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September 22, 2017

Pursuit of perfection

From Singapore – the city-state some think of as a utopia – comes a visual art exhibition exploring how far or close we are to social perfection.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Picture: Bomba by Kawayan De Guia

The contemporary art exhibition After Utopia was conceived in a uniquely Singaporean context.

Curatorial co-head at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Tan Siuli, says the city-state’s celebration of independence sparked the institution’s interest in the theme. 


 After Utopia is showing at the Samstag Museum September 22 – December 1 as part of OzAsia. 

“It was 2015 when we actually conceptualised this show,” she says. “It was actually Singapore’s Golden Jubilee – our fifty years of independence and it’s a very celebratory year.

“For many people Singapore is a kind of utopia… So we thought, ‘let’s look at what utopia means today, what relevance it holds for us still, where we locate our utopias, how we’ve tried to bring them into being’.”

Tan Siuli

While the conception of the exhibition grew out of an event specific to Singapore, Tan and co-curator Louis Ho threw a wide net in choosing art- works to populate the show – drawing in artists working in an array of media from across Asia.

In doing so, the pair explored the different interpretations of utopia that have evolved across cultures.

“I tried to bring that out in the exhibition,” says Tan, “comparing how differently people have tried to describe utopia and how differently we have tried to reach that.

“For me it was really interesting to include this Asian perspective that maybe utopia is not something that is an outward manifestation, but that it is something that is a more spiritual retreat.”

From September, After Utopia will be transplanted from its original home at SAM to Adelaide’s Samstag Museum.

And while this condensed version of the show will retain its original curatorial themes, re-presenting it two years later in a new country brings new meanings to the works.

Tan says video work ‘Television Commercial for Communism’, from Viet-American artist collective The Propeller Group, has particular resonance in 2017.

“Basically, what they did was they worked with award-winning ad agency TBWA Vietnam – that agency was responsible for Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign,” says Tan. “So they wanted the ad agency to create this really short commercial to advertise communism.

“I went to London this Summer and on my way to the airport I passed by Grenfell Tower on the expressway, and you just can’t get that image out of your mind.

“So, thinking about the kind of social structures and economies that produced that tragedy – this work really speaks to that. It’s about other ways to structure our social relations and our economy so we can do things differently, so we can do things more equitably.”

Another work that has been slightly shifted from its original context to now have special relevance for 2017  is Kawayan de Guia’s ‘Bomba’ – in which glittering warheads hang from the ceiling like disco balls.

“The title is tagalog and it literally means bomb, but it also has a second meaning of being exposed or vulnerable to the lure of excess,” says Tan.

“In 2017… in the news I’ve been reading about Pyongyang and Washington and the US flying the bombers over North Korea. It’s a spectacle – this image of violence and distraction that occupies our conscience and we can’t tear ourselves away from it – there’s something very compelling about it.”

And like the idea of utopia itself, there’s something deeply compelling about seeing contemporary artists dissect perfection.

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