Sydney Morning Herald Column

Singapore Biennale

Published December 7, 2013
Singapore Biennale 2013 - If The World Changed Photos contributed by Aaron Eng

This year’s Singapore Biennale goes by the theme: If the World Changed. But where does the “if” come into the equation? The world is changing all the time with increasing rapidity. There is the forward movement of technological progress and the looming entropy of climate change. Every country in the world is locked into a deadly struggle between these competing forces.
The exception, perhaps, is Australia, where the new government is trying a different approach by diverting funds away from both science and the environment. “She’ll be right,” seems to be the prevailing philosophy.
Change is not to be embraced but resisted.
In Singapore this would never do. This small city-state of only 5 million people is addicted to change. But in Singapore change doesn’t occur as part of the natural order of things, it is imposed from the top down. No other so-called democracy has so many characteristics of a corporation that seeks to unite workers in a common goal. No state is so shamelessly paternalistic towards its citizens, striving to mould the attitudes and interests of the population through campaigns.
There were reputedly more than 200 campaigns during the 1970s and 80s. The truly unforgettable one was the National Courtesy Campaign, which was launched in 1987 and may still be going in some subliminal fashion. Put “Singapore Courtesy Campaign” into YouTube and you’ll get the idea.
Art and culture were promoted with similar zeal in the 1990s when it became apparent these things were desirable additions to the modern city-state. Through sheer repetition and tenacity the campaigns seem to work, although one suspects the changes take place largely on the surface, not in the well-defended souls of the Singaporeans.

Front entrance of the Singapore Art Museum.
Front entrance of the Singapore Art Museum.

The Singapore Art Museum (SAM), founded in 1996, is a fascinating case in point. In the beginning it was little more than the idea of an art museum, with no real expertise or sense of direction. In seventeen years SAM has found its feet, dedicating itself to collecting the art of the South-East Asian region. It now aspires to a thoroughgoing professionalism, with a small but interesting collection and grass-roots connections with neighbouring states.
The inauguration of the Singapore Biennale in 2004 added immensely to the island’s cultural pretensions. In that first installment, put together by Japanese über-curator, Fumio Nanjo, there was much speculation as to what would and wouldn’t be allowed in straight-laced Singapore, (where the greatest art scandal of all time consisted of a performance artist trimming his pubic hair). That line of thinking proved fruitless and continues so, as there has been nothing in any of the four Biennales to seriously offend or challenge public taste.
Instead, we get the usual tangled skein of intellectual propositions that characterise almost all of these large international shows. If you’ve ever felt that Australians spend too much time worrying about their ‘identity’, you’re probably not ready for Singapore. This Biennale not only ponders Singaporean identity, but the multiple, contradictory identities of an entire region where different languages, religions and customs rub up against each other, not always harmoniously.
Instead of a single creative director with an overarching vision, this year’s Biennale is the work of no fewer than 27 curators drawn from across the region. Considering there are only 82 artists, or groups of artists, that’s an unbeatable ratio. Not even the most egocentric talent need feel neglected.
The committee approach to curatorship is being hailed as an exciting new model, but it could just as easily be seen as a sign of confusion and uncertainty. By spreading the responsibility, credit and blame are diffused. It’s like a punter taking several bets in the same race. If there is a nominal head it is veteran art historian, T.K.Sabapathy, listed as “Co-Chair of the Biennale Advisory Committee.”
Sabapathy is the most experienced figure in the group by a long margin, and that rarest of commodities – a genuinely critical thinker.
“There is little or no interest in history in Singapore,” he writes in the catalogue, “because to remember is to impede being fully in the present and to thwart moving forward. To pause over the past is to be intolerably encumbered, to dwell on yesterday is profitless indulgence and to think historically is to sink into pitiable paralysis.”
Taking diameter as a substitute for depth the curators have distributed the show over ten venues, although the core components are to be found at SAM; the supplementary exhibition space, SAM at 8Q; the Peranakan Museum, and the National Museum of Singapore. They have also come up with 20 words that are listed at the start of every display, with three being highlighted in each instance: testimonies, histories, locus, spirit, cosmology, interruptions, ancestries, geographies, selves, futures, apocalypse, culture, exchanges, nature, activisms, prophecies, interventions, meridians, materiality, intercessions.
I’m not sure these words serve any useful purpose as they can be applied to most artworks almost at random. One word not included is ‘satire’ – an activity that should be encouraged in Singapore. There are several broadly satirical pieces in this Biennale, including Chalk & Cheese, Leroy Sofyan’s collection of brooms and mops in which the heads are made out of soap. It’s a comment on the island’s obsession with cleanliness, but also on those menial tasks that wear away the worker as well as his tools.

