re-examining our art heritage
From Words to Pictures , strategically timed to coincide with the nation’s celebration of independence day, presents another interest in local art history, delving in the lineage of recent exhibitions like Errata (2004 at p-10 and NUS Library, 2005 at National History Museum at temporary site Riverside Point), and the accompanying segment of Documenta Archives (2007 at NMS). It seems to have caught on the trajectory of the earlier art historical exhibitions and documentations, putting the Singapore Art Museum’s collection into a sizeable context to consider art that sits uncomfortably on the fringe of the nation’s autonomy and independence – whether to call these as unique Nanyang art, could be a matter of National interest and sovereignty today, less so in those days when political, economic and social needs came first.
The title of the exhibition, From Words to Pictures, suggests a shift in thinking about art: text/theory before pictures. Logically speaking, the appreciation of the artwork should come first, impressing oneself with formal aesthetics nicely framed with bits of paint on canvas, before forming any opinion, let alone write about it. Like the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, impresses the nuances an image communicates, possibly more than black text on paper. So why start with words? Or is the curator re-tracing the accounts of the curators of Errata, giving sustenance and credit to social realistic art of the 50s and 60s? Or is the title suggestive of a textbook approach to giving the art authority and recognition to naturalised Singaporean artists?
The art exhibition can broadly be divided into 3 parts: a section of colour-photocopies of 50s local art magazines, catalogues and related publications (mostly in Mandarin) coupled with video interviews of prominent local artists Ho Ho Ying, and Lai Kui Fang of their impression of society in the 50s; secondly, a section on artworks, studies produced by artists belonging to the Singapore Art Society and the Equator Art Society; thirdly, a contemporary artwork by visual artist Michael Lee.
The 3 sections are held loosely together by the relation of events in a timeline, and the promotion of an art identity for the purpose of nation building: publications that called for Singaporean art, artworks by local art clubs, and Michael Lee’s deconstruction of the intent to build a National Art Museum in 1959. The latter a bold inclusion to breath currency into the need to reframe our understanding of art policies and dynamics of 1959, and perhaps see the relationship of nation building and ‘art building’.
The exhibition as a whole had too much information presented, and I can imagine it would only go down as well as a trip to then ‘Discovery Centre’, for National Education, and less for art appreciation. The comparison to Malayan art was mere paper play, as we can only see one side of the coin, one side of the fascinating artwork that was made during this period of uncertainty. We can only imagine the kind of works the National Gallery of Malaysia would put together to give the exhibition the physical and pictorial balance it requires to be objectively critical.
The exhibition also suggests the importance of art societies, relevant only in today’s context as afffective, recreational and less contemporary then one can imagine. Nonetheless, there is still relevancy in understanding the changing and shifting roles of artists’ groups. The effective parallels of then Equator Art Society, and Singapore Art Society we can see today are the independent run spaces such as Your Mother Gallery, and artists’ initiatives such as PKW, pockets of bundled non-NAC funded independent pen-sized studios, p-10, against the global backdrop of independent commercial galleries pushing new art and artists. Artists too, see strength in numbers. However, ironically, artist-run spaces and initiatives seldom last decades, as a Malaysian artist Huang Shaobing once joked that artists can only run-down spaces, as they lack the administrative urge to engage in meaningful, effective and productive audience development programmes, elaborate volunteer schemes and actions that benefit the community which the art space inhibits like successful art institutions do. An artist’s primarily function or aim, debatable, is to make art for selfish or unselfish reasons, not ‘sell’ art or engage thoroughly in the peripheries of art administration.
While the exhibition was arranged as objectively as it possibly could, there are two moments where it felt too contrived or self-gratifying that we had art at all, during a period of tough economic nation building. Could art be wielded like a trophy, paraded like a cultural trait as effectively as …? Incidentally, I cannot name any cultural traits that was uniquely Singaporean in 1959.
The first moment, where Lai Kui Fang mentioned in the interview that he was the only one to record the Bedok floods on painting, and coupled with the fact that the exhibited painting Bedok Flood is a copy/re-enactment of an earlier painting suggests the complexities of writing and re-writing histories.
The second came when I noticed the 3 foot tall, self-portrait plaster sculpture, Lee Boon Wang standing in deep thought with his finger raised to his chin, with paint brush in his other hand, staring at the National Language Class (1959) by Chua Mia Tee. Maybe it would have been easier to get access to an interview with the artist, or wife about the painting, then to force the kind of relationship between another artist (Lee Boon Wang) and the mentioned painting. Perhaps more than words need to be put together, playing on the social realist element of our art history and placing a place marker to Singapore artists making similar social statements. Perhaps than it could relate to the audience better, and seeing art history not just in neat clunks and chunks, but a flux of events that are not necessarily linear nor geographically local.
Singapore Art Museum
24 Aug 2007 – 31 Oct 2007
Curator’s Introduction to the ExhibitionJoin the curator, Seng Yu Jin as he provides interesting insights into the exhibition that examines and questions a turbulent period of Singapore and Malaya’s histories – The Malayan Emergency- which lasted from 1948 to 1960. This exhibition shows how artists in both Singapore and Malaya were actively involved in the creation of a Malayan culture and identity in the pursuit of independence through their art making and artistic activities.