Singapore Biennale 2016: A/political Performance – Atlas of Mirrors in Context

By Wei Er Xun, Finalist, Best Essay by an Emerging Art Writer Competition*

(2700 words, 30-minute read)


The stakes of exhibitions have always been high. Before the advent of the cinema, television and other mass media, large-scale exhibitions and world expos were primary sites for cultural exchange. As Maria Lind explains in a text on kitchens and the exhibiting of lifestyles, biennales are “enormous secular rituals that structure the yearly calendar of the art world”. They are in her words “arenas for comparisons and competition” which became particularly prevalent after World War II, “when various national agencies the world over were established to execute what were to be more or less propaganda campaigns”. [1] Biennales as mega-exhibitions are often funded by governments and municipalities. They are fascinating cultural artefacts that carry the aspirations of a nation, community and society at specific moments in time. The most recent Singapore Biennale, An Atlas of Mirrors, readily takes on this mantle as a biennale that sets itself the question “From where we are, how do we see the world?”. In turn, this review sets out to answer that question for the biennale, by unpacking the political and moral economy of An Atlas of Mirrors and, in the process of doing so, tries to make sense of our emerging cultural landscape.

The Political Economy of An Atlas of Mirrors

Unlike many other biennales and international benchmarking platforms, An Atlas of Mirrors turns away from the international to focus on the regional. It is a biennale about Southeast Asia with artists from the region, China, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — though a small number of the artists are reported to have some sort of transnational cohabitation, for example, living between Italy, London, Canada, New York and the Netherlands. In taking up the frame of focusing on artists from the region, the Singapore Biennale has turned from its early roots of engaging with the international art world. The inaugural 2006 edition, for instance, prominently featured such international figures as Jenny Holzer. Put into a larger context, such a turn away from the international (which we have seen with the rise of populist leaders such as Duterte in the Philippines), not only echoes the sentiment of a populist turn away from globalisation, it also returns this Biennale to the tactic of consolidation around ideas of the region — a trajectory that was undertaken in the first grand iterations of survey exhibitions of Southeast Asia.

These first exhibitions, the First Southeast Asia Art Conference and Competition in Manila in 1957 and the South-east Asia Cultural Festival in 1963 in Singapore, were tied to agendas of forming national identity and community building in the region. [2] The artworks in these exhibitions were considered to be exemplary and representative of their respective nation-states. Developed as attempts at creating artistic centres of Southeast Asia, these exhibitions were informed by an urgency to bring together a region with different languages and religions through mutual interest and consensus. Writing in 1953, Carlos P Romulo, the then Ambassador of the Philippines to the United States, described Southeast Asia as “the theatre of conflict between the free world and the Soviet world” and represented the “large measure the margin between victory and defeat for freedom”. [3]

In the 50s into the early 60s, the global stakes of defining Southeast Asia were aligned to that of the Cold War, whether Southeast Asia would be part of the free world or fall to the influence of China’s communism. A parallel can be seen today in the reconfiguring of the global order in the East through America’s lessening pivot to Asia and the rise of Chinese influence in the region. Duterte’s recent claim of aligning the Philippines with Russia and China speak to the rise of new geopolitical orders in the region. [4] In some ways the stakes of the soft power of being a gantry and mode of representation for Southeast Asia are as significant for Singapore as they were back in 1963. With power shifts within the region and other institutions taking on the project of mapping Southeast Asia, such as the Mori Museum’s upcoming Southeast Asia project in the summer of 2017, it is perhaps pertinent for the Singapore Art Museum, which has one of the largest collections of Contemporary Southeast Asian Art, to solidify its existing network in the region. The turn away from the international art world, thus, is perhaps one of self-preservation. In answering the question, “From where we are, how do we see the world?”, it would seem that for the Singapore Biennale the world itself is Southeast Asia. Ade Darmawan’s installation Singapore Human Resource Institute harks back to  some of the exhibitionary tactics behind the debate which saw Nixon and Khrushchev fight over communist and liberal ideals among the domestic fixtures of a kitchen. The artist creates a room based on the now defunct Singapore Human Resources Institute established in 1965, which consists of furnishings from Indonesian and Singapore homes and offices of the time, providing viewers with a picture of cultural, economic and ideological change defined by embroidered fabrics of statistics, trinkets of a time past and broken chairs that can’t be sat on.

Figures 1 and 2: Installation Images of Ade Darmawan’s installation Singapore Human Resource Institute (2016)
Figures 1 and 2: Installation Images of Ade Darmawan’s installation Singapore Human Resource Institute (2016)
Figures 1 and 2: Installation Images of Ade Darmawan’s installation Singapore Human Resource Institute (2016)
Figures 1 and 2: Installation Images of Ade Darmawan’s installation Singapore Human Resource Institute (2016)









The Moral Economy of An Atlas of Mirrors

 If Singapore Human Resource Institute provides a sense of the political economy of gesturing at Southeast Asia in the Singapore Biennale, Jack Tan’s Hearings is a work that highlights a moral economy of an emerging cultural space defined by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Presented in a backroom of 8Q, the work consists of theatrically-lit graphic scores that look like minimalist Kandinsky drawings accompanied by the choral singing of the Anglo-Chinese Junior colleague alumni choir and a catalogue. The installation with its lighting and suprematist gesturing carries all the hallmarks of contemporary art to be revered. Its humorous “museum-as-church” trappings seemed a considered tactic of juxtaposition that pointed to the complex logic of the work itself, which moves between the realm of art and charity and oscillates between being a “good object” and “bad object”.

