[Review .. no, Roast] The ArtScience Museum
My bathroom experience pretty much sums it up: located on the fourth floor of the new ArtScience Museum are individual restrooms, into which, as soon as you step, a clacking sound indicates that an automatic air freshener has kicked into gear, discreetly spritzing a perfumed scent into the air. The facilities are spotless, so gleamingly pristine and antiseptic it puts one in mind of an operating theatre, the only spot of colour deriving from a blooming potted plant – real, by the way, not plastic – positioned next to the taps. And, as soon as you exit, a member of the janitorial crew is on hand to mop, wipe and clean up in there after you, or just to make sure you haven’t disrupted the scrupulous sanitary standards they clearly adhere to. I wished I’d taken a picture, instead of wasting so much of my camera’s battery life on the displays, since it was patently obvious that a not inconsiderable portion of the 30 SGD admission fee was going towards extras like these.
A couple of pertinent facts about the ASM:
1. It doesn’t actually have a permanent collection, seeing itself instead as “a premier destination for major international touring exhibitions from the most renowned collections in the world.” In other words, it functions as little more than a posh display space for itinerant blockbuster shows.
2. It’s a privately run concern. Unlike other private museums in Singapore though – say, Art Retreat, which was started up by Indonesian collector Kwee Swie Teng, or local cosmetic surgeon Woffles Wu’s Museum of Contemporary Chinese Art (read about them here) – the ASM does not reflect the passion of one individual, but rather the commercial interests of a conglomerate. It is owned and managed by the same folks who brought us the Marina Bay Sands resort: the Las Vegas Sands Corp.
If ever one wanted to determine a geographico-temporal moment where the final, brazen triumph of capitalism over art occurs – not to overstate the case, of course – here it is.
Designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the distinctive lotus-shaped structure only adds to the sheer visual impact of the instantly iconic MBS towers, with their peculiar boat-shaped cap, dominating the Marina Bay skyline like an abstract Colossus of Rhodes for the new millennium. It is also merely the latest entry in the resort’s playground of entertainments for the flush and the fancy: soaring hotel blocks; a rooftop ‘infinity’ pool (below); a massive casino; a ritzy mall boasting pricey stores and foreign labels; five-star restaurants helmed by award-winning chefs; and now a 21-gallery, 6,000-sq-metre showcase for the best in international exhibitions, housed in what is probably the island’s only spherical building, curving up conspicuously from the wide expanse of the bay like a large, cracked, snowy-white eggshell. The primary concern here is starkly evident: the wow factor.
The ‘infinity’ pool at MBS. Image from Tete-a’-Tete.
All that wow, though, left an astringent taste in my mouth. For a purported museum, there was little at the ASM that I recognized as the core mission of most such institutions: education, preservation, outreach. The disputed entrance fee, for one: there was no student discount, the only concession being for under-twelves – who had to fork out 17 SGD each to get in. That, by the way, is the price of a movie ticket and a lunch at McDonalds. With probably some change to spare. For a 10 yr old. And there didn’t seem to be any guided tours nor special programs available, aside from a handful of themed performances – e.g. a mini concert of traditional Mongolian music, but that hardly counts – which immediately raises questions about the exorbitant, inflexible admission rates. Just by way of comparison, NYC’s Metropolitan and the MoMA, two of the most expensive museums in the world*, charge 20 USD – or 25.5 SGD by today’s rates. And even that’s just a “recommended” amount at the Met, meaning that really you get to pay whatever you wish. I’ve had pretty unabashed friends who’ve brazened it out at the counter with two quarters (that’s 50 cents), though not, mercifully, whilst in my company. And Europe fares even better than that: all public museums in the U.K. are free, and the Louvre in Paris charges €10/14 USD/17.8 SGD.
The ASM is definitely no Louvre nor MoMA. It doesn’t possess a collection of its own, so most of the stuff within its walls is basically on loan, and even the shows that I saw there last week … well, overwhelming would be the word, and hardly in a good way. The main attraction currently on view is Genghis Khan: The Exhibition. Y’know, like Batman: The Movie. (Say that with an exclamation mark.) Spread out over an entire floor, it was divided into thematic sections: an Intro, ‘Genghis Khan’s Roots’, ‘Rise of the Mongols’, ‘Building An Empire’, “Genghis Statesman’, ‘After Genghis’, ‘The Empire Divided’, ‘Mongolia Today’. It was certainly comprehensive, and while the nature of the show may be said to be educational if nothing else, here the concern with showiness took over to the extent that it became an excuse for very unsatisfactory museological praxis. By which I mean the organizers probably had so much space to contend with at the ASM that a large number of displays were simply gimmicks: multimedia presentations; large wall labels positioned in the middle of the gallery; far too many dioramas, installations and tacky, manufactured displays; seemingly genuine archaeological artifacts which upon closer inspection turned out to be replicas. In other words, there weren’t enough actual historical objects to occupy all that room, and it showed. The impressive looking models of Mongol warriors, traditional gers, or tents, and large-scale weaponry to illustrate the often detailed wall texts and audiovisual displays were so distracting, in fact, that they obscured the
main business of the exhibition – the relics.
