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.

The storm that brewed in the 1950s over issues of national identity and allegiance, which catalysed violent student and worker riots and shook the masses, is glibly summed up in three paintings and three woodblock prints.

Among them is a semi-abstract oil on canvas, Riot (1955), by the elder Lim, whose geometric chaos of faceless protesters offers no rest for the eye. This number of works is far fewer, for example, than the spread on placid icons and emblems in art such as the enigmatic Singapore River and still-life compositions.

Move into the second section of the show and the balance tilts again. This time, the slant towards art history becomes more prominent as the section on Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s focuses on abstract art as a dominant style of the period, shaped by forces of modernisation in post-independence Singapore.

In the segment on urban progress, you find yourself mirroring the worker in the foreground of Lai Kui Fang's monumental realist painting Construction Of Sheares Bridge (1976), tilting your head back to take in the statuesque piling machine.

Conversely, in the segment of abstract art, your eyes sweep side to side to take in the syncopated harmony of Choy Weng Yang's Horizontals I (undated), a field of strips of colours of different intensity and proportion.

What is prickly in this section, however, is the liberty it takes with time, using works of art that predate its parameters, the 1960s and 1970s, to make a point about developments in this period.

An example of this contrivance is seen in the use of Cheong's sketches of industrial scenes in the 1950s to highlight the industrialisation of Singapore in the 1960s. Might the riches of the national collection not have works from the requisite period, and if there are indeed no appropriate works, should such a theme then still be pursued?

Despite the unevenness of the show, it is hard to leave without a sense of giddy glee at the chance to delight and discover works that have not been in the public eye recently.

Artist Lu Kuo Shiang, for one, is not a name that pops up in shows on modern Singapore art, so it is a pleasure to get to know him and ruminate his eloquent meditation on gestural expression in Angelus II (1976).

Similarly, Chua Tiag Ming's black-and-white photographs of lone labourers are pictorial poetry in monochrome.

In Drying Planks (1960s-1970s), an anonymous worker is perched on the precipice of a pyramidal stack of wooden planks. Framed by clouds that seem to bear him up, this picture is a low-key tribute to the anonymous toil and sweat that brought change and progress to Singapore.

And it is in singing the unsung that this show truly deepens and transforms one's view of this little red dot that could.

lijie@sph.com.sg


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