The National Gallery Singapore has a dual mission—winning over the people, and elevating a cast of virtual unknowns.
Of all the gifts a sovereign nation can bestow upon its people, a national gallery is among the most valuable. Done right, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Lose yourself in front of paintings—windows into lost worlds—for hours, days, or however long one chooses. Time travel into the drawing rooms, salons and artist studios of old epochs. Grapple with the themes and narratives central to your nation’s story. Cast off the shackles of the mundane and sojourn amid the sublime.
The Dutch and British realised their power to inspire and instil a sense of pride and belonging in the early 19th century, while the Americans, Indians and Australians did the same at different points over the last hundred years. But what about Southeast Asia? While Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines all have national galleries, the Singaporeans suddenly and emphatically ) lead the way (as of late November 2015) now the red tape has been cut on a gargantuan 64,000 sq.m, $532-million National Gallery housed in two stolid leftovers from the city-state’s colonial past: the old City Hall and former Supreme Court.
Bookending the Lion City’s yearlong 50th anniversary of independence celebrations, The gallery’s opening was quite the glittering Singaporean occasion. Opera singers bellowed on the steps out front as images inspired by the art within were beamed across the towering Corinthian columns behind them. Stage-managed photo-ops saw government ministers posing with schoolkids in a new, candy-coloured centre for art education on the first floor. And there was a speech from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, one that walked a tightrope between managing and building expectations. In the newly restored City Hall Chambers, the high-ceilinged room where the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces in September 1945, he told gathered journalists, “The National Gallery, with 800 pieces in this collection to its name and a few more borrowed from galleries around the region, is nowhere near the scale and riches of the Louvre or the Met.” But then he added, with a steely glint in his eye, “We will gradually build up our own collections over time through acquisitions and donations, and also as our own artists continue to contribute to the arts-and-culture scene in Singapore.”
The next day, the crowds descended. As soon as the doors opened, hundreds set off, maps in hand, through the bright, Beaux Arts foyers and into the two galleries filled with Singaporean and Southeast Asian art. Among them were naysayers and nit-pickers making pointed remarks such as, “These gallery ceilings are too low” (a little harsh given the conservation restrictions), “Too many corridors” (a fair point: of the 64,000 sq.m, only 18,000 are actual galleries) and “Why do you need to go down to the basement to get your ticket and then up again?” (also a fair point). But the general mood was one of excitement. People huddled around the ‘Social Table’: a flat bank of digital screens that allow you to discover links between artists with a mere swipe of your index finger. Teenagers on the footbridges that extend between the two buildings posed for selfies, the tree-like aluminium columns that prop up the latticework atrium roof in the background. Meanwhile, back in the galleries, the public stood rapt as gallery volunteers talked about the backstories behind individual works. Some listened as if their lives somehow depended on it.
It’s a gallery for the people, yes, but also a transnational project. “To understand where we come from, we have to appreciate our neighbourhood and our context,” said the PM in his opening speech. But this is only half the picture. Understanding where it comes from is not the only reason Singapore is quietly amassing the most comprehensive collection of Southeast Asian modern (and contemporary) art in the world—it’s also about dominating where it comes from; about fulfilling its ambition to be a global arts city; about adding to the collective soft-power of a visual arts ecosystem that already includes the Singapore Art Museum (launched in 1996), Singapore Biennale and Art Stage Singapore (an art fair of Asian contemporary art held every January).
Not everyone in the region is enthusiastic about this. With rumours circulating of private collectors being courted in an effort to get them to sell important works, and no clear incentives being offered to encourage other Southeast Asians to come and engage with the collection, questions about how neighbourly and altruistic this whole enterprise really is are surfacing. Thailand is especially vulnerable to plundering, believe some—“a sitting duck” with “no counterforce to balance the playing field,” as one Thai art scene observer who wished to remain anonymous puts it. This could well be paranoia. As curatorial director Low Sze Wee admitted to me, Thai artists are currently vastly underrepresented in the collection. But if that changes, a near-future scenario in which Thais one day have to travel to Singapore to see Thai masterworks in the flesh is possible.
