Regional dialogue and homely conversation: ‘Awakenings’ at the National Gallery Singapore

Siti Adiyati,  Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses) , 1979/2017, installation view, ‘Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s’, National Gallery Singapore, 2019; image courtesy National Gallery Singapore

Siti Adiyati, Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses), 1979/2017, installation view, ‘Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s’, National Gallery Singapore, 2019; image courtesy National Gallery Singapore

At the National Gallery Singapore’s Coleman Street entrance on my first night in the city, as I left the damp heat of an early June evening for the cool marble chambers of what was once City Hall, my eyes came to rest on a bed of impossibly golden roses, their gilded petals catching the rays of the setting sun. Yet this thriving growth of emerald green, one of 142 works selected for ‘Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s’ (until 15 September), a comprehensive survey of over 100 artists from 12 Asian nations, conceals a sinister reality: these are water hyacinths, ravenous weeds that choke rivers and render streams stagnant, while the roses striving upward from tangled leaves are plastic imitations, enchanting yet lifeless, and even more polluting than the hyacinths that surround them.

Indonesian artist Siti Adiyati conceived this fusion of nature and artifice for a 1979 exhibition by Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (the ‘New Arts Movement’) which formed in response to the ‘Black December Affair’ of 1974, a dispute between student artists and the Indonesian Academy of Fine Arts. Her work vividly captures the three main curatorial themes of ‘Awakenings’: the questioning of convention by artists across the region from the 1960s to 1990s; the influence of the city and consumer capitalism in these decades; and the emergence of new forms of social activism and political organisation. As one of 14 artists to sign the ‘Black December Manifesto’, Adiyati was committed to that document’s vision of a new Indonesian art typified by diversity and innovation, as shown by her radical turn away from conventional media for Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses) (1979/2017). The combination of living plants and plastic flowers also reveals an incisive social critique, exposing the consumerism encouraged by President Suharto as little more than a semblance of prosperity that failed to conceal the suffocating realities of poverty and authoritarian control.

The location of Adiyati’s work in an entrance courtyard reveals another broader theme, not only in ‘Awakenings’ but throughout the gallery’s exhibition program, and even in the institution as a whole: the activation of transitional spaces. The architectural identity of the gallery rests on its fusion of City Hall with the former chambers of Singapore’s Supreme Court, transformed by glass-and-steel canopies and bridges into a 64,000m2 edifice. This architectural union finds an echo in the 2018 projects commissioned for the gallery’s ‘OUTBOUND’ initiative, in conjunction with ‘Awakenings’: Australian Gary Carsley and Singaporean Jeremy Chu’s The Regency Made Me Blind, and Nowhere by Jane Lee, another Singaporean. Both are installed, like Adiyati’s garden, in transitional spaces – the steps and landings between floors – that have become sites for encounter, transgressing conventional boundaries between artist and viewer. For Nowhere, the tangled skeins of paint in Lee’s Raw Canvas, first shown at the 2008 Singapore Biennale, are repeated in the seat of a bench on which viewers are invited to sit and contemplate a mirror mosaic on the opposite wall, their distorted reflections incorporated into the painting behind them.

On the floor below Nowhere, the murmur of voices draws gallery visitors to another recreated installation: Korean artist Lee Kang-So’s Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery (1973). For the first iteration of this work, Lee transplanted tables and chairs from a much-loved chumak tavern to Myeongdong Gallery, Seoul, introducing a homely camaraderie to the austerity of the ‘white cube’, with the promise of makgeolli rice wine and friendly conversation. For ‘Awakenings’, Lee’s vision has been revived in the largest of two passageways connecting the three gallery spaces in which the exhibition is installed, roughly coinciding with its core themes. Visitors must walk past these tables to reach the final section containing some of the most politically charged works, including Tang Da Wu’s They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make This Drink (1989) and FX Harsono’s What Would You Do If These Crackers Were Real Pistols? (1977/2018), the impact of which lingers as the sequence of galleries leads back to Lee’s tavern.

Here, the underlying aim of the exhibition emerges most clearly: to inspire discussion, reflection, a realisation of connections between works, and between different cultural, political, social and personal worlds. Set against the backdrop of bleachers with a capacity of thousands on the green of the Singapore Cricket Club outside the gallery, readied for National Day on 9 August, these discussions recall the civic functions for which the gallery buildings were intended. More importantly, they reiterate the guiding ambition at the heart of ‘Awakenings’: to seek a shared purpose uniting the tangled threads of history and everyday life, not by imposing a single point of view, but by recognising the multiple perspectives that have developed across the region from the 1960s to today.

Alex Burchmore, Singapore