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More museum, less mall


NEW HORIZONS: 'Power Boy (Mekong)' by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Forget its marts for a bit. Singapore also wants to talk art.

In the eighties, Singapore was about smuggling a Panasonic VHS player through the green channel at Sahar airport. In the nineties, it was about pigging out at its food courts. The last decade was about the bitch trip, i. e. , speed shopping and fine dining en route to Bintan or Bali. But through the years, two things have remained constant with the citystate. Singapore still suffers from an admirable OCD to be squeaky clean. And its citizens remain staunch followers of a common religion - the cult of artifice. But life in plastic is not as fantastic - or so the Singapore Arts Council believes. Serious efforts are on to promote the nation as an arts hub. The recently concluded Art Stage Singapore is good evidence of this.

In the convention hall of the Marina Bay Sands resort, a recreational oasis that Indians are increasingly getting obsessed with, 121 galleries presented art from across the globe, including Australia. Geopolitically, Australia is still to make up its mind on whether it belongs to Asia or to the Caucasian coterie of the Commonwealth. But it is precisely this sort of schizophrenia that is welcome at Art Stage. Why merely import Hermes from Paris and casinos from Las Vegas when the world's artists are up for grabs? Likewise, in keeping with Singapore's insatiable appetite for Occidental pop, Sundaram Tagore gallery had on display the last available edition of Annie Leibovitz's iconic photograph of a pregnant Demi Moore posing in the buff. The photograph was commissioned by Vanity Fair magazine in 1991, way back when Demi Moore and Bruce Willis still represented a rare species: a happy, monogamous duo in the precarious world of Hollywood marriages. Then Demi became Cougar Number One. The last edition of such a photograph boasts a certain vintage. Priced at $46, 000 and with the gallery already in talks with a potential buyer, it was further proof that Singapore's art world is pregnant with possibilities.

Singapore is also cautiously colonising unlikely zones for art consumption: former colonial buildings of its Supreme Court and City Hall are being renovated to open a 60, 000-square-metre museum of Southeast Asian and Singaporean art in 2015. And given Singapore's OCD with precision, 2015 means 2015. Meanwhile, in September last year, Gillman Barracks, an army camp from World War II, morphed into a cluster of galleries. One among these, Future Perfect, was presenting Fiction, a mini-retrospective of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Weerasethakul, whose film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 2010, is equally dextrous with video and photography and Faith, his split-screen homage to science fiction, was hypnotic.

Singapore's robust maritime trade is providing another outlet for its art fetish. Artspace@Helutrans, for instance, is quite literally in the docks. The warehouses that might once have stored crates of Kraft cheese or Sharp washing machines are now home to galleries such as Akkan Art International, which was showcasing some funky Japanese fare. Meanwhile, a stone's throw away from Changi airport, Free Port Singapore is a facility with James Bond-proof vaults to allow museums and collectors to bank paintings and installations worth millions without worrying about an Ocean's Eleven-style heist.
Transforming the image of Singapore from a titanic shopping mall into a global arts destination will not happen overnight. Too many precious dollars come into its treasury thanks to Shopaholics Anonymous and there is tough competition from the Arabs who also want to be perceived as a cultured lot. Both are affluent parts of the globe grappling with the tricky issue of their citizens' right to free speech, a necessary ingredient for the creation of intelligent indigenous art. Yet my tour guide, Naseem Huseni, an enthusiastic old hand at providing relocation services to fresh-off-the-boat expats, reveals a slow turn in the way Singaporeans are perceiving their free time nowadays. "Earlier, if expat clients wanted their privacy in exploring a neighbourhood without my guidance, I would drop them and go shopping before they called me again. But now that I am older I don't think shopping is my thing anymore. " The Singapore Arts Council would be delighted.

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