Thursday, June 30, 2011

Singapore Art Museum

Last Saturday, we met up with some friends to visit the Singapore Art Museum. The museum was hosting "Art Garden" which was publicised as "interactive contemporary art for children" and visitors were invited to "spend a day of play and learning" there.

With our experience at Please Touch Museum still fresh in our minds, it was inevitable that we would compare the two museums. While I acknowledge that the one in Singapore is more of an art exhibition where the artist's voice needs to be respected, I also feel that, having touted itself as being "interactive contemporary art for children" and offering children the chance to learn through play, then the Art Garden has to be measured against the same standards and criteria that apply to the Please Touch Museum.

I should say now that, in my view, the Art Garden didn't match up. It was a big flop, if you measure it against its intent as publicised.

The first exhibit that greets visitors is Walter, the "curious colossal bunny". Made of PVC and filled with helium, he is 4 m tall (lying down) and 7.5 m long. It looked fantastic - from a child's perspective, I think the children were looking forward to feeling the massiveness of the exhibit, perhaps giving it a punch or even bouncing on it.

Unfortunately, dear Walter is protected from little children by a short railing. There is no way you are going to lay a finger on that bunny and there is even a security guard standing by to make sure of that. Ryan observed the scenario from afar and promptly lost all interest in the exhibit.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): We learned that curious colossal bunnies don't do anything except laze around.

After buying our tickets, we proceeded to the first room which hosted "Paramodelic-Graffiti", which was an installation made up of plastic train tracks, with artificial grass and styrofoam landscapes and topography, some plastic construction vehicles and structures and some plastic toy animals. When we walked in, I went, "Wow!" It looked so inviting!

Believe it or not, the exhibit is a no-touch zone! One of the children from our group ran up to touch the toys and was promptly told by the staff not to touch anything. I was stunned. The exhibit stretches all over the room and even up the walls! To get through to the next room, we literally had to weave our children through the exhibit. Don't ask whether we enjoyed the exhibit - we were too busy trying not to get in its way! There was also no way that our children could enjoy the exhibit because we had to get them out of there quickly BEFORE they actually noticed what the exhibit was made up of and wanted to touch it.

It was a complete flop in terms of being "interactive contemporary art for children".

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): Zero. When visiting the exhibit with children, you should blindfold them and move them out as quickly as possible.

Next to this was a room where the children could set up their own train tracks. However, this is limited to a certain number of children and it is also limited in time. We got there at the end of the last session, and I heard the staff yell out, "OK... PACK UP EVERYTHING!!" Gosh, it sounded like a command from an army commander. Maybe I'm being too sensitive about this, but you wouldn't speak to an adult like that so why is it necessary to speak like that when dealing with children? I don't think that's the way to go.

All right, let's move on. This exhibit is imaginatively titled "Fruits".

The part that you see in the photo is once again a "no-touch" zone, it is protected by a railing and some staff members are stationed next to it. The staff give out paper templates which you can fold into 3D fruit like the ones in the plastic trays in the photo. Each admission ticket entitles you to a template so we collected two templates with our two tickets.

The construction of the fruit is straightforward - you simply smear glue on the white tabs and glue them to adjacent white tabs and as you go along, you will naturally end up with a paper fruit. The white tabs have names of different fruits in different languages including English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. That is apparently the educational part of it but I couldn't see how I would be able to learn the name of a strawberry in Chinese/Malay/Tamil unless I already knew how to read the Chinese/Malay/Tamil words/characters for strawberry.

The white tabs of the template are quite small and intricate. Ryan took one look at it and walked away to the other part of this exhibit - the Tree of Love. I ended up doing the activity by myself (and my adult friends).

I actually did not like this activity. It was very restrictive. When I handed up my 3D fruits for exchange with real fruit, I was told that one of my fruit was not as it should be and I was told how it must be done. I felt like a factory worker, churning out meaningless waste.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): Zero. Maybe this portion will be more meaningful for older kids.

