New look at Singapore art

New look at Singapore art
Riot (above) by Lim Hak Tai captures the 1950s student and worker riots, and Drying Planks by Chua Tiag Ming pays tribute to the unknown worker.

Review Art

A CHANGED WORLD: SINGAPORE ART 1950S-1970S

National Museum of Singapore/Till March 16

Be ready for the ground beneath your feet to shift when you visit A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s-1970s at the National Museum of Singapore.

The exhibition aspires to rock one's view of Singapore's past with more than 120 paintings, prints and sculpture from the national collection, and it is by turns head-spinning and giddy with delight.

One cause of dizziness: The show is unsettled about its identity. It vacillates between an exhibition on the history of Singapore through art, and the art history of Singapore.

On paper, the difference appears as a trivial play of semantics, but its bearing on the viewer's understanding and experience of the show is palpable and unmistakable because each approach is markedly distinct.

From the outset, the title of the show signals an intention to look at the art history of Singapore over three decades. The stage is set with paintings by Lim Hak Tai and his son Lim Yew Kuan that preface the exhibition and reference the establishment of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, which the elder Lim helped found.

This interest in the development of art in Singapore is again repeated in the introduction to the first section of the show.

As a parallel exhibition to the ongoing Singapore Biennale, the show would also be an easy complement if it were art historical in nature. But its display of such an approach is mostly a pretext.

The thematic pillars of the exhibition, especially in its first section, dodge aesthetics and style to spotlight social, political and economic changes that make their way onto the artist's canvas.

This includes issues such as post-war ennui and loss - the alienated figures in woodblock prints by Chieu Shuey Fook and Koeh Sia Yong are carved in melancholy - and the conflict and debate over emerging nationalisms. Here, Chua Mia Tee's familiar National Language Class (1959), where Chinese students learning Malay are forced to contend with concerns of language, politics and identity, makes a predictable appearance.

As an exhibition that displays the history of Singapore through art, however, the illustration is not always an archetypal textbook version and therefore a welcomed shift.

For example, an early segment in the show paints Singapore history without making explicit reference to the place. Through exotic but unromanticised depictions of Balinese women and villages of Malaya by artists such as Chen Chong Swee and Cheong Soo Pieng, the works sketch a tacit mindfulness of Singapore as part of a larger region of Malaya or Nanyang.

This cognizance of Nanyang, or the Southern Seas in Chinese, with China as a reference point, also underscores the migrant origins of the artists and offers a glimpse of the diverse social fabric of those times.

Yet even though it acknowledges the tangle of identities - Singapore, Malaya and Nanyang - that tug at the issue of national consciousness, it keeps the viewer a safe distance from the conflict.

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