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Russell Storer on Curating Southeast Asia's First Exhibition on Minimalism

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Russell Storer on Curating Southeast Asia's First Exhibition on Minimalism
Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

Set across the National Gallery Singapore the ArtScience Museum, ‘Minimalism: Space. Light. Object.’ will feature over 150 works, taking its place as Southeast Asia’s first exhibition focusing on Minimalism. This is also the first collaboration between the two institutions. From 16 November to 14 April 2019, works by notable artists such as Sol Lewitt, Mark Rothko, and Ai Weiwei will grace these spaces, drawing us into this influential movement’s inception and continuous growth even to this day.

The Artling Artzine sits down with Russell Storer, Deputy Director of Curatorial & Research at National Gallery Singapore, and co-curator of ‘Minimalism: Space. Light. Object.’ He tells us more about how these works have been chosen, where they’ve come from, and what he hopes an exhibition of this scale will achieve for the region:

 

Congratulations on curatorially spearheading the first Minimalism exhibition in Southeast Asia. ‘Minimalism: Space. Light. Object.’ seeks to re-examine this movement’s origins, whilst broadening the scope beyond its inception in New York. Could you give us a little insight into how the 150 works have been selected for this exhibition?

Thank you! As you said, this is the first time that this movement’s been shown in Southeast Asia. We really wanted to provide a strong introduction to the movement. We selected major works by key artists from New York’s minimalist movement as a starting point, but also looked at where these artists emerged from, looking at painting that happened in the late 50s with the move out of abstract expressionism and into Minimalism. We also looked at what happened after with post-Minimalism, which grew to different directions such as conceptual art, land art, process art and so on.

The other key thing we wanted to do was to go beyond the US and to look at other points of origin, other places where minimalist tendencies were emerging at the same time - sometimes even earlier. We’re trying to broaden what Minimalism can mean in its historical sense. It wasn’t a defined movement, it was a name given to these artists by art critics and often in a disparaging way, almost to mock them. None of the minimalist artists liked the title at all. It’s kind of a constellation of ideas. They were rather at odds with each other. Many of the artists were writing very eloquently about their work, they disagreed a lot. There was no manifesto nor a central core. That really opens up the possibilities of what we can say about Minimalism, what was happening in Japan in the late 60s, those emerging in the UK in the 70s, and really seeing how they might interconnect within an exhibition. And of course, we looked at Southeast Asian artists who were also working with these ideas at different times following through to contemporary art which becomes more of a global concern, because Minimalism is really foundational to how we think of art today.

 

Popo, 'Red Cube', 1986
Oil on Canvas, paper collage and gneiss. 

We’re expecting some incredibly notable works, even some that are canonized in the Minimalist movement. Where have these works been sourced?

It’s been a very long process. We’ve been developing this show for over two and a half to three years. We travelled from the United States to Australia, Japan and London to look at key works and meet with a range of museums to get the best ones that we could for the show. We’ve had enormous support from everybody which has been wonderful.

We tried to get as many works possible from the region. There are works in Australia and Japan from very strong collections of minimal and post-minimal art. We’ve drawn as much as possible from those museums but also reached out to places like the Tate in London, we’ve got loans from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Guggenheim and MoMA. We’ve been able to get some phenomenal loans across the world as well as from private collections. Because of the nature of minimalist works, some of them have had to be restaged and recreated. They were made originally with fragile or ephemeral material, they’re the sorts of works that are remade every time they're shown.

Kishio Suga, Infinite Situation I (window), 1970/2014
 無限状況 I (窓) (Mugen Jōkyō I [Mado])
Douglas fir, window, landscape
Installation view, Kishio Suga, Vangi Sculpture Garden Museum, Shizuoka, 2014

We were speaking earlier about how there are some works in this exhibition that are indubitably challenging in terms of installation. Which works would you say have posed as a curatorial hurdle in this regard?

Nothing insurmountable thus far, but certain works are really complexed to install. One that’s quite interesting is Sol Lewitt’s ‘Wall Drawing #338’. It’s a wall drawing from the early 70s, it’s huge, about 6 by 6 metres. It took two weeks to make. There was an artist from the Sol Lewitt studio who was here, there are only about 4 or 5 people around the world who can remake Lewitt’s works. These works are made from instructions, they don’t physically exist at first. We then worked with 4 artists who were former students of Lasalle to come together and work with him over a two week period.

