City Hall and the Old Supreme Court buildings. Photo courtesy the National Gallery Singapore

The new National Gallery Singapore: A monument for intersecting histories

Alan Cruickshank on branding the city-state as a global city for the arts 
 

National Gallery Singapore, Atrium between City Hall and the Old Supreme Court Building
National Gallery of Singapore. Atrium between City Hall and the Old Supreme Court buildings. Photo courtesy National Gallery Singapore

The founding father of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, famously lectured his citizens that “Life is a marathon” (without a finish line), encouraging them to work towards long-term rather than to sprint to short-term goals, not only for the individual but more so for the state. His life’s achievement came to an end on the 23rd of March this year; but his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, subsequently realised one of the citystate’s long-term goals when he launched the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) on 23 November 2015. 

It was first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a National Day Rally in 2005 that the unused heritage buildings of City Hall and the Old Supreme Court would be converted into a National Gallery. Ten years and more than $S500 million later, he declared that such a museum for local and Southeast Asian art would present “a new chapter in the history of Singapore”, where “Singapore island is in a region not to ourselves”. Rather than tearing down and building anew, this metamorphosis was a “pragmatic” use of two iconic monuments highly symbolic of Singapore’s nationhood and its “collective memory of important historical events”[1], thus affecting a singular marker of regional cultural focus and further enhancing the city-state’s brand as a “distinctive global city for the arts”.[2] The NGS’s curatorial vision, while holding the world’s largest display of modern art from Southeast Asia, with ten thousand works in its collection and around one thousand currently on display, is to present, “examine” and “reflexively (re)write” the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia within the context of a global art history, and to establish a “dialogue” between the art of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world. And so, with a grand sweep of an appropriately monumental-sized paintbrush across the wall behind him, as an Asian version of breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow of a newly commissioned ship to wish it good fortune, Prime Minister Lee’s gestural salute activated an audio-visual presentation within the gallery, its gravitas recorded by a multitude of mobile phones.

Unlike Western governments, encumbered by the vicissitudes of short-term power cycles, Singapore’s farsighted policies and infrastructural development are enabled through the surety of its singular governing mechanism. As a point in contrast, two days after the NGS launch by Prime Minister Lee, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating criticised a bid from the Art Gallery of NSW to extend its building (the Sydney Modern project), as a  “a gigantic spoof against the civic core of Sydney’s most public and important open space”[3], illustrating in one graphic diatribe the prevalent swings and roundabouts of policy contradistinction between Singaporean and Western political models and accompanying public debate (given that, in the former, there is little to none).

The strategic vision for Singapore’s cultural development was first conceived in the 1990s through its Rennaissance City Plan I, with its horizons originally benchmarked against cultured cities such as London, Paris New York and Melbourne. Then, in Rennaissance City Plan III, in comparison with Asian Cities’ Plans for Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, and the Middle East’s Abu Dhabi. Singapore was proposed as a “Distinctive Global City for the Arts, where arts and culture would make Singapore an attractive place to work, live and play, contribute to the knowledge and learning of every Singaporean, and provide cultural ballast for nation-building efforts.”[4]

Designed by StudioMilou Architecture in partnership with a local firm the NGS is the conjunction of two historic buildings in the heart of the Civic District. Built by the British in 1929, City Hall was to become the site of the Japanese surrender to Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command Lord Mountbatten, on 12 September 1945. Singapore’s self-governance was declared and the swearing in of its first government was held in City Hall in 1959, followed by the Malaysian Proclamation in 1963 announcing that Singapore was no longer under British rule. Its immediate neighbour, the Old Supreme Court building, was opened in August 1939. Like City Hall, it features Corinthian columns and a classical monumental design in empirical grey stone, its frontispiece divergence being the pediment sculpture as an allegory to justice. With a floor area of approximately 64,000 square metres, the NGS rivals museums such as the Musée d’Orsay and Tate Modern in size.

Two permanent opening exhibitions (of five years duration) set the tone as initial presentations. Siapa Nama Kamu (Malay for “What is your name?), in the DBS [Bank] Singapore Gallery, exhibited four hundred works in predominantly chronological sequence covering Singapore’s art history from the 19th century to the present day, exploring the influences and practices that have shaped Singaporean art, and issues of self and community. Its six galleries displayed significant episodes of Singapore’s art history: Tropical Tapestry 1880s–1930s, external impressions of the island and its people; Nanyang Reverie 1930s–1970s, external influences that shaped local perspectives of identity and place and the formation of the Nanyang School; Real Concerns: 1950s–1970s, socially-empowered art as a result of post-war anti-colonial animosity; New Languages: 1960s–1980s, a post-independence focus on the country’s modernisation through abstraction and other Western influences; Tradition Unfettered: 1940s–1980s, the integration of Chinese ink aesthetics with Western art techniques; and Shifting Grounds: 1980s to the present, the inevitable shift towards the contemporary through artforms such as performance, installation, public and site-specific works, avant-garde collectives and new technologies.

Between Declarations & Dreams, in the UOB [Bank] Southeast Asia Gallery, also featuring around 400 artworks, traces the development of modern art in the Southeast Asian region over the same period: from colonial rule to post-war social and political change, to the 1970s and beyond. The region during this period encountered tumultuous change, and the art reflects these trends coloured by the complex relationships between regional culture and traditions and the irrefutable influence of the West. Bracketed similarly to Siapa Nama Kamu, four major classifications encompass eleven galleries: Authority & Anxiety: 19th–20th century, with oil paintings, prints, photographs, illustrations and maps chronicling the dramatic political and cultural changes following European colonisation, and the latter’s influence on local forms of visual expression; Imagining Country & self: 1990s–1940s, from the languor of the years of colonial rule to reaction against academic convention; Manifesting The Nation: 1950s–1970s, a new generation of artistic expression, following the struggle for independence, shifting power dynamics and social change; and ReDefining Art: 1970s and after, avant-garde and other non-canonical responses to wars, both Cold and Vietnam, political regimes and consumer capitalism, challenging existing principles and engaging alternative interpretations.

