Snippets: National Gallery Singapore, Jan 2016 (I)

As part of its Renaissance City Plan, two municipal buildings are combined to form Singapore’s new National Gallery, which boasts an 8,000 strong collection of Southeast Asian art. Despite running up & down stairs that still smell new, and dashing across cavernous halls between galleries, I still missed a few rooms and was late for my next appointment. The concourse galleries offer an auspicious start to my visit, which showcase works made in the 1970s that steered away from traditional art mediums. “A Fact Has No Appearance” recognises the pioneering efforts of three artists in the region, respectively – Malaysian Redza Piyadasa (text-based art), Perth-based Tan Teng-Kee (performance art and found object sculptures), and Filipino Johnny Manahan (video art).

Redza Piyadasa – Malaysian Art Review (1978)

Only managing a cursory glance at exhibits by the latter two artists due to a time constraint, Teng-Kee’s creations strike a formal impression. My assumption was confirmed by a wall text that informs, “…(the artist) talks of the key elements of point, line, and plane as central to his work.” The same text’s proposal that ‘Vibrating Rods’ is an expression of kinetic art, however, is presumptuous at best. Coming around to Redza’s exhibited works, which only one I have seen in a Malaysian gallery, it is apparent that meta-criticism is the artist’s main preoccupation during the Mystical Reality years. In a description of the work that shares the title of this 3-man show, “…Piyadasa was attempting to investigate the philosophical difference between a fact and an appearance, and seeing how descriptive text could approximate and stand in for the object’s visual presence.”

Tan Teng-Kee – Vibrating Rods (1975)

Looking at a plank nailed onto a chair, one ‘Malaysian Art Review’, and a literal block of ‘Chained Art’, it is difficult to ignore the self-indulgent nature of such endeavours. More interesting are works with actual aesthetic values, such as ‘Entry Points’ – one stencil-captioned Chia Yu Chian painting – and two “To Be Completed” portraits. A slide show of images included in Redza’s 1977 MFA thesis, yield further insights into his ambition to be an artist-dialectician rather than an artist craftsman. Potentially evocative constructs number just a few among chairs and propositions. In a 2004 video interview/ rant, Redza associates his postmodern art (e.g. “Malaysians” series) as the (post-race) way forward in Malaysian art. Despite an over-emphasis on concepts, his willingness to engage with one’s national identity, strikes a familiar chord with the local contemporary scene.

Selection of slide images from Redza Piyadasa’s MFA thesis at University of Hawaii ‘Art as Art becomes Art as Art’ (July 1977)

Moving on to the “…land art interventions, earth installations and mineral pigment drawings” of Tang Da Wu’s “Earth Work 1979”, the ‘Gully Curtains’ captivate with its simple yet representative record of an eroding plot of land. Non-objective art continues to be celebrated as I chance upon an incised outline of a square, Cheo Chai-Hiang’s ‘5’ x 5’ (Inched Deep)’ proposal now physically inscribed into Singapore art canon. This second floor gallery stages “Siapa Nama Kamu?”, its title referencing words on a blackboard in Chua Mia Tee’s ‘National Language Class’. Despite browsing the show in a non-linear manner, it is impressive that a collection of artworks can tell a brief history of a country – from the realistic records of industrialisation taking place, to the abstract implications that manifest in modernist art.

Video introduction by Charmaine Toh to “Siapa Nama Kamu?” @ DBS Singapore Gallery [from CAPTURED Vimeo page]

With displays hung close to each other in a low-ceiling environment, the exhibition is cosy and intimate, an apt setting for an island state with an authoritative government. Chinese ink paintings line both sides of a (too) narrow corridor, while themed rooms pair wall hangings with freestanding sculptures. Cheong Soo Pieng’s seminal ‘Tropical Life’ hangs here, a picture loaned from Malaysia’s National Visual Arts Gallery which I have not seen. Memorable exhibits include paintings by Lai Foong Moi and Koeh Sia Yong; photographs by Wu Peng Seng and Yip Cheong Fun; sculptures by Teo Eng Seng and Han Sai Por; and woodcut prints by Tan Tee Chie and Choo Keng Kwang. Appreciating these items from the NGS Collection (and its donors) is an embarrassing affair, as I lament the lost opportunities with NVAG not showing its collection on a permanent basis.

 [from l to r] Yip Cheong Fun – Amidst the Nets (c. 1940s); Choo Keng Kwang – 13th May Incident (1954); Koeh Sia Yong – Cannot Grow Vegetables Anymore (1968)

Having content knowledge and presenting it are two different skills. “Between Declarations and Dreams” – the title taken from a line in Chairil Anwar’s poem Karawang Bekasi (“Berjagalah terus di garis batas pernyataan dan impian”) – “…follows the chronological development of Southeast Asian art from the 19th century to the post-1970s.” While re-writing histories is oft-repeated in curatorial briefs, a reliance on canonical texts remains necessary. This is the museum’s first show, after all. Looking at the many artworks stretching across decades is a mind-numbing affair, where regional contexts become secondary to visual triggers. As Mayo Martin sums up the experience nicely – “(a)t best, any attempt to frame in neat terms art production from a region this messy is provisional.” At least, one does not feel bad being judgmental in a former courthouse...

Lai Foong Moi – Home Coming (1964)