'An arthouse movie stuck in the body of a multiplex?' Modernism gets a South East Asian remix


From The Fairies, Nguyen Gia Tri, 1936

by Scott Anthony

Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond,
31 Mar–17 Jul 2016,
National Gallery of Singapore

The outcome of an attention-grabbing and likely expensive collaboration with the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Reframing Modernism is the new National Gallery of Singapore’s first blockbuster exhibition. A great deal rests on its success, and with so much at stake you’d forgive a jittery opening.

Not so. The exhibition opens with the lacquered statement of intent that is the magnificent sprawling Fairies by Nguyen Gia Tri. In what will become its characteristically brisk mode, the opening of the exhibition posits still lifes, portraits and landscapes by Leonard Foujita, Le Pho and Pierre Bonnard as part of an informal network of elites and pan-national modernist art schools centred around Paris. Mixing paintings drawn from the collections of the National Gallery of Singapore with paintings from the Pompidou Centre is a risky undertaking. Here you get both an arresting glimpse of what is usually called the French colonial imagination, and an inkling of why that term might not be entirely adequate. It really works.

Yet the show swiftly pulls away from the familiar modernist habitats of early twentieth century France, pulling in idiosyncratic religious visions, expressionist tinged art of various stripes and even Socialist Realism. The pace is unrelenting and a kind of aesthetic mania takes hold as the show jumps from Brazil to Russia and North Vietnam and from one end of the twentieth century to the other. The modernism that the exhibition apparently wants to reframe is something of a moving target – what you really have is a lot of modern paintings, actually drawn from a number of distinct traditions that span the length of the Twentieth Century.

Moving through the three galleries that make up the exhibition is a provocatively hyperactive experience. Reframing Modernism might lead a visitor to speculate about sources of iconographic inspiration, about aesthetic genealogies and about the relationship between modern art and decolonisation. Alternatively, the fragmented jumble of styles, periods and local contexts might lead them to conclude that there’s more to putting paintings ‘in dialogue’ than hanging them in close proximity. At times you wonder whether some of the art – like Bagyi Aung Soe, for instance – might be best introduced and appreciated as just what it is. Less can be more.

Without denying Europe’s importance, the ambition is to disrupt existing definitions of ‘modernism’. According to the panel text one of the aims – and this is an exhibition that has many of them – is to explore the distinct contribution of South East Asian artists and the ways in which they responded to their local contexts to produce work which may have no European parallel. Where the collaboration with the Pompidou works most productively – as you might expect – is when dealing with Indochina. Elsewhere you have to wonder whether borrowing collections from the Pompidou is the best way to uncover the unique contexts of South East Asian modernism. Malaysian art is pretty much absent; quite important if you’re in Singapore and interested in the interaction between cultural production, social and national struggles, and how they might resonate globally. By grasping at the big prize of South East Asian modernism – and it’s perhaps also worth asking if the idea of a regional modernism really makes sense – the show risks missing what’s in front of its nose.

Internationally co-produced shows can be the museum world’s equivalent of the super group, fun for those involved but less thrilling for those stuck on the outside: despite featuring Dave Stewart and Mick Jagger no-one would swap a SuperHeavy record for one by the Eurythmics or the Rolling Stones. It’s legitimate for us to ask what a partnership between the Pompidou and Singapore’s National Art Gallery can offer its audience. At one level Reframing Modernism attempts to do several potentially interesting, subtle and cerebral things at once, on another it wants to give the fashion-conscious visitor reassuringly clear sight lines of the next Western masterpiece. Although the first painting in the exhibition is Nguyen Gia Tri, the first work a visitor actually sees is by Matisse.

Throughout the exhibition visitors are encouraged to make connections – if you like Bui Xuan Phai, try Georges Roualt, it recommends. Although you cannot imagine the singular Indonesian expressionist Affandi consciously comparing himself with Marc Chagall, mostly this is a strategy that works rather well. Less surefooted is the ‘theming’; each room is given a head-spinning number of titles such as ‘Intimacy’, ‘Rhythm’ and ‘Delicacy’. At its very worst you get the idea that the ideal visitor is being positioned somewhere between a diner at a Heston Blumenthal restaurant and a subscriber to Wallpaper*. It was always going to take a while for the National Gallery, as with any new cultural institution, to understand its audience: to find the confidence to relax. As it is the imagined visitor is constantly reassured that it doesn’t matter if you know very little about art, but also encouraged to be a bit of a snob.

Any show that brings Max Beckmann, Natalia Goncharova and Wassily Kandinsky to Singapore has merit, but Reframing Modernism still gives you the occasional sense that this is a producer-led as much as an audience-focused enterprise. There are moments, especially in the second and third galleries that give off a whiff of the-Pompidou-made-us-borrow-this-to-get-the-Picasso. Perhaps that’s unfair. But everywhere a palpable sense of anxiety is evident – unsure how far to lean on the Pompidou, how far to ‘reframe’ it. This is likely an issue for the institution as much as the exhibition. The National Gallery is located in an imposing building, a former court of law, and it’s up for debate whether the location enhances or overwhelms the collections. A nagging worry is the National Gallery is an arthouse film trapped in the body of a multiplex.

As titles go, Reframing Modernism is a deeply misleading one. You want to say that the definition of modernism in the National Gallery’s new exhibition is so elastic and expansive that it’s almost entirely meaningless, except that no stable definition is really offered or adhered to. The exhibition does not have a conception of modernism that is substantive enough to be reframed. It walks its visitors through no kind of coherent narrative and offers no space for real cumulative reflection. By the time you reach the end of the third gallery, Reframing Modernism has become disappointingly ragged. It ends abruptly and anti-climatically: the last thing a visitor sees are some Ahmad Sadali works hung at the side of two glass double doors. It’s almost as if the show has exhausted itself.

What Reframing Modernism does instead is to start the valuable process of unravelling the story of modern twentieth century art. It’s a frantic brainstorm in search of a spot where South East Asia comes in. It’s an exhibition looking for a place in the script when a South East Asian voice can and should be heard more clearly. When this works well, say with Georgette Chen, Victorio C. Edades or Prasong Patamanuj, you glimpse the enormous potential value of the National Gallery of Singapore as a massive engine for a global cultural redistribution of esteem. You understand that Singapore, a great port and airport city, is the perfect place for this to happen. Where it works less well you have mediocre paintings that are patently derivative of works completed some decades before. Here you glimpse a less exciting future for the National Gallery of Singapore: as a kind of vanity publisher of South East Asian art, which rather than taking on Eurocentric and Western-orientated assumptions ends up unwittingly doing the work of reinforcing them. The National Gallery has no reason to end up as an outpost; as a Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Following on from Reframing Modernism is a collaboration with Tate Britain, and it seems likely the National Gallery of Singapore has other big-name international tie-ups in the pipeline. The pitfalls and the potential of this flexing of financial and cultural muscle are staggeringly enormous.