PRINT May 2016


the new Singapore National Gallery

Studio Milou, National Gallery, 2015, Singapore.

TODAY, THE OPENING of another art museum—even one designed or transformed by a starchitect—is nothing exceptional. The parade of spectacular new institutions, most of them private, that started in the mid-1990s continues apace. And the appeal is clearly still growing, as the continued echoing in the media of last year’s Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition, which attracted nearly two thousand entries, has proved. However, the opening of a new national gallery, as in Singapore this past November, is unusual. The singularity of this event provides an opportunity to look beyond platitudes about the global museum boom and ask fundamental questions about the role of both art and architecture in our globalized economy and culture. How can a museum articulate national identity, not just in the context of postcolonialism but at a time when art tends to be considered the very emblem of cosmopolitanism? How does a small city-state such as Singapore—characterized by ethnic and cultural heterogeneity, decolonized in 1959, and independent from Malaysia since 1965—deal with the challenge of national representation? And how does Singapore position itself in the race to create signature architecture and iconic buildings in relation to Asian competitors with equally ambitious plans for cultural primacy such as Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and Abu Dhabi?

Despite the Singapore National Gallery’s importance, its appearance has so far passed with little comment. The opening ceremonies took place without much public notice, and even the city’s cabdrivers hardly seem to know where the new museum is. In part this is due to its location: The institution occupies adjacent buildings, the former Supreme Court and the former City Hall, which were erected by the British colonial authorities before World War II and used by the Singaporean administration until 2006, after which they remained unoccupied for almost a decade. The grim colonial buildings were never popular and cannot compete with such eye-popping tourist attractions as the Marina Bay Sands Integrated resort by Safdie Architects.

But the public’s indifference is also due to the fact that art is a rather marginal concern for most Singaporeans, despite the government’s best efforts. The “Renaissance City Plan” was launched in 2000 with the goal of developing culture as an important factor to distinguish Singapore from competing cities in Southeast Asia and as a key attractor for “talent, investment, and international attention.” It was implemented rapidly: The Singapore Biennale was founded in 2006, Art Stage Singapore began in 2011, and an arts complex in the Gillman Barracks, a former British military base, was established in 2012. The recent opening of the National Gallery marks the culmination of these efforts. Although these venues are gaining international attention and serve as platforms for regional artists, they fail to attract talent on a long-term basis. Singapore remains a place where art is displayed and consumed, but not produced. Much more vital art scenes are emerging in surrounding cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Bangkok, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hong Kong.

This stagnation might be rooted in the fact that Singapore’s cultural administrators, including officials at the Ministry of Culture, the National Heritage Board, and the Tourism Board, consider art as a given, a kind of resource to be managed and controlled. Art, it seems, is perceived as a commodity, and the assumption is that, like so many other goods—from water and oil to consumer products—it can generate wealth merely by being channeled through the harbor city. But this top-down policy drives away many Singaporean artists, who find themselves drawn to cities with better conditions for production. Gillman Barracks is a good example of the ambivalence of Singapore’s encouragement of the arts: It houses mainly galleries and restaurants rather than studios. Only the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art directly supports production through stipends and residencies.

But as limiting as this conception of art as a product of exchange may be from the perspective of fostering domestic cultural production, it proves highly effective as a historiographical and curatorial approach. In fact, the National Gallery’s two permanent exhibitions, one on Singapore and the other on Southeast Asia, are rich, diverse, and inspiring. In contrast to the current worldwide trend of cultural fundamentalism, here “national” art is understood and represented as the fruit of dynamic exchange and international interaction. For the first time, visitors can enjoy a panorama that encompasses the development of art throughout the region (including that of contemporary nations such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia) from the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth. This remarkable range may be rooted in the unique development of the collection: Singapore’s National Heritage Board has systematically acquired art from across Southeast Asia since the ’90s. The curators of the National Gallery, which is organized hierarchically like a company, with a CEO, several directors, a chief information officer, a chief marketing officer, etc.—yet with the state as main stakeholder and without the necessity of being profitable—can make use of these holdings, known as the National Collection, for their exhibitions, although the collection is not owned by the National Gallery.

