Tang Da Wu's Tiger Whip

Tang Da Wu’s Tiger Whip is one of the iconic works by home-grown artists that will be on display at the National Gallery Singapore that’s opening next year. Image: National Gallery Singapore

South-east Asian and Singapore art will be in the spotlight when the National Gallery Singapore opens next year.

About 700 artworks drawn from Singapore’s national collection and on loan from regional museums and collectors will go on display in the two permanent galleries at the museum of 19th century and modern art.

What looks set to be one of the largest visual arts venues in the region, at 64,000 sq m, is currently under construction. Two heritage buildings, the City Hall and the former Supreme Court, are being refurbished and converted into the National Gallery on a $530-million budget.

In an exclusive interview with Life!, its director Dr Eugene Tan says the focus will be on the “cross-cultural connections” shaped by art. Curatorially, the Gallery tracks the history of South-east Asian art from its beginnings in the 19th century to the present.

Apart from telling the story of South-east Asian art, which Dr Tan says is still “a very under-researched area”, the Gallery also wants to look at the many influences contributing to the richness and diversity of art in the region.

To do this, discussions are ongoing with major museums in the world.

Aside from the permanent displays, expect to see blockbuster shows from collaborations with leading museums such as Paris’ Centre Pompidou and Musee d’Orsay and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

These exhibitions will examine the development of contemporary art in different parts of the world and how artistic movements in the West had an impact on Asian artists.

The two permanent galleries are the DBS Singapore Gallery and the South-east Asia Gallery. The bank’s $25-million donation was announced yesterday.

Dr Tan says these permanent spaces will provide “the contextual background for the Gallery’s changing exhibitions programme which will examine other local and international art movements in depth”.

The DBS Singapore Gallery, located in the City Hall, is about 2,000 sq m while the South-east Asia Gallery located in the former Supreme Court is about 4,000 sq m.

Children and families have not been forgotten. There is a Keppel Centre for Art Education, aided by a $12-million donation made by Keppel Corporation in August. It includes a Children’s Museum with artworks picked and commissioned to appeal to children, and interactive facilties such as an Art Playscape which will allow children below the age of seven to play and interact with artworks.

The DBS Singapore Gallery will have several iconic home-grown works on display including Georgette Chen’s 1946 Self Portrait, an oil on canvas measuring 22.5 by 17.5cm, as well as Tang Da Wu’s 1991 installation Tiger’s Whip.

The mixed media installation is among the most representative works of Singapore’s contemporary art history. In the 1990s, Tang had dragged eight life-size papier mache tigers around Chinatown to protest against the killing of tigers for their sexual organs. The installation shows one of the papier mache tigers pouncing on a rocking chair. The tiger is white to represent its ghost, pouncing on the rocking chair symbolising aged men.

Singapore has the world’s biggest collection of South-east Asian art, with more than 10,000 works. The collection has been built up actively since 1996 by the Singapore Art Museum, now a contemporary art space. Since the announcement in 2006 of the setting up of the National Gallery to showcase the 19th-century and modern pieces, there are now several iconic works by regional masters including Hendra Gunawan and Malaysia’s Redza Piyadasa.

Hendra’s 1950s oil on canvas War & Peace will be on display when the Gallery opens. The 93.7 by 140.3cm painting is among several key works from artists in the region. Hendra was a revolutionary fighter against Dutch rule in Indonesia and his painting of two revolutionary fighters is considered a masterpiece.

An equally charged artwork is May 13, 1969 by Redza Piyadasa. Completed in 1970, the acrylic on plywood and mirror measuring 183 by 123 by 123cm was made in response to the Malaysian racial riots of 1969. This was the prominent artist and critic’s first artwork to address political issues and is widely regarded as his most powerful. Such artworks and more recent acquisitions beef up the Gallery’s displays.

The display of local art in the DBS Singapore Gallery will cover three main periods of artistic development. The first is from the 19th to the early 20th century. The second focuses on the mid-20th century and the Nanyang School of art, as well as social realism. The third will examine contemporary times through the works of living artists such as Lee Wen.

In the South-east Asia Gallery, the artworks will cover a number of regional themes from the 19th century to recent times.

The chronological perspective, says Dr Tan is to “give a sense of the historical development of the region’s art as well as to provide a regional narrative of modern and contemporary art in South-east Asia from the 19th century to the present.”

Mr Low Sze Wee, 44, who is director, curatorial and collections, says the Gallery hopes to “re-examine the accepted understanding of modernism in a global context”.

He points out that several key South-east Asian artists such as Liu Kang (Singapore), Nena Saguil (the Philippines) and Mochtar Apin (Indonesia) had lived and worked in Europe as well as America. “They grappled with appropriating modernity and modernism into their art and their own contexts,” he says.

In addition to art within the gallery spaces, there will be installations of specially commissioned artworks and sculptures by regional artists in other spaces such as the rooftop. These commissions will be centred around the theme, Imagining South-east Asia.

Another feature to look out for is the Wu Guanzhong Gallery. The inaugural exhibition in this 500 sq m gallery will showcase key artworks from the late seminal Chinese artist’s 2008 donation of 113 artworks, valued at a total of $66 million.

Complementing the physical spaces are extensive outreach, online and public education programmes, including interactive panoramas of some exhibitions available at a click.

Since 2009, the Gallery’s director of education and programmes, Ms Suenne Megan Tan, has been actively reaching out to schools and developing online content. Students are being trained as school ambassadors to lead tours and special content is being developed for teachers to make art accessible to students.

Ms Tan says there will be a section at the Children’s Museum where children will be allowed to create their own artworks. They can interpret what they have seen in the main gallery spaces or even crawl into an art tree house to touch and see art.

Dr Tan says that ultimately, young audiences are just as important as adults in ensuring that viewers keep going back to the monumental museum.

As he puts it: “The Gallery is not just about the history of South-east Asian art. It is about how we make sense of that history. We hope to provoke questions as we engage with visitors from different age groups. We take a long-term view to audience development.”

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on April 3, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.