After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) explores the dissonance between our innermost longings and the contemporary world we have created. Gunter Grass said, rather gloomily, that melancholy and utopia are heads and tails of the same coin. Imagining perfection, we confront the contradiction between the Arcadia of our imagination and the imperfect realities of our everyday. Featuring eighteen artists and artists’ collectives from across the Asian region, the exhibition was conceived as a four-part narrative. From the potent metaphor of the garden, we move to the city as a “contested site of the utopian ideal.” Discredited utopic ideologies are juxtaposed with the notion that the search for an ideal world is now a psychological inner journey, an entirely individual pursuit.
Other Edens presents the garden as a site of desire in the colonial imagination. Singaporean painter Ian Woo’s lyrical, abstract representation of foliage and water represents the solace found in the natural world. A reference to mid-20th-century abstraction is evident, but Woo has invented a powerful and idiosyncratic visual language. Underlying the gestural, calligraphic mark making of We Have Crossed the Lake (2009) is a spare restraint emerging from his deep knowledge of Chinese ink-painting traditions.
Some works reflect the bitter aftermath of totalitarian ideologies. Asian nation-states today—even the behemoth of a post-Mao China—are hostage to the forces of the global market, and old certainties have vanished. Shen Shaomin’s hyper-real embalmed bodies of Communist leaders lie in crystal sepulchres, as if awaiting a call to arms that might reanimate them. Mao lies next to Ho Chi Minh and Fidel, Kim Il-sung and Lenin. Summit (2009) is a G8 meeting of cadavers. The meta-narratives of the 20th century, like these old men, lie in the morgue of history.
Vietnamese/American collective the Propeller Group collaborated with an advertising agency to rebrand Communism, a tongue-in-cheek attempt to make it newly palatable. The mise-en-scène of Television Commercial for Communism (2011–2012) is all white—no red flags, no references to the glorious struggle of the proletarian masses, no cult-like imagery: a satirical “whitewashed” revolutionary ideology as empty and uninflected as a mouthwash commercial.
Anurendra Jegadeva’s MA-NA-VA-REH – Love, Loss, and Pre-Nuptials in the Time of the Big Debate (2012–2014) presents the personal as unambiguously political. A seductively gaudy Hindu wedding altar is adorned with images of the artist’s parents, the religious iconography of four major religions, and a panoply of South Asian cultural references. Jegadeva comments on two definitions of marriage: the wedding of the artist’s parents, in 1957, the year of Malaysia’s independence; and the marriage of convenience that created Malaysia as a modern state. Caucasian Krishnas are juxtaposed with the Virgin Mary, and portraits of political leaders jostle in a joyously vibrant eclecticism. In a time of increasing political and religious tension, this exuberant mash-up of culture and tradition seems utopian indeed.
Eighteen sparkling “bombs” hang in the darkened space of the chapel (the museum was once a Catholic school). Terrifying disco balls promising destruction, they cast shards of light onto the Stations of the Cross that still adorn the walls. At once beautiful and menacing, Kawayan De Guia’s Bomba (2011) references the bombing of Manila in World War II, but evokes the horrors of more recent conflicts, and others of the past, contrasting the glittery lure of hedonism with a dance of death.
Other works explore urban alienation. Chris Chong Chan Fui’s 2012–2014 video Block B was shot in a gritty neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur where life unfolds chaotically within a grid of brutalist high-rise apartments. Shannon Lee Castleman set up sixteen video cameras in facing apartments on Singapore’s Jurong West Street 81. Residents simultaneously filmed and were filmed by their neighbors. The work reflects the new realities of surveillance, but also reveals the joys of the everyday within these closely packed buildings. In unscripted exchanges between neighbors who might otherwise never have spoken, we see the possibilities for human connection in unpromising environments. Through this examination of utopias lost and found, the exhibition reminds us that the universal desire for the perfect world remains a tantalisingly elusive aspiration.
After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art is on view at the Singapore Art Museum through October 18, 2015.
 After Utopia catalog, Singapore Art Museum, 2015.