The fact that the institution is not the owner of the collection but something more like its caretaker seems to encourage an emphasis on education and public outreach. Throughout the museum, the curatorial and didactic concepts are original, the wall texts are thoughtfully articulate, and the guides and guards have been carefully trained to interact with visitors. Much emphasis is put on the National Gallery’s role as a research hub, and it is intriguing to find a part of the archive, which is open for use by both scholars and visitors, exhibited in the rotunda of the former Supreme Court. Throughout the galleries, the order of the exhibition is chronological, but the display does not subscribe to stylistic categories or mark any distinction between media. In the first exhibition room, for instance, documentary photographs from the late nineteenth century are juxtaposed with watercolors of local plants, harbor vistas, and even a mid-nineteenth-century print from the German weekly Die Gartenlaube depicting a tiger attack in the Singaporean jungle. Here, as is the case elsewhere in the museum, it is impossible to consider artworks in isolation from their historical and economic contexts. Interconnections are demonstrated, too, by the many paintings and sculptures that depict Singapore’s development or deal with the education of its citizens, such as in Chua Mia Tee’s painting National Language Class, 1959. It is telling that the word art was dropped from the institution’s original title (it was to be known as the National Art Gallery), and one can only hope that the curators will give even more room over to exploring the heterogeneity of Singapore’s recent past, delving into the internal contradictions and diversity resulting from the city’s complex history and its constant influx of migrants.

Yet at a certain point the curators may find themselves limited by the architecture itself. Unlike other museums, where architecture and collection can take on independent identities, a national gallery presupposes a coherence of the building with its content. Expectations for the architectural expression of this ambitious project were therefore high, although the design was complicated from the beginning by the fact that both buildings have heritage status and many of their interior and exterior features had to be preserved. The French-Singaporean Studio Milou, which specializes in the transformation of landmarked buildings into museums (previous projects in France include the Musée Nationale d’Automobile, Mulhouse, and the Cité de la Mer, Cherbourg), was chosen in a competition. Unfortunately, the architects were not able to cope with the challenge. Their strategic mistake was to unite the two historic buildings under one roof—or, more accurately, within one huge glass box—instead of leaving them separate. Because of the strong sunlight Singapore receives, the glass hull enclosing the two buildings had to be covered by a metal screen, which the architects define as a “veil.” This surface, in turn, is supported by metal structures in the guise of “trees,” a rather trivial shape that is popular in many malls and atria in Singapore. A section of the roof itself, overlooking a cupola of the former Supreme Court, is also covered and occupiable, but this produces a blurred and hybrid space, which functions neither as viewing terrace nor as exhibition space. An underground hallway and various bridges are intended to mediate between the two buildings, but because of the buildings’ different systems of internal circulation and mismatched floor heights, these features divide rather then connect the two halves of the project. As a result, visitors tend to get lost in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of former office spaces that constitutes the bulk of the gallery space. A situation that could have yielded striking spatial contrasts between converted courtrooms, offices, and prison cells—that could have in fact produced the exciting experience of being both outside and inside a building at once—has instead been turned into a confusing itinerary of endless sequences of stairs, corners, empty hallways, and dead ends.

Many of the national museums created across Europe in the nineteenth century are known primarily for their vast dimensions and the universality of their collections. But as buildings, they also tell a fascinating story of the triumph of a bourgeois system of representation over an aristocratic one. As Enlightenment values replaced the old feudal systems, the emerging republics absorbed the outworn typologies of the ancien régime: Newly built parliaments, universities, and museums adopted the forms of the churches and palaces of the past. Yet such ostensibly universal institutions were obviously predicated on another, globalized, kind of feudalism—such buildings owe much of their architectural opulence to the exploitation of colonies during Europe’s imperial era. In Singapore, the National Gallery could have opened a new chapter in this narrative by registering two remarkable historical shifts: First, the transformation, by a newly decolonized state, of European-style colonial buildings—designed to represent the hegemony of the Continent over its territories—into the civic structures that marked its own independence; second, the opening up by an economically ascendant Singapore of the rigid structures of its early bureaucracy into playful spaces of culture. The new museum, in other words, could have articulated an encounter between the space of the imperialism that dominated the past two centuries with that of the Empire, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have defined it, that is emerging in the twenty-first century. But in its present state, the National Gallery does not articulate discrepancies or explicate the complex layering of historical processes as much as it relentlessly attempts to smooth out difference. The vast air-conditioned hull of the newly conjoined buildings produces only a homogenous and neutral space: nothing more than the museum as mall.

Philip Ursprung is a professor of the history of art and architecture at ETH Zürich.