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The Small Beginnings of Pop Art in Singapore

By Guan Tan

An artwork by Singapore-based artist, Iskander Walen,
 
Iskander Walen
An artwork by Singapore-based artist, Iskander Walen,

"The original pop art movement is older than Singapore," Iskander Walen laughs. The 47-year-old Dutch artist is based in Singapore and considers himself part of the emerging pop art community here. "The pop art community is still developing. I don't think it's a true community yet," he continues. 

To him, there are merely "ten professional artists in Singapore who create work that can be considered pop art". Yet, from his observation, the public's reception to pop art has been optimistic. "Pop art is really popular in Singapore because of its accessibility." 

By that, Walen is indirectly referring to the commonplace notion that art is elitist and placed on a pedestal, out of reach of the general public. "Fine art's function really, is to elevate us to a less material plane, where we can let our imagination play freely and grow. But often, fine art can be intimidating or plain confusing."

Justin LeeA silkscreen on print by local artist, Justin Lee's Tin can series.
A silkscreen on print by local artist, Justin Lee's Tin can series.

Walen continues, "Pop art, on the other hand, can be really fun. Pop artists generally have a sense of humour... They are not afraid to make people laugh with their work. That sets the viewer at ease. If the artist isn't afraid to look silly, maybe it's okay for the viewer to look silly for not knowing exactly what this or that piece is actually about." 

For that, Walen reckons pop art is a good starting point for Singaporeans to ease their way into art appreciation. "It will appeal to people and they will explore further."

Take Walen's own pop art, for instance, he has mimicked a can soup label that brazenly announces, "Papa Lee's Preserved Nostalgia". It responds to Singapore's loss of her founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In his other works, Walen reflects on the "very odd societal norms and values" that he's observed in Singapore, "such as nudity. In entertainment [it's] taboo but murder is an acceptable subject for entertainment." 

Leo Liu XuanqiAcrylic on canvas from Leo Liu Xuanqi's Vessel series, a commentary on Singapore's materialistic culture.
Acrylic on canvas from Leo Liu Xuanqi's Vessel series, a commentary on Singapore's materialistic culture.

In another local artist's, Leo Liu Xuanqi, pop art repertoire, he weighs up the material-driven culture in Singapore. "[Liu] adds this little rubber duck to all these branded goods. Branded goods are, of course, prized possessions in Singapore—too much so I think," Walen explains. 

The function of pop art, therefore, is "reflective. But without taking a clear position for or against." The artworks pull up societal behaviours or values and thrust it into the face of the viewer humorously, forcing them to contemplate. "As all art, it is to enrich our visual palate, to enlarge our intellectual playground, and to bring joy and wonder." 

Iskander WalenThe pop art exhibition titled 'Instant Fame' will open from 17 through 22 January 2018 at the Visual Arts Center.
The pop art exhibition titled 'Instant Fame' will open from 17 through 22 January 2018 at the Visual Arts Center.

Yet, the city hasn't had the chance to fully engage with pop art—not until now. To Walen, the crop of local artists dabbling in pop art is "fresh and exciting... These artists are at the top of their game... They have mastered their chosen artistic technique to translate their findings into exquisite artworks." That aside, "pop art in Singapore is not repeating what those who came before did." 

Walen has brought together a group of seven local artists—including himself—in a pop art exhibition titled 'Instant Fame'. "The artists in this exhibition are aware of the history, the earlier creations by the pop art greats. But rather than copying they [have] developed new techniques, are bolder with the ideas and themes." He seems optimistic about the emergence of pop art in Singapore. "I wanted to connect with these other artists, to take the first step at creating a community and hopefully start an art movement within Singapore."

'Instant Fame' opens from 17 through 22 January 2018 at the Visual Arts Center, 10 Penang Road. Admissions are free. 

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