° Preparations are ongoing. An assistant paints the white wall a bit whiter. Spelling mistakes in the text on the wall are corrected. The white cube divided into nine zones is ready for visitors. Everything looks smooth and polished: the space, the artworks, and the people.
¶ In Singapore the concept of being “gardened” (note the phonetic resemblance to “guarded”) or of making nature culture is ubiquitous. As a performative, it indicates care and control, wealth, and taste. The orchids in the orchid gardens, one of the main attractions of the city, are “cultured nature” at its best — perfected, like the organised messiness of fallen leaves in the Botanical garden. Did the leaves actually fall by themselves or were they plucked and arranged?
© One goal of biennales is to become haptic think-tanks, havens, focal points and nodes. All of these denote centricity. While centres provide a space where one can talk about the world’s ecological status, economic fluctuations or citizenship, centralising also creates peripheries and narratives. An elderly guard whose personal narrative included indebtedness is an example of those who live at the peripheries of the institution and power. (cf. Self)
∞ ° The Singapore Art Museum was once a school, and the linguistic schema of wall labels, curatorial descriptions and nine zones that function as a container for the artworks, retains traces of the La Salle order’s former ramified, systemic, academic, and ecclesiastical patterning — a ghost of scholastic, doctrinal models that moulded institutional behaviours. Consider the history of La Salle (cf. Context), but also the now globally distributed scholastic protocols: Bloom’s Taxonomy, the Bologna Accords, Lisbon Recognition Convention, deployment of so-called Cultures of Evidence etc. These hidden structures, inherited by the Biennale affect the playful, exploratory character that art can have.
∞ My writing here is a substitution for our desires and pleasures of reception there. Objects of desire haunt the museum and this text, and I accord those objects rapt attention. There were also some objects that were so over-determined, over capitalised or “oversold” that they repelled my gaze (although the repel simply opened my attention into metadiscursive reflections more rapidly).
° In Hearings, Jack Tan approaches legal aesthetics sampling a combination of dedication and playfulness. Audio recordings of emotional court cases are translated into visually appealing scores, and performed by the Anglo-Chinese Junior College Alumni Choir.
§ Consider S. Chandrasekaran’s proposed but unfulfilled performance, in which he would put hooks into his back, attaching relics housed in ice to his body, and then would walk a route through the city between modern-day shopping malls and major economic centres that were constructed by Indian convict labourers: uncovering a shame wilfully forgotten. The piece could not be realised by the Biennale. The artist’s work and the institution truly are improbable bedfellows. While making art out of this situation is nothing new, it provides that BDSM moment of inescapability, where two agents are bound together in remembrance and amnesia.
& I noticed that the guards were constantly shape-shifting: from guards to guides, educators, attendants. The different ways of engaging with them made it difficult to understand my position in the schema. However, it was intriguing; while walking from one zone to the other I kept wondering how the next guard would perform.
∞ Once we accept the economic function of performance art as a symptom of late capitalist fetishisation, it is released from having to instrumentally satisfy our constant need for social emancipation. While it can exist within a larger project of social emancipation or even revolution, instrumental allegories are not its be-all and end-all. Performance art functions more effectively in the ranks of metonymy and metaphor than as political allegory.
∞ The Biennale’s very unsustainability has the power to performatively bring momentary imaginative worlds or imagined nations into being.
© The Singapore Biennale was organised by the National Arts Council of Singapore for the first time in 2006. The aim of founding the event was to establish Singapore as an international center and regional leader in the field of visual art.[i]
Susie Lingham, Creative Director of the Singapore Biennale, declared: “Context is everything” during our meeting with her; an idea enacted by the curatorial team in the design of the nine conceptual zones. This curatorial “zoning” raises some issues. The re-creation of narratives and idiosyncratic branding is presented synchronically, while the diachronic links back to earlier Singapore-sited zonal and hierarchical systems remain untraced.
