Posts Tagged ‘NMS’
The bicycle installation at the National Museum of Singapore. Image from The Dreaming Wanderer.
Today’s the 70th anniversary of the infamous Fall of Singapore, which marked a spectacular humbling of the once-proud British empire, and the beginning of the Japanese Occupation – one of lowest, darkest points in the island’s history.
Here’s one of my favourite displays in the National Museum: a wall of bicycles, commemorating the er, rather unusual arrival of the barbarians at the gate.
An article over at Military History Online, aptly titled Bicycle Blitzkreig: The Japanese Conquest of Malaya and Singapore 1941-1942, describes it:
However, in the Malaya campaign the Japanese were able to stay right behind the retreating British, never giving them time to catch their breath. There were at least two reasons for this. First, the British abandoned vast quantities of stores and supplies. Tsuji refers to theses as “Churchill Supplies”, and the Japanese helped themselves to food, transport, and munitions, which greatly eased their somewhat tenuous logistical situation. The second reason was that the Japanese had issued their soldiers thousands of bicycles. Western Malaya had good hard surfaced roads, and the Japanese soldiers rode down them, as much as twenty hours at a stretch. The Japanese had sold many bicycles in Malaya before the war, so they were able to find parts and repairs in most towns and villages. When they could no longer repair the tires, they rode on the rims. If the Japanese soldiers came to an unbridged stream, they slung their bikes over their shoulders and waded through. When larger bridges were blown, the Japanese engineers performed prodigies of quick repair, so that not only bicycles, but tanks and lorries as well could pass over in a surprisingly short time. “Even the long-legged Englishmen could not escape our bicycles”, says Tsuji, “This is the reason they were continually driven off the roads and into the jungle where, with their retreat cut off, they were forced to surrender” ……
…… The Japanese advanced deliberately toward the center of the island over the next two days. Their goal was the village of Burkit Timah, and control of the island’s reservoir. The British attempted to establish a defensive line along the Jurong Creek, but although there was sporadic heavy fighting, most of the defending troops lacked enthusiasm. At British headquarters plans were made and orders were given for counterattacks and heavy resistance, but on the front lines not much was done. The smell of defeat was in the air, along with the burning oil tanks, and everyone had a strong whiff of it. Deserters, those unfortunate Australian “replacements”, and desperate civilians were all running around Singapore town getting drunk rioting, or looking for a way out. The harbor was still full of ships, and they began leaving. Most made it to some destination, although several were sunk with great loss of life. Some attempt was made to evacuate military specialists, such as Squadron Leader Harper’s ground crews. It took General Percival a few days to accept the inevitable, but on February 15th he agreed to surrender. Most books on the subject have pictures of the surrender at the damaged Ford Motor Company factory: Percival gaunt, unhappy, Yamashita sleek, triumphant.
(Read the article by Allen Parfitt in full here.)
Happy bicycle day, folks.
Image from The Language of Museums!
Artwork of the day: Viet-American artist Tiffany Chung’s stored in a jar: monsoon, drowning fish, color of water, and the floating world (2010 – 11), which was included in the Singapore Biennale earlier this year. (My previous post about Martin Creed made me realize what a backlog of images I have, and just from the past year alone …)
The piece was on display in the National Museum, one of the Biennale’s four venues. The basement gallery was rendered a deep, dark pitch-black, a reversal of the typical white cube aesthetic. The transformation of the space was stunning, I thought, but combined with the low lights overhead, it wasn’t exactly the most propitious of conditions under which to view art – as evidenced by the difficult time I had trying to eyeball Chung’s exquisite miniatures of floating homes. Little models of floating communities, complete with green spaces and rowboats, were laid out on plates of glass suspended from the ceiling, the entire setup indeed resembling the sort of water-borne “alternative” architectural modes envisioned by Chung:
Tiffany Chung’s work monitors the dramatic effects of economic development, urbanisation, and consumer culture in her native country of Vietnam. Inspired by her experiences of the historic 1978 Mekong River floods – an event that has haunted her into her adulthood – Chung has constructed an alternative model of urban development where ‘floating life’ is a way of life. Based on a principle of horizontal planning rather than the grand vertical structures found in modern cities, Chung’s project draws upon traditional architectural forms in the Mekong region and other parts of Asia to propose alternative modes of sustainable living.
