Friday, June 12, 2015

After Utopia

Tang Da Wu's metallic
'Sembawang Phoenix' (2013)

Went to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) to view 'After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art', curated by Tan Siuli and Louis Ho. I like it that this exhibition is drawn from SAM's permanent collection as well as build on some of the new works and commissions from the 18 artists.

These 20 contemporary works from across Asia and Southeast Asia were presented under four themes and prefaced with a quote from four writers- 'Other Edens' with Thomas More's 'Utopia', 'The City and its Discontents' with Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities', 'Legacies Left' with E. E. Cummings' 'Communism and Fascism' and 'The Way Within' with Rabindranath Tagore's 'Fireflies'.

It's not fair to compare the artworks because every artist put in loads of effort, say Shannon Lee Castleman in 'Jurong West Street 8' (2008) who managed the feat of convincing residents of two HDB blocks across a few stories to accept a total of 16 video cameras used to film one another over a few hours one Sunday afternoon. Before seeing Tang Da Wu's 3D map and metallic stray dogs in 'Sembawang' (2013), I didn't even know that Singapore had an artist village (called TAV for short) in Sembawang's Lorong Gambas, flourishing from 1988 to 1990 till it was repossessed by the government for urban re-development. The Artists Village (TAV) is now an arts collective; its latest project is the Pulau Ubin artist residency program.

If I have to pick two memorable works, they also happen to belong to the two themes/galleries that left the deeper impressions; in the way that they make me think further after I leave the doors of the museum. I can't associate Utopia with books anymore now that the films have gone to town with the post-apocalyptic scenarios. I was too immersed in that old-now-gone-to-pits online game. :P Now, it feels like humankind will reach Dystopia way easier than Utopia.

In 'Legacies Left', needless to say, I was totally tickled by Shen Shaomin's 'Summit' (2009), pictured above. Before entry into this part, it came with warnings of graphic images. It's an installation made of silica gel simulation, acrylic and fabric. The grim image of the four 'embalmed bodies' in clear cases and on a hospital bed was conceived in response to the financial crisis of the late-2000s. "A hypothetical meeting of the leading figures of leftist politics in the bleakest of assemblies: a wake." The figures are life-like. More than that, this is my favorite piece of them all because of the irony, the associations and the thoughts they evoked when I stared at their...faces.

'The Way Within' was introspective. I was intrigued by the large metal sphere that was 2m-wide and weighed 80kg, dented and scarred by its journey. Watched the video created by Svay Sareth with 'Mon Boulet' (2011). Pulling the metal sphere, the artist made a six-day journey from his home in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, eating only food offered by strangers and sleeping on a blue tarpaulin. Raised in refugee camps in war-torn Cambodia till the age of 19, this journey and metaphor of a sphere, while having had "no productive end, its performative process may be read as a kind of personal catharsis, an exorcism of residual trauma through punishing, physical toil." One would hope that there won't be any more refugees today. Sadly, no. Like the ancient times, as long as there's greed, humans and politics, there will be strife, deaths, and refugees.

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