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What do Dale Chihuly’s sculptures tell us in postcolonial Singapore?

By on June 1, 2021 0

On May 1, 2021, Dale Chihuly’s first major garden exhibition in Asia opened to the public in Singapore. Launched over Singapore third phase of COVID-19 recovery, on the same day, the BBC reported Singapore “The best place to live during Covid”, the exhibition was marketed as a symbol of Singapore’s resilience in the face of socio-economic challenges caused by the pandemic Organizers noted the feat of transporting over 100 large and fragile works of art from Seattle to Singapore, testifying to the country’s continued relevance in global affairs, seeing this as a unique opportunity for limited Singaporeans on a trip to “access world-class art abroad.” “They hoped that Chihuly “The masterpieces will bring joy to everyone during this difficult time.”

The nation’s collective optimism would reverse in a matter of weeks. On May 16, the Singapore government announced tougher social restrictions amid new wave of COVID-19 cases, and social gatherings were limited to two people.

Against this backdrop of events, I set out to explore Chihuly’s garden lounge with a simple premise: Could I find moments of joy and respite among Chihuly’s giant glass sculptures, as the organizers of the had promised?

Dale Chihuly, “Setting Sun” (2020) with Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands in the background

In an era when local galleries scramble to raise funds, postpone shows and / or bring them online, viewing Chihuly’s brightly colored installations scattered across the futuristic and vast of Singapore Gardens by the bay felt like a luxury. I couldn’t help but reflect on who had the privilege of having physical space during this time and who was not. By dedicating three important sections of the gardens to Chihuly’s sculptures, the organizers had wanted to create an “immersive journey”, but any immersion was illusory, laden with elitism and the nagging feeling that the outside world did not, could not, take. of place. in the same way.

The constant monitoring during the COVID-19 situation in Singapore (we are now forced to use tracking devices) has induced my hyperconsciousness, and even my anxiety, of Chihuly’s artistic medium – glass. As “Hands off the Flowers” signs adorned parts of the gardens, I was amazed to find that each fragile, vibrant and expensive glass sculpture was only protected by a well-kept ditch of flowers and grass. . When my date and I asked the landscapers if this encourages curious kids to play with and potentially break the sculptures, they reassured us that the curators wanted to evoke a sense of freedom to explore, much like how we explore nature freely, without borders or surveillance.

This way of being was diametrically opposed to my life in Singapore over the past year and reminded me of the term “expatriate privilege”. Chihuly’s glass coterie “towers”, “chandeliers” and “Persians” (all names of different series) were our esteemed, temporary visitors from the West, occupying the most exclusive spaces while being sheltered from the rules and concerns of the local population. Or was I guilty of an internalized postcolonial self-doubt, a lack of faith in my own community’s propensity to respect art? This unease with the alluring but vulnerable nature of art was summed up by an acquaintance: “I think it might take less than a week for a Singaporean Instagrammer to smash one of the sculptures.

Chihuly’s “Cloud Forest Persians” (2019) hanging from a 30-meter-high indoor waterfall

Speaking of the “Persians,” a recurring theme in Chihuly’s work is his search for new forms that cryptically invoke the natural world, including, as he says, the “Near and Far East”. On his website and in press materials, it is often not clear what specific elements of nature or culture he is inspired by, and he himself declares that he begins his process without specific forms to the spirit. Thus, the tale of a daring creative adventurer discovering exotic new forms and breaking boundaries is perpetuated, instead of an artist influenced and grounded in distinct times and places. Seeing the abstract and repetitive forms that seem to appeal to a shared view of nature, I remember that aspirations for universalism can sometimes border on cultural imperialism. While watching “Setting Sun” (2020) ”, a piece specially designed for this exhibition but which appears to be a red and yellow replica of his previous“ Suns ”pieces, I could not deduce any traces of intentional localization, the colors rather reminding me of McDonalds.

On the other hand, this commitment to blurring unintentionally becomes a brilliant marketing strategy, where careful conservation can invoke shapes and colors reminiscent of local flora and fauna, offering each exhibiting nation the opportunity to take credit for itself. to be Chihuly’s muse. I saw references to local fruits everywhere: in a pointed “Uranium Green Icicle Chandelier” (2018) I saw a durian, in “Radiant Yellow Icicle Chandelier” (2018) I saw a banana, and in his energetic “Sea Blue and Green Tower” (2004) surrounded by locals butterfly pea flowersI saw a celebration of a lush tropical climate that produces the rarest color in nature: blue. Needless to say, I was hungry by the end of the exhibition, although the initial intention may have been to feel a growing national pride in our close association with world-famous works of art.

Make no mistake: In addition to being a temporary escape in fantastic shapes and colors, the Chihuly exhibit is an extension of U.S.-Singaporean diplomacy, alongside visas special free trade agreement and the renewal for 15 years in 2019 of a United States-Singapore Agreement for United States Access to Singapore Air and Naval Bases. With Singapore’s growing anxiety of being caught between American-Chinese tensions, Chihuly’s colorful, vivid and utterly breakable sculptures inevitably reflect a precarious peace, where access to Western art and commerce could be denied us as easily as we were granted. In the meantime, what better way to celebrate our cosmopolitan status than through strategic corporate partnerships? Halfway through my walk, I found myself face to face with a Porsche Taycan displayed on a pedestal, painted in the shapes and colors of Chihuly’s “End of the Day Persian Chandelier” (2015). It was a confusing collaboration drawing parallels between Chihuly’s innovations in glassblowing and Porsche’s innovations in automotive manufacturing.

A Porsche Taycan painted in Chihuly’s “End of the Day Persian Chandelier” colors (2015)

And yet, in the midst of this feverish dream, the exhibit contains signs that Singapore’s relationship with the West is gradually evolving. One of Chihuly’s processes is to take inspiration from nature first but “grow a series to its maximum size… the bigger the better”. It is therefore interesting to observe that the large-scale sculptures are eclipsed compared to the oversized futuristic environment – the 35 meters Cloud forest, the 50 meters Concrete supertrees, the 207 meters Sands of Marina Bay. Perhaps Singapore’s ambitions exceeded those of its Western peers. The political climate and the pandemic have led to a increasing emphasis on self-sufficiency, to prioritize jobs for locals over expatriates, and one general reversal of expatriate fortunes, although sometimes marked by xenophobia. Investing in a more empowered and innovative Singapore is now part of the public discourse, except for how we define great art and great culture.

Chihuly himself hoped that viewers can experience how his pieces interact with the Singapore setting. For him, I share my own experience not to start a protectionist rally against foreign art, but as a starting point to explore the ways in which global art can truly engage with Singaporeans, instead of occurring in a bubble marketed without local concerns. What happens when we think art needs to be globally recognized to deserve our admiration, to be enlightening enough to pull us out of the depressive lulls of a global pandemic? We are celebrating our heritage as a colonial free port, but when the trade winds change and ships leave the docks on August 1, when the Chihuly exhibit closes, I hope that as a nation we will remember to invest in helping our own artists to thrive as well, providing them with the space, funding, recognition and faith that they or they can bring us joy and comfort in difficult times.

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