To enter the Rotunda Library & Archive is to find yourself at the heart of the National Gallery Singapore’s historical maze. The art library, located on the third level of the gallery’s Supreme Court Wing, has only recently moved into the space, having decamped from its former premises — a resource centre sequestered at the end of the building, away from the running exhibitions. The library in its previous incarnation was ostensibly invisible to the public — only art scholars were privy to its esoteric existence. It was inaccessible, too: to browse through its trove of books and archives on Southeast Asian contemporary art and cultural history — purportedly the largest of its kind with over 20,000 physical and digital items — required a prior booking.
“We’ve always thought it was a missed opportunity,” says Lisa Horikawa, the National Gallery’s senior curator and deputy director of collections development, when I visited the library in March. “The library’s resource has been utilised quite well by the internal curators and colleagues. But outside the museum, very few people had, or have, the knowledge of the library. We wanted to make this collection more visible, to give due prominence to it.”
Courtesy of Brewin Design Office
The Rotunda Library & Archive.
Horikawa is seated in one of the reading nooks of the new Rotunda Library. The small triangular area is one of the two double-height quadrants, which are quiet pockets of seclusion that corner the main rotunda. Wrapping the walls are built-in modular shelves, housing publications and periodicals. Above Horikawa, the glow of a swirling cloud-like pendant light fixture illuminates the space. And sitting opposite her is Robert Cheng, the design principal of Brewin Design Office, the mastermind behind the rotunda library’s new look.
Although “new look” may be an oversimplification.
Apart from the modernised quadrants, the changes to the rotunda itself are deliberately subdued, made to seamlessly chameleon into the lingering nostalgia of its precursor. Before the National Gallery took over the building, the rotunda had functioned as the primary law library in the Supreme Court for more than 50 years. This building, once an ivory tower and a monument to Singapore’s colonised past, adheres to the neoclassical architectural motif of the British Empire of the 1930s. While the Supreme Court building, along with the adjacent City Hall, have been joined to form a seminal hub for some of the region’s most important artworks since 2015, it is in regard of its genesis — deemed inextricable from the city-state’s national identity — that its architectural structure and facade are strictly preserved under National Heritage Board’s Preservation of Monuments Act.
Courtesy of Brewin Design Office
The quadrants of the Rotunda Library are designed as contemporary reading corners. Inside, the burgundy walls are lined with two tiers of full height book shelves. A cloud-like pendant light is suspended atop a triangular solid wood table.
Courtesy of Brewin Design Office
Robert Cheng upcycled the former law library’s wooden tables and cabinetry, attaching 24 built-in bronze lamps that mimic the style of the neoclassical period.
To refurbish the designated rotunda, Cheng had to navigate around many restrictions. “We couldn’t touch the infrastructure, the colonnade, the mezzanine and much of the historical furniture,” Cheng recalls of the challenging adaptive reuse project. “We decided it was going to be a subtle intervention. We wanted to let the existing space speak more than anything else.”
Cheng’s “subtle intervention” involved year-long discussions and research, poring over the minutest of details. Historical precedents, like the Roman Pantheon and the Tempietto at San Pietro, became points of references. Cheng and his team analysed the areal hierarchy of these monuments: the centre is typically regarded as the apex of sacredness in the rotunda that’s left open for people to fully marvel at its majestic build, and the outer ambulatory acts as the secondary circulation space that also encompasses the access points to the quadrants.
Courtesy of Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection and National Archives of Singapore
Decades before the art library occupied the rotunda, it housed the former law library of the Supreme Court, circa 1965.
It was in this colonial interior design language that Cheng manoeuvred the rotunda’s revamp. The quadrant we are in opens up to the rotunda, where 12 custom-designed bookshelves now fan out under the rotunda’s neoclassical colonnade, impeccably suffusing the distinctive radial that dominates the area. Meanwhile, desks and cabinetry form the inner circle in a calculated mirroring of the spatial symmetry. Cheng resuscitated these preserved wooden pieces from the antecedent library, deftly attaching 24 built-in bronze lamps that mimic the style of the neoclassical period. These desks are coupled with slender chairs that are a nod to the early 1900s tropes of European interior designer Josef Hoffman.
“Finding the balance in terms of how the design evolved and also how the design would be adjusted and further developed was really a work in progress over a course of 12 months,” says Cheng. “To achieve the right design that would satisfy this nuanced balance was to frame it in a way that would pay homage to the space itself.”
Courtesy of Brewin Design Office
The entrance to the new library.
As with other things done so impeccably well that others would erroneously perceive their state as a product of minimal effort, Cheng’s revamp sits on a delicate balance that’s thoroughly maintained. This balance is finely hinged between conservation and innovation, the past and the present. And as an art museum’s library, it also fulfils the dual competing needs of allowing items to be exhibited and fostering a sense of privacy at the same time.
