What Gillman Barracks needs to thrive

What Gillman Barracks needs to thrive
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.

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.

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