Wednesday 29 August 2012

Journal | liminality

Taking Carol Duncan's The Art Museum as Ritual as a jumping board, I want to bring attention to and explore museum spaces in Singapore as a secular ritual site.  The Art Museum as Ritual is very much a layered piece, speaking of the site, the performance of moving through the museum, the ideological force of the museum and as where power and history intersects. Although these are all points that will bear down on what I am about to say, here I want to focus on the particular aesthetic experience that museums stimulate, and how the museum space in Singapore evokes that experience (or rather, fails to).

To just briefly summarise what was said, Duncan adapted the notion of liminality to the art museum to analyse it as a ritual site/artefact. She has spoken of art museums as "complex totalities that include everything from the building to the selection and ordering of collections and the details of their installation and lighting... this totality is best understood as a ritual setting, a ceremonial monument in its own rights and not just a container for other monuments." Duncan here has set the scene of the museum as a ritual site where a particular category of liminality, that of being betwixt-and-between the normal, that is, where a particular mode of consciousness operates, to elucidate how we encounter the objects on display. When Duncan says "like most ritual sites, museum space is carefully marked off and culturally designated as reserved for a special kind of attention - in this case, contemplation and learning", she is comparing the liminal experience to the aesthetic experience as a mode of receptivity thought to be most appropriate before works of art.

Do museums here in Singapore evoke that type of aesthetic experience?

I would say no. (I'll be frank and say I'm not that well read on history and policies here, so I'll be breezing through the points.)

The many points from Duncan that I had listed above are relevant here. Firstly, the performance of moving through the museum: If visitors to a museum are enacting a performance, then they are performers reacting to cues in scripts, and some visitors read these cues better than other. Are visitors here in Singapore clued in to these cues? Compared to European societies where museums have had a long history as an Enlightenment project, such history is lacking here. Are there other socio-historical factors at play? What are they?

Then there is of course the ideological structure of museums here. What can be said of museums that constantly have 'Open house' during public holidays or festivals? Is this in line with a particular vision and policy on museums? Perhaps my next point will shed some light on this.

Lastly, the site, which refers to its architecture and its surroundings. The building of Singapore Art Museum was formerly a school, the National Art Gallery was the City Hall and former Supreme Court, and the Asian Civilisation Museum used to house government offices. Do the histories of these buildings have any impact on the aesthetic experience? Well, I think they do. The obvious is that these buildings were not designed to be museums. Also, and perhaps this is reading too much into symbolism but I've always understood such urban planning to be a microcosm of society, what does it mean to house museums in former colonial/colonial-era buildings? What effect does the architecture have when it blends in with similar buildings next to them? Especially, as in the case of the latter two museums, they are located in close proximity to the buildings of state institutions and, in the case of all three, cramped in by shopping and/or business districts and offices on the sides?

In my view, the three museums here have failed in composing a dramaturgy. The liminal experience is one that occurs from the outside, betwixt-and-between the normal, yet the museums are located in the midst of such banal spaces as shopping centres and office buildings. And the buildings of the museums itself held normal day-to-day function of education and administration.

The National Gallery of Victoria (International), in Melbourne, Australia provides a telling comparison. And I've chosen NGV only because it is an example I am familiar with. The building itself is of monolithic proportions and its design, literally a large plain rectangular box, is one you won't see anywhere else in the area and sets it apart. At the front, it has a moat-like pond running around the side. Its large entrance is blocked by a glass panel with water running down, so that it channels visitors to come in from the entrance located on the right of the panel.  The exit is on the left. Each element serves its purpose to isolate the visitors. The moat-like pond is almost like a symbolic threshold separating the museum from its surroundings. And the glass panel, a permeable barrier. It is not just the design of the museum that adds to the dramaturgy. The NGV is located on the bank opposite the CBD - another separation by water, this time a river that cuts through and separates the city area. It faces the same street that leads up to the Shrine of Rememberance, itself a ritual site of national importance. Do such physical elements echo in our mind? Does it unconsciously prep us for an aesthetic experience? All I know is that each time I've passed through the entrance of NGV, I've always felt a tingling of trepidation.

I'm also interested to know if the aesthetic experience is the same if we were to encounter art in open public spaces. There is that slight disjuncture when you encounter something quite out of the ordinary. Could that experience be called liminal? But I think that's a topic for another post.

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