By Akanksha Raja
(1200 words, 12-minute read)
2016 has seen a few biennales taking place in Southeast Asia. While we didn’t manage to attend each and every one of them, we’ve been reading all we could find about them. Here is a round-up of what we’ve come across.
1. Visayas Island Visual Artists Exhibition and Conference 2016 (website)
VIVA ExCon XIV took place in Ilo Ilo in the Philippines from November 17 to 20.
The fourteenth edition of the Philippines’ largest and longest art biennale organised primarily by artists brought together art from the Visayas Islands in one big programme that included artist talks, lectures and workshops. It was held across four different venues in the city of Ilo Ilo, which hosts the exhibition in a public-private partnership.
While previous VIVA ExCons required the artist-organisers to raise funds themselves, this edition is backed by national bodies such as the Department of Tourism, Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), as well as property developers and the academe. It was also supported by fundraising initiatives by the Iloilo Visual Artists Collective.
Discourse about the biennale didn’t feature significantly in international press, but there were a few online articles that stood out. To start with, Project Ilo Ilo, an online magazine focusing on Ilongo culture and events that shape the city offers a brief overview of the events on the programme. We also found two more personal accounts of the show. Writer Butch Dalisay shared on his personal website insights from three of the talks held: first, art theorist Lisa Ito discussing concerns in art writing, then editor Carina Evangelista on art practices and happenings beyond the museum setting, and June Poticar Dalisay’s talk about the conversation and restoration of art. Lucell Larawan, entrepreneur and business mentor shared his own opinion on the issues raised regarding the growth of art criticism and the overlapping of the disciplines of art and business.
2. Gwangju Biennale 2016 (website)
The 11th edition of the oldest Biennale in Asia took place at the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall and received several positive reviews from international media, as reported in Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. Its title, The Eighth Climate (What does art do?) alludes to a notion shaped by 12th century Persian theosopher Sohrevardi of a space inaccessible to human capabilities of perception, thought to be the realm of the visionary. The question points to the suggestion of art as a possible channel to access this dimension.
To start with, Shwetal A Patel wrote for the Biennale an exploration of how the art and other ancillary programmes such a conferences embodied the central theme and responses to socio-political conditions in the country as a whole. The Korea Times provided an overview of specific exhibits that can be found at each part of the Hall. A review published by Crazy Multiply, a group of young Korean curators, offers a generally positive review, save for logistical hindrances such as a lack of wall texts. Other notable American publications presented positive reviews of the exhibition. Guelda Voien, writing for the New York Observer, pointed out the broadness of the given theme, but posited was a strength of the biennale rather than a limitation; she also found the number of politically-motivated artworks encouraging for the country. Ben Eastham in a review for online art magazine Momus has a different opinion on the thematic direction of the Biennale, arguing that “at worst it’s overreach bordering on incoherence.”
In Art in America, Mostafa Heddaya similarly critiques Biennale curator Maria Lind’s direction, he gives her merit for “advancing [the Biennale] model” by using it establish curatorial training initiatives, monthly discussion groups, and what is called Biennale Fellows, a platform for smaller-scale cultural institutions based in and outside of Korea to network and collaborate.
3. SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016 (website)
The 9th edition of the South Korean capital’s International Media Art Biennale, hosted by the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA), took place from 1 September to 20 November 2016. The Biennale aims to integrate new technology with contemporary trans-disciplinary art. The title is Neriri Kiruru Harara – words that were invented by the famous Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa to describe the hypothetical language of Martians. That’s not to suggest the theme of the exhibition is about manifestations of extraterrestrial beings, but speculations on the future of humans, which is “seen through the language of art and media from neither a utopian nor dystopian view,” according to Beck Jee-sook, the biennial’s curator, as quoted in Korea Joong Ang Daily. The 61 artists or art groups involved come from 23 different countries.
Compared to previous iterations, this year’s festival direction made a conscious effort to include more female artists as well as artists based in South America and Africa, to present a more diverse sample of contemporary artists working with media art today.
While Park Jaeyong, critic at Frieze, the international art magazine, picked out a few choice exhibitions happening in Seoul concurrently with the Biennale, ArtAsiaPacific editor HG Masters reviewed the show at length, exploring specific works of the Biennale.
4. Southeast Asia Plus Triennale of Art (SEA+) (website)
Held in Jakarta at the National Gallery of Indonesia, SEA+ ran from 18 October to 10 November 2016. The theme of this second edition of the triennale was Encounter: Art from Different Lands, conveying “Indonesia’s response towards the progress of Asia’s art development, particularly in Southeast Asia” and seeks to be the pioneer international art exhibition specifically presenting artists from the region.
Singaporean artist Eugene Soh, whose work is included in the exhibition, published a blog entry about his experience at the Triennale, including a 360° video walkthrough of the show. More pictures and can be found from Vebrio Kusti (with text in Bahasa Indonesia), and at the Indonsian art news site (also in Bahasa Indonesia) Ruang Media Art.
5. Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (website)
Also known as APT8, the triennial held by the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Australia focusing on artists from the Asia-Pacific region ran from 21 November 2015 to 10 April 2016. This eighth edition highlighted the role of performance in art, “the body as an agent of speculation and protest”, and was keen on “exploring the use of the human form to express cultural, social, and political ideas”.
International art news website Blouin Art Info published a series of Q&A sessions with several featured artists. Photographs of some of the works may be found at ArtAsiaPacific. Lilly Wei writing for art magazine Studio International gives a comprehensive overview of the themes, concerns and specific works in her review. Another review by Andrew Frost in the Guardian points out the Australian works at APT8 were less strong than the others, but singles out Intervening Time (2015) by Brook Andrew as a notable piece. Frost summed up the show as “what happens when you set a curatorial theme so wide your exhibition ends up looking like a snapshot of the entire world.” A snapshot that – as Art in America reviewer Richard Vine illustrates – reflects “the complex, difficult and enthralling nature of globalism itself.”
Meanwhile, Larissa Hjorth for Asia-Pacific magazine Artlink explores the significance of texture and skin, as well as Anthropocene concerns, in the works. She also commends APT8’s children’s programme APTKids, for highlighting how “art can operate in powerful ways to reimagine our relationship – to the body, others and the land”. Read also Australian artist Leonie Andrews’ recount of her visit to the triennial, her favourite works, as well as her sketch-responses.
As 2017 approaches, we’re looking forward to Art Fair Philippines, the Yogyakarta Biennale, and many more around Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.