A column of air-filled plastic bags hang from the ceiling, gently swaying as visitors pass. It seems like nothing more than a fancy set-up, something you might come across at any regular carnival. But here it is – proudly displayed in the Spine Hall of the National Gallery Singapore. This is Lim Leong Seng New era, a work that challenges the idea that sculptures should be heavy, durable objects mounted on pedestals. Revered characters cast in stone? Not anymore.
New era is only one of the seventy pieces presented in Nothing is forever: rethinking sculpture in Singapore. The exhibition is free and runs from July 29, 2022 to February 5, 2023. The first major survey of local sculpture in thirty years, it traces the evolution of definitions of this artistic medium from the 19th century to the present day.
Here you will find that the sculptures are no longer just static objects, but are embedded in changing environments and brought to life through performances and installations. From tombstones salvaged from Bukit Brown to modern works repurposed from everyday objects, Nothing is forever offers new perspectives on this three-dimensional art form. It underlines the fact that really – art surrounds us all.
Lim Shujuan, curator of this exhibition, invites us to reflect: “What is the relationship between architecture and sculpture? How do you define who is a sculptor? Are there even borders between what you call sculptor, craftsman and craftsman? The selected exhibitions invite us to investigate these ambiguities through four thematic sections – Power, The Spiritual, The Corporeal, as well as Make, Undo and Redo.
From Power, the public will discover the essential role that public sculpture has played in our urban environment. He emphasizes that sculpture is situated in a network of power dynamics involving the artist, the commissioner, the public and the space. The following sections, The Spiritual and The Bodily, delve into the medium’s representations of culture and the sacred. In the final section, Make, Undo, and Redo, the exhibition examines how artists renounce traditional modes of presenting sculpture.
The opening piece of the exhibition (and my favourite) covers all four themes. It features fabric scraps molded into what appear to be four versions of Sir Stamford Raffles’ body. Hanging from ropes, it’s a stark change from how I’m used to seeing it – like a tall, confident effigy standing in front of the Victoria Concert Hall.
These fabrics are colored in muted tones of gray, green and brown. Seeing such fragile and earthy materials being used to represent him in place of solid bronze, Jimmy Ong – the artist – encourages me to reconsider Raffles’ colonial legacy in Singapore. Is he really the historical hero exuding an air of confidence in Empress Place, or just an ordinary man sensitive to the vagaries of time? Are we romanticizing his accomplishments?
The delicate nature of Ong’s works inadvertently reminds me of the dismantled Russian monuments in Ukraine. The statues were made to be permanent, but they can so easily be destroyed under new political tensions – with all the importance they had in the first place. Indeed, as the exhibition claims, “Nothing is forever”.
Nothing is forever is actually taken from a quote by Singaporean contemporary artist Tang Da Wu. He questioned and expanded the concept of sculpture to include natural elements such as light, wind and rain, other than materials typically robust. Everything, as he proclaims, deteriorates and rots in the end.
This is why so many displays are made from common items. Cloud of ’68, which is a remake of Da Wu’s 1971 work, consists of bricks and tangled barbed wire.
The piece is inspired by the many student protests the artist witnessed in Europe at this time and captures the atmosphere of revolt and uprising. New era, the column of plastic bags, first shown in 1976, previously symbolized Singaporeans’ respect for this versatile material in the industrial age. Now that climate change has become a concern for today’s generation, New era is loaded with new meanings.
Some other works may also be familiar to the public, ranging from national icons to religious figures. The Merlion figures prominently in Ang Song Nian’s play Your Blank Stare Left Me at Sea (2013) through a collection of souvenir figurines that reflect the commodification of this well-known mythical creature. You will also come across Hindu temple carvings acquired from the ancient Sri Srivan Temple.
To visit Nothing is forever enlightened me on the fact that sculpture is certainly not an inaccessible art form but that it is in fact a mirror of our daily experiences. I never would have imagined that plastic bags could come under this artistic medium!
If you’re interested in a cultural activity for the weekend or love all things art, head to the National Gallery Singapore anytime until February 4 next year to take a look at some closer this curated collection.
Photos by Sunny Low from the DANAMIC team.