As artistic representations, Chung’s prototypes are beautifully realized – not unlike Michael Lee’s delicate paper models at the Old Kallang Airport site. Seemingly set adrift in mid-air in the dim glimmer of the space, the tiny houses and aquatic parks are also supported by miniature flotation devices, a fact made clear only upon close inspection. Beyond that, however, there didn’t seem to be any acknowledgement of the problems that comes with real-life usage. The label refers to the piece as an “alternative model of urban development”, or “alternative modes of sustainable living”, but without some accompanying proposal as to how these habitations will function in real life, they remain quite simply in the sphere of representation, falling somewhat short of the claims that they present a viable solution to urban overcrowding – and its myriad practical difficulties, which really require more than the spectatorial impact of art to address adequately. This deracinated character of the work – its failure to transcend the visual register, a failure brought into focus by its own contradictory claims – seems to bear out Guy Debord’s prognostication: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Here, the subsumption of “social relations” by the image, in a twist on the Marxian commodity fetish, is betrayed by the disembodied nature of a work that purports to offer a model of “sustainable living” but stands as an appeal only to the gaze; the inversion represented by the visible “in societies where modern conditions of production prevail” is signaled here on a formal level by the almost oneiric quality of Chung’s levitating miniatures, their spectral silhouettes on the ground (above) as prominent as the objects that cast them, insubstantial entities doubly displaced from the realm of the real.
(The full text of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is available over at the Marxists Internet Archive.)
Latest crowd-pleaser at the National Museum: the blockbuster Dreams and Reality: Masterpieces of Painting, Drawing and Photography from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (phew), where some 140 objects of 19th and early 20th century French art are on display.
I visited twice. The first on the exhibition’s opening day, when I had to stand in line for what seemed like forever just to get in, and, more recently, on a relatively empty weekday afternoon. I went back mostly because I left the first time feeling distinctly underwhelmed. I figured it had to be the crowds; I was in and out in under 30 minutes, and missed much of the last couple of galleries.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get better on a repeat viewing. Sorry, crowds.
Here’s the rub: for an exhibition that’s being touted as the largest showcase of Impressionist art in Singapore so far, Dreams and Reality is kinda small and, well, not terribly impressive. While a couple of masterpieces from the d’Orsay are included here – such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone and Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus – the first thing that leapt to mind was, where’s the rest of it ?! An exhibition drawn entirely from the collection of one of the world’s greatest repositories of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and this is it ? Sheesh. I’ve never been to Paris or the d’Orsay, but between the latter’s reputation and the hype surrounding the present show, let’s just say the reality, pun intended, was something of a massive letdown. To be fair, the organizers have been pretty candid about the difficulties in securing loans; the show’s curator, Szan Tan, is on record as noting that “… many works in these galleries may not be representative of each artists’ style. And that’s regrettable.” (Read Notabilia’s more generous review here.) The lady’s candour is refreshing, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much to ameliorate what I can only describe as a cheque that didn’t end up getting cashed.
