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Artsy scene behind Singapore Arts Fest

FOR the first time in my life, I had had little interest in a trip - especially when the destination was Singapore, a city-state that is often considered to be "boring," culturally speaking.

"There's nothing to do in this tiny country except for shopping," my sister told me before I set off.

She's not the first one who "warned" me of this. My friend Stella even put Singapore at the top of her "not-to-go list."

I hesitated, I have to say.

There was a time when Singapore was known as a "cultural desert" - not much happening artistically, and not much art exchange.

"Not any more," says Low Kee Hong, newly appointed general manager of 2010 Singapore Arts Festival, which runs through Sunday.

"The stereotyped concept of Singapore has been there for so long, long enough to be shattered. So this year we embark on a process of new ways of seeing, touching and feeling through a series of new platforms that return to the heart of the matter: art, artists and audiences," says the dancer/director-turned-administrator.

So what does art really mean? "In art, we can think - and think hard," Low answers simply.

But what if we cannot come round? After all, not all arts make sense.

"Good art is just good art," he stresses in Mandarin when asked whether many art pieces are too high-brow for ordinary people, especially when the Singapore Arts Festival, themed "Between You and Me" this year, bills itself as a "people's festival."

"When it comes to art, there's no high-brow or low-brow. The point is 'communication and connection' - how artists and audiences interchange and interact," Low says.

Yes, exactly. But how?

"It is a problem, I admit," Low says. "That's why we spare no efforts to access arts to more people and promote art education among youngsters."

Still a long way to go.

Art estate

While it takes time for arts to become integrated in place, many artists find Singapore their dream spot.

Nestled in lush green vegetation, Wessex Estate is a tranquil colonial-style neighborhood surrounded by open spaces and trees to provide a soothing ambience for its artist residents.

The walk-up apartment blocks and black-and-white houses are home to painters, photographers, designers and writers.

Time seems to stand still here - narrow roads, old plants, birds singing. Walking down the quiet pathway lined with flourishing/flowering shade trees, I couldn't help but think of Shanghai's M50 and Beijing's 798, two art communities known nationwide as havens for artists - struggling and established.

But unlike its Chinese counterparts that are converted from old warehouses and factories and look more "primitive," Wessex Estate of stand-alone villas is neat, orderly and individual, very much like the country itself.

The Artists @ Wessex Estate collective is comprised of about 30 artists from many fields and different countries who reside and/or work in this pastoral former British army base, minutes away from the bustling downtown. It has the potential to become the next hot spot - or even Singapore's answer to New York's SoHo.

Artists would call this place paradise - quiet and relaxing - if they didn't have to worry about rental prices and other things.

Ceramist Joyce Loo owns the first floor of a three-story villa, which is both her home and studio.

"It's really tough to be an artist, especially in Singapore (where the living standard is relatively high)," she says. "Unlike China where struggling artists can go to the countryside, here we don't have a choice; we have to struggle to pay rent."

She declines to disclose her rent but says she has a two-year lease.

Luckily Loo saved a lot during her previous 15-year white-collar career, so she can cover daily expenses. She quit and became a full-time artist only two years ago.

"I love traveling. I've been to Turkey, Mongolia and Europe. Look at my work, all inspired by nature," she says.

Asked about the business, Loo says candidly, "Business is just okay, but I'll create no matter how it is. Art is part of my life."

Artist tenant James Holdsworth thinks likewise.

The Briton also rents the first floor of a garden villa. He paints oils and also provides fine arts education.

"No matter what you do, there is no subsidy here. So you might be quite restricted. In the UK, artists can be subsidized by art council," he explains.

"I'm lucky because I have regular collectors who buy my work," Holdsworth is quick to add.

Unlike Loo and Holdsworth who share mixed feelings, Singapore-born Praema Raghavan-Gilbert definitely enjoys it.

The former public health specialist, whose last post was 10 years ago in China as a United Nations health expert for two years, is a nature painter, fascinated by flowers and plants.

"After I retired, I tried to find something that could make me mentally active. Once by accident, I attended an art class and got hooked immediately," she recalls.

"It's not necessary to find the hidden meaning behind every art piece. If you don't see the message, it's fine, just enjoy the colors," she says.

Raghavan-Gilbert says painting is a way to de-stress oneself, and at the Wessex Estate, she finds peace and relaxation.

"It's such a beautiful place, very naturally and tranquil, just perfect for art creation," she says. "I really like it."

Art education

Just as General Manager Low says, art really needs to be nurtured.

"But when it comes to education, parents and schools are way too aggressive. Achievements are top priority. It's like 'no output, no input'," he says.

This problem is compounded when making a living from the arts is perceived to be less rewarding, and hence not preferred as full-time employment.

Then how many musicians, artists, dancers, directors and actors can a population of 3 million produce?

Recognzing this major issue, the Arts Council and Arts Festival launched the Kids Advisory Panel. The ongoing year-long education and outreach initiative has seen the students attending arts festival shows (with a parent, of course), after which they offer their input for the planned Kids Art Village at next year's edition.

The young panel - aged between nine and 12 - were chosen after online calls for students to respond to the questions of what art means to them and what they want to see at the Kids Art Village.

"When I think about programs for children, I never think about dumbing down. What I want is something that comes from their perspective," Low says.

Other educational platforms include "Art Garden: Children's Season" at the Singapore Art Museum. Inspiring and stimulating young minds through contemporary art, the interactive exhibition engages and entertains the young and the young at heart.

Children aged from four to 12 will befriend Walter the Rabbit, a giant floating sculpture; watch mechanical flowers "grow" and "bloom;" and venture into the Funky Forest and Daisies and discover how movements will make streams "flow" and trees "grow."

"Through all these, I really want to show how the younger generation operates and navigates what they are interested in," Low concludes.

For more information and show details of Singapore Arts Festival, check


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