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What if every new biennale mattered? Take Belief, for instance, the inaugural Singapore effort, which opened in September 2006. Headed by Fumio Nanjo, the new director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, Belief was curated by Nanjo and his three appointees: Roger McDonald, deputy director of Arts Initiative Tokyo; Sharmini Pereira, an independent curator based in London and Sri Lanka, and founder of Raking Leaves publishing; and Eugene Tan, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. The show was installed in over sixteen venues across town: from the National Museum to mosques, churches, and temples, from the defunct Tanglin military camp to the former City Hall. While Belief featured some well-known names like Jenny Holzer and Xu Bing, Nanjo said the highlight of their curatorial selection were artists from the equatorial belt who are not usual suspects on the biennale circuit. Among the ninety-five artists were Nuha Asad (UAE), Amanda Heng (Singapore), Federico Herrero (Costa Rica), Ho Tzu-Nyen (Singapore), Kuo I-Chen (Taiwan), Donna Ong (Singapore), Chatchai Puipia (Thailand), and Jagath Weerasinghe (Sri Lanka). The regions of Southeast Asia and Singapore were well represented (with ten artists in the latter instance).
In a year of nearly twenty biennales and triennales—September alone saw the openings of the Shanghai and Gwangju exhibitions within the same week as Singapore’s—what can yet another manifestation say? But perhaps each new city to join this international club, each new edition of a Busan, Havana, Istanbul, Sydney, Venice, or Whitney, when put together, constitute the “state of contemporary art.” So, despite the ditherings of professional commentators, there are new things under the sun, and, today, the most interesting art is being presented in platforms such as these. This is what art historian Terry Smith suggests in an essay on biennales and contemporaneity: “Why is it that the biennale has become so important to international visual arts? . . . Are biennales telling us more about the state of contemporary art than the writings of critics and historians?” (“Biennales in the Conditions of Contemporaneity,” Art & Australia 42, no. 3 [Autumn 2005]: 408) Smith contends the goal of biennales is to show “the latest developments in international contemporary art so as to benefit local artists and audiences,” as well as to grapple with questions he believes recent criticism has largely avoided, like: “What are the major currents in contemporary art?” (408) I want to put Smith’s contentions to the test in looking at Belief: what could this exhibition say to local and regional artists and audiences about what’s new in art?
In Singapore, September 2006 was notable less for the opening of its first biennale than for its hosting of the annual International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group meetings, with their 20,000 visiting delegates. Money comes first; it was because the biennale was sold as the anchor cultural event for the IMF/World Bank that it received government funding. These meetings were promoted as a demonstration of the island city-state as a world-class convention center—a conceit that was undermined when the government was criticized by the IMF and World Bank for its restrictions on civil society, not to mention all the subsequent bad foreign press. How telling is it when World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz, a.k.a. Iraq War architect, becomes a champion for liberal causes in Singapore? Not surprisingly, then, many initial reactions to the biennale were cynical—because it was happening in Singapore. Which made the theme of the show, “Belief,” all the more ironic and apt.
During the opening weekend, Daniel Malone, from New Zealand, performed an intervention at the former City Hall. His Steal this Smile! :) (2006) made reference to American ‘60s counterculture figure Abbie Hoffman, who organized a demonstration in Washington D.C. in 1967 during which 35,000 antiwar protesters gathering around the Pentagon, attempting to levitate it by means of meditation. Malone’s attempt to reproduce the Pentagon levitation was not widely publicized, and failed to mobilize a huge crowd; it was mostly school children who joined hands around City Hall. Several days later, the ring of handholding kids was replaced by a shiny new metal fence, replete with barbed edges and armed police on patrol. Designated as the registration center for the IMF/World Bank, the whole building was closed to the public for the duration of the meetings (September 13–20), and cordoned-off with the high security barrier. Malone’s work vis-à-vis the fence became one of the more memorable juxtapositions of the biennale.
At the Singapore Art Museum, it was hard not to notice that the in-conjunction exhibition, Telah Terbit (Out Now): Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Practices during the 1970s, attended thoughtfully to political tensions throughout the region, but seemed to overlook certain ones at home. And the two biennale sites that housed most of the works, the former City Hall and defunct military camp at Tanglin, are still highly charged with ideological meanings—so much so that some commentators felt those sites overwhelmed the art. Interestingly, it was the newly reopened National Museum that functioned most like a neutral space, although it was less a white cube than a black box. Nanjo has stressed how biennales are “primarily for a local audience” (“Interview: Fumio Nanjo,” in Broadsheet 35, no. 3 [September–November 2006]: 137). That may be true, but my own feeling is that a good many local audiences were more outward-looking than self-reflective, for instance, seeing Swedish duo Bigert & Bergström’s piece on the death penalty in the United States as mainly a foreign issue, without thinking of those on death row in Singapore.
