Framing Singapore


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A mute glass drum stands brooding over the modern glass and steel extension to the National Museum of Singapore (NMS). The rotunda is the main entrance to the museum’s Singapore History Gallery, and I have come here, on my first visit to this tropical island city-state, for a crash course in Singaporean culture and history.

As the exhibition’s opening act unfolds, the view from inside the rotunda could not be more different. 360° Singapura: A Day in the Life is a bewildering installation that plays against the rotunda’s curving, 23 metre-high glass walls. A dawn-to-dusk portrait, the film contrasts frenetic stop-motion footage of Singaporean traffic flows, construction, landscape and industry with images of daily life that include Singaporeans at work, prayer, and at play. Set to excerpts from Vladimir Martynov’s symphony Singapore: a geopolitical utopia, the film’s image of Singapore could not be clearer. Singapura is a place where work pays and where political order, social harmony, efficiency, and meritocracy are valued and rewarded.

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As first introductions go, Singapura is certainly a bold statement, but it’s already a museum piece, a narrative that many Singaporeans – especially those who work in the country’s booming tourism and creative industries – are keen to move beyond. And why not? If Singapore’s history proves anything, it is its knack for reinvention and for punching above its weight. Until recently, that precociousness expressed itself mainly in Singapore’s GDP, business environment and infrastructure, but thanks largely to S$1.5billion-worth of government investment in new galleries, museums, art colleges, studios, and art fairs, this tiny tropical metropolis has successfully established itself as an internationally important cultural and creative hub with shopping, restaurants, and hotels to match.

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Evidence of this latest bout of reinvention can be seen most clearly at Gillman Barracks, a former British military camp set on the edge of the jungle six kilometres west of downtown Singapore. Home to fourteen private galleries including ShanghART – recognised as one of China’s most influential – and The Sundaram Tagore Gallery from New York, the barracks represent as concentrated a collection of contemporary art galleries as you will find anywhere in the world, and as such it should be on every art lover’s itinerary. Gillman Barracks is just the latest example of a new Singaporean cultural institution recycling buildings from the colonial past for reuse in the creative present – the Singapore Art Museum, Peranakan Museum, National Museum all do the same – but few pull the transition off with such aplomb as the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI).

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Housed in a converted early twentieth century warehouse on the banks of the Singapore River at Robertson Quay, the STPI feels like it was built specifically for its current role. A community of master printers and technicians who work with an international roster of artists who are invited to stay in residence at the STPI, the Institute is a warren of bright white gallery spaces, libraries, workshops, studios, and print rooms dedicated to the paper-based arts.

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Part community, part laboratory, part college, the Institute was formed when the printing machinery from the New York studio of master printer Kenneth Tyler was imported wholesale to Singapore in 2002. There is an  air of reverence here that may have something to do with the heritage of the original studio – Tyler used these machines to print original work by Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns – but the Institute’s monastic quality also speaks to the skill and dedication of the Institute’s contemporary masters and technicians. A free studio tour of the STPI not only provides visitors with a rare ‘behind-the-scenes’ insight into the production of contemporary art, but there is also the opportunity to take part in paid workshops in etching, silkscreen, and linocut with experts who work with some of the finest contemporary artists practising today. The opportunity should not be missed.

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(Photo by Edward Hendricks, courtesy Singapore Tyler Print Institute)

When I arrive at the STPI on a bright Saturday morning, young families brunch on breakfast burritos and French toast at the award-winning Epicurious café (No. 1-2; The Quayside; 65-6734-7720; epicurious.co.sg), while a well-heeled queue waits for the opening of Couleurs de l’Ombre, a temporary exhibition of work by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. The show features a series of hypnotic Polaroids taken over a period of ten years, each one a small square of saturated chromatic variation that captures the light of dawn refracted through an enormous prism that Sugimoto had erected in his studio.

Sponsored by Hermès, the exhibition is part of the Hermès Editeur programme, a series of collaborations between the luxury goods house and artistic luminaries such as Josef Albers and Daniel Buren. In Sugimoto’s case, Hermès have transferred his subtle gradations of colour onto limited edition silk scarves that are suspended from the ceiling of the gallery like a gently billowing piece of installation art. Most eyes focus on the silk here, but the real wonder is in Sugimoto’s patience and his fragile Polaroids, an obsolete, instant medium with which he succeeds in capturing the fleeting immateriality of light.

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Across town, a similar fusion of luxury and fine art occurs at the Louis Vuitton Island Maison. Housed in a crystalline glass and steel pavilion that appears to ‘float’ off the waterfront in Singapore’s Marina Bay, the store includes a permanent mural and portrait of Singapore by the Cuban-born illustrator and long-time Louis Vuitton collaborator Ruben Toledo.

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‘Upper Strut’, an installation by the British artist Richard Deacon, floats like a wooden halo under the glass panels of the Island Maison’s roof. The extent of Louis Vuitton’s local artistic bona fides here are exhibited by the Espace Louis Vuitton Singapore, a gallery housed in the unlikely underwater tunnel that links the Island Maison with the rest of the store in the adjacent Marina Bay Sands mall.