 

I love how it’s come full circle in a way, how Singapore has been brought into the picture even in the process.

Yes, definitely. The lovely thing about this work is that it engages young artists wherever its made in its remaking. They get completely involved in the production of the work. It’s kind of site-specific in a funny way. This work also shifts in scale depending on the wall at hand. We have a high wall so it’s turned out to be a very big drawing.

Olafur Eliasson, 'Seu corpo da obra' (Your body of work), 2011
Installation view: Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2015
Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Whilst an art movement that continues to hugely influence contemporary art and design to this day, Minimalism has not made as much of an impact in Southeast Asia as it has in the West. In your opinion, why do you think this has been the case?

That’s a very good question. We thought about that a lot and one of the reasons we wanted to do this show was because Minimalism hasn’t been seen here so much. We were interested in why that might’ve been the case and how it’s emerged more in, say, lifestyle and design and other forms of popular culture. Minimalism emerged in certain places at certain times, really responding to specific contexts. In Japan, for example, the Mono-ha movement emerged almost as a reaction to the avant-gardes that came before which were very influenced by American art. This was at a time when the Japanese were really pushing against American influence. There was a lot of military occupation after the war and there was this big treaty being signed, a lot of protests. Artists, in this case, were wanting to find their own avant-garde that was not American. They drew on a lot of Japanese aesthetics and Zen philosophy. There were also looking at European phenomenology which was being published in different languages in the 70s. It comes with this idea of presence and encounters but also stepping away from the artistic hand, which was very much the same as what minimalist artists were doing. They wanted to get away from abstract expressionism and make art that had no expression at all, produced almost industrially with no trace of identity. Materials used were not traditional art materials.

Minimalists had systemic forms of production that didn’t require any type of composition - they set their own forms. These were interesting parallels that were coming out of very particular art histories and also with that push against institutions where artists tried to move against the 'white cube' space. These weren’t issues in Southeast Asia. In the 60’s, some Southeast Asian countries were becoming independent, they had their own political issues to deal with. The last thing artists were probably worrying about was whether their work should be ‘expressive’ or not. It was more about national identity, more about forming a kind of voice for the people, so different styles of art were much more important. But then you look at the Philippines, for example, which had strong connections to the US. There was a push for Marcos in the late 60s to build a cultural centre in the Philippines and to be more international. There was a presence there in a way with conceptual and post-minimal art. That’s something we want to represent in this exhibition as well. To me, that’s why Minimalism didn’t have such a presence here because different things were at stake.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres of 'Untitled' (Golden), 1995

On that note, how have Asian minimalist works been integrated into this exhibition?

We tried to integrate them all throughout the show. Minimalism’s an interesting thing to show in this manner as it’s quite cross-cultural. American artists were going to lectures on Zen Buddhism, Asian artists traveled around too. There were exhibitions in Japan in the late 70’s which brought American and Japanese artists together, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination. The artists who went to Tokyo at the time were looking at Zen gardens and that really influenced their work. There was always this kind of back and forth with regards to their relationship. 

We’ve included, particularly, Japanese artists from the very beginning of the exhibition - the first work you as you walk in is a sound piece by Steve Reich. It’s informed by Gamelan music and African drumming. It’s one of the classic pieces of minimalist music and is influenced by cultures outside of the West. The first work you see is by Tadaaki Kuwayama, who is a Japanese artist who went to New York in the late 50’s and was showing in the same galleries as Frank Stella and Donald Judd. We’re trying to bring those artists into dialogue, trying to bring them forward. There are these wonderful artists such as Kazuko Miyamoto, a Japanese artist who worked in Sol Lewitt’s studio who actually created a lot of his early Wall Drawings. We’ve remade a work of hers from ’74. She’s not so well known but we’re looking at her in relation to other artists in New York at the time, and then putting their works against say, Kim Lim, who was working in London at the time, working with very minimal and serial objects.

 

The National Gallery Singapore has teamed up with ArtScience Museum in an effort to create a coherent examination into Minimalism as an art form. Needless to say these are very different spaces; are we to expect any differences in terms of curating or works that will be in these institutions?

