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> from Singapore River to NEWater [1]

Students viewing The Torture Garden (2011) by artist Lynn Lu in FUTURE FROOF at 8Q, Singapore Art Museum, 2012

Image © Khai Hori

“The conditions of contemporaneity led to the question, “What is progressive art now?” Younger artists found that the extant versions of local modern art in the 1980s, with their abstract qualities, or nostalgic recollections of the increasingly socio-culturally eviscerated and evacuated Chinatown and the Singapore River – of a Singapore that no longer existed as depicted – unable to respond to the questions they were asking. “Contemporary art” in the city-state thus became a container for a plurality of voices desiring to think through various suppressed histories and/or otherwise socio-cultural ques­tions and less pragmatic environment matters. The rethinking on modern art that Tang Da Wu brought back with him from England became that spark that set things off.”[2]


Tang Da Wu returned to Singapore after his 20 years sojourn in London in 1987 and founded The Artists Village, an artists’ commune in a farm in rural Ulu Sembawang in 1988. The Artists Village survives today as an art association and is well known for being the crucible out of which emerged some of Singapore’s most established contemporary artists such as Lee Wen, Amanda Heng, Vincent Leow, Tang Mun Kit and Koh Nguang How. Also in 1988, Chandrasekaran S., Salleh Japar and Goh Ee Choo, three graduates from the traditional Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) staged Trimurti, a multi-cultural installation and performance art project based on the Puranic principle as personified by the Indic gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The NAFA is, as opposed to The Artists Village, an art school famous for its lecturers that formed the pioneering gen­erations of modern Singapore artists such as Georgette Chen, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, Lim Hak Tai and Chen Chong Swee. In 1990, The Substation, the first independent multi-disciplinary art space was established, helmed by theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun. A year later, LASALLE graduates Suzann Victor and Han Ling together with NAFA graduate Susie Lingham[3] founded 5th Passage Artists Ltd, a non-profit visual arts company whose activities would later prove crucial to the advancement of local contemporary art.


Briefly put, The Artists Village was organised as an artists’ commune with actual studio spaces that could be converted into temporary exhibition spaces;[4] 5th Passage Artists Ltd was a visual arts company run by artists; The Substation, a multi-disciplinary, independent (although state supported) incubation and presentation platform and Trimurti, a collaborative artist’s project and exhibition.


The Artists Village artists on the cover of Sunday Plus, Singapore, 28 May 1989

The four entities mentioned above and the artists associated with them are known for their forays into installation and performance art, both nascent art­forms in the Singaporean art scene that was then mostly focused on modernist paintings and sculptures. In Singapore, it is installation and performance art that marked the contemporary turn.


The Artists Village for example, could be considered as a leader and influencer of performance art practice here, actively organising and presenting perfor­mance art both at their premises in Ulu Sembawang and ad-hoc locations such as the National University of Singapore, Cuppage Terrace, The Paragon Shop­ping Center and QU Art Society (Hong Kong) from 1989 to 1992. This includes events such as Second Open Studio Show, Art Mart, The Happenings 1 and 2 (1989), The Time Show, QU Art Support II, The Care Show and Letter A (1990), National Sculpture Seminars 1 and 2 (1991 and 1992) and The Space (1992) an undertaking that could be seen one of the peaks of the commune’s activities at the now demolished Hong Bee Warehouse as part of the fringe programme of The Singapore Arts Festival.


No less active was 5th Passage Artists Ltd and their collaborations with students, poets, writers and the less abled through projects such as Human Ethics for Animal Liberation, Our Expression and Legs – Seats of Thought (1991) and Heal Our Planet Earth, A Dialogue With Memory and Body Fields (1992). There were various performance pieces that stirred minor controversies and generated discussion and debate amongst members of the arts community prior to Brother Cane, a performance by Josef Ng on the New Year’s Eve of 1994 that resulted in a 10-year no funding policy on performance art by the National Arts Council. In 1991, Tang performed Tiger’s Whip, a commentary on the use of tiger penises as an aphrodisiac in Chinese traditional medicine on Keong Saik Street, a street lined with Chinese medical halls and brothels in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown. In 1992, as part of Body Fields, a year end event at the 5th Passage Artists space, Vincent Leow drank a cup of his own urine in Coffee Talk, a performance where he lamented the sacrifices that an artist has to make before being taken seriously by its public and where art frequently becomes an object of the maker’s own consumption.[5] In 1995, Tang performed an act of intervention during the visit of former President of Singapore, Ong Teng Cheong at the Singapore Art ’95 exhibition in The National Art Gallery. In this performance, Tang asked for permission to put on his black jacket with the words ‘Don’t Give Money To The Arts’ emblazoned on its back while later handing a note to the president that read ‘I am an artist, I am important.’ This spurred the national newspaper to carry an article headlined “Pay more at­tention to the arts: President”.[6]


