Culture Vulture

National Gallery Singapore has a tough job to explain and curate art

Local artist Matthew Ngui.
Local artist Matthew Ngui. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The new National Gallery has some way to go in joining the dots of local and regional art history

A humble "chair" illustrates the challenges faced by the new National Gallery Singapore in trying to create a museum of South-east Asian art which can appeal to the uninitiated and also be taken seriously by art world insiders.

The artwork by Singapore-born Matthew Ngui, simply titled Chair, is, in fact, not one at all, but a series of disjointed wooden slabs that, when viewed from a particular angle, appears to be a solid structure that you could sit on.

Positioned in the corner of a crowded L-shaped space that is part of the DBS Singapore Gallery, Chair has a barricade around it.

The original waist-high cordons - similar to the kind you find at airport check-in counters - were the source of some derision on my social media feed when the National Gallery opened last Tuesday. I saw museum staff replacing them with more discreet, knee-high ones when I visited the exhibition a day later.

The initial stridency of the do-not-touch warning struck a harsh note, but one can surmise that this was to prevent visitors from accidentally brushing against the artwork. They could miss it because the wooden slabs are themselves unobtrusive and the room itself, covering 1980s and 1990s Singapore art, is packed with way too many two- and three-dimensional artworks for the eye to take in.

How does one regulate without overreacting? How does one curate an exhaustive survey of Singapore or South-east Asian art - the histories of which are not widely known - without causing sensory overload or creating a haphazard sprawl?

These are the questions facing the $532-million, 64,000 sq m Gallery, home to the largest public collection of art from this region.

Housed in the expansive, beautifully restored environs of City Hall and former Supreme Court, the Gallery can pull back to show the depth and breadth of South-east Asian art, on a scale never seen before and which is long overdue. However, this means that, more than any other cultural institution in town, it must be both impresario and academic.

Its scholarship entails joining up the dots in a region where curating, museums and art writing and research are patchy and under- developed. It then has to filter that in an intelligent yet accessible way to its audience. Its job is not just to acquire, commission and present artworks, but also to create the lens with which to view them.

The Gallery's opening exhibitions rise to the challenge in some ways, but have some way to go in others. Take the DBS Singapore Gallery, one of the museum's key spaces. Ngui's Chair, first shown at the prestigious Documenta X in Kassel, Germany, in 1997, is part of the exhibition, Siapa Nama Kamu? Art In Singapore Since The 19th Century.

In casting a wide net from the 1800s to the 1990s, there are elements which are extremely lucid and revelatory. For example, there are sections not just on the well-known "Nanyang" artists such as Liu Kang and Cheong Soo Pieng with their idealised paintings of tropical or kampung life from the 1950s to the 1970s, but also on their less famous but equally compelling contemporaries working in other media.

Chief among these are the woodcut prints by the likes of Lim Mu Hue and See Cheen Tee - which show a grittier slice of life and have more than a whiff of caricature and social commentary - and the landscape photographs of Yip Cheong Fun and Wu Peng Seng, which capture with painterly grace the construction sites and beaches of an island on the cusp of industrialisation and change.

Other parts of the exhibition have a "chapalang" (mixed bag) feel. The opening section, for example, is not actually art history in the sense of a body of work by professional artists, but cultural history, in this case of 19th-century Straits Settlements Singapore seen through natural history drawings and landscapes by mostly amateurs. The wall text explains that this phase predates the beginnings of modern art in Singapore in the early 20th century. But this section may have been better off as a separate exhibition, so more space could have been devoted to fleshing out the development of modern art.

The final section on the 1980s and 1990s, in particular, suffers from inadequate contextualisation. For example, a row of video screens on one wall shows recordings of performance art works by artists ranging from Amanda Heng to Vincent Leow, but the lack of more detailed explanatory text is conspicuous. Could there be a fear of drawing attention to controversial elements in these works?

One video recording references Leow's urine-drinking performance in 1993 where he made tongue-in-cheek statements about the sacrifices of artists. But the video does not show the performance, only a lecture in which Leow discusses the performance. With the lack of explanation, the viewer who is not in the know would be mystified.

Sounding the warning is the easy part - the entrance to the room advises viewers that the exhibits contain potentially sensitive content - but how does the Gallery help the viewer make sense of the art, the ruckus it caused and what it said of society?

That said, there is still much to savour about the art, including the more focused and intimate Chua Ek Kay and Wu Guanzhong solo exhibitions. Many of the works are breathtaking and taken together, reflect a conversation between two Chinese ink masters on how to imbue the traditional form with a modern spirit.

I plan to return for another visit in the next few weeks. Ultimately, that is what the Gallery must strive for - to create a precious resource in the heart of the city that feeds the mind and soul, to which visitors feel inspired to return, time and time again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2015, with the headline 'Gallery to feed mind and soul'. Print Edition | Subscribe