Chasing AFTER UTOPIA with the Singapore Art Museum

By Anna Savitskaya - Thursday, July 23, 2015
Chasing AFTER UTOPIA with the Singapore Art Museum

After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art is the exhibition currently on show at the Singapore Art Museum. Judging by the title alone, one is expected to imagine a time when society has reached its ideal state and continues to exist in the post-utopian world. The curatorial intention for this exhibition is equally ambitious as the goal of reaching an ideal society: what is a utopia, what organisational structure might it have, what are its principles and consequences, also: what does life possibly look like in the post-utopian space - these are the questions posed by the curatorial team of SAM to their audience.

Chasing AFTER UTOPIA with the Singapore Art Museum

After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art is the exhibition currently on show at the Singapore Art Museum. Judging by the title alone, one is expected to imagine a time when society has reached its ideal state and continues to exist in the post-utopian world. The curatorial intention for this exhibition is equally ambitious as the goal of reaching an ideal society: what is a utopia, what organisational structure might it have, what are its principles and consequences, also: what does life possibly look like in the post-utopian space - these are the questions posed by the curatorial team of SAM to their audience. The exhibition presents works by artists from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, China and other countries in the region. The selection of works for this exhibition comes mostly  from the permanent collection of the museum, and largely characterizes the entire Asian art scene. Ms. Tan Siuli, Senior Curator for the Singapore Art Museum, talks to Artdependence Magazine about the selection procedure for the show and the tasks of the curatorial team in the building of such a project, the situation with contemporary art in the region and the future plans of the museum. The exhibition runs until 18 October 2015.

Artdependence Magazine: How did the idea for the exhibition After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art come to mind? How much time did it take to realise this project?

Tan Siuli: At SAM, we curate exhibitions around big ideas. Earlier this year we were slated to do a permanent collection show, and as this exhibition was scheduled to take place during Singapore’s jubilee year celebrations, the theme of Utopia was suggested as it occasioned an opportunity for thinking about, and revisiting, ideals and principles. There is a double meaning in the title: After Utopia. On the one hand, ‘After’ connotes a sense of belatedness, the idea that we are post- something. It expresses a certain recognition that classical ideals or grand narratives have backfired or are bankrupt. The trauma of the world wars in the last century, coupled with conflict in the name of higher ‘ideals’ (whether ideological or religious in nature), and the spectacular failure of sweeping reform and societal change…all these have made us wary and battle-scarred. And yet, despite all this, we still persist in dreaming of “the better life that might be possible” (in the words of philosopher Ernest Bloch). We still chase after Utopia. The exhibition turns on these dual strands, as it seeks to ask where and how we have located these expressions of both our innermost yearnings as well as our contemporary realities. All in all, the exhibition took about 9 months to come into being.

Anurendra Jegadeva. MA-NA-VA-REH Love, Loss and Pre-Nuptials in the Time of the Big Debate, 2012-2014. Multi-media installation. Dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum collection. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum 

AD: Utopia can be defined as a society or community possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities. How is it applicable to the title of the exhibition?

TS: The exhibition asks: where have we located our utopias? How have we tried to bring into being the utopias we have aspired to? After Utopia premises the idea of Utopia on four prospects. Our first sub-theme, “Other Edens”, explores the image of the garden as a symbol of the original paradise to which we long to return, even while it reflects back to us our imperfections and fall from grace. Also encompassed in this strand are colonial imaginings of exotic dream-gardens overflowing with bounty, beckoning from distant, 'undiscovered' shores. A second sub-theme, “The City and its Discontents”, locates our aspirations to the ideal in the contemporary structures and environments we inhabit, and how these concrete realities fall short of the utopian impulses of architecture and urban planning, such that an escape from the city to its opposite (or the ‘countryside’) becomes inevitable. “Legacies Left” examines the legacy of ideologies that have left an indelible mark on the last century -- thought experiments on which societies and nations have been built. The final chapter, “The Way Within”, journeys into the realms of the self and psyche, where, eschewing the grand narratives of history – one utopia after another – a quiet thought lingers: perhaps, the search for the ever-elusive utopia lies inward. 

AD: Could you please describe the selection procedure - what were the criteria for choosing the art that would be included in the exhibition?

