In 2000, contemporary artist Lee Wen built scaffolding in front of the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles by the Singapore River, and invited the public to climb up and see the sculpture at eye level, instead of the usual perspective from below. This allowed the audience to engage differently with a public monument that is a reminder of our colonial past.
Lee’s work will be on display at the Artist and Empire exhibition, which opens at the National Gallery this month. The show gives an Asian spin to an exhibition of the same name launched by Tate Britain last November. Examining the UK’s imperial past through the prism of art, the presentation provoked critical reviews of and debates on Britain’s colonial legacies and their impact on art’s production, collection and categorisation. For the Singapore edition, historic British works are juxtaposed with works by contemporary artists, usually hailing from former colonies. These contemporary perspectives, often critical of colonial legacies, serve as useful entry points to historic works.
“Singapore and Britain share a common colonial history, and the exhibition is an opportunity for us to better understand our past and present,” shares Low Sze Wee, director of curatorial & collections, National Gallery Singapore.
“Many of our national artists had their formative beginnings in the colonial period. For example, Cheong Soo Pieng, considered one of Singapore’s most important modern artists, is one such example. A large number of his influential works were created in the 1950s and 1960s when Singapore was still a British colony. In this regard, he poses thought-provoking questions: Should a painting completed in 1955 be considered a Singaporean or British artwork? When his art changed, did our image of the nation change too? These questions help us re-examine our past and present.”
There will be sections of the exhibition – such as the one housing Lee Wen’s Sir Stamford Raffles – that evoke contemporary reflections on Singapore’s colonial legacy. Low says: “Through these works, we hope to bring about a better understanding of our past through art, which in turn will give us deeper insights into our contemporary society and how we built our sense of identity over time.”
In conjunction with the launch of Artist and Empire, the National Gallery Singapore will hold its inaugural biennial fund-raising event, the National Gallery Singapore Gala 2016, in the opening week of the exhibition. Vacheron Constantin is the main presenting sponsor. Invited guests will be treated to an elegant cocktail and dinner banquet at the City Hall Chamber and Supreme Court Terrace. Fund-raising proceeds will go towards supporting the gallery’s exhibitions, research and programmes. An auction, open to the public, will also be held. For more information on the auction, visit theartling.com/NationalGalleryGala2016.
Artist And Empire: (En) countering Colonial Legacies, presented in association with Tate Britain (UK), is on from Oct 6 to March 26 next year, at National Gallery Singapore.