Culture Vulture

What Gillman Barracks needs to thrive

Pop-ups, affordable daytime cafes, an art bookshop and a small contemporary art festival will draw new and repeat visitors

Gillman Barracks. Once a ghost town of sorts with only serious art collectors making the trek to that remote corner of Alexandra Road, gallery enclave Gillman Barracks has seen stirrings of life in the last six months. -- ST FILE PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI&nb
Gillman Barracks. Once a ghost town of sorts with only serious art collectors making the trek to that remote corner of Alexandra Road, gallery enclave Gillman Barracks has seen stirrings of life in the last six months. -- ST FILE PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI 

Once a ghost town of sorts with only serious art collectors making the trek to that remote corner of Alexandra Road, gallery enclave Gillman Barracks has seen stirrings of life in the last six months.

A sprawling, greenery-fringed cluster of white colonial bungalows, the former British army quarters has housed an array of international art galleries since September 2012.

After a sleepy opening year sent its developers scrambling for ways to raise visitor footfall - the Economic Development Board, JTC Corporation and the National Arts Council are the brains behind the cluster - the area now has rumblings of activity.

Visitors from two weekends back, when many of the 16 galleries had new exhibitions opening, would have seen the beginnings of construction work for long-awaited sheltered walkways linking the galleries.

The sun was particularly merciless that Sunday and my husband and two kids would have appreciated somewhere to duck into as respite from it, an alternative to packing our brood into the car and driving from one gallery to another.

Little conveniences aside, what matters most in a place such as Gillman Barracks is the art and here is where its six-month-old Centre for Contemporary Art - a non-profit exhibition and research venue run by Nanyang Technological University - has raised the game.

It was a coup for the centre to have beaten one of Singapore's museums to hosting the current touring exhibition of South and South-east Asian contemporary art by New York's well-known Guggenheim Museum.

It is not a huge show - 19 artworks of varying sizes, selected by independent Singapore curator June Yap, fill the Centre for Contemporary Art's exhibition space. However, the content is clear-eyed and often surprising in how it casts shadows over the ideas of nation, culture, politics and identity, as the title of the exhibition, No Country, suggests - taken from Yeats' famous "That is no country for old men", a line in the classic poem Sailing To Byzantium.

A woman next to me let out an audible gasp upon viewing Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi's installation Love Bed - what looks from afar to be an ornate silver marital bed is composed of hundreds of stainless steel razor blades, a piercing commentary on domestic violence in South Asia and beyond.

Another highlight is the video installation by London's The Otolith Group, in which an innocuous black-and-white photographic archive of 1950s Asian student activist gatherings is overlaid with charged dialogue on revolutionary political action from a Godard film.

Titled Communists Like Us, the work reveals how power and idealism can be dangerous bedfellows, given the uber socialist idea of "starting from zero", something bandied about by activists at the time hoping to eradicate all inequalities. The viewer's mind cannot help wandering beyond the world of those neatly posed photographs to the ruthless and disastrous extremes of China's Cultural Revolution.

What the Centre for Contemporary Art can do, which commercial galleries lack the mandate and resources to, is educate. As with its previous video art exhibition, Paradise Lost, which mined the themes of diaspora and migration, the centre foregrounds all that is contemplative about art and its relevance to 21st-century Asia, and not just through artworks but also documentation, public talks and tours.

While the centre's opening has given heft to the Gillman Barracks experience, it helps also that the international galleries there are deepening their connections with the local art community by adding emerging South-east Asian artists to their roster of shows.

There is a pragmatic aspect to this, of course - these works are more affordable than a Yayoi Kusama, Ai Weiwei or John Baldessari, and help in wooing middle-class buyers new to art collecting.

To give just one example, Galerie Michael Janssen of Germany, which opened an outpost at Gillman Barracks early last year and has shown works by headline-making Chinese dissident Ai and influential American conceptual artist Baldessari, currently has a solo show by Singapore's own Jeremy Sharma. It features his striking series of sculpted foam works channelling planetary surfaces and sound waves, first sighted at the recent Singapore Biennale.

The challenge of bringing life to this art enclave is a uniquely Singaporean problem because elsewhere, gallery clusters are not engineered from top down but emerge organically through supply and demand.

The phenomenon of artists and galleries moving into a rundown 1950s-era factory complex in the eastern end of Beijing created the famous 798 art district, now a loose, buzzing patchwork of galleries, artist studios, cafes, bookshops and industrial workshops. Likewise, New York's latest Astoria arts district did not become cool by government decree, but because arts schools, film studios and performing arts centres set up shop in the once-gritty neighbourhood.

Born through policy-making vision, Gillman Barracks needs to find its audience. It clearly needs at least one daytime, wallet-friendly cafe where arts newbies and cognoscenti can hang out; its current restaurants and bars are either too chi-chi or open only at night. An art bookshop, it has been suggested, would make the area more attractive to visitors.

Pop-ups are the solution if the Economic Development Board is hard pressed to find a cafe or bookshop willing to take up a longer lease.

That was what happened at the end of last year when a group of local creatives - including cocktail bar Maison Ikkoku and design magazine Underscore - banded together and took over a few units at Gillman Barracks for a delightful two months, selling artisanal design products and serving up inventive eats and drinks. Bringing back such pop-ups would ratchet up the surprise factor of the enclave.

In the long term, the Centre for Contemporary Art and galleries should work together to organise a contemporary art festival. It should be a small but annual affair, something that creates anticipation and draws new and repeat visitors. Community may not be a word typically associated with the rarefied world of art, but building bridges is exactly what Gillman Barracks needs to thrive.

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