Sydney Morning Herald Column

Singapore Biennale 2019

Published December 12, 2019
Sharon Chin's 'In the Skin of a Tiger' occupies the National Gallery's entire central court

Irony is not a concept one associates with Singapore but when the theme of the Biennale is: “Every step in the right direction” it implies a sense of conformity that would have delighted Lee Kuan Yew.

Needless to say this is entirely contrary to what Artistic Director, Patrick Flores, had in mind. The subtitle is taken from a statement by Salud Algabre, a Filippina revolutionary leader of the 1930s, who said: “No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction.” Presumably we are to see the works in the 2019 Singapore Biennale as part of an ‘uprising’ against a world riven by rampant inequality, a looming environmental disaster, a refugee crisis, the rise of right-wing populism, and so on.

Flores is a charming, softly-spoken man from the Philippines, with intellectual predilections. To realise this show he has enlisted a group of six curators, each aged less than 40, who have made their own distinctive contributions.

What’s the collective noun for curators?

The result is a sprawling, complex exhibition featuring 70 artists or groups of artists, spread across 11 venues, that takes on every theme and issue facing the region and the world. Rarely have I seen a show in which the outlines are so blurred. It’s not about the quality of the art, it’s about information taking precedence over image. This is a Biennale that tries too hard to cover too many bases – which may be better than those ego-driven affairs staffed with the director’s mates, or a collection of fashionable junk – but inclusiveness is a virtue that comes perilously close to being a vice.

The bulk of the exhibition may be found at the National Art Gallery, a monumental, maze-like building in which the phrase “every step in the right direction” seems like wishful thinking. There are also components at Gillman Barracks, LASALLE College of the Arts, the Asian Civilisations Museum, and smaller venues. Add a wide range of collateral events and it would be easy to spend several days on the art trail.

Phare, the Battambang Circus

If I had to single out only one of the collaterals it would be 2219:Futures Imagined at the ArtScience Museum – a fascinating venue that should be a must-see on any trip to Singapore. The show transports us 200 years into the future, to a world in which the problems that loom on our own horizons have altered the fabric of daily life.

To appreciate the magnitude of Singapore’s Biennale season one has to remember that 20 years ago the island was a black hole for the visual arts. This ferocious commitment to culture by a country renowned as an uptight technocracy needs to be seen alongside the Australian government’s enlightened new policy of abolishing the Department of the Arts. As with climate change, while the world takes one route we’re galumphing in the opposite direction.

I’m sympathetic to what this ambitious Biennale is trying to achieve, but there are too many videos that trade hours of scrutiny for minimal satisfaction, and too many installations that look like a cross between a flea market and a library. It’s not unusual for contemporary artists to create displays of books, magazines, documents, antique photos and knick-knacks, as a way of bringing an historical dimension into their work, but unless you’re an antiquarian it doesn’t make for rivetting viewing.

Whenever I see such displays I always suspect the artist is trying to fool me into believing that he or she has actually read all those old books. It’s a familiar problem. Was Cy Twombly an avid reader of Virgil and Rilke, or did he just like to scrawl their names on a canvas?

Images from Haifa Subay’s ‘War and humans’

Flores says the Biennale is conceived “as a cross between a seminar and festival in which the joy of coming face to face with contemporary art becomes the mood and the atmosphere of heartfelt reflection.”

The seminar is definitely in the ascendency, although there are festive touches, including performances by Phare, the Battambang Circus, from Cambodia; and a gigantic installation by Sharon Chin of Malaysia that fills the National Gallery’s central foyer with abstract, geometrical shapes cut and stitched from old political banners.

Every so often an exhibitor rips through the intellectual cotton wool with a work of startling immediacy. One of the most striking is Haifa Subay, a self-taught artist from Yemen, who has painted a series of large mural-style pictures on the walls of the National Gallery. Motifs include a one-legged boy holding a gift-wapped version of his missing limb; the silhouette of a woman flexing her muscles, and a gigantic bullet hole.

Works from ‘The Gilded Age’ by Le Qang He

Subay’s paintings were originally made for the walls of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, which is battling through a devastating civil war. The bullet hole commemorates a shell that came whistling through her window one night.

By the standards of some of her co-exhibitors Subay’s images are simplistic, but to see a woman from Yemen wanting to tell the world what’s happening in her country is truly remarkable.

The most over-the-top contribution is probably that of Le Qang He from Vietnam, whose Gilded Age is a suite of paintings, sculptures and videos in which grotesque figures play out charades from a dystopian, authoritarian society. In He’s home town of Hanoi the work could only be exhibited in his studio.

Min Then Sung’s ‘Time: Dust’ (2017-19)

At the other end of the spectrum one finds the introverted abstractions of Myanmar’s Min Thein Sung. These small canvases resemble geometric paintings in tones of white and pale grey. It’s only on closer inspection that one realises the works are created by layers of dust that have settled on a surface. The images may be rudimentary but dust is a substance rich in metaphorical associations. Think of the skin cells that have left the body, the tiny fibres and particles of the natural world melded into the shape of a circle or square. It’s as if traces of physical life have been recast as ideal, spiritual forms.

Flying around with Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang, in ‘La camera insabbiata’

The most high-profile exhibit may be La camera insabbiata (The chalkroom) by American, Laurie Anderson, and Taiwan’s Hsin-Chien Huang, at Singapore Management University’s de Suantio Gallery. This is a virtual reality piece in which the visitor is taken on a voyage through a building made up of walls covered in chalked-up graffiti. It’s one of the better VR pieces I’ve seen in recent years, but like most of these works it falls for the sci-fi seduction of having us stare down into abysses and go zooming through the sky. In terms of originality and invention it’s not in the same league as Lynette Wallworth’s Awavena (2018).

If this column were five times the size it would still be impossible to do justice to an event such as the Singapore Biennale. When the themes are so various and the art so demanding of one’s attention it requires a commitment from the viewer. Flores and his colleagues have given us a Biennale in which the lure of ideas has taken precedence over mass appeal, but what the show gains in serious intent it loses in visual and conceptual clarity. It’s an exhibition that seeks to drive an intelligent wedge into a world growing dumber by the minute – which may be a forlorn hope because even when we accept there is a “right direction” most of us find the wrong way to be a lot more fun.



Singapore Biennale 2019:

Every Step in the Right Direction

National Gallery & other venues, Singapore

22 November, 2019 – 22 March, 2020



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December, 2019