Eugene Tan talks to Art Radar about the National Gallery Singapore and the future of Asian art.

On the eve of the opening of the National Gallery Singapore, Director Eugene Tan reveals some of his plans for the city-state’s newest museum, as well as gives his insights into the Asian arts scene.

Eugene Tan, Director, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Gallery Singapore.

Eugene Tan, Director, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Gallery Singapore.

The long-awaited National Gallery Singapore opens to the public on 24 November 2015, with complimentary entry for all until 6 December. Back in September, the Gallery already started supporting Singapore art history and fostering cultural understanding, dialogue and knowledge of art and art history across Asia, with its first international exhibition in Gwangju.

Designed by Studio Milou Singapore, in partnership with CPG Consultants (Singapore), the Gallery is the largest visual art institution in Singapore, and occupies a 64,000-square-metre space located in the restored, historical buildings of the Supreme Court and City Hall in Singapore’s Civic District. The museum oversees a public collection of 8,000 works of modern art from Singapore and Southeast Asia spanning the 19th and 20th centuries – the largest of its kind in the world – including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and video.

Former Supreme Court and Rotunda Dome, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Gallery Singapore.

Former Supreme Court and Rotunda Dome, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Gallery Singapore.

The Gallery is dedicated to collaborative research, education and exhibitions, highlighting Singapore’s culture and heritage and its relationship with Southeast Asia and the world, as well as the importance of modern art in Southeast Asia in a global context.

The National Gallery Singapore appointed Dr Eugene Tan as its Director in 2013. Prior to his role at the Gallery, Dr Tan was Programme Director (Special Projects) at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and oversaw the development of Gillman Barracks. He also held positions as Director of Exhibitions for Osage Gallery, Director of Contemporary Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in Singapore and Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore. Dr Tan has curated a variety of exhibitions, including among others the Singapore Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) and the inaugural Singapore Biennale (2006). He is among the ArtReview Power 100 for 2015.

Art Radar spoke to Dr Eugene Tan on the eve of the opening of the National Gallery Singapore.

Supreme Court Historical Lobby, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Darren Soh and National Gallery Singapore.

Supreme Court Historical Lobby, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Darren Soh and National Gallery Singapore.

Singapore as a Southeast Asian arts hub

In 2013, you left ICA Singapore to direct the National Gallery Singapore, then still in the making. At the time, you also made the ArtReview Power 100, credited as a “stage setter for Singapore’s potential emergence as a Southeast Asian arts hub”. As you look back at your career, could you point out three of your projects, prior to taking on the National Gallery position, which helped Singapore’s art scene grow towards becoming the Southeast Asian arts hub that it is today?

Prior to joining the National Gallery in 2013, I was with the Singapore Economic Development Board working on Gillman Barracks. I would cite that project as a significant one in growing Singapore’s position as an art centre in Southeast Asia. It was aimed at growing the art ecosystem in Singapore through exhibitions, residencies and research, which it has done.

Other roles and projects which I would consider important in the development of the art scene in Singapore would include my time at the ICA Singapore (2004 to 2008), when we organised many exhibitions which introduced practices and artists that were previously not widely seen in Singapore, such as On Kawara, Antony Gormley and Wolfgang Laib, among others.

I would also consider the first Singapore Biennale in 2006 as a significant project, as it was the first contemporary art exhibition on such a scale in Singapore. It demonstrated the potential and possibilities of what art can be, especially through the use of public spaces and religious spaces, such as churches, temples and a mosque, as sites for the exhibition.

Latiff Mohidin, 'Pagodas', 1969, oil on canvas, 99.4 x 99.2 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy of National Heritage Board.

Latiff Mohidin, ‘Pagodas’, 1969, oil on canvas, 99.4 x 99.2 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Heritage Board.

Back in 2013, Art Radar ran an interview with you after your first 100 days as Director of the National Gallery. More than two years have passed since then, and I wonder how your perspective of developing the National Gallery Singapore has changed over the years. Have you had to adapt your approach to its development according to how the Singapore art world has been transforming and other institutions have been evolving, such as the Singapore Art Museum?