TS: When we curate an exhibition, whether it’s After Utopia or another show, we look for compelling works which articulate or flesh out our curatorial propositions in interesting ways, and which also resonate with other works. We like to have multiple conversations going on in the same gallery. As this was primarily a permanent collection show, we started by looking at works in our collection that could work for our theme, and we had numerous discussions over the selection. Apart from what I mentioned earlier, we also try to present works that have not been shown before – so you will find amongst the works in this show a number of recent acquisitions, or acquisitions dating further back that we had not had a chance to present until now. Once we formed a ‘core’, comprising of works from our permanent collection, we started to look outside for other existing works which we felt would contribute to the ideas and conversations in our curatorial narratives. As you can imagine, the process is very much like putting pieces of a jigsaw together. 

Donna Ong. The Forest Speaks Back I, 2014. Single channel projection with sound 8:00 min (loop). Collection of the artist. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum

Donna Ong. Letters From The Forest (II), 2015. 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. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum

AD: Have any non-Asian curators, advisers or art critics been working on or assisting with the exhibition?

TS: No, this exhibition was entirely put together by the SAM curatorial team, under the artistic direction of our Museum Director, Dr Susie Lingham. 

AD: How would you describe the contemporary Asian art scene?

Everyone is calling this 'the Asian century' and I am inclined to agree. We live in an interesting epoch where the art world is becoming much more diverse, with multiple narratives and epicenters of production and presentation developing in addition to the more traditional Euro-American spheres. The Southeast Asian contemporary art scene has been extremely active in recent years, and is gaining steady recognition around the world. It is worth noting, though, that the art scene in this part of the world is still very nascent, and a lot more needs to be done to cultivate a public appreciation for contemporary art. I feel it is also important to continue to develop new frameworks for considering art; new ways of thinking about and presenting the art and ideas emerging from this region. 

AD: How is your audience responding to this exhibition? Do you feel the urge to explain the artworks included in the show?

TS: We have been very encouraged by the response to After Utopia. People from all walks of life and of different generations have been moved by it. Many have commented on how thought-provoking the exhibition and its propositions are, and how their experience of the show has gone beyond the aesthetic enjoyment of the artworks. This is always heartening feedback for us at SAM. We've done lots of tours as well, for the public, as well as VIPs, special groups, peers, and friends visiting the Museum. 

Gao Lei. Cabinet, 2008. Singapore Art Museum Collection. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum

AD: SAM was the organiser for the Singapore Biennale in 2011 and 2013. Are you planning work with any upcoming Biennale editions?

TS: Yes, we'll be back with the next Biennale in 2016! Watch this space… 

AD: What are your future exhibition plans?

TS: For the rest of the year we are focusing on Singapore art and artists, in conjunction with the Jubilee Year celebrations. In August we will open the President's Young Talents, a unique exhibition and award which recognizes promising young local artists and commissions them to produce a new work for SAM. We are also working with another group of more senior, established figures in the Singapore art scene, on a project titled “5 Stars”, which opens in October. For 5 Stars, we have invited 5 art world luminaries to respond to each of the ideals enshrined in the 5 stars of the Singapore flag: Democracy, Peace, Progress, Justice, and Equality. While these are values encapsulated in our national flag, they are also universal, humanist aspirations, and we hope that the conversations initiated around each of these artworks and projects has a resonance that goes far beyond our shores.

AD: Thank you Ms. Tan Siuli!

Geraldine Javier. Ella Amo' Apasionademente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely), 2010. Oil on canvas, with framed insets of embroidery with preserved butterflies, 229 x 160 cm. Singapore Art Museum Collection. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum

Kamin Lertchaiprasert. Sitting, 2004. Installation with 366 carved wooden sculptures. Dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum Collection. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum

Kawayan de Guia. Bomba, 2011. Installation comprising of 18 mirror bombs, ‘Sputnik’ sound sculpture. Dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum Collection. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum

After Utopia at Singapore Art Museum (SAM) runs until October 18, 2015. 

Anna is a graduate of Moscow’s Photo Academy, with a previous background in intellectual property rights. In 2012 she founded the company Perspectiva Art, dealing in art consultancy, curatorship, and the coordination of exhibitions. During the bilateral year between Russia and The Netherlands in 2013, Perspectiva Art organized a tour for a Dutch artist across Russia, as well as putting together several exhibitions in the Netherlands, curated by Anna. Since October 2014, Anna has taken an active role the development and management of ArtDependence Magazine. Anna interviews curators and artists, in addition to reviewing books and events, and collaborating with museums and art fairs.

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Image of the Day

Yves Klein, IKB Godet, 1958, dry pigment, synthetic resin on gauze on panel. Private collection. ©Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Yves Klein, IKB Godet, 1958, dry pigment, synthetic resin on gauze on panel. Private collection. ©Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

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