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Tang Da Wu's Earth Work (1979) is possibly the first land art ever created by a Singapore artist. It reflects his concern with the rapidly changing environment and is now on display at National Gallery's newly opened Concourse Galleries.

Uncovering Earth Work and other lost art

Jan 22, 2016 5:50 AM

IF some museums have an uncanny ability to induce a simultaneous melancholy for and joyful discovery of the past, then perhaps no section in the new National Gallery Singapore does this better than its Concourse Galleries that were inaugurated on Thursday.

In it are four room-sized exhibitions of works by four pioneering figures of South-east Asian art. What connects them thematically is the fact that all the works originate from a lesser-known period of the artists' practices. In fact, some of the original works have been destroyed in the process of displaying them, leaving the curatorial team with the strange challenge of presenting art that is "not there".

The four artists are Singapore's Tang Da Wu, a contemporary art pioneer who started The Artists Village; Malaysia's Redza Piyadasa, a towering artist and critic who helped lay the groundwork in his country's art discourse; Tan Teng-Kee, a Malaysian-born Singapore artist who initiated the first "happening" in the country; and Johnny Manahan, a Filipino video art pioneer.

In the case of Tang and Tan, part of the original works had been destroyed. Tang created Earth Work in 1979 in response to the rapidly changing environment of Singapore. He placed seven pieces of cloth inside seven gullies in a cleared piece of land near Sembawang and allowed rain and soil to taint the cloth over time. He also baked circles of mud and let rain, sun and wind have their way with them.

Earth Work is believed to be the first instance of land art by a Singapore artist. Hence, curator Charmaine Toh and Tang decided to recreate the work because it deals with issues such as land use and ecological change that continue to beleaguer space-scarce Singapore.

Tan's work involved the dramatic burning of a large wood sculpture outdoors. The exhibition in 1979 is known as The Picnic and dubbed the first "happening" in Singapore. (A "happening" is an art performance that is often loose and spontaneous, and involves interaction with the audience. It originated from the United States and was practised by artists such as Allan Kaprow, Marina Abramovic and Yayoi Kusama.)

As Tan, now 79, explains in charmingly broken English at the press conference: "This work, must inform the police station, in case of fire. Only me very crazy. I think other people cannot do it" - suggesting that he didn't get a permit. But curator Russell Storer had read about the work in art history books and managed to retrieve photos to create a photo slide, in place of an actual burning. Other works by Tan, including his sculptures and Chinese ink paintings, are also on display.

Piyadasa's section, curated by Adele Tan, brings together several of the late artist's text-based canvases to conjure the image of an erudite man concerned with the riddles of contemporary art. On one canvas, Piyadasa paints the words: "This art situation is not to be interpreted visually." On another, he makes fun of an art review by highlighting its imprecise language. For the art lover, this collection of canvases are a marvellous discovery as they were made in 1976 to 1979 before he embarked on his famous collages, Malaysia Series.

Finally, there's the Manahan section curated by Clarissa Chikiamco. Like the others, this too carries a wonderful element of surprise: Manahan is a Filipino showbiz giant and star-maker responsible for minting many famous careers. Much less known is his artistic output in the 70s and 80s. His pioneering video art and photography works, for instance, receives scant mention in his media profiles. But thanks to National Gallery's efforts, what has long been forgotten and ignored in South-east Asian art history is now being redeemed.

The exhibitions run at National Gallery's Concourse Galleries 1 & 2 from now till mid-2016