On May 1, 2021, Dale Chihuly’s first major garden exhibition in Asia opened to the public in Singapore. Launched during Singapore’s third phase of COVID-19 recovery, on the same day BBC declared Singapore “the best place to live during Covid,” the exhibition was marketed as a symbol of Singapore’s resilience amidst socio-economic challenges caused by the pandemic Organizers referred to the feat of transporting over 100 fragile, large artworks from Seattle to Singapore as a testament to the country’s continued relevance in global affairs, considering it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for travel-restricted Singaporeans to “access world-class art overseas.” They hoped that Chihuly’s “masterpieces will bring joy to everyone during this challenging time.”
The nation’s collective optimism would reverse within a couple of weeks. On May 16, the Singapore government announced tighter social restrictions amid a new wave of COVID-19 cases, and social gatherings were capped at two people.
With this backdrop of events, I set out to explore Chihuly’s garden show with a simple premise: Could I find moments of joy and respite amongst Chihuly’s giant glass sculptures, as the organizers had promised?
At a time when local galleries are scrambling to fundraise, postpone shows, and/or bring them online, viewing Chihuly’s brightly-colored installations scattered across Singapore’s futuristic, expansive Gardens by the Bay felt like a luxury. I couldn’t help but reflect on who was afforded the privilege of physical space during this time, and who wasn’t. By devoting three prominent sections of the gardens to Chihuly’s sculptures, the organizers had aimed to create an “immersive journey,” but any immersion was illusionary, fraught with elitism and the nagging feeling that the world outside did not, could not, take up space in the same way.
The constant surveillance during Singapore’s COVID-19 situation (we are now required to use tracking devices) induced my hyperawareness, and even anxiety, of Chihuly’s artistic medium — glass. While “Do Not Touch the Flowers” signs adorned certain sections of the gardens, I was bewildered to discover that each fragile, vibrant, expensive glass sculpture was protected by nothing more than a well-manicured moat of flowers and grass. When my date and I asked the landscapers whether this encouraged curious children to play with and potentially break the sculptures, they reassured us that the curators wanted to evoke a sense of freedom of exploration, much like the way one explored nature freely, without boundaries 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 coterie of glass “Towers,” “Chandeliers,” and “Persians” (all names of different series) were our esteemed, temporary, visitors from the West, taking up the most exclusive spaces while being immune to the rules and anxieties of the local population. Or was I guilty of internalized postcolonial self-doubt, of a lack of faith in my own community’s propensity for respecting art? This uneasiness at the enticing yet vulnerable nature of the art was summed up by an acquaintance: “I think it might take less than one week for some Singaporean Instagrammer to break one of the sculptures.”
Speaking of the “Persians,” a recurring theme within Chihuly’s artwork is his search for new forms that enigmatically invoke the natural world, including, as he says, the “Near and Far East.” On his website and in press materials, it is often unclear what specific elements of nature or culture he draws inspiration from, and he himself declares he starts his process without specific forms in mind. Thus, the narrative of a bold creative adventurer discovering exotic new forms and breaking boundaries is perpetuated, instead of an artist who is influenced by and grounded in distinct times and places. Viewing the abstracted, repetitive shapes that seem to appeal to a shared view of nature, I am reminded that aspirations towards universalism can border on cultural imperialism at times. As I viewed “Setting Sun” (2020),” a piece designed especially for this exhibition but which seems to be a red and yellow replica of his previous “Suns”pieces, I could not deduce traces of purposeful localization, the colors instead reminding me of McDonalds.
On the other hand, this commitment to vagueness unwittingly becomes a brilliant commercialization strategy, whereby careful curation can invoke shapes and colors reminiscent of local flora and fauna, providing each exhibitor nation the opportunity to take credit as Chihuly’s muse. I saw references to local fruit throughout: in a spikey “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 local butterfly pea flowers, I saw a celebration of a lush tropical climate that produces the rarest occurring color in nature: blue. Needless to say, I was hungry by the end of the exhibition, although the original intention might’ve been to feel surging national pride at our close association with globally renowned artworks.
Make no mistake about it: besides being a temporary escape into fantastical shapes and colors, the Chihuly exhibition is an extension of US-Singapore diplomacy, alongside special free trade agreement visas and the 2019 15-year renewal of a US-Singapore agreement for US access to Singapore’s air and naval bases. With Singapore’s growing anxiety over being caught between US-China tensions, Chihuly’s colorful, lively, totally breakable sculptures inevitably reflect an uneasy peace, one where access to Western art and commerce could be denied to us just as easily as it was granted. In the meantime, what better way to celebrate our cosmopolitan status than through strategic corporate partnerships? Halfway through my stroll I came face-to-face with a Porsche Taycan displayed on a pedestal, painted with the shapes and colors of Chihuly’s “End of the Day Persian Chandelier” (2015). It was a puzzling collaboration drawing parallels between Chihuly’s innovations in glassblowing and Porsche’s innovations in car making.
And yet — amid this fever dream, the exhibition contains signs that Singapore’s relationship with the West is gradually shifting. One of Chihuly’s processes is to start with an inspiration from nature but “push a series to its maximum size … the bigger the better.” It is interesting to observe, then, that the large-scale sculptures are dwarfed in comparison to the supersize, futuristic surroundings — the 35-meter Cloud Forest, the 50-meter concrete Supertrees, the 207-meter Marina Bay Sands. Perhaps Singapore’s ambitions have overtaken that of its western peers. The political climate and the pandemic has led to an increasing emphasis on self-sustainability, on prioritizing jobs for locals instead of expats, and a general reversal of expat fortunes, albeit at times laced with xenophobia. Investing in a more self-reliant, innovative Singapore is now part of the public discourse — except when it comes to how we define great art and culture.
Chihuly himself hoped that viewers could experience how his pieces interacted with Singapore’s setting. To his point, I am sharing my own experience not to initiate a protectionist rally against foreign art, but as a starting point to explore the ways global art can engage with Singaporeans genuinely, instead of occurring within a commercialized bubble free from local concerns. What happens when we believe art has to be globally renowned to be worthy of our admiration, to be enlightening enough to uplift us from the depressive lulls of a global pandemic? We celebrate our heritage as a colonial free port, but when the trade winds change and the ships leave the docks on August 1, when Chihuly’s exhibition closes, I hope that we as a nation remember to invest in helping our own artists thrive as well, providing them with the space, funding, recognition, and faith that they can bring us joy and comfort during difficult times.