Arts and Culture

SINGAPORE BIENNALE 2011: 'Open House' and the doors of perception

ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan -

Here’s the thing. You go inside a blood-red room, grab the microphone and do your own shambolic rendition of the devil’s own composition, the tune behind many absurd killings in Filipino karaoke bars, My Way. Or. You could check into a hotel suite built around (I mean around) this country’s iconic 26-foot mermaid-and-lion landmark and sleep in a luxurious bed with a national monument sitting stonily in the middle of the room. You could trace a favorite object (cell phone, iPod, what-not) on the wall inside a building and then watch it decorated with wrapping pattern, a temporarily mummified gift to be opened with imaginary fingers. You listen to a symphony of 39 metronomes set to different tempos, and believe me it will drive you nuts; if there were piped-in music inside Alfred Hitchcock’s head or elevator music at Arkham Asylum this would be it. And you could watch the skeletons of artworks, the fetuses of creativity, the germination of ideas before they become a piece of that nebulous concept dubbed as “contemporary art” — the source of many arguments, much debates, even deaths, despairs and dementias.

Yes, these artists took the blows and did it their way.

The thing is, you are here inside one of the venues (it maybe a museum or an old airport) housing the artworks in the 2011 Singapore Biennale, and we join you with an inquisitive mind, a wandering eye and a bottle of Tiger beer in one hand and a “biennale bun” in the other.

The Singapore Art Museum (SAM) recently invited The Philippine STAR to the opening of the Lion City’s third edition of the biennale, which is organized for the first time by SAM of the National Heritage Board, and supported by the National Arts Council (NAC), which inaugurated the biennale in 2006 and hosted the 2008 edition. (The first biennale featured artworks from the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Holzer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Barbara Kruger and our very own Jojo Legaspi.)

Your move: Perverse sculptures by Julian Göthe at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM)

Meaty facts first. The 2011 Singapore Biennale features 63 artists from 30 countries (27 Asian artists make up 40 percent of the combined artist pool) who are presenting 161 artworks across four exhibition venues — SAM and SAM at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore, Old Kallang Airport and Marina Bay. Participating artists include Tiffany Chung, Phil Collins (no, no, not the drummer from Genesis), Martin Creed, Tracey Moffat, Matt Mullican, Charlie White, Ming Wong, Michael Lee, and our very own Louie Cordero and Mark Salvatus, among others. The 2011 edition presents the highest proportion of commissioned artworks compared to previous editions; 54 percent of the participating artists have created new site-specific commissions or premieres. Thus, this biennale, to steal a line from Ratatouille’s Anton Ego, is “a friend of the New.”

“Open House” is this edition’s theme. Well, it’s not solely a theme but a glimpse into the processes involved in art-making; an opening into an artist’s usually well-guarded conceptual domicile, his or her residential praxis. An attitude, a state of mind.

We journalists are informed that “Open House” stems from the Singaporean custom “where people open their houses to others during festive occasions in a gesture of hospitality, goodwill and as an opportunity to reflect, negotiate and exchange.”

Artistic director Matthew Ngui says that when he met with curators Russell Storer and Trevor Smith, they agreed that they wanted to get into the core ideas each individual artist has and how that artist develops his or her work.

“We try to look at the (idiosyncrasies) of each venue, and (thought of ways on) how to communicate the varieties of artistic processes, the core values,” explains Ngui, the first Singaporean artistic director for the Singapore Biennale. Take the artworks on view at the historic airport, for example. He stresses that most of them deal with travel, movement and flow of materials. All about crossing thresholds, traipsing between cultures. “The artworks should resonate within each venue.”

Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui agrees. “We are very happy at the level of attempt to engage audiences. Engagement is very important to us as organizer.”

For one, the idea was to put educational captions for each of the artworks on view. Tan expounds, “We felt this is very important in making art accessible (to the public), because for many Singaporean audiences the Biennale will be the first time they will encounter contemporary art. So we want people to be able to engage in the artworks, to be able to have a personal encounter of sorts with contemporary art. We believe this is what the biennale should be.”

The 2011 Singapore Biennale also boasts a yearlong outreach program involving 3,000 students from over 40 primary and secondary schools wherein the youth were encouraged to draw their self-portraits but without drawing out their own faces. The project is called “Self-Portrait, Our Landscape.” 

Ticking away the moments: An installation of 39 metronomes by Martin Creed at the Old Kallang Airport

For this biennale, as well as for SAM in the long term, the participation of young people in the arts is key.

Ngui, who is the overseer of the self-portrait project, adds, “It’s also very important that local biennale refer to the country of its origin, as well as use spaces that are in transition.” Much like Singapore itself.

For Russell Storer from the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, it is essential for the artists to make a deeper connection to the city, not just make facile comments. Thus, the organizers have commissioned site-specific installations to allow the blossoming of local stories, histories. “We want artist to do very ambitious projects, to push their practice in ways they might not have been able to before.”