The core focus of National Gallery Singapore is the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia, whereas the focus of the Singapore Art Museum is on contemporary art. Through our research, education and exhibitions, we examine the historical development of modern art in Southeast Asia within a global context, focusing on the art of the 19th and 20th Century.

The art landscape in Singapore has certainly changed substantially since 2000, when the Renaissance City Plan (PDF download, RCPIII) was published. This followed from an earlier plan which was really the impetus to set up many of the institutions and museums we have today – the National Arts Council, the Singapore Art Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum. This and the subsequent Renaissance City plan helped capitalise other parts of the ecosystem such as the non-profit spaces, university museums and galleries, the art fairs and commercial galleries. It also led to the internationalisation of the Singapore art scene. The establishment of National Gallery Singapore was also a result of this plan.

While this planning has resulted in greater international platforms and higher profiles for Singapore and Southeast Asian artists, as well as increased destination tourism through art events and exhibitions, the real achievement has been furthering the conditions for the production and reception of art through the development of the ecosystem for art, so to speak. We can see this happening and National Gallery Singapore is coming at the right time as part of this development. The art scene in Singapore and Southeast Asia has been dominated by contemporary art and it is the understanding and appreciation of history, of how our art has developed over the last 200 years that has been lacking. This is what the National Gallery Singapore will contribute to the landscape.

Since I was appointed, I’ve been thinking about the relevance and significance of having a focus on the art of Singapore and Southeast Asia and what it means for a national institution. It goes without saying that knowing our own art history is important, which has been lacking and which will be the focus of the DBS Singapore Gallery, one of our two permanent galleries. At the same time Singapore also closely interlinked with our neighbouring countries in the region in many different ways, so the relationships between the art of the different countries in Southeast Asia is an important focus for us as well, which we will examine through the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery. Furthermore, Southeast Asia is not an insular region and it has always had links historically with other parts of the world. As such, another important mission of the National Gallery is to examine these connections through our special exhibitions.

I feel now more than ever that we are creating an institution which will enable a dialogue with the rest of the world about art from this region. We have further developed our curatorial vision and have some important exhibitions coming up which have opened doors for new research.

Rotunda Dome, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Darren Soh and National Gallery Singapore.

Rotunda Dome, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Darren Soh and National Gallery Singapore.

Reframing Southeast Asian art history

The National Gallery Singapore oversees the largest public collection of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art in the world, with more than 8,000 artworks at the moment. Could you tell us what have been some of the most important, recent acquisitions you have made?

We have made some significant acquisitions across our collection, which will be revealed when we open on 24 November. These include 19th century masterpieces by Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, as well as 20th century works by Victor Tardieu, Fua Haribhitak, Kim Lim, Chuah Thean Teng, David Medalla and Navin Raiwanchaikul and Rirkrit Tiravanija, to name a few.

The National Gallery Singapore strongly relies on research and scholarship to develop its collection. As you said in an interview with ArtReview: Asia, “The gallery is dedicated to the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia. […] we aim to historicise the development of art in the region from the nineteenth century to the present day.” This was also highlighted in the inaugural international project “Singapore Art Archive Project” by Koh Nguang How that recently opened in Gwangju. Could you tell us how you have been working towards this goal of “historicising” the development of art in the region, and how you will be continuing to do that in the future?

Through our research, our curators have brought to light lesser known aspects of the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia, which will be revealed through the exhibitions in our two permanent galleries. Some of these include the art historical development of the 19th century as well as certain tendencies in the 20th century in Singapore and the region. Having said that, I also see these exhibitions as a starting point to foster more research and scholarship into our art histories.

The history of Southeast Asian art is still a relatively under researched field. There is still no art history undergraduate programme here in Singapore and few in the region. One of the initiatives we are working on is to start an art history programme with one of the universities in Singapore, in which our curators, who are subject experts in their field, will teach on the programme. The core of what our curators do, as at many museums, is research into the art of Southeast Asia.

Other research initiatives we have include “Ambitious Alignments”, a project in collaboration with the Power Institute at the University of Sydney and funded by the Getty Research Institute to foster new research in Southeast Asian art. Our resource centre, headed by Farah Wardani, has also been actively developing an archive of Southeast Asian art, working with other institutions, artists and their families and estates to digitise and make accessible documents and materials relating to the development of art in the region, to students, scholars and researchers.

