Art in troubled times
The National Gallery Singapore’s latest exhibition, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s – 1990s, is co-organised with The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and the Japan Foundation Asia Centre. (Photos: National Gallery Singapore)

Art in troubled times

For a time, multi-hyphenates were the epitome of cool. Then came the coders, curators and celebrity influencers, jostling for social clout. Now, artists are having their moment as the brokers of social renewal.

The National Gallery Singapore’s latest exhibition, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s – 1990s, spotlights artists who sparked transformation in the region amidst radical changes such as modernisation, the Cold War and decolonisation.

On display in the exhibition are more than 150 works of art by seminal artists from Asia, including China, India, Indonesia and Singapore.

Art has long given voice to the disenfranchised. Its ability to communicate human experiences and emotions across space, time and languages has made it an enduring vehicle for social change.

But the prominence of art has surged in recent times as people increasingly process information through visuals. And along with this, artists have found themselves as influential mediators.

Through their works, artists invite diverse communities to come together to openly discuss and address issues which affect them. And because art transcends boundaries of time, works made some 50 years ago, as in Awakenings, remain pertinent.

The Gallery’s senior curator Seng Yu Jin, says: “Many of the socio-political issues that arose back then continue to be relevant even today, and the exhibition helps audiences reflect on the invaluable role art can play in bringing important social issues to the fore.”

Read on for his pick of not-to-be-missed works in the exhibition, and what they tell us about the role of art in social change.

Reptiles (1989, current version made in 2013) by Huang Yong Ping
Chinese-born French artist Huang Yong Ping’s installation is constructed from paper pulp, likely made by running newspapers through washing machines. The use of quotidian materials allowed people to encounter art in fresh, unexpected ways when the work was made in 1989. It also let artists move beyond the aesthetic and use art to critically analyse issues in society. The work is arranged according to fengshui principles and it explores the cultural connections and conflicts between the East and the West.

Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses, 1979, remade in 2019) by Siti Adiyati
This installation by Indonesian artist Siti Adiyati features a pool of water hyacinths interspersed with hundreds of plastic roses coated in gold. It offers a critique on the rich-poor divide and the rise in pollution alongside economic growth – issues that arose during then-President Suharto’s New Order. The work prompted viewers then to critically consider the cost of rapid modernisation.

They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make This Drink (1989) by Tang Da Wu
This seminal performance art piece by well-known Singapore artist Tang Da Wu presents a striking social commentary on the effect of cultural beliefs and consumerism on the environment. It references the near-extinction of the rhinoceros as a result of traditional Chinese belief in the medicinal properties of the animal’s horn.

Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery (1973) by Lee Kang-So
In this work, South Korean artist Lee Kang-So set up tables and chairs from his favourite chumak (traditional pub) in an art gallery. The act turned the gallery into a gathering place where people could have a glass of makgeolli, a type of rice wine, and chat freely. It is one of the earliest relational works in art history which involves the audience not as a passive viewer, but as an active participant making meaning from and with the art. This work will be activated as a real bar for the first time in this exhibition.

Details about Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s – 1990s here.

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