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Singapore Art Week | On the Bicentennial

January is the time when Singapore Art Week rolls around, and it’s also what I call Singapore’s ‘art month’ with all of the art exhibitions on show throughout the month (similar to how Hong Kong art week/month falls in March)! This year has been especially happening from the get-go, with the new S.E.A. Focus art fair, Light to Night and i Light festival all opening around the same time. This year is also a little different, with Light to Night and i Light taking on the theme of the Bicentennial.

Before I get into these events, I have to first say that the pre-opening act of Singapore Art Week (SAW) 2019 was the sudden cancellation of Art Stage Singapore. I’d always missed going to Art Stage – especially during my uni years when I would be in Hong Kong in January – but I’d intended to visit for the first time this year. Well, that didn’t happen, and the news of their cancellation caused such a big hoo-ha!

S.E.A. Focus

At least, there was the new boutique art fair S.E.A. Focus, which I was pretty interested in checking out. As the name suggests, the fair focuses on showing art from Southeast Asian artists – and it’s also nice to see stronger representation of Singaporean artists. I’ve heard so many Singaporeans complain that Singaporean artists aren’t more visible in Singapore itself, so it’s good to see more focus placed on them, too.

Art Porters, Singapore

Of course, this gold coated Singapore-style dustbin was the first thing that caught my eye! For context, they’re usually green in colour and placed along the streets. I wish I knew the artist who made this, but there were no wall labels in this gallery’s booth. In fact, many booths didn’t have wall labels, some just hand-wrote the artists’ names on the wall – why, I wonder?

Jason Lim, Still/Life, (remnants of) performance piece, Gajah Gallery
Cheong Soo Pieng, Flowers, 1953, oil on canvas (left); Still Life with Fish and Bottle, 1957, oil on masonite board, STPI

My favourites from STPI’s showing of Cheong Soo Pieng’s artworks. Not sure if these are part of STPI’s current exhibition on Cheong, but I must make the time to visit soon!

Light to Night Festival

Moving on to Light to Night Festival – there were two editions this year, firstly for Singapore Art Week with the theme ‘Traces and Echoes’ and the second for the Bicentennial (which ends tonight!).

I’m actually glad there were two versions of the festival, extending it from just a week to a whole month! I’d been so busy for the whole of January with work and life and yada yada, so I decided to check out the Bicentennial edition in February, which I thought would be more interesting.

Art Skins on Monuments, 7 Stories from 700 Years, Asian Civilisations Museum
Sebastian Chun, Sticks

Sticks is a light installation that keeps changing colours, and it’s inspired by the childhood game “pick-up sticks” andย bakau piling, an old technique for constructing scaffolding. My sister tells me that she had played the sticks game during her primary school years, but I don’t seem to remember playing it too? Ah, a few years can already mean generation differences.

Art Skins on Monuments, 7 Stories from 700 Years, The Arts House
Tell Your Children, Tan Zixi (MessyMsxi) and The Merry Men Works, Open Books, paint on wood

My favourite art skin was the one projected on the facade of The Arts House, about stories of the people who worked along the Singapore River. I like how the illustrations of the people projected on the columns remind me of Classical Greco-Roman sculptures!

There’s also this cute Alice in Wonderland-inspired installation, Open Books, situated outside The Arts House!

I really liked this quote! There were a few of these neon signs as part of the food bazaar outside National Gallery Singapore.

Art Skins on Monuments, 7 Stories from 700 Years, National Gallery Singapore (It says there, New Dawn of Singapore Art.)

Yet another emphasis on Singapore Art… Though there’s still a ways to go.

Art Skins on Monuments, 7 Stories from 700 Years, National Gallery Singapore

I always love to capture National Gallery Singapore – the Supreme Court wing from this angle, and this is the most colourful I’ve seen it!

Art Skins on Monuments, 7 Stories from 700 Years, National Gallery Singapore
Art Skins on Monuments, 7 Stories from 700 Years, National Gallery Singapore
Art Skins on Monuments, 7 Stories from 700 Years, National Gallery Singapore

National Gallery Singapore’s art skin recounted the story of Singapore’s former Supreme Court and Civic District. I especially liked the bright colours projected on the Supreme Court wing, talking about how the building has been repurposed into an art museum, and the photographs of modern-day Singapore projected across the long stretch of the City Hall wing.

On the Bicentennial…

I had opted to only see the Bicentennial edition of Light to Night, due to lack of time and to see some light projections and installations that featured different narratives from the usual fare. As you can tell, the themes celebrate Singapore’s history and how far we have come.

While I did enjoy seeing these narratives, I’m not sure how the Bicentennial holds much significance in these festivals. The Bicentennial marks the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ founding of modern Singapore in 1819. While this fact has never, in my opinion, held much negative connotation in the public eye, the focus on the Bicentennial this year seems to have tapped into issues of colonialism and post-colonialism vs. nationalism and nation-building that I feel has not been much discussed in Singapore before.

I think the problem here is: Should we celebrate a colonial past, for all its good and bad, or should we be celebrating Singapore’s own history since 1819? Or even pre-1819? Note that 7 Stories from 700 Years talks about a longer history of Singapore beyond the supposed Bicentennial mark.

Some say this uncovering of a longer history is a move to ‘decolonise’ Singapore, but I’m don’t think that’s effective when the Bicentennial term is used everywhere. It appears that the creation of a special Bicentennial that doesn’t even seem to be too sure of what it’s celebrating / commemorating has led to confusion and some ruffled feathers.

I feel that the public stir has also been triggered by the Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman exhibition currently ongoing at Asian Civilisations Museum, in collaboration with the British Museum. I wasn’t initially all that interested to visit – I was put off by the steep price! But after reading news about visitors’ disgruntled comments about it, I want to see it for myself now… Probably on ACM’s programme days when tickets to the exhibition are at a $5 discounted rate.

In any case, I find ACM’s exhibitions hit and miss, and Raffles in Southeast Asia is probably going to be a miss. If you’ll like to see an exhibition on colonialism that is more sensitively done, check out my review of Artist and Empire at National Gallery Singapore in collaboration with Tate Britain here.

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