ART HIGH AND LOW IN UNLIKELY PLACES
EMINENT PLAZA - EX-HAUNT of businessmen braggarts and KTV girls in heels—was about to fall, and the artists were dancing on its grave. So it seemed, anyway, when I popped round for a look: massage parlours were lined with portraiture, and tiled walls from the 80s dribbled insignia like something out of a minor delinquent’s daydream. Someone had printed “stairway to heaven” over an escalator, a cheeky hat-tip to the building’s past.
This is an example of takeover art—where creatives stand before an unlikely physical canvas, and are given a small window of time to remake the functional. It's a curatorial persuasion imbued with special appeal—witness the love poured out for OH! Open House, Alan Oei’s walking tours that put sophisticated artwork into HDB blocks, and spread it over the CBD. Or the latest Singapore Night Festival, where half the island squeezed its way down to Bras Basah to watch live performances unfold in the steady, equatorial swelter.
To me, at least, this attraction seems inevitable. In Singapore, we love takeover art because it breaches an especially firm dichotomy between high and low, the laudable and censurable.
Wouldn’t you say? On one hand, size hasn’t stopped us from birthing new galleries; our best artists are deservedly extolled, and given brisk grants. Their work is squired into showrooms, which are themselves tucked away in odd little enclaves like Gillman Barracks and Dempsey Hill. ‘Good’ art, in this rubric of taste, is cerebral and universal, divorced from the primary colours of hoi polloi existence. It is Charles Lim at the Biennale and Annie Leibovitz on tour; everything lined up on the clean white walls that can pose intelligently, and mouth noli me tangere.
And then there is “street art”, that deverbal pairing which brings to mind the brusque tang of locality, young men at *SCAPE wielding aerosol cans. Unlike its galleried equivalent, this is a branch of art still tinted with transgression since it encroaches, ever so shyly, on the sacrosanct realm of the ‘public’. Remember what happened to the sticker lady, SKL0? Of course, it doesn’t help that unschooled Singaporean art has a history of baring its teeth for politics— in the ‘50s, Chinese student protestors were making galleries of their middle school halls way before the whole exercise was cool.
The upshot of all this is that high art seems atas and street art does not; street art looks political, high art does not. And I suspect that in Singapore, it is the very solidity of these definitions that laces guerilla art with frisson. For in a project like Eminent Plaza, what we get is the abrupt equalisation of these opposites-in-name. Monetisable paintings meet wallside scribbles, and for a glorious moment, there is no disjunction between the two; punk can link hands with the pick of the buyers’ guide. When placards bearing dirty Hokkien jokes chum about with found art abstractions, Kant’s nebulous rubric ceases to inform us which object should live in a museum, and which in a school sketchbook. And so we are reminded that real ‘art’ has never had just one set of unalterable meanings, not even here in Singapore; it is an expansive domain, indefinitely growing. Wide as the space we are willing to give it.