Culture Vulture

Potency of art in polarising times

Two art projects show that pluralism is not necessarily an illusion after last year's growing tide of polarisation

Saying goodbye is never easy, especially to the past.

Letting go of good times and warm memories can be a hesitant affair. Bidding good riddance to things that caused pain and distress also tends to be a vexing task; they have an uncanny knack for following one stubbornly into the present.

In this new year, three things have refused to take leave from my mind - a disquieting observation, a thought-provoking comment and an encounter with art that makes me hopeful about the future of a world in flux.

A growing tide of polarisation has been sweeping through cities and countries in the past year. The notion of "us versus them" has played out everywhere, from Britain's Brexit referendum to Hong Kong's Legislative Council election and the presidential election in the United States.

The sense of a widening chasm and antipathy between the left and right, liberals and conservatives, and everyone in between has become so intense that Pope Francis has warned against the spread of the "virus of polarisation" - the tendency to "raise walls, build barriers and label people" - and how we are not naturally immune against this.

We have to find a different language that brings us into communication and also makes us understand that we are part of the story, not outside of it.


As I tried to get a grip on these currents of change and wondered if the wave of polarisation could turn into a movement of pluralism instead, an academic's observation about the potency of art in such a time kept coming back to me.

It was at the press preview last year of an exhibition at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore that the centre's founding director, Professor Ute Meta Bauer, raised the question of whether it might be possible for "an artistic language to communicate issues that are at stake in a different way" and what that might achieve.

She said: "We are confronted daily with news that is devastating and complex, but very often, our response is 'Okay, facts understood, let's move on.'

"But that does not help us to change things. We have to find a different language that brings us into communication and also makes us understand that we are part of the story, not outside of it."

Her comments were made in relation to the exhibition The Sovereign Forest by New Delhi-based artist Amar Kanwar, which ran at the arts centre last year.

The work is a long-term project that uses visual poetry to interrogate the harsh reality of clashes between residents and the authorities and corporations over development of rural land in Odisha in east India.

An installation in the show, for example, displayed 272 species of rice - grown, collected and archived by schoolteacher turned farmer-and-seed activist Natabar Sarangi - as evidence of resistance against loss of agricultural diversity due to industrial development.

Shown alongside the seeds were small books such as one that remembered farmers of Odisha who committed suicide because of oppression from agricultural corporations.

For Kanwar, the work was borne out of a personal need to respond to the conflicts in his homeland.

He said: "After 10, 15 years, it's quite obvious that if a crime continues to take place, the question is 'How come?' Am I not getting it or does everybody want it to take place? Do they see it and like it or do they not see it?"

The soulful way he laid bare his simultaneous comprehension and non-comprehension of the conflicts presented a creative response to ongoing violence in a community.

By choosing to expose his honest perplexion at the matter, rather than assume a simplistic position, his work opened up an empathetic and otherwise elusive space that allowed people, regardless of their leanings, to come together to grapple with issues such as crime and human rights.

Yet, something continued to gnaw away at me. Is it possible for people with deep differences to pursue common ground even if they do not share the same understanding of what is the common good?

Is confident pluralism, as termed by American law professor John Inazu, who authored the book Confident Pluralism: Surviving And Thriving Through Deep Difference (2016), possible?

Prof Inazu believes that shared aspirations of tolerance, humility and patience make it possible for people to live peaceably despite their deep and even irresolvable differences.

He speaks of a tolerance that is neither about practising approval nor indifference, a humility that recognises one's deeply held beliefs may not be empirically proven, and a patience that demands one to actively exercise restraint and endurance.

What might this look like in action?

I saw a glimmer of it in Singapore artist Amanda Heng's new body of work, We Are The World - These Are Our Stories (2016).

The collaborative project saw the artist and 12 participants engage in long, intense discussions about the values embodied in objects of significance to the participants and how these should be represented as images.

It demanded that both the artist and collaborators commit to the months-long process of intimate conversation and reflection, and be willing to be vulnerable and work through their differences about how to develop each piece of work.

What resulted, however, was the creation of precious social space for deep engagement as well as public exchange and negotiation about what is of value to individuals who make up society.

Heng's project does not paint a naive picture of art as an easy social lubricant, but it shows that confident pluralism is not necessarily an illusion. Perhaps the tide of polarising change need not be inevitable.

May the best be yet to come.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Potency of art in polarising times'. Print Edition | Subscribe