∞ Sacerdotal hierarchies of value and organisation still haunt the halls of the Singapore Art Museum, formerly a Catholic boys’ school run by the La Salle missionary brothers (replaced for a short period by a military regimen during the Japanese occupation). The overt pedagogical mandate and mystical pretensions in the catalogue and on the wall labels that frame the exhibition recall La Salle ideology of the mid-19th century. Like the Biennale, the educational model of La Salle institutions are framed by numerical patterns, systems and subsystems: “four structural elements to be accomplished in everyday activities through seven areas of management, considered as operational components”.[ii]
© ∞ “Context is everything” raises the inverse, “everything is context”. What sort of context are we talking about: political, economic, migratory, refugee, military, international diplomacy, cultural? Is the relationship between Singapore and its regional context defined by images of centre — periphery? How far does “context” extend? And how do the priorities of the Singapore government, as opposed to those of cultural workers, figure in the larger political map of the region and the world? While presently the Philippines and Singapore enjoy a relationship that is more or less cordial, if not yet of economic parity, this has not always been the case. In 1995 street demonstrations broke out in the Philippines over the opaque and controversial trial and execution of Flor Contemplacion, the Filipina domestic worker accused of double murder. Diplomatic ties have been strained and stained by a number of other violent episodes perpetrated against domestic workers, construction workers from the Philippines, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand et al. These other narratives do not fit neatly within the nine conceptual zones of the Biennale.
Whose story is the Biennale telling then? It appears that the history and identity discourses within it are largely limited to those concerning the colonial past of the region. How do new forms of colonialism manifest and function in previously colonised countries? While some countries are still harvesting the after-effects of their colonial pasts, others are taking advantage of them. The violence of colonialism does not disappear from a nation’s memory, and when a formerly colonised country has gathered enough strength and resources to be back on its own feet, it looks for that which was taken away. The tendency to hoard and assert its place and claim other places, devouring and representing the narratives of the weak as its own may be inevitable.
≈ As suggested in the title An Atlas of Mirrors, a primary topic of the Singapore Biennale 2016 is cartography. While an atlas is conventionally a “collection of maps in a volume”, the Biennale is a collection of maps in the architectural volume of the museum.
≈ Richard Schechner argues that maps “perform a particular interpretation of the world. Every map is a ‘projection’, a specific way of representing a sphere on a flat surface. On maps, nations do not overlap or share territories. […] Mercator Projection — or any other map — is a performance.”
¶ This year’s exhibition guide and catalogue unfold into “nine conceptual zones”, which are not visibly translated into the spatial arrangements of the exhibition, but work as a suggestive force. The very word recalls the mysterious and sentient ZONE of Andrej Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. In that zone, difficult to traverse because laws of reality or normality do not apply there, it is necessary to have a guide who knows the path through an area rife with dangers, mysterious forces, darkness, and desires.
∞ The zones in the Biennale adopt the role of guides, speaking through wall labels and curatorial explanations. The texts accompanying the artworks orient us through the exhibition’s meta-levels, providing a lens for viewing nine epistemological compressions. The wall labels lecture the public, coalescing us as “those who lack the linguistic codes sufficient to understand the artworks”, producing us as a band of latter day heroes, on a romantic quest: to perceive correctly.
≈ The cover of the exhibition guide depicts “two ancient supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana. During the breakup of Pangea some 200 million years ago, Gondwana separated from Laurasia”. There is a poetic touch in combining 200-million-year-old masses of land with modern topographical notation; a reminder that we are only briefly on this planet and the world will continue without us. This present–past–future conversation is strongly present in the booklet and in the different artworks throughout the Biennale.
≈ The Sri Lankan artist Pala Pothupitiye in the Other Map Series presents poetic mutations of deconstructed Sri Lankan maps. They merge into a landscape complemented with drawings of mythical creatures, refusing to provide what one expects from a map: accurate data. Using a formerly current map of the British Empire, Pothupitiye re-introduces a narrative of pre-colonial history suppressed by colonial rule. The mythical creatures become original forces of the island, once again claiming their right to existence, fighting against the performative powers of maps.
≈ Somewhat suspicious is the map of East and South Asia provided in the official Singapore Biennale guide, as well as small maps in the official catalogue. On most maps today, the territory of Kashmir is divided into three parts: China, India and Pakistan, but on the Biennale map it is depicted as a united country. Parts disputed by Pakistan and India are depicted as an independent state while the part disputed by China and India is marked as belonging to China, as are the independent countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.[iii] Connecting the two states to China is a performative act. Perhaps not as powerful as on Google Maps, this map with its error still has the potential of changing one’s worldview. I wonder how many of the Gallery Guides and catalogues with the erroneous maps were printed.