Both exhibitions (and their catalogues) are in themselves monumental tours de force, although the visitor experience is slightly depreciated by characteristic indicators of the jejune museum – an at times congested hang (notably in the contemporary Singaporean section), overzealous gallery minders and publishing design faux pas.

The National Gallery of Singapore also offers some comparison to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), opened in 1996. A converted 19th-century mission school, now showing signs of attrition, the concurrent exhibition[5] Stars: Art Reflects on Peace, Justice, Equality, Democracy and Progress presented five “art luminaries of the nation” – Ho Tzu Nyen, Matthew Ngui, T.K. Sabapathy, Suzann Victor and Zukifle Mahmod. As a salute to Singapore’s fifty years of independence this year and the five stars on the national flag (think City Hall), this considered exhibition offered “nuanced and layered interpretations of the nation’s core values, which resonate with Singapore’s multifaceted, complex identity”[5] (think both City Hall and Old Supreme Court), to make a candid point about SAM’s interconnection in the representation of the contemporary in Singaporean and Southeast Asian art and by extension, the historical. In further contrast, the ex-British Army Gillman Barracks, now a complex of international commercial galleries and the Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, touted its conception “to foster cultural exchange and creation, generating discourse and research and showcasing innovative art … to establish Singapore as an important centre for contemporary art in Asia”[6], the many notable international artists on show languishing in patronless solitude.

The NGS is one element in a landscape of multiple museums overseen by the National Heritage Board. With its vision to build the nation’s social capital and position Singapore as an “international hub” for visual art in Southeast Asia, and to be a leading visual arts institution that redefines art in Southeast Asia and its understanding in a global context, the entry of the NGS into the regional cultural landscape is both timely and propitious. In relation to the evolving art infrastructural landscape, the Government expresses the view that the growth in the museum sector is good, based on comparable cultural tourism and attendant economic development in both Hong Kong’s West Kowloon and Abu Dhabi’s Saadayit Island Cultural Districts, and the rapid expansion of similar projects in mainland China. The NGS affirms that regional institution and individual collaboration is necessary and is working towards such alliances, but its future concern will be assuming the authority and/or prerogative to speak for all of Southeast Asia. As further obstacles to the integrity of that privilege, perceived externally as grey periods of contradiction – the banning of performance art from 1994 to 2004, and censorship (if not self-censorship) of political, racial and religious issues – elicit potential speculation as to what might have been or will be curated out[7], and an apparent indistinctness of art, not so much from the period of Japanese Occupation (understandably) but more so its post-war representation.

Singapore is no longer the place imagined in Paul Theroux’s 1973 book St. Jack (which evoked the seedy substratum of its early post-colonial years), nor William Gibson’s infamous 1993 Wired magazine essay (critical of an absent sense of creativity, authenticity, history and underground culture), both causing the ire of the government. Nor is it the Singapore of when I lived there as an artist in 1990, when its cultural landscape was less than modest, with only a handful of artists, one art critic, curator and art historian of note and the odd institution. Roughly the same size and population as greater Sydney, Singapore has established in the last two decades an unsurpassed and remarkable cultural infrastructure that sets a global benchmark – against such regional cities as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing – for policy vision, billion-dollar plus investment and follow through, with recurrent events such as the Singapore Biennale and Art Stage Singapore. Artists, such as Ho Tzu Nyen, Heman Chong, Charles Lim and Ming Wong amongst many others, are regularly acknowledged participants in the international arena.

In assessing PM Lee’s declared notion of “a new chapter in the history of Singapore”, the metamorphosis of such historically weighted capital proposes a singular monumentalisation of the already monumental. Singapore’s marathon, including that for the NGS, is to sustain the momentum where others might run out of drive. This regional cultural lighthouse, already attracting significant domestic attention, is weighted by expectation and investment. But it is the virtue of its programs and the people that run them – the guarantee of cultural substance – that will ultimately matter.

National Gallery Singapore, installation view
Manit Sriwanichpoom, Shocking Pink Collection, 1998, installation view. Photo courtesy the National Gallery Singapore 
Installation view, National Gallery Singapore
Ming Wong’s Four Malay Stories, 2005 and Tang Da Wu’s Don’t Give Money to The Arts, 2004, installation view, National Gallery Singapore. Photo Alan Cruickshank

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ PM Lee Hsien Loong’s opening speech Monday 23 November 2015. 
  2. ^ This and subsequent quotes unless otherwise noted from the media materials presented at the time of the launch.
  3. ^ This and subsequent quotes unless otherwise noted from the media materials presented at the time of the launch.
  4. ^ From Past to Present, Renaissance City Plan III,Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, Government of Singapore, 2008, p. 6. 
  5. a, b Foreword, 5 Stars: Art Reflects on Peace, Justice, Equality, Democracy and Progress, Singapore Art Museum, 2015, p. 3.
  6. ^ See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gillman_Barracks. 
  7. ^ For this and relevant censorship issues, including Joseph Ng’s Brother Cane 1994 High Court obscenity charge, see http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/76/ArtAndCensorshipInSingaporeCatch22.

The writer gratefully acknowledges his visit to Singapore was sponsored by the National Gallery Singapore.

Currently based in Sydney, Alan Cruickshank was the Executive Director of the CACSA and Editor of Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheet magazine, 2000–2015; prior to that artist, curator and publisher for 20 years. He is currently writing for international art magazines and online journals.

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