The National Gallery Singapore opens
A media trip to Singapore for any of its arts and culture events—from the Art Biennale to the Writers’ Fest—is always welcome respite from the daily grind of writing. Usually, one is given the time to go through the smaller art galleries and the bigger museums, and one is given the opportunity to see the various cultural projects of both the government and the private sector, over and above what one is invited into the country for.
Media trip to Singapore for any of its arts and culture events—from the Art Biennale to the Writers’ Fest—is always welcome respite from the daily grind of writing. Usually, one is given the time to go through the smaller art galleries and the bigger museums, and one is given the opportunity to see the various cultural projects of both the government and the private sector, over and above what one is invited into the country for.
I’ve always thought that this was what made these visits a great thing: in the past, organizers of media trips know exactly how much time writers need to see the art, and then how much more time they might need to go around and get a feel of what else is going on—the better to contextualize whatever it is we are being flown in for.
The moment I saw the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), I realized there was no way any art critic would be able to do a credible review of it with the three whole days we were being given. And then I saw the fixed and tight itinerary of activities and I knew this would be far from being a relaxing trip to Singapore.
The promise of NGS
Certainly the requirements would be different for lifestyle writers and travel writers sent by their publications to cover a museum opening. Maybe they wouldn’t mind the fixed itinerary, the swift tour through the Southeast Asian exhibit, the questions left unanswered at the press conference. But those who went to Singapore because they wanted to see the art, because they wanted to spend time going through the museum, and appreciating the fact that it has been built at all . . . well, we deserved time and space and answers.
It surprises me that a museum that promises the largest and best collection of Southeast Asian art and the most important exhibit of Singaporean art, would imagine any respectable art critic to write about it all in such a short span of time. We’re talking here close to 400 works for Siapa Nama Kamu, Art in Singapore Since the 19th Century, and close to 400 works for Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since the 19th Century.
We’re talking five floors of a museum, two different wings bound by bridges and a basement.
But probably more disappointing than the lack of time and freedom we were given to actually enjoy what NGS had to offer was the lack of answers to many of the fundamental questions we had during the quick question-and-answer we were given with Gallery Director Dr. Eugene Tan and his team.
Throughout their introduction of the rationale for the creation of the NGS, there was an insistence on the idea of re-writing, responding to, and reconfiguring art history, yet there was no clear sense of what has been written exactly, which the NGS now seeks to address.
Asked about the function of NGS in the face of Asean Integration, which has been sold as a primarily political enterprise but which will necessarily affect each of our country’s cultural productions given the imbalance in cultural exchange among the various SEA countries, all we got was a very vague response about the integration being a good thing for art.
Not quite the answers one expects from any country in the Asean at this point; certainly not from a museum that would “position Singapore as a regional hub for the visual arts.”
When architecture blows you away
Skipping much of the itinerary set-up for the media, I set out to go through each and every gallery of Between Declarations and Dreams. I was flown there to see the art, and that’s what I planned to do.
But then one realizes that this would not be as simple as wearing comfortable shoes, nor would it merely be about holding a museum map and figuring out where to go.
Suffice it to say that the quick—three hour!—gallery tour with about five minutes on the architecture of the NGS was no preparation for the size or the magnitude of this space.
In fact, you don’t quite get a sense of how important the architecture is if all you’re reading are the museum’s press materials. All you’re really told is the fact that these are two heritage sites made into one, the old Supreme Court and the old City Hall. StudioMilou was responsible for this feat, along with CPG Consultants, its Singapore partner.
But it takes being left to one’s own devices to realize the greatness of this space, the architectural feat that it is, the design challenge that it was. It is only when you are trying to navigate NGS on your own that you realize the significance of this project, and the extraordinary goal that was fulfilled now that it is a functioning museum that houses the largest collection of Southeast Asian art, among other things.
It is this acknowledgement of the architectural feat that should’ve figured in planning the media tour. We needed to be given the opportunity to wrap our heads around this structure and its historical import. We needed to understand how one Jean-Francois Milou, international heritage and cultural expert, breathed new life into these structures, by knowing to imagine it both as heritage structure and as functioning contemporary space.
