Art

Singapore Biennale takes a good hard look in the mirror

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

Malaysian artist Azizan Paiman tells me that to lose weight, all I have to do is make sure that the calories I expend are more than the calories I consume. I already know that, but he’s done it, and I haven’t. He also tells the small group assembled in his temporary cafe that we need to love each other, no matter what belief system people have. Again yes, agreed, but also something easier said than done.

Paiman’s performance piece is a work in the Singapore Biennale 2016: Atlas of Mirrors. Being Singapore, a place with a more established tourist industry than Japan, I shared the cafe with an Indonesian Muslim, two South Koreans, an ex-Catholic Irish woman and an atheist Brit. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that love was all around, but the exchanges were friendly, engaging and open.

As an experience overall, “Atlas of Mirrors” could also be described as such. But it was also surprising that, given Singapore’s reputation as a buttoned-up technocracy, it was aggressively critical at times and ready to go where other art big events in Asia may fear to tread.

The 2016 Singapore Biennale is the first time, after several years following art in Japan, that I’ve seen work by a contemporary Japanese artist that unequivocally acknowledges Japanese wartime atrocities. The closest that most art in Japan ever comes to addressing World War II, is to promote or recycle self-pity. Nobuaki Takekawa’s “Sugoroku — Anxiety of Falling From History” is laudable not only for its attack on censorship, but also its super-dry wit and visual exuberance.

For haters who think the inclusion of Takekawa’s piece is partisan and plays to supporting Singaporean grievances, in the spaces adjacent to this work are satires of the materialistic culture of postwar Singapore and a loaded treatment of the Singaporean justice system. Indonesian artist Ade Darmawan’s “Singapore Human Resources Institute,” which uses antique and scrap furniture, is a surrealistic parody of a real organization of the same name, which was established in 1965 to “champion human capital excellence.” “Hearings” by Jack Tan, a Singaporean-born artist living in Britain, is a beautifully crafted mixture of singing, the printed word and diagrams, which turns the functional spoken words of court proceedings into an installation that may at first seem funny “ha-ha” but ultimately identifies civilized human behavior as being funny “strange.”

Contestation is a core idea in this fifth Singapore Biennale, which has been organized into nine “conceptual zones.” The themes of these reads like a list of Ph.D topics dreamed up by theorists Edward Said, Guy Debord and Homi K. Bhabha after a hard night of not drinking — but I don’t think this is intellectual snobbery. Rather it seems to come more out of an anxiety to defend the work as socially relevant and co-opt the authority of the academy in defending the value of art.

In a symposium titled “Why Biennale at All?,” an associated event of the biennale, the various pressures facing the organizers were discussed with a mixture of apprehension, self-doubt and ennui. Donald Trump had been inaugurated just before the opening of the symposium, sprinkling a Cheeto-dust pall over the discussions.

The keynote speaker, Andrew Gardner, associate professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Oxford, talked about the importance of “modest gestures” in consideration of the bloat, excess and bluster of state-sponsored art events designed to project soft power around the globe. Professor Patrick D. Flores of the University of the Philippines, and key figure in the Asian Art world, made the case that art festivals need to be lively events, open to the possibility of radical innovation. After providing the negative example of artist-curator Raymundo Albano’s frustration at the stifling bureaucratic control at the 1980 “First Asia Art Show” at the Fukuoka Art Museum, the proceedings were aggressively interrupted by artist Niranjan Rajah, who ate into everyone’s lunchtime with a lengthy attack on cultural imperialism and commercialism.

It’s a toss-up as to which of the chairperson’s reactions was more depressing: her initial desire to shut the artist up using security staff or, overcoming her shock and realizing that the kerfuffle was all carefully planned, coming out with a laconic “OK, we have an intervention here.”

There are three major issues for the Singapore Biennale’s survival as an event, let alone a successful one: A state sponsor whose stance on life and culture is “be happy or you’re not welcome,” (less drastic than William Gibson’s view in 1993 that Singapore is “Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” but still …); the fickleness of globe-trotting art professionals for whom the biennale is old hat; and the indifference of a working population who may perceive contemporary art as irrelevant to their lives. The debut of the plinky-plonky, shopping-mall-friendly world of the Benesse Art Prize at this biennale is a mixed blessing.

Despite all this, thanks to the gentle hospitality of museum staff who help, rather than herd you; a curatorial team who do not take their responsibilities to art lightly but also understand the need for play; and, not incidentally, some outstanding work; “Atlas of Mirrors” was pretty damn good, from a taste, and nutritional point of view.

Singapore Biennale 2016: Atlas of Mirrors runs until Feb. 26; Standard tickets are 20 Singapore dollars (¥1,605). For more details, visit www.singaporebiennale.org.