I wanted to write you something intelligent, something delicate, but honestly, what I have is the exhaustion of the past few years weighing down on me and I’m afraid I cannot give you that. Not for the time being. I’ll say this to you, Natasha, the pandemic does not feel over to me yet. I do not share the exuberance, not entirely, of “re-opening”. To take the step to encounter you was a leap of faith — I wasn’t sure if I would be up to immersing myself so entirely into a biennale, which refers to “a large international art exhibition”, as popularised by the Venice Biennale. You know, I once described a biennale as a “zoo” that exhausts, and that fact that you are a biennale too makes me hesitant. But you are not supposed to be another biennale. You are Natasha. A name endears you to me, you are not “Singapore Biennale 2022”, that makes you slightly less scary to approach, I think to myself. Besides, you share a name with a dear friend, and that makes you feel almost like a friend, too, already. A tentative glow of hope, of a different way of navigating the art world and its presentations. A “bold step to shift away from…a large-scale exhibition”, to “uncover…ways of relating”, as written in your short guide.
Your curators gave you a name so that you do not become yet another massive art exhibition choked full of works like biennales tend to be. And yet, you retain the same scale and muchness. You are the container, the organising principle, of over 100 artworks, sprawled all over Singapore, over 13 locations. I wonder if scale and intimacy are necessarily opposing notions. I think not, I did find pockets of expansive quiet while spending time with you, Natasha, though they were in moments I needed to skitter away after feeling wrung dry trying to elucidate the sketch of your proposal. Is that part of your intention? To draw the desire for rest and stillness out of me?
To be utterly honest, you were overwhelming. I don’t mean that in a, you are too much, you need to tone it down, kind of way. I mean it in a, there is something I feel you are trying to show me but the exact shape of that is unclear to me, and I do not have the necessary energy and attention to experience and navigate you in your totality without feeling a volcanic sense of frustration, kind of way. I want to know you, but even as I spent hours and hours moving through where you are, I left drained and confused. It felt like you weren’t quite sure what you wanted to show me, like you weren’t sure who or what you want to be yet. I couldn’t hear you clearly over the droning sounds that Level 5 of Tanjong Pagar Distripark boomed. I couldn’t feel you through over a hundred of artworks you gathered in your midst. I wanted to leave at so many points, Natasha. I couldn’t take it, but I made myself stay. You are Natasha, there is a reason why you were given a name, it makes me want to try seeing things from your eyes, an instant sense of rapport and intimacy. Am I projecting, overly romanticising? That is my own issue to sort. But I am talking to you directly, publicly, so.
I’m being hasty here — I’ve only met you three times. That’s barely enough to know someone, much less one as sprawling as you are.
A docent whose tour I tagged along in Tanjong Pagar Distripark during my second visit told us that “art is universal” and the nationality of the artists is not the most important thing, that you are “not a person”, that the aim is to “think Natasha”. To think you, not about you, or of you, but to think (like?) you. How do you think, how do you make sense of and interface with the materials nestling in your being? How do you exist in this world, where the universality of art is, presumably, spoken as truth? I came to you to meet you as I am, as I thought the invitation was, but it seems it is not enough for me to be as I am. The ask here is to put myself in your shoes, to reconfigure my way of thought and being into one that would resonate with you. A puzzle game, so to speak, that shimmered with curiosity and openness. You are not an entity, you are a navigational system, mode of wayfinding, multiple means of relating. Your intention, written in the entry titled “Natasha” in the directory, is to “investigate the ways that art, as well as that which is considered “other” to art, may be deeply connected to life”. Despite knowing this, the name “Natasha” has made you human to me. I’m going to see Natasha! I tell my friends, jokingly calling it a “date” with you. I barely know anything about you apart from what I’ve read online; I even found myself wearing proper walking sandals to meet you, bringing with me the slight apprehension and effervescence of meeting someone new.
My first encounter with you was at Yan Kit Playfield, where Trevor Yeung’s The Pavilion of Regret sits in the middle of an empty field next to an exercise corner. A storm had just passed, and my umbrella dripped onto my now mud-splattered sandals.
