The Act of Hosting
Contemporary Art and Architecture in Southeast Asia
When Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus art school, wrote a statement for the Exhibition for Unknown Architects in 1919 – whereby the theme was utopia – he notably called architects artists and penned a rallying cry for the construction of a cathedral of the future: the shape of which would constitute painting, sculpture and architecture. This brought to mind the premise of the 2019 National Gallery Singapore exhibition Suddenly Turning Visible: Art and Architecture in Southeast Asia (1969 – 1989) and its keynote lecture by pioneer architect Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat. Having been acquainted with Gropius and familiar with inclinations of the Bauhaus, Lim detailed his design for the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House which intentionally created spaces to host such artworks as Children of the Sun, the first large-scale painting by Malaysian artist Khoo Sui Hoe and a landscaped forecourt for public sculpture. These considerations raise the question of how integrated contemporary art and architecture remain within Southeast Asia and whether both disciplines have become increasingly estranged over time due to a focus on more specialised and less inclusive approaches. Given key similarities between the two such as research, movements (think modernism) streamlining designs, equal precedence allocated at the Venice Biennale and principles of form, texture, colour, space and light, one would imagine that there would be less of a gap between both fields.
With the built environment as a staple of our world view, it is of no surprise that Southeast Asian artists have looked to architecture as propositions or subjects for their works. In Floating Town, Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung drafted a proposal that posited floating houses as a means of disaster relief. Malaysian artist Saiful Razman layered medical gauze and tissue over painted surfaces to form elements of a house such as the stairs or tangga, and pillars or tiang. This Future Love series was the subject of his 2019 solo exhibition at Chan + Hori Contemporary, that imagined the building up of a sanctuary in response to a year of loss.
Sites have been spearheaded by artists and architects in tandem as opportunities for social engagement. When Thai artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert conceptualised the land foundation in 1998 in Chiang Mai, the parcel of land they demarcated for it housed two rice fields and opportunities for the construction of architectural frameworks alongside cultivation of the land. Architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller designed a multi-concept space as its first permanent structure which, in the manner of an exquisite corpse, could be added onto by others. As part of the OH! Open House which enlivened neighbourhoods around Singapore via art walkabouts, architect Randy Chan built Palimpsest in 2016, a makeshift wayang or opera stage which referenced performances that took place in Potong Pasir in Singapore. In 2019, another wayang stage was sited at an urban farm in Singapore, highlighting the material of bakau wood that was hand-tied together and traditionally used as scaffolding, as opposed to aluminium poles and clamps widespread today.
Site-specificity, in particular, is an arena that allows art and architecture to coalesce. The Thai pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale curated by Apinan Poshyananda involved artists assembling a prefabricated Thai house that had been transported via boat from Bangkok. On the notion of a pavilion itself, one recalls the Serpentine Pavilion in London – initiated by an art gallery as an open call for architectural designs. In turn, the Matter and Place exhibition at Museum MACAN in Indonesia dealt with space and addressed how it affected identities of those who occupied it. Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman presented Tadika Getah or Rubber Kindergarten, referencing her memories of rubber plantations as a young girl and the commercial value of such plantations despite their toll on the environment. In the same exhibition, Indonesian architect Andra Matin showcased Elevation with a woven rattan facade – an installation highlighting diverse elevated architectural forms in the country.
The ongoing debate of whether architecture constitutes an art form is ceaseless and unlikely to be resolved in the near future. The fact that the prestigious Turner Prize for art was awarded to Assemble in 2015, an architecture collective, further emphasises the grey area between the two. Arguments have been made for art being more conceptual and content-driven, versus architecture being contingent on form and function. Yet, integration should not only be desired, but continually encouraged. Imagine if properties across Southeast Asia were developed specifically with the idea of hosting or collaborating with artists in mind, giving equal measure to architecture and artworks. An example is the Art Mai Gallery Hotel in Chiang Mai, with its rooms designed by Thai artists such as Jitsing Somboon.
What if art residencies were conceptualised with architectural and artistic considerations? Should there be a revisit of the term design aesthetics, that would allow viewers an all-encompassing experience of art, design and infrastructure? How do we incorporate art collections into architecture?
On 13 January 2021, Chan + Hori Contemporary engaged architects and interior designers from ONG&ONG, HBA and Kerry Hill Architects at the LIAIGRE showroom in Singapore in an energetic exchange that lasted close to three hours. Seated around a Sumi marble table, surrounded by an exhibition of Southeast Asian artists from the Chan + Hori portfolio such as Ivan David Ng and Jay Ho; the nature of how these disciplines could blend seamlessly together was evident. The consensus was clear: those seated in the room were not only aware of the need for integration between art and architecture, but were also proponents of, and advocates for, a change in existing practices – a cause best advanced by trust and a deep understanding of the intangible benefits these disciplines evoked from collaborators and clients alike.
Considering an extract from the manifesto of Coop Himmelb(l)au, much of what art evokes is also echoed here: Architecture has to be cavernous, fiery, smooth, hard, angular, brutal, round, delicate, colourful, obscene, lustful, dreamy, attracting, repelling, wet, dry and throbbing… Architecture must blaze.
Published January 2021.
 Danchev, A. (2011). 100 Artists’ Manifestos From the Futurists to the Stuckists (p. 161). London: Penguin.
