Installation view of “Nothing is Forever: Rethinking Sculpture in Singapore,” 2022. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery Singapore

“Nothing is Forever: Rethinking Sculpture in Singapore”


National Gallery Singapore

On entering “Nothing is Forever: Rethinking Sculpture in Singapore” (on view through February 5, 2023), I was struck by sculptures consisting of bird cages piled on the floor, bricks set atop crumpled steel wire, and plastic bags filled with air and tied to a string hung from the ceiling. As I stared at fluorescent tubes sticking out of ceramic urns (Goh Ee Choo’s Light, Knowledge, Structure [1993]), I thought about how we do and don’t know what sculpture is, how the art form has expanded over time.

This is the intent of the exhibition. With more than 70 works from the 19th century to the present, it challenges prevailing aesthetic norms, serving to redefine sculpture’s “object status,” just as the works themselves redefine structure, form, material, and production. The aim is inclusivity, and the featured works—from national monuments to temporary installations, from funerary artifacts and temple statuary to performance-based works—encourage us to consider the many forms of sculpture all around us: whether familiar or ground-breaking, these works continue to shape society and the urban landscape. 

As sculptural forms and functions change, so too, do interpretations. For a start, sculpture, was once inseparable from the monument—permanent, connected to a particular place, and speaking symbolically about the meaning of that place. The bronze statue of Stamford Raffles, located nearby at Raffles’s Landing Site, is such a monument, commemorating the arrival of Singapore’s founder on January 28, 1819. Yet in Seamstress Raffles (2016), Uncursed Cotton (2020), Uncursed Cotton (2021), and BuangSuay (2021)—the opening works in “Nothing is Forever”—Jimmy Ong subverts the image of Raffles and the legacy of colonization, rendering effigies of his headless and legless torso in cotton, batik cloth, silk, and Dacron stuffing; each sculpture is ironically supported by what looks like a noose, eliminating the base and thus the logic of the monument.

“Nothing is Forever” is divided into four thematic sections—Power, The Spiritual, The Corporeal, and Making, Unmaking and Remaking—each one showing how sculpture has transformed formally and functionally, and how its reception has altered. An impressive group of funerary statuary (guardian figures and imperial lions), which started out as architectural ornamentation on the grave of Ong Chin Huat, became sculpture once that grave was exhumed from Bukit Brown Cemetery to make way for Lornie Highway in 2013–14. Eleven colorful Hindu temple statuettes, made by unnamed South Indian artisans, are displayed on a three-tier storage rack that echoes the configuration of the spectacular gopuram of Sri Srivan Temple. At eye level, Lord Shiva comes across as accessible, relaxed, and compassionate, sitting with his consort Goddess Parvati on their sacred bull.

These familiar examples of Singapore’s cultural heritage bring the question of sculpture out of an exclusively art world context and into ordinary life. To underscore the point, these works are installed side-by-side with ground-breaking modern and contemporary works. Some of these works, by artists such as Kim Lim, Teh Tien Chong, and others, continue to engage with architecture and ordinary life, but in new ways and languages. Created in response to the technological advances of newly industrialized 1960s Singapore, these works take the form of “geometric structures” installed in factories, schools, housing developments, transportation hubs, hospitals, and shopping centers. Tay Chee Toh’s White Series (1986) relief, for example, is organized into overlapping schematic polygons, concentric circles, and vertical planes, which resemble the invention and construction of machines. Anthony Poon’s W-White on 2P Waves (1990), could be classified as a painting or a sculpture, its elegant three-dimensional curves piercing and cutting into surrounding space.

S. Chandrasekaran’s Trimurti (1988) and Tan Teng-Kee’s Fire Sculpture (1979) directly address ritual/performative practices. Trimurti, referencing the three forces in nature—creation, preservation, destruction—proposes an artistic language inspired by Indian-Hindu, Chinese-Buddhist, and Malay-Muslim traditions and cultural values. The artist trio of Goh Ed Choo, Salleh Japar, and Chandrasekaran staged a total happening of paintings, sculptures, installations, and performances, documented on video, using ropes (secured from the ceiling to create a large spider web, akin to a shrine), as well as stones, flickering colored lights, flying roosters, and dry ice laid directly on the floor. Their gestures—walking around to absorb the energy of the space, smashing pots to release red powder, scattering seeds, lighting candles, and hitting the floor with wooden poles—all accompanying by the reverberating sounds of an intense heartbeat, demonstrate a political, multicultural, and darkly material aesthetic. Tan’s Fire Sculpture, originally shown in the 1979 exhibition “The Picnic at Normanton Estate,” captures a roaring fire from torches set ablaze on a tall metal structure with wooden scaffolding, appealing to the viewer’s affective sensations.

Thinking about these works, my mind drifted to the aesthetic experience of the 1960s, when Minimalism held sway. A work like Vincent Hoisington’s beautiful Entrepreneur (1969) holds to some Minimalist tenets, but it also embraces reference, emotional expression, and anthropomorphic qualities. The larger-than-life aluminum form—a simplified human figure supported on two legs—is composed of myriad blues and jade greens, in many variations of opacity and translucence, brightness and subtleness, saturation and intensity. The sculpture reiterates that art and idea are inseparable. What is important perhaps is what the work does in terms of response—rather than what it is. —Christine Han