There’s more soap, with all its metaphorical implications, in Vu Hong Ninh’s Little Soap Boy. This cherub gives the finger to the viewer when he might be expected to simply stand and look cute. It’s an oblique riposte to all the soft soap peddled by politicians, bureaucrats and religious leaders.
The funniest and most pointed work in the Biennale is Happy and Free by Boo Junfeng, a four-minute film that imagines what it might have been like if Singapore never split from Malaysia in 1963. A couple of bright young singers warble their way through Happy and Free, a jingle commissioned by the Singapore Ministry of Culture to celebrate the merger that never happened. It’s a magnificent piece of kitsch – the ancestor of all the other campaign jingles inflicted on Singaporeans over the past 50 years. The best aspect of Boo’s film is that it spoofs both Singapore and Malaysia because there’s no telling if anybody would have been happier in a united country.
One unintentional self-satire is Suzann Victor’s Rainbow Circle: Capturing a Natural Phenomenon in the entrance hall of the NMS. A makeshift waterfall is supposed to generate a circular rainbow, but it is an abject failure, resembling nothing more than a malfunctioning sprinkler system. If a rainbow is a symbol of hope this installation signifies despair. Nature has escaped the trap.
Suzann Victor, Rainbow Circle: Capturing a Natural Phenomenon, 2013
Suzann Victor, Rainbow Circle: Capturing a Natural Phenomenon, 2013

On the whole the Biennale is more successful than one might have expected from a committee of curators. There is much to be said for a show that can accommodate a photographic project by Prateep Suthathongthai, based on the space of the SAM courtyard, and a sprawling narrative painting by the indigenous Talaandig Artists from the Philippines.
Out of the chaos one can make a few tentative generalisations, putting Singaporean and Thai art at the more conceptual end of the spectrum while the work from the Philippines is positively gothic. Indeed, Oscar Villamiel’s installation of doll’s heads retrieved from garbage tips, withered flowers and a bamboo hut, is one the creepiest things I’ve ever seen in an art gallery. Voodoo through and through.
Countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos have strong folk traditions to negotiate on their way to joining the contemporary art superhighway. Vietnam is already much further along that same road. Indonesian art is veering in all directions simultaneously, although it’s the labour-intensive installations of artists such as Nasirun and Toni Nanwa that steal the show. The latter’s Cosmology of Life contains 1,000 hand-carved sculptures that have to be viewed through a magnifying glass.

The sole Australian contribution to the Biennale is Crystal Palace by Ken + Julia Yonetani, who have placed 31 eerie green chandeliers in a darkened room to represent the 31 nuclear nations of the world. None of these nations, incidentally, are to be found in South-East Asia.
One of the most sophisticated pieces is Angie Seah’s Conducting Memories, an interactive sound installation in which visitors are invited to create layered sound collages from a palette of small clips, past and present. This is also one of several collaborative works, although the other artists work exclusively with schoolchildren or prisoners. The little messages the prisoners send us in installations by Ahmad Abu Bakar and Hazel Lee are touching but predictable, usually taking the form of pledges to live a better life.

Sookoon Ang takes a different path in a short film in which teenage girls sit around looking bored, their faces painted like skulls. Based loosely on pictures by Balthus, this piece captures that state of adolescent ennui familiar to every society. It’s a reminder that a work of art can use boredom creatively rather than simply inflicting it on an audience.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7 December, 2013