My fears that 2022 would be as depressing as 2021 both did and did not come true. We all breathed easier with relaxed restrictions and there is (finally) a new museum definition now. #CultureCarriesOn, right after we clean the soup off celebrated paintings and take in some Important Messages from our Big Oil and AI art generator overlords. /s /jk
Amidst the madness of Singapore Art Week (SAW) 2022, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) made its comeback at Tanjong Pagar Distripark. Creepy mannequins and musical mushrooms, among other things, welcomed guests to the museum’s housewarming party.
With its new exhibition and office spaces, SAM’s days of couch-surfing at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) and National Museum of Singapore (NMS) are over. The new space also arrived in time for
the Singapore Biennale 2022 Natasha, which will get its own roast later in the roundup.
Just as SAM made its comeback at the start of the year, 2022 closes with yet another returning museum. Or rather, a brand new one. In place of the Singapore Philatelic Museum comes Singapore’s first (and probably only) Children’s Museum. Not to worry, stamp nerds, the stamps are still there.
Though, the museum rules state that grown-ups can only enter with a child, so you will either have to be a kid again or get your child or younger family member to bring you in. No, your inner child does not count.
On the other end of the balance sheet, the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) closed for renovations in October. Cerita, the Centre’s final special exhibition, was a highlight reel of its past showcases on various aspects of Malay history and culture. MHC also threw a month-long going-away party called ClosingFest for itself before shutting its doors till 2025.
Two dinosaurs for the price of one
Like last year’s fiasco over that inflatable
dead Mickey Mouse ripoff KAWS sculpture at the Marina Bay Floating Platform (which has since been resolved), 2022 brought us some exhibition drama as well.
In October, auction house Christie’s presented Shen, the fossilised skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, in a much-publicised and well-attended exhibition at the Victoria Concert Hall. The dinosaur was slated to be sold at an autumn auction in Hong Kong.
There was just one tiny problem: some of Shen’s bones appeared to be copies from another Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. Christie’s had no choice but to take an L and withdraw Shen from the auction. In any event, those of us who queued to see Shen managed to catch two dinosaurs in one visit, so that’s a win right there.
Asian Civilisations Museum’s (ACM) bruh moments
Still on the topic of drama, ACM ran into some trouble not once but twice in 2022. Given the relative calm of Singapore’s museum scene, it is very hard to ignore ACM’s pair of news-making incidents.
First up is the firestorm in March over the
pretty racist “race-related” gaffe made by local fashion designer Priscilla Ong Shunmugam in a Facebook webinar hosted by the museum.
In the interest of space, I will not repeat the comments or the spirited responses here. I will say that it would have been better if the acclaimed designer had just said that she liked working with cheongsams and left it at that. I’d like to think that everyone likes a nice dress and design.
There was also some hubbub in August over a 17th-century bronze religious icon in ACM’s collection that was claimed to have been stolen from a village in Nepal. This is not the first time ACM has had to deal with supposedly stolen artworks. While the jury is still out on the Nepalese icon’s actual status, the incident is a reminder to all that if an artwork’s provenance is suspect, do not collect.
These foul-ups aside, 2022 was hardly a total train wreck for ACM. It celebrated its 25th anniversary by acquiring some nice photographs and showing off some stunning drip and other beautiful things. No hard feelings, ACM; I love you guys and I hope the feeling is (still) mutual.
Moving on from firestorms, Gillman Barracks’ 10th anniversary passed with nary a whisper. There was a busy Art Day Out to mark the occasion, but it felt muted compared to what the event was before the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s clear the enclave had taken a beating from the pandemic; three galleries had left over the past two years. Four, if we count Pearl Lam Galleries in 2019.
Perhaps that’s why the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and my besties at the National Arts Council (NAC) announced rejuvenation plans. After all, there is nothing like the Singaporean urge to upgrade things to fix them. Tenders called for “creative lifestyle concepts”, pitching
fancy wet markets farmers’ markets and electric vehicle charging stations (among other things) to align with whatever SLA and NAC think will bring the crowd in these days.
Even with these plans, the challenge of getting people to drop by Gillman Barracks persists. The enclave remains a good ten-minute walk from the nearest MRT station at Labrador Park, and it is not along the way to anywhere else. Gillman Barracks also faces a nascent rivalry with Tanjong Pagar Distripark, which has been tipped to become another arts cluster in Singapore.
For now, and for all of its faults, Gillman Barracks remains one of the main places to go to see contemporary art in Singapore (besides SAM, of course). Sadly, the only way it will remain so is for the government to keep pouring resources into it with no expectation of any substantial returns anytime soon.
DO YOU FEEL OLD YET? The Exhibition
One of my favourite exhibitions of 2022 has been from NMS. OFF/ON: Everyday Technology that Changed our Lives, 1970s – 2000s presents gadgets used by Singaporeans of yesteryear. Typewriters, Nintendo gaming consoles, and the virtually indestructible Nokia 3310 handphone appear in beautifully designed set pieces to remind those of us who used these items just how old we are getting.
Given how close the 1970s to 2000s are to the present day, the period is an oft-overlooked area of Singapore’s history that deserves its day in the sun. Off/On also shows how everyday items are worthy of being in museum collections. I am all for NMS having Singapore history exhibitions like this, instead of doing yet another thing with an animated blue cat with a bottomless pouch.
Our 2022 roundup of museums and visual arts events would be incomplete without a look at
the Singapore Biennale 2022 Natasha. You read that right: the massive international art exhibition has a name, and all I have are questions. Why Natasha? Why not Jia Ying or Nurul or Naga? OR EVEN SAM?!
the Biennale Natasha is huge. Kind of like SAW, except (thankfully) spread out over six months. It’s not just the amount of art that gets me; almost every one of the works demands more than a passing sliver of attention from visitors.
For one, there is enough reading to fill a module reading list. Some honourable mentions for this include the Nina bell F. House Museum’s resource corners being stocked with critical theory; Alfian Sa’at waxing lyrical about plants in the Malay language; and a library and literal book reading corner by Heman Chong and Renée Staal at International Plaza.
There are also artworks that need some background knowledge, having been inspired by history and personal mythologies. As a history nerd, I quite liked exploring the Middle East’s ancient and recent histories through artists like Raed Ibrahim, Doa Aly, and Walid Raad. Zarina Muhammad reflects on the past lives of her installation’s location at
St John’s Island Pulau Sekijang Bendera. And there is also Natasha Tontey’s queer and tender reimagining of an aggressive, hyper-masculine Minahasa ritual. Yes, you can’t have a thing called Natasha without involving an actual Natasha.
With so much to process, relating to Natasha thus feels like an extended talking stage with someone who is aloof, nerdy, and anxious to impress. Still, no one becomes friends with anyone after just one meeting. Ticketed admission notwithstanding, Natasha beckons us to say hi to them again and again until they leave in March 2023. I just wonder if the first impression was already too much for some of us to take.
What about 2023?
Nature is healing but COVID is still in the air. What is not up in the air, though, is ART SG, the long-delayed mega art fair taking place in the final weekend of SAW 2023.
Yes, 2023 will begin with SAW, and it will have a S.E.A. Focus, a Light To Night Festival, and Gillman Barracks hitting its footfall target for the entire year. Yes, I will keep complaining that SAW should run for three weekends to anyone who will listen, especially if they are from NAC.
Also slated to happen in 2023 are the homecoming show for the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the reopening of several museums. Namely, that of the Navy Museum and the Peranakan Museum, to name a few.
Until these happen, stay safe, mask up, drink water, and touch grass. Live long and prosper, and may the Force be with you all.