Chua Mia Tee, 'National Language Class', 1959, oil on canvas, 112 x 153 cm. Gift of the Equator Art Society. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Heritage Board.

Chua Mia Tee, ‘National Language Class’, 1959, oil on canvas, 112 x 153 cm. Gift of the Equator Art Society. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Heritage Board.

As Tan Boon Hui told me in a recent interview, the National Gallery Singapore is complementary to the Singapore Art Museum, which focuses solely on contemporary art. In which ways do you think the National Gallery Singapore complements the work that SAM does?

When National Gallery Singapore opens its doors, it will be the first time that the public will be able to experience the development of modern art in Southeast Asia from the 19th century to the present day, through two comprehensive and long-term exhibitions, drawn from the largest public collection of modern Southeast Asian art.

As I discussed earlier, it is this understanding of the historical development of our art that has been lacking. As such, our work complements perfectly the work of the Singapore Art Museum, which focuses on contemporary art, or the art of the present, of the region. The exhibitions and programmes at the National Gallery Singapore will allow our publics to better understand the roots of modern art in Southeast Asia and how it has developed and evolved to where it is today.

Do you, like SAM, also have a curatorial team in place with each curator specialising in a definite country or area within Southeast Asia?

Our curators specialise according to the different aspects of the collection which they are responsible for, such as the Singapore collection and areas within the Southeast Asia collection. Beyond this, they also undertake research led by the special exhibitions that they are curating. These exhibitions involve either delving deeper into aspects of Singapore and Southeast Asian art history, or examine the links and connections between the art of Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. An example of the latter would be “Reframing Modernism“, which our curators, Lisa Horikawa, Phoebe Scott and myself are co-curating together with Catherine David and Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov from the Centre Pompidou, in which we will re-examine the development of modernism from the perspective of Southeast Asia.

Georgette Chen, 'Self Portrait, '1946, oil on canvas, 22.5 x 17.5 cm. Gift of Lee Foundation. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Heritage Board.

Georgette Chen, ‘Self Portrait’, 1946, oil on canvas, 22.5 x 17.5 cm. Gift of Lee Foundation. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Heritage Board.

A global Southeast Asian art museum

Back in June, news came out about a new contribution of SGD20 million by communications group Singtel to the National Gallery Singapore, which became the fourth founding partner of the Gallery. Could you tell us more about this deal and the programmes coming out of it? The National Gallery also aims to promote a deeper understanding and scholarship on Southeast Asian art history abroad. How much of the Gallery’s future programming is dedicated to this? Will you collaborate with institutions abroad on a regular basis to expose the western public to the Gallery’s collection? And will you also be doing the reverse, or present western art to the Singapore/Southeast Asian public?

An important mission of National Gallery Singapore is to examine the links and connections between the art of Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. This will be done through our special exhibitions, which will include collaboration and will be co-curated with other art institutions around the world.

The Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery will be dedicated to showcasing temporary exhibitions that are co-curated with renowned institutions around the world. For our first special exhibition in March 2016, we will co-curate an exhibition with the Centre Pompidou that re-examines and reframes how we understand modernism with fresh perspectives using Southeast Asia as a point of reference. The exhibition will draw from the collections of both institutions and with Southeast Asia as a point of departure, looking at how artists in the region engaged with modernism and the role of art within societies undergoing change and modernisation. The works of these artists will be related to works by artists situated within the Euro-American modernist paradigm. The exhibition will reveal how shared issues in modernism were approached by artists working in different contexts, through common approaches to modernism, ways of working and conceptual orientations.

Later in 2016, the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery will also be presenting a major international exhibition co-organised with Tate Britain in London. “Artist and Empire” will look at artistic production relating to the conditions and experiences of the British Empire, exploring the different ways in which empire was represented and contested. Tate Britain will first present the exhibition in London in November 2015; the exhibition will then be co-curated with works from the collection of Tate Britain as well as works in our national collection and presented at National Gallery Singapore in October 2016.

It is through these and other special exhibitions that we hope we will further the understanding of art from Southeast Asia internationally and its connections to the art of other regions.

Rotunda Library, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Gallery Singapore.

