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Sunday March 20, 2011

Thought-provoking art at exhibition

The third incarnation of an exhibition that is fast growing in regional importance supplies much food for thought and conversation – some of it of a perplexed nature.

THOSE of us who have attended an open house know that it can easily go two ways. The successful ones are entertaining, memorable affairs during which you are delighted by both the excellent company and the array of delights. The flip side of that, however, is when you find yourself bored or simply unimpressed. But of course, either way, you are left with something to talk about.

Which is exactly why the theme “Open House” seems so fitting for the Singapore Biennale 2011, the island state’s biggest contemporary art festival, which opened on Monday (it continues until May). Contemporary art, too, can go both ways: when it hits the mark, a piece can be exciting and thought-provoking; when it doesn’t, it could well leave people saying, “That’s supposed to be art?”

Bringing together 63 artists from 30 countries, the Singapore Biennale exhibitions seem to mirror both extremes of the open house experience, with many truly engaging and thought-provoking pieces and some others that simply fall flat for this writer. But whether you loved some, hated some or were just puzzled by others, there is definitely much to inspire conversation – and what is art if not to inspire discussion?

Stored in a Jar: Monsoon, Drowning Fish, Colour of Water and the Floating World by Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung rethinks urban planning by suggesting a floating city. – Photos courtesy of the Singapore Art Museum

There is, however, another important element in any open house: the host and their efforts at giving their guests the best experience. And in the case of the Singapore Biennale, one can’t help but be impressed and encouraged by the importance given to art by the Singaporean Government, which has poured in S$6mil (RM14.3mil) to make this event come alive. First mooted in 2006 as a means of positioning the Lion City as an international centre for visual arts, the Singapore Biennale 2011 is organised by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) of the Singapore National Heritage Board and supported by the National Arts Council.

This third incarnation of the exhibition presents a total of 161 works across four exhibition venues, namely, the SAM and SAM at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore, and the Old Kallang Airport, with an additional special installation project at Marina Bay.

The vernissage (preview) held last weekend gave members of the international media a valuable opportunity to speak to both the curators and artists about not only the works on display but also the process of putting together the event.

The Open House theme, inspired by the tradition in Malaysia and Singapore of opening up homes to friends during festivities, aims to examine the ways in which boundaries between the public and private can be made permeable. By negotiating psychological, social or political boundaries, the works on display suggest fresh ways of seeing and connecting with the world.

Open House further highlights artistic processes and their links with daily, seemingly-mundane transactions and encounters. With 34 artists presenting specially commissioned, site-specific pieces – the highest proportion to date – the works also ruminate on Singapore itself, and offer multiple perspectives on the ultra-modern, multicultural city state.

The festival also has the largest Asian representation to date, with 27 of the artists hailing from various parts of Asia, including two from Malaysia.

Speaking at a press conference, artistic director Matthew Ngui stressed that this Singapore Biennale aims to focus not just on the art, but also on the creative process.

“We wanted to get to the core of the works and how they develop them. We’ve tried to look at the venues as a way to communicate the artistic process to the public; the idea is to make the artworks resonate with the venues,” explained the visual artist, who divides his time between Singapore and Australia.

Curator Russell Storer, who is the head of Asian and Pacific Art at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, explained that commissioning new work was a big part of the exhibition’s aim.

“We invited artists to Singapore to connect with the city, to really stay and dig a little deeper. After all, the Singapore Biennale is not just about presenting work, but also producing it,” he said.

Fellow curator Trevor Smith agreed, adding that the exhibits explored the city not just in terms of lifestyle but also through the products and things that make up its daily experience.

“It’s about our relationship to objects, and the process of making meanings and ideas. We don’t want people to check their experiences at the door but rather, to think about their experiences in apartment buildings, malls and public spaces (while they’re experiencing the works),” said the inaugural curator of contemporary art from the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, United States.

As such, each exhibition venue draws on different emblematic spaces in Singapore. SAM and SAM at 8Q reflect the familiar Housing Development Board flats, while the National Museum of Singapore characterises shopping centres and night markets, and the Old Kallang Airport draws on international air and sea ports.

These ideas are further examined in a literally larger-than-life manner in an ambitious installation project by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi at Marina Bay. The Merlion Hotel comprises a luxurious temporary hotel room built surrounding the Merlion, Singapore’s iconic landmark. Open during the day for public viewing, the room will be available for a guest to check into every night.

By collapsing the boundaries between public and private space, and shifting our perspective of a national monument, Nishi’s work questions our relationship with symbols of national identity. Whether you see it as a bizarre gimmick or a bold statement, there is no doubt that The Merlion Hotel gets people talking about exactly those issues that are at the heart of this Open House.

> The ‘Singapore Biennale 2011’ is on from now till May 15, 10am to 7pm daily, at various venues in Singapore.

Tickets (inclusive of one-time entry to all venues, one complimentary ‘Short Guide’ and one-time free audio guide rental at all venues) are priced at S$10 (RM24) for adults and S$5 (RM12) for students and senior citizens. Tickets can be purchased at the venues: Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and SAM at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore, and Old Kallang Airport.

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