Factory art? Singapore’s artists head for industrial buildings in the east

Pei Fu Industrial Building is your typical industrial building found all over Tai Seng.

Located at the end of New Industrial Road, just off the busy intersection of Upper Paya Lebar Road and Bartley Road East, the old six-storey structure houses a hodge-podge of businesses ranging from safety equipment vendors to interior fitting firms.

On the first floor, there is a food wholesaler, where trucks are busy unloading sacks of rice and boxes of cooking oil.

It is the last place you would imagine artists hanging out for inspiration. But for sculptor Tricia Lim and painter Liang-Gek Cheng, it is the perfect place to make art.

Together with filmmaker Victric Thng, the two share a unit on the second floor, which they’ve divided among themselves and turned into artist studios.

At the back, Ms Cheng has a large work area and storage space, where you will find her working on large paintings every day.

Meanwhile, the rest of the unit is divided between Mr Thng and Ms Lim, who have set up a storage space-cum-vintage thrift shop and a ceramics studio, respectively.

“As a painter, you want a big clear space without too much columns, low rental and maybe higher ceilings; a fairly good amount of lighting and cargo lifts for our stuff. Industrial spaces are a natural fit for us,” said Ms Cheng.


As Singapore’s space crunch and rising costs at the city centre continues, industrial areas on the fringes are slowly becoming a viable alternative for artists looking for a place to work.

And like the artist-tenants at Pei Fu Industrial Building, others have also looked to the east, in areas such as Tai Seng, Ubi, Macpherson and Geylang.

At Kapo Factory, a grungy rundown building that is walking distance from Tai Seng MRT along Upper Paya Lebar Road, two artists have set up Peninsular.

The 600 sq ft unit on the second floor opened last May. It mainly serves as a studio for Tan Guo-Liang and Cheong Kah Kit, but every three or four months, they open it up to experimental exhibitions by other artists.

The two had joined forces in search of a place, and decided to look at industrial areas.

It was partly because they were inspired by Hong Kong’s art scene, where many artists and galleries are based in similar places. “We picked this because it looked like some of the spaces we’ve been to (in Hong Kong) and I thought the vibe here was quite nice,” said Mr Tan.

“(Peninsular) is an in-between space, between a studio where people make and a gallery where people show, which I find the most exciting.”

Their presence at Kapo Factory inspired another artist to move into the building.

On the same floor, but at the opposite block, artist Joo Choon Lin has been working at her new space for the past couple of weeks.

Previously, she worked at Telok Kurau Studios, one of the National Arts Council’s (NAC) oldest arts housing sites. There, she temporarily rented spaces from artist-tenants.

But after visiting Peninsular, Ms Joo decided to look for her own space at Kapo Factory. After searching online, she found an office space in one of the units, where she’s now busy building an installation work for a group show next year.

“I was looking around and there were many places where you can’t even drill things, but this was a factory, so it was okay,” she said.


For the artists Channel NewsAsia talked to, renting spaces at industrial buildings has proven to be beneficial.

Prior to setting up her studio at Pei Fu Industrial Building, Ms Lim did not have any other place to make art.

She tried to apply for a studio space at Goodman Arts Centre (GAC) and Aliwal Arts Centre, two of NAC’s most recent and popular arts housing sites, but was unsuccessful. Her mother, herself an artist, had her own studio, but that did not work out either.

Now that she has a place of her own, she has been able to further her practice.

“Working from your house, from your bedroom, trying to do certain things, especially if its sculpture, is quite difficult,” she said.

“Here, I’ve managed to start to explore and really live and work as an artist. It has also become a place to think and process things.”

Being in an industrial area also has its plus points on a more practical level, said Mr Tan, who pointed out there are a lot of places in the Tai Seng area where artists can easily get materials. “I walk out, I can get wood or metal. There’s also stationery warehouse nearby,” he said.

And as it turns out, the area is quite interesting.

“One of the things we just found out is there’s a record shop upstairs, there’s an experimental kitchen in one of the buildings nearby, there’s food, second-hand shops … It’s industrial but it’s also kind of lively, so we’re always surprised.”

But the main attraction of going industrial in the east has undoubtedly been the range of options available and the relative reasonable costs of renting spaces.

For many artists, the default option has long been NAC’s arts housing scheme. The council offers studio spaces at heavily subsidised rates, which could go as high as 80% of the market rate. For instance, studios at GAC average around S$700, including service charge.

Recently, the council has also added 30 recycled shipping containers at GAC to address demands for short-term projects across all art forms.

But these Government-subsidised spaces are limited in number and very sought-after. These get snatched up quickly, so industrial buildings are looking to be the next best — and affordable — option.

The folks at Peninsular, for instance, pay around S$1,000 a month for their 600 sq ft studio, while their neighbor Ms Joo pays S$600 for her smaller, 193 sq ft space. Meanwhile, the three folks sharing the second floor unit at Pei Fu Industrial Building pay S$2,450 a month for their 1,900 sq ft unit.


However, renting spaces at industrial buildings also has its unique set of challenges.

Artist Chua Chye Teck — who previously joined Cheng Liang-Gek and Victric Thng before roping in Tricia Lim to replace him — pointed out that like any other space available in the market, the costs at the beginning can be a headache.

“Most artists live month-by-month. Maybe they can afford S$500, but if you ask them to bring out a few thousand dollars for down payment and for renovation, it’s quite impossible unless they are financially stable, like if they teach,” said Mr Chua.

