾 .(pp. 52-53). Singapore: 智力出版社.
See Pereira, A. (1992, Dec 18). Passage to the Arts. The Straits Times and Storer, R. (2007). Making Space:
Historical contexts of Contemporary art in Singapore. In Contemporary Art in Singapore. Singapore: Institute of
Contemporary Arts Singapore and LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts.
See also Cheong J. (2008, Feb 18) …but PKW stays open. The Straits Times. Due to the lack of funds, PKW will
be relinquishing their space in Little India. Among the recent events included participation at the Gwangju Biennale
2002 and various exchange programmes with arts groups in New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Indonesia and
See William Ray Langenbach‟s thesis (2003) for details. Charges of obscene acts were directed at Vincent Leow in
Coffee Talk for drinking his urine and Josef Ng in Brother Cane for cutting his pubic hair in public with his back
toward the audience. And also: Langenbach, R. (2001) Representing state desire and the sins of transgression. In
S. Yao (Ed.) House of glass: Culture, modernity, and the state in Southeast Asia (pp. 69-94) Singapore: Institute
of Southeast Asian Studies. See also Oon, C. (2001, Aug 27) Look back, look forward. The Straits Times. The 2001
Open Ends project, sponsored by the Lee Foundation (see and
The Substation, was conceived as a means to address this need to create more awareness, through documentation, of
performance art, deemed as one of the most dynamic fields of contemporary art in Singapore. In one interview, John
Low and Tang Da Wu discussed possible means to lift the ban. Generally performance art is carried out at the
artists‟ expense (NAC would not sponsor any such event); both artists felt that it was unfair of NAC to penalise

