Conventional wisdom holds that minimalism was birthed in America during the political and social tumult of the 1950s and 1960s, when artists abandoned en masse the strictures of conventional art in favour of a stripped back aesthetic. A new exhibition in Singapore, ‘Minimalism: Space. Light. Object.’, takes the radically different view that as an art form, minimalism actually began in Asia centuries before with zen buddhism and, in particular, with the Ayurvedic texts on nothingness.

Unusually, the show – the first in Southeast Asia to tackle the subject on this scale – is held in two venues and delivers two strikingly different experiences through 150-plus works by blue-chip names like Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Anish Kapoor and Donald Judd, alongside regional stalwarts Po Po, teamLab, Song Dong and Kim Lim. At the Moshe Safdie-designed ArtScience Museum, the premise of minimalism’s buddhist origins is explored through a series of austere, yet ultimately joyful and playful works, beginning with a meditative sand installation by Mona Hatoum which segues through to Richard Long’s epic concentric circles of stones, the colour blocks of Carmen Herrera, and to a tranquil maze of lighting gel panels by Olafur Eliasson.

To Reflect an Intimate Part of the Red, 1981, by Anish Kapoor. Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

For the museum’s curatorial team, led by former Tate Liverpool curator Adrian George, the essence of this section of the show is the physical experience, a cause helped by the curved white walls of the exhibition space that create a dizzying sense of infinity. ‘Many of the minimalist artists we’re showing designed their works to be viewed in the context of space, so the experience we hope to create requires the viewer to slow down.’

Across the bay, a few minutes away by taxi, the National Gallery Singapore takes a slightly more conventional approach to the subject by tracing minimalism’s development out of abstract expressionism to contemporary times. The artists and works gathered here are no less impressive ranging from the striking black monochromes of Mark Rothko and Frank Stella, to the experimentations of light by Peter Kennedy and Martin Creed, and the hypnotic repetitive musical works of Julius Eastman.

‘Modern minimalism is a movement that has not had much of a presence in this part of the world,’ says Russell Storer, deputy director of the National Gallery’s curatorial and research department, ‘and so, it was particularly important for us to put the Southeast Asian artists within the international context.’ §