Utopia at Singapore Art Museum

Arts | Written By, NOW!Singapore | June 11th, 2015

By Gilly Beal
Images courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

Images: Alif Brownstone Photography
Hair/makeup: Rie Miura
Styling: Mandy Heng
Model: Josie from Basic Models

Maryanto_Pandora's Box_2013,2015_Site-specific commission_2

No visit to Singapore would be complete without taking in the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). Housed in a restored 19th century mission school, SAM opened its doors in 1996 as the first art museum in Singapore. Its focus was mostly 20th-century Asian visual art, often drawn from its own collection of ‘pioneer’ art. Today, the emphasis is on contemporary art from Singapore and South East Asia.

The museum and its neighbouring gallery SAM at 8Q are currently showing two exhibitions that provide interesting diversions. The first is After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art (which runs at SAM until October) while the second, targeted mainly at children, is entitled Imaginarium: A Voyage Of Big Ideas (which lasts until 19 July at SAM at 8Q). After Utopia examines ‘humanity’s eternal yearning for a better world’ and comprises of 20 works from 18 South East Asian and Asian contemporary artists, drawn from SAM’s permanent collection, artists’ collections and new commissions. A ‘utopia’ is, of course, a model of a perfect society.

Made Wianta_Air Pollution_2014_Singapore Art Museum Collection_2

English statesman, Thomas More, coined the term in his 1516 book ‘Utopia’, which imagined an ideal republic. Since then, political theorists, architects, writers and thinkers have all attempted to describe or even create ideal places or states. SAM’s exhibition show looks at and revisits some of these ideals and principles within a regional context. The exhibition unfolds in four themes: the first, Other Edens, looks at utopia through the proverbial garden of paradise; the second, The City and its Discontents, examines the city as a site of the utopian ideal; the third,Legacies Left, revisits the ideologies that have shaped the political and social histories of the region, while The Way Within journeys into the self and more personal micro-utopias.

Shen Shaomin_Summit_2009_Singapore Art Museum Collection_2

At the entrance to Other Edens is a painting by Singaporean artist Ian Woo. While it looks like an idyllic representation of a tropical garden at first glance, closer examination will reveal hidden depths and an unsettling, tangled mass of vegetation. It leads in to a room where we find Donna Ong’s meticulous recreation of an imagined colonial adventurer’s desk. Maps of Java from the time of Sir Walter Raleigh and Stamford Raffles show how the colonialists imagined Asia’s lush and idyllic landscape to be a garden paradise that was, of course, full of bounty. These visions are juxtaposed against the effects of its subsequent exploitation with Indonesian artist Maryanto’s charcoal mural entitled Pandora’s Box. Four walls surround the viewer in a dark, barren landscape, ravaged by opencast mining. Indonesian artists, Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar’s installation Pinkswing Park was last shown in 2005, where it caused something of a controversy at the Jakarta Biennale.

Svay Sareth_Mon Boulet_2011_Singapore Art Museum Collection_3

It presents an Eden where two Indonesian celebrities, representing Adam and Eve, are photographed naked (with carefully placed fig-leaf like white decals in a series poses that mimic major works from Western art history. With its tropical forest setting, it offers a critique of artificiality and the man-made. Modern urban life is examined with two video works by Chris Chong (Malaysia) and Shannon Lee Castleman (USA). Centred on the ubiquitous housing block, they question our voyeuristic impulses and cramped living conditions.

Izziyana Suhaimi_Let's Make! Studio_2015 - 3

Balinese artist, Made Wianta’s huge sculpture, made from welded motorcycle exhausts, provides a critique of Indonesia’s chaotic traffic and the pollution it leaves in its wake. Works by Chinese artist Shen Shaomin and Vietnam/USA collective, The Propeller Group, examine the legacy of ideologies that left an indelible mark on the last century. Shaomin’s unsettling installation Summit presents the life-like bodies of late communist leaders Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-il, Ho Chi Minh and Lenin encased in glass coffins – and a ‘breathing’ still-alive Fidel Castro on his deathbed. In contrast to this literal death of communism, Viet-American collective The Propeller Group’s Television Commercial for Communism packages the ideals and principles of a ‘new communism’ as an ironic TV spot for a world driven by consumerism.

Chiang Yu Xiang_We Built this Estate!_2015 - 1

Finally, works of artists such as Svay Sareth and Kamin Lertchaiprasert, offer more personal meditations by turning inwards. Sareth’s Mon Boulet video installation follows the artist as he drags an 80kg metal sphere from his home in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a six-day journey that served to exorcise a painful past spent in refugee camps in war-ravaged Cambodia. The meditative perspective continues in Lertchaiprasert’s work Sitting, comprised of 366 small wooden sculptures, carved over the course of a single year. Far from revealing an alluring vision of utopian futures, the exhibition essentially examines the remnants of broken dreams. More dystopia than utopia, the works present an unsettling perspective of our lives today. On an altogether lighter note, Imaginarium: A Voyage Of Big Ideas is the latest edition of SAM’s contemporary art exhibition for children.

Geraldine Javier_Ella Amo' Apasionademente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely, and She is Well-Loved)_2010_Singapore Art Museum Collection_2

Seven new commissions include installations that require visitors’ active participation to complete or enhance and playful magical worlds to roam and discover. The exhibition as a whole has been curated with careful attention paid to how children learn and play, and to appeal to different senses, modes of learning and exploration. As part of the exhibition SAM has put together a number of Public Programmes (details are available on their website). These include hands-on workshops that explore and reflect the art-making process of some of the works at the Imaginarium.

Vincent Twardzik Ching_Greenroom II - Interstellar Overdrive_2015 - 1

For example, Singapore artist Chiang Yu Xiang’s We Built This Estate! is an interactive installation that invites participants to create their own housing estate and city skylines with Tetris-shaped housing blocks. Let’s Make! Studio − part of Singaporean Izziyana Suhaimi’s work − explores new worlds through embroidery. Visitors are invited to make their own small objects that capture their thoughts about the future. These objects will be added to the artwork to become a collective tapestry of thoughts and ideas over time.

Ian Woo_We Have Crossed The Lake_2009_Collection of the artist_1

After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art 1 May – 18 October 2015
Imaginarium: A Voyage of Big Ideas 14 March – 19 July 2015
Singapore Art Museum, 71 Bras Basah Rd, tel: 6589 9580, singaporeartmuseum.sg

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