Posts Tagged ‘museums’
Study of 3 Thermos Flasks (1991/2), Faizal Fadil. Included in Intersecting Histories. Image courtesy of Postcolonial Web.
The inaugural show at the newly revived Gallery of the School of Art, Design and Media at NTU is Intersecting Histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art.
An exhibition of postwar Southeast Asian art ? Okay, pretty interesting.
One curated by T. K. Sabapathy ? I’m there.
I’m still trying to make up my mind about the show, but in the meantime, the art reviewer for The Straits Times had a couple of pretty interesting opinions about it. In response, a pal – newly befriended, through sheer serendipity – had a response to her piece. Both review and rejoinder are reproduced below.
(Full disclosure: Letter-writer Yvonne Low, a PhD candidate in the Dept. of Art History & Theory at the Uni. of Sydney, is currently researching female artists of Singapore and Indonesia. She is also the author of various articles on SE Asian art, one of which is included in the catalogue for the present show.)
Review, Huang Lijie
History that is skimpy on details
(Huang Lijie, 9 October 2012)
NTU’s exhibition on the turning points in the region’s contemporary art offers little illumination on its choices
The Nanyang Technological University recently announced its ambition to be a major player in South-east Asia’s burgeoning arts scene at the re- opening of its gallery and launch of a new exhibition.
The renovated School of Art, Design and Media gallery was inaugurated with the show, Intersecting Histories. The exhibition sets out to spotlight works of art that mark turning points in the rise and development of contemporary art in the region. The curator is well-known art historian T.K. Sabapathy.
It features 28 artists and 37 works, spanning four decades to the present, from collections such as the Singapore Art Museum and National University of Singapore Museum.
The aspiration of the university and curator to participate in the writing of contemporary art history through the show befits their callings. The university will run the Centre for Contemporary Art, which opens next year at Gillman Barracks and aims to be a world- renowned centre for art residency, research and exhibition. Mr Sabapathy, meanwhile, is co-chair of the advisory committee for the programme at next year’s Singapore Biennale.
Such clarity of vision on ambition, however, is not always evident in the show.
It opens purposefully with works by five artists that date from the 1970s but exude a remarkable sense of the here-and-now in form and content.
It includes Cheo Chai Hiang’s assembly of a found piece of log and a hinged wooden washing board that swings open to reveal in red the repeated phrase, “and miles to go before I sleep”. There is also Redza Piyadasa’s tall coffin-shaped box painted with the Malaysian flag and mirrored on the floor, and Jim Supangkat’s bust of a legendary Javanese queen placed on a plinth with the drawing of a naked female torso and a lower body clad in unzipped jeans that exposes pubic hair.
The curator asserts in the wall text that the works, which also include a painting by Benedicto Cabrera and five photo-etchings by Sulaiman Esa, show qualities of nascent contemporary art practice in South-east Asia.
Yet the reason they qualify as icons and why they were picked can be gleaned only from two oblique sentences in the text. The absence of labels for individual works that explain why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history does the show no favour.
The diligent viewer, though, will be rewarded if he reads the curator’s 32-page essay in the show’s catalogue, which is being printed. The curator posits the works as hallmarks because they are by artists who either individually or as part of a collective, voiced early-on at crucial moments the need for art to stop being a purely aesthetic object defined by rigid artistic principles. The works were also made using alternative mediums and techniques, and they engaged critically with the milieu of the times, traits that distinguish it from previous art.
Works embodying these contemporary concerns are seen in a section focusing on the female body. Nindityo Adipurnomo’s wooden sculptures of traditional hair pieces worn by Javanese women as status symbols open up like jewellery boxes with mirrors under the lids to reveal an assemblage of icons that critique social obsession with sex, superstition and intoxication.
This invitation to peek and ponder is echoed in the mirrors of nearby works by Amanda Heng and Julie Lluch. The gaze that meets Lluch’s wearied, naked female sculpture, however, is introspective while Heng’s mirror on a table under a pair of red divination blocks and dish cover has a more gender-charged view.
This dynamic interplay between works continues in an open-ended segment, which the wall text proposes, explores various themes including the human figure as a symbol of a person’s pained inner psyche and global strife.
A more satisfying approach perhaps, might be to see the works as a myriad of responses to structures of power such as in politics, the art canon and personal desires. This would place Donna Ong’s sublime dioramas in serendipitous conversation with Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s fierce metal scrap warrior. In Ong’s piece, personal desires succumb to fantastical landscapes while Bayu’s sculpture stoicly resists the siege of Westernisation on indigenous identity.
Resonance persists in a standalone section of the gallery, which looks at how artists such as Niranjan Rajah and Ho Tzu Nyen become power brokers through narratives on art and history in their video works.
These intersecting discourses among the many works, which overcrowd the main gallery, highlight ideas in contemporary art. They also show how contemporary art, which is rooted in history, continually redefines itself in creative ways to respond to the present. But it offers little illumination on why themes raised, such as the female body, are pivotal to the development of contemporary art in the region and why the other works, besides those in the opening section, mark critical moments in contemporary art.
The scant wall texts are mum and the essay is not explicit. It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why or how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History And Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
Response, Yvonne Low
A response to review, “History that is skimpy on details”
(Yvonne Low, 17 November 2012)
The following article is written in response to Huang Lijie’s review of the exhibition, Intersecting histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art, held at ADM Gallery, Nanyang Technological University, which was published on 9 October 2012 in the Life! Arts section, The Straits Times.
