Culture | Reflections on identity and history at Singapore Biennale
Deng Guoyuan_Noah’s Garden II at Singapore Biennale 2016 Photo:  Singapore Art Museum
Deng Guoyuan_Noah’s Garden II at Singapore Biennale 2016 Photo: Singapore Art Museum

Shared histories

More than 60 artists across Asia explore shared histories, how nations view themselves and each other at the Singapore Biennale

February 23, 2017 11:36 AM (UTC+8)

Encouraging people to be more open to alternative perspectives is one of the key themes behind the Singapore Biennale 2016, where the works of 60 artists will inspire an audience to question their own views.

Led by artistic director Susie Lingham, the event organized by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and supported by the city-states government is named An Atlas of Mirrors and features more than 60 artists across Asia.

With a focus on the shared histories of Asian countries and how these nations viewed themselves and each other, it hopes that audiences can gain different perspectives in an uncertain year following the US elections.

“I think sometimes there’s a lot of misunderstanding as we just see things from our perspective,” said Joyce Toh, one of the key curators for the Biennale and a Curatorial Co-head at SAM.

“But what art does, and a lot of art does, is to help us see things from someone else’s perspective,” she said.

She points to the works by Phillippine artist Dex Fernandez. Called I Wander, I Wonder, the piece consists of four paintings that explore why people keep certain items. One painting is based on what the survivors of Tacloban kept following the destruction by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Dex Fernandez_I Wander, I Wonder, 2016_Image Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum_1
I Wander, I Wonder by Dex Fernandez. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

“They were useless objects,” said Toh, explaining how Fernandez found that the survivors kept items that were of little practical or monetary worth They held on to these item because of the sentimental value they rerpresented, even though they had lost all their belongings.

“If you have a little memento, it’s actually useless but it’s precious to you,” said Toh.

The work not only challenges the notion that survivors of a disaster will keep belongings of monetary value, but also points to the need to empathize with the survivor’s perspective, even if it clashes with our notion of what is “important,” Toh added.

Art is accessible

Continuing its tradition since 2011 of giving prominence to Southeast Asian art, the Biennale is separated into nine conceptual zones, touching on themes such as alternative histories, mapping and navigation, shared history among Asian societies and the connections and relationships among Asian countries.

The broad multiple themes are a reflection of the curatorial process undertaken by the nine-member team, which includes curators from SAM and independent curators from countries such as China, India and Malaysia.

When asked whether the themes might be too dense, Toh says otherwise “the thing about the Southeast Asian pieces is that they use a lot of materials that are familiar to us [Southeast Asians]. You can at least say what the material is about.”

Toh points to Balinese artist Made Dirjna’s Beyond Boundaries installation that consists of thousands of clay figurines and an antique wooden boat that aims to show the symbolic journey of the Indonesia archipelago and the world.

Made Djirna_Melampaui Batas (Beyond Boundaries)_ Singapore Biennale
Made Djirna’s Melampaui Batas (Beyond Boundaries). Photo: Singapore Art Museum

“Even if there is no one to explain the artwork to you, you can still relate,” said Toh in reference to the figures made of clay, a common material in Southeast Asia.

Of materials and things

In the artwork of Fyerool Darma, however, the medium can also be used as a form of commentary or criticism. His work, The Most Mild Mannered Men, is of two busts of plaster that invite audiences to imagine the dialogue between Sir Stamford Raffles and Sultan Hussein Mua’zzam Shah, the men who signed the treaties that led to the founding of Singapore.

For Singapore Art Museum
Fyerool Darma’s The Most Mild Mannered Men. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

“I wanted to symbolize industrialization and plaster is one of the lowest quality [of materials], the medium itself hence is a critic of the entire work,” said Darma, a Singaporean artist who is showing his work at the Biennale for the first time. He is part of a growing movement of Singaporean artists concerned with forgotten histories.

His pieces also aim to “explore a narrative that was not discussed” and also show how history has been written by the “dominant” in society, Darma said. In his piece, the absence of a bust of Sultan Hussein Mua’zzam Shah is in stark contrast to the full headed bust of Raffles, which reflects how historical figures are now “forgotten.” It is also worth noting that there are no known records of how Sultan Hussein Mua’zzam Shah looked.

Zones and borders

The biennale’s use of conceptual zones groups works together that focus on particular themes, strengthening the relationship between the works. Darma’s sculptures belong in a zone entitled, A Presence Pasts, is centered on “colonial legacies, beliefs and collective memory.”

In the Share of Borders zone, exploring borders and displacement of people, we find works that have relevance to the contemporary situation in Southeast Asia.

“The works talk about borders and we see a huge refugee crisis with the Rohingya, a refugee crisis that never seems to stop where people are forced out from their homes,” said Toh.

Witness to Paradise 2016 is a collection of works by Indian artists on the Kashmir situation. And in Land of the Undefined Territory, a series of photographs by Bangladeshi artist Munem Wasif, is a thoughtful reflection on the border between India and Bangladesh that might invoke some deep questioning.

Munem Wasif_Land of Undefined Territory_2014–2015_Image Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum_4
Munem Wasif’s Land of Undefined Territory. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

“It’s all just rocks and it’s nice and beautiful,” said Toh on the Land of the Undefined Territory. “Until you realize that it’s actually a place where a lot of wars have been fought where blood has been spilled for these and people have died. And it’s just all for these – these rocky lands.”

The fifth edition of the biennale closes on February 26.

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