Positioning Singapore’s Contemporary Art

other performance artists based on the actions of one artist 7 years ago (Open Ends, 2001-ongoing, unpaginated).
Ng subsequently moved to Bangkok. He is now running the Tang Contemporary Art Gallery in Beijing. See
Narayanan, S. (2008, Aug 28). An „art‟ ahead of its time?. The New Paper.
Narayanan, S. (2008). For more information on how artists had to work “within the framework given by the
organizers based on the local conditions”, see essay by organizer and artist, Lee W. (2006) . FOI3:
ideology:irony:imagination. In The Future of Imagination 3 [catalogue]. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum & The
Oon, C. (2001, Aug 27); Koh, B. S. (1994, Feb 23) Performance art shows axed. The Straits Times. This article
also reported on how arts institutions and artists are feeling the repercussions of the official action against
performance art.
Lee Weng Choy describes this as „moving on‟, observing that since 1994, artists such as Zai Kunning, Lee Wee,
Vincent Leow and Jason Lim have resorted to performing abroad while Chu Chu Yuan, Amanda Heng,
Chandrasekaran and Tang Da Wu have shown installations overseas. See New Criteria: Rearticulating the other
(1996). Art Asia Pacific, 3(1), 24-25.
See, for example, Sasitharan, T. (1989, Sep 29). Four for show in Perth. The Straits Times. In 1989, Lim Poh Teck,
Wong Shih Yaw and Tang Mun Kit, together with T.K. Sabapathy, took part in Metro Mania. Funding was provided
by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The four participating Singaporean artists included Amanda Heng, Matthew Ngui, Baet Yeok Kuan and Salleh
Japar. Although it was not highlighted in the review that the above artists had all studied in different
Australian institutions, it is possible that their stay in Australia had facilitated the organisation of such joint
collaborations. For a review of the exhibition, see Hadi, W. (1997) Rapport. Art Asia Pacific, (13), 40-41. Rapport
was co-curated by Natalie King from Monash Uni Gallery and Tay Swee Lin from SAM.
Turner, C. (2006). Cultural Transformations in the Asia-Pacific: The Asia-Pacific Triennial and the Fukuoka
Triennale Compared. In J. Clark, M. Peleggi and T.K. Sabapathy (Eds.) Eye of the Beholder: Reception, audience,
and practice of modern Asian art (pp. 221-243). Sydney: Wild Peony; and Introduction – From extraregionalism to
intraregionalism? (1993). In The First Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary art [exhibition catalogue]. Brisbane:
Queensland Art Gallery.
See Maravillas, F. (2006). Cartographies of the Future: The Asia-Pacific Triennials and the Curatorial Imaginary.
In J. Clark, M. Peleggi and T.K. Sabapathy (Eds.) Eye of the Beholder: Reception, audience, and practice of
modern Asian art (pp. 244-270). Sydney: Wild Peony. See also Sabapathy, T.K. (1989). Significant content and
symbolic value: 7 Singapore artists for Fukuoka. Architecture Journal. School of Architecture, National University
of Singapore, 17-26.
Storer, R. (2007, p. 16). See as well profiles of artists in catalogue, Contemporary art in Singapore, 2007, for
more details. Tang Da Wu was not included in the catalogue and it was believed that he had declined to be included
(Conversation with Cheo Chai-Hiang on 26 August 2008).
Tang Da Wu bags Arts and Culture Prize (1999, July 14). The Straits Times; see as well Ushiroshoji Masahiro‟s
interview with Tang, “Fast moving Asian contemporary art „Tang Da Wu and his works‟” (1999).
On the position of Singapore as a Global City for the Arts, see Kwok K. W. and Low K. H. (2002). Cultural
Policy and the City-State: Singapore and the „New Asian Renaissance‟. In D. Crane, N. Kawashima, K.
Kawasaki (Eds.). Global Cultures: Media, arts, policy and globalization (pp. 149-168). London: Routledge. See
also, chapter “Arts in a Global City: 1990s” In V. Purushothaman (2007). Making Visible the Invisible: Three
decades of the Singapore Arts Festival. Singapore: National Arts Council.
See footnote xxix.
In More farty than arty (2008, Aug 23). The Straits Times, reporter, Jeremy Au Yong mocked the works that
had been touted by another reporter as “must-see exhibits” with reference to Leow‟s The Artist’s Urine (1993),
Heng‟s She and Her Dishcover (1991), in “First artist colony” and “Five must-see exhibits” (The Straits Times, Aug
7, 2008). In the Mailbag section where public could write in, “Where‟s the art?” (The Straits Times, Aug
16, 2008) revealed that after 20 years, mindsets may be difficult to change. One remarked “I have never seen the
quality of the arts in Singapore sink so low…” another remarked, “art is increasingly just rubbish.”
See, for example, 2 city centres for arts groups (2004, Dec 10). The Straits Times; Old district a hive of activity
(2008, Sep 14). The Straits Times.
A recent case saw artist, Tan Kwank Liang, evicted from his studio due to various reasons, the failure to submit
activity report among them. Tan maintained that it was unfair to monitor his usage level based on time spent in the
studio as he had to do research work in China, arguing as well that he had held three solo exhibitions since 2001,
including last year‟s Cuenca Biennale in Ecuador. He had threatened to burn his work. See Leong W. K. (2008, Apr
16) Drama over this artist‟s studio. The Straits Times; Ho J. (1997, Feb 12). More ease for artists – silver lining for
struggling artists at last. The Straits Times.

Yvonne Low

According to the report, “since the introduction of a fringe component in 1984 started to create an outreach of
approximately 270,000 by 1988”. Examples of such „fringe events‟ include In case of Howard Liu (1988) by Tang
Da Wu at the old St. Joseph‟s Institution building, Step on Art by Lim Poh Teck (1988) at various pathways
alongside Orchard Road to Stamford Road and Serious Conversations (1990) by Tang Da Wu, Vincent Leow and
Lee Wen
Quoted from V. Purushothaman (2007) an MITA press release on 25 Jan. 2002.
See Low, Y. (2009) Singapore’s Modern Art: Modern aesthetic responses of Overseas Chinese and Chinese
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