Just going through this museum for its architecture would mean spending a good two days to recognize where once the two different wings become obvious. It is the building’s features—long empty hallways, walls filled with cabinets, upper balconies holding nothing but photographs, windows that look old from the outside but new from the inside—that should be reason to stop and think about the art itself of heritage, architecture and restoration.
Milou had in fact competed and won this project as a prize; and speaking to Senior Architectural Associate Ho Wenmin of StudioMilou Singapore, it becomes clear that it is simplicity of design that is at the heart of this project: build a basement that unites the buildings from below and keep it from too many architectural interventions; create a filigreed metal ceiling to let the light in; and build a magnificent column that branches out like a tree to support the structure with the most minimal footprint.
The kind of work this required will only be apparent when one gets a sense of what the original structures looked like, and the seven years of work that Milou and his team put into the NGS. It is of course the kind of work that Milou himself is famous for, with a body of work in international heritage and cultural sites, as well as structures that are built with great respect for the surroundings, history, and cultural contexts of sites.
To say that one must visit NGS for Milou’s work would be an understatement. It is the architecture itself that will make this a tourist destination for Southeast Asia.
The art-architecture disconnect
Going through Declarations and Dreams, one realizes that in fact one major curatorial challenge for a Southeast Asian exhibit this large, is this space.
Because it was difficult to understand where one needed to go, how one needed to start going through the different galleries, and even just how one is supposed to walk through one space at a time. The rooms that were transformed into galleries led into each other, and this in itself should have been a curatorial challenge like no other. For how does one make sure that a spectator goes through the works chronologically, so as to understand it better? How does one make sure that people follow one path, when there are so many doors, so many options?
This cannot be so much the fault of architecture—that is after all the most fixed aspect of curation—as it had to be a limitation of curatorial vision. Because one would like to think that given the space, there could have been many other ways to do this curation, other than making it one that’s premised on responding to whatever history is deemed questionable. Given the space, given the way the rooms intersect and weave into each other, a dominantly thematic thread might have worked better.
It might have worked with trends for example, revealing how these shifted from one time to another, one room to the next. It might have also worked to imagine these rooms to stand for the different critical issues that we all carry across Southeast Asia, i.e., women’s rights, poverty, colonization, globalization, independence, historiography, and how these lead to each other, from one room to the next.
After going through Declarations and Dreams—which will get its own full-length review in due time—one can’t help but think that doing this exhibit chronologically across 15 galleries on three different floors was a decision made without taking the architecture into consideration. And maybe without considering how people might navigate the space, what they might see if they moved around the space different from the map, and how it could equally discourage them from going through the exhibit altogether.
This might have been the biggest faux pas really. Because there is no ignoring the architecture of Milou, the amount of work that went into building the National Gallery Singapore, and the greatness of this final outcome. The curation of these works needed to work this structure into its imagination of each exhibit, each gallery. Not doing so just made for really, really tired and confused museum goers, and ultimately for the art to be upstaged by the architecture.
A postscript: the hotel
To have booked the media at the Rendezvous Hotel might not have helped the cause of NGS. After all, this art hotel became a worthy distraction from the fatigue of cramming in all that art and architecture in two whole days.
Certainly the hotel could use some curation, an amount of finesse maybe when it comes to placing art too close together, and maybe finding a thread that might tie these works together. And yet one finds that it works as well, these sudden pops of color, the strangely placed installation of a human torso by the front desk. It’s a far cry from the fancy and haughty art over at the museums, but it is—it might also be—the kind of art that a majority of us would acknowledge to be “real,” if not to be relevant, because it is accessible.
After all, there is much to be said about what it is that tourists and guests might actually consider as important with regards to art and culture. And chances are—as with the Philippines—it is not necessarily (if at all) the art that our galleries and museums carry. It could be the art that persists outside of those walls, beyond the purvey of curators and academics, and which is up in hotels and malls, hanging in small neighborhood cafés and Starbucks merchandise, those sold in the museum shops and out on the streets.
The good food and great service helped of course, but the look and feel of Rendezvous Hotel allowed for the best counterpoint to the gargantuan task of going through the galleries of the spanking new NGS, given such a limited time. What it felt like was a whole lot of hard work, removing from the enjoyment of art and its discovery, for art critic and spectator, both.