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For all the cultural investment that Singapore has made in recent years – in its new art fairs, colleges, artist’s studios, and museums – nowhere better illustrates the critical mass the culture industry has attained here than this island within an island, where the worlds of display, consumption, and business coalesce so effortlessly.

Singapore’s cultural transformation may sound like an unlikely Cinderella story, but over the past decade, even the most cynical of Singaporeans admit to having experienced a cultural renaissance. The subtext to these state-sponsored changes may have been calculatedly political – the government recently admitted that it’s cultural policy was aimed squarely at maintaining Singapore’s place amongst the world’s leading cities – but the result has been a creative gold rush, the return of many members of Singapore’s cultural diaspora, and an influx of talented expatriates.

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Benjamin Hampe, the Australian co-owner and director of the Chan Hampe Galleries figures prominently amongst the latter. At first glance, the elegantly whitewashed colonnades of the Raffles Hotel Arcade seem an unlikely venue for a discussion of contemporary art, but it is here, amongst upmarket coffee shops, restaurants, and luxury boutiques, that the gallerist exhibits work by emerging and established local artists. For Hampe, there is a clear relationship between contemporary tourism and contemporary art. “Travelling can be more than just sightseeing,” he explains. “Imagine you are an art enthusiast; with such a wealth of art [here] we can allow a glimpse into the art scene not only in this part of the world, but the whole of Southeast Asia.”

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In an attempted break from both luxury and art, I head to the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood for some street food. My respite is short-lived however, and I soon find myself nosing through the small galleries, antique shops, and boutiques that rub shoulders with the restaurants, wholesalers, and hardware stores that are still the neighbourhood’s mainstay.

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A low-rise cluster of late 1930s Streamline Moderne – think rounded balconies, spiral staircases, ribbon windows, and delightfully nautical portholes – Tiong Bahru was Singapore’s first public housing estate. Built on the site of an old cemetery – ‘Tiong’ is a Chinese word meaning ‘tomb’ and ‘Bahru’ (Baru) the Malay word for ‘new’ – it soon developed a reputation as an upmarket home for senior civil servants, businessmen, and the mistresses of the wealthy elite, hence it’s other name at the time, ‘mei ren wo’, or ‘den of beauties’ in Mandarin.

Thanks to its designation as a conservation area in 2003, Tiong Bahru survived the widespread redevelopment that has taken place elsewhere in Singapore, but the last decade has also seen a degree of gentrification and an increasing number of expats now live alongside the local families who still predominate. Evidence of Tiong Bahru’s transformation is provided by The Orange Thimble (Block 56, No. 01-68; Eng Hoon Street; 65-9750-3989;www.theorangethimble.com), a café that exhibits pieces by local artists, and Strangelets (7 Yong Siak Street; 65-6222-1456; www.strangelets.sg), an exquisitely stocked boutique that sells an international array of contemporary design that includes polar bear-shaped bookshelves, mathematically-inspired jewellery, and handmade Parisian tableware. Meanwhile, the Teck Kee Leong Huat General Store plies its trade nearby, essential for those in search of out-of-hours nuts, dried noodles, or cheap plastic toys.

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At the heart of Tiong Bahru sits a market that attracts visitors from the immediate neighbourhood and beyond. Some come for the fresh produce sold in the ground floor ‘wet market’, but most come for Tiong Bahru’s renowned hawker centre. An open deck of plastic tables surrounded by garish, neon-lit booths, the food court serves delicacies such as char siew rice, Chinese shumai dumplings, and chwee kueh – steamed rice cakes topped with radish, garlic, soy, herbs, and chili. Pensioners make the short walk from the surrounding estate while employers bus their workers here from further afield for lunch.

From the outside, the market looks very much like an Art Deco cinema, but the filmic connections here are more than just skin deep. In 2010, the market was both the location and the subject of a short film Tiong Bahru, which featured a cast of over 150 local volunteers. Tiong Bahru focused on the lives of three local residents – a teenage girl in foster care, a frustrated young father-to-be, and a grandmother under pressure to leave her family home – each struggling in their relationships, with their families, and with the wider community. The market inspires each character and encourages them to make life-changing decisions while allowing them to express their true feelings.

I think of the film as I watch a grease-stained man serve Hokkien mee seafood noodles from an enormous steaming wok. There is an economy and a beauty to his technique – honed as it is by continuous repetition – that is closer to choreography than to fast food. Singapore is full of such quiet moments of delight and self-expression, of an artistry that appears as often in its many markets, parks, and restaurants as it does in its new galleries, museums, studios, and boutiques. There can be no doubt that Singapore is fast establishing itself as a destination with a far wider appeal than popular perceptions suggest, especially for those who like their cities cosmopolitan and their culture as well considered as their cuisine.

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