National Gallery Singapore Presents “Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia”
By National Gallery Singapore
Be swept into the enthralling world of photography at National Gallery Singapore with “Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia.” Showcasing diverse forms of photography, 3D displays, and interactive activities, the Gallery presents its first-ever comprehensive look at photography in the region from the past 150 years.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, photographs often have a life of their own; they can be moved from space to space, and they have the ability to affect the world around them. Photography can be thought of as a reflection of the world, yet photographs in their many forms have also shaped our understanding of the world. Many of the photographers featured in this show have used the medium to influence the vision of Southeast Asia, while others have questioned the medium’s impact on perception.
The exhibition is structured chronologically across five sections and begins with a colonial archive of photos, featuring images of ethnographic landscapes and portraits of locals across the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As cameras became more accessible worldwide, photo production shifted from Europe to studios run by native and migrant communities. This marked an important shift toward local populations taking more agency over their representation within and the distribution of the photographs. The second section focuses on the role that studio portraiture played in promoting that shift.
In the third section, the medium’s close and contentious relationship with reality is investigated with a specific focus on documentary photographs from the Second Indochina War. What is left out of the frame is just as important as what is included. These photos, which were often featured in the press, had the potential to create new worlds, not by mirroring reality but by interpreting it.
The former Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s photo, officially titled The Terror of War (1972) but better known as Napalm Girl, is on display alongside photos by Vietnamese photographer Võ An Khánh and the late Singaporean photojournalist Terence Khoo.
As visitors journey toward the present they will see works by artists that challenge the traditional status of photography, either by delving into conceptual art or engaging with digital manipulation and appropriation.
The last section responds to the explosion of photography in contemporary Southeast Asia, presenting the various ways in which artists use photographs to engage with history and conceptualize the future. Visitors can step into Dinh Q Lê’s large 3D installation, Crossing the Farther Shore (2014), where they will be immersed in a weaved structure comprising over 5,000 found photographs, mostly from pre-1975 South Vietnam.
The final artwork of the exhibition is Heman Chong’s God Bless Diana (2000–04), a collection of 550 photographs made all over the world during a five-year period and then made into a series of postcards that visitors to the exhibition can purchase at $1 each.
While many of us are familiar with modern forms of photography, “Living Pictures” intends not only to pique visitors’ interest in the medium but also to deepen their understanding of photography in Southeast Asia and its role in shaping perspectives and art history.
“Living Pictures” is showing at the City Hall Wing, Level 3, Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, National Gallery Singapore until August 20, 2023.
*This post is presented by National Gallery Singapore.