Sydney Morning Herald Column

After Utopia

Published September 5, 2015
IAN WOO, We Have Crossed The Lake, 2009, acrylic on linen, 194 × 244 cm. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Irony has never been a big feature of life in Singapore, but perhaps it’s catching on. Of all nations on the planet, Singapore is arguably the closest thing to a social laboratory, where economic and cultural programs are dreamt up by a paternalistic state and broadly accepted by the population. This centralised control has made Singapore the envy of every government in the so-called free world, and caused libertarians to regard it with suspicion.
The goal behind Singapore’s social engineering is nothing less than a perfect society in which law-abiding citizens lead comfortable lives while business flourishes in a supportive environment. It may be a state of radical inequalities, but those on the bottom of the pile are much better off than most of their counterparts in neighbouring countries.
The arts have only been part of the mix for about 20 years, but are making serious progress. In 1990 Singapore was virtually a culture-free zone. Now it is buzzing with museums and galleries, concerts and festivals. Leading the charge has been the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), soon to be overshadowed by the opening of the new National Gallery of Art in November.
Since its launch in 1996 SAM has carved out an identity by concentrating on the contemporary art of South-East Asia in an era of rapid change. It has assigned curators to individual nations, making sure the museum is always in touch with new developments. They are in the perfect location for monitoring the evolution of art in the region, although the museum could never aspire to an event of the same magnitude as Brisbane’s Asia Pacific Triennial, which is coming along at the end of this year.
Because a good deal of contemporary art is inherently rebellious and challenging, SAM has had to tread warily not to upset political and cultural sensibilities. Little by little it has begun to show works that may have been deemed controversial in earlier years. After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art is a skilfully devised exhibition that brings together pieces from Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, India and China. Some of the artists work across cultures, notably the Propeller Group, which defines itself as a Viet-American collective.
We use the word “Utopia” to refer to an ideal society but it really means “no place”. The term springs from Thomas More’s tiny novel of 1516, written originally in Latin, which has provided a long-term puzzle for scholars. Although More’s Utopia seems to be a satire it’s difficult to identify his targets. There are aspects of this imaginary society that seem perfectly totalitarian, but also freedoms that contradict More’s own beliefs and actions.
This is peculiarly appropriate for South-East Asia, where such contradictions are endemic to many regimes. Curators Louis Ho and Tan Siuli have divided the exhibition into four sections: Other Edens (dealing with gardens, and the idea of paradise); The City and its Discontents (the urban ideal); Legacies Left (political idealism and its outcomes); and The Way Within (withdrawal into the Self).
The artworks are neatly matched to these themes, unlike most Biennales, whereby a vague, portentous title is used as cover for an almost random selection. The first section seems designed to key in with the government’s latest catch-cry: “Let’s Make Singapore Our Garden.”
One suspects the slogans refer to a very orderly form of garden, but the only pieces in the show that fit this description are Donna Ong’s installation, Letters From the Forest (II) (2015), which reconstructs the desk of a colonial administrator; and antique maps by Sir Walter Raleigh and John Walker, that propose the region as, respectively, the location of the Biblical Eden, and a source of exploitable mineral wealth.

One presumes a colonial garden to be a functional, utilitarian affair, utterly different to the wild nature found in Ian Woo’s expressive, semi-abstract painting, We Have Crossed the Lake (2009). Woo is the only artist to portray nature in a raw state. Pandora’s Box (2013-15), a room-sized drawing by Indonesian artist, Maryanto, is a vision of black, despoiled earth and slag-heaps. Jitish Kallat’s Annexation (2009) borrows the grotesque animal figures from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji (formerly Victoria) Terminus to create a charred sculpture in which every beast seems to be eating another.
The most provocative piece is Pinkswing Park (2005/12) a photographic installation by Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar, that was instrumental in the closing down of the 2005 CP Biennale in Jakarta. The multiple images of a glamorous Indonesian Adam and Eve frolicking in a garden, were considered an affront to public morality – even though the naughty bits are scrupulously censored.
The censorship was, of course, a vital component in the work, as the artists acknowledged and challenged the limits of official tolerance.
This studied ambiguity is also a strong feature of The City and its Discontents. One thinks of the socially progressive ideas of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, and the ugly concrete high-rise apartments that were their unwitting legacy. The sheer density of population in many Asian cities has meant that crowded apartment living has become the social norm. In Jurong West Street 81 (2008), Shannon Lee Castleman had the residents of two adjacent apartment blocks film each other from their windows. The footage is replayed on a grid of screens, producing a low-keyed soap opera of everyday life.
Shannon Lee Castleman, 'Jurong West Street 81' (2008)
Shannon Lee Castleman, ‘Jurong West Street 81’ (2008)

In Cabinet (2008), Gao Lei takes the opposite approach, inviting us to peep into the drawers of a cabinet in which we find rooms inhabited by exotic animals, anime characters, ruins and corpses. In each concrete box, the imagination runs rampant.
The show-stopper in Left Legacies is probably Shen Shaomin’s Summit (2009), which readers may remember from the 2010 Sydney Biennale. The wax effigies of five communist leaders lie in state, with only Fidel Castro still breathing faintly. Yet even this piece is upstaged by the Propeller Group’s one minute video, Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC) (2011-12), made in collaboration with the advertising agency that worked on Apple’s Think Different campaign. A group of happy, smiling, multi-ethnic young people, all dressed in white, illustrate the virtues of the new communism, which ends with the line: “Everyone’s welcome.” Look it up on the web.

The final section, The Way Within, has three iconic installations. The first is Svay Sareth’s Mon Boulet (2011), a large metal sphere that was dragged by the artist on a six day hike from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and an accompanying video. As a feat of endurance art it is on a par with those acts of religious penance that devout believers have imposed on themselves from time immemorial. More specifically, it is an exercise in expiation and healing for a spiritually wounded country.
Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s Sitting (2004), consists of 365 small, seated figures, each one different, carved by the artist over the course of a year. The daily act of carving a figure took on a meditative, ritualistic dimension, echoing the introspective nature of the seated posture.
After Utopia concludes with Kawayan de Guia’s Bomba (2011), a series of large bombs covered in the mirrored glass found on spinning disco balls. The bombs hang from the ceiling of the chapel that once made up the heart of this former convent building, but the piece must have had even greater impact in its first installation, at the Philippines Stock Exchange in Manila. I thought of this work again last week as stockmarkets were crashing all over the world.
Kawayan de Guia, 'Bomba' (2011)
Kawayan de Guia, ‘Bomba’ (2011)

For some people, perhaps most people, money remains the sole path to Utopia. Others believe, on the contrary, that it can only be approached by repudiating materialist goals. It seems that governments around the world like to have an each-way bet nowadays, easing the tax burden on wealthy citizens, while exhorting the poor to ever greater extremes of patriotic self-abnegation. “Let’s Make Singapore our Garden” is probably less pernicious than the Australian government’s call to “Have a go!”
We can all agree that a garden is a good thing, but a “go” is a horribly abstract proposition. It can be productive or destructive, and this is the danger of all utopian thought. What comes after Utopia is inevitably a disappointment, and there’s always someone else to blame. After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art Singapore Art Museum, until 18 Oct.
After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art
Singapore Art Museum, until 18 Oct.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 5th September, 2015