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A Musician and a Burlesque Dancer Walk into a Museum: Highlights of Museum Programming in 2020

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Museum Programming 2020 featuring Sukki Singapora

Please don’t call me an influencer,” musician iNCH (Inch Chua) wrinkles her nose as she says. Though her follower count on Instagram numbers in the twenty thousands at the time of publication, Inch would like to be known first and foremost as a musician, thank you very much.

In her casual Sunday t-shirt dress and Freitag sling bag, the casual observer might not peg her for a local celebrity. Yet, a healthy crowd emerged on the Courtyard of the National Gallery Singapore early this year in January, awaiting Inch and curator Charmaine Toh to bring them on an #artsplaining tour. Is this due to iNCH’s star power, or something else?

National Gallery Singapore Guided Tour by Musician Inch Chua
A light-hearted moment in which Inch explains to the audience that these subtle grooves on the wall and floor are in fact art in the form of Cheo Chai Hiang’s 5’ x 5’ (Inched Deep). One can’t help but wonder whether she chose this work for its resemblance to her own name!

The occasion is the Light to Night Festival at the beginning of 2020, where the Gallery has engaged three celebrities, singer-songwriter Inch Chua, Sukki Singapora of Singapore Social fame and drag queen extravaganza Becca D’Bus, to take a group of museum-goers on short tours around the museum.

At a brief 15 minutes per tour, I was at first skeptical about how meaningful the engagement could be, or who might turn up for it – but I was proven wrong. Both of the tours that I attended saw healthy groups of more than 20 visitors who listened to the celebrities chat about their chosen works of art with interest.

While Inch chose two works to share with her audience, Sukki focused her attention on just one: Suzann Victor’s Yellow Ochre Digits.

Celebrity Sukki Singapora providing her opinions on rebellion and repression in the scribbled digits of Suzann Victor’s Yellow Ochre Digits at the National Gallery Singapore.
Accompanied by curator Lim Qinyi, celebrity Sukki Singapora chats about how she sees a conversation between rebellion and repression in the scribbled digits of Suzann Victor’s Yellow Ochre Digits at the National Gallery Singapore.

Clad in a show-stopping floral number with her face nestled amidst her bright fuchsia locks, the Netflix star looked like an artwork herself. She handled her rapt audience with ease, relating to Victor’s work through funny anecdotes and earnestly sharing about how she loved Yellow Ochre Digits for the way that it stirs up new ways of approaching that age-old debate: what is Art?

When asked what she hoped that audiences will take away from her tour, Sukki says:

“I hope that they come away with a new perspective perhaps, or the ability to further see the importance of Art in freedom of expression and a way of challenging norms or boundaries. I hope that I can share with them how Art has shaped my life, and therefore how it can help shape theirs.”

In this meeting of celebrityhood and fine art, what’s not to love? I imagine that people who prefer to gate-keep art might scoff at these initiatives that the museums have undertaken to increase art’s accessibility and, correspondingly, museum visitorship. But surely drawing a divide between popular culture and fine art is long antiquated. Furthermore, it is simply exciting (and on a pragmatic note, necessary) for the halls of museums to come alive with the footfalls of interested new visitors.

As Suenne Megan Tan, Director of Audience Development and Engagement at the Gallery says, “These tours help to bring people from all walks of life together to learn about art in a relatable way. After all, there is no one way to appreciate art, and these interesting personalities help to present different perspectives to the artworks that encourage dialogue and inspire more conversations around art.”

Bravo, I say, for progressive museum programming that piques public interest and offers something out of the ordinary. Despite the raging pandemic, this past year has seen a number of unique museum programmes blossom on our sunny island, to our delight. Apart from having celebrities lead tours, what other unconventional couplings occurred? Let’s take a closer look at some of the more notable museum programmes that we’ve experienced this year, and explore what this might bode for the year to come.

Art and… Exercise?

One surprising and highly enjoyable programme series has got to be the Art and Wellness series of events that the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) organised over the course of the Singapore Biennale.

Okay, maybe it was nothing so vigorous as the Metropolitan Museum’s morning workouts in 2017, where participants were led on an athletic jaunt through the museum’s various exhibits, marching, dancing, snaking, speed-walking a trail through its world-class collection before the doors opened to the day’s visitors.

Participants undergoing Gong Bath Meditation while interacting with art at SAM
See how many works of art you can spot at this Gong Bath Meditation held at Block 22 of Gillman Barracks during the Singapore Biennale earlier this year.

Nonetheless, these programmes – which included gong bath meditation and yin yoga – gave visitors the opportunity to interact with art in a rather different manner. I lay on my yoga mat in the company of artworks by Robert Zhao and Dusadee Huntrakul, the thrumming vibrations of the giant gong coaxing a usually monkey-minded me into a pleasantly relaxed state. As allergic to meditation as I tend to be, even I found myself casting a new eye on the art after the session, my heightened sense of awareness finding resonances between the art and the sounds of nature that filtered in from the forest just outside.

Going through a series of slow poses in Yin Yoga at the Gallery also extended the aesthetic experience in an embodied way. As we lay in repose in that darkened room, the ambient sounds of composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s studio played in the background, drawing our attention to the incidental poetics that can arise in the everyday.

