Academic Culture: NUS Museum

Yesterday I paid a visit to the NUS Museum, home to the National University of Singapore’s art collection.

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Why you might go: there’s some good art here, and the museum’s size makes for a manageable way to see a range of Southeast Asian and Chinese art in one two-hour visit. At least one of my guidebooks calls this spot a hidden gem. I’ll give it credit for being hidden: the NUS campus is tucked into an oddly inconvenient spot on the west side of town, so getting there involves either a cab or some comfort a combination of busses and walking.

The museum itself feels more like a combination of several small museums rather than one big whole. There doesn’t seem to be much consistency in curatorial choices or design — you go from one section to another and feel as though you’ve entered a whole new place (not always in a good way). I think I would have found it more enjoyable had I thought of this as a visit to a bunch of contiguous art galleries; as it was, I found myself puzzling my way through the space.

You enter the most easily accessible of the exhibits — the Lee Kong Chian Collection of Chinese art — on the ground floor. The dimly lit gallery is chronological, it’s clearly labeled, and the education is doled out in small but precise doses. For example, you can learn about the evolution of Chinese ceramics, from the early glazed pots of the Warring States period ..

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… to the blue Jun Ware of the Song dynasty …

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… to green-tinted Qingbai Ware of the Song and Yuan dynasties ..

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… to the blue-and-white Export Ware that made China so famous in the West:

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This section of the museum also features bronzes, calligraphy, scrollwork (here, the touchingly-named “Treading on Snow and Looking for Plum Blossoms” from the early nineteenth century) …

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… and a gold death mask (which, as the sign in the background notes, a woman would have received upon her wedding day — a truly creepy dowry):

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My very favorite artifact in this collection was the set of oracle bones, used by Shang dynasty diviners to answer questions about everything from the upcoming harvest to the best spouse for a member of the royal family. The fortuneteller (who was often the king himself) would carve questions into animal bones, heat them until they cracked, and then read the future in the cracks. These are only fragments, but I still found them pretty exciting:

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Everything changes when you step into the next gallery: the ancient world of Chinese brush painting gets a very modern twist in Diaries, Marking Time and Other Preoccupations:

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This exhibit of works by contemporary artist Yeo Shih Yun explores new ways of using ink.

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Yeo’s work has interesting elements of chance, because she sometimes lets a little battery-operated robot with a tiny broom run around the paper and make designs (you can see the robot in the lower left):

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From here, you walk over to an area called The Prep-Room — and this is where I started to get a little lost. Here’s a segment of the introduction to the room from my museum brochure: “This prep-room suggest frames in which an art community initiates and operates. These ideas situate the community that Patani Art Space builds upon and contruct, encountering imaginaries of this liminal ecology whose components hope to be defined.” I consider myself a fairly astute reader, but I just couldn’t puzzle through this (though Wikipedia did help me out by teaching me that Patani is the northernmost area of Malayasia, one with many Thai influences). The paragraph on the door to The Prep-Room didn’t help me much — once I’m asked to process dense sentences that include the words “dialogic,” “propositional,” “heuristic,” and “multicentric,” I feel like I’m being asked to do too much work as a museum-goer. So I just gave up on the analysis and pondered the art.

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There’s a second Prep-Room upstairs, this one a project by Fyerool Dama that looks at the work of the scribe Munshi Abdullah and (here I’m quoting my brochure again) “exercises on the epistemology of texts, artefacts, and systems of language that proceed to trace how it is shaping contemporary society.” Again, I felt like academia was encroaching on my enjoyment as a visitor, and I had a much better time when I gave up on the brochure and just wandered through the exhibit.

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Pieces from the museum’s excellent collection of twentieth-century Southeast Asian art are on display on this same floor in the exhibit titled Radio Malaya: Abridged Conversations About Art.

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I really liked the work here — after all, who doesn’t love a good bactrian camel — but I was frustrated by my attempts to learn more about the pieces. The museum offers you a guidebook that must be over 100 pages long — but that book has almost no information about the individual works of art. Instead, you are invited to read long excerpts of writings and conversations by various Singaporeans about Malayan culture and art. That would be interesting if you had the luxury of lots of time, but if you’re a visitor who only has an hour or so to spend on an exhibit, a 100-page collection of texts simply isn’t practical. The idea, I suppose, is that you’re just supposed to take in the gestalt of the works. I did my best, but I would have been happier with more to work with — because while some of the works (like these 1972 sketches by Harry Chin Chun Wah) were included for reasons that were fairly self-evident …

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… others (like Landscape in Blue, by Ng Yak Whee) were not.

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My favorite exhibit at NUS Museum had to be Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography, which was clearly organized and fun to see. I had no idea that there was so much great photography going on in Thailand in the 1950s through the 1970s. The exhibit explores a range of artists, from Pornsak Sakdaenprai’s portraits (apparently lots of Thais at the time liked to dress up like movie and country stars) …

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… to S.H. Lim’s glamor shots (here, a 1960s angel visiting earth) …

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… to the outdoor photography of ‘Rong Wong-savun …

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… and the documentary work of Saengjun Limlohakul:

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This exhibit also features a series of nudes (none shown here — sorry), which fascinated me, because it seemed so un-Singaporean.

I wanted to like the NUS Museum much more than I did, but I had trouble wrapping my head around the place. So I’ll admit that by the time I reached the collections on the top floor, I gave two of the three only a cursory glance. I did spend a little while in the Resource Gallery, mostly because I love the idea that a museum has a open-storage area where you can just see lots of things laid out in what feels like a very organized jumble:

The Resource Gallery also stretches from the sublime (Standing Figure 12, a charcoal drawing by Ahmad Zakii Anwar) …

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… to the somewhat amusing (Krishna Stealing the Clothes of the Gopis, mid-1800s):

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At the end of the day, while I’m glad that I made this visit, I’m not sure I’ll go back (though I say that apologetically, because I think that the museum has some interesting constituent parts). But I do like that this sign outside appears to say “T was here”!

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