Universes in Universe / Biennials / Singapore Biennale 2006 / Lee Suan Hiang - interview
Interview with Lee Suan Hiang
Chief Executive Officer, National Arts Council
Chairman of the SB 2006 Steering Committee
By G. Haupt & P. Binder, Universes in Universe
Universes in Universe: Singapore claims to be on the move from an industrial production society to a knowledge-based and innovation-oriented one, which finds its correspondence in a diverse and dynamic, cosmopolitan cultural life. Is the decision to organize such a Biennale, to be seen in this context?
Lee Suan Hiang: As we move from the industrial economy to the knowledge based innovation driven phase of development, our people will need to unleash their imagination capital, they will need to be creative, to be inventive. And the arts are indeed a very important trainer of the imagination. They allow people, to challenge the convention, to think outside of the box and to do new and different things. This Biennale in many ways has challenged people’s views on subjects, such as on the theme of belief. Different art works, different ways of expression, all add up to the diversity that is the reality of this world.
The Biennale has just started, but it has already captured the imagination of a lot of people. Before, many Singaporeans may not have been involved with contemporary arts, but since art works are displayed at different sites, many Singaporeans have become engaged with the Biennale, not only as visitors, but also by helping out and volunteering.
Although we just had the official opening, the Biennale actually started two years ago. It was designed as a journey, not a destination and along the way we have involved many Singaporeans and internationals in the arts community. Through our encounters, through the way the Biennale has been organized, including several places of worship, for example, we have engaged different segments of the population. Through the community work, we have involved young children but also older people. Along the way we have educated our people in terms of what a Biennale is all about and also in terms of the contemporary art discourse.
So the Biennale is multi-facetted, multi dimensional, touches people in different ways, and that is where I think this Biennale has been a difference. We did not want a Biennale just for the artists and the international visitors alone. We wanted a Biennale that was also relevant to our people and was meaningful to them. And I think this is happening. For example I know of a contractor, who put up the art works, feeling so excited that he wants to bring his grandmother to the Biennale for the week-end. Or when I went to the church on Sunday, a lady came up to me and congratulated me on the Biennale. She said that felt so proud, so happy that we are doing something like that.
However, it still is the beginning and we have a couple of more months to go. Of course we cannot achieve everything with one event, but it has been a milestone, because it has already changed people’s perceptions. Internationally, many people think of Singapore as an economic city, which is very efficient in business. I think, this Biennale will contribute to give people some sense of Singapore as a vibrant and creative country that is also able to have fun. We believe that arts and business are mutually enriching. We want to be a global business city with global talents. And global talents and global business people want to operate in an environment with good food, good wine, good music and good arts. You need the magic of the arts. The Biennale is one of those events that we do to promote this image. It is an international event with many visitors from overseas. I think in that sense we have managed to impact all the different stakeholders.
UiU: Some of the strongest art works of the Biennale are those of local artists such as Ho Tzu Nyen and Donna Ong. What impact do you expect this international exhibition to have on the arts scene in Singapore?
Lee: The Biennale allows us to provide a platform for our artists and the arts community here to interact with the international artists, and to gain international recognition. In the process, I think, it will open up the minds of our people. The interaction will bring about new ideas and will make for a stronger arts community in Singapore.
UiU: As a Board member of the IFACCA (International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies), and the chairman of its Asian section, do you think that the Biennale will strengthen the position of Singapore as a mediator between South-East Asia and the international arts community?
Lee: We want to be a distinctive global city for the arts and to achieve that, we cannot have events for Singaporeans alone. We need to be connected. We need to bring Singapore arts to the world and we also want to bring the world to Singapore. I believe our history and our geography allow us to be connected in a meaningful way. We are more East than West and more West than East. We are a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious society, and here live Asians with all kinds of origins. For all these reasons there are good conditions for the Biennale to substantially contribute to strengthen the interconnection of our region with the international art scene.
UiU: What are your expectations regarding possible economic effects of the Biennale?
Lee: We have always taken a total approach to the arts and look at them in terms of our ABCs: art for art’s sake, art for business’ sake and art for the community’s sake.
As our country grows, becomes more affluent and successfully alleviates physical poverty, we now want to address the poverty of aspirations. Young people become more affluent and more travelled and exposed, and hence they also want to have more room for expression, for self-actualization to pursue their dreams. Therefore art for art’s sake is an important part of our social eco-system. It provides the soul of the country and emphasizes the intrinsic value of the arts.
The second part, of our program is art for business’ sake. Moving from the industrial to the innovation driven phase of development our people need to be more creative, innovative and imaginative. Art is an important catalyst in this aspect. Furthermore, art is also a very important contributor to the economy in terms the creative industries, such as media or applied arts. Our intention is to grow the creative industries from 3 % to 6 % of the GDP. In this aspect the Biennale has also helped to put Singapore on the world map.
At the same time, we also want the arts to play a role in community developments, as the art for the community’s sake. By telling the history of Singapore through the arts, we can pass it on from one generation to another, and in the process shift the ethos, give people a sense of pride, develop the national identity and help to preserve the past and define the future. If we don't have our own art, if we leave it to other people, such as the TV or Hollywood productions, they will shape how we see ourselves. Thus arts play an important role in social development, social bonding, community development as well as preserving the past and defining the future.
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