© For S. Chandrasekaran, the cartographic impulse became the surrogate for the unaccomplished performance, a map of that which did not take place. Instead he presented notations of Unwalked Boundaries, displayed in a glass box and on the gallery wall. Chandra did manage to perform alongside his artifacts, explaining what he would have preferred to perform. His gallery installation became an index to unfulfilled intentions, revealing the thin line in the Biennale between the act of shaping and the act of manipulating.
∞ The biennale succeeds in exploring the notion of maps as performances, showing the bitter colonial past embedded in them, but also fighting back by re-mapping and re-performing cartography. What is missing are ways to extricate oneself from the cartographic impulse itself: the desire to freeze the world in ever more detailed forms of representation. We arrive at Lewis Carroll’s and Jorge Luis Borges’ (and Google’s) imagined 1:1 representation of the area it represents, the perfect simulation where the real doubles as its own map. Context is everything and everything is context.
¶ While wandering through the Biennale, I wonder: how can you tell a forest from a garden? Garden is linked to civilisation, refinement, taming, beauty, aesthetics and luxury; the forest evokes “bare earth” as in “open woods”, dense and manifold growings, notions of co-habitation, work, ecological systems, a hope of sustainability, of wildness. By definition, there are no gardens that have evolved without human interference.
Han Sai Por’s Black Forest 2016 (2016) showcases burnt stumps and broken limbs, all dusty and raw blackness, neatly arranged as a huge rectangle in a white space. On the first day, it was accessible by a huge, industrial elevator, roaring and creaking its way to the second floor like an old pack animal. Notions of environmental disaster and exploitation came to mind, and despite what was suggested in the programme, I could not come up with any thought of nature’s resilience (which would translate into some kind of hope).
& I was amazed by its visually pleasing quality. A neat and precise forest. A white room full of blackness. I looked closely at each individual black tree in search of life; in case some piece of wood was still alive with a touch of green or brown or gray even, a not black colour. I could not find any.
© The piece put me deep in thought. I found out from the wall label that Han, a Singaporean, worked in Indonesia, where some of the world’s worst rainforest fires have been occurring on an annual basis for over thirty years. Many of the environmental workers blame the palm oil, timber, and other large-scale agribusiness corporations for the deforestation. The rainforest fires also imperil Indonesia’s wildlife and local residents.
¶ Jiao Xingtao’s neatly arranged and orderly (civilised?) chairs in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum (The Unity of N Monuments, 2016) form a strange kind of forest of sameness, synchronisation, labour, or mass production (even though they are handcrafted and made from wood and metal). I miss plantings and seeds that grow beyond the anthropocene.
° Then I walk in Denh Guoyuan’s Noah’s garden II, an immersive environment where I see mirrors, fake plants, and some other visitors taking selfies. It is an artificial garden, there only to look at; a spectacular machine. You are allowed to walk into the polished environment and see yourself reflected in many surfaces.
¶ I miss plantings and seeds that grow beyond the anthropocene.
Forests and gardens each form their own smaller zones. They might be understood as an expression of the human conviction to rule and tame other spaces and species: to cultivate, select, grow, oppress and support for the better. The clear borders evoke a sharp-cut segregation of areas, as opposed to intersectionality. The notion of owning land corresponds to the presentation of every artwork, labelled with the artist’s name and origin, like the exotic plants in the Singapore botanical gardens.
I would have loved to explore a dark green zone more uninhibited by forest and weeds, which would have been allowed to perform a bit more wildly, outside of the anthropocentric perspective and the control-factor of human admiration and the market. I would wish for more agency for this zone, even more unbordered risk or danger. Less curating, more caring.
& When I visited Ade Darmawan’s artwork Singapore Human Resources Institute I encountered a room performing as an old half-destroyed office, with found chairs and desks, paintings, and other quotidian furniture. I sat on a chair, getting in contact with the whole piece. While starting to experience how my body connects with the work, the guard asked me to stand up since I was “sitting in the artwork”… After I stood up, I wandered the same room, followed by the gaze of the guard and the fear of touching. From my impression of the work, I do not think that the physical exploration of the visitors was something that Darmawan wanted to avoid. Why, then, did it become a problem?
