Going Public

Published on 28 March 2016

Occupying prime positions in our midst, public art in Singapore is finally getting the exposure it deserves.

BY MELANIE LEE

Public art may seem like a neglected cousin compared to paintings and sculptures displayed at fancy galleries or museums. However, it is one of the most accessible visual art forms that tangibly beautifies Singapore’s urban landscape.

There are around 140 public artworks in Singapore but many of us would probably not be able to remember more than five of them off the top of our heads.

“A lot of people just walk past public art without really ever noticing them,” says artist-architect Kum Chee-Kiong, 53, who has been creating sculptures for more than 10 years. “However, after a while, these artworks become part of our surroundings and are subconsciously absorbed into our psyche. In fact, public art provides opportunities for people who won’t usually go to galleries or museums to engage more with art.”

The push for more art in public spaces has been ongoing since 1988. Some measures the government has implemented in the past include a public sculpture donation scheme, a public art tax incentive scheme and providing additional floor area allocated for public art. In 2014, the National Arts Council (NAC) set up the Public Art Trust (PAT) with a seed funding of S$10 million to coordinate these efforts in getting more public art commissioned in Singapore.

“Public artworks add colour and vibrancy to our city’s landscape and add uniqueness to Singapore,” said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu during the unveiling of the first three PAT installations last November. “They provide much enjoyment for Singaporeans and visitors to our city. These installations tell a story about who we are, and bind us through the Singapore Story that they tell. I hope to see more of such public artworks in places where we live, work and play.”

ART FOR ALL Fun activity sheets are given to participants of Art in the City — PAT Jubilee Walk Art Trail led by Art Outreach.  Artist Baet Yeok Kuan (far right) explains his PAT installation ‘24 Hours in Singapore’ to Minister Grace Fu (fourth from left).
PHOTOS Art Outreach Singapore & National Arts Council

WORK IN PROGRESS

The challenge, however, lies in the fact that increasing the number of public artworks in Singapore is not something that can happen overnight. According to Cultural Medallion recipient Han Sai Por, it takes around a few months to a year to produce a piece of public artwork. In her 30-year career as a sculptor, she has created around 25 public artworks in Singapore and other parts of the world, such as Malaysia, England, Japan, China and the United States.

“Public art is a big investment and and a typical installation can cost anywhere between S$100,000 and S$300,000. It has to be of a certain size in order to be impressive. It also has to be sturdy enough to survive against the environmental elements,” she explains.

PUBLIC ARTIST Cultural Medallion recipient Han Sai Por has produced around 25 public artworks in Singapore and around the world. PHOTO Han Sai Por

Public art is also usually commissioned by a third party, so Han has to consider the commissioner’s brief and budget, along with the site where that piece of public art would be displayed. “Once I get a better understanding of all these things, I will provide some ideas and concepts. It’s important for me to explain to these clients how the public art will be relevant to its environment,” she says.

Han, who turns 73 this year, still makes it a point to personally select granite pieces from quarries. Later, she gets these slabs of stone welded in a factory in Malaysia. She also works closely with civil engineers to ensure that the site is physically able to support her proposed public artworks. Sometimes, for indoor installations, extra columns are built to ensure the foundation is secure enough. “Public art can get heavy. My heaviest work went up to 10 tonnes!” she recounts.

For outdoor installations, a crane is rented and she has to be around to ensure every piece of stone or metal is arranged according to how she envisioned it. “I’m usually too pressured to be tired during set-up,” she says with a smile.

There’s also maintenance to consider. Han says that while other countries have specialised cleaners who ensure a piece of public art remains in tiptop condition, in Singapore, the artists may sometimes be asked to “act as a cleaner” for their works.

Despite the arduous nature of producing and maintaining public art, Han appreciates this art form’s ability to not just beautify a place, but also bring “relaxation and peace” to passers-by. “It’s nice to see people post pictures of my public art online,” she adds.

IN PUBLIC ART WE TRUST

Kum, who also collaborated with Han for the recent PAT installation ‘The Rising Moon’, believes that Singapore is “on a learning curve” when it comes to public art.

“Things are already much better compared to 10 years ago. For ‘The Rising Moon’, I initiated this project from scratch, and from there, I asked Sai Por to collaborate and began to look for funding opportunities,” he says. “At the same time, more people are looking at art and collecting art. Private organisations are also getting involved in the sponsorship of public art with NAC’s assistance.”