There are, of course, positives to all this. In 2014, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter lamented the deep-rooted Euro-American biases of art institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. Now, with the National Gallery Singapore’s soft-spoken and sharp-suited director Eugene Tan promising a rash of loans and collaborations with overseas institutions (joint exhibitions with the Centre Pompidou and Tate Britain are lined up for mid-2016), Southeast Asian art may start to get prolonged, rather than fleeting, bouts of international recognition.
One of its main aims is to fill in a gaping blank spot on International Modernism’s canvas. Again and again in the days running up to the official opening, it was made clear that its staff—a super articulate army of curators and arts administrators that numbers in the hundreds—are deeply invested in telling a story that hasn’t yet been properly told: of how Modernism happened here, and to a different timetable and for different reasons than in the West.
And just how good a storyteller is the National Gallery Singapore? Despite its academic aim to “reflexively (re)write” the art history of all Southeast Asia, currently it’s most articulate when narrating its own story. This might simply be because of the two inaugural exhibitions, both of which are due to hang for around five years, the one surveying Singaporean art, Siapa Nama Kamu? (“What’s your name?” in Malay), is the most assiduously researched and complete.
Broadly chronological, it begins in the early 1880s, “a time of art before the time of art in many ways,” as senior curator Hussain Mustafa puts it, but that helps us understand the early sources of the modern in Singapore, namely colonialism. Key works include the faux-naïve paintings of “Nanying artists” such as Cheong Soo Pieng, and Chua Mia Tee’s National Language Class, an evocative depiction of Chinese students learning the then-national language Malay from 1959, the year Singapore wrestled self-governance from its masters.
Some of the most memorable works offer stark social commentary—Choo Keng Kwang’s woodcut print documenting an incident when Chinese students clashed with the British authorities back in 1954, for instance—and to the curatorial team’s credit, controversial works haven’t been locked away in the storeroom in the hope that no one will notice. Not all of them anyway. “In our retelling of Singapore art history,” says Tan, “we’ve been able to highlight certain aspects which have, until now, been overlooked.” And while Josef Ng’s Brother Cane, the 1994 video work that caused an open fissure in Singaporean society and led to the National Art Council withdrawing funding for unscripted performance art, isn’t here, other video works from that period, as well as some in other media produced in response to the ban, are on display.
The exhibition covering the broader Southeast Asia region—and flowing through the timber- panelled chambers and off-white colonnaded halls of the former Supreme Court—is more troublesome, mainly because it is less authoritative. The problem is not that “Declarations and Dreams” attempts to tell lots of stories—about the founding of art schools by Europeans, about the dawn of social realism, about the rise of avant garde movements—but that it fails to tell any of them fully, and whist adopting a magisterial tone that befits the setting.
Walking out of Gallery 2, for example, you could be forgiven for thinking that all of 19th century Southeast Asia took up oil painting in an attempt to refute colonialist notions of cultural superiority, when the truth is that only parts of it did, namely Indonesia and the Philippines. You leave having learnt next to nothing about the impact communism had on the region and its art, and unaware that the reason so little Thai work appears in the early sections is not because of a dearth of quality but because, as alluded to earlier, much of it is, for the time being, out of reach.
Still, there are plenty of strong works that draw you in. Perhaps the most powerful of all is Boschbrand (Forest Fire), a lush and wonderfully over-the-top depiction of bulls and tigers tumbling by the Indonesian romantic painter Raden Saleh. Another highlight is the concluding section featuring a potpourri of works by regional contemporary artists, including key installations by Thai A-listers such as Montien Boonma and Michael Shaowanasai.
There are quite a few “wow” moments, actually, and not all of them involving art. The Supreme Court’s domed rotunda is now an art research centre with a dramatic sense of history. A rattan-like glass and metal membrane covers the gap between buildings, then sweeps up to enclose a top floor boasting wide open spaces and designer restaurants. In one more example of the Singaporean’s internationalism, an architectural competition to design the conversion was held, and the winners, French firm Studio Milou, have done a great job, creating a cultural megastructure that oozes civic grandeur and retains original touches.
By Max Crosbie-Jones