What You See Is What You See: Notes from a Docent at “Minimalism – Space. Light. Object.”

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in early December, and the Visitor Centre at the National Gallery was packed. Twenty pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly as I reported for duty as the volunteer docent for the 2pm tour.

All 20 individuals – a group of retirees, a couple from Nepal, a group of 20-somethings, a solo traveller from the Netherlands and my friends Norman, Vicky, Dana, Wei Ching, Alison and Benjamin had turned up to visit the Gallery’s latest attraction: Minimalism – Space, Light, Object, which runs from 16 November 2018 till 14 April 2019.

This was my first Minimalism tour outing and I had not expected to find such a big turnout (other than my friends). I considered my assignment: for the next 60 minutes, I would guide my visitors through 3 galleries – while attempting to open their eyes to the wonders of Minimalism – an art form that most people find baffling and even outrageous. Why would a canvas painted black, mirrored cubes and fluorescent light bulbs be called art?

Haegue Yang, “Sol LeWitt Upside Down – Double Modular Cube, Scaled Down 29 Times” (2017). Photo courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Precisely because minimalist art is stripped of all representation, narrative, emotion, identity and meaning. It’s characterised by mostly physical objects and structures made of industrial materials – all arranged with detailed precision and repetition on the floors and walls of the Gallery. It’s up to us, the viewer, to draw close, absorb the physicality and nature of the Minimalist works and objects themselves, and ultimately form our own conclusions about how we think and feel.

Unlike artists of Abstract Expressionism – Jackson Pollock for one, who worshipped chaos, spontaneity and emotion – the artists of Minimalism are cool and detached. “What you see is what you see,” is the oft quoted statement by artist Frank Stella that sums up the Minimalism aesthetic.

Minimalist artists do not personally create their own works. Like architects and contractors, they form their ideas and then issue detailed plans to a technical crew to construct, execute and display their works from one gallery to the next. Minimalist paintings, sculptures and installations also rarely have names. They are simply called Untitled – as seen in the works of Robert Morris, Donald Judd and others.

Kim Lim, “Column 1971-72” (1971–1972). Photo courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

This poses a challenge for most of us who tend to view art in a traditional sense. We are comfortable with the idea of gazing at a 15th century portrait of Mona Lisa and admiring her mysterious smile which has remained unchanged through the centuries. But we pay scant attention to the dynamic environment, materials, objects, spaces and structures that shape our lives every day.

How do I communicate this new aesthetic to my audience? Giving them a simple ‘demo’ before I commenced the tour, I held up a piece of paper and asked my group to imagine how this ordinary material – a blank piece of paper – can be conceptualised as art, depending on how it is presented.

“Enjoying the art of Minimalism is like enjoying meditation,” I told my audience. “Empty your minds of all pre-conceived thoughts of what art is and isn’t, slow down and just contemplate what you see,” I said, hoping that I sound erudite and soothing at the same time.

I could tell from their amused and somewhat sceptical expressions that this is easier said than done. Most of us are so distracted by our smart phones, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook that we think that the words ‘contemplate’ and ‘meditate’ belong to a retreat in the mountains – not a crowded gallery on a Sunday afternoon!

Confronted with the series of large canvases painted pitch black and created by the key figures of Minimalism, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhart and Frank Stella, my friend Norman remarked, tongue-in-cheek, “These are rather nice, Elsa. I can imagine them hanging in my living room!”

Liu Jianhua, “Blank Paper” (2006-2018). Photo courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets where the canvas, drenched in warm red and filled with a fine mist of golden dots, spreading and multiplying like a constellation, seem to fascinate Vicky. “You know, this reminds of a snakeskin bag that I have!” she exclaimed, laughing.

As we moved through the galleries, I pointed out how artist Sol LeWitt had demonstrated with mathematical precision, 122 ways to construct a cube (4 were shown in the current exhibition). How Donald Judd’s Untitled series of ‘steel objects’ cleverly play on the illusion of light, colour and space. How Rachel Whiteread draws our attention to the ‘spaces in-between’, with her resin casts of the spaces underneath 25 stools simply titled Twenty-five Spaces.

Slowly, I could feel the tension of our group melting a little. The unfamiliar was becoming familiar, simply because Minimalist art is art that grows on you. Lucy Lippard, an art historian and critic astutely observed, “The experience of looking at and perceiving an ‘empty’ or ‘colourless’ surface usually progresses through boredom. The spectator may find the work dull, then impossibly dull; then, surprisingly, he breaks out on the other side of boredom into an arena that can be called contemplation or simple aesthetic enjoyment.”

Mona Hatoum, “Impenetrable” (2009). Photo courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

When we came to Mona Hatoum’s Impenetrable, an installation made up of straight pieces of barbed wire strung from the ceiling to form a cube-like sculpture – looking seductive and yet dangerous – my visitors were in awe. Walking around the installation and studying it from different points, they appear to be finally… contemplating. Hurray!

 “I simply love this! It’s so beautiful and elegant – yet it reminds me of violence at the same time,” said Alison. Double hurray – now we’re getting somewhere! I cheered silently.

Getting into the spirit of simple enjoyment, like kids out to play, we entered Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s Room for One Colour. The gallery was painted in bright yellow and lit by monofrequency lamps that cause the human eye to recognise only one shade – yellow –rendering everything else – especially clothes and skin tones – in black, white and gray.

Olafur Eliasson, “Room for one colour” (1997). Photo courtesy of Naitonal Gallery Singapore.

It was a surreal and hallucinatory experience – one that elicited lots of smiles and poses as everyone, including the seniors, whipped out their phones with glee to take pictures of their black and white selves looking like cardboard cut-outs against a bright yellow stage set.

All too soon, our 60-minute tour concluded at Martin Creed’s A Lamp Going On and Off. We view an antique lamp standing like a solitary sentinel in a corner – its light flickering on and off, lightening and darkening the space as it does so.

What it says about Minimalism is this: it’s a different way of seeing and sensing. It’s a different way of appreciating and understanding our humanity in a modern industrial and technological context. Time to break up with the Mona Lisa and embrace this new reality perhaps?

The exhibition Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. takes place across the galleries of two museums, ArtScience Museum and National Gallery Singapore. It opened on 16 November 2018, and runs until 14 April 2019.

About the author(s)

Elsa Lim is a life and career coach and the author of the book When Love and Money Are Gone - True Stories of Women and Financial Independence. She has been volunteering with the National Gallery since 2016 and loves to open eyes, hearts and minds to the power of contemporary art.

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