Daring dreams of utopia

Daring dreams of utopia

In one darkened gallery of the Singapore Art Museum, unsuspecting visitors jump as they come face to face with the "dead" Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Chinese artist Shen Shaomin's installation of the revolutionary communist leader, who has long split global opinion with all that he stands for, is eerily life-like.

In another room, where photography is not allowed, nude bodies, with all the right parts covered, appear on the walls. They are from Indonesian artist Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar's Pinkswing Park, which shows an imagined Eden filled with representations of an Indonesian Adam and Eve. When presented in Indonesia, this artwork caused a stir by raising questions about nudity, among other issues. At the 2005 Jakarta Biennale, it caused such a furore that the biennale ended abruptly.

After Utopia: Revisiting The Ideal In Asian Contemporary Art, is the Singapore Art Museum's latest permanent collection exhibition and it does not shy away from strongly controversial works. From representations of the human body in art to the politics of communism, it readily addresses the complex issues confronting the world.

The tautly curated show by Tan Siuli and Louis Ho presents only 20 art works by 18 artists, but these are enough for a fascinating insight into contemporary art practices across Asia. The show is also a window into the ideas, ideologies and histories shaping contempoary art practices in the region.

On display are several iconic works of South-east Asian and Asian contemporary art drawn from the museum's permanent collection, as well as some new commissions that have been added to the collection.

These include Thai artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert's 366 small Buddhist-inspired wood sculptures. They make a person pause for thought, question existence and reflect on what we choose to do with the days of our life. Four main themes are explored in the works - ideas about utopia, the city as the contested side of utopian ideals, ideologies that have shaped the social and political histories of the region, and self-journeys.

Life! picks some highlights from this must-see show that runs till Oct 18.

Ella Amo' Apasionadamente y Fue Correspon dida (For She Loved Fiercely and She Is Well-Loved), 2010 by Geraldine Javier, the Philippines
Oil on canvas, with framed insets of embroidery with preserved butterflies, 229x160cm
Singapore Art Museum collection

This stunning painting of an Eve-like figure popping out of a lush garden is the work of Javier, a leading figure in contemporary Filipino art. She took up painting after finishing a nursing course and told Life! in an earlier interview: "For several years, I have been painting dead people and I have tried to paint them as if they are alive. I have also tried to capture in my paintings the follies of man." This oil on canvas was bought by the museum at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong in 2010 for HK$1.46 million. Its main subject is Mexican artist and feminist icon Frida Kahlo and the canvas includes embroidered vitrines holding preserved butterflies.

The Forest Speaks Back I, 2014 by Donna Ong, Singapore
Single-channel projection with sound, eight minutes Letters From The Forest (II), 19th-century antique desk with accompanying chair, two LED dioramas from cut illustrations in wooden boxes, stuffed bird, antique letter cases with cut paper butterflies, antique frames with found photographs and old books, magnifying glass, compass and bottles
Dimensions variable
Singapore Art Museum collection

Ong is known for her immersive installations which transform found objects into dream-like narratives. This one is no different. The effect is mesmeric and the viewer finds himself looking for new meanings and hidden narratives in the antique desk filled with objects including old photographs and books. The artist evokes a sense of nostalgia through her installation, which appears in the first part of the exhibition that explores the image of the garden as a symbol of paradise. The curators say that among other things, this colonial explorer's desk "examines the colonial imagination" in an Asian setting.

SUMMIT, 2009 by Shen Shaomin, China
Silica gel simulation, acrylic and fabric
Dimensions variable
Singapore Art Museum collection

Communism is dead or is it really? China artist Shen asks the question through this compelling life-like installation that made many visitors jump when they stepped into the gallery. A "dead" Castro breathes heavily as other leaders lie in coffins around him. These hint to the overarching presence of their policies long after they are gone. This is one of the most politically charged works in the show.

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.