Why you should care

Because it’s bringing fearless art to an often fearsome place.

The metal gate at 120A on Prinsep Street in the heart of Singapore is nondescript. A casual glance and you might think what lies beyond is a run-down shipping yard. But within the stacked black shipping containers something unexpected is taking place. 

Welcome to DECK, Singapore’s independent art space. Ascend the metal staircase and you’ll find three galleries, an analog darkroom, a library and a studio, all free from government control and censorship, a rarity in this artistically conservative city-state.

artist Tristan Cai at his exhibition at DECK.

Artist Tristan Cai at his exhibition at DECK, “The Aesthetics of Disappearance.”

Source Sonia Sarkar

DECK — it stands for “Discovery Engagement Community Knowledge” — is a space that “gives photographers and the public an opportunity to discover, question and reinforce their creative processes and be inspired by photography,” says artistic director Gwen Lee. The idea for the gallery came to Lee and her colleague Jay Lau while they were organizing the 2012 biennial Singapore International Photography Festival. Both were looking for artistic space in crowded Singapore. Shipping containers, which also reflect the character of the port city, made sense. Two years later, thanks to donations and sponsorships, the 4,450-square-foot structure, designed by Ho Tzu Yin of Laud Architects, opened on a narrow strip of land in Singapore’s central business district. 

The gallery’s main goal is to provoke conversations — sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes downright taboo — through photography. “Censorship comes down hardest when the artist touches upon issues related to LGBT, [the] state’s perspective of race and multifaith policies, and [its] past security operations,” says Singapore artist Jason Wee. 

Independent art spaces are necessary in a nanny state like Singapore…

In April, during bicentennial celebrations in which British colonizers were commemorated by the government, DECK featured an exhibition by U.S.-based Tristan Cai. His “The Aesthetics of Disappearance” examines the relationship between houseboys and their colonial masters and questions how history is constructed and narrated by those in power. In 2016, the gallery hosted a book launch party for Broy Lim, whose and now they know  explores his coming out (homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore). “Silenced Minority,” a photo essay of Singapore’s general elections that included opposition rallies, a topic rarely covered in mainstream media, was featured in 2015.

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The minimalist interior of one DECK gallery.

Source DECK, Darren Soh

So how does DECK get away with giving an artistic middle finger to state censorship? First, the building is independently owned — most visual arts galleries in Singapore lease space from the National Arts Council (NAC). Second, it’s mostly independently funded. These conditions allow the gallery to run the exhibitions it wants to (work shown in galleries that lease space from the NAC is subject to government approval). However, any exhibitions that involve nudity and sexuality require an M18 certificate (no one under 18 years is allowed entry)

 

Independent art spaces are necessary in a nanny state like Singapore, where state funding influences art, says local artist Seelan Palay. It’s a situation that “contributes to the climate of control” and fear, which leads to censorship and self-censorship, adds Palay, who runs Coda Culture, another independent art space. 

As expected, DECK has encountered its share of opposition. Sometimes newspapers print exhibition announcements late, or not at all, Lee says. There have been delays on M18 certificate approvals, and repeated requests for assurances from gallery owners or curators that pieces have “been exhibited elsewhere without censorship,” she adds. “As of today, we have managed to carry out what we have planned. And we continue to keep trying without giving up.” 

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Video source: Sonia Sarkar

Such is not the case for other independent art galleries here. Many have closed down due to lack of funding. DECK has managed to stay afloat operating on revenue from artwork sales, open house events, public workshops and public donations. Still, it’s challenging to compete with the bigger institutions when it comes to visitors, Lee says, since photography is only one aspect of the arts scene. “The challenge of sustainability is a constant,” she says. 

Deck photo

DECK has three galleries, an analog darkroom, a library and a studio

Source DECK, Darren Soh

Despite this, DECK presses on, offering educational programs for young photographers and collaborating with educators on incorporating photography into arts curricula. There are plans to work with historians and researchers to gather more research and writing on Singapore photography in the region. 

In the end, it’s all about staying true to art. DECK values critical discourse over fear of backlash, says Cai, who also teaches photography at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. With exhibitions that he calls “diverse, challenging and relevant,” the gallery offers a unique opportunity to see uncensored photography in a place where censorship is often close at hand.

DECK is open Tuesday to Saturday, 12 – 7 pm, and Sunday, 12 – 5 pm. Admission is $4.

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