Rotunda Library, National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Gallery Singapore.

Even more recent is another important donation of SGD20 million by the family of the late Singaporean real-estate tycoon Ng Teng Fong. As the fifth founding partner, the family will see the roof garden named after their patriarch, which will be the site of the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission series. Could you tell us more about this programme of commissions and what the inaugural commission will be?

The donation from the family of the late Ng Teng Fong will contribute to the Gallery’s research, curatorial and exhibition work, focusing on outdoor presentations of commissioned site-specific art by contemporary artists. To commemorate the partnership, the Gallery’s roof garden exhibition space located at Level 5 of the City Hall Wing will be named Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery. This Gallery will feature the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission series. The exhibitions will be free to all visitors.

The theme of the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission is “Imagining Southeast Asia”. It aims to engage visitors to imagine the possibilities of what Southeast Asia can mean, to examine the many definitions of Southeast Asia as region, history, place, concept and culture. The first Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission will be created by Danh Vo. Vo’s art draws on his personal experience to explore broader historical, social and political themes. Most recently, Vo represented Denmark at Venice Biennale 2015.

Cheong Soo Pieng, 'Drying Salted Fish, '1978, Chinese ink and colour on cloth, 70 x 103 cm. Gift of Trans Island Bus Services Ltd. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Heritage Board.

Cheong Soo Pieng, ‘Drying Salted Fish’, 1978, Chinese ink and colour on cloth, 70 x 103 cm. Gift of Trans Island Bus Services Ltd. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy National Heritage Board.

Could you give us a sneak peek into the National Gallery’s displays when it opens in November?

In the DBS Singapore Gallery, we have created a section titled “Nanyang Reverie”, which recreates the “Bali Exhibition” of 1953 at the British Council Hall in Singapore that has been widely perceived as the beginning of the Nanyang School, one of the most influential and prominent art movements in Singapore and Malaya. The section features works painted by a group of artists including Liu Kang who travelled in 1952 with three other pioneer artists, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee, on a painting expedition to Bali in search of a visual expression that was distinctly Southeast Asian.

In the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, there is a majestic artwork titled Wounded Lion by the artist Raden Saleh featured in the section titled “Authority and Anxiety”, a theme which examines the birth of modern art in Southeast Asia. The exhibition shows how changes in social structure and authority in Southeast Asia manifested new styles and genres of art. Raden Saleh was one of the earliest Indonesian modern artists, and his highly realistic renditions of animals and battle scenes helped establish his reputation in Europe and his place as the forerunner of Indonesia’s art history. The lifelike details of Wounded Lion are astounding and visitors would be struck by the expression of pain, and one could say, the sadness of the speared and hunted lion.

Raden Saleh, 'Wounded lion', 1839, ink and colour on paper, 88 x 108.5 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy of National Heritage Board.

Raden Saleh, ‘Wounded Lion’, 1839, ink and colour on paper, 88 x 108.5 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy of National Heritage Board.

Asian art in a global context

Finally, why is it important to talk about Southeast Asian art and focus on the region’s interconnectedness, as separate from the wider perspective of Asian art?

Central to the mission of National Gallery Singapore is to examine and create a dialogue around the links and connections between the art of Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. We want to focus on highlighting the sense of the richness and diversity of the art in Southeast Asia through shared historical experiences and the key impulses to art making across the region. It will be the first time that the art of the region is being presented through a regional perspective.

One last question, in your view, what is the significance of ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian art’ in the 21st century?

There has no doubt been an increased interest in Asia and art from Asia in recent years, as evidenced by the increased presence of Asian artists in international exhibitions and biennales. This has largely been due, in our era of globalisation, by the economic power and influence that certain countries wield, which to a large extent determines cultural influence, where the increased interest in the art from Asia correlates to the increasingly important role that Asia now plays in the global economy.

It is my hope that Asia will become recognised for its cultural contributions and to the understanding of art and its development. Southeast Asia, for example is one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world, with different cultures, ethnicities, languages and religious beliefs. A deeper understanding of how art developed in this part of the world can allow a better understanding of the development of art in a global context.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Singaporean art, Southeast Asian art, museums, museum shows, museum collections, the art scene in Singapore, interviews

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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