Cultural Cacophony Part 1

12 november 2013 / art / words asih jenie

Taking the curatorial theme of If the World Changed, the fourth Singapore Biennale has narrowed  its scope to focus on Southeast Asian contemporary art. In the place of the usual artistic director, SB2013 invited no less than 27 curators from across the region to collaboratively select the participating artists and their proposed artworks.

"It is a massive undertaking, and because it is so unwieldy, SB2013 offers real engagement at every level to deepen our understanding of the socio-cultural, economic, aesthetic and ideological complexities of this region," says Susie Lingham, director of Singapore Art Museum, SB2013's organizer and main venue.

In order to present the works of the 82 selected artists and art collectives from 13 different countries, the curatorial team dropped the shopworn national pavilion format, instead throwing the works together in what Lingham describes as a “polyphonic chorus that can, and sometimes does, verge on cacophony.” She says that 20 keywords surfaced time and again in the curatorial process: “testimonies, histories, locus, spirit, cosmology, interruptions, ancestries, geographies, selves, futures, apocalypse, culture, exchanges, nature, activisms, prophecies, interventions, meridians, materiality and intercessions.” These words are plastered as a wall graphic at each threshold of the display zones, but only three are highlighted at a time, marking the shift in the flow of thought around the main theme.

We’ve picked highlights from Asian countries in Singapore Biennale 2013. Part 1: Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.


“Cosmology of Life” by Toni Kanwa, Indonesia


There are reportedly one thousand wooden sculptures mounted in this 2×2 meter installation by Bandung-based artist Toni Kanwa. Measuring no wider that five millimeters in diameter, each microsculpture took an hour to carve. Kanwa believes that every object possesses its own energy and character that influence the form of his artwork. He started his work with an hour of meditation to establish communication with the material. Carving ten figurines a day, it took him three months to complete the work. Cosmology of Life expresses his view of nature, spirituality, and the macro and micro cosmos.


“Wormhole” by Eko Prawoto, Indonesia


Better known in his home country as a bamboo-advocating architect, Eko Prawoto pitches three interconnected conical bamboo structures in front of the National Museum of Singapore. Wormhole resembles a range of mountains, a common natural form in Indonesia but one that is alien to Singapore's cityscape. The work alludes to Indonesian folklore that regards mountains as a passage connecting heaven and earth, which draws a parallel with the theoretical opening in the galaxy which allows one to traverse time and space. Similarly, the interior of Wormhole serves as a space for contemplation, where the passage of time is shown through the skylights and the changing play of lights on the bamboo structures.

“Waiting Room” by Shieko Reto, Malaysia


Inside a door marked as "Dr. Poh Tong's Clinic" – a humorous spin on the Malay word potong, meaning to cut or incise – is Shieko Reto's Waiting Room, an installation depicting the many stages of "waiting" faced by transgender persons. Mimicking the actual waiting room, Reto's installation presents the journey in the lives of transgendered persons as they undergo various phases leading up to the gender reassignment surgery. Completed by chairs where visitors can sit comfortably while reading the informative posters and pamphlets the transgendered artist drew herself, the installation pleads for public openness and understanding while also shares the complexities of the situation faced by marginalized transgender community. 


“Telok Blangah” by Ahmad Abu Bakar, Singapore/Malaysia

Holding both a Malaysian passport and Singapore Permanent Resident permit almost all his life, the bulk of artist Ahmad Abu Bakar's works deal with issues of land, identity and faith. Telok Belangah was created as a part of SB2013's Artists-In-Communities programme, artists' endeavor to give incarcerated men to share their voice through art. The artwork features a kolek (a traditional fisherman's boat from Malacca that is rarely seen today) filled with one thousand glass bottles filled with messages from male prison inmates in Singapore. Each message in a bottle describes an inmate's hope, aspirations, and fears while serving their time and looking to integrate themselves back to society. 


“Happy and Free” by Boo Junfeng, Singapore

Notable young filmmaker Boo Junfeng presents a music video built around an alternate history in which Singapore is still a part of Malaysia. Set to “Happy And Free,” a song commissioned in 1963 by Singapore’s Ministry of Culture to celebrate the merger, the four-minute video is played in loop inside a karaoke room completed with leather sofa,  working microphones, and tambourines. Happy and Free questions how different Singapore and its people might be in that scenario. Adding an authentic element to the installation is a gallery preceding the karaoke room that displays the "official" logos commemorating the milestones of the union.


“The Ghost of Capitol Theatre” by Royston Tan, Singapore

One of Singapore's most influential director, Royston Tan is known for documenting the disappearing historic places in the city-state. Built in 1929, the Capitol Theater served as the country's premier theater, showing local and international movies for decades until its curtain call in 1998. The old building is currently undergoing a redevelopment to integrate it into a newer shopping and entertainment center. A farewell gesture to the old theater, The Ghost  of Capitol Theatre sees a pre-recorded contemporary dance video imposed on an actual row of seats from the original theater. The 11 minute, 27 second dance video starts with the premise of, “If each seat could recount the memories and tales of every patron that has sat upon it, what marvelous stories these seats would tell.”


Stay tuned for more SB2013 highlights from other countries.

Singapore Biennale 2013 runs until 16 February 2014 at Singapore Art Museum, SAM at 8Q, National Museum of Singapore [], Peranakan Museum. Exhibitions open from 10am to 7pm daily (last admission at 6:15pm).

Admission fees: Adult SGD10, student and seniors SGD5. Free admission for all visitors to Biennale artworks at Fort Canning Park, National Library Building, Waterloo Centre and Our Museum@Taman Jurong.

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