Fieldnotes from Singapore: art and mental health in South East Asia

Every time I travel between the UK and Australia I change planes at Singapore airport. Since garish carpets and expensive fashion shops are not my style, these experiences did not bode well for my first excursion into the country itself! But the proximity of South East Asia is one of the things that makes Australia fascinating to me and I am keen to potentially speak to the relationship between these two cultures in my next exhibition.

So in early December I landed for a three-day stint in Singapore with the following research questions in mind:

  • What is the state of digital/new media arts practice in the country?
  • What and where are the most interesting arts spaces?
  • Is there an existing relationship between art and mental health in South East Asia and if not, how could I frame my own curatorial research for local audiences?

My most interesting meeting was with Bala Starr, Director of Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore who singled out Shirley Soh and Vincent Leow as Singapore artists who are concerned with political and social issues around mental health. She also pointed me toward Debbie Ding, a London based Singapore artist who is super interesting on technology and psychogeography.

Given the nature of the conversations I had with artists who came along to my talk at Grey Projects, there does seem to be an interest in dealing with mental health in arts practice, although there certainly isn’t the funding infrastructure that we enjoy in Australia and the UK. Bala suggested that artists tackling mental health in Singapore are perhaps using the issue as a cipher to address political issues around inequality that would not gain approval under Singapore’s censorship regulations. While many of the artists I work with in the UK and Australia see mental health as a deeply political issue, the spectre of censorship certainly adds a layer of complexity to this treatment.

Art and mental health in South East Asia
ArtScience Museum Marina Bay Sands

While I only had a few days at my disposal, I was keen to see a range of galleries in Singapore. Since I am interested in crossover between art and science, I of course made a beeline for ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands. I have to say I found the emphasis here falls more heavily on the science side, since the museum was currently hosting The Science Museum’s touring show about the hadron collider and a travelling exhibition about the Nobel prize. I’d also heard a lot of hype about Gillman Barracks before my visit, although Tomás Saraceno at the NTU CCA was the only show I saw that I found really compelling. It seems that the kind of interdisciplinary media arts practices that I am dealing with in my research are not yet wide spread in Singapore, although I hope that the these two institutions can pave the way for future innovation.

During my visit I accumulated a long list of artists who I want to know more about (I’m already in the process of planning my next visit). If anyone has any tips on fascinating new media artists working in this part of the world, please send them my way!

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