Searching for the ideal: contemporary Asian art

After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art at the Singapore Art Museum explores the idea of utopia, a term originally coined by the writer Thomas More in the 16th Century to describe a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. From the Greek works for “good place” and “no place” the word refers to a place that possesses near perfect qualities.

The exhibition is centred around four approaches to the idea of utopia. “Other Edens” explores how gardens are used as a symbol of the ordinary paradise to which we want to return, while “The City and its Discontents” locates our search for paradise in the contemporary worlds we inhabit. “Legacies Left” examines the ideologies that have left their mark on societies around the world in the last century. Meanwhile the final section “The Way Within” eschews grand narratives, locating the search for a utopia within the self.

The image of a garden representing a utopia is seen in Geraldine Javier’s Ella Amo’ Apasionadamente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely, and She is Well-Loved). Javier, who was born in the Philippines in 1970, uses the image of a woman in a garden as a powerful metaphor for beauty and fertility.

This work explicitly references the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, renowned for her self-portraits, but also refers more obliquely to Eve, the first woman in the Garden of Eden.

The painting, which features framed insets of embroidery with preserved butterflies, also refers to death in the hanging foliage and other symbols. The work references Dutch vanitas painting of the 17th Century, a popular genre of still-life painting that would symbolise death and the transience of earthly pleasures through painted collections of objects.

Among the other works in the exhibition, Sitting by Thai artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert comprises 366 carved figurines, each in a meditative sitting position, referencing the number of days in a leap year. The figurines “poetically mark the passage of time, and serve as embodiments of mindful perseverance and the importance of keeping at this practice, day after day,” the curators said. “This meditative repetition encourages a certain stillness and looking within oneself, thereby giving rise to self-awareness and peace as one is reconciled with the world,”according to the curators.

After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art is on until 18th October at Singapore Art Museum.

Photo: Geraldine Javier. Ella Amo’ Apasionademente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely). Singapore Art Museum Collection.