Arts & Culture

Senior Curator Seng Yu Jin for Awakenings

Let’s talk Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s.

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With Singapore’s bicentennial commemoration currently in full swing at Fort Canning, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s exhibiting at the National Gallery Singapore offers a more regional and artistic perspective of the time period. Those years were characterised by ideological confrontations, such as nationalism and modernisation, and a wave of democratic movements across Asia.

Thinking of the ever relevant question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life, those tumultuous years gave birth to a range of experimental art practices. Art became a way for artists and the wider public to explore the emancipatory power of art to shape, express and assert our Asian identities.

Walking through the exhibition, it gives one a sense of the struggle and questioning that the region underwent during times of colonisation and de-colonisation.

The exhibition features 142 provocative artworks by more than 100 artists from 12 countries in Asia, and it is jointly co-organised by the National Gallery Singapore, the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea and the Japan Foundation Asia Center.

B-Side reaches out to senior curator Seng Yu Jin to learn more about the exhibition and its significance to Singapore at this point in time.

The exhibition is categorised into three themes: Questioning Structures, Artists and the City, and New Solidarities. Can you share more about the curatorial structure of the exhibition and if there were there any curatorial hurdles?

The three sections were decided based on the artistic practices that reflected pivotal moments in art history, and they spoke of the close relationships that existed between art and society.

After comparing the artistic practices across South East, East and South Asia, these three themes emerged as having central importance to different groups of artists operating from the 1960s to 1990s.

The sections highlight the various ways in which artists engaged with society. Many of the artworks selected could fall into more than one of these sections, which illustrates the shared histories and connections in our region. These shared connections are the main reason why we chose not to arrange the artworks chronologically or geographically.

The curatorial process for the exhibition was certainly challenging, as there was a large amount of research to be done to cover the vast geographical region of Asia, and it took approximately four years. As the framework was based on a comparative approach, the exhibition also demanded more in-depth research to advance new understandings of art and its histories in different contexts. It was an enriching experience for the curators, as we made field trips to different cities and met many artists to better understand their practices.

This exhibition examines the experimental practices that artists took to question socio-political conventions during turbulent periods in the region. How does the title Awakenings add to the exhibition contextually?

Awakenings alludes to the postcolonial moment, which prompted changing contexts of independence movements, decolonisation and the re-politicisation of art in South East Asia that awakened both artists and the public to the emancipatory power of art for change against dominant structures of power.

The spirit of this new consciousness for freedom that called for criticality to question dominant structures of power resonates across all three chapters of this exhibition.

Additionally, Awakenings suggests awareness, criticality and empowerment, which is in line with our exhibition’s aim to understand how art, artists and the public have the agency to potentially transform society. Stated in plural, our title also highlights how each shift in thinking about art and society is locally contextualised throughout Asia.

What has been the most eye-opening factor over the course of curating this exhibition?

It would be the uncovering of local artistic practices across Asia that shared conceptual and formal connections and resonances. During the three decades, countries in Asia experienced similar socio-political tensions; for example, Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea experienced being ruled under martial law. As a result, artists responded to these tensions and began to question the purpose of art: should art be made for art’s sake?

For example, artists like Lee Seung-taek adopted the artistic strategy of burning his own figurative works in The Burning Canvas Floating on the River (1964) to challenge the dominance of painting and figuration in art making. The Xiamen Dada in China comprising Huang Yong Ping, Zha Lixiong, Liu Yiling, Lin Chun and Jiao Yaoming in 1986 burned their own works covertly in their 86 New Dada Modern Art exhibition to protest against the material value placed on artworks, and as an act of self-liberation.

Other artists like Lin Yilin’s Safely Maneuvering across Lin He Road (1995) reclaimed the street as a public space by disrupting it through his performative act of moving concrete bricks across the road that has oncoming traffic over 90 minutes, making visible the destructive power of rapid urbanisation happening all over China. Other artist collectives like the Hi-Red Center wore white lab coats and scrubbed the streets of Tokyo clean using small brooms and toothbrushes as ironic gestures that intervened and questioned the government’s demands to project a clean image of Tokyo to the world in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. The United Artists Front of Thailand organised their Billboard Cut-out exhibition in 1975 by installing large billboards between lamp posts in Rajadamnern Avenue to protest against Neo-American imperialism eroding the sovereignty of Thailand by using the country as a military base for the war in Vietnam. These artistic strategies adopted by experimental and avant-garde artists in Asia resonated with each other while intersecting with shared socio-political contexts of the Cold War in Asia that was in actuality ‘hot’.

What do you hope visitors take away from an exhibition of this importance?

The exhibition continues the gallery’s trajectory in broadening and deepening the scholarship of the region’s post-war art that critically situates Asia in global art history.

We hope the exhibition prompts visitors to question assumptions, just like how artists then were challenging official narratives with their artistic expressions.

We also hope that with the growing interest in our region, visitors can better understand our shared identity and history, and realise that artistic revolutions in Asia were not just influenced by movements from the West, but also emerged from local social and cultural contexts.

If you had to share three artworks from Awakenings, which works would they be and why?

Many of the issues that the works discuss continue to be relevant to modern society today.

Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with a Golden Rose) (1979, remade in 2019), by Siti Adiyati

This specially commissioned installation by Indonesian artist Siti Adiyati features a pool of water hyacinths — a weed representing poverty, that grows on water surfaces and hampers the flow of rivers and streams — interspersed with hundreds of seemingly majestic plastic roses coated in gold. It offers a critique on the rich-poor divide in Indonesian society, an issue that arose during then-President Suharto’s New Order.

We live in an age of consumerism, and I believe the work prompts us to consider the socio-economic repercussions of that.

Reptiles (1989, current version made in 2013) by Huang Yong Ping

Shown at the gallery for the first time, Chinese-born French artist Huang Yong Ping’s installation makes use of ordinary materials such as newspaper pulp, iron and washing machines.

It explores the cultural connections and conflicts between the East and the West, and it is arranged according to fengshui (Chinese geomancy) principles. Paradoxically, this interrupts the flow of the exhibition space.

Reptiles was made at a time where artists began to explore using ordinary materials for purposes that were unfamiliar to audiences, which developed into a new kind of artistic approach.

I believe the installation offers a fresh and different way of encountering art, in particular for audiences who may be used to conventional artistic mediums. Furthermore, given that we live in a diverse society, the connections and conflicts between the East and the West might be interesting to consider.

Disappearance: Bar in the Gallery by Korean artist Lee Kang-so

Recreated for the exhibition, this is an early relational work that invited ordinary people to have conversations in a bar over food and drinks when it was first introduced at the Myeongdong Gallery in 1973 — something that would have been difficult under authoritarian rule in South Korea then.

Lee Kang-so’s work is an example of relational aesthetics, where the work directly involves the audience viewing it. It offers a different perspective on what an art gallery should look like, subverting the sterile, “white cube” gallery environment by transplanting the lively hubbub of everyday Asian life into the space.

Considering that this year is Singapore’s bicentennial commemoration, how do you think this exhibition adds a new perspective to the rest of the content put out there for the public?

It is important to think about where Singapore situates in the history of the region, given our shared resonances. Awakenings chronicles a defining period in the region, where artists began to question the meaning and purpose of art. We hope that through the exhibition, our audiences will be able to reflect on the powerful role art can play, and continues to play, in bringing important social issues to the fore.

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