In its latest permanent collection exhibition, After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art, Singapore Art Museum (SAM) examines humanity’s eternal yearning for a better world. Predicated on a sense that the world is not enough, utopian principles and models of worlds have been perpetually re-imagined, and continue to haunt our consciousness through the centuries.
Comprising iconic works of Southeast Asian and Asian contemporary art drawn from SAM’s permanent collection, artists’ collections and new commissions, After Utopia seeks to ask where and how we have located these expressions of both our innermost yearnings as well as our contemporary realities, through 20 artworks by 18 artists and artists’ collectives from Singapore and around the region. Curated by SAM curators Tan Siuli and Louis Ho, After Utopia takes place from 1 May to 18 October 2015.
Artists featured in After Utopia include Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar (Indonesia), Anurendra
Jegadeva (Malaysia), Chris Chong Chan Fui (Malaysia), Donna Ong (Singapore), Gao Lei (China), Geraldine Javier (Philippines), Ian Woo (Singapore), Jitish Kallat (India), Kamin Lertchaiprasert (Thailand), Kawayan de Guia (Philippines), Made Wianta (Indonesia), Maryanto (Indonesia), Shannon Lee Castleman (USA), Shen Shaomin (China), Svay Sareth (Cambodia), Tang Da Wu (Singapore), The Propeller Group (USA and Vietnam), and Yudi Sulistyo (Indonesia).
The exhibition unfolds in four strands: the first explores ideas about utopia through the proverbial,
symbolic garden of paradise; the second examines the city as the contested site of the utopian ideal; the third strand revisits the ideologies that have shaped the political and social histories of the region, before finally turning to focus on self-journeys, as the search for utopia is internalized.
“Other Edens”, the first strand of the exhibition, explores the image of the garden as a symbol of paradise. The Garden is the first and most timeless conception of utopia, and has long been viewed as a microcosm of divine creation on earth. Here, we encounter artworks that reference these classical motifs from contemporary perspectives. This is clearly evident in works like Pinkswing Park by Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar. Pinkswing Park presents an Eden populated by representations of an Indonesian Adam and Eve, in poses akin to major works of Western art history. Causing a stir when it was first presented in Indonesia a decade ago, its presentation in After Utopia marks the first time that Pinkswing Park will be shown since 2005.
Other artefacts and works in this gallery, such as Letters From The Forest II and The Forest Speaks Back I by Donna Ong, and Maryanto’s Pandora’s Box, examine how the colonial imagination located the
Garden-paradise in Asia, imagining its colonies as full of bounty amidst a lush and idyllic landscape. These visions are juxtaposed against the ravages of its subsequent exploitation.
The second strand, “The City and its Discontents”, locates the city as the primary site of the utopian impulse of modern, planned communities. However, reality all too often falls short of these progressive visions; rather, problems that accompany city living such as population pressures, standardised architecture and environmental degradation are the norm for most city dwellers. Yet, creative life persists despite – or even because of – the state of our urban surroundings, as expressed in the works by Shannon Lee Castleman and Tang Da Wu. Jurong West Street 81 by Castleman reflects on the congested urban fabric of contemporary Singapore that ironically alienates neighbours from one another, even as it attempts to bridge this divide.
Tang’s Sembawang simultaneously commemorates and mythologises the history of The Artists Village, probably the most significant of Singapore’s avant-garde artists’ societies. The installation incorporates both factual and fictional accounts of narratives involving the Sembawang neighbourhood, where TAV had its home. The artworks in this gallery show that however dystopian the realities of contemporary urban life may be, they have provided rich fodder for a range of aesthetic forms.
“Legacies Left”, the third strand, offers the viewer a glimpse of the often bitter aftermath of broken
social contracts and political promises. The 20th century ushered in an era of independence for many Asian and Southeast Asian nations, where ideologies from multiculturalism to socialism fuelled the shared desire to achieve social equality and economic parity. Today, the bankruptcy of these ideals has demanded that modern nation-states re-examine their aspirations. Artworks such as Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC), by Viet-American collective The Propeller Group, and Summit by Shen Shaomin address the reality of these fractured dreams.
TVCC re-imagines a major political and social ideology – communism – and packages its ideals and principles as an ironic television commercial for a world driven by consumerism, while Shen’s installation stages the physical representations of five historically significant communist and
socialist leaders as a funereal inversion of the annual G8 summit, predicting the impending death
of these ideologies.
Following the failure of the grand narratives of the last century, there has been a movement away
from sweeping notions of changing the world or society on a grand scale. In the final strand “The Way Within”, the exhibition journeys into the realms of self and psyche, focusing on and creating smaller, more personal micro-utopias, effecting change one small step at a time. For artists Svay Sareth and Kamin Lertchaiprasert, utopia is to be found within oneself. In a durational feat that lasted over six days, Sareth hauled an 80-kg metal sphere from his home in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, an act that served to exorcise a painful past spent in refugee camps in war-ravaged Cambodia. Lertchaiprasert’s work Sitting comprises 366 wooden sculptures of sitting figures carved over the course of a single year, reflecting a process imbued with a sense of purposeful calm and mindfulness. The artworks in this strand express the individual search for inner sanctuary – a reconciliation of the self with the world at large.
“While we may be aware that models of worlds better than our own, perfectly enlightened societies and dreams of paradise remain impossibly elusive, the deeply humanist quest after Utopia burns eternal, like the phoenix arising from its own ashes. Curated to make room for exploration and experience, After Utopia features SAM’s recent acquisitions of large-scale and unique contemporary artworks, most of which have never been shown at SAM before,” says Dr Susie Lingham, Director, Singapore Art Museum.
After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art will show at Singapore Art Museum from 1 May 2015 to 18 October 2015. After Utopia will also include several exhibition related public programmes such as talks, workshops, and curatorial tours.