New artistic delights
As part of the celebrations to mark 50 years of independence in Singapore, the Arts Council decided that they wanted this tiny island in Southeast Asia to be a focal point for art and artists in the region. To that end, they embarked on a number of ambitious projects which culminated in the opening of the Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris in May 2015 and their new National Gallery which opened on the 24 November 2015.
The National Gallery
The aim of the National Gallery is to be the leading arts institution in the region which engages, excites and inspires visitors with the art of Singapore and Southeast Asia. But before the collections are even seen, it could be said that their vision has already come true - by producing a building that is so beautiful it completes the brief of engagement, excitement and inspiration.
Unusually for Singapore, which excels in building new institutions, the National Gallery occupies the former Supreme Court and City Hall which stand side by side in the Civic District area of the city. The buildings are two of Singapore’s most significant monuments which have both witnessed key events in the history of Singapore, including the surrender of the Japanese to the Allied Forces in World War II and the declaration of Singapore’s independence in 1965.
A competition was initiated in 2005 to source the design needed to transform these two buildings into the new National Gallery. There were 111 entries, and the competition was won in 2007 by French architect Jean-Francois Milou, the lead designer and founder of Studio Milou. An architectural company recognised for its skills in re-purposing heritage buildings for contemporary users, their design has both united and transformed the former historical buildings into an amazing space to showcase the national collection of art.
This has been achieved by using a spectacular filigree metal and glass roofing structure which drapes itself over the buildings (‘ like an old lady
covered in lace’, commented Wenmin Ho, one of the architectural team) and this is supported by stunning steel tree-like structures unifying the buildings with one simple rooftop line, and which also preserves the integrity of the original buildings. A new basement has been added that runs the length of both buildings, which in the
future will link to the MRT (subway) network and also to the Victoria Concert Hall nearby.
Throughout the gallery there is a sense of space and light which is enhanced by a beautiful teak finish, all of which produces a sense of calm and unity. The entrance is housed in the space between the two buildings, where the visitor is first directed to the lower level to buy tickets, and then given the choice to visit either the old Supreme Court or City Hall gallery spaces. On entering this part of the building the visitor is immediately wowed by this sense of space and light and the steel tree structures - in fact it could be said that the building itself is as much a work of art as the collections it houses.
Built in just four years (construction started in 2011), there were problems to overcome such as the fact that the City Hall was sinking, the buildings were of different heights and there was a need to conserve the monuments. The latter meant that all the requirements of a sophisticated gallery infrastructure had to be integrated into the building. Technical requirements such as loading, security, temperature controls, lighting and acoustics had to be hidden from view at all times in order to preserve the historical fabric of both buildings and to enhance the simplicity of the feel and flow of the gallery. The City Hall is also ten years older than the Supreme Court and suffered from unstable foundations. This meant that while building the basement, key walls and parts of the building had to be literally suspended and supported while the foundations were stabilised using sophisticated piling techniques.
The City Hall houses two permanent collections of art. The first, displayed in the DBS Singapore Gallery, provides an overview of art in Singapore from the 19th century to the present day. The second collection complements this by offering a thematic and more in-depth chronological focus on Southeast Asian art of the same period, through regional spotlights. Together the galleries showcase the interconnections between Singapore and Southeast Asian art within an international context.
The paintings on display come from the National Collection of Singapore, one of the world’s largest public collections of Southeast Asian works of art. There are over 10,000 pieces to choose from with about 1,000 works actually on display. Works include both representations of Singapore in art and also Singapore artists including Cheong Soor Pieng, Liu Kang, Chua Mia Tee, Gorgetta Chen, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen His and Tang Da Wu. The collection also includes pieces from Southeast Asian artists from Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia.
The Supreme Court houses a modern art collection dating from 1990, again of Southeast Asian artists, early drawings (to be found in the old Supreme Court itself ) and some contemporary works (although these are mainly to be seen in the Art Museum). ‘ As the first museum in the world dedicated to Southeast Asian modern art, the National Gallery Singapore hopes to captivate and kindle a curiosity for art, from art histories to the stories behind the art, from the discoveries we uncover about Southeast Asia and the world, to stories about ourselves’, Chong Siak Ching, CEO of the National Gallery said recently.
