"Sculpting a National Identity" by ST's Ong Soh Chin

ST, 28th June 2011 (Click image to enlarge)

Some Thoughts

Public art as a contemporary term may demand a broader definition to include the formal, and actions involving the performative, contextual, interventive and deconstructive strategies as attempts to render, re-render or destablise an aesthetic experience in relation to environs and social dynamics. In that sense a discussion on 'modern' monumental sculptures may not be interesting. I would be wrong. Ong Soh Chin's article (Sculpting a National Identity, ST, 28 June 2011) may be rather typical in its references to arts and heritage policies, and governmental schemes and incentives, but she does make an interesting point about the social value of public art; not in terms that a public sculpture is a clever piece of object elegantly positioned into a landscape and performing an art educational function, but rather ways it which it may define a site as a 'place' that meaningfully locate social interactions and in which memories are coalesced and shared. Ong’s remark on the demolition of the former National Library at Stamford Road delivers this point. That makes room in the article for a lament, that is the manner in which public sculptures, iconic or otherwise, are at times unceremoniously removed or destroyed, without regard for the artists that created them and importantly, the publics whose social habits had revolved around those sculptures and their associated spaces - an interesting way to argue for a considered approach to the problem of 'excess' public sculptures.

Where a piece of sculpture enjoys greater public attention and interests, the emotive register could indeed be measured and applied leading to a positive outcome. Ju Ming's "Living World" is one example of a popular sculpture planned for a temporary display at the National Museum, but in 1987 became permanent after a public fund-raising campaign took place for its acquisition. Its association with the National Museum as site was strong as it was recalled to its original site after a brief period of display at the Singapore Art Museum.

In her article Ong remarks that Ng Eng Teng's 'Wealth' and 'Contentment' was moved from the old Plaza Singapura to the obscure University Cultural Centre (UCC) of the NUS, equivalent to "sending your aged parents to a nursing home". Nice phrasing. I guess that it would be a fair comment to make if that is to suggest an end-of-life outcome for the sculptures. Rather, they assumed different lives. The contexts should be remembered. The sculptures were donated to the NUS in 1997 before the renovation of the Plaza Singapura, an important act to ensure the sculptures' continuing care. Leong Weng Kam reported in the ST (23 September 1997) that the sculptures did not have a place in the new plans of the Plaza Singapura. At NUS, they were displayed along a garden walkway near the University's Central Library before its final relocation at UCC, closer to the NUS Museum which opened in 2002. Sure, in retrospect the positioning of the sculptures in their current locations could be better to provide greater prominence. But significantly, the 1997 donations are critical additions forming part of the University's Ng Eng Teng Collection, joining another 1000 pieces of sculptures, paintings and drawings donated directly by the artist.

The collection forms a coherent ensemble that avails itself for specific investigations into the artist and his practice. 'Wealth' and 'Contentment' may in many ways had been museumised and placed in the rarified context of an institutional mission, but their continual presence due to the donation is gratifying. The NUS Museum had also recently received a donation of two murals by Ng Eng Teng, rarely seen as they resided in at the Garden Hotel and removed before the hotel's impending demolition. The donation was completed with a great deal of understanding and material support of the donor. Being two of several known mural pieces by the artist completed in the early 1970s, along with a documentation of working drawings, they provide a basis for research into Eng Teng's public commissions, his artistic intent, contexts of production in Singapore and implications into contemporary conservation, themes covered in our recent exhibition Working the Tropical Garden (click here). They are indeed sculptures that attempted to invoke a sense of national identity through their references to the concept of Garden City. Their significance to Singapore is indelible. This brings me full circle to the opening line of this posting. The multifaceted nature of public art requires acknowledgement. Indeed, once entrenched into their various locales, sculptures may acquire a social value beyond the formal. This sense of value may be translated into an expressive act of public concern when they are marked for removal, but that is rare rather than common. Chances are, there are limits to public activism and where immediacy is required, we often wonder belatedly. Meanwhile, “Tropical Rhapsody” and “Asian Symphony”, the two murals salvaged from the Garden Hotel stand safe at the NUS. In them, Ong's question on 'national identity' resonates.

Posted by Ahmad Mashadi

One of two sculptures originally located at the old Plaza Singapura donated to the NUS in 1997, seen here installed at the University Cultural Centre, NUS
Ng Eng Teng's Asian Symphony (1971), donated by Kechapi Pte Ltd, deinstalled, conserved and reinstalled at National University Health Services building in 2010.

Virtual conservation undertaken on Asian Symphony (1971), through a 3D scanning process by Design Incubator Centre, NUS. The scanning was completed prior to physical conservation and the dismatling of sculpture from its original site. The digital information provides accurate records of the mural as resource for study and educational reproduction.


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