Essays

Everything Points Inward: Capitalism and Its Discontents at an Art Fair in Singapore

Art Stage Singapore’s tagline is “We Are Asia,” but the fair’s dream of representing all of Asia’s art is just that — a dream.

Marina Bay Sands mall, connected to the Convention Centre where Art Stage was held (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

SINGAPORE — I first came to Singapore because of a long layover on a cheap flight. Given the city’s position — a regionally strategic center of trade — its ports have been major hubs since its founding in 1819 by British traders. So I arrived there by happenstance but chose to extend my stay out of curiosity.

Now I find myself once more passing through and around Singapore’s hubs, more purposefully this time, but perhaps drawn by the same gravity. SA SA BASSAC, the gallery where I work, was invited by curator Nadia Ng to participate in the Art Stage Singapore fair as part of her group exhibition Net Present Value: Art, Capital, Futures, an impressive institutional critique of the failures of capitalism. The show is embedded within the fair, which is under the Marina Bay Sands Mall, inside a city made and defined by unfettered capitalism. It’s the beginning of 2017; Trump will soon take office, Duterte has kill squads, we’re all reeling from Brexit, #blacklivesmatter is ascendant, and nothing really surprises anymore.

Marina Bay Sands mall

Art Stage’s tagline this year is “We Are Asia.” Being based in Cambodia, I found this repulsive. A pop-up market of contemporary luxury goods being sold to a wealthy elite doesn’t begin to encapsulate the diversity of languages, countries, and cultures of the region, not to mention the many kinds of artistic spaces and projects embedded therein, all of which are largely unseen at Art Stage. Like Singapore’s mega-city aspirations of being the center of Asia, the fair’s dream of representing all of Asia’s art is just that — a dream.

However, we might find a hint of truth within the marketing of this undeniably important regional arts fair. As an (allegedly) neutral, efficient, modern, and tax-enticing hub that is simultaneously best friends with both China and the U.S., Singapore’s centrality undoubtedly serves Art Stage’s function, or at least its aspirations. 

And thus, here I am, in a borrowed suit jacket and never-worn dress shoes. I play the game the Hub demands we play. I explain the intricacies of three artists’ work to the wealthy, cultured elite in a succinct, intelligent, and ultimately enticing manner. I sweet-talk them, hoping something catches their fancy, that they will buy it and hang it in one of their homes like a trophy.

I didn’t sell a thing.

Afterward, I was dejected. My feet hurt from standing for eight hours in Cambodian knock-off Versace shoes. I felt a sense of failure for not selling combined with a general unease about having participated at all. Art fairs and the “art market” (as if it is one monolithic entity) had felt so far from me these few years in Cambodia. The blue-chip gallery and collector-controlled scene I’d decided to leave five years prior felt like it had reemerged once more. Or perhaps I realized I’d never ventured as far away from it as I’d thought.

Marina Bay at night

Seeking a distraction, late that night I walked home, through a city that was all lights. I took pleasure in the lush and elegantly manicured parks. Then, near the Civilian War Memorial, I turned a corner to find maybe 30 workers hurriedly power-washing and scrubbing the sidewalk. Another group pruned the trees. It was nearly midnight.

They looked exhausted and paused only long enough to not wet my faux-leather shoes as I passed. They were all dark-brown skinned, certainly darker than the Art Stage “We Are Asia” average. They were polishing the glistening Hub while its true benefactors slept. Maybe it’s unfair or racist, but I assumed they were here as temporary workers. I assumed they would be sending as much of their salaries home, to whatever country where they held citizenship, as they could afford, before they, too, were sent home. That many of them would never become proper residents or citizens, even while making the whole Hub spin.

Suddenly my weariness felt petty. My shoes and jacket — my disguise for Art Stage — suddenly stuck out like the dirt these men battled daily. Surely this Art Stage, this city, could never be considered representative of Asia! But then, sadly, reflecting on the region’s rapid, unchecked development amid human-rights violations and dramatic income inequality, I conceded that, yes, perhaps it could. Singapore is the city of Southeast Asia’s imagined futures — nightmares and fantasies alike. Like Art Stage’s tagline, the aspirations of the core become haunting dreams of the periphery.   

In 2010, Singapore’s non-residents (those allowed to stay for a time but who are not afforded the legal benefits provided by the state to citizens) accounted for 25.7 percent of the population. That’s 1,305,011 human beings. Should a foreign worker become pregnant, she can be deported. Furthermore, “Singapore offers no minimum wage for its migrant population, and little in the way of legislative protection. Union representation is extremely limited, and organized public demonstrations — unless you are a Singaporean citizen — are banned.” Workers are at the whims of their employers, with all-too-commonplace reports of abysmal health coverage, especially for accidents, late wages, low wages, and more.

