Lucia Glass besuchte im Dezember 2009 und Januar 2010 im Rahmen eines Residenz-Programms vom Goethe Institut den südostasiatischen Stadt-Staat Singapur. Für das Online-Magazin TANZCONNEXIONS schrieb sie einen Erfahrungsbericht. Die deutsche Version findet man hier.

[Singapore] Between art and consumerism: Contemporary dance and performance are emerging art forms in Singapore

Impressions by Lucia Glass

Dancer and choreographer Lucia Glass visited the South East Asian city-state of Singapore in December 2009 and January 2010 as part of a Goethe-Institut residency programme. Exploring a city where the arts are inseparably bound up with the prevailing social system, Glass met with artists, curators, performers, and journalists.


Singapore, December 2009

My window in Lagoon View, an apartment block on the east side of Singapore, looks out across the motorway to the ocean. Untold numbers of container ships lie at anchor to the east and west of the city. It looks like a ship cemetery. The rainy season has arrived. Every day sees at least one major downpour. I’ve never heard thunder like this before. Nor have I ever seen rain like this before, or so many people in one place. So much black hair, so many shopping malls, food courts, different nationalities, and umbrellas.

The meaning of financial success

In the course of my five-week residency in Singapore, I met with numerous young artists, dancers, choreographers and journalists. In these conversations I gained some insight into the peculiarities and workings of this small nation. One thing that struck me in particular, was the nation’s twin obsessions of work and consumerism. Singapore is a financial metropolis, a giant marketing machine and an entertainment park in one. Its population is driven by a hard-headed determination to get ahead. In Singapore, the arts work hand in glove with commercial interests; as is illustrated by the ION Orchard shopping mall’s ION Art Gallery, where works are commissioned, curated, and produced on site: art in the service of consumerism. Artist and curator Heman Chong (33) explained to me that artists can make a good living in Singapore, provided they accept this model.

Social contexts and artistic processes
Dancer and choreographer Joavien Ng lives together with her husband in the colonial district close to Kallang Airport. What I learnt from her confirmed Chong’s assessment of the situation. Over wine and chilli chicken, Ng and her husband told me about the Singaporean school system, employment practices, and cultural policy. We also discussed the effects of social context on the artistic process and the challenge of liberating oneself from its influence. In Singapore contemporary dance and performance are still very much emerging art forms. Many Singaporean choreographers are lone wolves. Forced to organize their own rehearsal rooms and budgets, they are often able to pay their colleagues only a minimal fee. But, says Joavien Ng, the level of funding for dance has improved in recent years. The 2002 inauguration of Esplanade – Theatres On The Bay, a major centre for dance, theatre, art and concert performances, has played a pivotal role in this development.
Art and the city
The Singaporean public widely views art as a commodity, and unsurprisingly many artists find it difficult to shift the focus of their creative practice away from the city itself. This is readily apparent in the many works that are made for, in, and about Singapore. Take visual artist and curator Michael Lee Hong Whee, for instance. He creates models of unrealized architectural projects and buildings designated for demolition. And you don’t have to go far in Singapore to stumble across a building site. According to Chong, Singaporean apartment blocks have a shelf-life of just 99 years, after which they are demolished and rebuilt. The cityscape is in a state of constant flux. Visitors to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) can view a scale model of the  city-state, featuring every single building in the city and future construction projects. I  found my apartment block and even a model of Zouk, a nightclub that I was soon to find  myself queuing outside of, together with hundreds of other would-be clubbers. Inside  the club’s cramped passages, security staff shone bright torches in our faces to keep us  flowing through the club. Guests are only permitted to wait for their friends in certain  areas, and someone always seems to know where to find the restroom, the wardrobe or  the end of the queue at the bar. You’re always well informed here, whether you want to be or not.
Where are the niches?
I begin to wonder if there is any aspect of Singaporean society that isn’t organized and regulated. Singapore is a city without wastelands. Every single inch is either in use, designated for construction, or designed for a specific purpose.  Painted footprints on the footpaths instruct you on where to walk and which direction to take. While I don’t mind a well-organized traffic system, I wonder to myself: where are the margins, the periphery, the niches and the wastelands? Singapore seems to be the very embodiment of the principle of organization. An idea that is well illustrated by a theatre piece I saw at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Written by The Necessary Stage, a two-person, theatre-making team that has worked with numerous Singaporean ensembles, the piece is titled _____ Can Change. “We believe that we have it in us to change for the better” the programme declares. In this case, changing for ‘the better’ means family values, heterosexuality, stability, harmony and security.
“We don’t particularly care for ironic social criticism.”
There is something decidedly pedagogical about this work in which a homosexual man gives in to his family’s urging and leaves his partner to settle down with a woman and found a happy family. Elsewhere in the piece, a woman is coerced into attending dating parties by her aunt, who hopes her young niece will finally marry. This portrayal of less conventional lifestyles as a threat to the nation is staged without a trace of irony. As a theatregoer one would like to think that this is social critique in action. A hope that the open discussion with director Alvin Tan fails to meet; the work is indeed intended to be taken seriously: “We don’t particularly care for ironic social criticism.” But I caught a glimpse of another side of Singapore when I took a stroll through Singapore’s Geylang red light district with journalist Tara Tan: a much seedier and ambivalent side. While prostitution is legal in Singapore, pimping is illegal. As in Germany, the girls pay taxes and have to undergo regular health checks. In Geylang, the sex trade shares the streets with Buddhist shrines and prayer corners. The district is also home to many of Singapore’s migrant labourers, most of them Indian. Permitted to stay for just three years, these migrant labourers are the driving force behind Singapore’s rapid growth. It is now mid-January. It’s still raining. Cars hurtle along the coastal motorway day and night. One of them will take me to the airport. Night has fallen. From high above the ocean waves, I take one last look at the brightly illuminated container ships as they lie at anchor on the coast.
Lucia Glass is a dancer and choreographer. She studied Performing Arts at the Hoogeschool voor de Kunsten Arnhem (NL). Based in Berlin from 2001 to 2009, she danced alongside artists such as Eszter Salamon, Thomas Lehmen and Mette Ingvartsen, and toured internationally. Her own works are conceived for the stage and gallery spaces. In 2008, she was awarded a production grant from the K3 Centre for Choreography in Hamburg and also won the Berlin Senate’s artistic grant for dance.