BY Arthur Solway in Profiles | 14 AUG 17
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Issue 189

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Fifteen years of innovation at Singapore's STPI print workshops 

BY Arthur Solway in Profiles | 14 AUG 17

Founded by the American master printer and publisher Kenneth Tyler, who made his name collaborating with the giants of postwar painting at his workshops in upstate New York, STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery (originally the Singapore Tyler Print Institute) celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Located along the Singapore River in a vast 19th-century former shipyard warehouse, STPI houses a paper mill, a 400 m2 exhibition space, artists’ studios, living quarters, staff offices and some of the most technically innovative printmaking workshops in the world. To date, its residency programme has invited over 80 international artists to make work using its state-of-the-art facilities.

Tyler established his first printmaking atelier, Gemini G.E.L., in Los Angeles in 1965 before setting up shop in Mount Kisco, New York, in the early 1970s. Renowned for his technical virtuosity and radical experimentation, he produced limited editions for artists including Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell and Frank Stella, with whom he developed a longtime collaboration and friendship.

After 37 years, retirement was not an easy decision for Tyler, but the timing was right. In the mid-1990s, Singapore’s Heritage Conservation Centre, along with the Renaissance City Plan, wanted to develop Singapore as a global arts city, fostering knowledge-based creative industries. Brokering a multi-million dollar deal with the support of the Singaporean government enabled Tyler to set up STPI. The deal also included the sale of more than 1,000 prints from Tyler’s archive, which are now held in Singapore’s National Collection. STPI purchased all of the original printing presses and equipment from the Mount Kisco workshops – including a 100-ton hydraulic platen press, one of the few remaining in the world – as well as Tyler’s paper-making equipment.

Under executive and curatorial director Emi Eu, who has been part of the team since 2001, STPI has hosted artists from nearly every corner of the world. A turning point for the programme came in 2007 with a breakthrough project by the Chinese sculptor Lin Tianmiao. Known for her craft-based practice, which includes embroidery, sewing and weaving, Lin created a series of otherworldly portraits and landscapes through labour-intensive webs of threading, sometimes applying styrofoam balls and embossed impressions of needles to the flocked-paper surfaces.

Artists residencies usually take place over the course of a year, although some have lasted two years or longer. An initial two-to-three-week period usually serves as an introductory session for residents to begin exploring what is possible while getting to know the creative workshop team. Some artists come with previous printmaking experience while others do not.

One of the more adventuresome anniversary projects has been ‘Exquisite Trust (Blindly Collective Collaborations)’, by Carsten Höller, Tobias Rehberger, Anri Sala and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Taking their cue from the surrealist parlour game cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), the four artists, who also happen to be longtime friends, produced a series of monumental monotypes by circulating works-in-progress for each other to finish, giving only nominal clues as to the original appearance of each. Executed ‘blindly’ by master printers at the instruction of each artist, the results are hybrids of multiple techniques and juxtapositions of imagery – a chimpanzee hovering above a clown-nosed figure in Dreams That Money Cannot Buy; hard-edged wedges of vibrant colour below a moiré sun in Jitterbugs Tangofly Tagplants – which seem to coalesce to suggest an anonymous fifth artistic identity.

STPI has witnessed ambitious urban initiatives and major local developments within the past two or three years – among them, the new National Gallery Singapore, which opened in 2015 in the former City Hall and adjacent Supreme Court building. Still under British rule in 1939, Singapore was occupied by the Japanese during World War II; war crime trials took place at the Supreme Court in 1946 and, in 1959, Singapore’s first president was sworn in at City Hall. Following massive renovation by the French architects Studio Milou, the museum now houses the world’s largest public collection of Southeast Asian art, with over 8,000 works.

In 2012, Gillman Barracks, a former British military compound, built in 1936, was jointly transformed by Singapore’s Economic Development Board, National Arts Council and JTC Corporation into a burgeoning gallery district. International galleries – including Mizuma, Pearl Lam, ShanghART and Sundaram Tagore – have established themselves there. Gillman Barracks is also the location of the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art, headed by its founding director Ute Meta Bauer, which offers international residencies and an ambitious contemporary programme.

When the National Gallery opened, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented that the institution demonstrates Singapore’s dedication and unwavering commitment to culture. Significant public funding has played an instrumental role in Singapore’s creative momentum – and will likely continue to do so. In a city once dubbed the ‘Switzerland of Asia’, we might ask whether a grassroots creative community can survive. Keenly aware of this context, STPI has, from the outset, made working with artists living in Singapore and the surrounding Malaysian peninsula a fundamental part of its programme. Hopefully, by maintaining an outlook that is both international and regional, STPI can continue to serve as a counterbalance to encroaching visions of global homogeneity. 

Main image: Carsten Höller, Tobias Rehberger, Anri Sala and Rirkrit Tiravanija, All Together. In your Way. Out of Hands, 2016, from the series ‘Exquisite Trust’ (Blindly Collective Collaborations). Courtesy: the artists and STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore.

Arthur Solway is a writer and poet. His essays, reviews and poetry have appeared in Art Asia PacificArtforumTriQuarterly and BOMB. He was most recently a finalist for the 2021 Donald Justice Prize in Poetry. He lives in Santa Cruz, California