However, I would like to resist the temptation to write about the biennale mainly in terms of criticizing the local government for its repressive policies. Besides, a more revealing analysis of the Singapore ideological apparatus requires one to look past the obvious images of barbed wire and armed police. As important as it is to appreciate the exhibition’s political contexts, it is also important to recognize that Belief had a life beyond being a symptom of Singapore state and society. For this reason, I would like to focus now on a work that was concerned with illumination and the distribution of power—electrical power.
One of the highlights of the Singapore Biennale was its collaboration with several religious buildings used as sites for a number of artworks, including Everything Is Contestable (2006) by India-based Ashok Sukumaran at the Armenian Church. Armenians were among the earliest Christian migrants to Singapore, and in 1835 erected the first church on the island. For Everything Is Contestable Sukumaran created two switches: one at the entrance to the church compound; the other, across the street. Signage next to both switches drew attention to the work and explained it. The artist was interested in metaphorizing the complex system of electric supply and the public’s experience and expectation of its uniformity and reliability. Apparently, twenty-four percent of the power in the area derives from one supplier, and seventy-six percent from another. Thus the switch in front of the church operated only twenty-four percent of the time, and the switch across the street, seventy-fix percent. When the switches did work, floodlights installed on the grounds and inside the building would illuminate the church. A fitting effect, since the church’s patron saint is Gregory the Illuminator, the monk who brought Christianity to Armenia.
Sounds good on paper. But there was a hiccup. The signage was appalling. While the main body of text explained the work clearly enough, that same text failed to mention it only functioned at night. That vital piece of information was placed elsewhere on the badly designed sign, and I noticed it only after calling the biennale office to inquire why the switches never seemed to work, even after pressing them repeatedly for several minutes—something I did frequently, as I work in the church’s vicinity.
The point of any biennale is to present a diverse range of artworks. Some, like Singaporean Lim Tzay-Chuen’s The Opposite Is True #2 (2006), operate precisely on the edges of the art world, and are quietly stumbled upon; other works ask for mass participation, like Daniel Malone’s. (See accompanying image caption for information on Lim’s piece.) I have closely followed Lim’s work, as I am interested in how he raises questions about visibility and spectacle in contemporary art, as well as what is institutionally permissible. When it comes to biennales, often I find it is the quieter works, rather than the spectacular ones, that are the most engaging. For instance, at the National Museum, Filipino Jose Legaspi’s simultaneously subtly and not-so-subtly disturbing paintings installed in a darkly lit room left a stronger impression on me than the showcase installation by Mariko Mori from Japan (a large glass sculpture embedded with LED-lights controlled by a computer linked to a major sub-atomic particle observatory).
Sukumaran’s work falls between the stumbled upon and the spectacular. Not that one stumbles upon it; one passes it by—in my case, almost daily. But more troubling to me than the bad signage was when I finally deliberately visited the place one evening to experience it. The church was there, sitting in the dark; then all of a sudden, it lit up. Pretty cool. But this is the church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. I wanted more than just “pretty cool.” It should have lit up like the Second Coming—I wanted spectacle!
Contestable exemplifies a problem I have had with a lot of the artworks in Belief and most other biennales: their ambitions seem inadequately pursued or realized. I am not talking about making bigger or more spectacular art, but about the commitment to following through with the conceptual logic of a piece. In the Singapore case, my criticism is directed less at the curating than the conditions for it. Nanjo was offered the job with only fourteen months to put it together, without any confirmed venues, and a secretariat that was barely in place, with a very steep learning curve. I have heard of other biennales that have been whipped up in short timeframes; but in those cases, they already had their venues and secretariats established.
While the Singapore government reportedly spent (U.S.)$5 million on this biennale, that is not the best measure of commitment. Rather, this would have been demonstrated if the project received the time it deserved. In 2004, the National Arts Council organized the exhibition Seni (the word means “art” in Malay), ostensibly as a practice-run for a possible future biennale. The one thing the government could have learned then, which it refused to, is that these things require lots of time. Sydney, for instance, announces the following biennale’s artistic director just as the current one opens. It is easy to fault Singapore for its repression and censorship; but if anything, the city-state’s foray into the biennale business—so far—signals a failure to fully commit to contemporary art.
But again, there is much more to Belief than this particular representation of Singapore. So what does Belief tell us about the “new”? In a discussion of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Terry Smith mentioned how one review found the failings of the art to stem from the failings of U.S. society. But as Smith rightly asks, isn’t the function of contemporary art to go beyond merely mirroring society? When art aims only to reflect, it does so reductively. There is a contradiction here: the goal of biennales is to present us with the latest in contemporary art. But what mostly defines the “new” in international art is geographic representation—a new corner of the world that has yet to be fully colonized by intense global attention. In part because of the proliferation of biennales, contemporary art is increasingly burdened with the representation of place. Yet what is often most memorable in art today are the tensions between individuality and context: that which recognizes place, but also presents it through a detour, a feint, or disavowal of proxy; that which insists—in a complicated way, to be sure—on being specific and independent.
Art critic and artistic co-director, The Substation, Singapore
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