Singapore’s New National Gallery Dubiously Rewrites Southeast Asian Art History

Exterior view of the National Gallery Singapore on the public opening night (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SINGAPORE — The National Gallery Singapore (NGS) opened on November 25, 2015 — a high point in Singapore’s year-round celebrations of 50 years as an independent nation. Two significant 19th-century heritage buildings, the former City Hall and Supreme Court, have been transformed into a museum for Modern Southeast Asian Art by French architect Jean François MilouNGS is one of the largest visual arts institutions in South and Southeast Asia — with a collection of 8,000 artworks — and the square footage of gallery space is comparable to the Musée d’Orsay and Tate Modern.

These century-old monuments that have been restored and returned to the public bear complex colonial histories, and the museum’s dialogue with colonial and post-colonial art should make for riveting curatorial directions. This, after all, is the site where the Japanese handed Singapore back to the British, marking the end of a chapter at the close of World War II.

On opening day, I attended the special press briefing with presentations by Director Eugene Tan and his team, and a gallery tour, with every reason to believe the hype. NGS aims to exhibit the largest public collection of 200 years of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art. Two permanent galleries, the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery and DBS Singapore Gallery, showcase around 400 artworks each. This is an ambitious undertaking that indicates a strong belief in culture holding its own rather than it serving as a sub-branch of tourism — even though the museum’s eight restaurants and cafés that started business a month earlier would suggest otherwise.

Press briefing in November 2015, on far left: Eugene Tan; on far right: Low Sze Wee

However, during the briefing and exhibition tour, something felt off. It might have been the overall non-mention of architect Jean François Milou. Or the mislaid enthusiasm for the opening night’s Disneyesque light show, carnival, and restaurants, as opposed to the collection. Or maybe it was the oft-repeated phrase by our PR handlers that “the public should not feel that art is intimidating” — mentioned when updating us on the carnival and light show. The curatorial team did not make any connections between the art, the architecture, and history, nor did it provide a cogent social-political-cultural framework for how the galleries service the expansive narratives of Southeast Asia.

I spoke to Curatorial and Collection Director Low Sze Wee on how the museum had decided to tell the tumultuous story of Southeast Asia. “We can’t!” he admitted calmly. “Within each country there are many narratives and counter-narratives so that is the first thing we acknowledge. Our exhibitions will not be able to capture the complexities of these countries.”

One of the slides from the press briefing presentation (click to enlarge)

Yet, Tan and Low Sze Wee’s curatorial vision, outlined in just three short bullet points in a banal PowerPoint presentation, emphasized “presenting” and “reflexively (re)writing the art histories of Singapore and SEA.” But through what methodologies and guiding principles? I asked Sze Wee and Tan what existing definitions of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art history they were being critical of and therefore rewriting. Both suggested they had begun by looking at extant definitions of Southeast Asia, and its changing geographical specificity through the decades, but did not elaborate on which written art historical texts they found inadequate. As would become evident from the collection hang, little, if anything, was being challenged at all.

Both permanent galleries showcasing two large exhibitions, Between Declarations and Dreams and Siapa Nama Kamu? (What is your Name?), span 15 rooms, over three levels. Through the institution’s own collection, as well as key pieces from private lenders and regional museums, the former charts the story of Southeast Asia and the latter, Singapore, from the 19th century onwards.

As visitors enter the former Supreme Court to view 19th-century South East Asian art, it is a pleasure to see how the high seat of the judge, the dock, and other teakwood elements of the former courtroom have been retained for tense ambiance and drama. Displayed among lithographs, illustrations, and oil paintings is an intriguing set of photographs showing how the colonizers viewed their subjects, contrasted against how the natives viewed themselves. Here are also early images of two Siam rulers that depict how consciously they dressed in order to signal their power to Western monarchs. Due to the rulers’ careful maneuvering, Thailand narrowly sidestepped subjugation, remaining independent during the region’s colonial period.

