You Make Me Feel Grand New

Published on 22 November 2015

Singapore’s grandest monuments are now home to the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art. What can you expect when the National Gallery Singapore finally opens its doors?

BY MELANIE LEE

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in 2005 during his National Day Rally Speech that the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings were going to be converted into a national art gallery, many wondered if it could be successfully pulled off.

After all, adapting (while conserving) two huge national monuments to become a museum, while curating an extensive and representative Southeast Asian modern art collection are mammoth feats.

However, 10 years later, it’s clear that local and regional art have never been more celebrated and better presented than at the National Gallery Singapore. Over 64,000 sq m of elegant space (the size of Musée d’Orsay in Paris) have been dedicated to showing 19th- and 20th-century art in Singapore and Southeast Asia, giving it the prominence it deserves in the larger global history of art.

“Art is usually understood from a very Western perspective,” says senior curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa. “However, it’s also important to see how art from this region contributed towards the larger Modern Art movement, especially how the colonised influenced the colonisers and vice versa, as well as the anti-colonial sentiments during this period. Recognising Southeast Asian art is a start in this important dialogue.”

More importantly, the Gallery makes art more accessible to the public by bringing in interesting or personal anecdotes that encourage more curiosity about the collection and art history in general. “Each painting tells a moving and inspirational story that will go towards creating a stimulating and enriching museum experience for all visitors,” says Dr Eugene Tan, director of National Gallery Singapore.

AN ARCHITECTURAL MASTERPIECE

The adaptive reuse and conservation of the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings has been a five-year, S$530 million project undertaken by French architectural firm studioMilou and CPG Consultants from Singapore. Even as you admire the impressive collections at National Gallery Singapore, its space is in itself living art that should be savoured. Look out for:

The Grand Rotunda Dome

The classical dome that was previously hidden from the public can now be viewed from the Supreme Court terrace. It used to be a law library, and if you make your way inside the Rotunda, you’ll find restored curved columns and curved cabinets that will store archival materials for visitors to browse through.

Photo: National Gallery Singapore

The Stunning Former Supreme Court Foyer

Admire the original art deco terrazzo flooring and staircases, along with an airy, high ceiling with retro wooden panels. Underneath this floor is a time capsule from 1937 that can only be opened in the year 3000.

Photo: National Gallery Singapore

The Metal Tropical Canopy Roof

The most striking feature of the Gallery is its impressive canopy made of glass and 15,000 veil-like aluminium panels draped over the two buildings. It is supported by steel structures resembling tree trunks.

Photo: National Gallery Singapore

The Eventful City Hall Chamber

The grandest room in the former City Hall building is the City Hall Chamber. Its original marble columns, brass capitals and wood panels remain and have been restored. It is also the venue of many significant national events such as the signing of Japanese surrender documents in 1945. Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in in this very room in 1959.

Photo: National Gallery Singapore

Did You Know?

Interesting facts about the National Gallery Singapore.

The idea of a standalone public art gallery was brought up by a government committee as early as 1918. In fact, a fund was specially created for this cause. However, due to larger historical developments such as the Great Depression, World War II, Independence and nation building, this plan was shelved until 1996 when the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) was formed. Today, SAM focuses on 21st-century art.

About three-quarters of the works being exhibited are from Singapore’s National Collection (a repository of over 10,000 pieces of art) while the rest are on loan from or given by private and institutional collectors.

The former City Hall building, which was built in the 1920s, is slightly tilted. According to curator Clarissa Chikiamco, this made the hanging a very stressful task as it was hard to tell if a painting had been hung straight!

Six of the Best

These artworks are unmissable!

The first visit to National Gallery Singapore can be an intense experience, what with over 1,000 artworks to admire. We recommend spending a little more time appreciating these six iconic pieces in the two permanent collections found at the DBS Singapore Gallery and the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery.

Images of artworks: National Gallery Singapore. 

1. Amanda Heng, Another Woman (1996-1997)

A personal exploration of a mother-daughter relationship featuring Heng and her mother. Heng is one of the first local artists to address gender issues using performance art.

2. Chua Mia Tee, National Language Class (1959)

Chua created this the year Singapore gained self-governance. It marks a growing consciousness of national identity at that particular period in time, with Chinese students learning Malay as the national language. The DBS Gallery’s exhibition title is taken from the Malay words — siapa nama kamu — written on the chalkboard. Its English translation: what is your name?

3. Georgette Chen, Self Portrait (1946)

Chen’s warm sepia portrait exudes strength and dignity, which is significant as she painted this just after World War II, after her husband had passed away.

4. Montien Boonma, The Pleasure of Being, Crying, Dying and Eating (1993, reconstructed 2015)

Thai artist Boonma created this striking installation using ceramic bowls and other ordinary objects to explore the Buddhist world view that human life is cyclical and transitory. It was done while he was grieving the death of his wife. This installation has been reconstructed at the Gallery.

5. Jose Joya, Hills of Nikko (1964)

Filipino artist Joya painted this lively abstract piece after visiting the hills of Nikko in Japan, showing how Southeast Asian artists were influenced by international trends such as abstract art. It has not been exhibited abroad since the Venice Biennale in 1964.

6. Raden Saleh, Forest Fire (1849)

Possibly the grandest piece in the gallery, this work of art is a dramatic representation of wild animals being chased by flames to the edge of a steep cliff. Indonesian artist Saleh trained in Europe and adopted a Romantic painting style.

Just for Kids

Children have their own little art space, too.

The Keppel Centre for Art Education, housed within the National Gallery Singapore, is a dynamic area for children to immerse themselves in art. This multi-sensory creative space is a hub of fun activities and art programmes for young ones to imagine, create and play. Best of all, admission is free! We walk you through the highlights.

Art Playscape

Young visitors enter an enchanted forest with hidden stories and adorable characters. This immersive fantasy created by Sandra Lee even includes a tree house.

Art Corridor

Features a larger-than-life puzzle artwork created by Twardzik Ching Chor Leng that gets the kids moving while learning about colours.

Project Gallery

Children are invited to respond to Tan Wee Lit’s installation on homes of the future by coming up with art that addresses creative solutions to real-world issues.

Children’s Museum

Artist and Cultural Medallion recipient Milenko Prvacki recreates his studio for visitors to better understand the creative process of an artist.

Celebrate Art

Be a part of National Gallery Singapore’s opening!

The Gallery’s Opening Celebrations will be taking place from 24 November – 6 December. During these two weeks, admission to the Gallery will be free for all, but a ticket is required. There will be more than 20 free events and activities for visitors to enjoy. One highlight event is the Art Carnival on the Padang that will take place from 27 – 29 November, 5pm – midnight.

App-solutely Fabulous!

Explore the Gallery with your smartphone.

Planning to wander around the National Gallery Singapore? Downloading the Gallery Explorer App to your smartphone is a must. Using intelligent indoor navigation via bluetooth, the app will provide you detailed information on exhibitions, events and F&B outlets based on your specific location within the Gallery. It can also give you turn-by-turn directions to get to various points of interest. Best of all, you can customise your own tour based on favourite artworks, or even interact with fellow art-loving visitors.

Coming Soon!

Collaborations with leading art institutions add a global context to the permanent collections.

Centre Pompidou (April 2016)

A co-curated exhibition examining the relationship between art from Singapore, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

Tate Britain (October 2016)

‘Artist and Empire’ is a collaboration that examines how the British Empire was represented from the 16th century to present day, with a focus on artists from British Malaya.

The National Gallery Singapore opens on 24 November. To celebrate its opening, admission is free until 6 December.

For more information, visit www.nationalgallery.sg.

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