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Public Concerns

The case for positioning artists as public intellectuals is not new. It was in 1994 that Edward Said wrote – based on a comparative analysis of preceding paradigms of public intellectualism – that a public intellectual is “someone whose place is to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations”. The notion was expanded six years later by the American cultural critic and academic Carol Becker who noted that “[i]n their role as spokespersons for multiple points of view, for critiques of society, in their refusal to become specialists, bought off by any one body of knowledge, artists may be understood as public intellectuals.”

In Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s, which opened in Singapore in June following successful runs in Japan and Korea, the potential of art and artists to fulfil this role is fully realised in an ambitious sprawl of a survey that runs through four decades of radical, experimental and socio-political art across 12 Asian countries, showcasing over 142 works by more than 100 artists. The exhibition is organised by the National Gallery Singapore together with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Korea and the National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT), Tokyo, as the culmination of a five-year-long joint project between the three institutions and the Japan Foundation Asia Center. It is co-curated by the National Gallery Singapore’s Seng Yu Jin, Adele Tan, Charmaine Toh and Cheng Jia Yun, together with curators from MOMAT and MMCA.

Image courtesy of the National Gallery Singapore

Set against the backdrop of the rapid and turbulent social and political changes within the region as the Cold War escalates and eventually ends, Awakenings juggles with the weight of the diverse (yet, often shared) social and political concerns that Asian artists have explored in representing, interrogating and conversing with the contexts of their times and locales. In the form of a survey, and especially one with a scope as broad as the one presented here, the nuances and complexities of the diverse subject-matters could have easily been lost in a discordant cacophony. Instead, for me, it was a pleasant surprise to see and experience the articulation of the Artist’s social relevance that follows in the continuity of Asia’s long intellectual tradition.

The first work we see from the exhibition, located in the City Hall Courtyard, is Siti Adiyati’s Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses), an installation consisting of a pool of real water hyacinths interspersed with majestic gold-coated plastic roses. The work is an inculpation of the materialism and consumerism that characterised Indonesia’s New Order under then-President Suharto, in the midst of the poverty and hardship suffered by ordinary Indonesian citizens .

“It is just an illusion symbolised by the golden rose in the sea of absolute poverty that the eceng gondok (water hyacinth) represents.”

Siti Adiyati, Eceng Gondok Berbungan Emas (Water Hyacinth with a Golden Rose), 1979, remade in 2019. Image courtesy of the National Gallery Singapore.

The work was first shown in the influential Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru exhibition in 1979, when the young Indonesian artists of that time rebelled against the stifling conventions and aesthetic language of that era’s fine art establishment.

Now set within the National Gallery’s polished interiors, the artificiality of the work gives rise to certain resonances between the desire to innovate a new visual vernacular in a bygone Indonesia and the artificiality of the Gallery’s own slick branding and architecture. One begins to wonder about the displacement of historicity from an artwork, and whether its efficacy as historical documentation could be lost when the meaning is transplanted into a setting so thick with its own unique politics and history.

There is an interesting tension that is kept once we migrate upwards, where we are confronted with a short film from the pioneering local filmmaker Rajendra Gour that unassumingly documents a rapidly developing Singapore during its urgent industrialisation post-independence.

Just a little further down the gallery we face a wall-sized print of Lee Seung-taek’s Burning Canvases Floating on the River. The irony of how futile documentation is, and how susceptible it is to the vagaries of time and our persistent efforts in saving it, is not lost on visitors.

Lee Seung-taek, Burning Canvases Floating on the River, 1988.

A casual conversation with a fellow exhibition visitor during one of my frequent returns to the show in the midst of writing this piece sparked a conversation on why care if everything goes away in the end? Here, the trigger was a discussion of Burning Canvases’s history – Lee made the work by sending three figurative paintings, in the artistic tradition of the Korean modern art movement that he had set alight, drifting down the Han river – a site of contestation and connection between the divided Koreas – during a period when security was rather more lax than usual. (Otherwise, the South Korean military generally keeps it under close surveillance because of its accessibility and convenience as a site of infiltration.) Despite the strong and arresting visual impact, the work is essentially a commentary on the gatekeeping that obstructs true unity and new creation – both in the art establishment and the military. It was not meant to be a spectacle.

Works such as Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece and Huang Yong Ping’s sprawling installation Reptiles were particular standouts for me, not so much for the history and context of the works but rather for the methods of reacting, and subsequently documenting a concern and its context.

Curator Adele Tan spoke of this exhibition, jointly produced and conceptualised by multiple institutions, to the media as “an act by an institution against forgetting,” and it would be worthwhile to unpack this statement for anyone considering visiting. There are no answers, none which are adequate, anyway, but there are questions: What is this institution; who is it for; what is chosen to be remembered; who gets to forget?


Feature image: Detail of FX Harsono’s What Would You Do If These Crackers Were Real Pistols, 1977 – 2018.


[Note: Catch Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s – 1990s at the National Gallery Singapore before it closes. The exhibition runs till 15 September 2019.]




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