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National Gallery Singapore's inaugural Singapore art exhibition is titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What's Your Name?), which are the words found on the chalkboard of Chua Mia Tee's famous 1959 painting National Language Class.

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National Gallery Singapore's inaugural Singapore art exhibition is titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What's Your Name?), which are the words found on the chalkboard of Chua Mia Tee's famous 1959 painting National Language Class (above), featuring a group of Chinese students learning Malay in the year that Singapore had just obtained self-governance from the British. The exhibition not only includes many well-known Singapore artists, but also lesser-known but no less-talented ones, such as sculptor Kim Lim with her work titled Echoes.

BT_20151023_HYCOVER236R12_1938259.jpg
National Gallery Singapore's inaugural Singapore art exhibition is titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What's Your Name?), which are the words found on the chalkboard of Chua Mia Tee's famous 1959 painting National Language Class, featuring a group of Chinese students learning Malay in the year that Singapore had just obtained self-governance from the British. The exhibition not only includes many well-known Singapore artists, but also lesser-known but no less-talented ones, such as sculptor Kim Lim with her work titled Echoes (above).

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National Gallery's large and spacious galleries (above) enable one to take in the breadth and depth of Singapore and South-east Asian art, featuring works such as Malaysia's Bayu Utomo Radjikin's sculpture Lang Kachang.

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National Gallery's large and spacious galleries enable one to take in the breadth and depth of Singapore and South-east Asian art, featuring works such as Malaysia's Bayu Utomo Radjikin's sculpture Lang Kachang (above).

A new dawn for Singapore art

Why the new S$532 million National Gallery Singapore may be a game changer for Singapore art - and Singapore.
Oct 23, 2015 5:50 AM

THE reality of any high-profile enterprise doesn't always match the early hype. But this week's sneak preview of National Gallery Singapore and its artworks revealed a large and handsomely-designed space with extraordinarily good art.

With a combined floor area of 64,000 sq m, the S$532 million museum is - and feels - as large as Paris' Musee d'Orsay. The design and layout is physically welcoming, bringing to mind other global art institutions like Tate Modern, Museum of Modern Art and the new Whitney Museum of American Art.

But, most importantly, the artworks are stunning.

Singapore art has never been given the star treatment quite like this. Previous attempts at presenting a historical overview of Singapore art took place in spaces that weren't always designed for the comfortable viewing of art.

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National Gallery, set to open to the public on Nov 24, has finally given Singapore art the home it deserves. Here, on large walls with medium-high ceilings and warm lighting, the placement of the artworks seems to have been calibrated within the inch of their lives. Some of them look better than they've ever had in previous exhibitions, while other artworks haven't been shown publicly for at least five decades.

The DBS Singapore Gallery, which houses the Singapore permanent collection, is spread over three galleries. The inaugural exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What's Your Name?) allows you to journey through a chronological display of works. It begins with 19th century prints and drawings depicting Singapore's early years, carries on through the crucible years of Modern Art and ends with the multimedia expressions of contemporary artists.

Previous overviews of Singapore art had always begun with the Nanyang artists of the 1920s and '30s. Here, National Gallery's decision to extend the history of Singapore art farther back, into the 19th century, creates an interesting touchpoint.

National Gallery Singapore director Eugene Tan, alluding to the larger artistic movements taking place in Europe, said: "The 19th century represents an important moment and a break. It signifies the beginning of the modern condition."

The 19th century prints and drawings of British-ruled Singapore - including Heinrich Leutemann's famous 1885 print of British and Indian road surveyors attacked by a tiger, and drawings of flora and fauna commissioned by Sir William Farquhar - shows Singapore through the eyes of its colonisers and people.

Arguably, though, it is the segments after the 19th century art that will be the biggest draw of the exhibition and, possibly, the museum. Here, the works of Singapore art pioneers - including Lim Hak Tai, Cheong Soo Pieng, Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi, Georgette Chen - appear in all their beautifully-preserved and restored glory.

About three-quarters of these works are from the country's National Collection; the remaining quarter were sourced from private and institutional collectors. Its prized wall boasts paintings inspired by the famous Bali trip made by Cheong, Liu, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee in 1952, which influenced their aesthetics.

These exhibits are followed by the works of other local art giants such as social realist painter Chua Mia Tee (whose iconic painting National Language Class gives the exhibition its probing title), the abstractionists Ho Ho Ying and Anthony Poon, and Artists Village members such as Tang Da Wu, Lee Wen, Zai Kuning and Amanda Heng. But beyond these obvious stars, there are also lesser-known artists such as Kim Lim, a Singaporean-British sculptor whose works are collected in the UK but are seldom displayed here, and Faizal Fadil, whose 1991 sculpture Study Of Three Thermos Flasks featuring actual flasks bought from a flea market ignited a debate about what art is.

