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Immersive Engagement, Contemplative Chronology: Living Pictures Photography in Southeast Asia at NGS

Extensive and chronologically curated, Living Pictures covers a photography from colonial to contemporary Southeast Asia, featuring a wide range of works from studios (G.R. Lambert & Co., Lee Brother Studio), to images of war by Vō An Khánh, before introducing photography as a way to introduce new subjectivity in the works of Pramuan Burusphat and Amanda Heng, and finally culminating in an exploration of how photography partakes in the mediation of contemporary imagination in the works of Manit Sriwanichpoom, FX Harsono, Poklong Anading, and others.

Opening the third section on photography’s creation of new worlds or reality, this quiet, almost melancholic, monochromatic composition that features a moored boat along a beach framed by slanted palm trees exemplifies the contemplative mood that accompanies many photographs in this part of the sprawling exhibition. Wu Peng Seng’s gelatin silver print on paper entitled At Rest (1964) is a poetic and poignant transition in the exhibition that marks the burgeoning possibility of photography as art rather than solely being a tool for ethnographic study, political messaging, or documentation. The background is a stark white rendering focal point of the photograph appears at once to be a local scene, yet at the same time suspended in a nowhere space of emptiness. The dramatic lines in the image, paired with high levels of contrast and stylized composition make for a careful exploration in pictorialism thorough photography. That is, the point of the image is not exactly what it depicts but its aesthetics and how it makes us feel.

Wu Peng Seng, At Rest, 1964, gelatin silver print on paper,

48.3 x 39 cm. Gift of the artist and family.

Collection of National Gallery Singapore.

Structured in a chronological fashion, the exhibition attempts to thematize the exhibits according to the evolving purposes of photography and its democratization to the locals. Its design is poetic and appropriate especially with the darker colored walls for the colonial and modern sections on war and development before opening up spatially, thematically and aesthetically in terms of design and interior color choice in the contemporary section. Even the public engagement section which allows individuals to hang up their own photographs in a literal white cube provokes the perennial question of how photography’s multifaceted purpose will change even in today’s day and age. Exploring photography’s role in colonial documentation, Southeast Asia’s modernization, artistic expression, as well as reclamation or revitalization of personal and communal identity, the exhibition is not too heavily cluttered in its presentation of works, allowing viewers to access moments in the history of photography from multiple angles without getting lost in the blurriness of its complex past.

Overall, Living Pictures pays homage to the ancestral portraits and political images that capture vignettes of Southeast Asia’s past while balancing its facilitation of contemporary discourses on photography’s possible futures. It successfully sets up an informative and engaging experience for viewers of all ages and backgrounds to immerse themselves in the affordances and (hi)stories that photography has brought to this side of the world.



Exhibition runs from 02 Dec 2022 - 20 Aug 2023

National Gallery Singapore, Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, Level 3, City Hall Wing

General Admission (Free for Singaporeans & PRs)

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