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the simple life

"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Art in a Test Tube

You will now be creative!
(Filed: 26/02/2005)

Singapore has pumped billions into new cultural projects - but can art be made in a test tube? By Peter Culshaw

Could you name a famous Singapore artist or musician? Neither could I, until I spent a few days in the city state recently. Despite a push for the arts that began a decade ago, it is still seen as a country that has had great economic success, but is rather dull and authoritarian. This is the place that famously banned chewing gum, where it is illegal to be gay, where freedom of expression is limited and there is strict censorship. Good for shopping, but not promising as a new global centre of the arts. The writer William Gibson called it "Disneyland with the death penalty".

Yet, in the past decade, around a billion Singapore dollars (£320 million) have been pumped into the arts. More and more countries are using the arts to promote themselves – recently we've had Japanese, Portuguese, Swedish, Russian and Hungarian festivals in this country. But none has attempted a social experiment on so ambitious a scale as Singapore – or started from such a relatively low point.

London's current Singapore Season 2005 is a cautious first taste of some of the results, and hopes to be part of what the organisers call the "re-imagining of the city state".

The artists that I saw who are coming to London are more than worthy of export. They include the young T'ang Quartet, a lively ensemble who have the potential to be a kind of oriental Kronos Quartet. The admirable Singapore Dance Theatre has a triple bill of Australian choreographers' work at Sadler's Wells. Perhaps the most "exciting" Singapore arts personality I met was the charismatic Ong Keng Sen, who is curating a programme of installations and video as well as a production by his own company, Theatreworks, called The Global Soul. He reminded me of one of those maverick arts types like radical director Peter Sellars or Robert Lepage; he's continually pushing what he is allowed to do in Singapore.

Most interesting musically is the Singapore Chinese Orchestra under the direction of conductor Tsung Yeh, which combines Western and Chinese instruments. It has commissioned composer Michael Nyman to create a concerto for them which will be premièred at the Barbican, and they will also be performing a Calligraphy Concerto where one of Singapore's best-known artists, Tan Swie Hian, will be creating his delicate calligraphy live at the event, projected on to a screen.

Like everything else in Singapore, the arts operation is immensely efficient. Singapore now has designated "arts belts" in places such as Little India, where support is given to subsidised artists' studios and experimental galleries with names like Plastic Kinetic Worms.

There are several reasons for all this activity in the arts. One is that Singapore's dull image was bad for tourism and for ex-pat businesses choosing where to base themselves. More significantly, an economy that was less dependent on manufacturing and more on information and software had to encourage innovation and creativity. However, there is a sense in Singapore of the development being a top-down phenomenon. One has the impression of officials giving directives: "You will now be creative! The country needs it!"

It was hard to gauge from a brief visit how repressive the country really is. Although homosexuality is illegal, there have been many plays with gay themes, and there are a lot of gay bars. Few plays have actually been banned, although writing that could inflame racial tension is seen as especially sensitive. But there does seem to be a lot of self-censorship going on. Several times when we visited arts groups, artists looked anxiously at the omnipresent representative of the National Arts Council if awkward subjects were raised. It reminded me of visiting Cuba in the '80s on an official visit when there was a Communist Party member with journalists at all times.

As the poet DJ Enright put it when he was a lecturer in Singapore, "Art does not begin in a test tube." Singapore may have the energy and resources to achieve its ambition to become a global arts centre, but there remains a sense if not exactly of fear, then of terminal uptightness.

The sense of needing the seal of approval from London also became tiring. What I was looking for was a feeling of innovation coming from Singapore; ways in which a new global city was ahead of Britain; the art that might emerge from a different cultural mix in a wired-up, futuristic city.

There are exciting plans to present an arts biennale to rival São Paulo and Venice. But much of the new art from places such as Indonesia, Hong Kong and Thailand deals with just the political and religious subjects that may clash with the cautiousness of Singapore.

Still, there were fascinating and strange collisions of music to be heard in nightclubs. And moments when I felt a real flash of the future, of what could emerge from this Blade Runner-ish fusion of technology and ancient culture. The highlight was an art installation, Andy Forever, which featured the Hong Kong action actor Andy Leow, showing death scenes from 120 of his films. The result was an evocative, poetic meditation on modern media and mortality. Just imagine what they might come up with now they can chew gum…

Singapore Season, at various venues until April 5. Info: www.singaporeseason.com

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