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A view into Singapore's past
History through fresh eyes
teamLab at the National Museum
STILL life paintings of animals and plants are just so, well, 19th century. We live in the 21st century, where we've seen almost every animal there is on the planet, captured live in documentaries, seen in zoos, or painted to realistic perfection. That being the case, why would the William Farquhar collection of Natural History drawings, done between 1819 and 1823, still engage a modern audience?
Even though there are 477 paintings in the collection that is considered one of the national treasures of Singapore, only about 40 of them are seen at any one time at the Goh Seng Choo gallery. Not only are they fragile - being watercolour paintings on paper - the museum also needs to run different programmes to attract a wider crowd. But now, in the latest exhibition at the Glass Rotunda, 69 paintings from the Farquhar Collection have found a new life in the form of digital animation.
The Story of the Forest is one of the most stunning and contemporary reinterpretations of archival objects that the museum has commissioned. They engaged renowned Japanese digital art collective, teamLab, to use it as a permanent installation for the Glass Rotunda.
Story of the Forest
Closed two years for this revamp, the Glass Rotunda in the museum's extension has now been transformed into this fantastical digital garden inspired by 69 watercolour paintings from the Farquhar collection.
It's the most challenging work that teamLab had done to date, according to Toshiyuki Inoko, founder of teamLab, although they were delighted to work with the archival material.
"It's not the first time that we're using old paintings or photographs from archival collections, but the most challenging part was to find the right way to project the images onto the cylindrical wall of the Rotunda's passageway, as the wall curves downwards for 170m," he explains. "We had to create new software to achieve our vision."
teamLab's Story of the Forest is divided into three segments: At the Upper Rotunda where visitors enter the exhibit, there is a constellation of flora and shooting stars that appear to cascade down from the top of the dome. As they walk down the cylindrical slope, they will see Malayan tapir, mousedeer, hornbills, cloudy leopards and even a snake or two moving around in the digital forest filled with indigenous plants. When visitors get to the bottom, at the Lower Rotunda, they will be in another domed room which offers a 360-degree view of this digital forest.
The room is outfitted with sensors as well, which will trigger an interactive display: Trees and flowers will bloom, or fruit such as durians, rambutans and mangosteens will drop when people walk across the sensors.
teamLab's Mr Inoko says it was an honour to work with the collection, which they very much enjoyed. "It has the mix of Western thought but Asian painting style, and that's the wonderful characteristic that we wanted to preserve in the animation, even though we're reinventing a new immersive experience for the audience," he says.
For the museum, the Farquhar paintings was one of the most valued in its collection of some 157,000 artefacts, says Angelita Teo, the director of the National Museum. "Compared to most other major museums, our collection is small, but the Farquhar paintings have a lot of international appeal because European visitors understand that the paintings were done in the age of discovery and exploration," she notes.
The second exhibition at the Rotunda, Singapore, Very Old Tree, was also triggered by archival material. Artist Robert Zhao had come across one of the oldest postcards found in the National Archives of Singapore, depicting an unspecified tree dating back to 1904. From there, he went around Singapore to photograph significant trees and people who were their informal caretakers or who had a special history with them. This collection of 30 photographs was acquired by the National Museum and 17 are on display as lightboxes in this exhibition.
This blockbuster animation by a renowned contemporary art collective shines the spotlight on how contemporary art can be used to make history come alive for the current generation. The museum is looking towards contemporary "interventions" such as these, as they make their resources available on request as well.
"There is a need to have the conversation between history and the contemporary. Contemporary art allows you to investigate further, to have a different angle, giving us the opportunity of different possibilities of relooking history, which is a bit more exciting," notes Iman Ismail, 35, the curator at the National Museum who worked on the project.
- For the opening weekend, visitors will enjoy free admission to the Glass Rotunda and permanent galleries on Dec 10 and 11. The Glass Rotunda is open from 10am to 7pm daily. For more information, visit www.nationalmuseum.sg
The National University of Singapore Museum launched its "open storage" concept in 2015, while the Nanyang Technological University's Centre for Contemporary Art also set up its Public Resource Centre the same year. Both have generated contemporary artwork, acting as laboratories for artists
Not your usual school art
The Resource Gallery, Scroll & Paper
Study, and the Resource Library
NUS Museum might be small in size but it's big in historical resources, from artefacts to scholarly texts. After a major renovation of its third level last year, it now displays classical sculptures and Chinese ceramics in glass cabinets, alongside South-east Asian art objects collected by early university curators in Singapore.
These include collections by Michael Sullivan, William Willetts and Lu Yaw, which formed the seed collection of the university. The open storage is to facilitate research and educational access - after all, it is a university museum and serves the academic community.
The Scroll and Paper Study features key works such as woodblock prints by Singaporean artists from the 1950-60s, including a large selection by Lim Mu Hue. There are also Chinese classical paintings and a big collection of Vietnamese war drawings and posters (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) on loan from the Ambassador Dato' N Parameswaran Collection.
Meanwhile, the Resource Library features publications on South-east Asian art history, exhibition catalogues and art auction catalogues. A separate section houses publications donated by the art historian TK Sabapathy.
The museum also offers space for artists to incubate ideas via its award-winning Prep-Room Initiative.
In 2011, the Prep-Room Initiative enabled artist Charles Lim to create his In Search of Raffles Light project which was housed in the museum in late 2013. Lim went on to represent Singapore in the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Says Siddharta Perez, the museum's assistant curator: "The hope is to show to the visitors that ideas for a project takes shape, over time, by bringing into play objects or textual information, with curators working actively with partners that may include academicians, artists and participating students.
"For the general visitors it is exciting for them to see how curatorial ideas are seeded and developed."
A source of inspiration
NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore
Public Resource Centre
THE Public Resource Centre, set up in 2015, consists of a library that specialises in contemporary art with a focus on South-east Asia.
The centre also has an Artist Resource Platform (ARP) which has visual and audio materials from more than 90 local artists and independent art spaces. This year, discussions were held on the role of archives, questioning the power of collection and display in archival systems.
"The Artist Resource Platform was my primary source of reflection and that is important because it shows how the general public views artists and their practices," says artist Sufian Samsiyar, who created an installation inspired by the ARP for Bring it to LIFE , a curatorial project presented in 2015 featuring four artists who used ARP's materials.
"For my installation in the project series Bring it to LIFE, I utilised the space differently by expanding the idea of the archive inspired by the individual artist folders of the ARP," explains Sufian.
He put up a tent - symbol of a safe shelter - to denote the artists' working studios, and the installation included a display of personal objects he collected from the artists. This included a polaroid picture of each of them in their studios. "This allows the public to view the artists from a different light and perhaps gain an insight into their personal lives."
- The NTU CCA Singapore's Public Resource Centre is open to the public. It is located at Block 6 Lock Road, #01-09, Gillman Barracks. Opening hours: Monday - Friday, 10am-6pm, by appointment only.