There were admittedly a couple of real delights, like the mummy of the so-called “giant princess” and her grave goods, ornately adorned Tibetan Buddhist scrolls, and a genealogical chart of the Great Khan (all below). Sadly, those were few and far in between, lost amidst some very insidious inclusions. The statue of a Mongol aristocrat (below), for instance, which from afar looked for all intents and purposes to be a time-weathered piece of stone sculpture, turned out to be a “reproduction” of a 13th century original. Ditto the stone stele of Mongke Khan (Genghis’ grandson) – a model of the real thing (below). I imagine this is what it feels like to fork out a pretty penny for, say, a Madonna concert, only to be stuck with a Maddie impersonator instead. A miss is as good as a mile, especially when it comes to antiques. Which is why I’m so reluctant to describe the ASM as an education-friendly institution, despite the explicitly pedagogical character of the show. The kitschy, cheap installations, the lack of public programs, the prohibitive rates, the refusal to give students a break cost-wise … None of it makes sense, and coming as they do in one disappointing package, even less so. The Straits Times, in fact, recently ran a story on the matter. To the suggestion that they reduce admission charges for children or come up with discounted packages, MBS had this to say: “Since our opening, we have hosted members of the public, teachers, students, celebrities and tour groups and received positive feedback overall. We appreciate feedback from the public as part of our ongoing commitment to deliver quality entertainment to people of all ages.” (Qtd. in Corrie Tan, “Museum Fees Draw Flak”, Straits Times, March 10, 2011.)
Read: We’ve given out a couple of free passes already, so stop whining.
The Princess Giant (13th – 14th cent.). “The exceptionally large-sized items of clothing on display here were found along with other artifacts in a tomb containing the mummified body of an unusually tall Mongol woman nicknamed “The Princess Giant.” (From the wall text.)
Eight Thousand Verses (17th cent.). “This 17th century Mongolian manuscript is a translation of the ancient Buddhist text known as the Prajnaparamita Sutra or “The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses,” an important element in Buddhist religious tradition. The continued practice of Buddhism by many Mongolians is a direct result of the religious tolerance implemented by Genghis Khan centuries earlier.” (From the wall label.)
Detail of above. A small painting of the Buddha as an aniconic presence, a tradition begun millennia ago at the site of Sanchi.
The one thing that the ASM does very well, of course, is making an impression. The awe factor didn’t stop at the glass-wrapped atrium, which looks out onto a lotus pond all around, and, beyond that, the rippled surface of Marina Bay stretching away, creating the effect of cascading terraces of wine-dark waters (due acknowledgment to Leonard Sciascia); nor at the glass elevators which, as it bears one up to the upper levels, affords a panoramic view of the surrouding vista, from the glimmering MBS towers, to the sleek latticework of the Helix Bridge, to the Singapore Flyer and the rainbow-hued grandstand of the Float. As a piece of architecture that mythologizes its own ascendancy, its hard to outdo Safdie’s design: the strictly delimited route from the lobby to the elevator and thence to the gallery floors, with little opportunity for deviation, marks out a path where the gaze is allowed – nay, obliged – to assume a position of unrelenting dominance, surveying the landscape from a position of ocular privilege, able to ‘take it all in’ at once. What’s even more amazing is that when those positions are reversed, the structure still retains its supremacy, now adopting a far more unequivocal posture of power over its human occupant instead. The only other spot in the building with an extensive view is in the basement, where glass walls around a central courtyard permit one to peer up along an interior well of support structures towards the skylight, high above, which imposes a worm’s eye vantage point on the viewer. (The building is otherwise pretty much a self-contained, self-regarding cocoon, with little connection to its environment outside.) The commanding perspective in the entrance hall and the elevators is here reversed, yet conveys no less an impression of authority – except of course the architecture has slipped from being complicit in constructing a scopic power play privileging the gaze, to effecting one which subordinates the human factor to the building’s structural guile and sense of self.
One last point: if the museum was a bit lacking in goodwill towards the public, it more than made up for that by proffering a panoply of merchandise for sale in not one, not two, but three gift stores.
There are definitely better ways of spending those 30 smackeroos. Perhaps at an actual museum.
Final verdict ? The image below sez it all.