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Art exhibitions: Singapore Utopia explores national identity in light of upcoming Bicentennial

The show will run from July 27 to Sept 1, with the works of about 15 artists showcased at Gillman Barracks.

Next month, performance artist Yen Phang will dress as an office worker, dip himself into a shallow pool of Chinese ink and use his body to “paint” on the white floor and walls of an art gallery which have been slathered with vaseline and KY Jelly.

This 30-minute ritual – which may be read, perhaps, as an ironic nod and love letter to the well-oiled bureaucracy of Singapore Inc – is part of an upcoming group exhibition at Chan + Hori Contemporary.

Singapore Utopia, which runs from July 27 to Sept 1, will see about 15 artists at the Gillman Barracks gallery delve into topics such as multiculturalism, intimacy and diaspora through artworks, performances and other events.

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Phang, 40, describes his piece, Admin (Your Xerox Machine Was My Mirror, 2019), as “an ode to us as office workers, as analogue tools in larger systems… (I am) anticipating the future obsolescence of flesh”.

“I love the idea of efficient systems. Bureaucratic systems don’t judge in themselves. They don’t have an ostensible agenda,” adds the lawyer-turned-artist.

The artworks at the exhibition comprise a diverse range of media, ranging from Jeremy Hiah’s performance artwork Coward, to Ho Tzu Nyen’s Gould (2009 to 2013) video installation where a pianist plays his music while fighting against a hand placed on his head.

Jeremy Hiah Coward

The artworks at the exhibition comprise a diverse range of media, including Jeremy Hiah’s performance artwork Coward.

With a nod to the exhibition’s title, co-curator Deborah Lim says the gallery will be a space for freedom of expression. She adds that she and fellow curator Lisa Polten were keen to explore the relationship between national identity and art.

Referring to the Our SG Arts Plan that charts the Government’s direction for the arts sector from last year to 2022, Ms Lim says: “We were very intrigued by this link between expressing and strengthening national identity, and art. We wanted to explore what it meant.”

Visitors will be asked to leave their phones and cameras in the lockers provided. Ms Lim says this will hopefully help insulate the space from the clamour of social media.

Aside from artworks, the exhibition will feature events on July 27 and Aug 17. They include performance art, a poetry slam, ghost storytelling and artists’ lectures on topics such as nostalgia and nudity in Singapore.

Visitors can also join a walking tour by artist Kum Chee-Kiong. The tour, which begins in Stamford Road and ends in Clemenceau Road, will trace the archaeological ruins of a centuries-old defence wall destroyed in the 19th century.

The issue of racism will rear its head in an upcoming work by performance artist Rizman Putra, 41.

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He says he will present a book of racist “jokes” by politicians, comedians, musicians, netizens and other people in Singapore. These remarks will be juxtaposed against innocent-looking illustrations – children playing with firecrackers, for example – that he adapted from old school textbooks. Visitors are invited to speak into a microphone and read one of the passages out loud.

“When I hear racist jokes, I don’t really find them funny, but people seem to be laughing. (This) is my reaction to that,” Rizman says.

Meanwhile, artist Ahmad Abu Bakar, 56, will present a sculpture drawing on his experience as a Malaysian who has lived in Singapore since he was a baby.

The structure, about the height of an adult, features a four-legged stand, a wooden middle and a large ceramic head shaped like a saga seed. The flattened sphere – painted with lines representing the roads in Melaka, where he was born, and Sengkang, where he now lives – will be attached to antennae-like “clouds” made from ceramic and stainless steel mesh .

The Singapore permanent resident is exploring”the complexities of the relationship between two countries, two societies, two politics”.

Curator Lim adds: “We thought about the Bicentennial (commemorations) and how that was about looking back 200 years.”

Singapore Utopia will explore contemporary issues, she says. “(This exhibition) is not about envisioning the future. It’s about responding to the present.”

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This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

Photos: Jeremy Hiah, Chan + Hori Contemporary & Edouard Malingue Gallery