For an art lover, it is gratifying to encounter the iconic works - but it feels even more so to see works that are unfamiliar and yet so assured.

A long time coming

At the press conference during the sneak preview, director of the Curatorial and Collections department Low Sze Wee revealed the long journey towards the creation of the museum: The idea of a public art gallery in Singapore was mooted by a government committee as early as 1918 to commemorate the island's centenary - which was almost 100 years ago!

Over the decades, a national art museum existed in various incarnations. In 1955, renowned art historian and lecturers Michael Sullivan opened an art museum at the University of Malaya to complement his art history lessons, but it was eventually closed after the university's own closure in 1962.

Businessman Loke Wan Tho had an ambitious plan for a community art gallery to house his art collection, but it didn't take off. Only in 1976 did the National Museum establish its first gallery focusing on art. And then later, the Singapore Art Museum was established in 1996 with a pure focus on art.

But National Gallery Singapore is its finest incarnation yet, showing an extensive collection of some 400 Singapore artworks in the grand, historical and romantic buildings of the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall.

And, unlike the Singapore Art Museum with its current focus on contemporary art, more than three-quarters of National Gallery's DBS Singapore Gallery space is dedicated to Modern Art - which may very possibly turn out to be a very big draw since Modern Art's once-groundbreaking aesthetics has long seeped into our daily lives and may thus be more easily appreciated by the public.

National Gallery's other equally important focus is that of South-east Asian art. Its UOB South-east Asia Gallery will be unveiled to the local and international press next week.

And though its list of regional masters is yet to be revealed, reports have already indicated an exciting slate that includes the Philippines' Hernando R. Ocampo, Thailand's Pratuang Emjaroen, Vietnam's Nguyen Gia Tri and Malaysia's Redza Piyadasa and Bayu Utomo Radjikin.

Geographical sensitivities

Privately to this writer, a few South-east Asian artists have expressed discomfort that Singapore "sees itself" as a "self-appointed spokesman" of neighbouring art histories and traditions.

But National Gallery states its mission as one that includes the need to place Singapore's own art history within the context of the wider region and its aesthetics and traditions. One of Singapore Art Museum's first exhibitions in 1996, in fact, was an overview of South-east Asian art spanning 1945 to the present.

Judging by the depth of research and political tact shown in the curation of the DBS Singapore Gallery, one is optimistic these same principles and sensitivities would extend to the UOB South-east Asia Gallery and lay some of these anxieties to rest.

As Dr Tan said: "We aim to provide visitors with a critical understanding and appreciation of Singapore art, and its development and link it with South-east Asia, Asia and other parts of the world... The mission and vision of the gallery is to inspire and engage our people and our neighbours through art and to create a dialogue between the art of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world."

On the market front, some commercial gallerists and champions of local artists see the opening of National Gallery as an opportunity to foster local art appreciation and collecting. The market is an important part of art ecology and affects the livelihood and long-term sustainability of artists, but, as any commercial gallerist knows, the number of active collectors of Singapore art is small.

It is hoped that the opening of National Gallery will add to existing efforts to cultivate a new generation of art lovers who also collect local art.

Others say that when it comes to the arts, Singapore is a strange city of paradoxes. On one hand, it gives more financial support to the arts than possibly any other country in the world; on the other, its censorship rules are so strict that acclaimed films, plays, dances, books and exhibitions are subject to cuts and removal - rules that seem to sabotage the country's ambitions of being a creative hub.

The performance art of Josef Ng in 1993/1994, aimed at protesting against the entrapment of homosexual men, created a widely-held perception in Singapore that art and artists are dangerous - a perception that one might argue never really went away. (Recent high-profile cases of censorship involving important artists such as filmmaker Tan Pin Pin and graphic novelist Sonny Liew perpetuate this impression, even as they eclipse several lesser-known cases of censorship of art exhibitions, performances and film.) 

Public education

A large, well-funded institution like National Gallery, along with existing art institutions and outspoken artists, may help educate members of the public and the government about the questing, questioning role of the arts, which finds its most fertile ground when the status quo is interrogated.

After all, a modern art museum in a cosmopolitan city is a symbol of change. In telling the story of Modern Art, it champions the spirit of daring, defiance, innovation, openness and risk-taking. Is it too much to hope that the opening of a place as potentially powerful and popular as National Gallery might spur greater change in public and governmental attitudes towards local artists?