ArtScience has taken a very different but complementary approach. We’ve been in close dialogue all the way through. Their interests are to do with art and science of course, with science and perception, colour theory, with some philosophies as well that have affinities with ideas about the cosmos and scientific ideas about existence. These really resonated and was something they wanted to bring forth. There are some artists in common across both spaces, with quite direct links and connections but perhaps drawn out in different ways and methods.

 

Sol Lewitt, 'Wall Drawing #338'. 

What has been the most rewarding factor over the course of curating this exhibition from its inception?

"to see so many of these works in one place is such a rare thing"

So many. To be able to bring such iconic works to Singapore that have never been seen here, many of them people would not have seen in person before. That to me is very exciting, to see so many of these works in one place is such a rare thing. Bringing forward artists who may not be so well known is also rewarding. We have a neon installation from 1970 by an Australian artist whose works have never been shown outside Australia before. It was the very first installation ever made in Australia too. To show that here is really exciting.

As well, the experience of the show is so beautiful, the works are so sublime in their encounter. Particularly during this installation period and seeing these works in the space, we’ve been seeing them on Powerpoints for two years and only now can we actually see them! There’s really no comparison. To be with these works, and hopefully for their audience too, to really experience them, is a different form of aesthetics to experience. The audience will need to slow down, pay attention and be forced to be with an object that has been stripped of any narrative.

 

What do you hope an exhibition of this importance and scale will achieve for Singapore and by extension, Southeast Asia?

I hope people will come away with a better understanding of Minimalism. We’re introducing people to this pivotal art movement that really transformed the way art was made, not just in the US but all over the world, and still resonates today. But also to see Southeast Asian art within this context, to see someone such as Tang Da Wu in relation to seeing artists working with ‘land’ for example. We’ve usually seen these works in a Southeast Asian context, now we can see them in relation to artists from the UK, Japan, and the US, it really will open up discussion.

Hopefully, it will shift the conception of Minimalism in the broader sense. You can sort of think of it as a Southeast Asian take on Minimalism, like looking at this movement from here.

Peter Kennedy, 'Neon Lights', 1970
Neon, composition board, synthetic polymer paint
Installation view at MCA Sydney 

If you had to name three works the public has to keep their eye out for in ‘Minimalism: Space. Light. Object’, what work would it be and why?

There are so many. One work I’m very fond of is by Felix Gonzalez Torres who was a Cuban-American artist from the 90’s. We’ve got several works by him but one is a curtain of golden beads which you have to walk through, passing from one space to another. You become part of the work, you transform the work simply by walking through it; it moves around you. In his work, there’s an incredible generosity, with a little politics but it’s sort of a gentle politics, it’s very personal. There’s a real sadness to his works as well, so much of them are about loss. They’re so moving and yet so simple. It’s really thrilling to get to see his works here.

Another one that people might not expect is a work by a Japanese artist from the 70’s called ‘Infinite Situation’ (Window) by Kishio Suga. He’s a Mono-ha artist. Mono-ha was a very influential movement that emerged in the 60’s in Japan; Lee Ufan is probably the most famous who emerged from this. It’s simply a block of wood wedged in the window. It has a huge presence, it’s unexpected but so simple and extraordinary. It breaks this dynamic between a piece of wood and the architecture of the window, with you as the viewer and the view outside. They’re all brought together in this simple action. I love that in Mono-ha, that just by a placement of something all these relationships start to spark. That to me is a beautiful work. It says a lot about how we are in the world, how we relate to where we are, how we relate to other things and other people.

Lastly, I’ll say Peter Kennedy’s ‘Neon Lights’. It’s really great to see this work here. It was acquired by a museum I was working at during the time, the MCA in Sydney. He’s a very important conceptual artist in Australia. He helped set up the first conceptual artist-run space in Sydney in 1970. It’s an incredibly beautiful piece that he talks about like walking through a rainbow. It’s composed of very simple coloured strips of neon. He worked at a neon factory when he was young and used to experiment with these materials in developing these works. As an art student in the 60’s he was looking at art magazines from the US and coming across artists that you never saw in Australia at the time, he never traveled there, he never saw these works, he only saw them in pictures. For him, it opened up this whole new possibility for art-making. At the time it was more-so modernist painting, and he thought in a really different way that was very transformative.

 

‘Minimalism: Space. Light. Object.’ will be on show at the National Gallery Singapore from 16 November 2018 to 14 April 2019.

For more information, click here.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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