Sopheap Pich, “Cargo” (2018), bamboo, rattan and metal 2 parts, each 253 x 597 x 244 cm (all photos courtesy the National Gallery Singapore unless otherwise noted)

SINGAPORE — Of the three works visitors are most likely to bump into first after entering the 60,000-square-meter space of the National Gallery Singapore to view its latest — as well as Southeast Asia’s first — show on Minimalism, Minimalism: Space. Light. Object., none of them feel explicitly Minimalist. Sopheap Pich’s “Cargo” (2018), which comprises two, six-meter-long shipping containers made out of bamboo, rattan, and metal commissioned by the gallery, suspended by wires several meters in the air, looms over the heads of guests and gives the sense of an alien light fixture before it registers as a work of art. Turner Prize winner Martin Creed’s “Work No. 1343” (2012), lying in close proximity to his “Work No. 840” (2007), itself masquerading as wall decoration, is recreated in the gallery’s cafeteria, and comes across as an eclectic, effervescent choice of interior design.

These three works, which in their own ways (the hard-edged geometry and simplicity of “Cargo” and Creed’s active engagement with the viewer’s experience) denote the subtle conceptual basis by which Minimalist art has persisted, mark the start of a zealous, breathless tour through the annals of Minimalism. One sees pre-Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, post-Post-Minimalism, its antecedents, offshoots, and contemporaries as it unfolds over two main sites. The exhibition spills over into the  nearby ArtScience Museum — through around 150 works by over 80 artists and 40 composers, including essential names like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, and newer names like Anish Kapoor and Peter Kennedy. There is no denying the obvious scope and ambition of the project: It aims to not just chart Minimalism’s US-centric genealogy but also to showcase art movements in Asia operating in parallel both thematically and chronologically. Yet, a perceptible fissure opens up in relation to both the acute absence of Minimalist works from/in Southeast Asia, and a lack of suitable explorations of why such a monumental movement failed to take root in the region.

Martin Creed, “Work No. 1343” (2012) furniture, tableware and lamps, dimensions variable

Amongst the many tangents spotlighted is the Mono-ha group (もの派, literally “School of Object’”), which arose during the volatile period of late ‘60s Japan when leftist student movements which had been simmering since the early ‘60s emerged in 1967 to protest social issues, harsh academic conditions nationwide, and the American military presence. (The United States-Japan Security Treaty, which came into effect in 1960, was due for renewal in 1970.)

Nobuo Sekine’s “Phase—Mother Earth” (1968) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Marked by a preoccupation with using raw materials to activate their vicinities through simple configurations or gestures, the Mono-ha artists sought an encounter between their works and their audiences that is distinctively non-hierarchal, yet still immediate and charged. Nobuo Sekine’s “Phase—Mother Earth” (1968), for which the artist dug an enormous three-meter-deep, cylindrical hole in a park and then packed and placed the excavated soil in the same shape nearby, is an excellent example of the artist’s own exploration into both the topological nature of displacement but also the relationship between a hole, an object, and the audience.

The connection between Minimalism and Eastern spirituality (predominantly Buddhism) is also given a closer look through works by artists such as Montien Boonma and Po Po. Boonma’s “Nature’s Breath: Arokhayasala” (1995), made from perforated metal blocks infused with various herbs, maintains a strong olfactory element that bathes the viewer in an astringent scent reminiscent of the herbal healing practices commonly associated with Buddhist practices whilst repeating the geometric asceticism of Minimalist aesthetics. The preoccupation with simple, spartan forms is similarly the case for Po’s “Red Cube” (1986), which was made, by the artist’s own admittance, without the knowledge of Minimalism.

Tatsuo Miyajima, “Mega Death” (1999/2016) LED, IC, electric wire and infrared sensor, dimensions variable

While it is an admirable attempt that covered much ground, the disparity between the efforts to both maintain a chronology and a broad-based coverage of Minimalism’s chief concerns (the relationship between spaces, objects, and their viewers) makes this exhibition scattershot. At its best, it could have been a focused dissection of the implications of Minimalist as it pertains to wider social contexts, particularly that of Southeast Asia, where the latent spiritualism shared by Minimalism manifests in forms such as film (the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for example) but is never directly under its auspice. Yes, the works are all there, but something is missing, something much like Minimalism’s uncomplicated, effortless, self-assured presence.

Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. is on view at National Gallery Singapore and the ArtScience Museum through April 14,. The exhibition is curated by Eugene Tan, Russell Storer, Silke Schmickl and Goh Sze Ying from National Gallery Singapore, and Adrian George and Honor Harger from ArtScience Museum.

Alfonse Chiu is a critic and photographer currently based in Singapore. He is the creative director and editor-at-large of independent film journal, SINdie, and an alumni of the Singapore International...