When you come to the end of Gallery 1 in the brand new National Gallery Singapore, a mood-lit space that houses a permanent collection of 19th–century South-East Asian tapestries, you’ll come across Cheong Soo Pieng’s “Drying Salted Fish”, a Chinese-ink-and-watercolor-on-cloth art piece. Painted in 1978, it depicts an idyllic fishing village scene: young men hanging up the catch of the day, women in traditional Malay dress collecting fish in baskets. You’ll find the exact same image, albeit color-blended into a field of blue and a stripe of orange, on the city-state’s $50 bank note. It is perhaps the most literal merger of art and commerce in a country arguably better known for its economic success than for its diligent pursuit of artistic ambitions.
The big-picture goal — as broken down into milestones and outlined in the Renaissance City Plan, unveiled in early 2000 — is for Singapore to become a global arts and cultural center by, among other things, creating more infrastructure in support of the arts. The National Gallery in the city’s Civic District, where you’ll also find other landmarks like the durian-inspired Esplanade theaters, stands among the highlights of this quest. It occupies two heritage buildings, the former Supreme Court and City Hall, and it took all of 10 years, a reported S$532 million, and an entire village — of administrators, artists, architects, consultants, engineers and builders — to put together the 64,000sqm museum. It’s well into big-budget territory and if early visitor traffic is any indication, the major production is already a certified hit: less than three weeks after it officially opened on November 24 last year (in time for the closing stretch of Singapore’s golden jubilee celebrations), 170,000 people had walked through the Gallery’s main doors, a whopping 40% more than earlier projected.
The National Gallery is charged with the largest public collection of modern art from Singapore and South-East Asia — over 8,000 works, from traditional forms like painting, sculpture and printmaking to newer media like photography and video — making it the biggest visual arts institution in the country. It defines an even bigger role for itself in the region. Assistant curator Melinda Susanto says, “While there have been exhibitions which look at the development of art in South-East Asia from a regional perspective, there has not yet been a long-term display of South-East Asian art.” That makes the Gallery’s Between Declarations and Dreams, whose 400 works collectively form a narrative of the region from the 19th to early 20th century — from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand — a landmark event. The exhibition includes the 1884 painting “España y Filipinas” by Juan Luna, a major figure in the Philippine Revolution and one of the most important artists in the country’s visual arts history.
It’s instantly clear the moment you step in that this is a museum built for these times, where technology plays an integral role. The sheer size of the Gallery and its exhibitions can be overwhelming. There are six storeys in the City Hall wing, plus a three-level basement, and five levels including a mezzanine on the Supreme Court side. But there’s an app for that: the Gallery Explorer app helps you find your way around the different sections and, because it provides extra information through your smartphone, enriches your experience of a particular exhibition. You can customize your own tour and connect with a closed network of art lovers in the gallery, who can share insights on a particular work or display in real time.
The Social Table, on the other hand, which looks like the setting for a sit-down dinner of at least 50 people, is a giant LCD screen that helps gallery-goers better appreciate the life and times of a particular artist, displaying with one tap of a finger the artist’s connections, other figures in the art world and the circumstances that inform a particular work. All that information, or the relevant bits you care to keep, may be saved onto a digital pin board that you can then send to yourself or others by email.
And when Sushma Goh, the Gallery’s director for project and facilities management, says they’re out to “create future generations of museum-goers”, they mean to start them young. The Keppel Centre for Art Education on the ground level of the City Hall wing, a unique feature of the Gallery, is designed to allow children to discover art through play. It offers a tactile, interactive experience where kids can touch displays, make their artwork, or be a part of one. I am well over the recommended age for a section called Art Playscape (5 to 12 years old) but here is where I found my favorite spot (so far) in the whole Gallery: artist Sandra Lee’s The Enchanted Tree House is a giant pop-up book you can walk into. Whether or not you follow the story of its main characters, or make one of your own, is entirely up to you.
New life for an old space
But the building itself is as exciting as what it holds, and it works hard to dispel the notion of a traditional museum. I spent the better part of the afternoon marveling at how the 86-year-old City Hall building has been transformed into a bright and inviting space. I walked across indoor sky bridges and down solemn halls whose mood and lighting befit their function as repositories of cultural patrimony. I hung out in the hip ground-floor café called Plain Vanilla while making plans to book dinner at Aura, the Italian restaurant on the fifth floor by noted restaurateur Beppe De Vito — perhaps with drinks later in the evening at the Aura Sky Lounge, the rooftop bar that offers a wide sweep of the stunning Singapore skyline.
Ms Goh says my appreciation of the revamped space is no coincidence; the visitor experience had been factored in right from the start. “Changing the perception of the museum as stuffy was very much part of the brief,” she points out. “We wanted to make it something where a lot of research and conversation goes on, and something that truly engages the people.” The decision to have seven dining outlets, for example, covering a wide variety of local and international cuisines, acknowledges the fact that yes, Singaporeans love to eat. They are likewise, as Ms Goh describes them, “a way of energizing the spaces”.
Ms Goh has been with the National Gallery since Day One and has seen it through every phase of construction. She says it was a community effort from the beginning. “We wanted everyone to understand that they had a stake in our national museum,” she says. “So we opened up the search for a design outfit through a competition.” It was a long, multi-phase process that in the end saw a local company and a French firm working together to effectively and almost seamlessly combine two buildings literally under one roof, each with its own renovation requirements.
The major challenge was to convert the spaces so that they serve an entirely new function without compromising the buildings’ original character — especially areas of particular historical significance. The City Hall’s main chamber for example, with its high marble columns and wood-paneled walls, is the site of three key episodes in the country’s modern history. It was where Japanese forces surrendered to the British at the close of World War II; where Singapore proclaimed its independence in 1965; and where its first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, made his first official address as leader of a sovereign state. That storied hall has been preserved following strict conservation guidelines, as are a number of rooms in the Supreme Court building, including the circular library, whose shelves and desks still feature the air vents that must have offered much-needed comfort in the decades before air-conditioning.
Now both buildings share a common roof, and a spectacular one at that, best seen from what used to be the open-air courtyard that once separated the two structures. Over 15,000 glass and aluminum glass panels were used to create the roof. They allow the influx of a flood of natural light while softening the glare, and the effect it creates — especially when the sun is high — is uniquely tropical and evocative of the shadow made by overhead palm fronds on a sandy beach. In keeping with the original intentions behind the project, it lends the interior of the grand building an ambience that’s both distinctively modern and South-East Asian in flavor.
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Smile magazine.