Kent Chan, “If Not, Accelerate” (2016), installation view

What the facts failed to tell, I ironically (or perhaps spectacularly?) found glimpses of in a few artworks in Net Present Value: Art, Capital, Futures. “If Not, Accelerate,” (2016) is a two-channel video by Kent Chan, where we see two men silently riding across Singapore in the back of a truck from one side of Singapore to the other, near their dormitories. The other channel, shot simultaneously from outside the truck, reveals the two men filming. The side of the truck is outfitted with neon lights reading “Better Life Later,” which is part of the installation “Bright Lights (Better Life Later)” (2016), also found in the darkened room, facing the video projection.

Below the two channels runs text, we assume from an interview between the artist (the questions are written beneath the frame with the cameramen) and these two men (where the replies are written), though that is never explicitly stated. The text centers around riding in the truck: the feeling, what is seen, the safety.

If Singapore is the center of Asia, and Art Stage is Asia’s art fair, then those construction workers could be Singapore’s forsaken mascot. People are never silent; rather they are ignored, inadmissible to dominant systems of classification. In Singapore there is a gaping absence, a missing presence of all the millions who have been forcibly kept out. As these two men are driven through the city, the neon sign brings the daily act into the realm of public performance, or even protest. Singapore is being called to actually see these men, to consider what sacrifices they might bear. These moments where those at the periphery come into focus is a violent rupture. Kent Chan’s installation is one such moment.  

Tintin Wulia, “Untold Movements – Act 1: Neitherland, Whitherland, Hitherland” (2015), installation view

We see this further explored in Tintin Wulia’s work, “Untold Movements – Act 1: Neitherland, Whitherland, Hitherland” (2015), in the same exhibition. Wulia invites us through a darkened room with black cloth pillars broadcasting stories of detainment and arrest at borders around the world. As the editor of Art Monthly, Michael Fitzgerald, writes, the 32-channel sound installation “speaks of the shadow land of globalisation, of souls lost in displacement and hovering between states and national borders.”

Walking through “Untold Movements” in the casino-esque Marina Bay Sands is another rupture, similar to coming across the construction workers the night before. While the installation fails to entirely transport, it comes closer than I thought possible, given the context. It’s deeply jarring.

If Art Stage is Asia, then Wulia’s work is where an unconscionable number of Asians find themselves: in the dark spaces between the states and their laws. This is a space I have never known as a white US citizen, but one Wulia has experienced viscerally, somewhere on the edge of Germany.

On my first visit to Singapore, my then-girlfriend (now my wife) was detained at the airport for three hours of questioning. Arriving in Singapore as a young Cambodian woman is near-evidence of the intention to illegally immigrate. The police took her phone and her passport and wouldn’t let us talk or see each other. For three hours she was stateless, trapped in a place between, in some dark corner of the Hub.  Still in Asia, but not a participant. She was there in Wulia’s installation — not so much a metaphor as a description.

I deeply commend Nadia Ng for organizing such an exhibition at this moment, in this context. I have a lot more I could say about the work and show, but as a participant, maybe I’m too biased. Either way, the context strikes me. As the number of refugees grows worldwide and a slow global environmental collapse builds, will cities like Singapore, and fairs like Art Stage, be forced to finally contend with the real world? Or will we isolate even more, as with Brexit, with Trump?

A view of Singapore from Gardens by the Bay

My first time in Singapore, the city was awash in a thick haze. Indonesia, just to the south, was slash-burning their land, destroying immeasurable biodiversity in favor of more profitable mono-crop plantations. According to the World Bank, “Daily emissions from Indonesia’s fires in October 2015 exceeded the emissions from the entire US economy… more than 15.95 million tons of CO2 emissions per day.” Singapore caught much of that smoke. The Hub of trade that created the tiny, posh island nation had to finally contend with what all that trade meant. People were told to stay inside and wear masks. The Hub was burning at the fringes.

At the center of Singapore, everything points inward. Marina Bay is the only bay I’ve been to in the world that doesn’t feature the ocean. Everything invites us to focus our attention on the rest of the city. As I flew home, I noticed that just outside of the bay, there are hundreds of shipping and oil tankers waiting to be filled or emptied. We aren’t supposed to see them. We are supposed to forget where they came from and what they signal for this planet. We are supposed to shop.

Maybe Net Present Value demands that we do more. Maybe Ng managed to put the radical potential of art into an art-fair context. I hope so. But it’s clear skies in Singapore now, so maybe it’s all just business as usual.

Net Present Value: Art, Capital, Futures was held at Art Stage Singapore (254 South Bridge Road, #02-01) from January 12–15.

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