Back in August, en route to the UK on holiday, we broke up the journey with a couple of days in Singapore. A new addition to the landscape since last time I was there (early 2009) was the ArtScience museum, which is part of the Marina Bay Sands development.
It’s a landmark building by celebrity architecht Moshe Safdie, which opened in February 2011 (so still pretty new when we visited). The design was inspired by a lotus flower but it also gets called ‘the welcoming hand of Singapore’, with a total of 10 ‘fingers’ extending from the centre.
Regular readers will know that I have my doubts about ‘statement’ museum architecture. And I was wondering if this one was going to be a navigational nightmare. But surprisingly, it isn’t – mostly because the majority of exhibition space is actually below the lotus / finger structure, essentially at basement level. But before I get into the exhibitions, I’ll give an overview of the museum building itself.
Like several other Singaporean attractions (the Singapore Flyer springs to mind), the building seems geared up for high-throughput crowds. (Given our Singapore stopovers seem to always have us visiting attractions in the middle of a weekday, I have no idea the extent to which these crowds actually materialise.) Operationally it feels more of an ‘attraction’ than a ‘museum’ too – your entry ticket is priced according to the number of temporary exhibitions you decide to visit, and your ticket only gets you into each exhibition once.
The intended visitor flow is ‘waterfall’ style – i.e., you are encouraged to start at the top and work your way down through the 50,000 sq.ft. of exhibition space. At the top is the smallest level with only three gallery spaces; immediately below that is the Upper Galleries that run in a loop through all the 10 ‘fingers’. Each of the 10 spaces link together like pearls on a string. It’s one-way traffic and you enter and leave at the same point, limiting disorientation (and it doesn’t feel unduly constraining but it would depend on the exhibition I imagine). Two floors below the Upper Galleries are the main exhibition spaces and the museum shop (the lobby is sandwiched between these two levels).
Running through the centre of the whole building is the ‘Rain Oculus’, which collects rainwater from the curve roof and channeling it into a pool that is used as the water supply for the rest rooms. Water flows fairly constantly (before I figured out what was going on I thought it was raining outside).
The top floor, inside the tips of the tallest ‘fingers’, is the only permanent exhibition space: Art Science – a journey through creativity. This is divided into three separate spaces: Curiosity, Inspiration and Expression. The exhibition is intended as an introduction to the concept of ArtScience showing it as a manifestation of human creativity. The spaces are sparsely populated and, writing this several months later, my lasting impression is of gobos, lighting effects and projections, along with a couple of touchscreen interactives. Because it sets itself up as an introductory space, I was expecting these concepts to be more explicitly linked to in the rest of the exhibition spaces. However, this didn’t really happen as the rest of the gallery spaces are essentially given over to hosting touring exhibitions brought in from elsewhere (this is what is on now).
Unfortunately, the museum website seems to live in an eternal present and does not link in any obvious way to information about past exhibitions – thankfully, Wikipedia has stepped in to fill this gap. When we visited there were three touring exhibitions: Dali – Mind of a Genius; Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds; and Van Gogh Alive.
Dali – Mind of a Genius
I’ve been to Dali exhibitions before (Liquid Desire at NGV in 2009 and as part of a Surrealism exhibition in the Pompidou Centre in 2002), so I thought I was familiar with his work – in particular his paintings and films/animation. So for me, the surprising part of this exhibition was the number of bronzes on display (an element of Dali’s work I hadn’t seen before) as well as his forays into furniture design and the decorative arts.
There were several versions of the infamous ‘Melting Clock’ motif (if anything a bit too much really!) although I thought this use of a wall of regular clocks distorted by fairground mirrors was a cute touch to finish off the exhibition:
Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds
This exhibition was about the mysteries surrounding the wreck of a ninth century Arab trading dhow, found in the Java Sea. Laden with Chinese ceramics, the wreck is proof of a maritime trade route between China and the Middle East from the era of the tale of Sindbad the Sailor.
The scope and significance of what was found on the wreck was interpreted well, along with the concept that such a find inevitably raises just as many questions as it answers. The exhibition was quite dark so I don’t have any good photos, but the website linked to above is very comprehensive. It says that the exhibition is set to tour until 2015, but no additional venues are advertised yet.
Van Gogh Alive
I was expecting this to be a fairly conventional exhibition of Van Gogh’s works (perhaps a tour from the Van Gogh Museum I’d visited in 2000) so at first I was a bit taken aback to be in a large space surrounded by tall projector screens showing Van Gogh’s work and photographs all synchronised to a classical soundtrack. But once I got over that I was able to enjoy this immersive experience (that is hard to describe but maybe these still renderings and this Youtube video gives you a bit of an idea):
It was an exhibition space you moved in rather than through – you could sit anywhere in the space and have essentially the same experience. For some reason, on the day we visited it looked like they were using the usual exit door for both entrance and exit, so it means we didn’t see the interpretive panels explaining the concept until we were just about to leave (and we almost missed it entirely).
So in conclusion? It was a pleasant and interesting way to pass 2-3 hours away from the heat and humidity of mid-day Singapore. Given the unconventional shape, the building is not as visitor-unfriendly as you’d first expect. However, at the moment at least, it feels more like a sophisticated exhibition hall than a museum with its own mission and identity.