Visual feast - and fun - for arts lovers

Two big exhibitions here will offer a feast for the eyes for arts lovers

Visual arts enthusiasts are in for a treat with the opening of two major exhibitions at the National Gallery Singapore and National Museum of Singapore.

Artist And Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies at the National Gallery Singapore explores art associated with the British Empire since the 16th century and considers its influence on modern art in former colonies such as Singapore.

At the National Museum, What Is Not Visible Is Not Invisible offers visitors an immersive and interactive experience of contemporary art from recent decades.

The Straits Times takes a look at what is on show at each exhibition.

What Is Not Visible Is Not Invisible: Take a dip into fun and whimsy

  • BOOK IT / WHAT IS NOT VISIBLE IS NOT INVISIBLE

  • WHERE: Exhibition Galleries, Basement, National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road

    WHEN: Till Feb 19, 10am to 7pm (Friday to Wednesday), 1 to 7pm (Thursday)

    ADMISSION: Free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents; $8 (adult), $4 (student)

A season of contemporary art has bloomed at the National Museum of Singapore.

The social history museum is no stranger to contemporary art. Its special exhibition galleries have regularly shown such works, most recently in its Treasures Of The World From The British Museum show.

But its latest exhibition, What Is Not Visible Is Not Invisible, kicks off a series of contemporary art launches at the museum, including three works that are part of the upcoming Singapore Biennale, a new installation of kinetic chandeliers by artist Suzann Victor and the re-opening of the museum's glass rotunda, which will feature immersive art installations.

The latest exhibition presents 34 works by 32 artists, which are on loan from the French Regional Collections of Contemporary Art and are shown for the first time in the Asia Pacific.

This collaboration is part of ongoing art and cultural exchanges between Singapore and France.

The works on show are mostly videos and installations that are immersive and interactive, promising an art-friendly experience even for those new to contemporary art.

The museum's curator Iman Ismail says the show invites audiences to "go on a journey of the mind and the senses" and to come up with their own interpretations of the works.

The exhibition is also a parallel project of the Singapore Biennale this year, which is titled An Atlas Of Mirrors. The three works from the Biennale that will be exhibited at the museum are by artists David Chan, Debbie Ding and Subodh Gupta.

The museum's director Angelita Teo says the contemporary art show resonates with the social history museum because "history often inspires art and art develops our understanding of history and ourselves".

She hopes the show will encourage its visitors, who may be more interested in social history, to engage with contemporary art and "see that connectedness and influence between the past and the contemporary".

FIVE PLAYFUL MOMENTS

1 Be simultaneously submerged in and standing outside a pool

A delightfully disorienting experience awaits viewers who step boldly into the installation, Repulse Bay, by artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

The viewer descends a ladder into an atmospheric space lit with cool blue light, recalling the sensation of taking a dip in a pool.

The beach towels rolled out on the floor, however, bring to mind a different feeling - of sunbathing by a beach or pool.

What the work depicts is unstable - it morphs according to the viewer's perception. But one thing is certain: It comes to life and is consummated in the mind of the audience.

2 Pick out a cat-faced avatar drawing and take it home for free


In Photomatou. PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

In Photomatou by artist Alain Sechas, posters with different designs of cat faces are laid out for the viewer to pick out and take home. The designs by Sechas are rendered pop-art style with minimal strokes.

He believes viewers tend to reach for the poster where the expression on the cat's face mirrors their own. Whether such subliminal forces are at work is for the viewer to decide.

3 Lose yourself in a pit of balloons


Martin Creed's Work No. 262, Half The Air In A Given Space. PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Martin Creed's Work No. 262, Half The Air In A Given Space will allow the viewer to unleash his inner child in a museum in the name of contemporary art.

The work is a room half-filled with inflated green balloons and viewers are allowed into the installation to have fun. Just try not to burst the squishy latex orbs.

The work may be whimsical, but it also provokes thought about what a volume of air feels like by clothing the air in latex and giving it sculptural form.

4 Make what is invisible appear


"What Is Not Visible Is Not Invisible". PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Do not be spooked when words suddenly appear on the wall as you enter the exhibition.

The writing, "What Is Not Visible Is Not Invisible", is part of the installation by artist Julien Discrit. The aphorism is also the title of the work, from which the exhibition borrows its name.

The words are written with ultraviolet ink, which is not usually visible.

The presence of a viewer, however, triggers motion sensors, causing ultraviolet light to shine on the words and make them appear.

5 Listen to songbirds jam on electric guitars


From Here To Ear. PHOTO: ARIANE MICHEL ET CELESTE BOURSIER

If you listen to the video recording of the installation From Here To Ear by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot with your eyes closed, the thrumming you hear could pass for a musician idly strumming a guitar.

Open your eyes, however, and the video will show a flock of zebra finches flying around a space where guitars are placed. When the birds land on the guitars to rest, they inadvertently strum the strings, creating sounds that blend with their birdsong to create interesting melodies.

Those with open minds and ears may well find music being made, beyond this work, in the everyday, by familiar yet unexpected gestures.


Artist And Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies

Exploring colonialism's impact on art


The Secret Of England’s Greatness.PHOTO: NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

The portraits displayed in state buildings here today may be different from those that graced the walls a century ago, when Singapore was a British colony, but they share a profound link.

Once, grand historical portraits of governors took pride of place in the Victoria Memorial Hall and City Hall Chamber. Today, portraits of the President and his wife hang in government buildings.

The continuing use of portraiture to project power points to how Singapore's colonial past continues to resonate today, and its connection to contemporary audiences is among the insights the exhibition, Artist And Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies, at the National Gallery Singapore aims to highlight.

