Time Out Singapore: ‘After Utopia’

6 May 2015: The Singapore Art Museum’s new exhibition tackles the theme of utopia. We find out more from the co-curator

Artwork: 'Summit' (2009) by Shen Shaomin

Artwork: ‘Summit’ (2009) by Shen Shaomin

A wonderful place where the sun shines, food is plentiful and everyone is always happy. Plato wrote about it in The Republic back in 380 BC, and Sir Thomas More gave it a name in 1516: utopia.

By coining the term from the Greek words for ‘no place’ and ‘good place’, More concedes that utopia does not and cannot exist. Of course, it hasn’t stopped world leaders and politicians from trying. From the kibbutz in Israel to communities in the US, history is dotted with examples of these attempts. But just how successful are they? What happens when they fail? And what, really, does utopia even mean?

This is what the latest exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), called After Utopia, explores. The title, as co-curator Louis Ho tells us, ‘is a play on the word “after”, which can either mean what follows, or to chase what’s on the horizon’. The show tackles an ambitious and fascinating topic, but also gives the museum a chance to show off its permanent collection, some of which were recently acquired and displayed to the public for the first time.

The 20 works by artists from Asia are divided into four themes: ‘Other Edens’, which uses the garden as a symbol of paradise; ‘The City and Its Discontents’, which examines how dreams and good intentions give way to reality; ‘Legacies Left’, which looks at the legacies of various ideologies; and ‘The Way Within’, which delves into the realm of the spiritual.

One of the eye-catching pieces is Shannon Castleman’s photograph, ‘Jurong West Street 81’. No prizes for guessing where it was shot, but the artist created the image by filming residents from the opposite block (with their permission) as a way to bring back the kampong spirit. ‘She realised that even though we live in such close proximity to one another, we’re not close to the people next to us,’ Ho explains. ‘There are also dystopian connotations in the sense that it shows how we are all privy to one another’s lives, and how surveillance in the form of CCTVs is everywhere.’

On the other hand, Maryanto’s ‘Pandora’s Box’ – a site-specific charcoal and graphite drawing first conceived in 2013 and recreated on the walls of SAM – focuses on environmentalism. He is inspired by the landscape of his native Indonesia, where natural resources are often quickly stripped and the land around it turned into a wasteland. Depicting a grim, gritty, suffocating space, the piece is the very image of a dystopia.

It gets even darker. One of the most unsettling pieces is Chinese artist Shen Shaomin’s installation, ‘Summit’. The work presents the life-like bodies of late communist leaders Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-il, Ho Chi Minh and Lenin encased in glass coffins, while Fidel Castro rests on his deathbed with a pump installed to make it look as though he’s breathing. ‘This work is one that I find myself thinking hard about because I’m not entirely sure I agree with the statement that Shen seems to make,’ says Ho. ‘He believes that socialism/communism is dead, but I don’t. I believe that socialism exists in balance with capitalism, as two halves of an almost necessary balance.’

Ho also declares that he doesn’t even believe in the idea of utopia – at least, not in the sense of a physical space: ‘To me, it’s more about people. You know, home is where the heart is and all that. I think it’s more about connections, and the spiritual, personal space that exists inside us.’

Regardless of your views on utopia, politics and social issues, After Utopia promises to set you thinking. Who knows – you might even find your own idea of paradise there.

Time Out Singapore: Rachel Ng

1 Apr 2015: We find out how an upcoming exhibition, ‘Imaginarium’, introduces the weird and wonderful world of contemporary art to kids

Photo: Singapore Art Museum

Photo: Singapore Art Museum

Bringing children to a contemporary art exhibition may not, on paper, sound like the best idea from a parent’s point of view. What if they touch and break stuff? Or if they get bored and start howling for attention? Or, worse still, what if they mistake that funky sculpture for something edible and eat it?

Well, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) wants to put those fears to rest. It’s encouraging parents to start fostering in their kids a love for the arts by creating an exhibition specifically with little ones in mind. Back for its fifth edition, Imaginarium features new works that children can have fun exploring. Rachel Ng, the lead curator of the exhibition and assistant curator of SAM, tells us more.

How do you ensure that the works are accessible to kids?

The accompanying text is slightly shorter and in simple language so that it’s more digestible for children. But we have steered clear from simplifying the concept of the work. Each caption is prefaced by a ‘big question’ to prompt the children to examine the larger issues the work raises and their own feelings about it.
I feel that the best way to foster an interest in art is if you can communicate the underlying intent of the artist and the message of the artwork – what is it trying to express, why was it made, and how does it then relate to you and the world you live in?

Was there ever a concern that child-friendly art would be perceived as lower quality?

There is the tendency to equate accessibility with lesser conceptual depth, and hence ‘lower quality’. This is a very limiting point of view, because without consideration for accessibility, you risk alienating certain audience members.
I believe that art is for everyone, and this goes to the heart of what Imaginarium is about: to let everyone discover what art can be, and the joy of that encounter. [In Imaginarium], there is a mix of established and emerging artists from a wide range of practices: photography, drawing, installation, mixed media and even conceptual.

Why should kids be exposed to contemporary art?

It deals with the way we live, the issues affecting society and the world at large, and our place in the world. It is a richly textured medium through which serious issues and questions can be raised to children. This is important for building a well-informed future generation.

How were the artists chosen?

We wanted a diversity of ideas and aesthetics to create a tiered experience for visitors. For example, there is a mix of contemplative and interactive, immersive works. We also selected a few emerging artists, as Imaginarium is a great platform to expose the public to newer, exciting forms of art.

Bringing children to a contemporary art exhibition may not, on paper, sound like the best idea from a parent’s point of view. What if they touch and break stuff? Or if they get bored and start howling for attention? Or, worse still, what if they mistake that funky sculpture for something edible and eat it?

Well, SAM wants to put those fears to rest. It’s encouraging parents to start fostering in their kids a love for the arts by creating an exhibition specifically with little ones in mind. Back for its fifth edition, Imaginarium features new works that children can have fun exploring. Rachel Ng, the lead curator of the exhibition and assistant curator of SAM, tells us more.

How do you ensure that the works are accessible to kids?

The accompanying text is slightly shorter and in simple language so that it’s more digestible for children. But we have steered clear from simplifying the concept of the work. Each caption is prefaced by a ‘big question’ to prompt the children to examine the larger issues the work raises and their own feelings about it.

I feel that the best way to foster an interest in art is if you can communicate the underlying intent of the artist and the message of the artwork – what is it trying to express, why was it made, and how does it then relate to you and the world you live in?

Was there ever a concern that child-friendly art would be perceived as lower quality?

There is the tendency to equate accessibility with lesser conceptual depth, and hence ‘lower quality’. This is a very limiting point of view, because without consideration for accessibility, you risk alienating certain audience members.

I believe that art is for everyone, and this goes to the heart of what Imaginarium is about: to let everyone discover what art can be, and the joy of that encounter. [In Imaginarium], there is a mix of established and emerging artists from a wide range of practices: photography, drawing, installation, mixed media and even conceptual.

Why should kids be exposed to contemporary art?

It deals with the way we live, the issues affecting society and the world at large, and our place in the world. It is a richly textured medium through which serious issues and questions can be raised to children. This is important for building a well-informed future generation.

How were the artists chosen?

We wanted a diversity of ideas and aesthetics to create a tiered experience for visitors. For example, there is a mix of contemplative and interactive, immersive works. We also selected a few emerging artists, as Imaginarium is a great platform to expose the public to newer, exciting forms of art.