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The Import of Art: Exhibiting Singapore's National Development through MoMA's Visionary Architecture

Friday, 29 September 2017 – For the 14th instalment of the Arts in Southeast Asia Seminar Series, Ms Kathleen Ditzig (Assistant Curator and Manager, Curatorial and Programmes, National Museum of Singapore) spoke on “The Import of Art: Exhibiting Singapore's National Development through MoMA's Visionary Architecture”. More than twenty participants, including those from local universities and art institutions attended.

Ms Kathleen Ditzig during the presentation (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ms Ditzig began by situating the politics of ‘international’ exhibition-making in the context of ‘local’ nation-building. She demonstrated how the Singapore state used the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Visionary Architecture exhibition for its own national development agenda.

The speaker introduced the exhibition, which featured imaginative, visionary, and idealistic projects from international architects considered too revolutionary to build. These projects embodied social critiques and radical calls for political change, dealing with issues of urban development, such as liveability and sustainability, as the architects sought to rebuild the world. The exhibition was presented in Singapore in 1963 alongside the exhibition Housing in Singapore under the auspices of the National Library (NL).

Ms Ditzig showed how the NL’s director, New Zealander Priscilla Taylor, had initiated the bringing of the exhibition to Singapore, a fact that questions the traditional, unidirectional narrative of American cultural institutions pushing American cultural products. Despite her best efforts, the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the local office of the United States Information Service (USIS) refused to cover the costs to transport the exhibition to Singapore. It was funded by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and installed by the Ministry of Culture, showing that local institutions took over the exhibition-making process.

From Left to Right: Dr Benjamin Loh and Ms Kathleen Ditzig (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Turning to the question of soft power, culture and nation-building, the speaker discussed the roles of the USIA/USIS and MoMA in international outreach and cultural programmes. The USIA/USIS worked to show the United States’ position in the world, combat communist propaganda, and promote democracy; MoMa sought to encourage and organise art across international frontiers and promote American culture. Although their key players agreed on cultural diplomacy’s key role in national welfare, and some of the personnel moved between agencies, conflicts between offices show that there were different institutional interests at stake.

Ms Ditzig noted that the new projects presented in Housing in Singapore manifested the HDB’s concern with building houses and providing amenities. It emphasised the economy of building flats while hinting at creativity through its association with Visionary Architecture. Then Culture Minister, S. Rajaratnam, encouraged extensive local media coverage, noting that HDB projects were a “must-see” for tourists to Singapore at the time. The colocation of the two exhibitions placed the HDB, the NL, and MoMA on the same level and aligned public housing with forward-thinking, progressive projects.

Ms Ditzig concluded by observing that such exhibitions were appropriated and co-opted for different national projects in different countries, with different elements being deployed for different agendas. What remained constant were local institutions with intentional narratives and individuals with agency. Visionary Architecture enabled Singaporean agencies to maintain and generate agency and legitimacy. The local-global interface reflected different political aspirations, in spite of the affinity of ideas.

More than twenty participants, including those from local universities and art institutions attended the seminar (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) 

Other questions from the audience allowed the speaker to reflect on the difficulties of ascertaining the exhibition’s local effects with patchy archives and the lack of exhibition references beyond official discourses; the identities of the local architects who laid out the exhibition in Singapore; and the ambivalence of the USIS/USIA towards the socialist tones of the HDB’s projects and anti-imperialist views in the region.

Ms Ditzig provided valuable material about the individuals and inter-agency networks involved, suggesting that personal narratives offer insight into state investment in exhibition-making, and the changes in scale, discourses, and foci as Visionary Architecture travelled from New York. She also noted many opportunities for exhibition-making in Singapore in that period, when art was popular and catered to the masses, with associations playing a greater role in the development of the local art scene, given less government funding. According to Ms Ditzig, contrary to common views, there was already the infrastructure and policies for cultural production to take place in Singapore at that time.