The Five Best Exhibitions to See in Singapore Right Now

From a show dedicated to the archive of a Southeast Asian art guardian to Ming Wong’s imposing cosmic installation, here’s what not to miss during Singapore Art Week and ART SG

BY Wong Binghao in Critic's Guides , Exhibition Reviews | 19 JAN 24

‘The Neglected Dimension’
National Gallery
Singapore 7 July 2023 – 25 February 2024

Arahmaiani. Crossing Point. 2011

Drawing its title from a term coined by the art critic Sanento Yuliman in 1987 to describe the diminished significance of Islamic spirituality in the development of Indonesian modern art, ‘The Neglected Dimension’ features four artists who redressed this issue by introducing Islamic calligraphy into their works – albeit strategically abstracted to modulate its legibility. Alongside formative paintings like Abdul Djalil Pirous’s Epitaph IV and Tulisan Merah (Red Writing) (both 1974) – the latter of which simulates a string of incoherent, Arabic-looking lettering as textured adornments along the top of a vermillion monochrome – curator Anissa Rahadiningtyas presents works by an artist from a younger generation who speaks to the enduring misinterpretation of religion in art history. Arahmaiani’s Crossing Point (2011) comprises video documentation of a performance the artist made in response to the racial profiling and fearmongering of a post-9/11 world alongside the flags she used during this action. On each differently coloured flag is emblazoned a single word that evokes love or other universal values in a now-outmoded Jawi script.

Ming Wong
Empress Lawn
19 January – 10 March 

Ming Wong, 'Wayang Spaceship', 2022. Courtesy: Singapore Art Museum

During the day, Ming Wong’s imposing, silver-panelled Wayang Spaceship (2022–24) resembles a shuttered house of mirrors. At night, however, this hulking, specular edifice comes to life, emitting vivid moving images, lights and music that render sensible the artwork’s titular wayang, a Malay word that refers to Chinese street opera. The spaceship’s enigmatic video projection collages footage of Cantonese opera impresario Yam Kim Fai, who was renowned for playing both male and female roles, with scenes from 1950s and ’60s Eastern bloc sci-fi films depicting astronauts, cosmic blasts and UFOs. Mixed with these eclectic images are clips of Wong as an ‘astro girl’ from his 2014 video and mixed-media installation Windows on the World (Part 1). The video montage is  refracted in the spaceship’s iridescent dichroic surfaces, an abstraction befitting Wong’s unceasing, decades-long traversal through the milky ways of gender, language, time and space.

Paper Trails: Navigating the T.K. Sabapathy Archives
NUS Museum
16 November 2023 – 31 December 2024 

Paper Trails: Navigating the T.K. Sabapathy Archives, 2023

For more than five decades, the art historian, critic, curator and educator T. K. Sabapathy has shaped Southeast Asian art history, donating many artworks, books, personal effects and miscellaneous documents to the National University of Singapore Museum since 2002. Despite its modest presentation, ‘Paper Trails: Navigating the T.K. Sabapathy Archives’ – the museum’s third project in the past decade that seeks to publicly interpret Sabapathy’s contributions – is effective because it works with rather than against the heterogeneity of the archive’s contents. Approximately a tenth of the donated materials are presented here, loosely organized into five categories: scholarship, teaching, writing, curating and that convenient catch-all ‘other’. The diversity of Sabapathy’s holdings is apparent in the salon-style installation, which presents artworks by his collaborators alongside a selection of his newspaper articles, teaching curricula, academic theses, letters, photographs and decaled quotations from his texts. Like an unsolved puzzle, ‘Paper Trails’ tantalizingly ramifies Sabapathy’s archive, leaving room for ambiguity and open-ended discussions of his trailblazing life and work.

Noor Abed
NTU Centre for Contemporary Art
16 January – 28 January

Noor Abed, A Night in Between, 2023, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Alluding to dark, ungraspable stories of absence and amnesia, Noor Abed’s A Night We Held Between (2023) interweaves poetic rumination with socio-political urgency. Shot in Palestine last year on 16mm, the 30-minute film dedicates extended frames to geological terrain – particularly caves, valleys and underground passages – environmental apertures that personify historical gulfs. A small community, consisting predominantly of women, gathers to perform ritualistic choreographies – devised by Abed – in these otherwise-desolate sites. In one scene, a dancerly figure expertly manoeuvres a stick; later in the film, a trio ominously encircles a fire. Abed’s films draw from her research into Palestinian folklore, in which communities often recount descriptions of natural surroundings to which they feel a deep sense of belonging. In this context, Abed’s choice of 16mm is significant: the hazy, nostalgic quality of analogue film is, for her, metonymic of Palestine’s irretrievable, forlorn past. Esoteric and elegiac, A Night We Held Between both captivates and defamiliarizes, instilling in its viewers a feeling that is equally hopeful and sobering.

Self and Beyond
Ota Fine Arts
13 January  2 March


In ‘Self and Beyond’, artists Ay Tjoe Christine, Rina Banerjee and Maria Farrar explore iterations of selfhood in alluring works that deny the performance of femininity. Farrar paints female wait staff, laundry workers and flight attendants as they undertake their arduous and all-too-frequently gendered labour – denying her audience the ability to imagine a recuperative narrative for these women by depicting them with their backs to the viewer. Banerjee’s ink-on-paper works present epicene bodies with feminine countenances and contorted limbs. In Under Heavy Mistletoe (2018), for instance, a lone figure with a single head, six arms and four legs dominates the foreground, as if a guardian of the hypertrophic flora that makes up the painting’s background. Finally, Ay Tjoe’s ethereal and hot pink oil on canvas Petal Number One (2023) appears to be dissolving into air, a vanishing symbol of femininity.

Main image: Ming Wong, ‘Wayang Spaceship’, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Wong Binghao (Bing) is a writer, editor and curator.