Singapore Biennale: A Panoramic View of Southeast Asia

Singapore Biennale: A Panoramic View of Southeast Asia
Oanh Phi Phi's "Specula" will cover the chapel in the Singapore Art Museum with lacquer.
(Singapore Art Museum)

SINGAPORE — Diamonds made from sugar crystals harvested by exploited workers in the Philippines. A room like a jewel box, covered with elaborate Vietnamese lacquer painting from ceiling to floor. A huge circular rainbow projected on a screen of water droplets inside the National Museum of Singapore.

Mixing poetry and politics, a remarkably diverse selection of Southeast Asian and Asian artworks goes on display this year at the Singapore Biennale, the city-state’s premier visual arts showcase. Organized by the Singapore Art Museum at a cost of S$6 million ($4.7 million), the event runs from October 26 through February 16, 2014.

The regional focus is consistent with Singapore’s push to brand itself as the gateway to contemporary art in Southeast Asia. Significantly, Art Stage Singapore, the city-state’s annual January art fair, has similarly positioned itself with its “We Are Asia” tagline, and the fair’s most recent edition featured a special Indonesian art pavilion.

The 2013 Singapore Biennale features roughly 80 artists from the region, including Singaporean conceptual artist Suzann Victor and multidisciplinary artists Nge Lay from Burma, Anggun Priambodo from Indonesia, and Prateep Suthathongthai from Thailand, though there are also a handful from outside Southeast Asia, such as Frenchman François Roche and Australian pair Ken and Julia Yonetani. (For the full list of artists, click here.) 

Cosmology Life, by Indonesian Toni Kanwa 

Biennale director Tan Boon Hui, the former director of the Singapore Art Museum and a longtime champion of Southeast Asian contemporary art, says that he wanted to build “a distinct identity” for the biennale with the regional emphasis. “Southeast Asia, we are arguing, is an important emerging scene. Away from the flashy auction prices, there are rich swathes of artistic practices and artworks that engage creatively with the deep wellsprings of local culture while responding to external forces. These are types of works and practices which this biennale is hoping to introduce to the world.”

About 40% of the works in the biennale are new commissions. On the large-scale installation front, there is Victor’s Rainbow Circle: capturing a natural phenomenon, a 360-degree rainbow generated inside the rotunda of the National Museum of Singapore. Outside the building, Indonesian architect-artist Eko Prawoto is erecting a 10-meter-tall, 25-meter-long bamboo structure titled Wormhole. With three peaks topped by skylights, the structure is reminiscent of a mountain range, or volcanoes.

The theme for this year’s edition is “If the World Changed,” and artists have been asked to look into the future, respond to a changing environment, and explore their conceptions of an ideal world.

A sense of the region’s history and politics comes through in several of the pieces. A few express political aspirations in a tongue-in-cheek manner, such as Tisna Sanjaya’s performance piece Keduutan Masalah Dunia (The Embassy of World Problems). As the ambassador of an embassy open to all global citizens, Tisna encourages guests to air their grievances, which are then discussed by a panel chosen by the artist with the hope of finding solutions and moving toward a better world.

Other works point to social injustice. For Tiempos Muertos (Dead Season), Filipino artist Nikki Luna cast diamond-shaped sculptures from sugar produced in Bacolod, an area where laborers make as little as one dollar a day for their backbreaking work on sugarcane plantations. In artist Nguyen Thi Hoai Tho’s native country of Vietnam, loofah is a slang term for women who are either lactating or past a certain age. In a move to reclaim the female body, Nguyen created The Loofah Trellis, featuring long, organic, breast-shaped forms that hang from a trellis like fruit.

Tiempos Muertos (Dead Season), by Filipino artist Nikki Luna

Environmental themes also figure prominently in this year’s show. For example, Robert Zhao Renhui’s series “A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World” offers a fictive encyclopedia of unusual creatures and plants—think glow-in-the-dark fish and square apples—a playful look at the Frankencreations of the not-so-distant future.

Several artists have chosen to update traditional Southeast Asian crafts for a contemporary audience. American-born Phi Phi Oanh explores her Vietnamese heritage and identity in Specula, a room covered entirely in intricate lacquer painting, while Indonesian artist Nasirun traps wayang puppets in little bottles—shrinking these archetypal characters into collectible relics.

If the breadth of works seems impressive this year, it’s because they’ve been selected by a total of 27 curators from the region—a radical show of teamwork.

Given the range and scope of this year’s selection, diversity is one of the key touchstones, a testament to the ?rich and colorful cultures and geographies of Southeast Asia. It dovetails nicely with director Tan’s vision for the event. “In focusing on Southeast Asia, the biennale seeks to establish Singapore as a key international driver for the showcase, discovery, and promotion of the contemporary art practice in the region,” he says. “The biennale will continue to be a platform for fostering regional conversations in Singapore.”

The Singapore Biennale runs from October 26 to February 16. More information is available here.

This is an edited version of an article that appears in the October 2013 issue of BLOUIN Lifestyle.