I read with genuine surprise at the author’s appraisal of the exhibition that opened at the School of Art, Design and Media gallery on 27 September 2012 and guest curated by art historian, T.K. Sabapathy. In her write-up, Huang provided a well-composed and critical description of the exhibition, including an interesting reading of selected works. Her main contention, however, was the lack of clarity in the exhibition’s curatorial design, specifically that there were inadequate content within the signposts – by way of wall-text and labels – to explain why the selected works “qualify as icons and why they were picked” and “why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history”. Though the author referred to the curatorial essay and subsequently proceeded to provide the reasons for the works’ selection as discerned from the text, she insisted that even the essay “is not explicit”:
It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why and how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum, such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History and Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
My encounter with the exhibition turned out to be quite different from the author’s – unsurprisingly, one might say, given my somewhat privileged position where I have not only contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue discussing three of the works on display but also had several opportunities to speak with the curator when the exhibition was still being developed. That said, such “privileges” could hardly have robbed me of my ability to look at the exhibition in its entirety with all the works installed as they are now and to think for myself what to make of it all.
It is quite difficult to not consider the works in a new light given that no two exhibition can be the same; every show will be different in intent if not in configuration. It matters not if seven or seventeen of the works had in fact been shown elsewhere, but it is of how they have been exhibited in relation to other works and how they can be read in the given contexts that should matter.
Even on the outset, it is clear – without needing to read the exhibition catalogue – that this exhibition has a strong pedagogical tenor that undoubtedly sets it apart from all preceding exhibitions on Southeast Asian contemporary art. The exhibition is conceived as a project within an academic institution – a platform, far more conducive than the museum, to encourage if not foster deep and critical thinking on, especially those things that are “problematic”. The limitations of the recently renovated ADM gallery – to hold and show the scale and scope desired of a subject as expansive as Southeast Asian contemporary art – were plain to see. Huang was right about the overcrowded state of the main gallery; what she overlooked was the valiant effort that went in working with the limitations of the gallery and other institutional constraints (the works are afterall borrowed) to give to the audience as inclusive a selection as possible – or at least enough of a selection to generate some meaningful discussion and exploration of the theme and subject “intersecting histories”.
With the exception of two new site-specific creations by Koh Nguang How and Tang Da Wu (works that too were based on previous artworks), all the works on show have in some form or another been exhibited before in the last 40 years in Singapore or elsewhere in the region. Many of them acquired seminal status when they were collected by prominent institutions (and sometimes even before they were collected); these works have been rarified throughout history and in the course of their exhibition and re-exhibition. Yet, rarely have their consecration been subjected to study or examination in this manner.
The point here was precisely to explore the works’ significance and histories – this includes its exhibition history – in the context of Southeast Asian art and art historiography. The sub-themes (the explication of the human form as one example) – some of which Huang herself has shrewdly identified – reflect the investigative concerns that are deeply rooted in the discipline of art history. What the exhibition has shown is that by employing interpretive models (iconography, the study of technique and media, history etc), one may still arrive at multiple, intersecting and insightful perspectives of the contemporary.
Whether this opportunity can be fully appreciated by the Singaporean public is itself a separate issue altogether. If the exhibition has not cast new light to the works, then it would only be because the viewers have chosen to stay in the dark.
In 1968 the Beatles crooned: “Happiness (is a warm gun), bang bang shoot shoot, happiness (is a warm gun, momma), bang bang shoot shoot.”
Banging and shooting definitely helps the happy for a lot of people, I think.
But apparently that’s not all.
The following article appeared in The Straits Times yesterday (25 May 2011). Nothing we humanities and arts grads didn’t already know, especially with regards to earning power: we don’t get no respect. Oy.
The high happiness quotient at museums and concerts though, is a bit of a surprise. I think that only applies to museum goers, ’cause I’ve interned in a couple of museums in my time, and people there didn’t strike me as being overly cheerful. And what about those incessant naggers who complain of boredom whenever they step into one (a museum) ? Perhaps the Norwegians are a breed apart.
CULTURE AND ARTS MAKE YOU HAPPIER, BUT NOT WEALTHIER
Paris: The arts may make you happier but not richer.
According to a study released yesterday, people who go to museums and concerts or create art or play an instrument are more satisfied with their lives.
And feeling good differs for men and women, according to the study, published in the British Medical Association’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
For men, passive activities such as taking in a concert or museum exhibition are associated with an upbeat mood and better health. Women need to be more active, feeling less anxious, depressed or unwell if they played music or created art.
Researchers led by Mr Koenraad Cuypers of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology surveyed 50,797 adults in Norway.
The results were unambiguous and somewhat unexpected: Not only was there a strong correlation between cultural activities and happiness, but also men felt better as spectators whereas women preferred doing to watching.
The study found that wealth and education were not an issue.
Meanwhile, another study by researchers at Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce found that over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 per cent higher than the earnings of those who majored in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology.
It found that the median annual income for someone with a bahcelor’s degree in engineering was US$75,000 (S$93,500), and US$47,000 in the humanities, US$44,000 in the arts and US$42,000 in education or psychology.
The individual major with the highest median income was petroleum engineering, at US$120,000, followed by pharmaceutical sciences at US$105,000, and mathematics and computer sciences at US$98,000.
“I don’t want to slight Shakespeare,” said Dr Anthony Carnevale, one of the report’s authors. “But this study slights Shakespeare.”
