Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Contortions and Gentle Songs: SEA at Venice Biennale

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By Teo Xiao Ting 
(1,414 words, 6-minute read)

A vivacious viscous zoo swirling with prestige and art, the Venice Biennale spins me exhausted after 45 days. When I was asked to write about the Southeast Asian artworks I’ve encountered here, a lingering sense of lightheartedness arose, lilting humour almost dry. There is humour, uncanny warmth sharpened by the tinge of truth. A refraction of our equatorial climate. Instead of the annoyance that humidity often inspires, I feel a desire to demolish the material and metaphorical constraints closing into me. A spark.

Perhaps it is fitting then, that Song-Ming Ang places Recorder Rewrite, a three-panel video installation depicting children playing music on the Biennale stage, in the Singapore Pavilion. Curated by Michelle Ho, Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme comprises five pieces of artworks, taking its cue from a series of concerts organised by the then Ministry of Culture in the 1970-80s. My first reaction to Variations is a gnawing sense of dread. Children running with furrowed brows, faces breaking only occasionally into flashes of mirth? A cacophony of dissonant recorder tones, clashing and rising in tension? I sat in the dark video room in slight terror. I was to sit with this for a while, as a Pavilion Ambassador of the Singapore Pavilion.

‘Music Manuscripts’ at the Singapore Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2019. ‘Music For Everyone: Variations on a Theme’ by artist Song-Ming Ang and curator Michelle Ho. Photo by Olivia Kwok, courtesy of the artist

 

But as the days passed, and days more, I began seeing the flashes of mirth as victory, quiet fists held against panopticon lenses. In side glances, wayward sprints across the Singapore Conference Hall, the video began taking on a different tone. Of playful resistance. I began playing alongside dissonant sounds, bobbing my head to haphazard beats. Music Manuscripts, a two-year long experimentation on manuscript paper, demands for my attention, directing it towards creased paper surfaces. More so as I clean the clear acrylic cases with microfibre cloth every morning, before the exhibition opens to the public. More so as I wipe away the motes of dust, accumulated through the night, to reveal an almost perfectly smooth surface.

Within the material constraints of paper, Song-Ming and his team transmuted an initially flat form into whimsical sculptures through simple techniques such as folding, cutting, and crumpling. In moons, circles and bisecting lines, there is energy encased, barred behind clear acrylic. It makes me want to break the smooth surfaces I so carefully cleaned, to diffuse the tension within them. The same way it makes me want to pull the children out of the screen, out of the Singapore Conference Hall, into the green grass fields without being caught by the camera. In other words, Variations makes known my dissatisfaction against structural constraints, makes me want to enact freedoms in ways I know and yet to know. I journey still, restless, to other pavilions. Down the road of the Arsenale, I find myself in the Indonesia Pavilion.

Indonesia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
‘Akal tak Sekali Datang, Runding tak Sekali Tiba (Reason and Negotiation Never Come Just Once)’ by Handiwirman Saputra and Syagini Ratna Wulan, at the Indonesia Pavilion. Photo: Teo Xiao Ting

 

Akal tak Sekali Datang, Runding tak Sekali Tiba (Reason and Negotiation Never Come Just Once) by Handiwirman Saputra and Syagini Ratna Wulan is curated by Asmudjo Jono Irianto and Yacobus Ari Respari. Here, the space is wide, large and garage-like, housing 178 green glass cabinets. Red numbers shine on industrial ceilings, cement thick and glowing, as guides for visitors to navigate the labyrinth. The first glass cabinet contains a green glass egg, labeled with large block letters stating “I CAN NEVER IMAGINE”. It is a game. I accept its invitation, choosing the option “(IT’S) FLAT”, which tells me to move towards glass cabinet #176. For the next hour, I weave through the maze, myopic and insistent upon reaching my next destination. Only when another visitor began taking pictures of it that the gigantic barebone structure of a Ferris wheel captures my attention. How I managed to miss this gigantic structure, I couldn’t tell. It creaks on, oblivious to my slight awe, slow and mechanical. I stare entranced, before snapping out of it. I needed to find the next glass cabinet, to continue playing the game. I become rat caught in its chosen experiment. The resonance with the children within Recorder Rewrite was uncanny; I had become one of the children stuck in a loop of motions prescribed by an invisible, alluring power.

