A Tale of Two Art Spaces

There's a stretch of Armenian Street that perfectly captures recent changes in Singapore’s art scene. On one side, opened in 1990, the Substation, Singapore's first independent arts centre; on the other, opened in 2011, Art Plural, 12,000 square feet of high-end art gallery, featuring artists like Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Robert Longo, and Thakral and Tagra.

When you walk into Art Plural, you are greeted by polite, well-dressed and well-informed young art students working as gallery attendants. You never know who might (or might not) greet you in the Substation: a grouchy poet, our artistic director wearing a pair of angel’s wings, a post-punk rocker, an artist inviting you to join her in making an installation out of feminine hygiene products, or Mrs Chua, our iconic, laconic caretaker. On a recent evening, great gouts of white noise, fuzz and howling came pouring out of the Substation, in a performance by musician and circuit bender Mel Araneta, from the Philippines, collaborating with a group of Singapore sound artists. Roaming performance artists perplexed passers-by, wrapped in plastic, shaving cream covering their heads. Art Plural is a much more discreet neighbor, with its ’ring doorbell to enter’ sign.

The contrasts are obvious: foreign vs local, polished vs rough, art market stars vs uncelebrated art workers, private bankers vs skinheads, discreet vs attention-seeking, art that was once shocking but is now a commodity vs art that sometimes strives - and sometimes succeeds - to actually make people uncomfortable. The Substation celebrates its 21st birthday on September 16th, but its theatre has not had an upgrade in many years; Art Plural is up-to-the-minute.

So is the Substation the past, and Art Plural the future of arts in Singapore?

Actually both aspects of the art world are important and interdependent. The art world stars presented by Art Plural once depended on independent art spaces like the Substation to provide them support, feedback and that crucial first show. Robert Longo started his career in an artist-run space in an old ice factory, the Essex Arts Centre in Buffalo, New York, with his fellow student Cindy Sherman.

In a recently fashionable view, a city’s art scene is part of its cultural capital, a key asset in the global competition for talent and investment. If Art Plural presents the world’s top artistic brands, their success validated and revalidated, in New York, Paris or London, you might say that the Substation is early stage angel investment in Asia. In this view, Substation develops and nurtures artists at crucial phases of their career, when spectacular failure is as likely as success (and more valuable in some ways).

Indeed prominent Singapore artists, people like Ho Tzu Nyen, Matthew Ngui, Robert Zhao, as well as filmmakers like Roystan Tan and Tan Pin Pin all had early or important showings at the Substation. The list of local artists who've worked at Substation is a long one, and covers performing arts and music as well visual arts and film.

Still, this economic lens on art is only part of the story. Kuo Pao Kun’s founding vision of the Substation sees the arts as a vital source of energy and understanding for Singapore society. By providing a home for the arts, for mid-career artists as well as younger ones, the Substation attempts to create a space for artists to operate as a community, on their own terms. Under Artistic Director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, the Substation is renewing its mission of 'nurturing and challenging Singapore artists'.

We believe that an artistic community works to open spaces for dialogue and new understanding within society, inside and between other communities, however defined. Under Effendy's renewed Associate Artist Research Programme, our artists are asked to engage directly with a real community unfamiliar to them, whether that be scientists in Biopolis or an underpriviledged group.

Keeping the mission fresh and relevant is not necessarily a simple matter. We have lost some key assets – our Garden, now rented out, the kopi-tiam across the street, now Art Plural's ground floor, which was the venue of so many meetings of artists, filmmakers, dancers, musicians and people just hanging out.

And the Substation can be a bit of a headache at times. We believe our mission requires us to offer a safe space for the artistic expression of marginalized groups, and--sometimes--for a testing of the relevance of art in the social and political realms. Government grants provide us with some 20% of our annual income, but the government sometimes seems only 20% comfortable with our total vision. Arts grants are now linked to notions of 'acceptability' of content of the art, but this criterion is rarely the highest on our list.

Art Plural shows works by artist Jean Dubuffet, part of a movement known as Art Brut. In the 1950s and 60s, he wrote of the cultural asphyxiation created by Europe's arts institutions. He demanded 'a teeming diversity' of art, which would require 'a crusade against taste and decorum'. Art Plural now sells his works in their very tasteful gallery, but if he were Singaporean artist starting out today, I bet he would have had an Open Call show at Substation. At the very least, he would appreciate Substation's contribution to the diversity of the arts in Singapore.

Peter Schoppert is on the Board of Directors of the Substation. Formerly with McKinsey & Company, he's an entrepreneur and publisher.
PostscriptThis article was really just a small contribution to a series of different writings on the Substation that emerged as part of the 21st anniversary. Can I point you to:
This short piece ran in the Review section of the Straits Times, September 9, 2011. Click on the right margin to turn to the next page.