Agence France-Presse, Washington Post
News of the recent theft of a number of early to mid 20th century purses from the Palace Museum in Beijing – a.k.a. the Forbidden City – has been making the rounds.
Here’s the New York Times on the incident that’s caused a couple of red faces in official circles:
A thief hid in the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City after closing time on Sunday night and stole nine 20th-century gold purses encrusted with jewels from a temporary exhibition, embarrassed Chinese officials said Wednesday.
The small Western-style gold purses had been lent by the Li Yiang Museum [sic] in Hong Kong, which in turn had been lent the purses by a Hong Kong art collector.
A Palace Museum worker tried to stop a “suspicious man” inside the museum at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, but the man ran off, prompting the worker to sound an alarm, Palace Museum officials said at a news conference in Beijing. Two of the purses were found in “slightly damaged” condition, they said, but the other seven were taken from the museum.
A spokesman for the Beijing police said by telephone on Thursday that the police had detained a suspect on Wednesday evening and had recovered some of the missing seven purses, although he declined to say how many.
Neither the Palace Museum nor the Li Yiang Museum [sic] tried to assign a value to the missing purses.
The full range of burgled items. Image from China.org.cn.
The round purse in the first picture (top), referred to as the “ball”, is apparently the most valuable of the lot. A piece over at online portal China.org.cn notes that it is a personal favourite of Fung Yiu-fai’s, the owner of the Liangyi Museum, which loaned the stolen pieces to Beijing:
The ball” refers to his [Fung's] favorite piece – a Tiffany egg-shaped gold cosmetic container inlaid with olivine and turquoise stones. Wong said a jewelry appraiser told her that none of the mines that produced this type of olivine is still operating.
After six hours of waiting, Fung and Wong learned that nine gold purses and cosmetic containers covered with jewels were stolen. Two items had been found, but were damaged, at the foot of a wall on the east side of the museum. “The ball” is on the list of missing items.
The perpetrator, one Shi Bokui. Image from What’s On Tianjin.
A lot of the commentary so far has emphasized the culprit’s particular modus operandus: he snuck into the museum via a self-dug hole in a wall, smashed the display cases and took the stuff, returned to hiding, and walked out the following morning without hassle. In his own words, Shi Bokui 石柏魁 of Caoxian country, Shandong province,
… said he had visited the Forbidden City as a tourist on Sunday evening, decided when he saw the golden purses and powder compacts to steal them, and had hidden until the museum closed. Then he broke open the display case, grabbed his loot, and hid himself again until morning.
(Read the full article at er, The Christian Science Monitor.)
Easy as ABC, no?
Thomas Crown has nothing on this guy.
An article in the local Straits Times today though, reveals just why Mr. Shi decided to help himself: “Bewitched by the dazzling display while touring the museum, he went on a stealing spree after everyone had left, he said in a confession on national TV.” (“Red faces over art theft at Forbidden City”, The Straits Times, May 14 2011.)
Shi is far from being the first person to be so turned on in a museum that he let his fingers do the talking, but his DIY, can-do approach to art theft really puts him in a class all his own.
Does it really happen ? – the allure of artistic bling being so great that one hazards all to smash a glass case and simply take something ?
In his rereading of Karl Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish, University of Chicago academic Bill Brown observes that – in the traditional account – the commodity as such is both a sensuous thing and, at the same time, a suprasensible one (both material and immaterial), while commodity fetishism, in its animating of the commodity-form through the privileging of exchange-value rather than use-value, renders those material or sensuous qualities void, since the commodity-form has “absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this” (qtd. in Bill Brown, A Sense of Things [U. of Chicago Press, 2003], p. 28). Brown, however, also gestures at a lack in Marx: the issue of consumer desire, which is tied to the sensuousness of the commodity, and “without which capitalism … cannot be sustained” (Brown, 29), is never addressed. Thus, “it is at the moment where Marx intimates not the fetishism he theorizes but the more pedestrian, not to say less powerful, fetishism through which objects captivate us, fascinate us, compel us to have a relation to them, which seems to have little to do with their relation to other commodities. This is a social relation neither between men nor between things, but something like a social relation between human subject and inanimate object, wherein modernity’s ontological distinction between human beings and nonhumans makes no sense” (Brown, 29).
Commodity allure is the commodity fetishism of the new millennium perhaps ?
In any case, Shi, I think, has now become its public face.
Happy International Museum Day in advance !
IMD happens on May 18 of each year, and the theme for 2011 – I didn’t realize they had themes – is Museum and Memory.
Read more about it on the official IMD site.
As a personal tribute, I’ve complied a list of all the museums I’ve visited in my lifetime. While it looks fairly lengthy, I’m mostly reminded of how many of the great ones are still missing: the Louvre, the British Museum, the Tate, the Taipei National Palace Museum, the Getty …
Rubin Museum of Art (NYC)
Museum of Modern Art (NYC)
Brooklyn Museum (NYC)
Guggenheim Museum (NYC)
Asia Society Museum (NYC)
Whitney Museum (NYC)
Jewish Museum (NYC)
Japan Society Gallery (NYC)
Frick Collection (NYC)
The Noguchi Museum (NYC)
New Museum (NYC)
Neue Galerie (NYC) [Yuck ...]