That was the case for the three artists at Pei Fu Industrial Building, who collectively had to fork out nearly S$22,000 for renovation costs, lighting, partition walls, air-conditioning and doors.

Many of these spaces, too, are often too huge and too expensive for just one artist to rent — more often than not, those who do take the leap need to co-share with like-minded artists.

Two years ago, Ezekiel Wong Kel Win and a few other fellow artists did just that. Together with Hilmi Johandi, Betty Susiarjo, Choi Yin and Simon Ng, they pooled their resources to rent a unit at UB. One at Ubi Avenue 4.

“Me and Hilmi (Johandi) were thinking of looking for a space together and then we found out that the rest were also looking, so we thought why not look together. We were almost sure we wanted to be around Tai Seng area because it was convenient. It’s near the MRT and it’s somewhere central,” said Mr Wong, who had also unsuccessfully applied for a studio space at GAC.

The 1,023 sq ft space cost S$2,400 a month, which they divided among themselves.

But even then, it had been a huge gamble for Mr Wong, who had just graduated before plunging into the endeavour.

“I didn’t know we had to pay two months in advance, that you had to fix the light, put up partitions, activate the utilities,” he recalled. “Then all the bills started coming in and it was just crazy. That was the most stressful part.”

But it eventually paid off. He finally had space and put it to good use. Many of the works for his first solo show — at last year’s Affordable Art Fair Young Talent Programme — were done at the studio.

Studio Ubi, however, is set to close shop, with a final exhibition during Singapore Art Week in January. So now, some of its artists are in the process of shifting to a smaller and cheaper space — an industrial building at Shaw Road, which, incidentally is very near Kapo Factory.

The building is so brand new (it is a refurbished former workers dormitory flanked by other workers dormitories) that only the fourth floor currently has occupants.

Each artist pays around S$300 a month for the square-shaped space that they’ve yet to spruce up.

“It’s definitely a lot cheaper. And we only have to pay for electricity; we don’t have to pay for water,” said Mr Wong. “A lot of people are co-sharing because rarely would people want to rent big spaces — and for many of them, like designers, you really only need a table space.”


Sharing a space with other artists isn’t only beneficial on a financial level; co-sharing means there’s an instant support group as well.

“I used to work all by myself,” said Ms Cheng, “But now, I have these two (Victric Thng and Tricia Lim), and the occasional interaction is quite good, emotionally.”

Added Mr Wong: “I would bounce off ideas with my friends, talk about recent exhibitions, get instant feedback about my paintings, which I think is very important for a young artist like me.”

So while practical needs drove these artists to move to industrial spaces, the potential for these to also become social places is there.

In their attempts to build a kind of community among themselves, six studios organised a one-day open house event called Eastside Open Studios last month.

The no-frills, lowkey event was ambitiously compared to Brooklyn’s Bushwick Open Studios — the largest open studio event in New York — but suffice it to say the industrial scene in the east is still in its infancy stages.

“With these sorts of organic art clusters, it does take time to grow,” said Mr Tan.

But artists can take heart in the fact that Singapore has a tradition of these spaces cropping up where you least expect them.

Most famous of these was the seminal Ulu Sembawang farm that was home to The Artists Village in the 1980s. Through the years, other places also attracted artists, primarily because of cheap costs but eventually, because of the vibrant artistic energy that emanated from them.

These included the double-storey colonial houses at Seletar Camp, where the likes of Vincent Leow, Han Sai Por, Lee Wen and Jason Lim stayed.

“It was cheap, there was land and you didn’t feel like you were in Singapore. As students, we would always hang out there,” recalled Mr Chua.

Later on, other places would become ground zero for many artists, most prominently in Little India during the mid-2000s. The main cluster was found at Perumal Road, where a two-storey block of flats became an artist colony of sorts.

Peninsular’s Mr Tan was one of those who lived there for three years, sharing one of the units with a couple of artists from 2005 to 2008.

“It just happened that the whole building had very affordable rent and it was a great location in the city fringe. People slowly found out about it and because they were actively looking for units, that created something,” he said, adding that aside from the studios, there was also a creative “centre” in p-10, a defunct art collective that became the focal point in area.


The trend of artists heading for industrial spaces in the east is fairly new. But it could very well be linked, historically, to how artists have adjusted and reacted to developments in Singapore.

If artists had once sought the idyllic environments of Ulu Sembawang as a reaction to rapid modernization of the country in the 1980s, and later converged in the heritage-rich area of Little India in the mid-2000s as the country began embracing the arts more fully, then heading to the industrial buildings could be tied to what’s happening in the art scene now. After all, the past few years have seen an explosion of galleries and art fairs, and a growing art market.

“There is something about industrial studio spaces that could be pegged to art as some sort of industry,” admitted Mr Tan. “But while we want to make stuff, I don’t want to be in a factory making art — I want the place to have some soul.”

There is, in fact, a precedent to this current trickle of artists in Tai Seng. Back in 2009, a massive art exhibition called BlackOut was held at a warehouse that, incidentally, was in a building just across the road from Kapo Factory. Some 13 artists participated in the three-day event.

It remains to be seen whether more artists will embrace the industrial areas of the east, but for now, those who are there are simply enjoying the artistic space they have – even if they are pretty much still the odd ones out in their respective buildings.

“They’re very curious about what we do. They’re always looking in and probably thinking ‘what the hell are they doing’?” said Ms Tan, about their non-artist neighbours.

“But I feel very much like we’re all in this together.”

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 23 Dec 2016