This week, some fast and furious questions were directed at me – ‘What is so good about ‘Ilo Ilo’?’ ‘A story about a maid and her employers. How good can it be?’ ‘I was busy, I didn’t have time to watch it. Do you think I should watch it?’ I do not know how to even begin to respond to these questions. There is a saying that if you focus on survival, you cannot thrive. In Singapore, until recently, our government, our society and our parents tell us all the rules about survival. Our country has no natural resources, we have to industrialize, then commercialize, and now we need to digitize. If we do not work hard, we will not have a roof over our heads, and we will have to sleep on the streets. Stop being a dreamer. Art cannot put food on the table. To the majority of Singaporeans, the working class focused on bread and butter issues, art is a luxury they can ill afford. It is little wonder that art is wrapped in mystery, and creativity is an elusive object.
The recently ended Affordable Art Fair reported brisk sales totalling $4.9 million with 17,800 attendance. The organisers will add another fair in May making it a bi-annual event. As its name implies, most artworks are priced under $10,000 at this fair. In January, there will be another art event, this time, the upmarket Art Stage where works are sold in the millions of dollars. Auctions are held alongside this annual government aided world-class art fair. The last Art Stage was also hailed as a major success. While I am happy for these successes, I am starting to see just numbers. Singaporeans see art with a price tag. Whether it is low-end or high-end art pieces, Singaporeans are merely looking at their value. Are they getting a bargain? Is a piece of art worth buying? Is it value for money? Not unlike these questions – ‘Is ‘Ilo Ilo’ going to be worth the price of its cinema ticket?’ ‘Is it going to be worth the time?’
This is a photograph of dry leaves. But this is also a piece of art. What is art to Singaporeans? A Chinese contemporary artist who has become a permanent resident here, told me when he first came to Singapore for his solo art exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum, he thought we were an interesting East West meeting place for art. When he stayed for longer periods, he started to feel a distance between art and our people. A gap. A gap of deeper awareness. A gap of deeper interest. And a gap of deeper knowledge. He felt that although every young nation needs time, the fundamental values for art appreciation in Singapore are not really in place. While our hierarchy of needs are met, our wants are still about measurable and tangible entities. A French photographer, who runs an art gallery and who is the creative director of a new art magazine, concurred for art to be a part of the Singapore lifestyle, a shift in our art of living is needed. While art can be elitist, once it permeates into our lives, elitism can be for all. An oxymoron that makes sense.
Last year in December, I had lunch with a friend after trying to meet her unsuccessfully for a few months. While eating, she had a calm demeanour which was rather refreshing given her frantic schedule. And she was smiling. I asked her if she was in love. To which she replied tersely she was always in love with her husband. Then what is with the calm smile? She looked up from her salmon salad and said, “I did it.” Yes, what did you do? “I finished a six-month art course. I learned to paint. My motivation? I didn’t know what else to give my husband. He has everything. Including me. So I decided to learn how to paint and give him a painting for his birthday this month.” I was chewing on my chicken, but my jaw dropped. Wow! This was incredible. What an invaluable gift! A gift right from her heart. When I saw the painting, I knew she needed more practice. But when it was framed, it was a piece of priceless art!
‘I dream of painting and then I paint my dream’ – Vincent Van Gogh