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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Singapore Biennale 2019: Interview with artistic director and curators

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By Lee Weng Choy
(1,969 words, 7-minute read)

Contemporary visual art exhibition the Singapore Biennale 2019 will return on 22 November with Every Step In The Right Direction, featuring artworks by over 70 artists from Singapore, Southeast Asia and beyond. In the lead-up to the opening of the sixth edition, Lee Weng Choy speaks with artistic director Patrick Flores, and curators Andrea Fam, Goh Sze Ying and Vipash Purichanont, to find out more on what we can expect.

Lee Weng Choy: Shall we start with the question of how you all want to speak about your biennale. The title, Every Step in the Right Direction, is meant deliberately not to signify a theme. What do themes really say about an exhibition and its artists? Do we need them? But then how else could we speak about such projects?

Patrick Flores: I think a theme is a default device; it is convenient and accessible, but in the long term, unrewarding and maybe even misleading. I imagine a curator, a viewer, or an artist, to be moved or haunted or inspired not so much by a theme as by an interest, an anxiety, a prospect. A theme tends to capture, in fact overdetermine, what should be a lively process of interaction between curatorial speculation and artistic risk. Both speculation and risk absorb and anticipate the dynamics of the social world surrounding them, including the interlocution of the audience. It’s the back and forth that matters, not stable entities like curation, exhibition, artist, curator, biennale, art work, or public. I stay away from the instinct of “speaking about”, and do not want to reduce the project to “what it is about”. I would rather speak to or speak through.

Every Step in the Right Direction is not a theme. Judgments on what is right should resist being preempted by ideological or moral regimes; and direction, as prompted by the step, is always transversal. One important reference for this Biennale was the exhibition, “Roots, Basics, Beginnings,” curated by the Filipino Raymundo Albano in the 1970s. The research into artworlds was to be guided by attentiveness to ecology (roots), materiality (basics), and chance (beginnings), so that the condition of the work would translate as the condition of the world in all its contingency. In that generative matrix, there was no room for thematisation.

Singapore Biennale 2019 artistic director Patrick Flores. Photo courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

 

Goh Sze Ying: The provenance of the Biennale’s title comes from a paraphrase of something Salud Algabre said in an interview. She led an agrarian insurgence in the 1930s in the Philippines that was unsuccessful. The title resonates with amplitude in today’s context: an art world often fraught with our restless collusions with the very matters we are critical of, and the powers we critically stand against. It asks of us to rethink failure beyond historical timelines that are linear and bracketed with clear-cut beginnings and ends. In addition, the title entreats us to examine our agency to shape and transform our world. As such, in a Biennale, a title can be more instructive than a theme in providing the contexts for the variegated fields we all operate within, and in elucidating the challenges we face. It clarifies without trying to contain practices, politics, and purposes into neat compartments for the ease of cultural consumption.

Vipash Purichanont: At the beginning of the process, we had a week of curatorial workshops and seminars where Patrick and the curators met to discuss this biennale. Of course, all of us have our own ongoing research and interests. But it would be too limiting to try and find an overarching theme for all of that. In a sense, I think Every Step in the Right Direction does not point the curators toward any specific direction. It goes against the grain of the accelerations prevalent in our contemporary condition. The title works as a send off that opens us to our own curatorial interpretations and methodologies. I try to think about it as a movement without directionality, or an ability to intellectually “step” without thinking about the outcome. It allows to linger, to wonder, and to explore. And this is the attitude that I am trying to communicate with the artists.

Andrea Fam: Even a themeless exhibition would suggest what it is not and would lay open an enquiry into the many things it could be. But should we find ourselves in a landscape that does not appreciate a philosophical approach to exhibition making (which arguably happens to be the case in Singapore), perhaps we must speak more practically: themes are helpful for the restless and unimaginative (and here I include myself). They help organise thoughts and assist in framing complex ideas that wrestle with distillation and articulation. The presence of themes could also suggest a method of accountability adopted by organisers, curators and artists — one that holds them to a different type of discipline. Themes do not have to be rigidly defined (as is the case with this biennale) but without even a thin scaffold to work within, what prevents absolutely every work by any artist being considered for inclusion?

Three of the six curators of the Singapore Biennale 2019. From left: Vipash Purichanont, Andrea Fam and Goh Sze Ying. Photo courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

 

Weng: Patrick, earlier this year you gave a talk at A+ Works of Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, and spoke about working with a younger cohort of curators, and emphasised learning from them, rather than the expected, you acting as their mentor. Could you explain what you mean?

Patrick: I believe that young curators should curate the biennale of their time and should not be made to perform the script of professional development and wait until they are supposedly old enough to play the part. They bring into the project a kind of intelligence and intuition that the biennale platform needs to foster. We say in art history that it is the “period eye,” a mode of sensing rooted in a locale and a generation. I learn a lot from their methods, the way they work with artists, their patience with the non-object, the techniques through which they meet their peers, and their sensitivity to process. I also like how they think through the disciplines that have shaped them and reach out to other temperaments of observing, explaining, arguing. In other words, they engage with curatorial work through a range of sympathies, an assemblage that foils certain entitlements of the formal curatorial school and the personality of the independent curator. I like the idiosyncratic, improvised curatorial thinking, more nimble, less beholden to lineage, conceits, and coteries; capable of staying through the trouble of the institutional or the popular; not averse to working with institutions and mediating the market; and less prone to a life of glamour and the fetish of the alternative. Autonomy is important to them, but it is a calibrated value, constantly inflected with urgency, exigency, patience, and generosity. Their skepticism does not degenerate into prejudice, or even malice.

