Art for the future: Singapore changes the global idiom, shows us how to reimagine today's world
IN SINGAPORE, ART has turned into a radical nation-building exercise. More so, it’s the making of a sci-fi society that’s utmostly interested in defining the future. And at every step of the way, you’d be amazed at how artists and curators here are reinventing contemporary art to make room for their own futuristic visions. It’s a wonderfully warm and gracious way you’d expect only in Singapore of multicultural communities engaging in a massive celebration of the arts and sciences, music, food and technology — with a good deal of AR and AI wired in. As a traveller or art enthusiast, you’d expect unhurried museum tours, avant-garde video and performance, otherworldly AR trails, jaw-dropping public sculptures, even vibrant street parties — and these are the best parts. Importantly, most of it is made out to give you a completely personal experience — like visions for you, and only you to behold — as glimpses of what the world might look like centuries ahead from now.
2219: Futures Imagined
What will the future look like? That’s the guiding beacon of a question that leads you through 2219: Futures Imagined (open until April 2020), an epic interactive exhibition at the magnificent ArtScience Museum. The show unfolds as a resounding experience in five acts, quite like an opera of existence, and one thing you’d ascertain rightly — this about art any longer; if anything, it’s more arts and science. It’s a good thing too, that there’s the fun-for-all Disney, Magic of Animation exhibition going on here as well, if the art appears to get too intense. Just as Singapore as a country has placed itself decades ahead of the rest of the world, it’s also taking cutting-edge art and pathbreaking ideas of global culture beyond known realms of reality, creativity and human imagination. Future World: Where Art Meets Science, a permanent exhibition at the museum, pretty much undoes every need for a science education that you’ll ever consider. The show includes such a spread of family-friendly exhibits, you’d think twice about going back to school yourself. All through, you’re looking at constantly evolving environments, into which you’re invited to step in, explore and engage with artworks that change with every interaction. And, you’re never likely to get the same reaction twice with any of the pieces.
Andy Warhol for roosters
The flagship event of the Singapore Art Week 2020 ended with an island-wide carnival earlier this January. The Art Week already ranks among the most influential festivals in the world, and is strategically positioned in the South Asian region to encourage discussions about new-age, urban identities, the blurring of cultural divides, preserving ethnic origins, and so on. Many of the large-scale shows that opened during the Art Week will stay open for a few more weeks into this summer. Singapore Biennale 2019, on the other hand, which opened last November and is on until 22 March, themed ‘Every step in the right direction’, is also establishing itself as a melting pot of cross-cultural ideas and experimental work. At one wing of the National Gallery, you’re brought face up to critical moments of resistance, protest and the role of art in South Asian history. The show Suddenly Turning Visible, curated and led by Seng Yu Jin and Joleen Loh, also makes room for some die-hard, end-of-the-world kind of satire. You might at first, by reflex, back away from Apinan Poshyananda’s video, How to Explain Art to a Bangkok Cock (1985, remade in 2019). In the installation, amidst a stack of salvaged crates painted with Warholian pop art, you see the artist patiently cajoling a flock of roosters to look at the printouts in his hands — of Mona Lisa sporting Dali’s twirled-up moustache. Hilarious as the work is, you’d do well to appreciate the germ sentiment of sticking it up to the elitist art worlds of the West.
Be international at home
At one point, we were asked by our guide to mull over what it means to be international today. As in, living in Singapore, or in any other part of the world. For a bustling island nation that has propped itself as the starfleet command centre of the planet, hurtling into newer frontiers of space and time, Singapore sets its message loud and clear. Here, any concept of being international must necessarily be reconsidered, and as far as possible, completely redefined. A lot of this has to do with the neatly accommodating, all-embracing way in which the people of Singapore have subsumed art, culture and technology into their everyday lives. There’s also the aspect of trust that the authorities place on citizens — at the carnivals, for instance, you’re given to find kids and families partying outdoors through midnight, without any hint of fear or apprehension about security. It’s like the Singaporean government got every baddie in town to step through their sparkling Jewel Changi airport enclosure, and they all emerged as the happiest people on Earth. It’s rather natural that Singapore’s interests — especially in the evolving street cultures of art, food, music, theatre, dance and more — are all concertedly steeped into the future.
Did you just save the Earth?
A few days at the Singapore Biennale, and you get that heady feeling like you’re jet-setting ahead in life, sailing along with high-minded ideas of shaping what the world can become. The goosebump moments happen when it strikes you that by interacting with an artwork, you might have also played your little part to save the planet, just a little bit. The stand-out segment of the Art Week, without a doubt, was the guided AR.T Trail, led by the friendly folk from Meshminds Foundation. Even before you begin, you can be sure you’ve never experienced public art in such a manner, ever before. The trail winds past a handful of installations — from Robert Zhao’s hypnotising The Time Tree at Raffles Place Park to Kumari Nahappan’s monumental mural Pembungaan at the OUE Bayfront to Han Sai Por’s Tropical Leaf in marble at One Raffles Quay, and Grace Tan’s swirling Currents at Marina One Tower West. Each of the installations is AR-enabled, accessible through any phone or tab, and the results are simply mind-blowing. Yes, they did make us squeal like teens at just how cool if they were.
