Staying Woke with Children at NGS, Jun/Oct 2019 (II of II)

...Pictures of burning art by Xiamen Dada - the collective Huang Yong Ping founded - calibrates my attention towards work made by artists residing in Greater China. This exhibition bookends a time frame, when a dense population is actively pursuing material capitalism. One very apt representation is Wang Jin's 'Ice: Central China 1996', where the artist installed ice blocks containing consumer goods outside a city mall, which Great Wall facsimile was progressively broken down by members of the public. Thousands of miles south, Lin Yilin builds then moves a brick wall from one side of a main street to the other, causing traffic disruption in the process. Such daring performances culminate in 'To Add a Meter to an Anonymous Mountain', Zhang Huan's notorious undertaking where ten naked bodies are stacked horizontally like a pyramid, to protest (or commemorate?) the government eviction of their artist community at Beijing East Village.

Video still from Zhang Huan - To Add a Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995)

A pioneering performance art piece on Mainland China is Frog King Kwok's 1979 "Plastic Bag Happenings". The Hong Kong artist metaphorically collects anxieties & concerns from passersby into single-use plastic bags, then tie it up for display at prominent landmarks such as Tiananmen Square. Looking at these pictures just days after a Hong Kong police officer shouted 自由閪 at citizens, strong feelings are invoked as I empathise with the powerlessness on show.  Across the Taiwan strait, Chen Chieh-Jen organizes a group of five walking, with bags over their heads around Taipei's popular Ximending area. This video record, along with Green Team's news footage-montage 'The New Wave of Opposition Movements', presents a turbulent time of social change after martial law was lifted at the island-state. The authorities, i.e. the police, is evidently present. Freedom, hi?

Installation snapshot of Frog King Kwok - Plastic Bag Performance and Installation (1979, reprinted in 2018)

Pacing quickly past the remaining two-thirds of "Awakenings", one later exhibit that held my attention was Teo Eng Seng's trio of unassuming plaster casts, made when the artist's sister was detained under Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA) and kept in solitary confinement. Exhibition co-curator Adele Tan writes about the work in a 2014 essay - "As plain and 'incorrect' expressions of space, Teo's D-Cells appear to not only violate conventional compositional and aesthetic values (e.g. the notion of the beautiful) but also foreground ugliness as a more historically appropriate category of appreciation (...) The task of indexing trauma and anger can no longer fall back upon normative solutions (such as realist and allegorical painting)..." The ISA - a piece of law enacted by the Malaysian parliament in 1960 - remains in force in both Malaysia and Singapore today.

Installation snapshot of Teo Eng Seng (1987) - D Cell 2; D Cell 3 - Confinement; D Cell 1 [picture taken from Seelan Palay's Instagram post dated 12 August 2019]

A number of exhibits remind of Malaysian art, that addresses the socio-political positions of its day. Hong Sungdam's documentation of the Gwangju Uprising, recall "The Reformasi Series" woodbock prints by Wong Siew Lee. Kim Kulim's performance of burning triangular plots of grass, made me think of the October 1994 "Warbox, Lalang, Killing Tools" exhibition-event, held at the former Majestic hotel. Striking high-contrast billboards by the United Artists Front of Thailand, project an attention-grabbing aesthetic as attractive as Fahmi Reza's biting posters. A pond of water hyacinths and fake golden flowers by Siti Adiyati, remind both of Ng Sek San's Malaysian Spring flags, and Sharon Chin's October 2013 Mandi Bunga happening at the National Museum of Singapore nearby. As I typed out these perceived connections, a sobering realization hits me.

Installation snapshot of United Artists Front of Thailand (including Sinsawat Yodbangtoey, Thakpol Priyapol, Thammasak Booncherd and Trakul Leelapeerapan) - Billboards (1975, reproduced in 2019) [picture taken from Bangkok Post article by Arusa Pisuthipan dated 8 July 2019]

Have I grown accustomed to the aesthetic conventions of socio-political art, that short-circuited my swift judgements? Do I assign mediums & styles onto a fixed scale, where self-indulgence and public engagement are mutually exclusive approaches? Are individual contexts assimilated into pundit-friendly or academic categories? Does a museum presentation help elevate, or negate socio-political awareness? These are questions deserving a long contemplation, and "Awakenings" offers a significant collection of exhibits, that trigger critical thoughts. Many works remain potent and especially relevant within a Southeast Asian context, despite being created 20 to 50 years ago. Looking at FX Harsono's 'Rantai yang Santai', one imagines that being chained onto an elevated bed of cushions is a perverse prospect, yet an appealing one. Staying woke seems like a breakthrough, but really, we may already have thrown away the keys to these chains.

Students on a docent-guided tour of "Awakenings", with FX Harsono - Rantai yang Santai/The Relaxed Chain (1975/2011) in the foreground [picture taken from NGS blog post by Shaun Soh dated 23 September 2019]