In the Singapore Human Resources Institute there is a demand for an objective relationship between bodies and objects. But, curiously, this is precisely what the museum officials denied or deferred. The body enters, attracted by a possible corporeal relationship with the installation and its open textures, but leaves unrequited. There is, of course, the possibility that this was done at the artist’s request, and the public was meant to find their corporeal relationship mediated through institutional rules and regulations and the commodification of the installation, producing an invisible membrane between the viewers and the art work.
§ There is a particular economy of time — sometimes a demanding one — in the context of a large museum or biennale; a resistance against the mass economy of a crowd of visitors: each member of the public can only experience one work at any given time, and all the time spent with that one piece reduces the time you can spend with other works. The choice of where to put your attention and your body creates the overall experience of the Biennale.
& An Atlas of Mirrors largely plays with one particular sense: sight. Other possibilities of how to experience an artwork are denied or forgotten. My visit to the exhibition made me wonder if eyes are the only way to see the world. The way the biennale is constructed minimises my agency, directs my gaze, and erases other multiple readings. Most of the works are beyond physical reach and the two performances I was able to see were happening behind glass. Many times I felt the works were inviting me for an embodied engagement, but guards were stopping me even before the contact could happen.
∞ Female artist bodies here perform behind windows, the glass separating viewer from performance according to the iconic dictates of the now renamed Public Entertainment Licensing Unit, which used to demand a discrete separation between performers and audience. The glass stands in for the statutory regulation: a crystallisation of legal and commercial surveillance as transparent container. Artists and audiences discretely separated. These are clearly bodies for sale. Each branded with the name of an artist: Melati Suyadorno, Chia Chuyia. Performance art, the dregs of the modernist avant-garde, with a false aura of moral purity and radical agency … reappears here as pure objectification and commodification.
∞ Like other forms of leisure, the Biennale is a symptom of economic and cultural surplus. But it also provides a meta-discourse on the most intimate experiences of daily life and on the larger cultural economy. It is also a methodology yoked to the purpose of sustaining of the State enterprise … what we sometimes term “games of power” (or “game of thrones”). But does the state depend on play and playfulness for its humanisation and palatability? And what part does the Biennale play in this game?
° One of the things I appreciate in art is its playful character. With playfulness I do not mean non-seriousness; it can require absolute absorption and commitment. Playfulness is not unidirectional; it means having the freedom to be able to move and be moved, and to explore a certain topic from unexpected angles. Is the received image of biennale artworks distorted by the vibrations of social and political games, or are the artworks integral to the power games that surround them?
° The work of Azizan Paiman appears as an exception due to its level of interactivity. An entire café has been built by the artist, providing a meeting place for critical conversation. However, all the elements in the café seem carefully constructed to drive the conversation in a certain direction. The TV and radio are broadcasting the news. It is possible to eat something, but all that is available is processed and instant food. The café is decorated by the artworks of the artist, who himself is present and seems to direct the discussion into critical, controversial areas like racism and politics, but the politics he sponsors is presumably different from the politics he labels as “the sentiment of narrow-minded politics”[iv] on his sign outside the door. How much space for free thought is there in this piece? Did Azizan Paiman simply structure the environment or did he also dictate its reception?[v]
° This biennale, and maybe biennales in general, focus on the larger games of power, politics, social hierarchy, and public relations, reducing the amount of playfulness, pleasure, and transparency. What is being performed “behind the screen” guides the public through the exhibition and also guides the way I, as audience member, am supposed to think. The possibility for agency and freedom is removed while the hidden structures of the Biennale minimise the playful and exploratory character that art can have.
∞ This of course brings up the desire of artists to engage in “deep play” or “dark play”, that is, play that produces a focus on power, subjectification and ontology, or on methodologies of control, destruction, subjection, and subjugation. Presumably due to the demands of the government’s regulatory apparatus, most appearances of sexualities and queer subjectivities and have been cleansed from this biennale, with the exception of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s multi-screen installation Jaonua: The Nothingness, which oscillates between scenes of animal slaughter, human sexuality, nudity, and signifiers of desire and ecstasy. But there are other more subtle outcroppings of dark play. For example, I wonder if Azizan Paiman intended for the public to have a sense of being manipulated or directed. Is there perhaps some particular aspect of biennales that produces this effect of directing and manipulation? Is it the soft ecstasy of national or municipal spectacle, or the deference to a celebration of institutional and national “arrival”, or a choreographed entrapment of perception that pre-determines reception?
