Singapore: more than mere commerce

SOTA: The School of the Arts, Singapore

I've been walking ten days in the grid Singapore calls its Art & Heritage District.

Just before the start of the district, in the National Museum, they have paintings of nineteenth century masters on loan from Musee D’Orsay, and they will be on show there until February. I went there two days, and during the second visit I joined the guided tour, conducted that day by (I think) a French Lady. An erudite lady. Her manner was to settle on one hip to make one point and to sink into the other hip for the next point, while on her face crinkles shifted most becomingly for smiles and frowns. "I’ll keep van Gogh for the last," she said. Starry Night, with wild stars painted thick on a wild painting, right off the tube. And Cezanne, and Monet, and Rousseau. She told us the simpler things regarding the paintings, to accommodate art-illiterates such as me. But, of course, even one like me wants to know more when they encounter something like The Card Players, for even I could tell that I should search for more in the painting than two eyes can read. The exhibition closes February 2012, and I'm hoping to be back there before then, for another look at that Cezanne.

At the end of the displays, in a makeshift room before the exit, little masters imitated great works using prints of them, under the quiet watch of parents. It was a black room with small, sharp lights over rows of lamp-shades, designed for quiet and concentration, and it all seemed a very good idea, though some parents held out a grim visage while their wards worked.

Across from the Museum, before the corner where Orchard Road ends and Bras Basah Road begins, there stands the high SOTA (The School of the Arts of Singapore) with a vertical garden all round its upper walls, clinging like ivy. (Forgive me, but why does that nice building seem in my memory like a toad set to leap?) Down Bras Basah Road, from Queen Street to Waterloo Street, is the Singapore Art Museum, where this week they had colored elephants in front, in participation with the Elephant Parade, an effort to conserve the Asian Elephant.

Back of these institutions, on Waterloo Street and Queen Street and Victoria Street and also on Bencoolen Street there are other large and small art schools and galleries. Sculpture Square, a small gallery that promotes sculpture on the corner where Waterloo Street hits Middle Road is shaped like a small chapel. The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts on Bencoolen shows off on its front the pictures of its alumni who are now celebrity. And, in the midst of them all, in the unimpressive Bras Basah complex, you see stacks of easels leaned on every storefront, and you can get there the Copic pen which is said to be “available only in America.” It is an old complex; it has been dealing in arts supplies a long time.

What I didn't see is graffitti like you see on European walls—Singapore will not allow them, of course. Can great art come from a city that allows no graffitti, that unguided, unsponsored, rebellious outpouring?

Is art in Singapore like in Paris and New York? Do Singaporean artists starve and struggle in garrets, driven and mad from seeing visions that none before them have seen? Such people were not discernible on the streets in the Art & Heritage District, where everybody seemed well fed—may God bless them. But I saw that more thrives in Singapore than merely the business of commerce—even the Singapore Management University only just concluded a long SMU Season of Arts (August to November).

I returned to Bangalore Monday and am still lovesick for Singapore, and I've a newspaper in hand that has news that proves I'm not to blame: Mercer have just declared Singapore the best Asian city to live in. They've also declared Bangalore the best Indian city to live in, but that bit doesn't move me at all.

See: some more pictures.

This post also appeared on Lonely Planet: Blogs we like

Older posts by me on Singapore