The Singapore Biennale 2013, titled ‘If the World Changed’, invited artists and audiences to reflect on the possibilities of both real-world and hypothetical change. The theme also inflected the exhibition’s unusual curatorial structure, which drew on 27 cura- tors from across Southeast Asia to select 82 artists and collectives working primarily in the region. This tight geographical focus – reflecting the intentions of the organizer, the Singapore Art Museum, to become a hub for Southeast Asian art – sought to demonstrate the complexity and diversity of the region’s cultures. Yet it resulted in a series of museum shows more than a biennial, unable to move beyond the limitations of the former in terms of its displays. Coupled with the challenge of harnessing multiple curatorial voices, ‘If the World Changed’ struggled to cohere, despite several thought-provoking responses to the theme.
One issue raised by the title was what ‘the world’ could actually be or mean, and a number of artists chose to highlight this conceptual incommensurability. The Rise and Fall of 1°17’N 103°50’E, 1°5’0”S 75°55’0”W – A Circular Journey (2013), a video installation by Singaporean artist Sai Hua Kuan, charted the sunrise and sunset on exact opposite ends of the equator – Singapore and theYasuni National Park in Ecuador. Viewers were left to navigate the vast space between these two locations. Toni Kanwa’s Cosmology of Life (2013) evoked a similar sense of difficult-to-comprehend scale, comprising dozens of miniature hand-carved wooden sculptures arranged in a micro-cosmos.
Other works centred on how visions of the world are shaped by personal and collective views – a particularly pertinent perspective in the context of the biennial’s geographic focus. Into the Sea (2011), a three-channel video by the Le Brothers, referred to the history of the Nhat Le Riverin Vietnam as a site of conflict between the Kingdom of Champa and the Trinh and Nguyen dynasties, using it as a metaphor for the ongoing cultural divide between north and south Vietnam. In the video, the river is a backdrop to a series of competitive actions performed by the brothers, including vigorously binding and wrestling each other to the ground. The work creates an interesting tension between a region trapped within its own worldview and one capable of speaking of conflicts beyond it.
Anxiety over urbanization was a common thread amongst many works, which was unsurprising given the recent rapid economic growth in many Southeast Asian countries. Referencing the chronic problem of waste management in his native Manila, Oscar Villamiel’s Payatas (2013) excavated thousands of discarded dolls from a local landfill to create an immersive and probing installation. Villamiel’s implicit doubt about the efficiency of local governments in sparked a further questioning of governments’ roles in enforcing social and political change. Recalling the tragic effects of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, Tracing Aihwa Ong’s ‘Buddha is Hiding’ (2013) by Thai artist Dusadee Huntrakul featured pages from anthropologist Ong’s ethnographic study of Cambodian immigration to the West. Meticulously hand-drawn, Huntrakul’s version of the text poignantly expresses humanity’s desire to re-write the traumas of the past.
These approaches stood in stark contrast to the constant change that characterizes the biennial’s host city. Singapore’s relentless pursuit of social and economic progress has often led to the destruction of its cultural heritage. Local artist Urich Lau’s The End of Art Report (2013) playfully interrogated this tendency through a series of news forecasts depicting the shutdown of three major local cultural institutions. Positioned in the foyer of the Singapore Art Museum, The End of Art Report flipped the question of ‘change’ back onto the biennial itself, as if fulfilling its titular prophecy.
More socially engaged projects, however, struggled to communicate their original agency, a situation that was exacerbated by the concentration of the biennial’s presentation within or nearby heritage institutions. Lumbung Ilmu (Granary of Knowledge, 2005) by Bandung-based artist Rosid, for instance, looked more like an object of cultural curiosity than a multi-purpose community platform, unable to avoid its connotations with similar ‘ethnographic’ objects in the National Museum next door. The AX(iS) Art Project’s installation Tiw-tiwong: The Odds to Unends (2013) circumvented similar hurdles by infusing descriptions of its projects andworks with personal anecdotes. Paying homage to the DIY and indigenous culture of the Cordilleras region in the Philippines, the project demonstrated a certain scepticism of art institutions all too ready to draw on authentic ‘cultural capital’ for their own ends.
Such scepticism on the part of the participating artists may strike a nerve among the organizers of this year’s biennial, who could be accused of their own form of cultural capitalism by positioning Southeast Asia as their cultural niche. In an increasingly networked world, it seems regressive, if not parochial to restrict the reach of a biennial to a single region. Such a restriction risks defining artists in regional terms, rather than as valid contributors to global culture. This, and the organizers’ references to ‘world change’ created an uneven sense of scale and purpose. There was also a perceptible confusion in the biennial’s curatorial vision, reflected in the curious selection of ‘keywords’ used to connect projects in specific locations. Words like ‘histories’, ‘intervention’ and ‘nature’ were simply too generic, serving only to underline the curators’ inability to present a coherently incisive perspective. Any such interpretation was instead left to individual artists to convey; their overall response to ‘If the World Changed’ seeming to be, ‘If only’.