In fact, Marina Bay Sands (MBS) and the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore (REDAS) recently contributed S$750,000 and S$250,000 respectively towards the PAT. The trust’s efforts in cultivating arts philanthropy in Singapore include offering tax incentives for private or corporate donations towards commissioning costs, and also matching these donations dollar-for-dollar through the S$200-million Cultural Matching Fund.

ART LESSON Students from Admiralty Primary School with their Art in the City activity sheets, together with Minister Grace Fu and NAC CEO Kathy Lai.  PHOTO National Arts Council

Says NAC’s Chief Executive Officer, Ms Kathy Lai, “Their [MBS and REDAS] valued support has enabled our artists to push boundaries with some of the artworks and challenge traditional notions of what constitutes public sculpture. Such private-public partnerships benefit artists and audiences, and we hope this will encourage more individual donors and corporations to come forward.”

Besides actively looking for ways to work with corporations to commission Singapore art in public spaces, the PAT will also be organising public art outreach programmes, and developing best practice manuals and resources for artists and commissioners. There are also plans to document all the public artworks in Singapore on the PAT website (www.publicarttrust.sg) later this year.

Kum feels the best way to make the public more appreciative of public art is to organise public art tours or public art talks. Art in the City — PAT Jubilee Walk Art Trail is an example of one such programme. The PAT works with educational non-profit organisation Art Outreach Singapore to introduce five public artworks in the Civic District through this educational trail. In the meantime, teachers are supported with educational resources and training workshops to conduct public art tours for their students.

“Art essentially captures the spirit of the day. When people begin to actively engage in a dialogue with art, their lives actually become a little more affected by art,” says Kum.

Han agrees. “When one is educated on the meaning behind an artwork, and the intentions behind using a particular material or shape, that public artwork begins to tell a story about the place it is situated in,” she says.

While the limitation of space in Singapore may be a dampener on the growth of public art, Han believes that being open to temporary or mobile public art will help push this scene forward. Says NAC’s Lai, “With the PAT’s future plans for unique and impactful public art, we envision that public spaces across Singapore, from the city to the heartlands, will acquire their own distinctive character and identity.”

Art Is All Around

The Public Art Walking Trail around the Civic District offers a crash course on some of Singapore’s most iconic public art. 

A. ‘24 Hours in Singapore’

by Baet Yeok Kuan (2015)

Front lawn of the Asian Civilisations Museum

This interactive stainless steel installation features audio recordings of everyday sounds in Singapore from 2015.

B. ‘The Rising Moon’

by Han Sai Por & Kum Chee-Kiong (2015)

Esplanade Park

A zen-like reinterpretation of Singapore’s national symbols, five stars and a crescent moon, using granite stone, COR-TEN steel boulders, and ferns.

C. ‘Cloud Nine: Raining’

by Tan Wee Lit (2015)

Singapore River, Queen Elizabeth Walk

A contemporary piece featuring a raining cloud that appears to be floating over the water. It celebrates Singapore’s progress in water self-sufficiency.

D. ‘The River Merchants’

by Aw Tee Hong (2002) 

Singapore River, in front of Maybank Tower

This bronze sculpture shows how merchants and labourers would have conducted business around the river in the past.

E. ‘First Generation’

by Chong Fah Cheong (2000)

Singapore River, in front of The Fullerton Hotel

A sculpture depicting five boys jumping into the Singapore River, reminding us how simple pleasures bring much joy.

F. ‘创 Chuan’

by Brother Joseph Mc Nally (2000)

Victoria Theatre & Victoria Concert Hall

A calligraphic structure inspired by the brush strokes of renowned local artist Hong Zhu An.

G. ‘Seeds’

by Han Sai Por (1995)

Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, Waterfront

These four granite seed sculptures symbolise the resilient germination of the arts on fertile ground.

H. ‘Happy Family of Five’

by Chua Boon Kee (2012)

Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, Forecourt Garden

Commissioned for Esplanade’s 10th Anniversary, this forged copper sculpture portrays how the venue provides a relaxing environment
for families and friends.

I. ‘Makan Angin’

by Chua Boon Kee (2012)

Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay,
Forecourt Garden

Translated as ‘eating wind’ in Malay, this nostalgic bronze installation shows how a family in the past would enjoy a day out at the old Esplanade Waterfront.

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