Daring dreams of utopia at the Singapore Art Museum

Singapore Art Museum's new exhibition features provocative Asian works

Mewujudkan Angan (Realizing Dreams) 2010 – 2011.
Mewujudkan Angan (Realizing Dreams) 2010 – 2011.
Annexation, 2009.
Sembawang Phoenix, 2013.
Letters From The Forest (II), 2015.
Letters From The Forest (II), 2015.
Ella Amo’ Apasionadamente y Fue Correspon dida (For She Loved Fiercely and She Is Well-Loved), 2010.
Summit, 2009. -- ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

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), 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

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.


by Tang Da Wu, Singapore

Mixed-media sculpture, dimensions variable

Media-shy and reclusive, Tang is one of the pioneers of Singapore's contemporary art. He founded The Artist's Village, Singapore's first artist community, in Ulu Sembawang.

The beauty of his work lies in the imagery he creates, sometimes by using very basic materials. Sembawang Phoenix is a fine arrangement of metallic bird skeletons that reference The Artist's Village days. He started it for fellow artists to create experimental art at a time when being radical was not in. It became a springboard for many of the who's who of Singapore art now - Cultural Medallion recipient Lee Wen, contemporary artists Vincent Leow and Amanda Heng, and multidisciplinary artists Zai Kuning and Jason Lim.

Annexation, 2009

by Jitish Kallat, India

Black lead, paint, resin and steel


Singapore Art Museum collection

Mumbai-based avant-garde artist Kallat's works are driven by everyday occurrences. He was the curator and artistic director of the recently-ended Kochi- Muziris Biennale, India's first and only biennale.

In this charged piece, reality and fantasy merge seamlessly. The shape is that of a kerosene stove and is meant to get the viewer to reflect on the struggles of common people who struggle to make ends meet in the teeming metropolis he calls home. It is only when you move closer to the large stove that you notice the twisted forms of vegetation and animals devouring each other. Like a stove tipping towards an explosion, at many levels, Annexation also highlights the survival of the fittest.

Mewujudkan Angan (Realizing Dreams) 2010 - 2011

by Yudi Sulistyo, Indonesia

Cardboard, plastic pipe, steel, acrylic & duco painted


Singapore Art Museum collection

At last year's ArtJog in Jogjakarta, Yudi's life-like creations were Instagram hits and were quickly snapped up by buyers. The artist, who shows immense skill and creativity in transforming cardboard into art, addresses serious issues.

This life-sized crashed fighter jet made of his favourite material - cardboard - questions power and the futility of military power.

The artist, who graduated from the Institut Seni Indonesia in 1994, has slowly developed a regional reputation with his life-like sculptures of war machines and robots made from cardboard.

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