The Gallery also plans to showcase Southeast Asian art by working closely with international galleries. In 2016 there will be a collaboration with both the Centre Pompidou and Tate Britain, with works displayed from their collections.
The Pinacothèque de Paris
As part of the art plan for Singapore, the Pinacothèque de Paris (PdP) opened a second branch in Singapore in May of this year. The PdP is France’s largest private fine arts museum and founder, Marc Restellini, had wanted to establish a venue in this area of the world for some time. It is located in the refurbished Fort Canning Arts Centre, which is in Fort Canning Park, overlooking the central business district.
This was where Stamford Ra es built his first residence overlooking his new colony and where he established the first botanical gardens in 1822. Security concerns in 1859 led to the governor’s residence being torn down and a fort established
instead. The fort was named after Viscount Charles John Canning, the then Governor General and Viceroy of India.
So the Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris is the first global expansion of the internationally renowned museum and its aim is to bring extraordinary art and cultural content to Singapore. There are three main gallery spaces: one features a permanent collection of over 40 masterpieces including works by Picasso, Rembrandt, van Dyke, Modigliani, Soutine, and Pollock; the Heritage Gallery traces the history and civilisations of Southeast Asia and Singapore through its artefacts; and the third gallery houses temporary exhibitions.
The tribal collection in the Heritage gallery was curated by the worldwide specialist on Indonesian antique arts, Bruce W. Carpenter. He has gathered historical relics and artefacts from collectors all around the world including some stunning pieces of jewellery as well as impressive statues. The paintings in the permanent collection have been loaned by private donors and they were chosen to offer a dialogue between western masterpieces and Southeast Asian tribal art and sculptures. They are not grouped by artists or genre, but by unusual connections - and they have been displayed in such a manner as to make you look carefully for that connection. Marc Restellini believes that modern artists are often thought to have looked to Africa for their inspiration, but he believes it is actually Asian art that has inspired them and so has grouped pieces together to encourage visitors to ponder if there is indeed a link.
Mention must also be made of the interactive ‘Museum of the Future’ at the gallery, designed to encourage the idea that art can be fun. If our group was anything to go by, the interactive walls proved a great hit and are indeed a fun way to explore what is in the gallery.
Near to the Singapore PdP is the Singapore Art Museum, which houses contemporary Singapore and Southeast Asian art, as well as the National Museum of Singapore which tells the history of Singapore (all three museums are linked by a free shuttle bus which makes for very easy access). There are also a number of private galleries throughout the city showcasing Southeast Asian artists. And don’t forget Singapore Art Week from 16 - 24 January 2016. It is clear that Singapore’s ambition of becoming a destination for art in the region is certainly well on track. There is so much to see in this city and not just on the art trail - but that is a story for another day.
Above: The large garden on the rooftop of City Hall (Image © Fernando Javier Urquijo/ studioMilou singapore)
Right: Interior view of the entrance to the gallery showing the facade of the old City Hall and the steel tree supports of the roof line
Left, top: Chen Wen Hsi, Seaside, 1951. Oil on board
Right, bottom right: The curved veil above the entrance of the Gallery between the two monuments (Image © Fernando Javier Urquijo/ studioMilou singapore) Right, bottom left: View of the National Gallery (right) within the Civic District of Singapore (Image © Fernando Javier Urquijo/ studioMilou singapore) Right, top: The new National Gallery (on the right) and the Padang (Image © Fernando Javier Urquijo/ studioMilou singapore) Left, bottom: Lee Man Fong Self-Portrait 1958. Oil on board
Left, middle: Georgette Chen, Lotus
in a Breeze, c. 1970. Oil on canvas
Left, top: Verandah of the private REDSEA Gallery in the Dempsey Hill district
Left, bottom: Wooden sculpture by Korean artist Cha Jong-Rye
Right: Merlion statue at Singapore harbour