Dia:Beacon (Beacon, NY)
The Newark Museum (Newark, NJ)
The Barnes Foundation (Lower Merion Township, PN)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, MA)
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA)
Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA)
Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA)
Museo Nacional de Antropología, National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico City)
Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky, Leon Trotsky House Museum (Mexico City)
Museo Frida Kahlo, Frida Kahlo Museum (Mexico City)
Museo de Arte Moderno, Museum of Modern Art (Mexico City)
Museo Nacional de Historia, National History Museum (Mexico City)
Museo Tamayo de Arte Contemporáneo, Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum (Mexico City)
Museo Nacional de Arte, National Museum of Art (Mexico City)
ArtScience Museum [Double yuck ..]
Muzium Negara, National Museum, Malaysia (Kula Lumpur)
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur)
National Museum of Cambodia (Phnom Penh)
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Phnom Penh)
Museum Sonobudoyo (Yogyakarta)
EAST & SOUTH ASIA
The Shanghai Museum. Image courtesy of this site. (Couldn’t locate some of my older pictures …)
Palace Museum, Forbidden City (Beijing)
National Museum of China (Beijing)
Beijing World Art Museum (Beijing)
Beijing Art Museum, Wanshou Temple (Beijing)
Shanghai Museum (Shanghai)
Shaanxi History Museum (Xi’an)
Xi’an Beilin Museum (Xi’an)
Henan Museum (Zhengzhou)
Yunnan Provincial Museum (Kunming)
National Museum, New Delhi (New Delhi)
CENTRAL & EASTERN EUROPE
Kunsthistoriches Museum, Museum of Fine Art (Vienna)
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Belvedere (Vienna)
Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Museum of Natural History Vienna (Vienna)
Leopold Museum (Vienna)
Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest)
Mimara Museum (Zagreb)
Croatian Museum of Naïve Art (Zagreb)
+ numerous smaller galleries and museums along the historic Dalmatian Coast, the exact names of which now escape recollection …
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The following editorial by Straits Times columnist Ong Sor Fern appeared on Thursday (31 March), two days before notice of the closure of Simon Fujiwara’s Biennale piece, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, appeared in the same section of the paper.
Ong lays out some well-known arguments against the censorship of art by official institutions – a case made more urgent by Singapore’s desire to position itself as an arts hub for the region, as she notes.
Having said that, I do have issues with her article, for reasons which I go into at the end of this post.
Meanwhile, Ong’s piece is reproduced in full below.
SHOCKED BY CENSORS
I was appalled that the Singapore Art Museum had unilaterally amended a work of art. By Ong Sor Fern.
British artist Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munber at the Singapore Art Museum has shocked me.
But it was not the graphic homosexual content which got my attention. By the time I saw the work on Monday, the gay pornographic magazines in the installation had already been removed by the museum. They were taken out after a private preview preview of the show on March 11 and 12.
And it is this action which has appalled me. The museum had done so without first consulting the artist. To me, the move is tantamount to an act of vandalism. To amend a work of art without an artist’s prior knowledge and/or consent is a strict no-no. to draw a parallel, it is akin to putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo’s David.
It is even more shocking that this is done by a museum which is organizing the Singapore Biennale and which is pitching itself as an art institution of repute in the region.
The museum might be concerned that the installation could break the law. As lawyer Samuel Seow pointed out in a Life! report on Monday, under the Undesirable Publications Act, anyone exhibiting “any obscene publication knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the publication to be obscene” can be fined a maximum of $10,000 or sentenced to jail for a maximum of two years, or both.
One might add that this rule applies equally to both straight and gay pornography, so the museum’s action is not so much anti-gay as legally prudent. But the moral morass the museum finds itself in is, to my mind, the result of its bungled handling of the whole episode.
If the work were in breach of the law, then the sensible thing to do would have been to close it and talk to the artist about a possible compromise or even a withdrawal of the piece, explaining in the process that the laws of the land do not permit a display of pornography. The installation takes up one room in a gallery, and closing the exhibit would be a simple matter of cordoning it off.
[N.B. Which the museum actually did, a little before this piece appeared in the press apparently.]
The museum could also, from its position as a home for contemporary art, negotiate with the authorities to make exceptions to the rule. While there have been tussles between artists and censors over what is acceptable in Singapore’s social landscape, artists have won concessions for freedom of expression.
The Singapore International Film Festival, for example, won the hard-fought right to show movies with graphic content by saying the films would be screened to a limited audience who were sophisticated enough to handle the content. And theatre groups here have staged plays dealing with sensitive themes such as gay rights, race relations and politics.
The censors have also conceded that such fare should be accessible to certain audiences. The same principle should be applicable to challenging works of contemporary art. It should be within the purview of the museum as an arts institution and as an arts educator to champion such works and educate both the censors and the public.
For all one knew, the authorities might have been open to the work being shown, with certain limitations to access. There are already two advisories, warning of graphic sexual content, on the walls leading to the exhibit. Parents who do not want their children exposed to such fare can simply skip the exhibit.
The museum could also position a gallery sitter – common practice in museums all over the world – in the installation itself to make sure no one can pick up the pornographic magazines, one of which was displayed on a magazine rack within a visitor’s reach. The other magazines were displayed on a shelf well beyond any curious visitor’s grasp. As an aside, visitors should not be pawing through an exhibit anyway, unless they are specifically invited to interact with the artwork.
By choosing to unilaterally amend a work of art, the Singapore Art Museum damages its own reputation as an arts institution and does harm to its ambition as a curatorial authority. Contemporary artists who create edgy work may now think twice before agreeing to exhibit at the museum, or even at other arts events here. That diminishes not just the museum, but the arts scene here in general.
