The first thing visitors see upon entering National Gallery Singapore’s latest exhibition is a small red painting, 31cm by 21cm, a portrait of the artist as a young man staring intensely straight at the viewer.
The self-portrait from the 1950s by Malaysian batik artist Chuah Thean Teng was the very first artwork to be registered in Singapore’s National Collection of visual art.
Fast-forward to the end of the exhibition, where scale predominates. In Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul’s Asking For Nothingness, 11,000 old medicine bottles – half filled with black-and-white photographs of elderly villagers – are arranged in towers that took eight people five days to assemble.
In the same fashion, (Re)collect: The Making Of Our Art Collection charts the growth of Singapore’s national art collection, from its tiny but determined inception in 1960, when art had to take a back seat to nation-building, to a broader, regional outlook today.
The exhibition, which runs till Aug 19 at the Singtel Special Exhibition galleries B and C, features more than 120 works from the National Collection.
Curator Lisa Horikawa, 39, says: “The process of collecting is really about recollecting our past. Without having a sense of where we come from, it’s difficult to engage with our collection, which has a much longer lifespan than any of us.”
Begun in 1960 with the donation of about 110 works by Cathay Organisation co-founder Datuk Loke Wan Tho, the National Collection has about 10,000 works of visual art today, of which 8,630 are with the Gallery.
The works in (Re)collect are appearing for the first time in public since they entered the keeping of the Gallery, which opened in 2015.
They include works by pioneer local artists such as Georgette Chen’s Family Portrait (1954), an intimate, relaxed depiction of the family of the artist’s friend Chen Fah Shin, and Chen Wen Hsi’s Black Mountain from the 1970s or 1980s.
These are juxtaposed with works by key artists in the region, from Malaysian painter Latiff Mohidin’s Mindscape 17 (1983) to 18 sketches of everyday scenes by Indonesian artist S. Sudjojono, which offer a rare glimpse into the personal life of an artist known chiefly for his large heroic paintings.
The exhibition is a chance for the museum to show off recent acquisitions, from paintings from Filipino artist Fernando Zobel’s Saeta series, in which he used not a brush but a hypodermic syringe to paint, to Argentina-born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s video installation about cooking curry.
“As a gallery that has a responsibility to define and redefine the canons of Singapore art history, it’s important that we continue to question what it means for a museum to display artists as pioneers,” says Horikawa. “We are always conscious of who has been left out of the dominant discourse.”
Putting together the exhibition, she adds, meant acknowledging not just the collection’s strengths, but also its weaknesses. While heavy on paintings, it does not fare so well with sculpture or photography. Most of the works collected are by male artists.
(Re)collect includes photography by local lensman Lee Lim and sculptures such as Singaporean Cheo Chai Hiang’s And Miles To Go Before I Sleep, assembled from a log of wood, a laundry board and the titular stencilled line from a Robert Frost poem.
More than 400 donors in Singapore are acknowledged in the exhibition, from artists and their families to private philanthropists and organisations. — The Straits Times/Asia News Network