Cover "Refuse" (2022) by The Observatory (Image: Singapore Art Museum)

The contemporary art space redefines the museum experience as we know it, when it opens to the public on January 14, as part of Singapore Art Week

Sonic mushrooms, video memes and a post‑apocalyptic wasteland—these are just some of the works you can expect to see when the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) opens its new contemporary art space at Tanjong Pagar Distripark on January 14. Oh, and don’t forget the stunning backdrop of hulking container ships at Tanjong Pagar Terminal, which can be seen through the picture window in The Engine Room (so named to reflect the different parts of a ship, a hat tip to its iconic location).

This pop‑up space reflects SAM’s new strategic direction, which is to provide transformative, thought‑provoking and meaningful everyday encounters with art of our times—and within unexpected spaces—redefining the notion of a museum and the experience of art, which is no longer confined to a single physical space. It also addresses the fact that it’s a long wait yet before SAM’s two heritage buildings in the Civic District, which have been closed for renovations since 2017, reopen—delays caused by conservation issues have pushed back completion to 2026.

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“Contemporary artists today are not limited by geography or the cultures of their origin. They are collaborative in their practices, investigative and curious about what’s happening around them. What we’re doing is reflecting how contemporary practice is right now,” shares June Yap, SAM’s director of curatorial and collections. “We want to respond to the artists’ needs, which is to look at contemporary art in an expanded sort of way, where it’s not about a white cube space. Sometimes, it’s more site specific, or in a space located within the community. So it makes sense for us to think flexibly about our spaces too.”

Spread over two floors that span a total of more than 3,300 square metres, SAM at Tanjong Pagar Distripark offers up various settings for different artistic practices. For its opening, The Observatory, an early pioneer of the local indie music scene, takes over Gallery 1 from January 14 to April 17 with Refuse, an immersive world built on waste and detritus that is an exploration into fungi and mycelial networks as well as biosonification. True to their nature as musicians, and now as artists in the broader sense, the band uses technology to translate the biorhythms of living organisms into sound, looking into ideas of decomposition and composition.

This is just one curatorial aspect with which Yap hopes to attract audiences. “We want to create exciting experiences, so that the possibility of bringing them to new places excites them too,” she says.

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Meanwhile, Thai multimedia artist Korakrit Arunanondchai converts Gallery 2 into a post‑apocalyptic wasteland filled with used electronics, auto parts, and cyborgian figures created from clothing. The exhibition, titled A Machine Boosting Energy Into the Universe, runs from January 14 to May 3 and looks at togetherness when humans, machines and spirits meet. It is centred around the artist’s iconic large-scale video installation, Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 3 (2015 – 16), from the SAM Collection.

A new iteration of Singapore artist collective Vertical Submarine's Flirting Point, from the SAM Collection, last seen at the lawn of SAM at Bras Basah in 2009, also makes an appearance. 

Besides these large-scale installations and exhibitions, there are also intimate projects where audiences can come within tactile proximity with artists such as those from the SAM Residencies programme. Introduced in January last year, it “recognises process as a method” and offers artists “a place for imagining, conversing and experimenting with the process of art-making”, explains assistant curator Andrea Fam. “[It is our hope that] the art community and the public will be able to engage with artistic practices through encounters that highlight how artists think and why they do the things they do.”

Singaporean artists Salty Xi Jie Ng, Chu Hao Pei and Johann Yamin, the programme’s pilot residents, will present Present Realms from January 14 to 23 as part of their ongoing inquiries into everyday life and death rituals, our shifting relationship with agriculture and food safety, and internet cafe subcultures.

For Ng, the residency gave her time to start long‑term projects that are evolving her artistic practice. “The residency also gave me the opportunity to creatively process my grief and try to understand my cultural identity through spiritual lineage inquiry immediately after my grandma’s death,” she shares. One of her works, She Became My Ancestor, which features sculptures made from plants tended by her late grandmother, is a reflection on mortality and ancestor worship, among other things.

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Rounding off the opening programmes is Gan Siong King: My Video Making Practice, which runs from January 14 to April 17. A humorous look at Malaysian artist Gan Siong King’s video practice, the presentation draws from the sensibilities of internet video culture, and is peppered with the humour common in Malaysian politics and culture.

The SAM calendar of programmes in 2022 also includes the Singapore Biennale, which runs from October 18, 2022 to March 19, 2023 and is helmed by four co-artistic directors from around the world, including Yap. “While we’re still emerging from this pandemic, there has been a period of reflection not just for artists or curators, but for society as a whole,” Yap notes, “where we reflect on how we’re so interconnected, how we understand our world, how we impact our world and how the world impacts us. These have raised a lot of interesting questions for us to think through with the Biennale.”

For Yap and the museum, there were many learning points from the pandemic, including the pivot to the digital realm. “We’ve picked up a lot of skills on how to use digital technologies, the kind of reach they have, and how the digital platform can facilitate our programming,” says Yap. “We’re also looking at more projects in the coming years that will address the digital realm as a medium for artistic creation and how it is experienced in contemporary life.”

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