It is here, under the soaring domed ceiling that’s sheltered under another dome like a matryoshka, that an impeccable hemisphere which once signified the inaccessible fort of insular elitism, reserved for the colonisers, is now subverted to preserve what its past obliterated.
Of course, a library is not just the space it occupies. And the significance of the Rotunda Library’s focus on Southeast Asian art — safekeeping related rare publications, exhibition catalogues, ephemera and digital archives — honed from within a coloniser’s former and literal ivory tower should not be lost.
It’s a bold rewriting of the past. Lisa Horikawa and her fellow curators and archivists are trying to form a distinctive Southeast Asian cultural identity by conscientiously collating the work of nascent artists and creatives once considered of no importance for official recording, hence shaping the region’s collective self-image in the realm of art.
Featured on the library’s display shelves are the pioneering Singaporean artist Georgette Chen’s archives — journals, photographs, newspaper clippings and personal belongings — provide a glimpse into the Singapore artist’s life. Between the ’50s and the ’60s, Chen actively showed her works internationally. These are photographs of her 1956 exhibition at the British Council, Kuala Lumpur, which featured a portrait of then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Although modern art history in Southeast Asia dates back to the nineteenth century, the last 15 years have seen the flourishing of museums, exhibitions, and, perhaps most significantly, the art market. Asia’s booming economy has led to a booming art market, drawing global attention to China, and later on Southeast Asia. On the surface, the rise has proven positive. Major international museums like the Guggenheim and the Centre Pompidou are increasingly developing collections and exhibitions of contemporary Asian art. In Asia, new museums specialising in Southeast Asian art have opened, from the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Nusantara in Jakarta to the upcoming M+ in Hong Kong.
Yet this commercial success and institutional growth is strangely at odds with the scarcity of local literature on the region’s art history and art criticism found on publicly accessible platforms, as well as the lack of awareness on the importance of art history in the region’s education system.
At centre, a photograph of Chen with one of her many paintings of rambutans, her favourite tropical fruit, circa 1975. Sitting beside this photo is her 1965 diary, in which she wrote intimately about her life in Singapore.
The Rotunda Library’s growing resources, then, is an effort to fill this gap. “The gallery aspires to be the thought leader of Southeast Asian art,” says Horikawa. “Research drives everything that we do at the gallery, ranging from exhibitions to lectures and symposiums.” Archiving is part of the gallery team’s curatorial research process. The more challenging part is perhaps that there is no established supply centre for Southeast Asian art archives. Much of what is in the archives are painstakingly collected and acquired by building relationships with artists’ families and estates, archive collectors and institutions.
To begin with, a majority of these materials is unique, obscure and out of print. If they are not collected and archived, they may be lost forever, given the fact that most of them are in a state of decay. These, when successfully sourced, are then immediately digitised. The archives include forgotten, hidden or lost artworks that can fill the gaps in certain historical contexts and narratives. The archives also show how several artists, art movements and societies have been obscured by mainstream history, or in some cases, simply erased from historiography. As it turns out, due to the region’s post-war turbulences, these political erasures occur all too frequently in the timeline of Southeast Asian art history.
Another section of the displays shelves spotlights one of Singapore’s nascent art schools, NAFA. These photos were taken at NAFA’s first campus at 19 St Thomas Walk. They feature founding principal Lim Hak Tai, as well as professors Georgette Chen, Cheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang — all regarded as pioneers of modern art in Singapore today. Also on display is an example of the notices that Lim posted daily on his office door for the students. Pictured here, on the top-left corner is the announcement of an upcoming school holiday.
The archives’ documentation, in its most comprehensive form, is meant to function as a fuller reflection of the nexus between modern art and the identities of post-independence nations of Southeast Asia. Across the region, there was a wide spectrum of conscious expressions related to being part of nascent modern nations that went unrecorded. There was an endless fusion of ideologies and traditions. Art often has a way of condensing these nuances into a palpable motif. And being able to collectively analyse the work of those who lived and created art in the earlier formative period of the region may just paint a better understanding of our journey, how we got to where we are today.
“This is not a process that curators or museums can do alone. The public needs to be involved in raising awareness of the important art historical discipline,” says Horikawa. Art history, justifiably or not, has gained itself a reputation for elitism. The general perception remains that studying Monet and Rembrandt — let alone unheard-of Southeast Asian artists of the past — is not an accessible academic pursuit. The formal study of the history of art may well continue to be a niche subject. The digitalisation of art, however, means a lot more people across the world are able to discover and appreciate works that they might otherwise never see. And an egalitarian art library, housed within a colonial heritage building, is most definitely another step towards achieving that.
“The library has only been open on weekdays but I’m happy to say that we recently received about 100 to 200 visitors on a weekly basis,” says Horikawa. “To us, that’s a very large figure. They could just be curious families browsing. But it’s been great seeing a large variety of people accessing the space.”
A look inside the Rotunda Library & Archive at the National Gallery Singapore.
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