∞ Ritual acts positively discriminate a singular interval from the others surrounding them, producing a distortion in the temporal value system: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” is explicitly asked at every Judaic Seder. In a biennale, we understand we are in the presence of a unique and significant event: the sheer scale, the massification of works brought together, and the amount of capital they represent produce this impression.
∞ I recently saw a film in which a character observed children playing in a traumatic occupation zone. He noticed that the children were not actually playing, but simulating play. He implied they no longer knew how to play and could only take it on as a role or a memory of what they wanted to do or were supposed to be doing.
∞ (This parenthesis opens on the left, but it will not close on the right. I find myself sliding across the icy surface of the page in the midst of Finnish winter, as I slid across the air-conned floors of the Singapore Art Museum from display to display, gallery to gallery — contestations over space and hermeneutics.
° To me, the Biennale forms a seamless continuation of Singapore city. No one behaving inappropriately; signs tell you what to do and what not to, illustrated by cute pictures. No garbage on the floor, except for the work rubbish 2016 by Kentaro Hiroki, which makes me smile, especially when a spectator secretly drops a real piece of garbage next to the magnificently copied trash-art pieces. I keep checking if the ready-made is still there, but within a day it is removed. Too bad; I enjoyed the game between artwork and spectator. I wonder if anyone noticed.
© When I turned around, I saw an old man behind me, wearing the Biennale’s staff uniform. “Are you Indonesian?” I told him that I was Filipino, and he smiled wider. I asked him what he thought of Han Sai Por’s Black Forest 2016. For his liking it was too dark, but he admitted that Black Forest reflected what was happening in Indonesia. His parents were migrants from Indonesia and had lived in Singapore until he himself had his own family. He told me that he was in his late fifties, but still struggled to survive economically in Singapore. His ideal of being in the “sunset of his days” seemed impossible. I realised the risk of this kind of narrative getting overshadowed in the flood of Biennale prestige. These stories lurk in the corners of the exhibition, in the exhibition workers’ identities, and maybe, rarely, in the artworks. (cf. Institution)
§ If one were to sum up how the Biennale offered itself to the public, the phrase “curious self-reflection”, used to describe Chou Shih Hsiung’s Good Boy Bad Boy (2016), seems equally fitting. With hashtags, mirrors, and various instructions written on the walls suggesting reflection, engagement, and posting of experiences online, the Biennale embraced the inevitable: that it is not just a curated presentation of culture and identity; it is grist in the mill for people online. On Instagram, #singaporebiennale2016 has over 3,700 entries. Many of them simply depict the artwork in full view or in close detail, with a caption to describe the work and/or its personal significance to the poster. Other images are selfies: smiling, performing, re-interpreting the work, reminding me of Lacan’s mirror self.
§ ∞ Ironically, this could be described as a way to engage bodily with the artwork, to get involved or immersed. But whereas body art is seldomly interested in ideal or whole bodies as its topic, the selfies and other photos posted on Instagram, seek to identify with artworks, to augment the personality and image of the individual, and to associate culture with fun. While many artworks, and body art in particular, seek to deconstruct and de-essentialise our self-image and identity, our online lives tend to make us want to create identity as ideal and whole. The selfies we take can mean anything from “I look good in this light” to “I identify with the destruction of identity proposed by this artwork”. Efflorescences of subjects and subjectivity. But is there subjectivity without subjection?
¶ “Who are you?” said the caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.
Alice replied, rather shyly, “I — I hardly know, Sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”[vi]
[iv] The sign reads in part: A STRICT REMINDER FROM ME…IF ANY OF YOU TRY TO “HIJACK” THIS PREMISE TO NURTURE THE SENTIMENT OF “NARROWMINDED POLITICS” I WILL GRACEFULLY SHOW YOU THE WAY OUT (view image)
[v] Answering these questions would have required a second experience of the cafe, but I was present only for the pre-performance that he designed for the press.
[vi] Lewis Caroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1920, p. 58
The Singapore Biennale Roundtable is a three-part series organised by AICA SG (Singapore Section, International Association of Art Critics), and edited by Lee Weng Choy, President, AICA SG.