This is the second time this year that a ruckus has resulted from a contemporary artwork that challenges social mores. As the inaugural international art fair, Art Stage Singapore, in January, Hyderabad artist T. Venkanna caused a stir with his performance piece in which he stripped naked and invited visitors to sit with him for a portrait shot. He sat hidden in a cubicle with a cloth-draped doorway and gallery owner Abhay Maskara was on hand to explain the nature and the concept of the work. still the work attracted press, was yanked from the fair and the artist was questioned by the police.
If Singapore wants to host contemporary art events such as Art Stage and the Biennale, then it had better be prepared to deal with the fallout caused by artists who challenge social norms and unknowingly violate the laws here. Nudity and pornography might seem a big deal today, but I am sure that even edgier works dealing with race and religion will spark an even bigger furore in the future.
Singaporeans here are increasingly curious about contemporary art, as can be seen by the 32,000 visitors who paid $30 a pop to get into Art Stage Singapore.
Granted, the majority of Singaporeans may not care to tell a Botero from a Bencab. But this is where institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum have a vital role to play in nurturing this interest and educating the public. This means also that museums need to refine their processes so that they can handle better any complications that might arise when foreign artists who have no knowledge of local sensitivities present works that violate the laws here.
The museum should lead the way in responding to controversial works with the same care and consideration it extends to the sensibilities of its visitors.
Unfortunately, its actions in this incident only reflect that Singapore is not mature enough to host such art. And that is a loss for all Singaporeans, not just the dedicated artsgoer.
Ok, things I like about this piece:
1. The point about the utterly forseeable consequences of dealing with contemporary art: “If Singapore wants to host contemporary art events such as Art Stage and the Biennale, then it had better be prepared to deal with the fallout …” YES. C’mon folks, even people who don’t exactly keep up with the visual arts scene know that if there’s one thing contemporary art does very well, it’s stirring up controversy, from the mid-century antics of the Neo-Dada school to those of the YBA in more recent years, the culmination of which must surely include Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, which provoked outrage in the U.K. for Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Moors murderer Myra Hindley, and for the resultant withdrawal of public funding for the Brooklyn Museum when it hosted the show in the U.S. On the local end, there was Vince Leow’s public pee-guzzling back in the early ’90s, as well as Josef Ng’s scissor-happy turn …
There’s absolutely no reason why the SAM would not have some sort of plan of action for tackling such issues, much less be caught off-guard when they do arise, which, judging by the way it bungled matters, seems to point to a tragic lack of awareness on its part.
2. Ong’s penultimate observation: “The museum should lead the way in responding to controversial works with the same care and consideration it extends to the sensibilities of its visitors.” Again, a good point, and one that may very easily get lost in the shuffle. Being censored by the censors is one thing, but a museum arrogating to itself the privilege of editing works of art – especially ones they don’t own – is pretty repellent, not to mention legally fraught. The museum’s director is on record as saying that the SAM needs to respect the views of its diverse audience, but what about trying to uphold the rights of the artists it plays host to, or the principle of freedom of expression in general ? Museum goers and children have rights, but artists don’t ? I mean, there didn’t even seem to be much of an attempt made here … Really, for shame.
Now, things I disagree with:
1. The degree of Ong’s reaction, which strikes me as being somewhat disproportionate to the local climate of widespread conformity and censorship – a fact of life that every true blue Singaporean accepts as ineluctable. Yes, she did note that here it was the SAM’s act of self-censorship which rankled, but unfortunately she also expends too much ink retreading old ground – the sanitization of the arts by the local authorities, why that harms rather than helps – for me to take her seriously. I mean, was there much in her argument which even the most casual of arts lovers aren’t already familiar with ? If indeed it was the museum’s actions which made this particular instance of censorship especially egregious, then that should have constituted the main thrust of her article, not all that blather about the ideal role of the museum as an arts institution, the hard fight fought by local artists against the establishment, further instances of how naughty contemporary art can be and why it makes sense for Singapore to go with the flow … Yawn. Get to the point already. She declares it in the first couple of paragraphs, proceeds to ignore it for much of the piece, then resurrects it in the last two lines. And the characterization of her response as “shocked” – unless one’s had their head stuck in the sand for the last four decades or so, how is the act of censorship hereabouts, even self-censorship, even remotely surprising anymore ? Yes, Ms. Ong, we get that you’re a plugged in, liberal, arts-loving soul, so sensitive to the desecration of the artistic voice that you’re “appalled” by a single instance of expurgation, but, to borrow an expression from Gayatri Spivak, that position has become a “meaningless piety” so far as Singapore is concerned. Yes, censorship sucks .. and we all know that. How about something a little less platitudinous next time ?
I know I sound snarky, but Ong’s tone was really exasperating. I was having lunch with an ex once, in an Indian restaurant – this was in New Jersey – and apparently some woman spotted a roach, screamed, raised a stink, and then left hurriedly with her family. It wasn’t so much the reaction, but the way it was played out – not unlike a hammy, sub-par performance in a low-rated daytime soap. In other words, affected, and it definitely showed.
The incident kept coming back as I was reading Ong’s article. ‘Nuff said.
