Singapore Biennale 2019: Engaging Oneself into a More Fluid Society

Sharon Chin, In the Skin of a Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita), 2019,
13 banners made from reclaimed fabric, dimensions variable. Collection of the Artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.
Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier, Never real historians, always near poets, 2019, 2-channel video, duration 41:43 mins. Collection of the artists. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artists.
Lim Sokchanlina, Letter to the Sea (video still) 2019; video installation: transparency, scuba mask and flippers, installation dimensions variable; video duration 17:35 mins. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.
Hu Yun, Carving Water, Melting Stones, 2019, 4K video with sound, ice sculpture and sound installation, installation dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, Reincarnations (Hopea Sangal and Sindora Wallichii), 2019, glass, stainless steel and paper, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.
Zakaria Omar, Fossils of Shame: The Pillars, 2010, 2019, sculpted driftwood from demolished stilt houses, 60 x 60 x 300 cm (each). Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of the artist.
Robert Zhao Renhui, Queen’s Own Hill and its Environs, 2019 (detail), photography, video and found objects in display cabinet with artist-led tours, 240 x 500 x 60 cm. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.
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From the outset, “Every Step in the Right Direction,” the title of the sixth edition of the Singapore Biennale, impulses a positive energy. Featuring 77 artists and art collectives, it takes place this year in 11 different venues across the city and aims at highlighting the transformative power of art, seen as a potent agent of change.

 

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists

Singapore Biennale 2019 Artistic Director, Patrick Flores, places it under the umbrella of Salud Algabre (1894–1979), a Filipino woman who fought against American colonialism and defended the rights of the peasants all her life. As a woman coming from a lower-class population, her long, yet unabated, struggle embodies the potency of all emancipatory projects against any normalized yet exclusive established order. Flores connected her spirit with a Singaporean contemporary body incarnated by Amanda Heng and her performance Every Step Counts (2019). The Biennale is far from being straightforward political, though. Rather, “Every Step in the Right Direction” focuses on local, almost humble, artistic initiatives that contribute to imperceptible but tangible changes. The general impression is a collection of micro narratives which, when added, bring forth renewed perceptions of the social, cultural and political transformations associated with today’s globalization and modernity. This multiplicity expands also our conception of Southeast Asia as a region usually defined from a narrow geopolitical perspective. Instead, Flores aims at reimagining the region from an ethical and geo-poetic dimension, favoring a more relational and open approach. The curatorial team comprising of Flores and six curators hailing from different backgrounds and locales around Southeast Asia and Asia, facilitates this diversity.

 

Sharon Chin, In the Skin of a Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita), 2019,
13 banners made from reclaimed fabric, dimensions variable. Collection of the Artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

A set of 13 monochromatic large-scale banners hung from the ceiling welcomes the visitor at the National Gallery Singapore. Made from discarded political flags collected by Malaysian artist Sharon Chin, they represent the different parties and ideologies at stake during the country’s 2018 elections. Members of the public were invited to participate in the sewing process. As the first artwork that can be seen at the National Gallery, which is the main venue of the Biennale, this impressive installation can be understood as a bold statement:  even though the flags are not national flags, the gesture of deconstructing them in order to reshape and resew them collectively is very meaningful as it suggests breaking up and re-imagining the established symbols of power. For Flores, the fabric installation introduces, above all, some flimsiness inside a too linear and rigid architecture. Additionally, it epitomizes his attempt to escape the spectacular: despite its scale, the artwork does not impress by its size and none of the featured artworks of the Biennale are indeed “spectacular” in the sense that they would immediately strike the audience by their aesthetic and grandiose forms. Rather, Chin’s installation announces what I felt was the common thread of the whole exhibition: fluidity.

 

Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier, Never real historians, always near poets, 2019, 2-channel video, duration 41:43 mins. Collection of the artists. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

Fluidity means escaping any form of categorization. To start with, many featured artists live and work between different countries. Born in Laos, Vong Phaophanit was for instance educated in France. He later moved to the UK where he lives and works with his London-born partner Claire Oboussier. With Never real historians, always near poets (2019), the duo explores the common points and lines of rupture between the Lao community living in a French suburb and Lao people from Phaophanit’s native village. The 2-channel video actually focuses on landscapes and environments from everyday life, creating tensions between a feeling of confinement and lines of flight that run between the two screens. The artists question here the notion of diaspora and its corollary conception of identity bound to a territory.

