Nusantara: essays: Singapore Sweepstakes

the Singapore art scene circa 1988, ii

Beastly, by Tan Oe Pang

The biggest event on the art calendar last year was an Exhibition held by the National Museum in October and November to celebrate the Museum's 100th anniversary. Every artist in Singapore was asked to contribute their best piece, and 218 works, mostly exhibited in the past two years, were selected for eventual display. The Centenary Exhibition thus offered a fascinating overview of the range of Singapore's artists.

Fifty-seven of the works were in traditional Chinese styles: brush and fingerpainting with Chinese ink, and calligraphy. art as an expression of Chinese culture is alive and well in Singapore, supported mainly by Mandarin-educated businessmen and Singapore's Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Over the past two years, businessmen have sponsored high-profile museum exhibitions and visits by several of China's older leading artists, including Liu Haisu and Huang Zhou.

But many artists working within this community seem to have little interest in communicating with those outside the tradition. Most limit their response to Western art ideas to the innovations already made by China's artists in the earlier part of this century.

There is a group of artists who thrive on the border of Chinese and Western art. Artists like the pioneering Chen Wen Hsi, Tan Swie Hian, Henri Chen Kezhan, Tan Oe Pang and a few others combine a mastery of Chinese materials and techniques with a willingness to explore new subjects or Western art effects like abstract expressionism. Not surprisingly, these are the artists who have attracted the greatest attention abroad, especially among Western audiences with a basic knowledge of Chinese art. [PS: This para is kind of embarrassing to be reading 13 years later... I'm pretty certain these artists did/do not make conscious efforts to "be willing" to "explore Western art effects". They just paint!]

The largest group of artists on show at the centenary exhibition, some 107 in all, work in abstract or non-objective styles that are typical of Western modern art. Surprisingly, relatively few of these artists make strong efforts to relate to non-Western traditions or incorporate images or motifs from Singapore's visual environment into their works. it is a crucial dilemma for artists (and art audiences): should artists shoulder the terrific burden of attempting to create a distinctively Singaporean art, or should they feel free to persue strictly personal or formal lines of development?

In practice, only one or two of Singapore's artists are technically proficient enough to attract serious attention with works that express only private emotions or stand as purely formal explorations of colour, shape and line, in Western styles. On the other hand, too glib a nation-building or East-meets-West approach can lead to works which are facile or contrived. As with artists using Chinese media, only a few Western-style artists (like collage-maker Goh Beng Kwan) can resolve this tension in their art.

The balance of works on show belonged to what some critics call the "Singapore River" school. These painters, working in watercolour and oils, realistically render shophouses and the "ethnic" neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street, along with Singapore River scenes.

There are signs that Singapore's visual artists can expect increasing support from the government and private-sector patrons. Visual art is usually thought of as embodying little social critique. So it is a safer bet than, say, drama, for pursuing the government's stated goal of making Singapore a cultured and vibrant society, without offending government sensibilities. [PS: this turned out to be wrong!] One editorial went so far as to argue that artistic excellence could benefit the economy, giving the example of Italy as a country that profits from the quality of its industrial design.

The government has pledged to spend upwards of S$ 10 million to buy local art over the next five years. In time, the difficult set of social and cultural circumstances that Singapore's artists work within could prove a rich source of strength.

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