Gillman BarracksModern Art in a Military Setting
Housing a plethora of art works from emerging and established artists, including Yayoi Kusama and Zhang Enli, these simple spaces offer a quieter, more introspective alternative to the swarming galleries of the central city.
Rain falls over Gillman Barracks. It descends slowly, in thick folds. Bulbous, globular tears. The kind that fill mud cracks and soak through shoes. Like beads of olive oil they drip lazily. Teetering on windowsills and flowing languidly down ripe fern leaves. The great wall of rain trees that unfurls over the surrounding valley muffles the murmur of the city. A distant sea breeze is stifled by the heavy air. Gillman’s scattered dice of ivory buildings litter the undulating slopes of the estate. Ice cubes in a jungle, their white stucco walls glimmer wanly against the murky backdrop of the forest.
Singapore is used to sudden, hammering downpours. Tropical storms that scream themselves hoarse for a couple of minutes then retreat bashfully for the remainder of the afternoon. The water from these tantrums is the lifeblood of the city. When there was a drought this January (the longest on record), Singapore turned from green to brown and cabinet members considered calling a national emergency. Despite this strong reliance on precipitation, locals seem to detest the regular downpours. Since the tap hasn’t been turned off properly today, the walkways of Telok Blangah Hill Park leading to Gillman are deserted.
Two years ago, the Singaporean government redeveloped this colonial plantation into a series of art spaces. Previously a military outpost for the British army during the Second World War, Gillman, named after the resident commanding general, is comprised of 15 arcades of varying sizes. While a great amount of refurbishment has been carried out on the estate, these starched, unadorned buildings still reflect the stripped back efficiency of the former army settlement. Housing a plethora of art works from emerging and established artists, including Yayoi Kusama and Zhang Enli, these simple spaces offer a quieter, more introspective alternative to the swarming galleries of the central city.
It is a little passed midday, and yet many of the galleries remain closed. Those that are open are monochromatic and sparingly filled. All is peaceful. Long, open corridors lie empty. A door creaks open to an abandoned studio. Dust, which in a dryer climate would hang in the air, has coagulated and is daubed like grey moss across the floor surface. Weak light filters begrudgingly through large square windows. Puddles reflect the slate grey sky. A Curator ambles quietly. Clouds of blue cigarette smoke. Discarded paint palettes, smears of umber and burnt sienna. An irregular drumbeat of rain.
This is a place where the ironed shirt of authoritarianism has become a little crumpled. There is a shy air of creativity here. Perhaps the beady eye of the government will spot it before it truly blossoms, and it will drown under the larger crowds drawn in by a steady influx of prestigious artists7. Today, however, this small hub of galleries has a Coleridgean sense of escapism. Hints of a subculture. An isolated community where imagination can be fully expressed. The rain trickles. Singapore is silent.