Mud-splattered sandals after walking around the “Pavilion of Regret”. Image credit: Teo Xiao Ting
In the Pavillion are plants that are unwanted, discarded. Trevor collected them in preparation for you, hoping to give these plants a second chance at finding home. The Pavilion holds several plants, seemingly in good health, stacked against each other in a concentric circle. Looking at them resting within a red bricked pavilion almost stops me from entering its white gauze entrance, but I remember the invitation is to engage. They are there waiting for adoption, to welcome other discarded plants. An arrow-shaped red-leafed plant calls to me, and I lift its plastic pot out of its dent in the soil. The dent it leaves in the soil makes me pause — is it really okay for me to bring it home? There is no one around for me to check in with. We are not so used to being able to bring a piece of an artwork with us without purchase or transaction, are we? It felt exciting, an incandescent glow as I brought the plant close to my chest. Like I am doing something I usually wouldn’t be allowed to, but am doing it anyway. A little cheeky, hesitant.
Image of a dent in the soil after I adopted a plant from the “Pavilion of Regret” by Trevor Yeung. Image credit: Teo Xiao Ting
I placed the plant pot back into its original position, and took a little walk round the path. The red leaves speckled with almost-silver were so beautiful though, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and went back for it. It feels almost like a promise to you as I left with a plant nestled in the crook of my arm, that I have now taken custody of this little plant, and will nurture it best I can. It does feel precious in a way that it is a life I have adopted from you. I remember feeling like we’ve shared something, like I can begin to know you through this gossamer connection we’ve formed.
On our second encounter, I went to Tanjong Pagar Distripark to find you. A friend warned me that I’d better brace myself — the conditions are hostile, they say. Something about a lack of air circulation and the daunting muchness of having dozens upon dozens of artworks filling a warehouse space. I brush it aside, what is a little heat going to do to me? I’m eager to meet what I think as your main body, I come dressed lightly, bottle filled with iced water.
What greeted me the moment I swung open the glass door was an entire splay of objects and images, a busy visual field. I wandered around for a bit, not knowing where to land my gaze and attention, and ended up circling the gallery allowing my attention to flit and linger as it felt compelled to. There is so much, too much to name them all, but I have to say I spent quite some time with Samia Halaby’s notes and scribbles about Kinetic Paintings with Sound, her digital paintings. Or as she calls them, creatures. A squiggle represents a river, and a line there, a path. An entire world constructing and reconstructing itself, made into a vibrant display of moving shapes. A glimpse into the mechanisms and logics of Samia’s world. By proxy, a glimpse into your world too, Natasha.
Joo Jae-hwan’s bricolage paintings and sculptures too were delightful, but I couldn’t sustain playing with or paying attention to each and every one of them. Is this what they call an exhibition burn out? Within a span of 2 hours? There was a particular one he made that felt like a high-five from a friend (from you, Natasha?), a face made by scrunching paper up with clips — I glanced at it, let out a soft chuckle as a high-five in return, and walked away. I was spent. The playfulness and irreverence inherent in his work brought some levity and relief, but it did little to soothe the gnawing drain I felt in my body.
One of Joo Jae-hwan’s bricolage paintings and sculptures. Image Credit: Teo Xiao Ting
It was at this point, Natasha, that I felt irritation. It’s not usual that one feels irritation towards an exhibition, not in a way that you would a person, but by virtue of giving you a human name, especially the name of my dear friend, my emotional responses have followed suit and anthropomorphised you. I arrived curious, ready for an excursion into your world. I was really excited to meet and play with you, as children do. Of course, this is subconsciously coloured by my own personal friendship with another Natasha, the laughter and moments we shared back in school. What I experienced instead, was an onslaught of artworks upon artworks that didn’t give much space for breathing. They jostle against each other, limited by space, craning their necks towards me for attention. I wish for more spaciousness within Tanjong Pagar Distripark, Natasha, and I wonder if you do too.
