Story highlights

Singapore's diverse mix of cultures has bridged art forms

Strong museum culture is a growing platform for artists

Artist Charles Lim represents Singapore at the Venice Biennale, and shows a side of Singapore that few have seen

CNN  — 

Singapore celebrated its 50th anniversary in August with the sort of ritzy fanfare we have come to expect of the cosmopolitan city-state.

Tiny but mighty, Singapore has succeeded as a formidable economic power since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1963. But while its reputation as an Asian finance hub is well known, there’s more to Singapore than making money.

The city-state’s art and culture sectors are today thriving. Official statistics from Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth show that its government has significantly increased its funding for arts and heritage, growing from SG$ 280.6 million (US$ 202.6 million) in 2010 to SG$ 427.3 million (US$ 308.6 million) in 2013.

That stimulus has resulted in the opening of dozens of international galleries and museums, and the rise of Art Stage Singapore and Affordable Art Fair Singapore, which together, brought in approximately 65,000 visitors earlier this year.

Art Basel in Hong Kong and related citywide events during the week may still draw in more crowds and collectors, but Singapore’s status as a cultural destination is gaining traction, as is its authority on Southeast Asian art.

Cultural fusion bridges new art forms

Deputy CEO Paul Tan, of the National Arts Council, a government body overseeing arts, estimates that Singapore offers over 70 cultural events daily – impressive for any world city.

“Unlike Hong Kong, Singapore has a more diverse population. There’s the influence of Malay, Indian arts, old Asian roots and connections. Yet, we also have a Western, cosmopolitan outlook that is reflected in the range of arts we fund,” says Tan.

A projected visual art installation entitled Divine Trees by French artist Clement Briend was on display during the Singapore Night Festival in 2014. The annual festival features art installations and performances from local and international artists.

“There’s space for fusion, a bridging of art forms that are unique in Singapore and also play within the context of Singapore.”

Strong museum culture

Beyond diversity, Singapore has a strong museum culture, something that rival Hong Kong currently lacks in the arts. That’s beginning to change, with the growing presence of M+, Hong Kong’s new institution for visual culture. M+ will open its physical museum building in 2019.

As important to Singapore, has been its push to draw high-caliber curatorial talent.

The National Gallery Singapore will open in November 2015. The new visual arts institution will house the world's largest public collection of modern arts in Singapore and Southeast Asia from the 19th century to the present day.

Ute Meta Bauer, who is the founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, says the city-state’s robust education system, also makes it stand out from other cities:

“From my perspective, the education in arts and related fields have a high infrastructure – so you see very informed artists. There’s access to production, and there’s support by the state.”

She continues: “Performance is not quite free (from censorship), but society is opening up and it’s a really good moment to be here,” says Bauer.

In the past, artworks and performances have been banned or censored by Singapore’s Media Development Authority – which is tasked with duties such as approving publications and arts and entertainment licenses.

Like other Asian cities, Singapore’s rapid development and growth of society has challenged residents to reflect on its young and ever-evolving identity.

“There’s a certain degree of anxiety,” Bauer observes. “And artists, as political voices, are addressing the fragile relationship between the nation and a critical voice.”

Singapore: What Lies Beneath

Singaporean artist Charles Lim is one of those voices: “Singapore – it’s so much about projecting a future – with all these master-plans.”

“As an artist, I am trying to say, I don’t want to deal with the future. I want to deal with what’s happening now. From there, we can see what modernity means, but in context.”

For Lim, that means exploring Singapore’s expansion, from its underbelly – the sea.

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A look at artist Charles Lim's Sea State
01:21 - Source: Charles Lim

The former Olympic sailor has spent the last ten years working on his nine-part series Sea State.

Sea State appears as a collection of film, photographs, maps, and objects. It investigates topics challenging Singapore, such as land reclamation, its geopolitical topography, and the island’s seafaring roots.

Lim and curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa of the National Gallery Singapore were selected to present Sea State in the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2015.

That he represents Singapore at the Biennale is poignant, as it’s one of the most respected platforms for artists and can catapult careers to an international level.

But at home, Lim worries that a growing interest in Singapore’s art market will compromise young, local artists, who may feel the pressures of making work that will sell.

“I think it’s good that artists can have a career here. But I worry that as Singapore becomes more and more influenced by the art market, young artists will be less inclined to experiment.”