Earth Hour at the museum

Earth Hour at the museum
A plot of land in front of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) has been dug up and moved inside as an exhibit for the museum's inaugural exhibition titled, Unearthed.

The Singapore Art Museum, in its inaugural exhibition as an independent visual arts institution, goes for what is primal - Earth, and man's uneasy relationship with the natural world.

And it is an auspicious start.

The show comprises 30 works by artists based in Singapore and it spans various mediums and practices including psychogeography, the effect of the geographical environment on an individual's emotions, and the art world's current fascination with assemblages by artists as wannabe archivists and anthropologists.

It also includes a complementary exhibition at its annexe in Queen Street, featuring six contemporary art projects from the art residency programme at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, an institute at the Nanyang Technological University which conducts research on geohazards in and around South-east Asia.

The timing of the show, tackling an evergreen theme, proves fortuitous when 10 days after its launch last month, the United Nations' panel on climate change released a hot-button report on the devasting impact and risks of worsening climate worldwide.

Yet the opportune display is not without a potential pitfall; revisiting a time-worn subject could make a public already weary from platitudes about man and nature jaded.

And there are such moments in the exhibition where pieces hew so close to life, they fail to bring art into the picture through a rethinking of substance, form, idea or expression.

Isabelle Desjeux's mixed-media installation, 1,000 Rubber Seeds And One Mutant (2014), is a textbook model of the museum's new direction.

The introductory wall text of the exhibition states this as showing art which intersects with other disciplines as well as different modes of expression and experience.

Desjeux's work, in the second-floor lobby of the museum, make-believes an old-fashioned research laboratory. Wooden shelves stacked against a wall are lined with specimens of rubber seeds while a mutant fruit that failed to explode and disperse its seeds is displayed prominently in a transparent box.

To the left and right of the shelves, tables are set up to invite viewers to scrutinise and make drawings of seeds, and match photographs of them to a corresponding set on display.

The work is about simple theories on life, science and art - mistakes and anomalies sow learning; science and art are like two peas in a pod, rooted in the practice of observation; science as a study of the material world is borne of man and linked to life - but it plays so closely by the book, it ends up flat.

Better are the installations All The Way Down (2014) and Nanyang Meadows (2014) by Lucy Davis, inspired by the stuffing of taxidermic specimens in the collection of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

In Nanyang Meadows, wheat straw used in 1887 to stuff a 4.5m-long crocodile caught in Singapore is artfully laid out behind a transparent case, while All The Way Down brings to light newspaper clippings from the early 1900s that filled the belly of a taxidermic tortoise.

The yellowed pages, carrying reports on the landmark mutiny in 1905 on the Russian battleship Potemkin and the 1907 Swatow Rebellion in China, are suspended in a vertical column above a photograph of the specimen.

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