As though drawn to a friend’s comforting presence, I found myself returning to Kanitha Tith’s Hut Tep Soda Chan (“Hut of an Angel”). It is a reassemblage of Kanitha’s childhood home in Cambodia, and there is a mattress there. On the ground, an invitation to “please take [my] shoes off”. I gladly accept. I took my shoes off, stepped onto the woven mats, and laid down on the mattress and made myself at home. The mattress is that of the consistency familiar to me, a thin one that can be rolled up for ease of storage, and I felt my body sink into it, accepting it as an act of grace from you. Lying down gave me a perspective I didn’t know I was missing, and as I looked at Hut Tep Soda Chan anew, I spotted pages of The Straits Times used as some kind of wallpaper at the back. Was it intentional? It’s whimsical, if not tongue-in-cheek — in a work thinking about a house that “stands amidst the rapidly changing landscape of Phnom Penh”, The Straits Times. The irritation I felt melted into amusement.
View from the mattress in Kanitha Tith’s Hut Tep Soda Chan. Image Credit: Teo Xiao Ting
View from the mattress in Kanitha Tith’s Hut Tep Soda Chan. Image Credit: Teo Xiao Ting
I fell asleep at some point without realising and woke to chatter next to me. Then I heard a yelp. Someone had mistook me as part of the artwork, as a performance, and didn’t expect me to wake. Didn’t expect me to be a regular person who was in fact, just tired. I laughed, and explained sheepishly I was just taking a nap, that I am in no part related to Kanitha or her artwork, that I am a visitor just as they are. It’s surprising to fall asleep in the middle of an art gallery, and I think back to your wish for visitors to form more intimate connections with art. I question this moment of expansive quiet, calm, and wonder again, if you would humour me, if it is part of your intention for this to be born out of overwhelm.
The next moment was in the form of Elaine W. Ho’s The Last Emporium, in that stifling 5th floor of Tanjong Pagar Distripark. A nondescript room I’d almost missed. If not for that little standee with your name on it signalling towards a grey door, I would have thought it was a storage room, and walked right past it. Thank you for letting me know of this nook, Natasha. The droning sounds that the 5th floor of Tanjong Pagar Distripark constantly boomed were grating against my ears, and I was reaching my threshold. Along with the stifling heat and limited air circulation, I really wanted to bolt out of the space. And it was at that moment when I turned to leave that I saw that little signpost pointing me towards The Last Emporium, and how lovely it is, flooded with red light and cool air.
It is with this renewed levity that I discovered that the room, its sounds, responds to my movement. There were no “Do Not Touch the Artworks” signs around, only sculptures made from ceramic vases and other stray materials, and two seemingly empty white plinths in the space. Voices and words belonging to Chen Jialu, Amaya Julia Gutlerrez, Elaine W. Ho, Qu Chang, Levin Tan, Regina Wong Hon-lai, Yin Yin Wong and Soledad Dominguez Yepus start and stop, converging and diverging as they read to each other, to me. It was by pure chance that I realised by grazing my fingertips across a small silver nub on the “empty” plinth, I could make the voices pause, and restart. I stood there for a long time, Natasha, playing with the voices in the simple way Elaine allowed me to. It felt like I unlocked an interaction I didn’t know was possible with you, and it was delightful.
I’ve been pondering what I want to say to you, about you, for a while now. Despite your name, the invitation to interlace with the works you hold in a more intimate manner, you still hold the appearance as a massive art exhibition, albeit sprawled over public spaces, across the sea in St. John’s Island. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve conjured the invitation in my head, even though it is an explicit one written all over the media related to you. It feels nascent, still budding, yet to blossom. To be frank, I am still processing my time with you, and I suspect it will take me an even longer time to make sense of how I feel about you, what I think of you. I can take my time, can I? You too, are still becoming, feeling out the contours of what being a biennale means. As am I, as my thoughts about you shift and ferment. Besides, I do have till March 2023 to revisit you, and you aren’t going anywhere.
In any case, I hope for you serendipitous moments with your visitors, and I wish you sufficient quiet and rest amidst it all. Till then, take care, Natasha.
About the author(s)
txting teo (Teo Xiao Ting) plays with “words” and its related resonances, “art” and its transubstantiations. Their practice focuses on tending to life through writing alongside, sharing attention, and being with. They are currently working as a counsellor, and is in the midst of being trained in somatic therapy of various forms. (https://txting.space)