What is your idea of Utopia? This is possibly one of the few questions you would ask yourself at Singapore Art Museum’s latest exhibition, After Utopia: Revisiting The Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art. Directly translated as ‘no-place-land’ in Greek, the fictional word first coined by Englishman Sir Thomas More in his book with the same title, was defined as (an unattainable) ‘perfect society in law, governance and politics’.
Four centuries on, mankind continues our humanist endeavour for this idealised society conjured by the Englishman which till this date, proves to be ‘fundamentally phantasmal’. 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. After Utopia questions, explores and documents these stories through thought-provoking exhibits and artworks. Ultimately, the exhibition seeks to enlighten patrons that we must decide for ourselves what is our own idea and concept of Utopia free of other’s ideological philosophies and such.
The exhibition is separated into four different sections, namely Other Edens, The City and Its Discontents, Legacies Left and The Way Within. I will try not to reveal too much because this is really a very well-curated exhibition with many intriguing and thought-provoking exhibits. Plus, it’s free for Singaporeans and PRs while foreigners pay only $10. You got to visit it. Viewer’s discretion is advised if you are intending to bring kids to the exhibition.
In Other Edens, the exhibition drew its association with the Garden of Eden, a biblical paradise where Adam and Eve was said to inhabit. The Garden and all of its accompanying creations of fruit and creature are often described as a Utopian symbol of paradise and perfection. It is also mankind’s fascination with the perfect paradise that drives them to explore, discover and colonise. This segment of the exhibition seeks to recreate humanity’s ideals and endeavours to explore and return to the namesake.
Indonesian artists Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar’s Pinkswing Park depicting an imagined Eden filled with representations of an Indonesian Adam and Eve was so controversial, it was banned in its home country in Indonesia during the 2005 Jakarta Biennale.
Don’t understand art very well? Docents and curator tours are available at SAM to help you understand the artworks better.
Visitors getting up close and personal with Indian artist Jitish Kallat’s Annexation. Using the predatory relationship of animals and their prey, Annexation symbolises our own struggle for survival, setting into motion our relationships with other people.
In The City and Its Discontents, the exhibition looks at the city; the primary site of utopian pursuit with its spectacular infrastructure, alluring peoples with the idealised promise of paradise only to find that it was all too good to be true. Over-population, environmental degradation, and isolated living even in communal spaces challenges the concept of city as the fabled ideal destination. This segment of the exhibition looks at cities and its Utopian fallacies.
Look into each cabinet, what do you see? Cabinet is a clever and thought-provoking installation by Chinese artist Gao Lei. The artist portrays the ‘concealed’ living spaces (HDBs) of Singaporeans through twenty-four peephole boxes each containing images from Gao’s earlier works. The voyeuristic experience of looking through each of these peepholes suggests the texture of urban living which is far from communal as each inhabitant has their own skeletons in the ‘cabinet’ that is kept out of sight.
Paper planes. Indonesian artist Yudi Sulistyo takes a look at the history of his country’s aerial military might whose glorious past was more feared than its present condition; paper planes and a toothless tiger.
In Legacies Left, the exhibition gives viewers a glimpse into the ironic, often bitter aftermath of broken social contracts and political promises. Fuelled by the euphoria of self-determination and the intoxication of revolution, these visions of a better tomorrow ran the gamut from socialism to multiculturalism, from dreams of social equality to the desire for economic parity. Today, however, the underside of those early aspirations haunts these modern and once-communist nation-states. The artworks in this gallery address the reality of these fractured dreams in surreal and sometimes satirical forms.
Perhaps the most powerful rhetoric in After Utopia, Chinese artist Shen Shaomin’s installation, Summit features 4 Communist leaders in their coffins and a ‘sleeping’ Fidel Castro. While the effects of its policies continues to be felt by generations after to this day, the ideology of Communism today seems to hold out only the promise of ultimate failure like its human representatives laid to rest in glorified coffins.
Don’t worry, they are made of silicone gel and will not get back up, although it is said that Castro is still ‘breathing’. Can you recognise all of the leaders here? Shen’s art installation reminds me of another art installation in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Thailand drawing on a totally different theme but in similar fashion (image above).
In The Way Within, the artists contemplates the last century that was marked by conflict on an unprecedented scale. The betrayal of ideologies by political leaders, and dwindling hopes in real reform have led many to turn away from sweeping notions of changing the world or society on a grand scale. Instead, artists Svay Sareth and Kamin Lertchaiprasert, looks into how ‘Utopia’ can be found within oneself. Their works express their individual search for inner sanctuary – a reconciliation of self with the world at large. A pilgrimage in kind, Cambodian artist Svay Sareth makes his own journey of self-discovery by walking from his home in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and the site of harrowing purges during the reign of the Khmer Rouge over six full days in 2011. Svay hauled with him a metal sphere 2 metres wide and 80 kilograms in weight. On his journey, he ate only food offered to him by strangers and slept on a blue tarpaulin, commonly used as shelter by refugees worldwide.
A type of performative art in kind, Svay journeys through war-ravaged Cambodia – his own rite of passage having been raised in refugee camps during the country’s tumultuous years. The performative art references from the traditional Asian practice of ‘coining’ – scraping the skin on the human body with an object to expel toxins, balance energy and hence achieve healing. The metal ball, dented and scarred by its journey and etched with questions scratched into its once polished surfaces by passers-by, now rests in the gallery, a moving testament to Svay’s unconquerable human spirit.
Singapore Art Museum Now Showing until 18 October 2015 After Utopia seeks to ask where have we located our Utopias, and how we have tried to bring into being the utopias we have aspired to. By turns, these manifestations serve as mirrors to both our innermost yearnings as well as to our contemporary realities – that gnawing sense that this world is not enough.
Ticket Pricing: $10 / Free (local)
Museum Exhibition eGuide: Link here