ARTS Michael Lee’s Ofﬁce Orchitect. Evidence Locker by Jill Magid (right).
The more subtle The Meaning of Style by Phil Collins (far right).
Third Singapore Biennale:
Open House in a Not-So-Open Society Roy Voragen*
HE theme of the Singapore Biennale (SB2011) was ‘Open House’ (as celebrated by many during Chinese New Year or at the end of the Ramadan fasting month). This theme comes with an ironic twist: Singapore is not exactly an open society. Can art open up and lay bare the contradictions of Singapore? Open House sought to interpret art in terms of everyday urban life, and it questioned how we move across borders—of the private and public sphere— and form connections with others and their views. But why should there be a biennale in Singapore in the fi rst place? Biennales are mushrooming around the globe (those in Jakarta are marred by financial, organizational and religious problems—in 2005, the FPI took a sinister interest in the joint work of Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar). In a press release, the organizers stated that the goal was to enhance “Singapore’s international profi le as a vibrant city in which to live, work and play.” This means that the biennale is part of 64 | TEMPO MAY 24, 2011
the branding of a city: art as a tool to soften Singapore’s image to compete with other global cities. However, Singaporeans and tourists I spoke with had no clue about the biennale. The Formula 1 racing event seemed more enticing (and louder) than art. For the duration of the Singapore Biennale, Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi constructed a hotel around the Merlion statue at Marina Bay. During the day it is open to visitors, and for the night, a room can be booked for S$150. As Marina Bay is a very touristic area, many who visited the Merlion Hotel just happened to be in the vicinity and had no clue about the biennale. They loved the hotel: patiently waiting for their turn to enter. Before entering, they hastily kicked off their shoes and as good tourists took pictures of each other, especially next to the Merlion’s head hovering above the king-size bed. Mayo Martin, the art critic of Singapore’s daily Today, spent a night in this makeshift luxury hotel, where he felt watched, even though he did not detect any CCTV. He concluded this was a good metaphor of Singapore. American artist Jill Magid took a dif-
ferent, less paranoid stand on surveillance technology. She sought to seduce the system, wanting to enter the system by fi nding its loophole. Magid penetrates seemingly closed systems to get intimate with these systems and in the process, technology is subverted by sensuality. A system of surveillance is turned into self-surveillance so the system works as a mirror to create herself. For Magid, art is exactly this process of seduction. She said: “I seduce systems of power to make them work with me,” and in the process there is mutual change. At the biennale, several of Magid’s works were displayed, some of these were commissioned for the 2004 Liverpool Biennale. In Liverpool, at the time, there were 242 CCTV cameras. Normally, footage is destroyed after 31 days; however, the Data Protection Act which the UK enacted in 1998, allows one to submit a so-called Subject Access Request Form and, if approved, footage will be saved for seven years in an evidence locker. Magid stayed for a month in Liverpool, where she submitted 31 request forms, which read like intimate love letters. Along the way a mu-
tual bond of trust was created, most poetically visualized in Final Tour. On the last day of her stay, she toured around Liverpool on the back of a motorbike driven by one of the observers. Magid’s work was intriguing, but it also raises questions. The most obvious question is, of course, whether this kind of work could have been made in Singapore—where surveillance cameras are ubiquitous—which seems extremely unlikely. Another matter is our position—she calls us the ‘third party witness’—and we are put in a passive, voyeuristic relationship. She invites us, though, to seduce the system ourselves. However, wouldn’t the Data Protection Act be jeopardized if we, en masse, started to submit request forms? Moreover, wouldn’t the public sphere as a democratic space become impossible if we en masse bring our most intimate selves into this space? American sociologist Richard Sennett warned in his book The Fall of Public Man of the tyranny of authentic intimacy. South African Candice Breitz took up the question of what drives individuation. In Toronto she filmed interviews with seven sets of twins and one triplet. The title of her captivating work, Factum, is taken after two near-identical paintings by Robert Rauchenberg: Factum I and II. The interviews show how individuals struggle to be different and to be considered an individual while someone with identical genetic codes is proximate. Breitz explains this with a Thai expression: “Same, same, but different.” The indigenous Australian artist Tracey Moffatt connects this question of identity with power. Her video Other was a collage of all the colonialist clichés in Hollywood movies: the indigenous Other is assumed to hold the secret to erotic pleasure and unlocking this secret will lead to greater power (already criticized by Edward Said in his book Orientalism). And fitting a Hollywood produc-
tion, Moffatt’s video ends with a cosmic ejaculation. More subtle were the video works by Phil Collins and Tan Pin Pin. Briton Collins follows a group of Malaysian skinheads in the video The Meaning of Style. I watched it three times in awe. The slow-paced, lyrical video plays on and then sublimates our prejudices of skinheads. The Impossibility of Knowing, a video by Singaporean Tan Pin Pin, was also a very subtle work. It touches upon the impossibility of giving meaning to death. While a narrator gave us the dry facts of some deadly accidents around Singapore, the camera panned solemnly through the landscape—looking for clues, and not finding any. Like Magid, Singaporean Michael Lee’s work Office Orchitect investigates the relationship between space and desire. For this work, Lee invented the fictional architect KS Wong. Lee presents models of several of Wong’s designs, one more outlandish than the other. Lee says: “When objects and spaces lose their utilitarian functions, their aesthetic ones come to the foreground.” And in so doing, Lee tries to imagine a different Singapore. However, Lee calls Wong “anally rigorous”; how can a person who is excessively orderly and fussy imagine an alternative for the excessively ordered Singapore? The great thing about visiting an art exhibition that is not in a museum or gallery specifically designed for art but in an abandoned building, is that our senses are opened up to the poetry of the unexpected. One of the venues of SB2011 is the old Kallang airport. In a hangar stood the installation the Deutsche Scheune/German Barn by Scandinavian artists Elmgreen and Dragset. I walked around their installation (the bit-too-neat barn is lifesize) when something in the far end of the hangar caught my eye. Most likely this was not an artwork in any traditional sense, but it reminded me of what Mi-
chel Foucault wrote: “Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?” This aesthetic question is, of course, also a political matter. An abandoned building also offers freedom to artists. Polish artist Gosia Wlodarczak made eerie drawings on windows (frost drawings), another artist scribbled on the walls of the staircase of the old airport, for example: “the act of seeing with one’s own eye.” This text is a reference to a movie by avant-garde fi lmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) and it is a literal translation of ‘autopsy.’ The scribble is part of a work by Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov. However, he himself never came to Singapore, being mortally afraid of flying. He invited Singaporean fi lmmaker and artist Liao Jiekai to Sofia and on his return he created the work for Solakov. The only Indonesian contribution to the biennale was by the Jakarta-based artist collective ruang rupa: Singapore Fiction. But at the Singapore Art Museum, one of the venues, two parallel exhibitions can be visited: It’s Now or never II, New Contemporary Art Acquisitions from Southeast Asia and Negotiating Home, History and Nation, Two Decades of Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011. Many of the big names of the Indonesian contemporary art scene were present at these two parallel events, and hopefully, one day, these artworks will be shown again in Indonesia. From the fi rst Singapore Biennale, in 2006, I only recall vividly one artwork: the sublime painting The heart is a lonely painter by Thai artist Chatchai Puipia. There is only so much art we can absorb. Artists raise questions. We art lovers add even more questions. *The writer is a Bandung-based academic and writer. He can be contacted at fatumbrutum.blogspot.com MAY 24, 2011 TEMPO | 65