Figure 3: Jack Tan, Hearings (2016). Photo: Singapore Art Museum
Figure 3: Jack Tan, Hearings (2016). Photo: Singapore Art Museum

Developed as part of a residency in the Singapore courts, the sound and art installation was a product of a collaboration between the artist and the Community Justice Center (CJC), an independent charity that provides legal services to those who can’t afford them. The resulting visual scores or abstract drawings are soundscapes of the courts — voices of hearings, legal advices sessions and help programmes for the beneficiaries of CJC. To make the sound installation, Tan’s drawings or scores were then interpreted and sung by the Anglo-Chinese Junior College Alumni Choir. The drawings and sounds in and of themselves are stand-ins for the project as a whole, which also included a legal clinic for the art community, an opening performance and a fundraiser, in addition to the installation on exhibition at the Biennale.

Only the drawings and the voiced interpretation by the choir are a consistent anchor with which we can read and experience the work. As such, this voice is a significant if not the predominant means of engaging with the work as a viewer. While the discourse around  Tan’s work in the form of the wall text or the accompanying catalogue for the work focuses on the “voiceless” beneficiaries of the CJC, what the work makes most visible and audible are the voices of a privileged community of do-good lawyers. The Anglo-Chinese Junior College is commonly known as a privileged school that produces future leaders and an elite class of white collar professionals. They provide the audible voice for the sound installation as well as much of the music for the different events that make the artwork. The fundraiser event in particular betrayed a cadence of privilege — namely an exotic blend of Queen’s english, Italian opera and a particularly earnest and self congratulatory rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow”.

Figure 4: Image of Voices from the Court Fundraiser
Figure 4: Image of Voices from the Court Fundraiser


While it is easy to point and quibble about lawyers singing opera in an extended performance of being cultured and over-educated, any critical viewer would inevitably feel a pang of discomfort. After all, these lawyers do charitable work. Tan creates art that responds to the practical needs of the community that he is working with and Hearings was a means to “raise awareness of CJC’s important work and to help crowd fund for its current and future projects”. [5]

The use of the sphere of art to effect social change or the betterment of one or multiple facets of society has been a long established endeavour for art practice. Effects of a moral economy in the resistance of the lower classes to the industrial and market imperatives of emerging modern society have been part an artistic tradition that, throughout the twentieth century and continuing into the present, has consistently sought to destabilise the close-knit nexus of galleries, museums, and exclusive exhibitions or in the case of Tan’s Hearings — to exit it all together. Art as political agitation, as intervention or as happenings are responses to “social situations in which social problems become significant and thus impossible to ignore (and) art as a project for elites becomes problematic”. [6]

With increasing political and social unrest arising out of the banking collapse of 2008, coupled with the consequential populist resistance to wealth inequalities tied to globalisation, the urgency for social engaged art projects that pay out dividends to communities and the less privileged have lent to an emergent cultural space that is based on art performing specific charitable or social good, much like Tan’s hearings.

In Singapore, a clear shift between the policy reports, the Renaissance City Project and the Arts and Culture Strategic Review (ACSR) saw older schemes, such as the International Artist Residency, terminated, whereas artist residencies were now funded as start-up businesses with seed grants. Funding was in part geared toward building community ownership in and supporting grounds up initiatives. [10] While perceivably aligned to the ACSR, this emergent cultural space is in fact a global trajectory as private money, CSR projects and austerity measures in the face of a trend of global recessions converge to frame the political project of art collaborations with communities and corporations. A recent article on, How Millennials Are Changing Corporate Art Collections, detailed how companies are moving into integrated programs that are driven by community engagement and social good projects. [8] Corporate collections are beginning to collect to “change lives” through art consultancies such as ArtLifting that match-makes artists living with homelessness or disability to corporations to buy and present their works.

Art functioning as a tool for charity and within other projects to perform social good seems inherently to be the coming reality of cultural production as society on a whole calls for something else other then the liberal privileges of thought experiments that serve one’s own artistic and individualist affirmation. Hearings though still a valorisation of personal interpretations of the artist and the choir reading his abstract score — inherently play to the popular understanding of art and culture as drawing, painting or opera — is a project that harks of this shift. Interestingly enough, the Singapore Biennale did not include the Tan’s fundraising event for CJC as one of its collateral events. The occlusion is a meaningful one if read through the predominant reliance of art works and exhibitionary tactics that are fundamentally illustrative and representational. 

