《Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s》, a major retrospective at National Gallery Singapore (14 June–15 September 2019), opens emphatically in flames. At the exhibition's entrance, viewers encounter a wall-sized image from 1964 titled 〈Burning Canvases Floating on the River〉. The photograph captures a performance by Lee Seung-taek, in which he took three figurative oil paintings, set them alight, and cast them adrift on the Han River—a kind of Viking burial for outmoded ways of art making and in defiance of the martial law South Korea was under at the time. Lee abandoned the canvases as they floated off towards the North Korean border, not sticking around to get nicked.
〈Burning Canvases Floating on the River〉 is a good illustration of the exhibition's intentions: to shine a light on Asian artists' strategies for enduring the social and political fallout of the Cold War—from decolonisation and backsliding democratisation to rapid economic transformation—while elucidating the ways artists have pushed boundaries on what they could say and how they could say it at the time.
Organised in collaboration with the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea—the latter two having already staged versions of the show—this ambitious exhibition is the result of an eight-person curatorial team's visits to 17 cities across Asia, from Tokyo to New Delhi, Beijing, and Yogyakarta. During more than four years of research, 142 works by 100 artists were gathered, the majority of which coming from East and Southeast Asia.
Dr Eugene Tan, the director of National Gallery Singapore, describes 《Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s》 as an exhibition within a trajectory that has 'decentred Euro-American art histories by foregrounding the art histories of Asia.' Considering the moment when modern art transitioned to contemporary art, a chronology complicated by the fact that different Asian nations underwent this transition at very different times, the exhibition is consequently structured thematically, not chronologically, under three broad chapters. 'Questioning Structures', 'Artists and the City', and 'New Solidarities' collectively look at how artists expanded the boundaries of what constitutes art, made use of quotidian materials and their own bodies, critiqued consumerism, stood up for marginalised groups, and endured censorship and imprisonment.
'Questioning Structures' focuses primarily on artist structures, avantgarde artistic practices that challenged aesthetic conventions, and social structures. Like Lee Seung-taek's Burning Canvases Floating on the River, fellow Korean artist Quac Insik attacked the canvas as an emblem of old art in 〈Work 63〉(1963), a piece of glass smashed over canvas, giving the appearance that the surface itself had shattered.
But not only does 'Questioning Structures' show frustration with old modes of art-making; it also confronts local audiences' lack of interest in contemporary art. Thai artist and artistic director of the 2018 Bangkok Art Biennale (Beyond Bliss, 19 October 2018–3 February 2019), Apinan Poshyananda, tried to win them over with humour in his work 〈How to Explain Art to a Bangkok Cock〉 (1985)—a video of the artist attempting to teach art history to totally uninterested poultry that references Joseph Beuys' 〈How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare〉 (1965).
Performance art was both an avantgarde form and a crucial method of art-making in several Asian countries, where materials were hard to come by and objects could be destroyed by censors, serving as a powerful means to express vulnerability and frustration. Korean artist Kim Kulim's land art piece 〈From Phenomenon to Traces—Event With Fire and Lawn〉 (1970), is represented with photographic documentation of large triangle shapes burnt into the grass and slowly returning from black to green over the days that follow; as is Japanese artist Hitoshi Nomura's 〈DryIce〉 (1969), which involved the artist recording the weight of dry ice blocks as they melted, making his notations in white on the long black rubber mat which the ice sat on, shifting the dry ice forward each time to make room for new marking.
Works using the body as media include video documentation of Yoko Ono's provocative 〈Cut Piece〉 (1965), in which she invited the audience to snip off parts of her clothing, and Lee Kun-Yong's 〈The Method of Drawing 76-2〉 (1976), in which the artist tried to draw himself with a marker while lying with his back against the artwork's surface, a piece of plywood.
The second chapter of the exhibition, 'Artists and the City', largely centres on works that critique media manipulation, capitalism, modernisation, urbanisation, and the influx of consumerism. Huang Yong Ping's installation 〈Reptiles〉 (1984) is comprised of traditional Chinese tombs made of French newspapers pulped in three washing machines. The washing machines themselves are displayed too, alongside a tall column of papier-mâché-like gunk flung at the walls. The work, which suggests cleaning information as a way to destroy it, forms a fine dialogue with fellow Chinese artist Zhang Peili's 〈Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary〉 (1995), in which state broadcast anchor Xing Zhibin lends the authority of her delivery to an utterly meaningless recitation of words from the Cihai dictionary beginning with the character shui, meaning water. Both works imply a degree of 'brainwashing'—a metaphor that is as popular in Chinese as it is in English.
While accurate information isn't always easy to come by, China's e-commerce revolution has made a vast variety of global commodities more easily accessible in the country, which wasn't always the case. Wang Jin charted the extent of unmet desire in 〈Ice 96 Central China〉 (1996), a performance documented in photographs in this exhibition. In central Zhengzhou, Wang Jin built a 30-metre-long wall of ice with over 1,000 consumer products, including TVs, watches, phones, and leather goods, encased within it. The crowd's eager smashing of the ice to get to the items inside was unplanned. —[O]
Executive Editor, China, [Ocula]