2. Her suggestion for a compromise: “If the work were in breach of the law, then the sensible thing to do would have been to close it and talk to the artist about a possible compromise or even a withdrawal of the piece, explaining in the process that the laws of the land do not permit a display of pornography.” HOW DULL DOES THAT SOUND ?! This is contemporary art, babe ! Nobody wants to do the “sensible” thing … I say Fujiwara should just run with it, make lemonade out of lemons: leave the work in its bowdlerized form, put up signs saying what’s missing and how and why and by whom, and see what alignments of meaning, power and plurality arise out of this new configuration.
But that’s just me.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The censorship of Simon Fujiwara’s Biennale installation, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, continues to make waves. Hot on the heels of my post yesterday, the following piece appeared in The Straits Times‘ Life! section this morning.
Biennale exhibit which had porn magazines removed without artist’s knowledge is closed. By Adeline Chia.
A controversial art installation with pornographic gay content censored by the Singapore Art Museum is now temporarily closed, while the museum and artist try to work out how to change it.
The installation by award-winning British artist Simon Fujiwara titled Welcome to The Hotel Munber looks like a 1970s Spanish hotel bar with a bar counter, bar stools, wine barrels and legs of ham.
But it also contained with sexual images and innuendos which came in the form of erotic images and text, or in the way the fake sausages were arranged.
The museum had removed some gay pornographic magazines from the installation without informing Fujiwara, causing people to accuse the museum of unprofessionalism and censorship.
Now, the exhibit is closed while the artist and the museum discuss how to modify the installation, which is the artist’s fictionalized re-imagining of his father as a repressed gay man running a hotel under Spain’s fascist dictator General Francisco Franco’s regime.
The artwork is part of the ongoing Singapore Biennale, the island’s premier visual arts event. It had been shown in its entirety for two days at a private viewing for reporters and artists on March 11 and 12.
After the private viewing, the museum removed the pornographic magazines. The reason given was that the graphic material was within easy reach of visitors, and the museum had to protect audiences who did not want such graphic sexual material in their face.
In a letter to Life! Yesterday, Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui gave the background to the work, saying that many of the artworks in the Biennale were site-specific. He defines these as works “created from the constant negotiation and dialogue between the Biennale curators and artists, sometimes right up tot eh final moments of the installation.”
He said that the museum had known that Fujiwara’s work contained graphic and nude images, and so had put in place advisories and hired gallery sitters. But, he added, “given the ongoing creation process, it is not possible to view site-specific contemporary artworks until they are fully installed.”
Fujiwara’s Hotel Munber is an ongoing work that has been exhibited in cities such as Frankfurt in Germany. It won the prestigious Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel, the iconic Swiss art fair, last year.
Mr Tan said: “Contemporary art is unlike films, which are fully completed works and can be viewed ahead of time for rating assessments.”
As a result, he added, the museum was “not aware of the final configuration of Fujiwara’s artwork” until all its artefacts were in place and the installation was completed “just in time for the Biennale private viewing.”
“it was then that we noted that the artefacts took the form of sexually explicit magazines within the larger installation. One of these magazines was within easy reach of the public and the others could be discerned,” he said.
The museum then decided to remove the magazines but to keep the exhibit open, said Mr Tan. At the same time, the curators were informed and were asked to contact the artist.
He added that Fujiwara “has also conveyed his concern” about the installation, including the magazines, which belong to a collector, being handled by the public.
“in view of this and other feedback, the artist has proposed that we reconfigure the exhibit altogether,” said the museum director.
Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen, 34, was one of the people who caught the installation in full during the Biennale opening weekend.
He said that “such issues should have been ironed out way before the show opened, since the institution should be 100 per cent aware of what is showing within its walls.”
“Sexuality and the gay issue are a big part of Simon Fujiwara’s practice, so it’s not like this is something shocking and unexpected. Moreover, Hotel Munbar [sic] is an existing exhibition, it’s not like it came out of nowhere,” he added.
Fujiwara, 28, won the Frieze Art Fair’s prestigious annual Cartier Award for emerging artists last year. The artist, who is of Japanese-British heritage, did not respond to e-mail from Life! this week.
His works often deal with fictional narratives, sexuality and history, and have been exhibited at prestigious platforms such as the Venice Biennale, Manifesta and the Sao Paulo Biennale.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The Fujiwara saga continues.
Simon Fujiwara’s installation at the Biennale, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, has been getting quite a bit of press lately, primarily for having been censored by the Singapore Art Museum with regards to certain pornographic gay elements. Remember when I said that the piece was still on view at the SAM ?
Well, I lied.
I was just there, and the display has been shut down (below), at least temporarily. Someone I spoke to at the front counter said that it’d been cordoned off two days ago, and its eventual fate is still anyone’s guess.
Sorry, my bad.
Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House
The following article appeared in the Life! section of The Straits Times on 28 March, 2011. Apparently Brit-Jap artist Simon Fujiwara’s contribution to the Biennale, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, was a little too gay-friendly for – get this, not the local authorities – but the Singapore Art Museum itself, which apparently made a decision to modify the piece on their own say-so.
Welcome to the Hotel Munber, in its incomplete form, is currently on view at the SAM.
MUSEUM CENSORS EXPLICIT ART WORK
A Biennale installation had some of its sexual content removed without permission from the artist. By Corrie Tan.
An installation with graphic homosexual content at the ongoing 2011 Singapore Biennale has been altered by the Singapore Art Museum without the artist’s consent.
The installation by award-winning British artist Simon Fujiwara converted a gallery in the museum into a Spanish hotel bar with a bar counter, bar stools, barrels of wine and legs of ham hanging from the ceiling.
