It’s been raining, not heavily, but enough to dampen the high spirits of our trip to Singapore. Yet as we get out of the car, the grey skies seem to dissipate. We are stunned. Singapore has a fair share of converted former army barracks and hill forts, but nothing has prepared us for what we see in Gillman Barracks.
Built in 1936 to accommodate the expansion of the British infantry, with independence the site was taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces. Despite the army vacating the hilly, jungle-like outpost in the 1990s, it was only in 2012 that the barracks were developed into what they are today — a lush, green, 6.4-hectare contemporary art space.
It is this art, joined with the workmanlike colonial architecture of the era as well as the surrounding greenery that greets us as we descend the car, that makes jaws fall open and eyes pop.
Yet as we take a guided walk around the area — it is massive — see the public art and wander through a number of the 17 contemporary art galleries, it is the grandeur of Gillman that begins to astound us. I am well-travelled, but never have I seen somewhere so colossal and in such an environment devoted purely to art.
The Art Drive
The first gallery we enter is at Number One Lock Road — Yeo Workshop. The brainchild of Sotheby’s Institute graduate Audrey Yeo, a former founding partner of Galerie 8 in London’s Hackney, the Yeo Workshop is one of only two Singaporean-owned galleries in the barracks. Here Audrey is not just actively trying to sell art — she is presently hosting a five-artist exhibition called Ad Hoc — she’s also trying to promote art to everyday Singaporeans.
At the time we meet her she is working on a project called Drive (artdrive.com.sg), a public art festival designed to coincide with the second-year anniversary of Gillman Barracks and Singapore Art Week in January 2015. It is this festival that has created the outdoor artworks we see as we gradually make our way around the complex.
“The project came from a need to respond to what was going on in Gillman Barracks,” she explains. “There is a wealth of knowledge here and we have a lot of artists around making work, but the general public is not privy to this. In Singapore there is a bit of a gap in terms of what people know about culture, or how to even relate to culture. This is where Drive is concentrated. So I thought it would be great to make the art here available for everybody else.”
The concept of Drive was to search for artists to create public works of art that would be displayed on the walls of the barracks. This would then be interlinked with art walks — the opportunity for everyday people to be guided around the site — artist talks, workshops and talks by well-known critics. The project ends this month with a prize-giving ceremony on Jan. 23.
However, as Audrey readily admits, finding artists for the project was difficult. Artists in Singapore, she says, want to be paid. Yet a project like Drive is a Kickstarter project, only existing because of sponsors. There is no direct financial benefit.
“This is not a profitable thing to do,” she explains.
Sun Xun, Pintaldi and Leibovitz
As our art walk starts, the skies open again. We find shelter in a covered walkway and then stick close to the walls of the various galleries. We then enter one of the site’s main buildings and peer into Pearl Lam Gallery. We are entranced.
Running a group exhibition of six Chinese artists — Lan Zhenghui, Qiu Deshu, Qin Yufen, Wang Dongling, Wang Tiande and Zhang Wei — suddenly I’m viewing the type and quality of art that I rarely see in Vietnam. Titled The Art of Line: Contemporary Chinese Ink and Brush, it is easy to see how the Pearl Lam Gallery is attracting buyers. The curation, the mystique, the black-and-white ink works mixed with works in colour. We’re only supposed to be taking a glance, but myself and our photographer are getting sucked in.
Next door, the Shanghart Gallery is equally entrancing, with its 23 palimpsests collection by award-winning Chinese artist Sun Xun. And as we move on through the complex, other exhibitions catch my eye. The Cristiano Pintaldi exhibition Suspended Animations, with his recreation of the scientific process on canvas, is startling, and almost opposite we stumble upon an Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the Sundaram Tagore gallery, giving me the chance to see close up the work of perhaps my favourite portrait photographer.
Nothing has prepared us for this — we quite simply had no idea. But we’re being rushed on by our guides. We have other places to go, other things to see. Fortunately we manage to delay our itinerary and later we get to see more of the public art. That, too, makes us think. I could stay here all day and come back the next.
What creates this space is the growing art market in Singapore. It’s not just Singaporeans who are collecting, but Americans, Italians, Japanese and French. People from everywhere. The Lion City, and in particular Gillman Barracks, is becoming a Southeast Asian hub for art.
Audrey Yeo agrees.
“Singapore is an international port so we are very different from the rest of the region,” she says. “People know we are not like Vietnam or Indonesia, where they can get something really special. They understand that there are all kinds of different people living here, and there will be all types of art production. You have to be quite adventurous to live somewhere like Vietnam. It’s the same with art. Some people just aren’t adventurous enough to go to Jakarta or Manila. So they come here to pick up their works.”
For more information on the Gillman Barracks and their various exhibitions, head to gillmanbarracks.com. To find out more about the various talks and events associated with the barracks, click on arnoldiiartsclub.com