Sam, the invigilator watching over Han Sai Por’s apocalyptic expanse of charcoal logs at the Singapore Biennale has a similar look on his face to that of Don McCullin’s Shellshocked US Marine. He’s been in the low-ceilinged, windowless white room all day, and I imagine the abyss might have really started gazing back at him with a vengeance sometime after lunch.
I bump into Sam again the following day, this time looking after S. Chandrasekaran’s work Unwalked Boundaries, whose subject is the transportation of Indian convicts to Singapore to be used as manual labour, and he is in a more chipper mood. Sam tells me that compared to yesterday, this room is less boring. He’s not talking about the work, per se, but his experience of the space. Singaporean sculptor Han Sai Por’s Black Forest 2016 is stative, still and visually overwhelming. By comparison, the more forensic quality of Chandrasekaran’s assemblage of reconstructed artefacts presented in a glass display case, text and chart, for better or worse, does not seem to inspire the same kind of silent reverence.
Chandrasekaran’s installation was only a part of his artwork though. He made a dramatic blood oath in the opening days of the Biennale, promising to cut himself on a daily basis, in response to being stopped from walking through the streets of Singapore with metal hooks pierced through his back. The Biennale organisers ultimately talked him out of both of his protests.
The title of the Biennale symposium Why Biennale at All? tells us that the organisers are worried about ‘going through the motions’ at another, more general level as well. According to speaker Damian Lentini, curatorial research fellow at Haus der Kunst in Munich, “the [biennial] wave has broken.” Additionally, several other speakers also suggest that the biennale as a concept is past its prime (Japan hasn’t got that memo). Lentini describes being stuck on a vaporetto full of art people on the canals of Venice as “hell.” Michelle Wong of Asia Art Archive likens the Gwangju Biennale experience to the Korean zombie flick “Train to Busan”. Professor Patrick D. Flores’ paper on needing to keep biennales lively is interrupted by artist provocateur Niranjan Rajah doing an intervention and is told by the chairperson to shut up or be taken out by security. Oops.
These are points made by art professionals to art professionals. Biennale malaise is not shared by any of the working Singaporeans I happen to talk to – taxi drivers, waitresses and doormen – they’ve never even heard of the biennale. Slightly discombobulated when I suggest they check it out, habitus be damned, they counter by asking if I am excited to see the upcoming Chinese New Year Festival. Is this why the Singapore Biennale organisers are having a crisis of faith? When the organizers look to the West they encouter bored, no socks, slip-on shoe-wearing liberal elitists not getting their fix, and to the East, lumpen traditionalists and police state patriarchs that want the trappings of Western culture without the pesky realities of self-actualisation.
During a symposium coffee break I end up sitting next to a real lady. With old-school charm, but uninterested in frippery, she feels no compunction to network or establish our relative positions in the field of power, so we have a pleasant but to-the-point chat. After a while she gives me her prognosis on The Atlas of Mirrors, Singapore’s fifth biennale: “it’s not bad”. It’s better than the previous ones, but still has to take more of a stand against a reactionary government apparatus that doesn’t understand contemporary art.
As I’m based in Japan, where off-the-cuff honesty is not generally on the menu, this takes me by surprise. So does the art work in the Biennale itself. The nine conceptual zones, which include explorations of cultural identity, post-colonialism, agency and psychogeography, are a love letter to critical thinking. With titles like A Presence of Pasts and A Somewhere of Elsewheres it has to be said that the letter is written in purple prose, and a little overdetermined, but still – not bad for an art festival in a country that has draconian gum laws.
Two inaugurations take place during Atlas of Mirrors, both of which should be good for the biennale. One is the Donald’s, the other is the Asian edition of the Benesse prize. Trump’s presidential inauguration is broadcast live the night before the start of the symposium, and the unwelcome touch of the stubby fingers of doom is commented on by several speakers. Magically though, the answer to everyone’s concerns are suddenly answered. Why biennale at all? Because Trump, that’s why. If there is any doubt about whether it’s worth carrying on, you now know what you have to do.
As for the Benesse prize, record numbers of visitors were reported for the 2016 biennale, and the inclusion of this award is being cited by the organisers as a major contributing factor to this success. The prize went to Thai artist Pannaphan Yodmanee, for her monumental installation Aftermath; a piece that is contemporary in its construction, but traditional in its yearning for the spiritual and opposition to modernity. From a strategic point of view, I guess it’s a good choice if you want to extend your viewership. You can get the Stepford Wives and Jason Belforts, Dharma bums and a sprinkling of I-don’t-know-anything-about-art folk in with that spirituality stuff. It’s cathartic, vaguely profound, but won’t seriously distract you from your day job. Maybe not even if your job is to look at it all day, like it is for Sam.
Martha Atienza’s Endless Hours at Sea is more than beautiful enough to have won the prize, but there are too many real world social and historical references that might unsettle and disturb. Likewise Jack Tan’s combination of sound, text and diagrams Hearings, and Bui Cong Khanh’s house-sized sculpture Dislocate. The antithesis of a Benesse prize-winning work is Nobuaki Takekawa’s sci-fi agitprop Sugoroku-Anxiety of Falling from History, which comically mocks the aspiration of Asia being one.
In the spirit of liveliness, let’s hope for my sake – and for Sam’s – that the next Singapore Biennale will be less uplifting, messier, with yet more disputes and controversy.
* Editor’s note: some names and identifying details have been changed in the text above to protect the privacy of individuals.