Take Degas, for one, who, aside from a couple of sketches, is represented here by a small-ish painting titled Dancers Climbing a Staircase. I loved it – indeed, it was one of the highlights of the show for me – but we’re talking about an institution which owns literally hundreds of works by the artist, including well-known masterpieces such as Family Portrait, a.k.a. The Bellelli Family; In a Cafe, or Absinthe; The Dance Class; and The Orchestra at the Opera (below). Not a single one in that list made it to our shores. I understand that a retrospective of Degas’ nudes is coming up at the d’Orsay early next year, but this is ridiculous: unless works like the Bellelli portrait and the various paintings of ballet dancers and musicians are being reserved for a show on nudes, I don’t see why works like Van Gogh’s and Cabanel’s, which presumably have high insurance premiums and travel less easily, made the cut, but a more “representative” piece by Degas did not. Gustave Caillebotte is another case in point: he is best remembered for his paintings of streetscapes and urban subjects – including the breathtaking Paris Street: Rainy Day, considered his magnum opus and a masterpiece - produced before his retreat into yachting-related pursuits at Argenteuil. While Caillebotte’s oeuvre is slim, especially in contrast to those of his peers, he is generally regarded these days as a crucial figure in the artistic ferment of the late 19th century; pity then he remains missing from the National Museum show altogether, despite the fact that the d’Orsay owns a couple of great pieces like his Floor Scrapers of 1875 (frankly brilliant; below), or View of Rooftops (Snow).
And then there’s Manet. The Luncheon on the Grass, one of the most controversial paintings in the history of art, is, of course, nowhere to be seen. Neither is Monet’s tribute to Manet’s painting, also in the collection of the d’Orsay (both below).
Does it still surprise at this point ?
I suppose the d’Orsay can come up with any number of reasons why most of these works do not, or rarely, travel out of the country, but the fact that they were willing to part with some stuff but not others, is immediately suspect.* Why the half-gesture ?
* It has since been brought to my attention that perhaps the fault isn’t theirs; a lack of funds on the part of the NM may well have been the deciding factor here. If that is indeed true, then this should be a whole other conversation … A shoutout to Notabilia.
The Orchestra at the Opera (c. 1870), Edgar Degas. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Floor Scrapers (c. 1875), Gustave Caillebotte. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Luncheon on the Grass (1862 – 3), Edouard Manet. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Luncheon on the Grass (1865 – 6), Claude Monet. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
It wasn’t all negative though. Despite the rather glaring gaps, the show had its strong points, a conceptual coherence being the most salient. The viewer is invited to move through a number of themed galleries in linear fashion, from mythological and literary subjects, to depictions of the Franco-Prussian conflict and its consequences, to portrayals of industrial and peasant life, leisure pursuits, Impressionist landscapes and finally, er, existential loneliness. It wasn’t explicitly stated, but the layout of the exhibition is in keeping with the general contours of standard art historical narrative: one witnesses a progression from Salon-approved subjects of academic interest, to a wider artistic scope embedded in growing awareness of social issues like the life of the peasantry, the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the Hausmannization of Paris, to the revolutionary new visual forms of the Impressionists, and finally, what one imagines is poetic tribute to that dimension of life in the age of Marx and capitalism, what later commentators such as Frankfurt School theorists Adorno and Marcuse identified as one of the defining characteristics of modernity: the alienation of the individual …
And on that note, here are my top five moments at the Dreams and Reality show - ample testament to the enduring appeal of the 19th century, when even a curmudgeonly, hyper-critical nit-picker like myself isn’t completely turned off.
Absolutely no pretensions here to any sort of objectivity whatsoever, just a bunch of personal picks:
1. GOING FISHING (1898 – 1900), PIET MONDRIAN.
Before Mondrian starting putting black lines and coloured squares on pristine surfaces, there was a representational phase. I’d never seen one of his early mimetic works before, and this picture of a barge moored on an Amsterdam canal was quite a revelation. Not so much for the fact that once upon a time Mondrian actually deigned to portray subjects from nature, but for the observation that even here one is able to discern the flickerings of his later preoccupation with what Rosalind Krauss dubbed the “flattened, geometricized, ordered … antimimetic, antireal” quality of the grid. The linear patterning of the surface, the ambivalence of the space, the subjugation of the sole human figure to the design of lines and curves that predominate – it’s clear that Neo-Plasticism was but a short ways off.
