Two quarters after my graduation in May, I found myself prancing around galleries. National Gallery to be exact. National Gallery Singapore is home to 8,000 works that chronicle the trajectories of art history of Singapore and the region from 19th century to the present day. It feels almost synonymous to museums; and museums can be tricky.
When you think about it, you may conjure up memories of a mundane class in school which you had to spend at the museum learning about a host of dead people, names, items and the likes. Some of my hand-on counterparts would be fascinated by the archaeological findings and overwhelmed by “how far we came”. This sets the conditioning to see the present as the necessary consequence of the past, and inevitably to imagine the future in this chronological light of yester – years, centuries, millenniums.
Museums embody themes of knowledge that are produced through various tropes. The narratives that are handed down to each generation and how we feel about the emplotment is never static. There is no escape from inconclusiveness for the past is projected, mediated and internalised in many forms. Galleries are mediums for these narratives; and narrators. They are extensions of expressions and negotiations of thoughtful critiques and avenues for discussions. Who is telling the story and how they are told makes the difference.
Museums and galleries in themselves are an act of interpretation, which we consequently find ourselves not just with strikingly varying versions of the same “event” – if historical at all – but also profound disagreements as to which version is the right one; which to hold sway and claim a slice of our national and cultural consciousness. But why should these inconclusiveness, critiques and discussions put us off?
We need a refusal of the notion of fixity and permanence, and to engage in on-going conversations. As Coates suggests: wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as – if not more than – the specific answers that are produced. We need to develop the cognition to be aware of the lenses we are wearing, or blinded from, to sift out the nuances and complexities; to be more conscious distinguishing between our analytical vocabulary and the material under observation.
Museums and galleries are beyond just visual involvement with what lays before us. In a multilingual region relying heavily on orality and aurality in its cultural and literary reproduction, they silently call for an interaction that evokes the other senses. Historicise the past: it is through historicising and contextualising that humanities can be alive and vibrant in recreating the senses of artistic narratives.
At the end of the day, the perennial question remains: what is Southeast Asia?