[The rest of this post is written by Richard]

The "Tree of Love" consists of tree structures with miniature sculptures on their branches and at the base of each tree, there is a cup with markers. Visitors are encouraged to color the miniature sculptures and the tree itself. Ryan enjoyed this portion of the exhibit. He promptly took the colour markers and began doodling away but he lasted less than five minutes before growing bored.

Leona: I thought it was too limited and restrictive. As you can see, there really is not much space for the children to write/doodle/draw. In addition, the children are supposed to pen "their hopes, thoughts and feelings" in the hope that this will inspire social harmony. This turned me off completely - the aim of the artist to dictate what the children should write about. You can see that most of the children just doodled on the trees. So much for deep thought.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): 3 out of 10. Although Ryan is quite interested and involved in colouring the branches, the miniature sculptures (even those on the lowest branch) are much too tall for him. Perhaps if they were allowed to draw on the clean white walls...
Educational (for 2 year olds): Zero. Maybe this will be more meaningful for older kids.

We moved on to the opposite wing on the 1st floor. The first exhibit that we went to was "Mummy Dearest". There were panels of different caricature cartoons and each caricature has a few sets of clothes and accessories for the children to play dress up. Each item (dress, shorts, shoes, etc) has velcro on the back to enable the children to stick it onto the caricature. A Project Runway in the making...

Ryan took to this display quite naturally but he only completed one of the caricatures here. I suppose the rest of the caricatures are basically the same, a variation on a theme and after the first one, the rest is not challenging or interesting enough to sustain the attention of a 2-year old.

Leona: I did not like this much because it did not allow the children to take the lead and learn through play. The children were pretty much dictated to - the panels are labelled, eg. "GIRL" or "BOY" and you have to dress the "GIRL" with the clothes from the GIRL section and the "BOY" with the clothes from the BOY section. I think the artist could have done a lot more with this, perhaps use more tactile elements like zippers and buttons and scarves. This was pretty boring.

At the centre of this gallery, is a huge multi-tiered cake which the children are supposed to decorate. It is quite huge and sits on a platform. The platform itself is almost as high as Ryan and Ryan could not reach even the lowest tier of the cake. I don't think Ryan even noticed this gigantic cake and judging by the bareness of the cake, neither did the other children.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): 2 out of 10. Interesting for the first caricature.
Educational (for 2 year olds): 1 out of 10. Kids learn that they can put on different outfits? Hardly anything new, even for a 2-year old?

The second exhibit on this wing is called "Go". Inspired by the Chinese game of Go or Weiqi, guests are given a piece of graph paper on which they can design a pattern by colouring the squares in the matrix with different colours. Once your pattern or art is completed, a staff will collate wooden circles in the various colours for you. You then slot the wooden circles into a large vertical replica of the matrix of dots to form your pattern or art and have a picture taken of it. There can be a few people designing their artwork at the table but only one person at a time can reproduce their art at the giant vertical replica. I thought it was a good concept. Everyone evidently thought the same because it was the most popular activity. We decided to give this a miss. Ryan did not look interested in this exhibit at all; probably more for slightly older children.

We moved on to the adjacent hall to another exhibit called "Superhigh". The first thing that struck us was the bright and wonderful colours surrounding the walls and floors of this room. This was a refreshing change.There are a few round shaped blocks of different colours and the children are supposed to slide these objects to sit on top the circle of the same size and colour painted on the floor. This is quite a lame exercise, I must say. Given the bright and vibrant colours and patterns on the walls and floors, we expected something more.

When we got into the room, Ryan quickly climbed on top one of the coloured blocks. As he was about to look around and enjoy the various colours at a different height and perspective, a museum staff walked up to us and asked us to bring Ryan down. We carried Ryan and walked to the next exhibit.

Leona: Yet another restrictive activity where the children are not allowed to think creatively or have their own interpretation. It gives me the impression that the artist has no clue about how children behave. The activity is also too simplistic for toddlers. Ryan could match colours before he started walking.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): 0.5. Two minutes on top of the round shaped object.
Educational (for 2 year olds): Zero.