 KLAS Art Auction: Malaysian Modern and Contemporary Art (p. 75). (2015). Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Mediate Communications Sdn Bhd.
 Suddenly Turning Visible: Art and Architecture in Southeast Asia (1969 – 1989) (p. 114). (2019). Singapore, Singapore: National Gallery Singapore.
 Bauer, U.M. and Oetker, B. (2016). SouthEastAsia Spaces of the Curatorial (p.88). Berlin: Sternberg Press.
 Hori, K. (2019). Saiful Razman. Retrieved from https://www.khaihori.com/saiful-razman.
 the land foundation. About. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.thelandfoundation.org/about.
 Hirsch, N. (2015, July 28). The studio residency at the land. Retrieved from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2016983975/the-studio-residency-at-the-land.
 Cruz, K. (2017, January 24). The Shifting Sands of Potong Pasir. Retrieved from https://arthop.co/editorials/shifting-sands-potong-pasir-oh-open-house-2016-review.
 Shangri-La Art Podcast: David Chew, Festival Director, Singapore Heritage Festival & Night Festival & Randy Chan, Architect, Principal – Zarch Collaboratives [Interview by K. Hori & D. Lim]. (2020.). Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/episode/4vT2EIQl77PkatpZdiPqeT.
 Poshyananda, A. (2003). Reverie and Phantasm in the Epoch of Global Trauma. Retrieved from http://universes-in-universe.de/car/venezia/bien50/tha/e-press.htm.
 Hendhy Hutomo, H. (2019). On Matter and Place at Museum MACAN. Retrieved from https://manual.co.id/article/matter-and-place-museum-macan/.
 Museum MACAN Highlights Architecture With Matter And Place. (2019, April 26). Retrieved from https://www.indesignlive.sg/happenings/museum-macan-spotlight-architecture-matter-place.
 Is architecture art? (2016). Retrieved from https://architectureau.com/articles/is-architecture-art/.
 Meet the Artists (2015). Retrieved from https://www.artmaigalleryhotel.com/artist/.
 Danchev, A. (2011). 100 Artists’ Manifestos From the Futurists to the Stuckists (p. 398). London: Penguin.
Bauer, U.M. and Oetker, B. (2016). SouthEastAsia Spaces of the Curatorial (p.88). Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Cruz, K. (2017, January 24). The Shifting Sands of Potong Pasir. Retrieved from https://arthop.co/editorials/shifting-sands-potong-pasir-oh-open-house-2016-review.
Danchev, A. (2011). 100 Artists’ Manifestos From the Futurists to the Stuckists (p. 161). London: Penguin.
Hendhy Hutomo, H. (2019). On Matter and Place at Museum MACAN. Retrieved from https://manual.co.id/article/matter-and-place-museum-macan/.
Hirsch, N. (2015, July 28). The studio residency at the land. Retrieved from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2016983975/the-studio-residency-at-the-land.
Hori, K. (2019). Saiful Razman. Retrieved from https://www.khaihori.com/saiful-razman.
Is architecture art? (2016). Retrieved from https://architectureau.com/articles/is-architecture-art/.
KLAS Art Auction: Malaysian Modern and Contemporary Art (p. 75). (2015). Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Mediate Communications Sdn Bhd
Meet the Artists (2015). Retrieved from https://www.artmaigalleryhotel.com/artist/.
Museum MACAN Highlights Architecture With Matter And Place. (2019, April 26). Retrieved from https://www.indesignlive.sg/happenings/museum-macan-spotlight-architecture-matter-place.
Poshyananda, A. (2003). Reverie and Phantasm in the Epoch of Global Trauma. Retrieved from http://universes-in-universe.de/car/venezia/bien50/tha/e-press.htm.
Shangri-La Art Podcast: David Chew, Festival Director, Singapore Heritage Festival & Night Festival & Randy Chan, Architect, Principal – Zarch Collaboratives [Interview by K. Hori & D. Lim]. (2020.). Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/episode/4vT2EIQl77PkatpZdiPqeT.
Suddenly Turning Visible: Art and Architecture in Southeast Asia (1969 – 1989) (p. 114). (2019). Singapore, Singapore: National Gallery Singapore.
the land foundation. About. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.thelandfoundation.org/about.
About the Writer
Deborah Lim is Curator and Junior Partner at Chan + Hori Contemporary, a curatorial advisory and artist management outfit in Singapore. Formerly working at the National Gallery Singapore, she holds a Master of Arts (Distinction) in Curating & Collections from Chelsea College of Arts (London) and a Bachelor of Business Management degree from Singapore Management University.
As curator or co-curator, her exhibitions include Where the Sidewalk Ends (2020), Singapore Utopia (2019) and UNTAPPED (2018, 2019) at Chan + Hori Contemporary, Singapore; D/SINI at Gillman Barracks, Singapore (2018); Tuck Muntarbhorn: Stillness Speaks at Fassart Gallery, Istanbul (2017); Artists’ Lives & Chelsea College of Arts: An Audio Exhibition in collaboration with the British Library, London (2017); Jocelyn Herbert: Design for Film in collaboration with the National Theatre Archive, London (2016) and the reading rooms for Kit Poulson: Mutter and Monica Ross: A Critical Fine Art Practice at Chelsea Space, London (2017, 2016).