2. STARRY NIGHT OVER THE RHONE (1888 – 9), VINCENT VAN GOGH.
This one speaks for itself I think. Not to be confused with the more famous Starry Starry Night currently in the MoMA. Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of viewing a Van Gogh in the flesh knows how little justice is done to his work by mere reproductions; they are vividly, lushly textured surfaces of near three-dimensional proportions, an anticipation of Jasper Johns’ encaustic canvases more than half a century later. Like Johns’ questioning of the iconicity of those signs that populate our everyday lives, Van Gogh’s paintings only seem like unitary images from a distance, breaking up into broad, painterly gestures upon closer inspection – thick, dense brushstrokes of saturated tints roughly applied, a tactile field of chromatic brilliance that only reassembles itself into vaguely recognizable shapes as one steps away … I’ve blathered on about the role of haptics in the visual arts elsewhere on this blog; we don’t need to go over that again, but to quote Merleau-Ponty one more time: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.” (From The Phenomenology of Perception.)
3. SOLITUDE – F. HOLLAND DAY (1901), EDWARD STEICHEN.
The exhibition opens with the oft-repeated quote from Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (a reference to illustrator and watercolorist Constantin Guys): “Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.” Baudelaire’s advocacy of the modern extended only to subject matter, style and – ironically – traditional mediums like drawing and watercolour; he was famously antipathetic to the then nascent technology of the camera. However, with the advantage of hindsight it becomes difficult to abstract photography out of the equation, especially since, in the words of art historian Jonathan Crary:
It is not enough to attempt to describe a dialectical relationship between the innovations of avant-garde artists and writers in the late nineteenth century and the concurrent “realism” and positivism of scientific and popular culture. Rather, it is crucial to see both of these phenomena as overlapping components of a single social surface on which the modernization of vision had begun decades earlier. I am suggesting here that a broader and far more important transformation in the makeup of vision occurred in the early nineteenth century. Modernist painting in the 1870s and 1880s and the development of photography after 1839 can be seen as later symptoms or consequences of this crucial systemic shift …
(See Crary’s Techniques of the Observer.)
This “shift” is located in the operations of the viewing body and the exercise of social power, but the point here is that the binary relationship between the positivist instrumentalism of the camera and the subjective expressiveness of the fine arts in the 19th century is perhaps not so easily dichotomized. Which brings me to Steichen’s image of artist and aesthete F. Holland Day above: the photograph, unusually, is almost horizontal in format, not unlike East Asian handscrolls – no doubt to accommodate the subject’s recumbent pose. Day, in fact, is pictured as a cross between a female nude and a Rembrandt-esque self-portrait. He is shot up close and centre, any suggestion of three-dimensional space banished from the visual field; his black, undifferentiated swathe of a body seems, in fact, to be devouring all sense of composition or perspective within the narrow confines of the photograph.
Is it too much of a stretch to claim that this is about as close to, say, the pictorial abstraction of Matisse as 19th century portrait photography gets ?
4. DANCERS CLIMBING A STAIRCASE (1886 – 90), EDGAR DEGAS.
Like I said, Degas’ piece was a high point for me. Even next to larger, showier pieces like Eva Gonzales’ A Box at the Italian Theatre, this little sliver of a painting holds it own. While the effect of painting on early photography is speculative, the reverse has often been observed; Degas, unlike Baudelaire, took a keen interest in the camera, and indeed the cropped compositions and unusual angles of his paintings tend to be attributed to that fact. One of his most highly celebrated works in that regard is Place de la Concorde (1875), but the present work seems to be even more experimental: the long expanse of almost uninterrupted space that is the wall mimics inflexibly the horizontal orientation of the canvas, an aggressive thrust of solid materiality into the soft-lit space occupied by the dancers in their flimsy, frilly tutus.
