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Secrets of Singapore’s National Gallery: 3 Insiders Share Their Stories

Secret passageways. An ostracised artist. The detergent best suited for artwork. Staffers with specialised knowledge of the National Gallery Singapore share their insider tales and favourite snapshots of the recently opened museum.

INTRIGUING SELECTIONS

Low Sze Wee – Director, Curatorial & Collections

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Planning and executing exhibitions are Low’s primary responsibilities. But this simple description belies the scale of the work he and his team oversee: from deciding on the theme and hunting for the right artworks to planning where the wall partitions go and scripting multimedia guides.

Each exhibition typically lasts four to six months and their themes are unlikely to be repeated. “In a sense, the exhibitions are once-in-a-lifetime, ephemeral experiences,” says Low, 46, when discussing the significance of the shows he puts together.

Sometimes, it is the nature of the artworks that limits the time they can be shown. For instance, those made from paper are more prone to fading. This means they can be displayed for only up to a year and need to “rest in total darkness” for four years before they can be displayed again. “They are like delicate flowers,” he muses.

Of the 8,000 pieces of artwork in the museum’s collection (of which 1,000 are on show), Low is particularly fond of those by Yeh Chi Wei, a Singapore pioneer artist who is less recognised than his peers, whom he fell out with in the 1980s. His paintings are colourful depictions of the indigenous peoples of South-east Asia; two of them are currently on display at DBS Singapore Gallery.

While working at Singapore Art Museum, Low curated a show on Yeh, which involved extensive research. “It was very satisfying as we filled a gap in our knowledge about this artist.”

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Untitled (Malayan Life) by Seah Kim Joo appears lopsided as poor soil conditions have caused the City Hall Wing to tilt by 1m.

Another curiosity at DBS Singapore Gallery is the batik painting Untitled (Malayan Life) by Seah Kim Joo that was originally created for the foyer of the former Hotel Malaysia. It seems to be hung at an awkward angle, but Low assures us that this is not due to an installation defect. Because of poor soil conditions, the City Hall Wing is tilted by 1m, making the work appear slanted.

IF WALLS COULD TALK

Lim Shu Juan – Curator, Building History

If there is a walking, talking encyclopaedia on the transformation of the former City Hall and Supreme Court into the current museum, it would be Lim Shujuan, 32.

Lucky VIPS who get to tour the museum with Lim are fed nuggets of information, such as the existence of a secret passageway between the holding cells and the courtroom that was traversed only by guards and prisoners.

Lim – who edited The Making of National Gallery Singapore, a 168-page hardcover that documents the history and transition of the two buildings – would know. During the restoration, she was on-site every two weeks to oversee the videoing and photography of the process. Among the things she was privy to was the suspending of the historically important City Hall Chamber. This kept the chamber intact as the surrounding building was gutted and reconstructed, and its foundation reinforced during reconstruction.

“It’s an important part of our history; this is the room where the Japanese surrendered to Singapore and where Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in as Singapore’s first Prime Minister,” she says of the chamber.

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The City Hall Chamber, where significant moments in Singapore’s history took place.

Lim will also tell you that City Hall once housed a complaints department where citizens could give feedback on the service provided by the city council. “The office of the gas department, which was responsible for introducing electricity to Singaporean homes, was here in the 1930s.”

She also explains how the buildings were cleaned during the restoration process. “They used water and a toothbrush to wash the grime off the Shanghai plaster,” she says of the Lady of Justice on the Supreme Court’s tympanum (the recessed triangular space above its entrance).

Lim gives another fascinating fact: Workers found Chinese words, which translate into “success in life and prosperity”, engraved on a plate of the facade of the Supreme Court Wing’s copper-green dome. “It was probably made by a construction labourer between 1937 and 1939,” she says.

THE FINE ART OF LOGISTICS

Suhirman Sulaiman – Assistant Director, Collections

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If there is one artwork Suhirman Sulaiman, 37, hopes visitors will see while at the museum, it is Boschbrand (Forest Fire, 1849) by Indonesian artist Raden Saleh at the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery.

Sulaiman, who oversees the logistics, conservation and maintenance of the museum’s artworks, first saw an image of the painting during a Powerpoint presentation by curators. In 2014, he flew to the Netherlands to oversee its packing and transportation to Singapore. “Nothing prepared me for seeing the real painting,” he says, in reference to the size (4m x 3m) of the oil on canvas and the fear in the expressions of the animals fleeing the fire.

Unknown to many, Forest Fire’s journey to the museum was equally compelling. “It took us around three years to plan for it to be flown from the Netherlands,” he reveals.

For that trip, the painting needed to be rolled precisely 3.5 times and placed in a custom-made crate 70cm in diameter – which itself took at least six months to design and fabricate.

When the painting was packed, a crane hoisted it down from the third floor of the storage facility where it was kept. It was then sent to the airport to be flown on a cargo plane to Singapore. The week-long journey was made during winter in December, specifically to avoid temperature fluctuations that might affect the painting.

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Forest Fire is part of Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since The 19th Century, the inaugural long-term exhibition at the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery.

Fortunately, not every artwork in the museum requires that much effort before it is installed. That isn’t to say Sulaiman’s job is easy. For instance, he works with the exhibition team to decide the intensity of lighting needed to showcase the pieces without affecting their integrity.

Mixed-media installations, in particular, require more care and attention. An example is a bubble-frothing quartet of cylinders – the tallest at 4m – known as Cloud Canyons No. 24 by Filipino artist David Medalla. Every five days, someone in his team tops up the detergent and water before restarting the installation that’s located in the Supreme Court Wing.

Sulaiman’s team had to find a brand of detergent that is odourless, water-based and which emits low levels of volatile organic compounds so as not to affect other artworks. Six different brands were tested – each for a week at a time.

Adapted from SilverKris: SECRETS OF SINGAPORE’S NATIONAL GALLERY – 3 INSIDERS SHARE THEIR STORIES

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