A duet of Singapore exhibitions propose a new provenance for minimalism

Neon Light Installations
Neon Light Installations, 1970-2002, by Peter Kennedy, neon, composition board and synthetic polymer paint. Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney.
(Image credit: © Peter Kennedy)

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.

Intimate Part of the Red

To Reflect an Intimate Part of the Red, 1981, by Anish Kapoor. 

(Image credit: 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.’

Non-Object (Door), 2008

Non-Object (Door), 2008, by Anish Kapoor, stainless steel. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery. © Anish Kapoor)

+40m, 2012, by Tan Ping

+40m, 2012, by Tan Ping, woodblock print. 

(Image credit: © Tan Ping. Courtesy of Tan Ping Studio)

Enso, 2017, by teamLab

Enso, 2017, by teamLab, digital work. 

(Image credit: © teamLab. Courtesy of Ikkan Art International)

Haumea, 2016, by Tawatchai Puntusawasdi

Haumea, 2016, by Tawatchai Puntusawasdi. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands)

Impenetrable, 2009, by Mona Hatoum

Impenetrable, 2009, by Mona Hatoum, black finished steel and fishing wire. Collection of Yuz Foundation

(Image credit: © Mona Hatoum)


‘Minimalism: Space. Light. Object.’ is on view from 16 November 2018 until 14 April 2019 at the National Gallery Singapore and the ArtScience Museum. For more information, visit the National Gallery Singapore website and the ArtScience Museum website

Daven Wu is the Singapore Editor at Wallpaper*. A former corporate lawyer, he has been covering Singapore and the neighbouring South-East Asian region since 1999, writing extensively about architecture, design, and travel for both the magazine and website. He is also the City Editor for the Phaidon Wallpaper* City Guide to Singapore.