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National Gallery: Icing on the SG50 cake

By Woon Tien Wei

It was first announced in 2005, by the then-Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, that the Supreme Court and City Hall buildings will house a ‘world-class art gallery’ within five years.

It has taken forever to create this ‘world-class art gallery’, and the journey for this high-profile cultural institution has not been entirely smooth sailing - with high-level staff and leadership changes, a name change from the initial National Art Gallery Singapore (NAGA), and a collapsing crane seriously injuring three and killing two people.

The National Gallery Singapore (NGS) took a decade of planning and construction. It houses the world’s largest public collection of Modern Southeast Asian art, cost $532 million to build and is larger than London's Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It finally opened its doors to the public on 24 November 2015 – five years late, but just in time to be the icing on the SG50 cake.

A series of opening celebration events were oragnised for the public from 24 - 30 November. There were art forums, an art carnival, theatrical, music and dance performances, outdoor projection and films. I visited NGS on 27 and 29 November, but did not manage to attend all the events. This article is based on my experience and observations at the NGS.

I wandered around at the Art Carnival which featured large tents on the Padang. There were four thematic tents: Family & Community, Rebirth & Peace, Adversity & Conflict and Passion & Love. (There was also a gastronomic tent and, as you may have guessed, it was called Food & Beverage.)

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Teo.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Teo.

The Art Carnival included the ‘Share the Hope Façade Show’, an all-out audio-visual show inspired by the NGS collection, projected on to the NGS building itself. It was overwhelming and we were all staring at the NGS, captivated by the light and sound. It was so big, so colourful, so loud, so animated and so well-funded (it was sponsored by Cartier) that it delivered the intended spectacle. It was only after the show that I started to wonder, what kind of ‘hope’ was it trying to share? Did it really need to be projected on to the building? I was left rather puzzled, but there was not much information available on site.

According to the event flyer, the idea for the Art Carnival was an attempt to bring the rich heritage and history of Singapore and Southeast Asian art beyond the walls of the Gallery, a commendable intention.

Thanks to events like the Night Festival, Singaporeans are already familiar with the carnival format, but the Art Carnival would have been more beneficial if there had been a stronger curatorial direction. There were some good works in the carnival, and the curators should have engaged with the artists in the tents to create stronger links to the NGS collection.

For visitor Ms Belinda Tan, it was the building that drew her there. “I came to see the architecture and it is beautiful. I also enjoyed visiting the holding cells. But I find the art a bit challenging to understand,” she said.

The NGS is designed by StudioMilou, an architectural firm based in Paris. StudioMilou’s design, featuring a canopy connecting the two buildings, was chosen from an international competition in 2008. StudioMilou worked with local firm CPG Consultants to build the NGS.

According to StudioMilou’s founder Jean-Francois Milou, the canopy roof were “analogies for the public, such as the fibres of weave design like rattan or ikat”. The architects preserved many of the original details of the buildings and kept a limited colour palette.

Another visitor, researcher Ms Khoo Ee Hoon, found that the user experience was in need of improvement. “I am used to visiting museums and have been here a few times. There needs to be better sign-posting because a new visitor will be lost,” she said.

There are currently three exhibitions on show: the DBS Singapore Gallery, UOB Southeast Asia Gallery and the Wu Guanzhong Gallery. I managed to visit both the Singapore Gallery and Southeast Asia Gallery.

The Singapore Gallery’s exhibition is entitled ‘Siapa Nama Kamu’, and features about 400 works by artists from Singapore. The exhibition explores issues of self and community, and what it means to see Singapore through its art.

I was really curious about the choice of a Malay title, ‘Siapa Nama Kamu’, which means ‘what's your name?’ in English. It felt patronising as the exhibition flyer failed to feature any Malay artists. Although the exhibition contains a section on the development of Chinese Ink, the overall thematic explorations did not feature anything related to Malay culture. While there were some works by Chinese and Malay artists using the batik medium, there was no attempt to look at how Singapore artists engaged with a traditionally Malay medium.

A number of visitors I interviewed felt that ‘Siapa Nama Kamu’ displayed the works too close to one another. It would be a much better experience to allocate more space for these Singapore masterpieces.

‘Between Declarations & Dreams’ is the title of the Southeast Asian art exhibition. The exhibition features artwork responding to the changing historical, ideological and political tides of this region. This exhibition has a stronger curatorial framework and the spacing between the works is generally better than ‘Siapa Nama Kamu’. I noticed a regional timeline located in the UOB Southeast Asia gallery 14. As a timeline for the developments in Southeast Asia, I found it too simplified, with too few milestones listed. Did the curatorial team have to rush for SG50?

One visitor, Mr David Tan, commented that he enjoyed watching the visitors interacting with the art. “It is like performance art,” he said.

There were many people in the gallery and quite a number of visitors were seen touching the art works. The gallery sitters were doing a great job trying to maintain order in the overcrowded galleries.

Standing in front of Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya, I overheard a mother providing some insights of the painting to her daughter. She claimed that the people sitting around the orator were communists and you could spot them by the guys in their signature singlets and girls with their ponytails. I was pleasantly surprised at the mother’s enthusiasm but I have to say I don’t think those are reliable communist indicators. I was also pleasantly surprised that the daughter noticed and pointed out the fly in the painting, which was a talking point for this work when it was first exhibited.

It's great to see all these art works in the Gallery and be reminded that a dedicated space to display Southeast Asian art is long overdue. One can easily understand that there is tremendous pressure in curating the inaugural exhibitions, and they do show the depth, the richness and diversity of art in this region.

NGS Director Eugene Tan commented that art appreciation in Singapore is “not as advanced as we’d like it to be” and education is a priority for the gallery. NGS is working with schools to include more art in the national curriculum and create Singapore’s first undergraduate degree in art history.

As part of the opening celebrations, all visitors are offered free admission until this coming Sunday (6th December).

Woon Tien Wei is an artist/curator based in Singapore.