After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art

To some, Singapore is an economic utopia, but to others there is dirt hiding in the uber clean island state. With this in mind, the Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) survey of contemporary Southeast Asian art, After Utopia, is an intriguing one.

The Adelaide installation of After Utopia will be presented in a slightly compacted form at Samstag for OzAsia. Originally shown as part of Singapore’s 2015 jubilee, After Utopia: Revisiting the ideal in Asian Contemporary Art, showcased four streams: Other Edens, The City and its Discontents, Legacies Left and The Way Within. It featured work from SAM’s permanent collection as well as commissioned pieces. Co-curator Tan Siuli says they have tried to maintain a presence of the four subthemes for the Adelaide exhibition.

“We have also aimed for a good representation of art practices across South East Asia so that audiences in Australia can get a sense of the variety of approaches to art-making in contemporary South East Asian art,” she says.

“Samstag’s galleries are smaller than the space originally occupied by the show, so we will not be including some of the larger installations, but on the whole I would say the narratives of the show remain intact. The audience in Australia will not encounter the artworks in the same order as they were presented in Singapore, but the connections between the works and the themes will still be drawn out. We are also looking to include some works in the Adelaide show that were not presented in Singapore, so there will be some new elements.”

Featuring moving image, sculpture, painting and installation works, the exhibition features artists from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and the United States.

“Most of the works are from the Singapore Art Museum’s permanent collection,” Tan says. “In our original exhibition some of the works were loaned, and they will be travelling to Adelaide as well. We also commissioned a site-responsive work, and will look to commission this again for the Samstag gallery.”

For Tan Siuli, the idea of utopia is a timeless theme for artists to tackle. “It is fundamentally human to yearn for a better world, to want to try to improve on our current one, and to achieve something nearer our personal and collective ideals,” she says.

After Utopia was originally shown during Singapore’s jubilee year when the island country celebrated 50 years of independence. This anniversary was a cause for celebration but also reflection.

“For many people, Singapore is a kind of utopia – Richard Noble, a scholar of contemporary art who edited a compilation of texts about utopia, once remarked that anyone interested in utopias is very interested in Singapore. So in 2015, we felt that it was a timely juncture to question the notion of utopia; to look at what utopia has meant, how humanity has endeavoured to achieve its ideals, and where we are now, and how artists across South East Asia and Asia have engaged with these ideas through art.

“Alongside this, I think, is the feeling that we now inhabit a post-utopian age; there is always a sense that the past was the golden age, and that our current era falls somewhat short. Coming to 2017, when this show is going to be presented again, I think these sentiments are more acute than ever. So many recent events on the world stage have elicited responses of shock, disbelief, and anxiety. I think the zeitgeist is such that we are moving further and further away from what might be an ‘ideal’ state of things. I’m starting to look at the artworks in the show with new eyes now, and seeing how many of them seem to offer commentary on current issues.”

After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art
Samstag Museum of Art
Until Friday, December 1
unisa.edu.au/samstagmuseum
ozasiafestival.com.au

The writer travelled to Singapore as a guest of OzAsia

Image: Donna Ong, The Forest Speaks Back, 2014.

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