Trevor Smith from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, says that since the biennale focuses on artistic processes, the act of making things, and our relationship to objects, it brings us to the question of labor. “It’s about work or the act of making objects — not just to make money — but about creating meaning and exchange ideas. (When people enter the exhibition spaces,) we don’t want them to check in their experiences at the door, we want them to think about their experiences in their apartment building or malls and markets.”

In giving flesh to the idea of meditating on “labor and material,” some went the literal route.

At the SAM at 8Q space, Ceal Floyer from Pakistan presented a gallery room that seems to be empty, all white and object-less, save for the sound of piped-in construction noises — jackhammer riffs, percussive hammers. Art critics and academicians will be salivating at the idea of an artist presenting art but without any visible artwork, just the pure sound of someone making something (or something to that effect). They could write a chockfull of texts about it, loving beyond what is there (or not there). But many casual onlookers will be baffled by all this nothingness; they will deem it the emperor’s new installation and make a crack about the inaccessibility of it all.

Michael Beutler from Germany filled his huge space at the Old Kallang Airport with monolithic cylinders of white construction materials (mesh fence, paper, wire). There had been much ado about the renovations, the reconstruction work at the historic civil airport; this guy brings everything back in.

Money, get away: On obsolete bank note in traditional Suzhou embroidery by Shao Yinong and Muchen at the National Museum of Singapore

Another artist, a senior one from New York, put up a public garden at the Old Kallang Airport accompanied by a sinuous, sleep-inducing keynote lecture. “I see the garden,” smirked a journalist from Jakarta, “but where’s the art?”

What the bleep, Charlie, what the bleep!

But that’s contemporary art for you: polarizing, intriguing, a bit arcane, something that lets a thousand debates blossom in its wake.

Turner prizewinner Martin Creed (sample work: lights being turned on and off in a gallery; another sample work: athletes running around Tate Modern) has two very strong works at the biennale (just forget his two stacked televisions showing a duet of docking ships; Singaport, get it?). The aforementioned “Work 112 – 39 Metronomes Beating Time, One at every Speed” is one of them, a work that is both mesmeric and menacing — almost clownish, modern Dadaist, prankster-like, done in order to evoke feelings. The constant clack can drive one into the gates of delirium.

Creed’s “Don’t Worry” sign in neon, I found a bit contrived at first. So very late ’80s, early ’90s. But the longer I mulled over it, the more disconcerting it became. Less optimistic, and more ominous. One journalist from Toronto remarked, “Maybe some days the ‘Don’t’ sign doesn’t light up. And it just says ‘Worry’!” 

Another worrying image is from a 20-minute film by Superflex from Denmark that shows a flooded McDonald’s — replicas of plastic cups, food trays and Ronald McDonald all afloat. Unnervingly, albeit non-deliberately, prophetic, considering the catastrophe that beset Japan.

You can check in anytime you like: An installation view of Simon Fujiwara’s “Welcome to the Hotel Munber” at SAM

Julian Göthe’s “postfunctional” sculptures or “perverse furniture” are jarring (sort of like chess pieces from an LSD-induced dream). Teppei Kaneuji’s “White Discharge” series is characterized by dripped layers of white polyester resin onto his constructions, suggestive of a voiding out, of some mysterious eradication. A work by Phil Collins (no, no, not the guy who sang Sussudio) on Malaysian skinheads is quite an eye-opener. Simon Fujiwara’s “Welcome to the Hotel Munber” was inspired by a hotel and bar that his parents ran in Spain during the Franco dictatorship. Speaking of memory motels… Tatzu Nishi built a temporary luxury hotel around the Merlion (almost the same with what he did with Queen Victoria’s statue in Liverpool and Basel’s bronze angel); thus, a person could check in at “The Merlion Hotel” — with all the five-star hotel amenities (a bathroom, a balcony, a butler) and then some — and sleep with an icon for 150 Singaporean dollars (P5,000 and change).

The Merlion Hotel is what sums up the “Open House” theme the best. Imagining the powers-that-be allowing an artist (a foreign one at that) to build an installation around the Merlion itself is a bit astonishing. There is a blurring away of distinctions between public and private, inside and outside, artistry and gimmickry, artwork and audience, the arcane and the accessible, what’s open and what’s closed.

Here’s the thing: As you lie in bed with the Merlion rising atop your headboard, the bright lights of the Lion City kept outside yet seeping through the windows — you, my friend, are living inside a work of art.

This is art and you are home.

* * *

The 2011 Singapore Biennale runs until May 15. Special thanks to friends from the Singapore Art Museum; Philip Francis, Sophia Loke and Ning Chong of the National Arts Council; Vivian Quek and Elaine Chua of Fulford Public Relations; and Yussoff Mahmood of the Singapore Tourism Board.








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