Letter from artist Lee Wen to The Straits Times, Singapore, 19 Feb 1993

As mentioned earlier, these performances were at times controversial highlights that ignited many discussions and debates on social morality and questioned the notion of contemporary art amongst the culturally diverse public and arts community in Singapore.[7] Despite the initial setbacks, performance art has survived its baptism by fire. Today, there are at least two key events focused on the presentation of performance art. Firstly, there is Future of Imagination, an international performance art event that recently completed its seventh installment. This event was “initiated as a test on the resumption of funding support (after) a 10-year proscription”[8] and was founded in 2003 by artists Jason Lim, Lee Wen and Kai Lam. Second, R.I.T.E.S., “a non-profit event to platform new ideas and artists in sonic art, time-based and performance art-related practices”[9] was founded by Lee Wen and Kai Lam just over a year ago.


Performance art is an artform where the artist’s physical body and its actions are integral to the delivery of artistic intent. It was born out of a disregard for pedagogic training and traditional techniques such as those found in paint­ing and sculpture; the preference was instead for a ‘live’, more immediate and direct expression. Performance art demands a shift in perception and engagement, both by the artist and its audience. As a ‘new’ artform in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Singapore, performance art was always easily seen as “anti-social behaviour and controversial attention-seeking”[10] by the state and general public.[11] The documentation of a performative act that can be considered faithful to its form and intent is problematic, so are the teaching, censuring and control of audience response and participation. The boundaries of performance pieces are erratically set, each time according to the disposition of the individual artist. It is a form that can be practiced and executed mini­mally and in tight spaces, with the artist's body as tool. And an artist does not necessarily require a luxurious studio space filled with expensive production equipment to be a proponent of one. These minimal yet challenging demands of performance art is what makes the artform attractive to artists, particularly young and emerging ones, and those hailing from a historically young, socially restrictive, heavily constructed and space-constrained environment such as Singapore. As witnessed by Hou Hanrou in 1999, contemporary art in Singapore remains “marginalised and occasionally censured due to its lack of institutional infrastructure”. He further commented that the establishment of ‘alternative spaces’ for the arts in city ‘voids’ such as The Substation on Armenian Street offers its artists “feelings of freedom and encourage spontaneous actions and the pleasure of testing cultural, social and economic limits”[12] and it is in these spaces that artists such as “Tang started their careers, with performances on the streets”.[13]


This is Home (2010 - 2011) installation by Shah Rizzal at FUTURE PROOF

Image © Khai Hori

In the curatorial introduction of the exhibition The LASALLE School, Gunalan Nadarajan, then Dean at the Office of Research & Creative Industries at LASALLE College of the Arts described ‘the contemporary’ as having “a disposition to­wards and attention to the exigencies and conditions of the present.” He noted the conflicted ‘western’ art historical baggage that many local and essentially ‘eastern’ artists were expected to adopt as their own while later defending that “the contemporary art that has been propagated by and taught at the college has sought to equip the artists/art students with the practices and discourses that are immediately relevant to their creative production.”[14] More recently, Director of Singapore Art Museum, Tan Boon Hui made four direct propositions for looking at contemporary art from Southeast Asia. They are as follows:

1. Art must have a purpose for society

2. The persistence of narrative and use of storytelling

3. Migration and dilemmas of identity

4. The embrace of tradition and the vernacular[15]

This, according to Tan, is in direct opposition to the ‘western’ notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ where pure art is separated from didactic, ethical or utilitar­ian functions. Here is a clear rejection of any blind acceptance of a ‘western’ discourse. We understand that even in a largely immigrant, multi-cultural country like Singapore, the ethnic, Asian roots of its citizens, artists included, runs deep and can never be disregarded. Embedded within those Asian roots are relationships with the spiritual and divine, constructing the responsible, moralistic and cultured discernment that binds its communities.


French dramatist Antonin Artaud, upon seeing Balinese dancers ‘live’ at the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931, authored The Theatre and Its Double seven years later and observed that “in a spectacle like that of Balinese theater there is something that has nothing to do with entertainment, the notion of useless, artificial amusement, of an evening’s pastime which is the characteristic of our theater. The Balinese productions take shape at the very heart of matter, life, reality. There is in them something of the ceremonial quality of a religious rite, in the sense that they extirpate from the mind of the onlooker all idea of pretense, of cheap imitations of reality.”[16] Balinese theatre and dance, both described by the same native verb sesolahan, consists of a combination of song, dance, music, drama and visual spectacle, and is at once embedded in tradition, is devotional and utilitarian. The choreography of various Balinese dances and theater pieces might have changed over the years but their roots and critical function, that of ‘spiritual utility’, have not. It is an excellent example of a refined Southeast Asian artform that facilitates Tan’s four propositions.


