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Minimal pioneer Dan Flavin's light works.

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Mona Hatoum's Impenetrable is made out of barbed wires.

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Anish Kapoor's installation To Reflect An Intimate Part Of The Red.

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Tatsuo Miyajima's Mega Death reinterprets life cycles as LED digits.

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Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds on loan from the Tate.

A Minimal Space

The mega exhibition on minimalism by National Gallery Singapore and ArtScience Museum covers a lot of ground at the expense of depth
Nov 23, 2018 5:50 AM

THE NEW MAJOR ART SHOW on minimalism by National Gallery Singapore and ArtScience Museum may best be thought of as an introduction to a key artistic movement of the 20th century. Accessibility, education and wide appeal seem to be some of its primary concerns – which is natural considering the roles of the institutions. But for those who already possess some knowledge of art history, the show might come off as too big, broad and perfunctory, with too many forays into various disciplines such as dance and literature, each overview too quick and cursory to be meaningful.

Titled Minimalism: Space. Light. Object., the five-month exhibition is extremely ambitious in scope. It features some of the biggest pioneering names in minimalism, such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, John McCracken, Anne Truitt, Robert Morris and others – the logistics of borrowing whose works from various institutions and collectors around the world would have been nothing less than challenging.

Though minimalism began in the West in the 1960s and 1970s, the movement expanded to nearly all corners of the globe. The exhibition’s curators recognise this by including in the show Asian artists such Lee Ufan, Nobuo Sekine, Roberto Chabet, Sopheap Pich and Popo, many of whom found simultaneous inspiration in Zen Buddhism and other Asian belief systems to develop minimal ways of expression.  

The exhibition extends into the 21st century to demonstrate how the movement continues to influence  artists today. There are 21st century works by hotshots Ai Weiwei, Elmgreen and Dragset, Haegue Yang, Anish Kapoor, Mona Hatoum and Olafur Eliasson. And though many of these works are top-notch, they have an unintended effect of diluting the scope of the exhibition.

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Things start to look fragmented and even glib when the show makes forays into literature (Samuel Beckett), dance (Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Anna Halprin) and music (Steve Reich, Julius Eastman and Midori Takada) to illustrate the influence of minimalism on other disciplines. While the intention is honest, the focus becomes wide-ranging and amorphous. There’s so much to say about these prominent figures and their concepts, but little time and space to say it.

Paradoxically, for all the show’s intention of giving an “expanded” perspective, some living celebrity artists get to hog the spaces in the two museums to show more than one work: Kapoor, Hatoum, Ai and Eliasson each have two to three attention-grabbing large-size works, as if to tick off “big crowd-pulling works by hot contemporary artists” on the museums’ checklist. Meanwhile, the section on a closely-related movement, Japan’s Mono-ha, is tiny – to say nothing of the absence of Arte Poverta artists.

The exhibition certainly covers a lot of ground, but does so at the expense of depth.

INDIVIDUAL WORKS SHINE

Many individual works, however, are quite stunning in themselves. Curators Eugene Tan, Russell Storer, Silke Schmickl and Goh Sze Ying from the National Gallery Singapore, and Adrian George and Honor Harger from the ArtScience Museum have selected strong, representative works from the artists’ oeuvres, and many of them deserve to be looked upon closely for their essential and elemental beauty.

It’s something of a coup, for instance, that the curators managed to curate a section of black paintings by minimalist pioneers Rothko, Stella, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt all hanging next to each other. At the press preview, one famous DJ giggled and exclaimed: “But they’re all just black paintings!” – without realising that the little black dress she wore and the sleek smartphone she had all owe some debt to these black monochromatic paintings.

Although minimalism was a movement dominated by white men, the exhibition boasts a strong contingent of female artists. Truitt, Hatoum, Yang, Rachel Whiteread, Carmen Herrera, Kim Lim and Charlotte Posenenske each has a work or works that are nothing short of compelling and eloquent.

Whiteread’s beautiful Twenty-Five Spaces comprises a series of translucent resin casts of the spaces underneath 25 chairs. True to its minimalist inspirations, the work’s extreme simplification makes us aware of matter and space. Whiteread was the first woman to win the UK’s top art honour, the Turner Prize, in 1993.

Another powerful work is Hatoum’s Impenetrable: The powerful installation is made out of straight barbed wires hanging from the ceiling and floating together like a structured cube or a prison. Hatoum, a Palestinian artist living in London, typically creates work centred on war, conflict and unrest.

Artists with minority and/or queer identities, such as Julius Eastman, David Medalla, Elmgreen and Dragset, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, are also well-represented. Elmgreen and Dragset, one of the most powerful duos in contemporary art today, has a work titled Queer Bar (1998). It comprises a square bar counter with beer taps, except the bar has no doors for entry into its centre, and the tap doesn’t dispense any beer.

At the press conference, Dragset describes it as a metaphor for how a “dominant culture tries to absorb and regulate the behaviour of a minority culture in society… The bar is inaccessible to the audience (because it has no doors); it appears to invite the audience to participate in something, but actually they’re denied participation.”   

For visitors looking for visual spectacle in an exhibition explicitly themed around minimalism, there are surprisingly several of them. Among them, Eliasson’s monofrequency-lit room that turns everything and everyone in it yellow- and black-coloured; Tatsuo Miyajima’s massive blue space that interprets the circle of life into thousands of LED digits; and a portion of Ai’s famous sunflower seeds on loan from the Tate collection.

Minimalism: Space. Light. Object, runs from now till Apr 14, 2019 at the National Gallery Singapore and ArtScience Museum.