In-between space. That’s the curious term artist/designer Ong Kian Peng of creative studio Modular Unit uses to describe his gallery Supernormal, which opened last July at a mixed-use housing development along Kreta Ayer Road. In fact, he’d rather visitors see the venue as a “project space” than label it as a gallery.
Depending on one’s affinity towards the arts, the latter term often connotes anything from pristine white walls to deathly silence and intimidating curators. That might be changing though, with the crop of new art spaces sprouting up across Singapore.
Most are small (Supernormal rings in at just 250 sq ft) and are run by young artists and/or creative types (they’re usually a hybrid of both). More significantly, they’re typically located at unexpected, out-of-the-way nooks, and espouse an unpolished, DIY aesthetic. In short, they’re anything but the industry standard of an art exhibition space; the anti-white cube so to speak.
Take the four-month-old I_S_L_A_N_D_S. Started by art gallery exhibitions executive Pey Chuan Tan with support from skate shop owner Ariff Shariff, it redefines the idea of concept spaces by literally having no walls – the art is displayed within eight window cases in a public corridor on the third floor of the highly retro Peninsula Shopping Centre. Tan says she opted for this atypical format because she wanted to present art in an out-of-the-box context.
“I chose the windows because they look as if they’re situated within an enclosed space, yet it remains a public linkway. It’s great for presenting art to new and non-art audiences – perhaps even regular passers-by, who might then look forward to new exhibitions,” she explains. She says the creative results far outweigh the challenges of displaying art in this format.
Over at Lam Thong Corporation, an industrial building in Geylang, there’s Soft/Wall/Studs, a two-year-old multi-purpose studio run by an artist collective consisting of Stephanie J. Burt, Kenneth Loe, Luca Lum and Weixin Chong. In Ubi, there’s 1961 Projects by artist/curator Gabriel Loy – perhaps the closest (aesthetically) to a traditional white cube space – and Kapo Factory, where visual artists Cheong Kah Kit and Tan Guo-Liang’s studio Peninsular hosts exhibitions by other artists every couple of months.
Such radical and independent art venues aren’t the pioneers of their kind here. Earlier initiatives include Singapore’s first artist colony, The Artists Village, founded by famed multimedia artist Tang Da Wu in the late ’80s, non-profit gallery Plastique Kinetic Worms in the late ’90s by contemporary artists Vincent Leow and Yvonne Lee, and more recently, the Post-Museum, an independent multi-use space in Little India, which has since closed.
The difference with this new generation is that – niche as they might be – they’ve gained a following and visibility in a far shorter time. Ong of Supernormal boils it down to this generation’s marketing savvy. “In the past, spaces had to be more centralised, but with places like Soft/Wall/Studs and 1961, they’re out-of-the-way, but you still get people visiting because of social media,” he says.
Pop-up versions have also been on the rise. Opening Day, an initiative by curators Selene Yap and Cheng Jia Yun, for example, occupied the common space on the top floor of Upper Serangoon Shopping Centre for two months before winding down end-January. During its time, it featured a rotation of multimedia works by a mix of four rising and established artists – Chua Chye Teck, Lai Yu Tong, Susie Wong, and Sookoon Ang – every fortnight. Says lawyer Goh Wanjing, who visited the project: “I’m interested to see how a curator-artist treats or intervenes in a space – particularly one that has its own unique context, like in this case, an old shopping centre.”
Even more unusual is 21 Moonstone, located on the ninth floor of a run-down industrial block on Moonstone Lane in Potong Pasir. Started by four young millennials including photographer/artist Tan Yang Er and Narelle Kheng of The Sam Willows, it functions primarily as a co-working space by day and a dive bar by night. That it’s over 3,000 sq ft and boasts a spacious, scenic rooftop balcony, however, has made it a sought-after location for creative events with an equally “alt” vibe: rising London-based art photographer Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee launched her debut photo-book Xing on site last September.
“We believe in bringing good people together to make good work,” says Moonstone’s 25-year-old co-founder Tan. “Narelle and I used to visit each other’s homes to paint, and we always talked about having all our friends in one space, working independently, yet being able to bounce ideas off each other.
At 21 Moonstone, people give unconditionally and receive unexpectedly.”
Fostering this sense of community and support, particularly for young up-and-comers, is an ethos that cuts across all the “guerilla” galleries. Supernormal, for example, is meant to act as an alternative to galleries (“they usually go for big-name artists”) and public platforms (think Noise Singapore – they often come with restrictions) for younger, less established artists and students, says its founder Ong.
That it’s a self-funded initiative – not held down by grants from external stakeholders and commercial pressures that galleries commonly face – helps make this possible. Says Ong: “We aren’t commercially driven, and making a profit is really at the back of our priorities. Some of our programmes do involve monetary transactions, but we give most of it back to the artist or designer, only taking a token sum to help cover costs.”
Similarly, Pey Chuan Tan of corridor-turned-gallery I_S_L_A_N_D_S – another self-initiated “passion project” – sees her space as providing artists and creatives with an opportunity to be more experimental, and a little less serious. At press time, it featured the installations of multimedia artist Vanessa Lim Shu Yi.
Gallery owner/director Audrey Yeo, who’s behind the well-respected Yeo Workshop located in the art enclave of Gillman Barracks, sees this movement as encouraging for the art scene. “These spaces are very exciting because they provide a platform for artists to practise and show work without commercial and institutional pressure, and having to worry about sales or judgement,” she says. “To be able to think freely and work without condition – that’s extremely important for artistic development.”
For art fiends, it means greater variety and access without the high brow, elite connotations that often come with art. As Tan of I_S_L_A_N_D_S puts it: “Art doesn’t have to take place only within a store front, gallery or institution.”
Photography Vee Chin Art Direction Adeline Eng
This story first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Female.
Like this? Check out our picks of this year’s Japanese Film Festival, everything you need to know on Singapore Design Week 2018 and the art exhibition that might be the first in Singapore to be held in a medical clinic.