The National Museum of Singapore
Last fall at the Thailand-United States Education Foundation or TUSEF seminar we discussed the growing importance of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Since its formation in Bangkok in 1967 among Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, ASEAN has grown to include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In the expansive and rapidly developing region of SEA (short for Southeast Asia), it's apparent that public education and art appreciation enhance the efforts of leaders to encourage an international perspective for collaborations, to achieve desired unity (initially with the goal of defeating communism), and to address shared economic challenges and growth.
One of the wonderful benefits of Fulbright is the opportunity for travel! Toward this end, I am learning more about ASEAN by visiting Thailand's neighboring countries. My recent trip to Singapore was full of fun and surprises especially in the art. Singapore is a small island south of Malaysia (which is south of Thailand). It’s a teeny, cosmopolitan country with a little of everything; shopping malls, gardens, interesting architecture, markets, fun nightlife, fresh seafood, outdoor activities, and a small beach. Singapore is surprisingly clean, friendly, walkable, and green. Trees line the streets and multi-colored lights illuminate the bridges, while cameras monitor safety throughout. The community is extraordinarily diverse with large populations of Chinese and Indian families. Most Singaporeans are multi-lingual and conveniently for me, everyone speaks English. Pictured above, the Singapore Art Museum houses beautiful exhibitions of contemporary art in a bright white school building founded by a Jesuit missionary. Natural sunlight shines throughout it, spilling into the courtyards. In one sunny courtyard is The Glass Gallery filled with works by contemporary Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. Nara is widely popular for his endearingly quirky animation of wide-eyed kids with disturbingly violent or humorously pissed off countenances. Sometimes whimsical, the children almost always appear aware, emotive, and innocent. One of his installations is a lime green tree house sprinkled with drawings and crayons within, effectively evoking the creative space of a child's imagination. His paintings are usually humorous, but this one made me tear up with nostalgia for my own childhood and thoughts of a secret design club dreamed up by me and my best friend. Individual drawings within the house reflect more of the artist’s imagination and his childhood. Another of his works in the same glass gallery is one black-outlined cartoon of three girls on white washed wood. It reminds me of of my little sister's musical disasters on her red playskool microphone and portable speakers years ago. The present exhibition of Thai contemporary artist Natee Utarit: After Painting demonstrates an inner dialogue about national identity in the face of westernization. Easily recognizable and sometimes familiar objects appear brightly rendered and unhindered on large canvases. Their visual clarity belies tension inherent in their symbolism. For example, the above painting of a white buddha statue depicts a face of complacency rather than divine essence, implying that Buddhism is not giving followers the kind of security it once did. Natee's other works relay messages of discontent, doubt, and dissatisfaction with long-held beliefs, the present government and national leadership. In paintings of crowded, disorganized barnyard animals Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind. Earlier works of Utarit’s seemed to reflect the experience of a Thai artist absorbing western art mediums, and recreating it with Thai elements. One painting of a black and white photograph of a simple Thai landscape absurdly mounted on top of a painting of sixteenth century Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians in Celebrate to the Truth and Nothing (2000) is important for this reason. In some ways, it represents a forced recognition of celebrated works of art that actually reveal the artist's disconnect with western art history. I especially enjoyed this black and white painting of Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. It depicts an image from a postcard, copied by a monk who never visited Italy. There is a series of images from this collection, all of famous landmarks on postcards. How poetic! To depict a place one's only ever seen through postcards. However, this piazza in particular has personal significance for me- the location of a first date! An eery art installation in a dimly lit gallery on the second floor features five wax sculptures of notorious communist leaders. Titled SUMMIT, this controversial work is a commentary on capitalism and the legacy of communism. Extremely lifelike sculptures of Mao, Lenin, Hussein, and Ho Chi Minh appear lying on their backs on red velvet, clothed in uniform. Hard plastic encasement gives them a funerarial effect like an open casket. The fifth sculpture of Fidel Castro lies in a hospital bed instead, and -gasp!- appears to be breathing with the help of a hidden mechanism beneath his shirt, signifying his impending death. The exceptional execution of these works is what makes them so moving and disturbing. What’s odd is that these men appear grandfatherly. The portrayal is one of dignity that is unsettling to me, yet wrinkles and hairs on their faces blotched with the marks of old age reveal imperfections and their mortality. What does cross one’s mind is the power of one person to change the world, and then to leave it without any effort. It makes me think somewhat morbidly of the fleeting nature of time. Writing this entry I learned that another exciting contemporary art fair is coming up in Singapore this month! Rani by artist Subodh Gupta. The brightly colored cow represents India, where cows are sacred, and the color expresses the excitement and anxiety caused by the changes taking place in a country with a rapidly growing middle class. The National Museum of Singapore is a gorgeous building at the base of Fort Canning Park. The most exciting galleries for me were the History of Singapore exhibitions. Walking through with a headset, one has the option of listening to experts about the history of trade in the region and the personal stories of people in the vibrant communities of Singapore since ancient times when Fort Canning Park was still seen as the sacred mountain of buddhist cosmology. The photos above and below come from the Living Fashion Gallery. The history of Singaporean women's fashion is marked by strong Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and American influences. Centered in the photograph above, a shiny, dotted choengsam is a Chinese woman's dress created in the 1950s. Later made of synthetic fiber mimicking silk in combination with a slim-fitting cut, the choengsam represents changes in technology, ideals of beauty, the Asian silhouette, and also, a burgeoning era of advancements in women's rights.
Singpore has the exciting history of being the main hub for SEAn trade. During the time of east India companies, worlds collided here in the interest of progress and empire. Photography from this period reflects the diversity of the clothing, people, and fluid nature of a community where businessmen, immigrants, prostitutes, and coolies carved out lives for themselves in a land far from home. Opium provided a means of escape and recreation that proved fatal to some. Beautiful pipes and bowls remain well-preserved from the heyday of this pastime, alive today in some regions of SEA where the climate is perfectly suitable for growing poppies.
Happy Chinese New Year by the way! Check out what's in store for you ahead in the year of the rabbit.
I finished off my day with a trip to Fort Canning Park just behind the Museum. This is a view from inside the old convent? in the park. Loved every minute at the Asian Civilizations Museum, and dinner outside at the restaurant IndoChine along the river. Admiring the historic Raffles Hotel gave me an idea of where I should stay on my next visit to Singapore!