But a row of gay pornographic magazines that were placed on top of a cupboard behind the bar counter and a gay pornographic magazine that was placed under a Spanish newspaper at the gallery’s entrance have been removed.
Extracts of erotic text, framed up on the wall and pasted on the legs of fabricated ham, were not removed from the installation.
The changes to the installation, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, were reported last week by Fridae.com, a gay and lesbian Asian news and lifestyle portal.
When asked about the removal of the items, Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui said that while the museum and curators were aware that the installation would contain some graphic sexual material, it was only after the installation was completed for the Biennale’s opening weekend that the museum realised some of the graphic material was within the clear view and easy reach of visitors.
So the museum decided to remove the material after a private preview on March 11 and 12, which was attended by local and international artists and reporters. The Biennale curators were informed as well, and they contacted the artist.
The museum said that during the busy opening weekend of March 11 to 13, it did not have a chance to discuss the work with the Berlin-based Fujiwara before he left the country. At press time, the artist did not answer queries sent by Life!.
Mr Tan did not say why the museum did not contact the artist before removing the items from the installation, but said in an e-mail statement: “Given the diversity of visitors at SAM, including audiences who may not appreciate seeing such material in full view, we made th decision to remove it.
“SAM has a broad base of visitors, ranging from those familiar with the language of contemporary art to new audiences and families with young children who are taking initial steps towards appreciating contemporary art. Hence, the museum will always work with the curators and artists whose works deal with, or contain, potentially sensitive subject matter to determine how to best display their works for our audiences, without altering their artistic content.”
Biennale curator Russell Storer, 40, who contacted Mr. Fujiwara after the changes were made to the installation, said of the artist’s reaction: “The artist was concerned because what happened changes the wrok. We are in the process of working out the next step with the museum and the artist.
“It would have been good to have had the discussion before the Biennale but we are trying to be as pragmatic as possible right now. It’s an issue for all of us, but we understand that there are laws in Singapore to abide by.”
Lawyer Samuel Seow, 37, said that it is an offence under the law to exhibit obscene and/or objectionable publications. He cited Singapore’s Undesirable Publications Act, where anyone who exhibits “any obscene publication knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the publication to be obscene” can be fined a maximum of $10,000 or sentenced to jail for a maximum of two years, or both.
When Life! visited the Singapore Art Museum yesterday, two advisories en route to the exhibition space warned that the gallery that housed Welcome to Hotel Munber contained work of a sexual nature and that parental guidance was recommended.
These signs have been put up since the exhibition began.
The work, a travelling installation, was inspired by the hotel and bar run by the artist’s parents in southern Spain under the military dictatorship of General Franco in the 1970s.
Mr Fujiwara, 28, the winner of the Frieze Art Fair’s prestigious Cartier Award for emerging artists last year and who is known for his creation of fictional narratives, retells his parents’ life as erotic fiction.
The installation explores and is a response to the violent and oppressive climate that his parents experienced under General Franco’s rule. The artist’s mother is British and his father is Japanese.
As part of the artwork, Mr Fujiwara gave a lecture performance at the museum during the Biennale’s opening weekend where he read extracts of erotica and used props such as photograph, newspaper clippings and original objects from his parents’ hotel.
Audience members described the performance as a conflation of sexuality, family values and political history.
This is the second art controversy relating to nudity this year. In January, an Indian artist who stripped naked in the name of art at the inaugural international art fair Art Stage Singapore, stopped his act after newspapers went to town with the story.
Asked about the incident at the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore artist and gallery owner Alan Oei, 34, said: “If an artist’s work is to be altered, you need to inform the artist first or negotiate an outcome. If the artist doesn’t understand why, he or shy might pull out, but that’s how it is.”
Mr Olivier Henry, 38, a Singapore-based photographer and gallery owner, said: “I think it’s entirely unacceptable for a museum to change a work like that. You might change a work’s integrity and message.
“If there are censorship issues, these should have been brought up prior to the work being showcased. I find it extremely alarming that someone else can just take the responsibility and creative freedom to change an artist’s message and work.”
After the Pyrrhic showiness that was the ArtScience Museum, I think a contrasting perspective is called for.
The Post-Museum is the anti ASM.
Housed in a couple of shoplots on Rowell Rd., in the heart of thosai town, i.e. Little India, the P-M has been quietly serving both the fringes of the local artistic community and the wider public since 2007, earning a reputation as being an egalitarian, arts-oriented space for all.
In their own words, this plucky little institution is
… an independent cultural and social space in Singapore which aims to encourage and support a thinking and pro-active community. It is an open platform for examining contemporary life, promoting the arts and connecting people.
A ground-up project initiated by Singaporean curatorial team p-10, our current premises opened in September 2007. We are located in two 1920s shop-houses in Little India, an exciting and truly historical and multi-cultural area in Singapore. Through its activities, Post-Museum aims to respond to its location and community as well as serve as a hub for local and international cultures.
You can visit their appropriately spartan homepage here.
