In a country that has four national languages (English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil), is just 50 years old, has aspirations to assert itself as the beating heart of Southeast Asia and has been governed by representatives of a single party (the People’s Action Party) for the entire period of its independent existence, it’s easy to see the very idea of a National Gallery as a project that has political motivations at its core. And that’s not the only reason you might be encouraged to think as much. The SG$532-million ($375m) project to convert two of the country’s landmark government buildings – formerly home to its Supreme Court and the city-state’s City Hall, where the Japanese surrender in 1945 officially marked the end of the Second World War in Southeast Asia – into an art gallery was first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (whose party has often seen the arts as playing a secondary role to the economic priorities of nation building) in 2005 and opened by him ten years later.
Notably, the former functions of the gallery’s buildings are memorialised within it almost to the same extent as the newly installed art, which comprises over 800 works in the permanent galleries.
It’s a confusion of purpose only enhanced by signs peppered around newly restored former offices and courtrooms warning visitors not to touch desks and chairs because they are ‘part of the exhibit’. This, after all, is a country in which Lim Nang Seng’s Dancing Girl (1970), a public sculpture in Tiong Bahru, was accompanied by a plaque that mentioned a politician rather than the artist (who would go on to sculpt the bestknown, 8.6m-high embodiment of Singapore’s national symbol, the Merlion). But perhaps all this simply provides a context in which to view works such as Matthew Ngui’s anamorphic chair, a part of You can order and eat delicious poh-piah (an interactive installation originally made for Documenta X, 1997), in which a series of wooden blocks coalesce into a chair only when viewed from a particular perspective. Context, perhaps even a search for it, is to an extent what the National Gallery is all about.
Converted by Studio Milou Architecture, the National Gallery is home to the world’s largest public collection of Southeast Asian art. And it has 64,000sqm in which to show off these works – and more specifically the national treasures of the Singaporean part of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is a region whose identity is almost as patchy as its public art collecting, and it will be no surprise that ‘long overdue’ would be most people’s initial reaction to the gallery’s permanent display of art from the region, despite the fact that the title of the gallery’s permanent display of Southeast Asian art, Between Declarations and Dreams, still, and perhaps honestly, hints at certain vagaries. To an extent these are set up at the beginning of the exhibition, which starts in the nineteenth century with a series of broadly ethnographic photographs and then Indonesian Raden Saleh’s large, Western-style oil paintings exploring his (and perhaps a more general) fetish for lions and tigers. What’s curious about this is that it announces the beginning of ‘art’ in the modern sense within the region as something specifically Western and essentially two-dimensional, with the added implication that whatever else was going on in Southeast Asia at the time wasn’t art. Although a more generous interpretation (the one that the National Gallery seems determined to pursue) might be that in the years that followed, this kind of art was something that artists from the region went on to infiltrate, claim and subvert, just as Singaporeans did to the buildings in which all this is housed. Indeed, with the corridor-like structure of the room-to-room displays (echoing, perhaps, the former corridors of power in the building), it’s hard not to see progress as one of the underlying themes of the National Gallery’s approach to the cacophony of styles, media and subject matter that make up the region’s recent art history. In that respect, Gerardo Tan’s The End (1995), a red velvet rope stretched between two brass stanchions placed in front of a painting of the same, might be emblematic in its foregrounding of reality before image and both real and psychological restraint.
The permanent display of Singaporean art goes under the heading Siapa Nama Kamu? (What is your name? in Malay – a line written on a blackboard in Chua Mia Tee’s painting National Language Class, 1959, part of the collection), overtly placing a struggle for identity at the heart of its narrative. Indeed, questions of ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I?’ and ‘Where am I?’ dominate all the displays here: in the Singapore section beginning with some rather odd nineteenth- century natural-history illustrations of flora and fauna, and culminating in a slightly patchy contemporary display of relics of performances (jackets, artists talking about what they did) by practitioners such as Tang Da Wu and Vincent Leow. Back in 1994, the National Arts Council (NAC) stopped funding unscripted performance art following a controversy surrounding Brother Cane, a performance by artist Josef Ng. For the next ten years public performance art was effectively banned in Singapore, and artists such as Tang Da Wu mainly practised overseas. After all that, the inclusion of Tan’s two velvet ropes seems particularly poignant.
And yet all of this should take nothing away from the fact that the new National Gallery is a magnificent resource (at the opening, the first of its temporary exhibitions showcases ink artists Chua Ek Kay and Wu Guanzhong). For everything you do know or recognise about art from the region, the museum’s displays throw up many more works and issues about which you know little or nothing. In the end it’s one of the smallest works on paper, Untitled (Can we be ironic) (1996), by Simryn Gill, that perhaps best encapsulates what the National Gallery might really be about – the yellowing A4 sheet simply has the four words of the parenthetic title typed out four times in its centre – and, more than anything, the National Gallery in which it sits will be a testing place for the limits and possibilities of art in a region that hasn’t had a platform like this before. Here, undoubtedly, is a place where such debates can begin.
This article was first published in the vol 4, no1 issue of ArtReview Asia.