Day Two – Adventures in the Art of Oversleeping
Read the first exciting installment of this continent-hopping jaunt here!
Slept a good fourteen hours straight last night, due no doubt to the whims of jet lag. As such, we missed our alarm and got a late start on the day. Not especially worrisome, as we had wanted to go for a more relaxed approach today, and we clearly needed the sleep, but it would have been nice to make better use of our time.
Given the partial nature of the day, we decided to focus on one sole attraction, that of the National Gallery Singapore. Back down to the Civic quarter, which we wandered through yesterday, the Gallery doesn’t come cheap – for foreigners. Adults $20, students $15, it is fortunately free for native S’poreans. I suspect that I’m left a bit spoiled by the lack of entry fee to most museums/galleries back in the UK. Incidentally, a dollar Singaporean is more or less equivalent to a Canadian dollar, about half a British pound.
The National Gallery is of note for a few things, first of which is the building, or, rather, buildings, themselves. Bit of an awkward job, the Gallery has been created by yoking together the former colonial Supreme Court and the City Hall. In fact, the iconography of the Gallery, the logo, celebrates the variance in height between the two. The two buildings’ facades are left mostly intact – imposing, neoclassical monstrosities that they are – and portions of the innards are as well. The joining piece is a glass and steel section, closed ramps and bridges connecting adjacent rooms building to building. The juxtaposition of the imitation stone and plasterwork of the original buildings and the function-formed, industrial steel of the renovated sections is telling. To my mind, at least, the nascent materials humble the grandeur of their predecessors, underlining the self-satisfied, preening airs of the colonial era. That might just be me, though.
My position does fit, at least to a degree, the express purpose of the space. The National Gallery Singapore is meant to house and showcase works of local talent, both historical and modern. There is a section, scattered throughout the Court building, rooms largely left with original ornamentation, that focuses on the colonial past – on display are a number of paintings, lithographs and illustrated encyclopaedia, dating from the Dutch presence in the Malays through Victorian domination up to the solidification of colonial power in the 1920’s. Initially the images are of natives through the eyes of their European conquerors, shifting to native artists themselves working in a European style, and finally unbiased photographs. The curation deliberately contrasts the reality captured by the photographs from the 1880’s forwards and the continual Orientalism of the paintings and portraits of the era, highlighting the disparity therein. Could’ve gone further though, by my lights. The physicality of the space does hammer it home nicely – wandering through rooms that are clearly laid out as a manifestation of colonial prerogative, it puts a certain spin on the images.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The bottom floor, by which you enter, is home to the most modern of the collection, the conceptual art. Most of the works spanned from the late 70’s through to the mid 90’s, with several different artists on display. I’ll be the first to claim ignorance in this field, I recognise that I have no more than a skin-deep understanding or appreciation for it, but, to me, it seemed awfully similar to the Euro version. The same flavour of obscurantism, of word-salad artist’s statements and pseudo-philosophy. The similarity to European Conceptual art is to be expected really, as most of the artists were schooled in or did residencies in England, whether it be the Slade school, Birmingham or other locations. There was some use of found objects and, in one particularly effective case, the iconic red soil of Singapore, that give the installations a local feel. Invariably, each piece was steeped in the lived experience of being Malay/S’porean, for all the Euro-stylings of the artists themselves.
Amongst the modern artists, whatever the style, it was interesting to see how large Australia loomed in subject matter and exhibition opportunities. Given my (naturally occurring) Northern prejudice, it’s been an area of regrettable myopia, but it stands to reason that Terra Australis should have been the lodestone for much artistic and economic activity in the Southern Hemisphere throughout the 20th century.
My favourites by far were two single-artist exhibitions, collections of donated works by Wu Guanzhong and Chua Ek Kay, both combining classical Chinese schools with modernist Euro styles. The works spanned the 50’s through to the 90’s, and showed the development of each artist as they grew, traveled, and changed.
The first of the exhibitions we visited focused on Chua, Chinese by birth, S’porean by immigration. Specialising in the “literati” style of painting, the ink brush writing of classical Chinese poetry, he was also a fairly established poet. Alongside this, Chua experimented with impressionistic landscapes and urban scenes, the literati brush technique lending itself directly to the abstract, painterly feel associated with Western impressionism. In several of the paintings, due largely to the saturated colouration and the velvety texture, I was reminded of the Group of Seven’s Lauren Harris, a personal fave. Chua made recurrent use of the lotus image, but, against the static interpretation seen in much classical Chinese painting, he used them as a vehicle for expressing anxiety and alienation – a modernist cocktail if ever there were one.
Wu, the focus of the second exhibition, also made use of Chinese techniques while capturing landforms, cityscapes, and the frenetic movement of people in nature. A trip to France introduced him to the post-impressionists, solidifying the formalist style that would see him drop from favour in social-realist China for an extended period, though opinions are changing of late. It was interesting to watch his style change over time, the abstracted ink line work gaining splashes of neon colour through the 80s. In a more realist vein, there was a portrait of a young Tibetan woman he had done, just her face, that was incredibly evocative – as if able to capture her personality, her humour. The kind of image that makes you wish you could meet the subject, get to know them. All the more troubling knowing that she was likely consigned to a tragic life under the hardships of an occupied country.
The top floor of the gallery features studio space, a roof-top garden, and what looked like a fairly up-scale bar. Didn’t bother checking out the bar – alcohol is prohibitively expensive in Singapore, something along the lines of 12, 15 dollars a half-pint of beer, 25 dollars a glass of wine. No tax on capital gains, on property, on inheritance, so the social net, such as it is, is supported by hidden taxes, the kind that impact the poor disproportionately.
As with the best galleries and museums, a mere fraction of National Gallery Singapore’s total collection is ever on display at one point. They’ve amassed an enviable amount of artwork, and are well on their way to providing a springboard for the greater appreciation of Southeast Asian artistry. I look forward to visiting again if ever I return to the island.
Enjoyed being able to see the MRT at rush hour – it was definitely full, but nothing like the circus scenes you see from Tokyo or Shanghai. Most of the population makes use of the MRT, as personal car ownership is tied to a check against income and is out of reach for most people. About half a year or so ago, an English expat had his contract cancelled and was deported over a facebook post he made – taking a picture of himself and his son, captioned something along the lines of “Porsche is in the shop, have to take the MRT with the stinking cattle.” Granted, an unsavoury sentiment, and few things could be further from the truth – the MRT is probably one of the world’s cleanest metro systems – but it does underscore a few elements of Singaporean reality. First, expats, especially in that they are generally making an exceptional amount more than the average citizen, are on thin ice. They are often looked on with jealousy, and an understandable suspicion that they are taking the position of an equally, or even better, qualified citizen. Furthermore, this shows the degree to which beliefs are policed in the city-state. Few people would disagree that the guy was an ass, but deportation over what is little more than an (idiotic) opinion shows a disturbingly totalitarian streak, even if it is focused on the greater equanimity of society.
Pleasingly, the escalators here display the same peccadillo as I’ve found elsewhere – that ever-so-slight discrepancy in the rate of the rail to the steps, leaving one stretched out most ungainly if so audacious as to stand and hold at once. Ah, the things that remind you of home!
Posted on March 5, 2016, in Travels & Travails in Australasia and tagged Art, Australia, Chinese Art, Chua Ek Kay, Impressionism, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore, Travel Writing, Vacation, Wu Guanzhong. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.