A column of air-filled plastic bags lies suspended from the ceiling, swaying gently as visitors walk past. It seems nothing more than a whimsical fixture, something you might come across at any run-of-the-mill carnival. But here it is – proudly displayed at The Spine Hall of the National Gallery Singapore. This is Lim Leong Seng’s New Era, an artwork that challenges the idea that sculptures have to be heavy and durable objects mounted on pedestals. Venerated individuals cast in marble? Not anymore.
New Era is just one of over seventy pieces featured in Nothing is Forever: Rethinking Sculpture in Singapore. The exhibition offers free admission and runs from 29 July 2022 to 5 February 2023. As the first major survey on local sculptures in thirty years, it traces the evolving definitions of this artistic medium from the 19th century to the present day.
Here, you will find that sculptures are no longer just static objects, but are embedded in changing environments and brought to life through performances and installations. From headstones recovered from Bukit Brown to modern works repurposed from everyday items, Nothing is Forever provides new perspectives on this three-dimensional art form. It underscores the fact that truly – art surrounds all of us.
Lim Shujuan, a curator of this exhibition, invites us to ponder, “What is the relationship between architecture and sculpture? How do you define who a sculptor is? Are there even any boundaries between what you call a sculptor, artisan and craftsman?” The selected displays prompt us to investigate these ambiguities through four thematic sections – Power, The Spiritual, The Corporeal, as well as Making, Unmaking and Remaking.
Starting with Power, audiences will discover the essential role that public sculpture has played in our urban environment. It underscores that sculpture is situated in a network of power dynamics involving the artist, the commissioner, the public, and space. The following sections, The Spiritual and The Corporeal, delve into the medium’s representations of culture and sacredness. In the last section, Making, Unmaking and Remaking, the exhibition examines how artists dispense with traditional ways of displaying sculpture.
The opening piece of the exhibition (and my personal favourite) covers all four themes. It features scrap cloths moulded into what appears to be four versions of Sir Stamford Raffles’ body. Hung on ropes, it is a striking change from how I’m used to viewing him – as a tall, confident effigy standing in front of the Victoria Concert Hall.
These fabrics are coloured in muted shades of grey, green and brown. Seeing such fragile and earthy materials being used to depict him instead of solid bronze, Jimmy Ong – the artist – encourages me to reconsider Raffles’ colonial legacy in Singapore. Is he truly the historical hero exuding an air of self-assurance at Empress Place, or just an ordinary man susceptible to the vagaries of time? Are we romanticising his achievements?
The delicate nature of Ong’s artworks inadvertently reminds me of Russian monuments being dismantled in Ukraine. Statues were made to be permanent, but they can so easily be destroyed under new political tensions – along with all the significance they held in the first place. Indeed, as the exhibition purports, “Nothing is Forever.”
Nothing is Forever is actually drawn 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 typically sturdy materials. Everything, as he proclaims, deteriorates and rots in the end.
That is why so many of the displays are made from commonplace items. Cloud of ‘68, which is a remake of Da Wu’s work from 1971, consists of bricks and tangled barbed wire.
The piece is inspired by the numerous student protests the artist witnessed in Europe at that time and captures the atmosphere of revolt and uprisings. New Era, the column of plastic bags first displayed in 1976, previously symbolised Singaporeans’ reverence for that versatile material during the industrial age. Now that climate change has become a concern for the current generation, New Era is laden with new meanings.
Some other works, too, may be familiar to audiences, ranging from national icons to religious figures. The Merlion features prominently in Ang Song Nian’s piece Your Blank Stare Left Me at Sea (2013) through a collection of memorabilia figurines that reflect on the commodification of this well-known mythical creature. You will also come across Hindu temple sculptures acquired from the old Sri Srivan Temple.
Visiting Nothing is Forever has enlightened me that sculpture is certainly not an inaccessible art form but, in fact, holds a mirror to our everyday experiences. Never would I have imagined that plastic bags could fall under that artistic medium!
If you’re interested in a cultural activity for the weekend or are a sucker for all things art, then head to the National Gallery Singapore anytime from now till 4 February next year to take a closer look at this curated collection.
Photos by Sunny Low of the DANAMIC Team.