Participants doing Yin Yoga at SAM
Doing Yin Yoga amidst the tranquil studio sounds of async – volume, which recorded the ambient soundscapes of famed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s studio. This work was created in collaboration with Zakkubalan. (Intrigued? Read more about what we thought of this work in our previous article here.)

The privilege of getting to interact with these artworks in such a way was certainly not lost on me. Given any other day, lying flat on the ground in the middle of a gallery would have prompted a swift rebuke from the ever-watchful gallery sitters. Yet in this context, we could indulge for a moment and lose ourselves in art’s ability to uplift and soothe. We have Dee Chia, then-Head of Programmes at SAM, and her team to thank for this.

Speaking about the inspiration point for this series of events, she reflects:

“Since young, I’ve found art museums to be extremely meditative and healing spaces where I get immersed in an ambience filled with artworks that inspire a better world. I always walk out of art museums and galleries feeling inspired to make change and reconcile. Research by a number of academics have also supported the idea that museums can be healing spaces.”

Going Digital

As the pandemic worsened and things moved online, we’ve seen digital programmes sprout up on Youtube, Zoom and other online platforms in a bid to engage the public where they are (that is to say, at home, one would hope). One such example is the SAM Learning Gallery tie-up with veteran Mediacorp star Zhu Houren and his son, Joel Choo, back in September.

KTCA online Gameshow
Those of a certain vintage will recall with gusto The Unbeatables, the popular Channel 8 television drama about casinos and gambling in a time when Marina Bay Sands was but a technocrat’s distant dream. Veteran Mediacorp actor Zhu Houren starred in the role of the King of Deception in this drama, which may or may not have been the impetus for my attendance of this Zoom event. His 26-year-old son, Joel Choo, has since made a mark for himself in Mediacorp as well. Image credit: Singapore Art Museum.

Titled Kopi, Teh and Contemporary Art (KTCA) Online Gameshow, it was touted as an online gameshow in which participants stood to win GrabFood vouchers and SilverArts Festival 2020 merchandise. But the real draw is perhaps getting to be in the same (Zoom) room as the King of Deception himself.

Conducted in Mandarin, this event saw both celebrities on Zoom with some 41 senior participants. The event went at a lively clip with SAM staff introducing the works in the SAM Learning Gallery, and ended with an exciting Kahoot-powered quiz in which the stars also participated.

“While KTCA began as physical tours, we have had to pivot to virtual formats as the pandemic unfolded,” says Mr Tan Chee Sean, Senior Manager (Public Programmes), Singapore Art Museum. “Going online has certainly helped us reach more seniors, but we also realise that seniors might be more reticent during video conferencing as the format remains unfamiliar to some.”

The audience was indeed a bit shy during this event, especially compared to the physical editions of KTCA, where I’m told the seniors tended to be more forthcoming when the art inspired them to share about their life experiences. That said, in that not-so-distant time when public physical events had been suspended, this weekend morning entertainment proved to be very welcome and well-attended.

Towards Participation

Whilst the abovementioned programmes were engaging in various ways, the opportunity for participants to create or express their own ideas remains limited. Cue a programme that emerged towards the end of this year, where the public’s creative impulse was given room to shine.

In Art Through Your Eyes, approximately 100 works in the National Gallery’s permanent galleries feature additional artwork labels written by people from various walks of life, including children, senior citizens and members of the deaf community. As you wander through these galleries, you’ll spot the occasional blue label featuring personal anecdotes, interpretations and even doodles affixed next to the usual artwork labels. This initiative is part of the Gallery’s currently ongoing fifth anniversary celebrations.

Art Through Your Eyes draws attention to the museum’s function as a site of collective memory and storytelling. Culture comes alive, in a manner of speaking, when the unique perspectives of museum visitors are spotlighted alongside canonical works of art. I found the experience of reading these artwork labels akin to that of looking at art in the company of a friendly stranger, as they shared about how they related to the work through their memories and feelings.

Amidst delightful drawings by children and thoughtful reflections by gallery docents, I was impressed to see that impassioned criticism too was given a place. In contemporary choreographer and visual artist Eisa Jocson’s artwork label on Juan Luna’s España y Filipinas, she expressed her disapproval of Spain’s refusal to apologise for its colonisation of her homeland, the Philippines.

In the book The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon writes, “When people have safe, welcoming places in their local communities to meet new people, engage with complex ideas, and be creative, they can make significant civic and cultural impact. The cumulative effort of thousands of participatory institutions could change the world. Rather than being “nice to have,” these institutions can become must-haves for people seeking places for community and participation.”

I am heartened to see the museum make room for both the quirky and the serious as they invited visitors to respond to the works in the Gallery’s collection. Yes, the majority of the writing may still veer towards making personal connections towards the works, but the entire initiative is itself a sign of the institution’s willingness to experiment and include its audiences in co-creating content. It’s a start and for this I am hopeful.

The fact that this pandemic year remains witness to such range in museum programmes is testament to the creativity and adaptability of the teams behind it. They have been undaunted by the swift change and ever game to try new means of engaging their audiences. As an art lover, I can’t wait to see what my next walk into a museum will bring.

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