After what feels like hours, I stand before #131, which states “I HAVE NOT TOLD HALF OF WHAT I SAW”. I smile. It is true, I cannot tell even half of what I saw, try as I may now. My gaze wanders to the centre of the pavilion, where a rectangular glass structure stands. Drawn, I make a beeline to the space, and find packs of kretek cigarettes waiting for me. Bemused, I withdraw a stick, put it to my mouth, and light it. A pavilion visitor sees me, and together we partake in the gleefully clandestine act of smoking in an art exhibition within “one of the most prestigious cultural institutions”. Nunung, the gallery assistant that is present, sees my cheeky grin and approaches me. After a few moments of conversing, I find out that she’s a university student from Indonesia, who is studying in Italy. An uncanny sense of kinship forms as we speak about Southeast Asia, how the rain in Venice is nothing compared the the torrential storms we get back home. I reach tentatively for another cigarette, almost shyly, and Nunung laughs. Kak, she starts, why you malu? You can take as many rokok as you want. We have a lot. I smile, and keep a pack as souvenir.

Indonesia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
‘Akal tak Sekali Datang, Runding tak Sekali Tiba (Reason and Negotiation Never Come Just Once)’ by Handiwirman Saputra and Syagini Ratna Wulan, at the Indonesia Pavilion. Photo: Teo Xiao Ting

 

Puffing away, we speak about working in our various capacities in the Venice Biennale, about being away from home, about various other things. Words come easy, and it feels natural to be smoking in the dead centre of an art exhibit, no matter how prestigious. A few days later, I return to find that visitors can no longer smoke in the pavilion, due to various reasons I did not ask. A sense of being slapped on the wrist despite once having legitimacy, a child hemmed in mid-play. Yet I trudge on, to find a place to linger.

Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
‘Island Weather’ at the Philippine Pavilion is a collaboration between artist Mark Justiani and curator Tessa Maria Guazon. Photo: Luca Zanon/Awakening/Getty Images. Via The Atlantic

 

At the Philippine Pavilion, it is quiet. I let out a breath of air. A collaboration between artist Mark Justiani and curator Tessa Maria Guazon, Island Weather presents three glass “islands”. It yawns wide and my body relaxes alongside, despite the precarity that emerges as I walk up the short flight of stairs, gazing down a seemingly endless dark. Stepping atop clear glass, there is an acute sense of vertigo. My intuition tells me to sit down, and so I do. A vertical forest stretches beneath me, patches of green framing a metal cabinet. Adjacent to it, a vertical archive of discrete objects—writing instruments, manuscripts, amulets—collectively constructs what seems to be the Philippines. All around me, visitors toe tentatively atop steady glass, slow. They do not trust the structural integrity of the island, despite assurances from the gallery staff that it is safe to walk on. Inexplicably, this fear of falling eludes me, and I end up lingering in the Pavilion, wandering across the three glass islands for almost 90 minutes.

In the span of those 90 minutes, I rest upon the strength of the glass, feeling the pit at my stomach dissipate—an ease I have been seeking all Biennale. I linger, feel the expanse of artifacts collected by Justiani and Guazon beneath my body. Despite still hearing the bustle of visitors huddling outside in the cold air, I find calm among the concentrated, contracted glass islands in dim light. A child at rest, at last. I savour yet another minute inside the Philippine Pavilion, and circle back to the Singapore Pavilion to continue my shift. On the way back, I see children running on white gravel, their parents leaning on bare cemented bricks and chatting. The dust rises beneath my feet as I walk.

The Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Song-Ming Ang, ‘Recorder Rewrite’, 2019. Film still courtesy of the artist.

 

Turning the corner into the Singapore Pavilion, the symphony of recorder notes greets me. Its discordant notes are familiar to me by now, a gentle whimsical song. A group of children enters the exhibition, and a young girl puts her hand to the fabric posters that are part of the piece Music for Everyone. I approach her, remind her to not touch the artworks. She replies with a disappointed nod. As an unspoken apology, I hand her a postcard with a screencap of Recorder Rewrite printed on it. She grabs it with gleeful joy, appeased. Outside, the zoo raves on.


Music For Everyone: Variations on a Theme by Song-Ming Ang, presented as part of the Singapore Pavilion in the Venice Biennale, runs till 5 October 2019.

Teo Xiao Ting’s preoccupations surround alternate forms of book-making and publishing as manifestations of truths-telling and the viscera. She is primarily a writer and editor, and her practice, at this point, integrates various forms of intimacies and daily life through responding to the arts. For more information about this human, visit txting.space

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