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Fatal flaws of political utopias
IN a darkened room in the Singapore Art Museum, a creepily realistic life-sized sculpture of Cuban leader Fidel Castro lies on his deathbed. His chest heaves and falls as he appears to be steadily breathing. But his closed eyes and frail appearance suggest he's barely clinging to life.
Next to him are four fellow communist leaders - Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kim II-sung and Vladimir Lenin - all already dead and encased in glass coffins. It is only a matter of time, it would seem, before Castro would be lying in one too.
The artwork is titled Summit and is created by Chinese-Australian artist Shen Shaomin. But while it clearly alludes to communism's slow and sure demise, one is left to ponder: What's left or what will come in its place?
It's a question that is asked again and again in the museum's new exhibition After Utopia, which is curated by Tan Siuli and Louis Ho. Here, 20 works by 18 artists frequently explore the impact political ideologies and economic systems have on people's lives, and what happens when their ideals and promises are broken or corrupted.
In some of the standout works, the answers appear pessimistic. They suggest a world that's lost its compass, while greed and corruption deplete finite resources and undermine one's humanity.
In one work, for instance, Kawayan de Guia of the Philippines hangs from the ceiling gorgeous mirror balls moulded in the shape of torpedoes. As dance music plays, the torpedoes twirl and twinkle like disco balls should - linking capitalism, hedonism and military violence in one unholy party.
Capitalism may have long trounced communism, but the neo-liberal economic policies that parts of the developed world have embraced today is turning into a party for a few and a nightmare for many, de Guia's work seems to say.
In other rooms, Indonesian artist Maryanto executes a wall-to-wall drawing of a vast and barren landscape that's been mined to exhaustion. Meanwhile, his compatriot Made Wianta assembles a massive sculpture made out of hundreds of motorcycle exhaust pipes, to resemble a globe on fire.
Singapore's Tang Da Wu displays a simplified map of Sembawang devoid of flats and industrial estates, a rural sanctuary where Tang's Artist Village art collective once lived and played in the 1980s - before the village land was repossessed by the Singapore government for urban redevelopment. Meanwhile, Indonesian Yudi Sulistyo shapes a life-sized crashed fighter jet out of cheap cardboard - a satirical poke at the futility of military power.
The most historically notorious artwork - and the one you shouldn't miss - is Pinkswing Park (2005, 2012) by Indonesian artists Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar. When the work was first shown at the 2005 Jakarta Biennale, it incurred the wrath of religious authorities and led to the entire biennale being shut down.
The work comprises a pink swing that's surrounded on all sides by image panels of an attractive woman and man frolicking in an Eden-like garden. The man and woman, both well-known Indonesian celebrities, are completely naked though their private parts have been covered by white circles.
The Indonesians found the work offensive because it references the figures of Adam and Eve. But the artists say they're using religious allegory to criticise sexy advertising images that generate desire for consumer products. Religions promise utopia, but here evocations of utopia are met with antagonism.
Not all the artworks in After Utopia deal with contemporary issues. In one room, Thai artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert displays 366 small Buddhist-inspired wood sculptures - he carved one a day over the course of a leap year - which collectively encourage you to pause and contemplate the purpose of your existence.
Meanwhile, a section highlighting the garden as a symbol of paradise includes pleasing works such as Ian Woo's lush nature-inspired painting, Donna Ong's detailed imagination of a colonial explorer's desk, and Geraldine Javier's painting of an Eve-like figure in garden.
Ultimately, though, it is the more politically engaged works that stay in the mind as they encapsulate the broken promises and shattered dreams of our times.
- After Utopia runs at the Singapore Art Museum , 71 Bras Basah Road, from now till Oct 18. The museum is open daily. Call 6589-9580 for enquiries