When Singapore hosted its first biennale in 2006, it received mixed reviews. The city state known for its efficiency and economic progress had seldom been at the forefront of contemporary art events and discussions even though its Singapore Art Museum (SAM) has been home to one of the largest collections of contemporary Southeast Asian art in the world. Rather, the biennale was seen as a strategic move to establish the city as a cosmopolitan centre which offered not only business, financial and technological opportunities but also a vibrant arts and culture sector. The Singapore Biennale 2006 was the anchor cultural event for the mega showcase of the island titled Singapore 2006: Global City. World of Opportunities as the island played host to the Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group and its ancillary conferences, seminars and meetings. Nanjo Fumio, an international curator with many biennales under his belt, was invited to curate it and the subsequent 2008 edition as well.
Seven years on and three biennales later, the fourth edition of the Singapore Biennale closed its doors on February 16, 2014 with a little more than half a million visitors over a period of three months. With each of the past biennales organized under a different curation model, this edition of the biennale too was unique but on several fronts. Firstly, rather than one artistic director, it had a curatorial team of 27 curators, each one a specialist in one of the 13 countries showcased at the mega exhibition. Secondly, the biennale had an almost entirely Southeast Asian focus – most of the 82 artists and art collectives participating were from the region (South Korea, Japan and Australia being the non-Southeast Asian countries participating). Lastly, many of the artists shown were not the usual and familiar ones seen on the biennale circuit as the curators consciously made an effort to look for artists from lesser known areas within the region. As a result there were many artists whose works were seen for the first time, like Toni Kanwa, whose work Cosmology of Life consisted of 1000 sculpted wooden figurines. Each piece was unique as it was handcrafted by the artist after he entered a spiritual trance with the material’s energy dictating the final result. The miniature pieces, often as small as a grain of rice, were then individually positioned by the artist on a large white square light box inviting the audience to contemplate our micro roles with the larger cosmos of nature and spirituality.
Most of the artworks were located within the newly developed arts district known as the Bras Basah Precinct and the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), its annexe building, SAM at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore and the Peranakan Museum housed the largest proportion of artworks. With the biennale’s catchall theme of If the World Changed, the artworks reflected the social, cultural, political and economic complexities of Southeast Asia but rather than displaying the works by country or sub-themes, the audience was invited to view the works through 20 contemplative filters of terms like histories, geographies, cosmology, ancestries, futures, culture, exchanges, nature, and intercessions- terms that had cropped up repeatedly during discussions between the artists and curators. Each section of the exhibition space highlighted three of these 20 buzzwords as suggested filters for reflection and deliberations.
Possibly the most popular work was the Japanese artist collective teamLab’s animated digital diorama Peace Can Be Realized Even Without Order. Inspired by indigenous Japanese festivals and dance where performances are orchestrated without a conductor, the work is a spectacular interactive performance which used motion sensors to activate a stimulus and response mechanism that produces an organic and unique performance each time. While outwardly fun and engaging, on a deeper level the work questions whether a societies can exist and interact with each other peacefully without top down intervention.
This edition of the Singapore Biennale also stood out for the works by the country’s homegrown artists. A total of 27 artists living and working in Singapore were included, which to date is the highest at the four biennales. Filmmaker Boo Junfeng ‘s music video Happy and Free imagined a Singapore that is still part of Malaysia. Set to a 1963 song of the same title that was commissioned by the Singapore government to celebrate the merger, the video is played inside a karaoke room and asks us to contemplate how different Singapore and its people might have been had the merger continued. Were we happy and free then or are we happy and free now? All relevant questions that the video invokes.
This edition of the Singapore Biennale was also different in that it invited home some artists who have been absent from the local scene for a while like Suzann Victor. Her work Rainbow Circle: Capturing a Natural Phenomenon was located in the entrance hall of the stately National Museum building and used a combination of technology, optics theory, water and sunlight to create the proverbially elusive rainbow. Like most of Victor’s work, the artwork had a deeper metaphorical meaning. The rainbow is a symbol of good luck and happiness but its transient nature alludes to the darker side of chasing dreams. Though the rainbow circle never materialized completely, trying to catch little bits of the rainbow as they appeared at different times in the building rotunda captured the intertwined interactions of change, hope, temporality and futility in the world perfectly.
Singapore Biennale 2013 ran from 26 October 2013 – 16 February 2014 at the Singapore Art Museum.
Durriya Dohadwala is an independent art writer based in Singapore and has been actively involved in the area of art appreciation for the last eight years. She is a docent at the Singapore Art Museum and has recently completed a Masters degree in Asian Art Histories from Goldsmith College, University of London.
All images courtesy of the Singapore Art Museum.