I was recently at the very ambitious-sounding ‘Making a great art museum: Contending with Southeast Asian modernities and art” symposium so-organised by The National Heritage Board and Institute of Policy Studies (click ‘here‘ for more info). It was basically a session to help the National Art Gallery of Singapore gather info so that it can make itself a ‘great museum’. Hmmmm…….
And true to form, some of the art-academics presented papers that were more appropriate for a symposium named ‘I don’t care what the theme of the symposium is, but I’m have a PhD damnit and I’ll say whatever I want even if it is not relevant at all’.
One of the better speakers is Oscar Ho Hing-kay from Hong Kong (click ‘here‘). His point is quite blunt: ‘Art’ is after all about ‘free human expressions’; such freedoms, then, would have an awkward place in art-museums that are administered and funded by conservative civil servants, who by virtue of their work tend to avoid risks as much as possible. How then can The National Art Gallery of Singapore strive to be a ‘great’ art museum – where artists can freely express themselves – if it is funded by the Singapore government which is well-known for all its restrictions/censorship on certain things to do with sex, religion, governance, ethnicity, gangs etc?
I am not even talking about the extremes of art here, where blood, violence, pre-pubescent sex/nudity, blasphemy are already commonplace in international contemporary art. In Singapore, artists:
1) CANNOT distort the Singapore flag in their artworks. Justin Lee’s artwork – where ‘double happiness’ in Chinese characters in red replace the red portion of the flag – was banned from display (click ‘here‘),
2) CANNOT display gay magazines as part of a non-erotic installation. Fujiwara’s work at Singapore Art Museum was ‘closed’ without his knowledge, because someone at the museum was afraid the mags would offend (click ‘here‘),
3) CANNOT perform plays that deal with sensitive issues, even if they are real. A local play -Talaq – about domestic violence in Indian-Muslim households was staged but later banned (click ‘here‘)
4) CANNOT show make films that contain songs of local gangs and expect them to be shown in full here. Royston Tan’s ’15’ is probably one of our best-made films. It got international accolades, but sadly, the film was only shown in full overseas, as Singapore audiences saw a heavily-censored version (click ‘here‘), and
5) CANNOT make caricatures of our politicians even in the name of ‘art’, even though our Straits Times happily prints caricatures of foreign leaders. The Singapore Art Museum tore up a Hong Kong artist’s caricatures of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong prior to an opening. Again, this was done without the knowledge of the artist (click ‘here‘).
And mind you, the above artists were those who dared to push the envelope. Imagine how many Singapore artists are creating ‘self-censoring’ artworks because they do not want to cross the government?
By all means, TNAGS will be a ‘great’ museum, at least in terms of being housed in a grand old building, inside and out. Whether it would become a museum known for ‘great’ artworks and curation amidst a government-controlled setting remains to be seen…..