The Straits Times, Singapore, 8 Jan 1994

In today’s post Renaissance City Plan III [17] contemporary art landscape of Sin­gapore, artists are once again launching their careers by performing on the streets and ‘voids’ such as the ones Hou mentioned. As an example, This is Home (2010-2011) an installation by Shah Rizzal, a recent graduate of LASALLE, was performed in various pockets of the city such as public carparks, open and undeveloped plots of state land and corridors of unoccupied pre-war houses. On these spaces, the artist pitched a makeshift tent made of recycled pack­ing materials barely large enough to house one person and stayed in them for several hours each time. He records these performances or actions that at times, attract the attention of the curious public including visits from the police. Although each performance is different, it carries the same message of migrant workers here in Singapore whose contributions are critical to the city’s economic progress, yet are often made to feel insecure and unwelcomed, even if a roof over their heads are provided for.


Shah’s performance embraces the non-conformist attitude, once again ques­tioning “What is progressive art now?” as quoted at the beginning of this essay. Moving in isolation with ease and fluency, he bypasses the already hollowed landscapes of Singapore River and Chinatown and the utopian and herded ideologies and communal architecture of local artists of the 1980s. The contemporary in Singapore today although seemingly individualistic, is fluid, discerning, networked and technologically adept yet still culturally rooted and concerned with pertinent socio-cultural questions of the day.





Khai Hori – Jan 2012

First published by the Singapore Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibition The Singapore Show: Future Proof.

ISBN: 978-981-07-1093-4

[1] NEWater is treated used water that has undergone stringent purification and treatment process using advanced dual-membrane (microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies. The Singapore Water Reclamation Study (NEWater Study) initiated in 1998 as a joint initiative between PUB and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR). The primary objective of the joint initiative was to determine the suitability of using NEWater as a source of raw water to supplement Singapore’s water supply (a practice known as Planned Indirect Potable Use, or IPU)., accessed 01 Dec 2011.

[2] C. J. W. L. Wee, 2009, Tang Da Wu and Contemporary Art in Singapore, The Artists Village: 20 Years On, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, p. 19

[3] Susie Lingham, 2011, A Quota On Expression: Visions, Vexations & Vanishings, Negotiating Home, History and Nation, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, p. 62

[4] The Artists Village was only officially registered as an art society under the Societies Act in February 1992.

[5] Artist urinates on stage, then drinks urine to make ‘statement’, The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings,10 January 1993, p. 22

[6] Pay more attention to the arts: President, The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings, 12 August 1995, Page 3

[7] But is this really art?, The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings, 10 January 1993, p. 22

[8] Lee Wen, Exchange, dialogue, sharing resources, connecting networks...,, accessed 1 Dec 2011

[9] Lee Wen, ibid., acessed 1 Dec 2011

[10] Lee Wen, Keep arts up with the times, letter to The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings, 19 February 1993, p. 53

[11] Artist who performed ‘vulgar act’ arrested, The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings, 8 January 1994, p. 3.

The article reported the arrest of artist Josef Ng for committing an indecent act under Section 294 of the Penal Code during his performance Brother Cane at 5th Passage Artists space as part of a week-long performance event organised by 5th Passage Artists Ltd and The Artists Village. The report also cited the National Arts Council as condemning the act, calling it ‘vulgar and completely disgraceful’.

[12] Hou Hanrou, 1999, Transparency, complexity, void and action, City/Community: Singapore art today, National Arts Council and National Heritage Board, Singapore, p. 12

[13] Hou, 1999, ibid.

[14] Gunalan Nadarajan, 2004, The LASALLE School: 20 Years of Fine Arts from LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore, p. 11

[15] Tan Boon Hui, 2011, Four Propositions: Looking at contemporary art from Southeast Asia, Negotiating Home, History and Nation, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, p. 29

[16] Antonin Artaud, 1958, On Balinese Theater, The Theatre and its Double, Grove Press, New York, p. 60

[17] Published and undertaken by Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts in 2008, mapped out from 20 years of continuous study, the series of Renaissance City plans and reports was prescribed “to transform Singapore into a distinctive global city for the arts, where arts and culture would make Singapore an attractive place to work, live and play, contribute to the knowledge and learning of every Singaporean, and provide cultural ballast for nation-building efforts”.

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