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What is Wrong With Public Art in Singapore?

By Guan Tan

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National Arts Council
Titled "First Generation", this sculpture by Singaporean sculptor Chong Fah Cheong was installed in 2000 by the Singapore River.

The annual instalments to this year's Art Stage and Art After Dark launched and concluded to much fanfare last month. We seem to make yearly pilgrimages to these art festivals come every January. Yet, for the rest of the year, we don't bat an eyelid at the public art that surrounds us. 

In Singapore, public art is sorted by location, namely the Central Business District, the national parks and the train stations. According to the National Arts Council, notable public art include that of international and local artists, such as the Reclining Figure by British artist Henry Moore, the Sky Mirror by Anish Kapoor, and First Generation by Chong Fah Cheong. 

The art festivals may have sprouted in the 2010s, but the institution of public art has existed since the "founding of modern Singapore," Linda Dorothy de Mello, director of visual arts development at the National Arts Council explains. 

Some of the earliest public artworks date back to the late 1800s. Recognisable public sculptures include that of Sir Stamford Raffles by the Singapore River, installed in 1887

De Mello continues to explain that the country has invested extensively in the commissioning and installation of public art for its residents. In 1988, the Public Sculpture Committee was established. Later in 1991 came the Public Sculpture Masterplan. And in 2014, the Public Art Trust was introduced. 

Despite all these efforts, it seems that public art hasn't quite gained much traction amongst the locals. Just how often do we find ourselves debating about a piece of public art over dinner—in the manner how art is supposed to incite commentary and negotiation?

National Arts Council
"Pedas Pedas" by Malaysian-born artist Kumari Nahappan.

I recall strolling past the giant red chilli sculpture, titled Pedas Pedas by Malaysian-born artist, Kumari Nahappan, sitting outside the National Museum of Singapore. "Nice, Singapore likes spicy," I thought as I walked away. It's a literal and fun reference to our culture. Cool.

Contrast it to the 2014 launch of the blue rooster by German sculptor Katharina Fritsch at the Trafalgar Square in London. The sculpture got my colleagues and I to sit on the steps nearby. We laughed and exchanged some very hilarious anecdotes of the differing attitudes (and soft spots) of British and Singaporean males. 

There were definitely risks of controversy and backlash involved in the installation of the big blue cockerel. Yet, the same risk runs in every piece of art. 

National Arts CouncilAudio sculpture titled
Audio sculpture titled "24 Hours in Singapore" by Baet Yeok Kuan, located outside the Asian Civilisations Museum.

"Public art is still art, regardless where it is shown... All art has a life, mission and character, just like anything else. These functions and qualities have been embedded by the artists that created them," Khairuddin Hori, curatorial director of Chan + Hori Contemporary quips. 

In curating public art for Singaporeans, Hori observes, "Commissioners of artworks and art projects typically pay special attention to speculations of how artworks would be received, and are especially concerned by the prospect of controversies. As a result, the integrity of the artwork is affected." 

What happens when the risks of controversy are eliminated from the public artworks? The artists and their artworks lose their distinct voice and function. The artworks arguably become pretty decoration made by highly-skilled artists. 

"To this effect, public art could merely be objects of wonder and vanity, serve as functional location [landmarks]," Hori continues. Ideally, these public artworks should "make social and political statements as how artists might have intended for them to be." 

When the essence of public art is preserved, it should "engage the public in long-term and extended conversations". Yet, the careful considerations of the public art commissioners are erasing these potential conversations. To Hori, this should no longer be a worry. "In this day and age, there should never be assumptions that the public is too naive to engage with challenging artworks." 

National Arts Council
"The Rising Moon" by Han Sai Por and Kum Chee Kiong is an abstracted representation of the Singapore flag–five stars and a crescent moon.

The institution of art has been steadily growing in Singapore. It's increasingly commonplace now. 

"The beauty with art is that there is no one way for it to be looked at... Anyone can walk away if the art repulses, or if it appears to just not make sense at the moment," Hori quips. It boils down to Singaporeans' metre for tolerance and acceptance. "Ultimately, whether or not we agree with the art that is presented, it would be good that we translate our experiences with mindful critique and perhaps, even share it in public to generate collective responses." Doing away with differing or controversial opinions does nothing to develop the country's culture of diversity. In fact, thrusting alternative opinions out there will only help the locals to learn to welcome incompatibility and accept differences.

"I believe that thoughtful and critical public responses to art are never left ignored by artists and curators. In fact, it contributes to a heightened awareness and literacy of art in public... So contemporary public art is a channel that could work to bring today's Singaporeans closer together. It also opens opportunities for a deeper understanding of others," Hori explains. 

Hori's considerations are ideal. But it doesn't work this way in Singapore—at least not yet. Urban artist Samantha Lo, or notoriously known as the 'Sticker Lady' was immediately struck down after she glued some stickers to public structures around the city in 2012. Despite being mere stickers, her work carried the weight of cultural commentary—the quintessential Singaporean way of life and history. Lo was later charged in court for mischief

Back at the interview with De Mello of the National Arts Council, she expressed the body's intents in employing public art to "foster a shared identity". De Mello adds, "As a champion of public art in Singapore, National Arts Council envisions Singapore becoming a thought leader in public art within Southeast Asia." The strategy, perhaps, was to dictate Singapore's history and heritage to its residents—case in point are the bronze sculptures of the early migrant settlers and the Samsui Woman in the Tanjong Pagar district.

Yet, when will the country allow its residents to contest for themselves, differing and controversial opinions through public art, and eventually arriving at a collective consensus on their own? There's a proverb that goes, "Iron sharpens iron". The existence of friction is inevitable and constructive. Erasing and preventing controversy and discourse from the institution of public art is as good as not commissioning public art altogether.