The last exhibit in this wing is called "Lightning Action". It is quite an interesting art installation. A cluster of white boxes are placed strategically in the corner of a dark room. A projector projects the image of a toy box cover onto each of the boxes a few at a time, giving the impression that the toy boxes are appearing magically. Ryan was quite intrigued by this display. For the first few minutes, he kept wanting to go closer and closer to these boxes and wanting to touch them and to explore them. Of course, there is a low barricade around it and a museum staff nearby to ensure that nobody touches anything. We appreciate the intricacies of this particular installation and apparently Ryan understands this too as after awhile, he just sat back and enjoyed the show.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): Five. Quite entertaining and intriguing for Ryan.

We decided to go and explore the rest of the museum on the first floor and we came across this giant white elephant at the hallway leading to the internal courtyard. Each visitor was given a strip of stickers to stick onto the elephant. Here are 2 shots of Ryan doing his bit in decorating the elephant. He pasted two stickers and had to be persuaded to finish up the strip.

Leona: All the stickers are the same, albeit in different colours. All the children do the activity in the same way to achieve the intention of the artist, never mind what the child wants. The individuality of each child is completely disregarded.

Interactive (for 2 year olds): Zero
Educational (for 2 year olds): Huh? Putting stickers on an elephant?

Leona: The installation behind the elephant that you see in the first photo is quite interesting. It is called "Dancing Solar Flowers" - it is made up of paper flowers that rock in response to light. Ryan didn't care for it though. The museum was also holding screenings of animated children's films but unfortunately we missed the last screening for the day.

The last stop that we made was at the Glass Hall. There is no exhibit here, it is an activity space for the children. Ryan enjoyed himself the most here and we spent a long time here. In the middle of the hall, there was a table with train sets similar to those in Paramodelic-Graffiti and it was a nice surprise for Ryan as he finally had the chance to create something and get his hands on all those wonderful trains and train tracks.

Leona: There were also little tables along the sides of the space where children could sit and work on colouring sheets. Ryan was not interested in these and neither was I - the children were all given the same colouring sheet of an elephant and the end result was a slew of similar looking pictures. It was just so sad. Why is there this need to circumscribe what the children could create? Is there so little faith in the imagination and creativity of a child that we fear he/she will be paralysed if faced with a blank sheet of paper?

Leona: On the whole, the experience at the Art Garden paled in comparison to our experience at the Please Touch Museum. The exhibits were not child-focused, rather they were extremely artist-centric, which is completely inappropriate when your target audience is made up of children. The children are forced to play in a certain way, they are not allowed to have their own ideas or to experiment or to play freely. There is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to play, which is a concept that I do not agree with, (unless it is for safety reasons). Some of the exhibits are too simplistic, which ultimately bores and insults the child - how stupid do you think children are? Most of the time, the children are treated as though they are merely factory workers who are there to carry out specific tasks. I got the feeling that the exhibits were designed by people who had no understanding of children at all.

It is a commendable effort by the SAM to open up and engage the public especially the children but they still have a long long way to go as compared to the Please Touch Museum. A museum is only as good as its exhibits and some may even argue that it is only as good as the amount of visitors it attracts every year. The two are invariably linked. I hope to see the SAM take a bolder and more incisive step in developing more specific programs to engage the different age groups in Singapore; in particular the very young and the very old.


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Anonymous said...

damn bitchy entry. everything also dont like...learn to be more appreciative mah. maybe try to explain to ur offspring the point of it. art is a dialogue, its not there to be judge whether it met your standard or not. ppfffft.

Pinkie Pirate said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for your comment, albeit made anonymously. I think you may have missed the point of the post. It is not that it didn't meet my standard - the point is that it didn't meet its own standard of being an interactive display suitable for children. If it were content to simply be an art exhibition, that would have been fine. However, as an interactive display for children, I didn't find that it reached out to my son. If you've spent any time reading my blog, you would have known that I and my family, including my son, are extremely appreciative of the arts. In appreciating the arts, we are entitled to critique, and have our own opinion. You are welcome to disagree with me, but you should also let me disagree with you. That is how a dialogue should be.

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