singapore biennale 2011

open house
13 March - 15 May 2011

Before tackling the third Singapore Biennale (SB2011), I settled down on a sofa at the Dome coffee shop at SAM (Singapore Art Museum) to take stock. That day, in The Straits Times (4 April 2011), there was a photograph of evacuees from Fukushima, Japan, living out of partitioned cardboard-box spaces they had erected in a centre that otherwise offered little privacy. I suddenly realised the dissimilarity between Australia’s recent flood victims, who tended to bed down side-by-side in public halls, and Japan’s earthquake survivors who, being from a densely populated nation, have learned to nurture personal space. With this in mind—the specificity of cultures and their customs—I turned to the Short Guide to ‘The Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House’. The theme of ‘Belief’ in 2006, the previous Biennale I had seen, seemed apt at the time, especially considering Singapore’s numerous churches and those buildings with a religious mandate. But other pressing matters have emerged, and the question of how people navigate a modern urbanised world ‘crossing thresholds, transaction and exchange, daily actions and forms of movement, from one place or state to another’ also informs current artistic practice in this particular place and further afield.1

‘Open House’ is one instance of Singapore’s importance to our region in terms of contemporary art. Not only is this city-state comparatively easy to travel to, it is establishing an enviable number of museums and art venues that are well worth visiting on a regular basis. More importantly, the collecting and exhibition focus of SAM is that of Southeast Asia post-1970. SAM organised this latest edition of the Biennale and included the Museum’s colonial building (formerly St. Joseph’s Institution) and SAM’s less grand ‘outreach’ venue (known as SAM at 8Q) as exhibition spaces. In addition, The National Museum of Singapore tailored its largest display room to the event. While other venues deserving coverage were employed for ‘Open House’, my commentary of the Biennale concentrates on the use of the so-called ‘museum precinct’.

Accordingly, I want to draw attention to the robust installation and object-based work that SAM has been collecting. Some of it was on display at the same time as the Biennale in the exhibitions ‘It’s Now or Never II’ and ‘Negotiating Home, History and Nation’. This was the latest in a collection-based program of exhibitions; the first addressed installation art and the second traced two decades of contemporary art in Southeast Asia 1991–2011. Both illustrated how thought-provoking and innovative the visual arts are from this part of the world. I’ll give just two examples. One room had Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria (2008) by Jompet Kuswidananto, an Indonesian artist; here, a type of military parade of full-scale soldiers manifested itself through uniforms amalgamating Dutch and Javanese military attire. Sound from an electronic orchestra, and projected video contributed to this complex engagement. The work represents Java’s patchwork heritage, and the on-going tensions between tradition and modernity. In another room, Thailand’s Vasan Sitthiket characteristically championed the lot of his country’s rural communities with his Committing Suicide Culture: The only way Thai farmers escape debt (1995). Here, rough-cut figures painted partly in Buddhist-like orange were strung up with rope and dangled over a bed of rice-husks. This work characterised an exemplary role call of forty-four artists in the ‘Negotiating Home…’ show.

‘Open House’ itself represented sixty-three artists. For SAM, probably to ensure that the collection was seen as quite separate, Matthew Ngui and his fellow advisors Trevor Smith and Russell Storer chose just four artists, only one from the neighbourhood. This was Louie Cordero from Manila who contributed a lively room of ‘syncretic’ monsters and comic-like characters worthy of horror movies and the shenanigans of heavy metal musicians. Sipping coffee on one of the Dome’s couches seemed incredibly sedate when confronted by them and also by Ryan Trecartin’s romps. Viewers could either view this Philadelphian’s reality-show style films on a sofa, bed or row of stadium benches. My favourite in the series ‘Re’Search Wait’S’ (2009-10) used the sofa in front of a riotous video performance of the artist and his friends manically upturning their suburban household with endless changes of props and costume. It appeared that CosPlay is one way out of boredom and the constrictions of domesticity, but so too is the new language that electronic social networking has established … rapid-fire language. Their repetitive banter barely hung together yet effectively united the participants. The outside world is just too difficult, it seems.

Next door Berlin artist Julian Göthe had taken stage sets and illustration into another realm, firstly through a small hand-drawn animation based on ornate rococo theatre which invited a glimpse of magical worlds while travelling through proscenium curtains (a bit like C.S. Lewis’s books). This was brought into dialogue with sculpture and an all-enveloping wall-work. The black forms commanding the centre of the room crossed severe modernist interior design tropes with those that could be described as Darth Vadarish. Nevertheless, it was the wall’s web of power grid towers linked up to each other that brought the contemporary urban-scape and economics very much into play.