Augmented reality, now
At the National Design Centre, Eugene Soh aka Dude.sg presented an innovative series that involved the restaging of art masterworks — all set to present-day Singapore. In effect, you get Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon..., Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, da Vinci’s The Last Supper and so on — entirely redone with people from the neighbourhood, in a local setting. With your AR app turned on, you’d see each character in Eugene’s digital frames begin to move in loop, creating the impression of a meme-based spoof. Irreverent as it might seem at first, Eugene — who also consults with Facebook for AR and AI-based projects — has rightfully created an updated version of classical art for millennials. For another instance of an AI installation that knocked our socks off — consider Lisa Park’s Blooming, a life-size cherry blossom tree on a digital screen that lights up and goes into full bloom every time a couple stands in front of it, and holds an embrace. The piece is touch-sensitive, so the longer and tighter the couple stays in an embrace, the more visually fantastic the tree becomes. Such are the artworks you can expect to experience in Singapore. Multi-sensorial, delightfully interactive — though never removed from the natural world.
A special treat
The spiny red rambutan (inset) ought to be showcased in museums. It’s a fairly rare tropical fruit, fleshy and juicy like lychees, and the street reference is indeed spiny, not shiny. In a cluster, the fruits look like alien sea urchins, and they’re bright red too. Every drop of its sweet nectar is to be savoured, and the taste is incomparable, even to any other exotic fruit in Singapore. At Cookery Magic, a charming home-style, hands-on cooking workshop, our cheerful host Ruqxana handed us a bunch of the rambutans as a special treat. She also reminded us that the fruit is typical of Singapore, and unlikely to be found anywhere else. In one succulent bite, you’d be certain you’ve arrived in a land far, far away... where even the fruit seem to be from another planet.
Towers of light
The spectacular Night to Light festival, held during Singapore Art Week, hosted many night carnivals, streetwide parties (along the same tarmac stretches that also run Formula One races later in the year), along with some remarkable light and sound installations. This festival was themed ‘Invisible Cities’, with a stated aim to ‘explore alternate histories and fictional worlds that encourage us to reexamine and reimagine the city’. One highlight installation was Floating City, created by the lighting design collective, Nipek X KNOTS. Assembled in the Padang Atrium of the National Gallery, the work involved towers of light, suspended at different heights. With a gorgeously choreographed light show woven in, the display came to life every evening, like an ulterior Avatar biosphere in itself, joyously switching colours, luminous shapes and dancing shadows. Outside on the gallery’s open terrace, Chinese artist Cao Fei made a splash of sorts with her kinetic installation Fú Chá, her NG Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission — of a suspended boat, bearing the neon sign, ‘Almost Arriving’. The piece involves four different soundscapes, while addressing Cao Fei’s concerns of Southeast Asian immigrant history.
Reshaping of history
We’d be remiss here not to make a mention of the many trained docents and volunteers at the festivals, who patiently led every tour, kept visitors informed, and helped them understand the significance of the displays. Back at the National Gallery, you’re given to find out that this was once Singapore’s City Hall and Supreme Court Building, a building typical in its neoclassical architecture — with wide public stairways, columned walkways and pillared former courtrooms, not to forget the massive central dome. As it turns out, amidst all the contemporary rethinking going around, there’s some serious reimagining being done at the landmark heritage buildings as well. During the Light to Night festival — the building’s entire facade; dome, pillars, arches and the stairs included — were swathed in neon, and layered in multimedia projections and animation by young local art collectives. It’s a rare feeling to stand on the National Gallery’s stairs, and soak in so much history being rewritten all around you.
The party goes on
All this happily adds up for extended groups with schools of kids in tow, in the definite sense of quality family time. At the Playeum, Children’s Centre for Creativity, families are invited to join a hands-on exhibition, titled I-Opener, which involves body movement and packs in an interactive music installation as well. At the Scholarly Treasures interactive stations (until 22 March), in conjunction with the exhibition Living With Ink: The Collection of Dr Tan Tsze Chor at the Asian Civilisations Museum, you can step into the shoes of a Chinese scholar and even make your own hanging scrolls. Back at 2219: Futures Imagined, meanwhile, you could sign up for a trail where you’re invited to imagine finding yourself in the distant future, with very little memory of how you got there.
It’s all so much fun that you’d never think twice to describe any of this as just art, certainly not art of the donnish, ho-hum kind that can leave you more befuddled than anything else. Here, the art is meant to enliven and invigorate your senses and thoughts. And, when art turns into a cosmopolitan community exercise — the parties can’t be too far away. You might be standing at the rooftop bar of the National Gallery, looking across at the laser lights and strobes burning up the sky over the sprawling open grounds of the Padang - most of it coming from all the way across at Marina Bay Sands. It’s almost strange that you’re never overcome by any manner of FOMO sentiment, because the party is always on, everywhere around you.
Jaideep Sen was in Singapore by invitation from the Singapore Tourism Board. Visit the official websites and social media channels for info on ongoing shows at Singapore Biennale 2019, the National Gallery, the ArtScience Museum and other venues.
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