A Colombian in 'the Louvre of Asia'

A Colombian in 'the Louvre of Asia'

Michael Vatikiotis

Thursday, December 23, 2004

International Herald Tribune


SINGAPORE 'I'm of the old school," says Fernando Botero. "I believe art should give pleasure."


So, has this Colombian master, one of the most successful living artists in the world, chosen the right place to mount one of the biggest exhibitions of his work? Singapore, the nanny state that banned chewing gum and demands a permit even for free speech, doesn't exactly conjure up images of pleasure.


But things are changing in this balmy city state, where in contrast to many contemporary Asian cities, the palm trees are real, old buildings are preserved and culture of all kinds attracts the sort of funding that many western capitals are starved of. "We see ourselves as the Louvre of Asia," gushed a Singapore Tourist Board official at the launch of some 20 of Botero's monumental sculptures and almost 80 paintings in early December.


Indeed, Singapore is trying to brand itself as a "global arts city." The exercise is part of a lurch toward liberal creativity that Singapore's leaders believe is imperative for attracting the kind of talent it needs to build its economy on banking and biotechnology rather than relying on the cheap chips and circuit boards that sustained it through the 1990s.


The Botero show is a dry run, it seems, for a more ambitious Singapore Biennale in 2006.


The cynics still carp about the superficiality of it all. The imported cultural extravaganzas come across as forced, as ersatz western in a city populated for the most part by Chinese immigrants who excel at math and find little time to have sex, surveys show, let alone enjoy art.


Some visitors wondered how easy it was for Botero to persuade conservative Singaporeans to parade giant bronze images of a woman being raped by a swan, or a reclining nude with a cigarette in hand. Nearby, a bronze figure from another era, the city's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, looks on with an unamused air. But then this is the city that has recently allowed gay bars to operate openly and even produced a brochure advertising gay entertainment in the "pink city."


Kwok Kian Chow, director of the Singapore Art Museum, is quick to dispel the old stereotypes. He points to the public interest in outdoor art generated by a recent exhibition of the Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming. Botero's monumental sculptures are not just being shown in the park, they are dotted around prominent public places like Changi Airport, where a giant standing woman now greets visitors approaching the immigration desk.


Botero himself sees his art as conveying a whole range of Western civilization, from the geometry of the Italian Quattrocento, to the luminous extravagance of the Spanish masters Goya and Velázquez. His paintings, he says, "speak in a language that is universal and transgress the barrier of locality." The compression of civilization Botero achieves in his art is perhaps just what busy Singaporeans and other Asian spectators need - a quick and easy take-away.


As a Latin American, Botero is acutely aware that rather like the wealthy Asians who now quest the artistic imagery of the West for their investment portfolios or growing acreage of real estate, he is more of a spectator than a participant. "When you are from a third-world country like I am, you have a panoramic view of Europe." This perhaps explains why Botero's images seem to go down so well-and why talk of healthy sales is already in the air.


After Singapore, Botero's sights are firmly set on China, where he has already had some success. The other day, a Chinese buyer walked into his atelier in Florence and paid cold cash for a monumental statue (which can go for up to a million dollars). Botero says with surprise: "He wanted it for his garden."