 

Lim Sokchanlina, Letter to the Sea (video still) 2019; video installation: transparency, scuba mask and flippers, installation dimensions variable; video duration 17:35 mins. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.
Hu Yun, Carving Water, Melting Stones, 2019, 4K video with sound, ice sculpture and sound installation, installation dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Phaophanit and Oboussier’s work echoes what Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai names ethnoscape, a term that characterizes many of the featured artworks. This new conception of the landscape reflects on the flux of people in the age of globalization and on a de-territorialized world where the local is constantly re-invented, re-actualized, independently of the physical localization of the community. At Gillman Barracks, where 22 artists and collective are exhibited, Lim Sokchanlina’s multimedia artwork, Letter to the Sea (2019), addresses in particular the issue of Cambodian migrant workers, shedding light on their difficult conditions of life but also on their ability to reorganize as a community. Globalization entails various flux of skills and remaps the world of work. Hu Yun’s Carving Water, Melting Stones (2019) draws on the Filipino community of woodcarvers who used to create dioramas for the National Museum of Singapore in the 1980s. The film beautifully emphasizes the carvers’ connections to the surrounding forest where they collect the wood that will transform into human or religious figures. Today, because dioramas are not made anymore, most of them reinvented themselves have been re-educated into ice carvers and carve ice blocks from Alaska for Italian Christmas commissions. The Chinese artist installed one of their ice sculptures in a fridge and viewers are invited to reflect on the factors that slowly alter its shape and on its symbolic representation of a global world. Through his exploration of dioramas, his work also questions the representation of history in Singapore, and its official, dominant narratives.

Historiography is indeed another central theme with artists breaking its monolithic framework in order to welcome alternative narratives. From Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s investigation of the Dutch military intervention in Indonesia, and titre provisoire’s film installation about German colonization, archival videos from Timor-Leste to Larry Achiampong’s fictional exploration of post-colonial perspectives in Africa are all, in their own ways, challenging the colonial homogeneous accounts of history in order to reconceptualize and respond to the plurality and hybridity of today’s modernity.

Yet history can also be approached by its voids. Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana’s film trilogy is embedded in poetry and questions absence rather than facts. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge is only suggested even though it penetrates all images where bereaved landscapes, lonely shadows float in search of meaning. Dreams and ghosts meet in a dry and deserted countryside and reflect the artist’s restless attempt to grasp reality. Spirits actually hover across the Biennale and are included in the curator’s wish to reach new boundaries. Inside a phone booth designed by C&G (Hong Kong duo Clara and Gum Cheung), and after filling a questionnaire, viewers can be unmasked as potential ghosts and connect to an outside world.

 

Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, Reincarnations (Hopea Sangal and Sindora Wallichii), 2019, glass, stainless steel and paper, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.
Zakaria Omar, Fossils of Shame: The Pillars, 2010, 2019, sculpted driftwood from demolished stilt houses, 60 x 60 x 300 cm (each). Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Fluidity implies reconnecting opposite spheres and restoring sustained eco-systems. The issue of climate change and of the Anthropocene is evidently addressed by some artists, sometimes in a rather conventional way, such as Zai Tang with works from his Escape Velocity (2019) series in which the artist sticks to a binary position and proposes to compare the sound of nature (wild) with the sound of an eco-tourism destination (refabricated nature), while converting these recordings into visual forms. At Gillman Barracks, Block 22 gathers artworks dealing with natural history and the history of nature that dialogue particularly well together: Robert Zhao Renhui’s usual cabinet of curiosity displays, this time, elements from the forest surrounding Gillman Barracks; in his Reincarnations (2019) series, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon re-create species of endangered trees and documents them. As to Zakaria Omar, his moving dark sculptures made from driftwood originating from demolished old houses seem to defy the erosion of time, memory and the natural environment.

 

Robert Zhao Renhui, Queen’s Own Hill and its Environs, 2019 (detail), photography, video and found objects in display cabinet with artist-led tours, 240 x 500 x 60 cm. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2019 commission. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

One objective of the Biennale is to turn the audience into active viewers: at LASALLE College of the Arts, most of the works are research-based and imply a deeper involvement of the public. For the curator, the process of learning is intrinsically linked to any process of change. In the smaller gallery of the College, unfortunately, Arnont Nongyao’s repetitive sound recordings of a local market in northern Thailand occupies all the space unnecessarily and creates a hindrance to staying in the room to see the other artworks.

Overall, there is a good balance between the mediums used, with the significant number of videos being counterbalanced by sculptural works or works deeply anchored in materiality. Seriousness and lightness are both present as well. Block 7 at Gillman Barracks gathers mainly humorous pieces such as Kray Chen’s 5 Rehearsals of a Wedding (2017), Karolina Breguta’s Square (2018) or Nabilah Nordin’s An Obstacle in Every Direction (2019), which are all particularly pleasing and refreshing.

No doubt stepping in the right direction means accepting to step in every possible direction, providing that one feels responsible for the move. This invitation towards more engagement can only be rejoicing.

 

Singapore Biennale 2019: Every Step in the Right Direction
22 November 2019 – 22 March 2020
Various locations, Singapore

 

 


 

Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specializing in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in Hong Kong.

 

 
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