For instance: Chou Shih Hsiung’s Good Boy Bad Boy (2016) — oil paintings which literally present privilege as crude oil in plexiglass containers as a relic of his family’s business in oil and its influence in geopolitics. [9] Tan’s work instead, if you attend its different events, puts you into the system in which charity and art are imbricated in a co-dependent relationship. You are a node in that system and your response is the part you can play to donate, to promote or simply respond to social issues that CJC as an organisation addresses. Tan’s events are not in and of themselves art works. They are merely appropriations of the real world — ready made events — and carry with them the complexity of privilege and charity that representational tactics do not nuance. How does a conservative institution such as a museum address such sticky and complicated “art making”? Seemingly to not include it at all. The moral economy of the Biennale as seen through the lens of Hearings is an indictment of the limitations of representation and the art object to provide most effectively an affirmation of privilege.

Figure 5. Chou Shih Hsiung’s Good Boy Bad Boy (2016). Photo: Singapore Art Museum
Figure 5. Chou Shih Hsiung’s Good Boy Bad Boy (2016). Photo: Singapore Art Museum

Didactic Frames of History 

In framing its artworks, the Biennale developed nine conceptual zones that rename common tropes that have been worked through in trying to defining Southeast Asia as a region: borders, national and cultural identity, nature or geography, religion, politics,diaspora, speculation and shared colonial experiences. In repackaging these tropes to poetic phrases like A Breath of Wills, A Share of Borders, A Past of Absences, An Everywhere of Mirrorings, wall texts that accompany an art work or a section also include subtitles that function much like cliff notes to illustrate the meanings of these concepts. History is repackaged into catch-phrases. A Presence of the Pasts is defined as beliefs, collective memory and cultural and colonial legacies. This impetus to reductively communicate and clearly delineate enables each work to be explained to the most expansive general audience possible but in the same vein it provides a clear institutional definition of the different permutations of Southeast Asia — leaving the very speculation of such a region as being a historical, political and economic construct or nuance of each work just out of reach of the viewer.

Figure 6: Image of Wall Text of a Conceptual Zone
Figure 6: Image of Wall Text of a Conceptual Zone


“From Where We Are, How do We See the World?”

 With the rise of demagogues and isolationist foreign policy in the Global North, the emergence of a period of post-globalism seems imminent. The international art world and exchange with it has for some time defined the significance of art from Singapore and the region. This period has been identified by Suhail Malik as being defined by neoliberal globalism’s entrenchment. [10] Exchange with the international art world has historically warranted the establishment of the biennale and other forms of art infrastructure in Singapore and the region. How then will this impending post-globalisation effect our construction of art’s significance? If An Atlas of Mirrors is any gauge of this coming condition, the answer then is that perhaps we have heard the death knell of the international: we will turn inward to define cultural production on our immediate geopolitical stresses. We will define regional history in easily digestible politically correct tropes for all and we will want art that is embedded in society, working with organisations that serve out  “direct” politically correct social goods even if we don’t like their singing.



[1]  Maria Lind, “Kitchens”, Mould 1: Cultures of Assembly, 2015.

[2]  See for instance: Simon Soon, “Maps of the Sea,, 25 Jan 2015; Jennifer Lindsay, “Festival Politics: Singapore’s 1963 South-East Asia Cultural Festival”, in Cultures at War: The Cold War and Cultural Expression in Southeast Asia, 2010; Kathleen Ditzig “An Exceptional Inclusion: On MoMA’s exhibition, Recent American Prints in Color and the First Exhibition of Southeast Asian Art” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art No. 1, forthcoming March 2017.

[3] Carlos P Romulo, “The Position of Southeast Asia in the World Community,” in Southeast Asia in the Coming World, 1953.

[4] Ben Blanchard, “Duterte Aligns Philippines with China, Says U.S. Has Lost”, 20 October 2016.

[5] Voices from the Courts: A Collaboration between Jack Tan and The Community Justice Centre. 2016.

[6] Ursula Pasero, Art Production beyond the Art Market?, 2013.

[7] Mayo Martin, “The ACSR Report Is Out! A 15-point Summary!”,, 18 January 2013.

[8] Artsy Editorial by Abigail Cain. “How Millennials Are Changing Corporate Art Collections”,, 3 November 2016.

[9] The wall text for Good Boy, Bad Boy reads “Coming from a family with an oil supply business that goes back more than 50 years, Chou has been working on his Petroleum Painting series over the last decade. It formalises the relationship between himself, his family and the materiality of petroleum to the age in which we live …”

[10] Suhail Malik,“PostGlobalisation or PostNeoliberalism?”, forthcoming lecture at Art Stage Southeast Asia Forum, January 2017.


*This essay is one of 4 written by finalists of the inaugural Best Essay on the Singapore Biennale 2016 by an Emerging Art Writer Competition.The competition is a new initiative, jointly organised by ArtsEquator and AICA SG (Singapore Section, International Association of Art Critics). A call for entries in October 2016 resulted in 19 proposals submitted for competition. A jury of three judges, all members of AICA SG — Dr Adele Tan, Curator, National Gallery Singapore, Dr Kevin Chua, School of Art, Texas Tech University and Kathy Rowland, Managing Editor of — selected four finalists, who were then commissioned to write a 3,000-word essay based on their proposal. From these four commissioned essays, the Jury will select a winner, to be announced on January 31st 2017. For this inaugural competition, each finalist receives an honorarium of SG$200, while the eventual winner will receive a total of SG$500.


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