Daunting visit for art newbie

A visit to Gillman Barracks to see art is like looking for a needle in a haystack. There are some wonderful artworks and exhibitions, but be prepared to spend a full afternoon trudging around the sprawling gallery cluster to find the good stuff.

When I went there for the first time on a weekday afternoon late last month, I saw more empty buildings than people. What has been touted as a hub for art collectors in the region is instead a sleepy and underwhelming cluster of galleries that seem to be poorly laid out.

My friend and I began our visit to the cluster off Alexandra Road with lunch at Masons before starting on our tour. If you are there before 6pm, the European restaurant is the only eatery in the compound that is open.

The cluster is made up of 14 galleries, housed in restored buildings that were former British army barracks. It was not a particularly warm day, but poor signposting and dead-end roads made navigating a tedious experience.

The galleries are spread out over a massive area bisected by Malan and Lock Roads - 6.4ha or about the size of nine football fields. The signs do not bear the names of the galleries, only block numbers. While there are directories with maps at the entrance of the compound and at major junctions, these are few and far between.

There is also no shelter between buildings, most of which stand in isolation, which makes it difficult to gallery-hop in inclement weather. While there is ample parking throughout the cluster, driving around would defeat the purpose of having the galleries within walking distance.

The long walk does have its benefits. The generous space means that most galleries are set up amid vast stretches of green, and the barracks' high ceilings give the artworks ample room to breathe.

This is particularly true for the larger galleries, such as the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Block 5, that is exhibiting large galvanised steel works by Israeli artist Nathan Slate Joseph, and ShanghArt's Going Where? exhibition by local artists on the second floor of the main three- storey block in the cluster.

In addition, visiting the galleries was a hit-and-miss experience. Some of the galleries, particularly the smaller ones, were very welcoming, while others were stand-offish and intimidating. The works range from local artist Heman Chong's conceptual art to works with more mass-market appeal such as the bright, Pop Art-style paintings of Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami.

My story was simple: I told each gallery I was a first-time buyer looking for an affordable art piece for a new house. I did not introduce myself as a journalist. One of the warmest welcomes I received was at Space Cottonseed, which was exhibiting works by emerging Korean artists such as Cha Youngseok and Hyungmin Moon.

The moment I walked in, the gallerist handed me a write-up on all the artists, and engaged me in conversation easily without being pushy.

Another friendly gallery was Future Perfect, where Chong's works were on offer. I was greeted as I walked through the door, and directed to a table stacked with monographs and books about him.

I was then shown his works - a randomly ordered series of 100 photographs of Singapore, which the artist took using a point-and-shoot camera. The works were displayed in a similarly frills-free way: The pieces of paper, each priced at $600, were placed on the wall without frames or backing.

When I told the gallerist I was looking for works larger than Chong's selection of A4-sized photographs, he brought out a catalogue of aboriginal artworks, and offered me a drink and table to sit at while I browsed the catalogue.

But other galleries were not as welcoming. In several of them, the gallerists were chatting among themselves. When I asked to look at a catalogue, one gallerist pointed to a pile of paper on the counter before turning back to talk to her friend.

In another gallery, when I asked about the works' price range, the gallerist barely glanced my way when she replied, "€50,000 to €500,000", before going back to her computer screen.

After more than three hours touring the galleries, my friend and I wanted to sit down for a drink, but facilities offering quick bites were minimal. A gallerist told me that she and her colleagues take packed lunches to work because it is too much of a hassle to travel out to eat.

My suggestion would be to turn some of the empty spaces - which there were no lack of - into F&B outlets. On my visit, the top level of the main building, Block 9, was empty. The doors to the space were unlocked and the dust and the stillness of the air told my friend and me that it had been untouched for months. Blocks 37, 38, and 39 along Malan Road were also vacant.

By the end of this year though, most of these spaces should be occupied. Pearl Lam Galleries, a leading promoter of Chinese contemporary art, with galleries in Shanghai and Hong Kong, is due to move into the top floor of Block 9.

The non-profit Centre for Contemporary Art, which will function as a research centre and offer artist residences, will take over Blocks 37, 38 and 39. To get the most out of a trip to the cluster, you have to do your research and know what you want. Otherwise, you would risk a long trek through galleries offering a diverse range of art and where not everything may be to your taste.

As my friend, a fellow art newbie, told me afterwards: "If I'm looking for art, I'll go to Art Stage or a fair, where everything is in one place and the gallerists are more willing to help."

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