Installation view of Manit Sriwanichpoom’s “Shocking Pink Collection” (1998), Duratrans prints in light-boxes (collection of the National Gallery Singapore)

Between Declarations and Dreams serves an excellent opportunity for NGS curators to voice such alternate stories from Southeast Asia’s past, along with influences from beyond the region. But further along the exhibit, the selection of 19th-century oil paintings by regional masters seems random. What is the connection, say, between Indonesian master Raden Saleh’s “Forest Fire” (1849), Juan Luna’s “Spain and the Philippines” (1884), and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s “Christian Virgins exposed to the Populace” (1884)? Though of the same period, were these artists aware of one other at all, or of each other’s aesthetic and social contexts? The museum does not provide information in this regard, nor are shared or contrasting traits evident in its specific selections.

As a whole, this exhibition fails to offer up enough examples to illustrate what the curatorial sub-themes suggest: the merging of foreign subject matter, artistic styles, or religious iconography with indigenous forms; the birthing of new expressive and syncretic languages; or the ways in which artists broke away from colonial art academies. And the silence over the history of communism in Singapore and Southeast Asia is deafening. In fact, having gone through the individual guides published for the two exhibitions, as well as the blurbs outside each gallery room, as far as I could tell, the word “communism” is absent. There is no explicit mention of the symbiotic relationship between the anti-colonial movements and communism, or of the anti-communist purge and brutal political repression that followed right after some of these countries gained independence. Apparently, this is a matter still difficult to discuss in the city-state, as the recent de facto ban on Singaporean Tan Pin Pin’s film on political exiles demonstrates.

Installation view of Redza Piyadasa’s “May 13, 1969” (1970, remade in 2006), Acrylic on plywood and mirror (collection of the National Gallery Singapore)

I stood in front of “Epic Poem of Malaya” (1955) by Chua Mia Tee, a key painting in Declarations and Dreams, with Singaporean poet and author Alvin Pang, who informed me of the work’s local political context during the 1950s. The painting depicts a group of young Chinese students, looking up to a central figure holding a red book — a charged symbol during a time when high school and university students were sympathetic toward communist orientation. “Certainly, such ideologies were part of broader social energies agitating for independence from colonial rule after World War II,” Alvin Pang explained.

The curators have admirably brought a variety of works from 10 countries under one roof but it is the viewer who must work in the connections. The short blurbs outside each gallery room make bland attempts at encapsulating the region’s tumultuous history and current democratic and militaristic perturbations. Take, for instance, a sentence in the guide for Declarations and Dreams that mentions “popular revolts” against “authoritarian rule” (between 1950 to 1970), remaining unclear on which despotic regimes, were being challenged. Was this in Burma? Indonesia? Philippines? Surely not in Singapore!

Declarations and Dreams also displays the Southeast Asian social realist art of the 1940s and ’50s, which is disconnected from the politically charged early conceptual art of the ‘80s and ‘90s and interrupted by a limbo period of abstract paintings from the ‘60s and ’70s. And here, I was surprised to find Malaysian modern artist Redza Piyadasa’s “May 13, 1969” dismally lit in a corner. The museum label and publication lists the wrong date Piyadasa’s piece was originally made — 1969 instead of 1970. An honest mistake, but this is an art-historically significant work that some scholars argue may well be the first piece of installation art ever made in the region — by which I mean not painting or strictly sculpture, but a collection of objects. This piece, a coffin draped in the Malaysian flag standing upright atop a mirror, was also notably interactive, reflecting the body of the viewer and subversively taking it into account. However, the work is so poorly presented without any socio-political context, that I am left feeling embarrassed for the institution that has assumed the authority to establish the regional canon.