A former public housing development building, SAM at 8Q was, through its separate apartments, ideal for the ‘Open House’ concept. Fittingly too, Koh Nguang How, one of the nine Singaporean artists featured in the Biennale used this venue. He had reconstructed his home-based Singapore Art Archive Project (established in 2005), a seminal archive of newspaper clippings, film footage, correspondence, posters, catalogues, etcetera, on local artists.2 During my visit Koh was in attendance, and eager to share his knowledge (and some concerns about the National Art Gallery of Singapore, due to open in late 2014).

There was also a Moving Image Gallery where films by Tan Pin Pin investigated the mixed culture and history of Singapore, some through a poetic and melancholic register. By contrast Turkish video artist Gülsün Karamustafa explored the kitsch of Orientalist stereotypes, persisting up to the present, using a group of women from different social backgrounds to participate in clandestine meetings where each indulged in wearing and posing in the latest ‘panther fashion’. This was ‘Sex and the City’ Istanbul-style, layered over Karamustafa’s acute observations of cultural displacement and economic nomadism in her country. Humour cloaking serious commentary was also present through the riddles of Stuart Ringholt’s installation. The Australian’s Untitled (Low Sculpture) #2 (2008) appeared at first glance to comprise a scattered field of ordinary household objects—a truncated chair, spent aerosol cans, plastic bits and pieces, enigmatically scrawled wooden planks, and so forth—until you realised that normal functionality of any of them would be impossible; that because of such transformations, improvisational usage would be the only answer.

Probably the star turn at SAM at 8Q was Candice Breitz’s multi-channel video installation that relates the stories of seven pairs of identical twins and one set of identical triplets, drawing attention to the similarities and differences between them. Because of the uniqueness of her subjects, one became hooked into watching them and listening to the interviews recorded by this South African artist and hence became privy to their contemporary anxieties and concerns. While most of these were banal, the Canadian twins (both gay) were, in my view, among the most articulate. They were aware of how their male/female appearance could be read as quintessentially ‘hybrid’, a possible reflection of the diversity of cultures found in most westernised cities.

The National Museum of Singapore blackened its special display galleries for the Biennale. Here Navin Rawanchaikul’s investigations centered on the mixed culture community based around Kad Luang Market in Chiang Mai, where he grew up. They resulted in a panoramic painting of the artist and local identities and also a compilation of filmed interviews with a number of residents sharing Indian heritage. From Vietnam, Tiffany Chung had addressed alternative models of sustainable living in geographical locations where flooding has become a regular scourge and where population and industrial growth is increasing. The 1978 Mekong River floods hugely affected her and drawing from this childhood experience, the artist developed what she states as the ‘floating life is a way of life’ concept for alternative habitation. Her suspended islands of urban planning models for Asian cities were persuasive, and aesthetically mesmerizing with their cast shadows on the floor.

Other artists represented at the Museum included Sopheap Pich from Cambodia whose aggregate of fine bamboo structures in the domed foyer hovered between art, craft and architecture and reminded viewers of the natural environment upon which humanity’s survival rests as much as the cities we construct and continuously expand.

I found ‘Open House’ at the ‘museum precinct’ a rich experience. Not only were there the classic exhibition spaces, but also venues that were ideal for experimentation and inquiry. There were new projects and new artists to absorb. Many of the former would be out of place in an international art fair—which countered the reputation of Singapore chiefly being an ideal shopping destination! Clearly the curatorium had placed the predicament of people at the heart of their enterprise and how the individual in the early 21st century navigates an increasingly urbanised situation, especially when the region known as Southeast Asia is addressed. 

Stuart Ringholt, Untitled (Low Sculpture) #1, 2008. 43 objects, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy Stuart Ringholt and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney. Photography Singapore Art Museum.

notes: 

1. Matthew Ngui, Artistic Director, Singapore Biennale 2011, ‘Introduction’, Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House, Singapore Art Museum, ISBN 978-981-08-8050-7, 2011, Singapore.

2. For those in the museum world, Mr. Koh represents an artist who recognises how self-motivated collecting can play a vital part in preserving cultural heritage.