Awakenings: Social Activism In Asia That Speaks To The Masses

Following successive showings in Japan and Korea, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s will make its Southeast Asian premiere at National Gallery Singapore from Friday, 14 June to Sunday, 15 September 2019. Featuring 142 provocative artworks by more than 100 artists from 12 countries in Asia, Awakenings spotlights a critical turning point in Asia’s post-war history that saw artists — and the public — assert their identity and become advocates for change through art.

Awakenings Exhibition - Gun crackers (Zoomed in)

The period between the 1960s and 1990s was characterised by ideological confrontations, rise in nationalism, rapid modernisation, and a wave of democratic movements across Asia. Thus, a multitude of experimental art practices was born, as artists and the wider public were awakened to the emancipatory power of art.

Awakenings chronicles one of the region’s most turbulent periods through a transnational artistic lens, with a focus on the profound qualities of innovative practices in Asia — it outlines how artists questioned conventions and challenged those around them to assume new positions of criticality in society.

Awakenings Exhibition - Reptiles_3

Through this explorative journey of deep introspection, Awakenings allows visitors to reflect upon the role that art continues to play, in serving as a powerful tool that brings critical social issues to the forefront.  

Here are some of the highlights at Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s — most of which may strike a chord with visitors as the social issues addressed prove relevant even in today’s society.

Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses)

Awakenings Exhibition - Water Hyacinths With Gold Roses (Zoomed In)

Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas was first shown in the 1979 Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (GSRB) exhibition, which presented works by a new movement of young artists who rejected the aesthetic conventions of Indonesian fine art. They championed a shift away from painting and sculpture to more experimental mediums.

Awakenings Exhibition - Water Hyacinths With Gold Roses

Created by Siti Adiyati, Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas sees a pool of water hyacinths — a weed that grows on water surfaces and hampers the flow of rivers and streams — that is interspersed with hundreds of seemingly majestic gold-coated plastic roses.  

This contrast between life and artifice served as a powerful critique of the euphoria of overwhelming consumerism under Indonesia’s then-President Suharto’s New Order. In Adiyati’s words, “It is just an illusion symbolised by the golden rose in the sea of absolute poverty that the eceng gondok (water hyacinth) represents.”


Awakenings Exhibition - Reptiles

Appearing for the first time in the Awakenings exhibition, Reptiles is considered to be the first significant exhibition addressing the globalisation of the art world. Reptiles — created by Huang Yong Ping — explores the cultural connections and conflicts between the East and the West. The turtle-shaped traditional Chinese tombs are constructed out of paper pulp, which was made by running French newspapers through three washing machines.  The installation is also arranged along a North-South axis according to Feng Shui principles. Paradoxically, this interrupts the flow of the exhibition space.

Awakenings Exhibition - Reptiles (Zoomed in)

Despite the passing of decades, this piece still holds relevance in today’s society. Reptiles suggests that — in the eyes of the East — globalisation is simply westernisation on a global scale. Many grandparents – and perhaps even some parents — may think that way too. While it may be an exaggeration, there is no denying that there is some truth to this matter. Even in Singapore — a country that is renowned for its “melting pot of cultures” — traditions have adapted to changing times, and cultural practices are being compromised with each new generation.


Awakenings Exhibition - Labyrinth

Indonesian Social Realist painter Dede Eri Supia used photorealist techniques to create Labyrinth, addressing the interconnectedness of contemporary social issues in Indonesia; such as urban poverty, environmental destruction and consumerism. The painting shows a vast labyrinth of cardboard boxes from well-known consumer brands that stretches endlessly and is void of life, save for two boys who seem to be lying asleep.

Labyrinth critiques the class issues arising from urbanisation and an inhumane contemporary environment, whereby the boys are representative of the impoverished class of city dwellers who have become alienated amid economic prosperity and rapid industrialisation.

Though not recent, most — if not all — of us have not forgotten how Brazil splurged on roads and infrastructure for the 2016 Rio Olympics, while evicting or neglecting their own impoverished, who were tucked away from the fanfare. Brazil is simply one of many, proving that this issue continues to be prevalent to this day.

They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make This Drink

Awakenings Exhibition - Rhino installation/performance

Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu originally staged They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make This Drink at the National Museum Art Gallery and the Singapore Zoo in 1989. This powerful work brought together installation, performance, ritualistic elements from traditional Chinese culture, and contemporary social commentary. The performance is a critique of consumerism’s role in destroying nature. In particular, it refers to the Chinese myth citing the medicinal properties of rhinoceros’ horn, and the resulting indiscriminate poaching and near-extinction of rhinoceros.

Tang’s installation in Awakenings sees a sculpture of a huge rhinoceros without a horn, surrounded by empty ‘Rhinoceros Cooling Water’ bottles in a spiral arrangement. Next to the rhinoceros lies an ominous looking axe, that is tilted such that it rests against the hollow where the rhinoceros’ horn one was.

What Would You Do If These Crackers Were Real Pistols?

Awakenings Exhibition - Gun Crackers

Visitors are perturbed as Indonesian contemporary artist F.X. Harsono probes them to consider the infiltration of violence into everyday life. The installation comprises of a pile of pistol-shaped crackers, as well as a desk and notebook, where visitors are urged to pen their answers to the question “What Would You Do If These Crackers Were Real Pistols?”.

One of Indonesia’s earliest participatory artworks, the installation was created as a political statement against Indonesia’s then-President Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime. As Harsono said, “I bought the pistol crackers and just poured them on a gallery floor. A lot of people then linked my work with militarism, the regime.”

Awakenings Exhibition - Gun crackers (front view)

The question posed by Harsono is still just as daunting in today’s society, where countries such as Guatemala, Mexico and the United States (US) — where people are allowed to keep and bear arms — are home to some of the highest rates of gun deaths. As of 2018, the rate of gun deaths in Guatemala, Mexico and the US was at 32.3, 11.8 and 10.6 per 100,000 people respectively.

To this day, it remains a split-even argument in these countries as to whether gun ownership should be allowed or banned. Visitors may wish to revisit this installation nearer to the end of the exhibition, as it might be a different experience to witness the installation with the notebook filled with responses from other visitors.

Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s

Date: Friday, 14 June to Sunday, 15 September 2019
National Gallery Singapore, 1 Saint Andrew’s Road, Singapore 178957
Ticket prices start at $15. For more information, visit

Photos by Goh Jing Wen of the DANAMIC team.

Deepa d/o Chevi Vadivelu

Animal and music lover, bookworm and movie enthusiast. #blackismyhappycolour

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