Revisiting the Utopian Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art at SAM – interview

Art Radar talks to SAM Senior Curator Tan Siuli about the exhibition “After Utopia”.

The Singapore Art Museum is revisiting the utopian ideal in Asian contemporary through an exhibition of artists from Singapore and across the Asian region. Tan Siuli discusses the show and the status of Southeast Asian art.

Anurendra Jegadeva, 'MA-NA-VA-REH – Love, Loss and Pre!Nuptials in the Time of the Big Debate', 2012 – 2014, multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Anurendra Jegadeva, ‘MA-NA-VA-REH – Love, Loss and Pre!Nuptials in the Time of the Big Debate’, 2012/2014, multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

“After Utopia” (PDF download) runs at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) until 18 October 2015. Curated by Tan Siuli, a Senior Curator at SAM, the exhibition brings together 20 works by 18 artists from Singapore and other Asian countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, China and India. The artworks are drawn from SAM’s permanent collection as well as artists’ private collections and includes new commissions. The premise is to explore the creation of utopian ideals; imaginary worlds that have haunted our collective desires for centuries and still populate our contemporary realities.

SAM Senior Curator Tan Siuli. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

SAM Senior Curator Tan Siuli. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Tan Siuli oversees the Indonesia collection at SAM. She holds an MA in Art History from University College London, a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of Nottingham, UK, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the National Institute of Education, Singapore. Among her previous curated exhibitions are “Unearthed” (2014); “The Collectors Show: Chimera. Asian Contemporary Art from Private Collections” (2012); “Classic Contemporary: Contemporary Southeast Asian Art from the Singapore Art Museum Collection” (2010); and “FX Harsono: Testimonies” (2010). She was Curator-Mentor in Curating Lab 2012, a co-curator of the Singapore Biennale 2013, a member of the Advisory Committee to the Indonesian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2013, and a Juror for the Bandung Contemporary Art Awards.

Art Radar speaks to Tan Siuli about “After Utopia”, curating Asian contemporary art, the Singapore art scene and the significance of Southeast Asian contemporary art.

Svay Sareth, 'Mon Boulet', 2011, single channel video installation with metal sphere. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Svay Sareth, ‘Mon Boulet’, 2011, single channel video installation with metal sphere. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Made Wianta, 'Air Pollution', 2014, motorcycle exhaust pipes, stainless pipe, 250 x 300 x 300 cm. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Made Wianta, ‘Air Pollution’, 2014, motorcycle exhaust pipes, stainless pipe, 250 x 300 x 300 cm. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

The exhibition “After Utopia” brings together artists from Singapore and the Asian region. Could you tell me about the underlying theme of the exhibition and how the different artistic practices are linked together through this theme?

“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 originary paradise to which we long to return, even while reflecting back to us our current 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 strand, “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 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 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.

How did the idea for this curatorial project come about and why do you think it is significant to present it right now? 

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.

Gao Lei, 'Cabinet', 2008, (detail), metal cabinet and 3 rows of lightboxes, 270 x 45 x 190 cm. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Gao Lei, ‘Cabinet’ (detail), 2008, metal cabinet and 3 rows of lightboxes, 270 x 45 x 190 cm. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

The exhibition draws not only from the SAM collection and artists’ collections, but also has commissions made especially for the show. Could you speak about these commissions?

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 have not had a chance to present yet. Once we have formed a ‘core’ comprising works from our permanent collection, we started to look outside for other existing works which we feel 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.

There are a number of works that are on loan to us for the purposes of this exhibition, as well as a commissioned installation piece. Loans include those from local artists Tang Da Wu and Ian Woo, as well as Malaysian Chris Chong Chan Fui. The commissioned work is by artist Maryanto, who has recreated a work from his Rijksakademie residency show in Amsterdam two years ago, an installation that turns the tradition of the Mooi Indies (‘beautiful Indies’) on its head by presenting the landscape of his native Indonesia as one ravaged by big mining and industrial concerns, a dystopian rendering in charcoal and pencil.

Maryanto, 'Pandora’s Box', 2013/2015, charcoal and carbon powder drawing on wall, found objects, dimensions variable. Site-specific commission for Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Maryanto, ‘Pandora’s Box’, 2013/2015, charcoal and carbon powder drawing on wall, found objects, dimensions variable. Site-specific commission for Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

I am interested to know what your approach is to studying and analysing contemporary art practices from Asia. For example, is it important to consider single countries art practices alone or should they be comparatively considered within a regional context for a more complete perspective? In the case of Southeast Asia, national practices are so diverse, what links them together as ‘Southeast Asian’ art?

First of all, this may be interesting for many to know: at SAM, each of the curators specialises in a particular country portfolio. I oversee the Indonesian portfolio, for instance. What this enables each of us to do is to develop more in-depth knowledge about the art scene of our respective country portfolios: how it has evolved over the years, who are some of the promising emerging artists, the nuances and shifts in the art scene(s).

When we convene our curatorial meetings, to discuss and plan new exhibitions and propose artists and artworks, we bring our respective ‘country’ expertise to the table. This is also when we make connections across various countries and art scenes in Southeast Asia, as parallels and differences start to emerge, in terms of art practices, styles, modes of making and thinking.