Andrea: “We’re old guards”, I recently reflected to John Tung, fellow colleague from SAM, about our places in the Singapore Biennale 2019 curatorium. Having worked on SB2016 and a number of SAM exhibitions, and perhaps even by being Singaporean, meant that we two were spared the ordeal of learning about the invisible but hard lines that cannot be crossed in the organisation of any exhibition in Singapore, not least a large-scaled nationally-backed exposition. Working without pre-existing formulas should be the approach taken with art. This seems an obvious statement but it is complicated by the reservations and resistance of an engineered city such as Singapore. But we do not know what we do not know, and working with and alongside curators not from Singapore has been revealing — of a still-rife anxiety that runs undercurrent, one that is afraid of exceptions to the rule.

Chia-Wei Hsu, video still from “Stones and Elephants”, 2019, a work in the Singapore Biennale 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Weng: Are biennales too big? I’m thinking not so much about their size and spectacle, but their scale, which is always a relative measure. What will be the scale of your biennale?

Patrick: I am not so much bothered by size. I am more concerned with the tendency of biennales to be continents rather than islands. I prefer a more dispersed, less consolidated biennale form. I like an alternating rhythm, this tension between cohering and releasing, the convivial joy of a festival and the reflective interval of a seminar.

Vipash: On the one hand, many biennales tend to be too “big”, particularly because many start from an aspiration to be an international or global art event. On the other hand, from my own experience working in biennales, I have noticed a desire for these projects to become smaller in scale. I think that the demands for Singapore Biennale 2019 are not “small”, however we may want to define that word. However, I also think the artistic direction that Patrick has provided enables curators to work on set of dots rather than bearing the weight of a whole geography. 

Weng: Please, if you can, share some notes about the artists you are working with.

The dioramas studied by Hu Yun. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Patrick: I have closely followed the process of Hu Yun, an artist who divides his time between Shanghai and Belgrade. He is interested in the dioramas of the Singapore National Museum which were made by Filipino carvers in the town of Paete in Laguna, south of the capital of Manila. We did research on the conditions of the dioramas, and we were led to a primary school which has adopted them, as it were. They are in a museum setting in the school, and students tour their peers based on a script. In Paete, Hu Yun filmed a video of the process of carving a branch from an existing limb of a religious image in the atelier of a carver and of returning this limb-branch to the field from which the wood has come. He imagines a diorama made of ice of Singapore’s current topography. For me this says a lot about Singapore, its relationship with the arrival of the British two hundred years ago, and its future as natural history and political economy. Hu Yun’s work interests me because it touches the delicate nerves between craft and cosmology. 

Vipash: I have been researching artistic practices in Zomia, a highland zone in mainland Southeast Asia that has connected China and the Indian subcontinent. However, I do not want my contribution to the biennale to be ethnographical or anthropological, or limited to specific geo-body. And I think there should be some elements in the curation in which the notion of the highland could be presented as more abstract, philosophical and universal. I am working with Paphonsak La-or, a Thai painter. He is developing Far from Home (Meeting Place), a series of landscape paintings, as well as an outdoor sculptural installation and a public intervention. By presenting 121 landscape paintings of the mountains from where certain Southeast Asian individuals reside because of their political situation, La-or inflects the notion of highland with struggle, where hopes and dreams may lie behind those mountains. I think the work is urging the audience to take a step up the hill, instead of simply looking and appreciating the view.

Sze: On my part, I am interested in how biennales can be platforms that make visible long-term or ongoing conversations, affinities, and relationships that often elude the stereotype of these exhibitions as a snapshot of the who’s who, of the new and novel, the upcoming or spectacular. Many of the artists I am working with are those with whom I have shared sustained, critical dialogues over the years; their practices have deeply informed my curatorial thinking and their generosity has allowed me to feel involved in the development of their own work and research. Affinity networks are often criticised for resulting in the over-circulation of particular artists or genres. But there is also value in a curatorial selection that manifests how art is a consequence of the duration of relationships. It acknowledges how certain ideas and works develop and continue over a duration that escapes the timelines of biennales. As part of my research for Every Step, I have met and talked with artists, performance makers, researchers, and other curators, all of whom have methods and approaches which relate to archive research, history and memory. One could say, I am drawn to this point that theorist Donna Haraway makes: “it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what concepts we think to think other concepts with.”


The Singapore Biennale 2019, organised by the Singapore Art Museum, takes place from 22 November 2019 to 22 March 2020. More info here.

Lee Weng Choy is president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics. He was Artistic Co-Director of The Substation from 2000 to 2009, and has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, as well as done project work with arts organisations such as Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore and National Gallery Singapore.

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