Break new ground is what the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) hopes to do with Unearthed, its first exhibition under new leadership. The museum, previously run by the Government's National Heritage Board, became a corporate company last November under a new director, artist-academic Susie Lingham.
Its inaugural exhibition, which opens to the public on Friday, comes on the heels of the blockbuster Singapore Biennale show that ran from October to last month, its last outing as a heritage board museum.
Unearthed points to the museum's new push to showcase projects and practices where art converges with different disciplines and forms of presentation.
It arrays almost 30 works that range in medium from photography and video to installation, and dwells on the theme of the natural environment and how urban artists, responding differently to the subject, uncover motifs and topics that run the gamut from natural history to memory. The exhibition includes works in the museum's permanent collection as well as pieces in private hands and new commissions.
Curator Tan Siuli says the idea for the show was seeded last year when the Nanyang Technological University's Earth Observatory of Singapore institute, which conducts research on geohazards in and around South-east Asia, approached it to exhibit works from the institute's art residency programme.
Ms Tan, who is in her 30s, says: "We were keen on showing it because of the intersection of art with other related disciplines such as earth science. And it is very topical because we face issues such as climate change and the haze."
To complement the six contemporary art projects from the research institute, which are shown in the museum's annexe in Queen Street, the exhibition Unearthed was conceived.
As she put together the show, Ms Tan says she was surprised by how aware Singapore artists are of nature and cites Singapore artist Twardzik Ching Chor Leng as an example.
She says: "Chor Leng deals with land and when we talk about land in Singapore, the first thing that comes to people's minds is property, real estate or contested sites, all these abstract, political issues.
"But she is interested in the materiality of land, its colours and texture. The physicality, however, is a starting point and it extends into a metaphor for other issues related to land."
Twardzik Ching's site-specific installation in the exhibition features a 2.4m square plot of excavated land in the museum's front lawn with the earth dug up and displayed in the museum's gallery. The work aims to invite viewers to ponder what lies beneath the surface of things, such as the foundations of the country and its institutions.
Other standouts in the fertile show include miniature sculptures of animal skeletons, made of dead skin peeled from the soles of the feet of artist Ezzam Rahman, and artist-academic Lucy Davis' mixed-media installations composed of the material used to stuff taxidermic animals from the collection of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.
Ms Tan says: "It's not a typical art exhibition where you come in and wow at the technique or you wow at the artwork; there are works like that. What the works really do here is open up multiple lines of enquiry and ways of thinking about the issues.
"It's not just art for art's sake, it's art at the interstices of other related disciplines and modalities, art and science, zoology, psychogeography. And it's important in signalling that at SAM, we're not concerned with art-making for art's sake, but art-making as it intersects with life and issues that are important to us."
The museum is also looking to roll out a series of exhibition talks that go beyond its usual curator-led tours, with curators leading conversations between pairs of artists and people from a non-art background.
An example Ms Tan cites is a talk being planned between artist Genevieve Chua and an oncologist who owns pieces from her Ultrasound series in his art collection. The paintings, drawing inspiration from digital images of sonar scans of Singapore's reservoirs and framed by the ultrasound scan motif, plumb the mysterious depths of nature and evoke fear of the unknown.
Ms Tan says: "When I spoke to the collector, he mentioned that the work resonated deeply because, for him as an oncologist, ultrasounds are fraught with anxiety and fear."
She says this talk series reinforces the museum's new drive to ensure that the exhibition "doesn't end with the artwork", but instead triggers further thought and conversations that spill over into personal realms of life.
As for rolling out the new initiatives now, she says: "It's time we did something new and we have a new director on board, Susie, who is herself multidisciplinary and very supportive of approaches that have this kind of approach."
Where: Singapore Art Museum, 71 Bras Basah Road, and SAM at 8Q, 8 Queen Street
When: Friday to July 6, 10am to 7pm, Sunday to Thursday, 10am to 9pm, Friday
Admission: Free for citizens, permanent residents, children aged six and below, and all visitors on Fridays after 6pm, otherwise $10 (adults), $5 (students and seniors aged 60 and above)
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