As curators, we also make the effort to travel with our colleagues to their respective countries of expertise, to get a sense of the art scene there, which in turn informs how we think about our own country portfolios. So, in response to your question, I would say that it is important to do both: to have a good sense of each individual country’s art scene, but also to have a sense of the bigger picture, which in turn sheds light on each country, by comparison.

Kawayan de Guia, 'Bomba', 2011, installation comprising of 18 mirror bombs, ‘Sputnik’ sound sculpture, dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Kawayan de Guia, ‘Bomba’, 2011, installation comprising of 18 mirror bombs, ‘Sputnik’ sound sculpture, dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

What links Southeast Asian art? I suppose one could also ask, what links Southeast Asia? This is a question that academics have been turning over for some time, and one which we had to confront at the last Singapore Biennale as well. And we are still asking. As you pointed out, the various countries, cultures and art scenes that make up Southeast Asia are so incredibly diverse. And that is precisely why this region holds so much fascination for us.

Generally speaking, there are common threads running through much of this region’s history. In recent times, some of the commonalities include: political and social upheaval; rapid transformation of ways of life as well as art-making, once the interest of the art world (and art market) turned towards this part of the world. So a lot of similar themes emerge in Southeast Asian contemporary art: socio-political commentary, identity politics, grappling with ‘globalisation’, etc. But every art scene, and every artist, addresses this in varying ways, and every art scene is also developing at a different pace, shaped by different forces, so these variations are what makes it fascinating to study this region and make comparisons across.

Geraldine Javier, 'Ella Amo’ Apasionadamente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely, and She is Well-Loved)', 2010, oil on canvas, with framed insets of embroidery with preserved butterflies, 229 x 160 cm. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Geraldine Javier, ‘Ella Amo Apasionadamente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely, and She is Well-Loved)’, 2010, oil on canvas, with framed insets of embroidery with preserved butterflies, 229 x 160 cm. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

What is your outlook on the view of and impact of Southeast Asian art internationally? Which according to you are the most important art scenes coming out of the region right now and why? And which do you think are the most promising, emerging ones in terms of development and evolution?

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 epicentres 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.

Arguably, the Philippines and Indonesian art scenes are the most established in the region. Both countries have dynamic art scenes, and their artists have enjoyed critical success at major expositions of contemporary art, as well as international gallery representation. Singapore is also a major presence in the region, because we have the infrastructure that many other countries in Southeast Asia lack: museums, to present and validate art in a non-commercial context, just to cite one example. In recent years, a number of Singaporean artists have also made their mark in the international art scene.

Kamin Lertchaiprasert, 'Sitting', 2004, installation with 366 carved wooden sculptures, dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Kamin Lertchaiprasert, ‘Sitting’, 2004, installation with 366 carved wooden sculptures, dimensions variable. Singapore Art Museum collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

How the contemporary art scene in Thailand develops in the coming years will also be interesting to observe, with a new generation of artists with interesting, conceptually-oriented practices, a critical mass of writer / thinker / artist / educators, and the recent establishment of institutions such as the Bangkok Art And Culture Centre, located right in the heart of the city and making more accessible well-curated exhibitions of contemporary art from Thailand and Southeast Asia.

That said, while there is a lot of excitement about and enthusiasm for Southeast Asian contemporary art, 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 appreciative of 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.

Tang Da Wu, 'Sembawang', 2013, (details), multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Tang Da Wu, ‘Sembawang’ (detail), 2013, multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Being from Singapore, you surely have a very in-depth knowledge of the art scene there. Where does it stand now within the Southeast Asian region, the broader Asian context and finally, upon the international stage?

The Singapore art scene has grown tremendously within the past decade or so. This may be attributed to the fact that the development of the art scene here has largely been determined and supported by the government, which has ensured some continuity and stability unlike other projects in other art scenes in the region, which may come and go depending on the availability of funding or the initiatives of individuals and private organisations.

Within the region, Singapore is known for its infrastructure and many artists from Southeast Asia aspire to show their work here, because they know here their art will be presented in a professional manner, and in a proper museum or gallery setting. For many, showing in Singapore is an opportunity for their art to be seen by international visitors – something they may not be able to achieve in their home countries. Singapore artists have also been gaining international recognition, because of the availability of government funding for the arts, schemes to develop artistic talent and concerted efforts to profile Singaporean artists abroad.

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

Donna Ong, ‘The Forest Speaks Back I’, 2014, single channel projection with sound 8:00 min (loop). Collection of the artist. ‘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. Image courtesy the artist and Singapore Art Museum.

We are, I believe, on the cusp of a new chapter with new challenges: Singapore’s infrastructural edge may not be enough once our regional neighbours start to catch up and build their own museums and cultural centres and organise their own biennales and art fairs. International networks are easy to form these days in this hyper-connected age, and international curators and art enthusiasts can go directly to artists in Southeast Asia, without the need for intermediaries. The challenge now is for the Singapore art scene to distinguish itself with the thoughtful content it creates, to hopefully be amongst the pioneers – as I mentioned earlier – of new ways of thinking about and presenting the art and ideas of this region.

There is now also growing confidence in the art of this region, and hopefully this will, in time, translate into developing local talent and institutions, and being less reliant on looking to foreign ‘imports’ or establishments for validation.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Southeast Asian artists, Asian artists, museum exhibitions, curatorial practice, events in Singapore, interviews with curators

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