In addition to staging exhibitions, the P-M organizes a variety of programs, including artist residencies, talks, workshops, classes, music performances and film screenings. Community outreach clearly ranks high on the agenda with them, with some of their non art-related events earning a measure of street cred among members of the local boho crowd: the Singapore Really Really Free Market, the Soup Kitchen Project, as well as regular hosting of SinQSA (Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance) activities. Further marking their commitment to non-profit engagement with the arts, and in the best indie fashion, they’ve planned a series of initiatives to tie in with the Singapore Biennale 2011, which is happening right now (reviews coming soon, promise). OPEN *home, for instance, “offers a cozy and affordable crashpad for artists and other cultural workers who are coming to Singapore to visit the Singapore Biennale … in March. We have a large air-conditioned room which can house up to 8 persons per night (bring your own sleeping bag!). Participation is based on a pay-it-forward system plus contribution of 1 artwork per night stayed.” That’s real nice of these guys, you gotta admit. Read more about OPEN* here.
A review is also especially timely right now because, sadly enough, it seems as if the end is nigh. This communiqué was recently received from the good folk over at the P-M:
We wanted to share with you that the lease for our current premises will
run out in July this year.
After some long discussions and thinking with some of the stakeholders of
our community, we have decided not to continue operating in our current
format. Despite the discounted rent that the landlord has generously
offered us in these three years, we have so far been unable to cover all
our costs. As such, we have decided not to renew the lease of our current
premises and are currently looking at options to continue our cultural and
social work in different locations and formats.
At this moment, we do not have any concrete plans as we are busy with
programming and fundraising efforts at Post-Museum. We are happy that
several people have approached us with suggestions and offers, including
our current landlord who is tying us up with various organisations such as
Spa Esprit Group for free space and other support.
As mentioned, we are looking at the various options and are open to any
suggestions or offers for Post-Museum. Please feel free to contact us if
you have space, funds or other support to offer.
Furthermore, we would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who
supports us. We would also like to publicly thank our landlord for his
continued understanding and support. Without all of you, Post-Museum would
not have been possible.
On this note, we will be launching 2 series of exciting programmes at
Post-Museum from March-July. We hope you will come and continue to support
us in these coming months.
Thanks and look out for more updates soon!
Jennifer Teo & Woon Tien Wei.
Meanwhile the cash registers in the glass-swathed atrium of the ASM are ringing away to the tune of 30 big ones per entry. If any sort of cosmic justice exists, Sheldon‘s Folly will soon collapse under the weight of its own avarice and lameness.
Not that I have anything against money, don’t get me wrong. If anything, good intentions only get you so far, and the P-M I think is the best example of that. The last time I was there was – get this – in August. That’s six months ago. I’ve wanted to return since, but unfortunately shows seem to come and go in the blink of an eye there. The recent “Perspectives from the Ideal City” ran for a mere six days, and, before that, “The Pearly Gates” showed for a week. Missed both of course. Not just that, but their “Show Room” keeps rather unusual hours, being open from 6-10pm Tuesdays to Fridays, and 2-10pm on weekends. It does make it easier to pop by after work, but still, their premises aren’t exactly easy to get to, entailing either an ancillary bus ride or a long-ish trek from the nearest train station. Off the beaten track is good, but it does also ensure that only the most dedicated will make it to your doorstep.
And you gotta be really dedicated to want to make your way out there to look some amateur drawings.
Which is what I saw there last year. Shape of My Heart was held to celebrate Singapore’s 45th birthday, which happened on August 9th. Like the venue itself, the exhibition certainly looked and felt .. unorthodox. The contributors were a bunch of non-professional artists, who were tasked to produce works about local places that held some significance for them:
The exhibition features artworks created by 25 Singaporeans about places in Singapore which are meaningful to them.
These participants do not work as visual artists but come from all walks of life. Each participant was asked to create an artwork about a place in Singapore which is meaningful to him/her. The participants have created works using a variety of mediums, about places in the past, present and future Singapore.
“Amateur” is definitely the operative phrase there. The works themselves were essentially projects straight out of arts and crafts class, worked on those drawing block sheets that we all had to use back in school. These pieces were just tacked onto the wall, the way Mom and Dad would tape a particularly fetching work of yours on the fridge door – hardly the framed canvases one is used to seeing in a gallery. And neither were there any wall labels, just a xeroxed sheet listing artworks and artists (which got lost pretty quickly – or had to be returned). The improvised nature of the show was clearly deliberate, designed to dovetail with the amateur character of the art. What struck an incongruous note though, the works were laid out on in typical museum fashion – with plenty of wall space to spare, affording each individual piece the auratic tenor of museum displays. The effect was not unlike walking into one of those uppity boutiques that boasts a rack or two of merchandise, only to discover that instead of overpriced designer togs one was browsing factory outlet goods … We – CC and I – were also reminded that photography was not allowed. Its hard to imagine that copyright issues are actually in play here, but I guess even amateur art deserves legal protection.
Which also means that the images below aren’t exactly legit. So hush.
An outline of Singapore had been penciled in onto one wall, over which visitors could stick post-it notes, expressing their feelings about the country.
The evening ended with drinks at Food #03-BenBino’s next door, described as “an artwork by Woon Tien Wei which takes the form of a social enterprise café started in October 2007.” Their mission: “Food #03 is providing a community space where we partner with different groups / NGOS / individuals to share our space/kitchen and to bring about new menu and F&B concept.” The look was one of general electicism; the motive, communal engagement. In the latter at least, Food #03 takes a cue from Gordon Matta-Clark’s seminal art-food project slash restaurant, Food, which he instituted in downtown Manhattan in the early 1970s. (Read about it here.) It’s nice to see that his spirit lives on, even in such a far-flung corner.
I liked the Post-Museum a helluva lot better than the ASM.
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.