Monday, July 18, 2011

Singapore’s changing art and cultural profile

Called a ‘cultural desert’ too many times to count, the Lion City has never been associated with the thriving art and design scenes of places like Jakarta or Bangkok. Rather, it’s seen as a bastion of sanitized, chewing-gum-free efficiency, admired for its modernity and order in otherwise chaotic Southeast Asia.

Tracing Singapore’s changing art and cultural profile, The New York Times essayist, Naomi Lindt, mentions: It’s a place where creative expression hasn’t been cultivated. In efforts to protect its power, the People’s Action Party, which has dominated politics since the republic’s establishment in 1965, has enforced strict speech laws that affect everything from freedom of the press to performance art.

Such entrenched stodginess, critics say, has come at the price of authenticity. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas infamously used Singapore to illustrate his term the “generic city” in a 1996 Wired interview, and even Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister, said that a Singaporean culture was unlikely to emerge anytime soon, according to an article in The Straits Times in 2006.

Many of those involved in the independent cultural scene — including Rojak’s 34-year-old founder, the architect Torrance Goh — are working on a grassroots level to create an authentic cultural identity for the city-state.

“Many Singaporeans are playing with new ways of examining themselves, and I wanted to create a platform for that,” said Mr. Goh. “The system doesn’t allow for spontaneity, so we are bypassing the patronage network and doing it ourselves in overlooked, public spaces.” Other recent locations of the six-year-old event have included the offices of an ad agency and a backstreet in the Little India neighborhood.

Chun Kaifeng, 29, an artist whose intricately assembled installations of mundane domestic scenes earned him the Singapore Art Exhibition Prize in 2009, recently participated in a group show organized by Valentine Willie Fine Art entitled “Beyond LKY,” which examined life after Mr. Lee, Singapore’s most powerful figure. The Valentine Willie gallery is one of several contemporary art spaces that have recently popped up in a warehouse in the Tanjong Pagar Distripark.

In fact, a series of exhibitions are featuring paintings, drawings, installations and photographs that explore topics like the immigration and national identity, something that can incur fines and prosecution by the government.

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