The exhibition's intent - to consider the legacy of British colonisation and how it has been represented and challenged with time - was in the spotlight even before the show opened last week.

  • BOOK IT /ARTIST AND EMPIRE: (EN)COUNTERING COLONIAL LEGACIES

  • WHERE: Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, Level 3 City Hall Wing, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Till March 26, 10am to 7pm (Sunday to Thursday), 10am to 10pm (Friday and Saturday)

    ADMISSION: $15 for Singaporeans, $25 for non-Singaporeans

The museum's fund-raising gala, held last Friday, had borrowed its theme, The Empire Ball, from the exhibition.

This drew flak from some in the public, who found the use of the politically fraught term, "empire", carried with it the idea of colonial oppression, in poor taste for a celebratory event.

The museum's director, Dr Eugene Tan, says the ball was not named to provoke, but "what resulted from this was a discussion about the history of colonisation in South-east Asia and its legacies for our society today, and this is one of the reasons we curate exhibitions such as Artist And Empire".

He adds: "It's the role of art museums to ask questions through our programmes and exhibitions about our history and society, and these questions are sometimes difficult and uncomfortable.

"But for me, art museums must above all be places where artists raise critical questions about the society in which we live."

The first section of the exhibition is aptly themed Countering The Empire. It presents a critical examination of art produced for the British Empire by including contemporary art that challenge ideas in the historical works.

The show's curator Low Sze Wee says: "There is always that danger today of people treating these historical paintings as representing the truth; they are very realistic portraits or history paintings. We wanted to counter that and get people to realise that there is a lot more artistic subjectivity in them."

The second section of the show looks at how colonisation influenced the rise of modern art in former colonies.

The exhibition is presented in association with London's Tate Britain, which launched the show in November last year.

The London exhibition had a different narrative and focus. It was British-centric in perspective and looked at how the British Empire affected British art production.

The exhibition in Singapore takes off in a different direction, but includes key pieces of art from the London exhibition among its more than 200 works.

The version of Artist And Empire here also includes loans from London's National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.


UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTERS AT THE EXHIBITION

1 Confront the moral justification for colonisation

The British Empire was driven by commercial interests - to secure lucrative trade routes and markets and obtain raw materials for industries. But many Britons justified colonisation as a moral duty to bring civilisation to other communities.

A powerful portrayal of this belief is Thomas Jones Barker's 1863 painting, The Secret Of England's Greatness. It depicts an apocryphal scene where Queen Victoria replies an African diplomat's question about how Britain rose to power by handing him a Bible and saying that that was the secret to England's greatness.

The painting was first exhibited in 1863 and toured around Britain to sell print copies of it.

In the colonies, however, it was mocked as a disguise for the exploitative nature of Britain's colonisation.

2 See the original Sir Stamford Raffles portrait

The portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles is commonly found in history textbooks, but the original portrait, seen up close, reveals telling details.

The Buddhist sculptures and distant landscape paint the founder of modern Singapore as an erudite officer, learned in the study of ethnography and natural history.

This oil on canvas, which is in the collection of London's National Portrait Gallery, is shown in Singapore for the first time. It was painted by George Francis Joseph in Britain in 1817, the year Raffles was knighted and two years before he founded the British settlement in Singapore. A replica of this portrait, by John Adamson, was commissioned in 1912 to be placed in Singapore's Victoria Memorial Hall. That painting now hangs in the National Museum of Singapore.

3 Spot the difference with Sir Frank Swettenham

The two portraits of Sir Frank Swettenham, who served as Resident-General of the Federated Malay States (1896-1901) and Governor of the Straits Settlements (1901-1904), are reunited for the first time.

The Straits Association of London had commissioned prominent American artist John Singer Sargent to paint a portrait commemorating Swettenham's contribution as a colonial officer.

The first (left) was presented as a gift to Singapore and is now in the collection of the National Museum of Singapore.

A second portrait (right) was painted for Swettenham's personal keeping, which he later bequeathed to London's National Portrait Gallery.

While the paintings sport differences, they both convey a sense of British authority and show how portraiture was used during the British Empire to reinforce displays of power.

4 See the British surrender to the Japanese through the latter's eyes

The painting, The Meeting Of General Yamashita And General Percival, depicts the British surrender when Singapore fell to Japan in 1942.

The artist, Saburo Miyamoto, did not witness the fall of the British Empire in Singapore. He based his painting on documentary films, photographs and sketches he made during a brief stay in Singapore in 1942, after he was commissioned by the Japanese army to produce a war propaganda painting.

Miyamoto's inclusion of the British flag and white surrender flag in the room where the surrender took place is historically inaccurate, but it heightens the defeat of the British Empire by Japan.

This painting was exhibited in Japan during World War II and its rousing portrayal of Japanese triumph became part of the collective consciousness, influencing how people remember the empire even today.


PHOTOS: COURTESY OF HALES LONDON NEW YORK & HEW LOCKE, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SINGAPORE, NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON

5 Rethink public statues

British artist Hew Locke questions how and whom society honours through his Restoration series of photographs. In the exhibition, pictures of two public statues in Bristol are displayed side by side.

One of the statues is of Edward Colston (left), a founding father of the city and a merchant whose wealth came from the slave trade. Another is of Edmund Burke (right), a statesman who sought to abolish slavery.

Locke obfuscates their identities by covering the photographs of them with objects associated with the slave trade, such as shells and golden chains.

His act suggests that the power of these public statues rests not in the icons themselves, but how society negotiates their meaning.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Visual treats'. Print Edition | Subscribe