Installation view of Jim Supangkat’s “Ken Dedes” (1975, remade in 1996), plaster, wood, marker pen and paint (click to enlarge)

It is a pity that “May 13, 1969,” which references racial tensions in Malaysia and Singapore of that same year, is not displayed in connection with seminal works shown on other floors by early South East Asian contemporary artists such as Jim Supangkat’s highly provocative “Ken Dedes” (1975), a replica bust of an ancient Javanese Goddess combined with a drawing of woman’s exposed, lower body, and FX Harsono’s “Paling Top” (1975), featuring a plastic rifle — two Indonesian artists who similarly break from formal divisions between painting and sculpture to critique pervasive corruption. Instead, this disconnect between artworks is amplified through a number of other pieces shown in isolation, like David Medalla’s “Cloud Canyons No. 24” (1964), a foam-producing installation, placed in a narrow, cramped stairwell between two levels, and a photographic installation by Thai artist Manit Sriwanichpoom outside the exhibition space. Because of the way many of the region’s momentous artworks are interspersed, one can hardly appreciate the revolutionary aspects of their formal and conceptual tones. 

By the time I saw the second exhibition Siapa Nama Kamu? I had forgotten I was in an architecturally breathtaking site with ample natural daylight. The galleries, configured by three exhibition design companies — who don’t come cheap — lack visual depth, have low ceilings and uneven walls, and a claustrophobic hang hampers perception of individual artworks. Additionally, there was no labeling to indicate which of the galleries’ multiple entrances anchored the beginning, middle, or end of the exhibitions.

Glimpse of architecture by Jean François Milou within National Gallery Singapore

Though NGS is owned by the Singapore authorities, it is privately run, which means the curatorial mandate is independent of possible government interference.  A number of risk-taking exhibitions of regional art have indeed been held in state-run Institutions such as Singapore Art Museum and Esplanade, which shows that an autonomous approach can be taken.

But by offering a watered-down version of Southeast Asia’s extraordinary history, this world-class institution short-changes the viewer. Here was a possibility to show how the region grappled with its colonial past, post-colonial legacies, regional consequences of global Cold War politics, and a slew of oppressive regimes in fast growing economies; to show how artists critiqued power, divisive ethnic politics, religious extremism and its ties to new-forming nationalistic identities in original, expressive languages —  not merely reacting to urban, economic, and political shifts, but actively contesting them. On the whole, the museum’s curatorial prerogative does not appear to interrogate the past in any analytical manner. How could the history and memory of communist influences on Southeast Asia and its artists be so brazenly negated?

The two exhibitions are on display for the next five years. Former NGS Director and, until recently the senior adviser to the institution, Kwok Kian Chow (who has been involved with the institution from the moment of its conception a decade ago), is not “overly concerned about unevenness in the number of works at this point, as any collection will have to work within various constraints.”

Installation view of Tang Da Wu’s “Relic from the performance Don’t Give Money to the Arts” (1995), mixed media, dimensions variable

I agree that this is a start for the institution and there are only possibilities that can be realized over time, but with all the resources already at the curators’ disposal, such a non-committal approach is a problem. The writing, let alone rewriting of national and regional art history, has to be handled with utmost sensitivity through the mastery of scholarship and the inclusion of multiple, sometimes opposing voices, particularly when history-writing itself is in its infancy in Southeast Asia.

With confidence money can buy, NGS has already announced partnerships with Pompidou and Tate, buying pre-curated blockbusters, supplanting these exhibitions with the region’s side of the story, surely with Singapore on top. With well over half a billion dollars spent on NGS, Singapore has effectively bought cultural hegemony over the region. The best of Southeast Asian art is largely in private hands, and while the region’s marginally funded institutions are suffering neglect, Singapore certainly has the money to hoover up most of regional art in the near future. Given its unique position, the museum must consider if it might altogether mature into a political tool that instrumentalizes art.

As the National Gallery Singapore is poised to become a space that facilitates research, I believe it is entirely possible for it to function as a leading beacon for the region. If run in a transparent, ethical, and collegiate manner, it will be a gleaming example in the future for regional institutions to follow. For now, I would recommend a visit to the NGS just for the architecture and its restaurant National Kitchen by Violet Oon.

The light show on the opening night was phenomenal.

Light and sound show projected on the former City Hall facade
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