5. THE CONVALESCENTS (1861), FIRMIN GIRARD.
I don’t know much about Girard, except that he was an academician, and a pupil of Gerome’s. Judging from the painting above though, I can’t imagine why he doesn’t have more of a reputation. (Or perhaps I’m just ill-informed.) The Convalescents is gorgeous, possessed of a clarity of light and colour that puts me in mind of Raphael – someone whose paintings I was indifferent towards till I saw one in person. More interestingly though, is the sheer geometric delineation of the hospital building in the background: the wall text calls it “perfectly symmetrical”, and indeed the architecture looks pretty unreal in its regularity of proportion, its lines resembling ax-cuts in space. Michel Foucault famously adduced the hospital as an example of the “discipline” of bodies by institutions as a means of social control:
Many disciplinary methods had long been in existence – in monasteries, armies, workshops. But in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the disciplines became general formulas of domination. They were different from slavery … They were different, too, from ‘service’ … They were different from vassalage … Again, they were different from asceticism and from ‘disciplines’ of a monastic type … A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.
The medical supervision of diseases and contagions is inseparable from a whole series of other controls: the military control over deserters, fiscal control over commodities, administrative control over remedies, rations, disappearances, cures, deaths, simulations … Gradually, an administrative and political space was articulated upon a therapeutic space; it tended to individualize bodies, diseases, symptoms, lives and deaths; it constituted a real table of juxtaposed and carefully distinct singularities. Out of discipline, a medically useful space was born.
(See Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.)
Foucault seems almost to be describing the visual contrast, in Girard’s painting, between the broken bodies of the figures – a grouping of individuals locked in their own misery, arranged in a seemingly haphazard design over the pictorial space – and the hermetic uniformity of the architecture in the background, the meticulous pattern of the windows foregrounding the divergence between the disciplined severity of institution and the fractured functionality of the human body.
So The Longue Durée … has been receiving some pretty positive word-of-mouth attention, courtesy of folks at Notabilia, Singapore Public Art, and – in a visit from the self-esteem fairy – our very own National Museum.
They tweeted: “Take this with a pinch of salt, one of the few better art blogs in Singapore.” (See screengrab below.)
I’m not quite sure how to read that, but okayyy <lol>.
So to my multitudes (?) of regular readers out there, don’t forget the sodium chloride the next time you’re stopping by.
Thanks to CT for the heads-up !
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 …
Caught the “Singapore 1960″ show at the National Museum yesterday. The material culture of the past is always fascinating – even more so in the case of our fair isle, where the old and the outmoded is quickly and ruthlessly consigned to the bin of historical oblivion (only to be resurrected decades later as retro camp or outrageously overpriced vintage) – but some of the curatorial choices here struck me as being questionable. On display were these head-scratchers: the Aw family’s jade collection, hidden behind a wire mesh screen, which looked like what it was – the cheapest protective option available (record sleeves get glass but antique jades wire mesh?); two pairs of boxing gloves, apparently a reference to the history of the sport in here parts (as opposed to say, soccer?); and the opening exhibit – if one can call it that – which was pretty much just neon signage proclaiming ‘Singapore 1960′ against a background of black. This last might have been a reference to the predominance of the three Worlds back then: Great, New and er, Gay, or the main amusement parks and chief sources of entertainment in a pre-megamall Singapore. One has to ask though, why such precedence for popular culture ? Certainly the political, for instance, was an equally salient element of the show …
In any case, one of the highlights for me was a pretty impressive collection of record covers from the period. Aside from the usual suspects like the irrepressible Sakura Teng, also represented were Rita Chao, as well as this pretty face, one John Yam 任约翰 .
Apologies for the brevity of this review (right, like I have any readers besides myself ..). Camera’s battery died on me halfway through, so I didn’t get many shots, and – to be perfectly frank – the show was fairly uninspired. A couple of surprises, but that was pretty much it. To end on an upbeat note, here’s clip of Rita Chao crooning a Chinese cover of one of my favourite numbers, As Tears Go By: