Singapore Biennale 2011 - General Overview

This is part one of a three-part post, consisting of my reviews of the 2011 Singapore Biennale written for Asian Art News. Note these are the unedited versions of those reviews, with related images - not taken from the edited and published versions in the magazine.
(also see: Part 2 and Part 3)

Island Experience
Two years has flown by since the last Singapore Biennale. This year, with the theme of Open House, Singapore hosted its third edition of the event, showing over sixty participating artists from 30 different countries, and delivering some educational information along the way.

It can be a bit of a mystery who or what Biennales are for. And also what they are about; despite never-ending forums, press conferences and tours intended to give them definition. Of course, biennales are for a number of people, for a number of reasons and they are about several things, especially the art. But still, when it is basically the same travelling crowd of visitors come to enjoy ourselves, only a slight variation from the group that descended onto the island for Art Stage a few months earlier (at least at art fairs it’s all about money), the inevitable question as to the point of it all arises.  Well, this year at the third Singapore Biennale, SB2011 (13 March to 15 May) the organisers’ purpose was admirably obvious: tourism.
The event’s theme of Open House and subsequent delivery on it so leaned toward a kind of national display of hospitality (with well-oiled  incorporation of markers of new and old Singapore) that no visitor could leave SB2011 without picking up a little cultural, historical and geographical overview of the host location. Whether this overshadowed the art on display or not is a matter of personal opinion and experiences, but it can be said with relief that the fine line was never so obviously crossed as to spoil the show. Instead, the result was a larger-than-life event that left few monuments untouched – the Merlion is in a Tatzu Nishi hotel room right now, for example – and that was thankfully not only about the art. No doubt, visiting members of the general public could therefore enjoy the art that much more.
The event was exhibited over four different venues. SAM, the National Museum, and Marina Bay were all polish and very impressive, and the World War II military air base Old Kallang Airport, proud with abandonment, provided a nice contrasting fourth site. The focus on ‘environment’ out there actually took pressure off the art and the display of it which it can be said was not super, at least not in time for the press preview.  Nevertheless, several of the pieces - among incredible concepts and exciting work from 63 participating artists (nine of whom were Singaporean) - made the event more than special. Visiting the installations and experiencing them in person by senselessly racing from one to the next, one realises that even just a single great work, one uplifting moment, would have done so (but that is beginning to question things again).  There was also a generous schedule of artist talks, always a privilege, and parallel events including the spectacular Negotiating Home, History & Nation: two decade of contemporary art in Southeast Asia 1991-2001 on show at SAM until 26 June. The museum, hosting SB2011 installations while showing major exhibitions and the genius items of the Made for SAM initiative, continues to impress as a top provider of quality art experiences and internationally recognised advocate for regional art.
According to the press release, supporting press conference and press tours, SB2011 was supposed to address artists and art practice while bringing the exhibition environment to life. At the conference Trevor Smith said the event this time was about “the relationship between private and public space” and Matthew Ngui said they were happy to show “works that have dealt with travel and intercultural exchange – with Singapore being one of the biggest air/sea ports.” Of the old Kallang Road airport, Russell Storer said on his curator-led tour, “We’ve tried to bring it back in a way to what it might have been when first built.” Leaving discussion of any successes or shortcomings aside, here are some outstanding individual art pieces hosted out at the old airport, the value of which - by being amongst so many, or by being so well produced - could easily be overlooked. If (in this race through) these happen to suggest a cohesive theme/artwork relationship at SB2011 then we can silently rejoice, or breathe a sigh of relief, at that bonus. 
Firstly, the video art of British artist Phil Collins, who lives and works in Berlin. Inspired by the 1992 film Romper Stomper, Collins’ commission for SB2011 buys the viewer a ticket to see the scary and beautiful skinhead subculture of Malaysia. Filmed in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, on 16mm, the work is in no way grittily shot, but rather is gently moving in its unexpected delivery of butterflies, ceramic bamboo, a beautiful soundtrack, and racial insecurity. Time spent in this exhibit is time well spent at SB2011 and indeed, in life.  
Ming Wong’s Devo partire. Domani (2010) is also a very strong video piece. Wong plays the characters in the 1968 classic film Teorema, creating a curious atmosphere for the viewer. The work is in pieces, shown in multiple screening rooms and thereby making use – and sense – of the given venue (a “labyrinth” of rooms in Russell Storer’s words) more than any other SB2011 piece. Well, besides Elmgreen + Dragset’s.  The famous pair, famous for Prada Marfa (2005) among other collaborations, put a barn in the Old Kallang Airport hangar. It is a work that warrants multiple visits to Singapore before the Biennale ends, for the viewers’ experience of the quality and happy genius of their installation, as well as exposure to that level of talent, can only be the same or better each time. 
Another work having nothing obvious to do with Singapore that (coincidentally or not) stands out, is that of Brisbane-based Robert Macpherson. The artist’s interest in painting done in the context of labour – painting houses, painting shop signs – and the tools used for it, led him to reproduce the type of hand-painted signage seen outside pubs and hotels in rural Australia, complete with incorrect spelling and apostrophes in the wrong places. The result brings the outback to Singapore, and the accidental glamour of that is very interesting because there’s certainly very little glamour where Macpherson’s ideas originate – really only hard work and survival.
From nearby New Zealand, Dane Mitchell made unusual use of his allocated area. He formed a rough dragon constellation (his Chinese zodiac sign according to the tour) with the type of metal partition than helps humans queue, and summoned spirits with the help of an energy worker. It is a creative concept that Mitchell’s space, or perhaps even the whole old airport, may now be inhabited by the unseen, who may or may not want visitors, which gives added meaning to the overall theme of Open House
Tied to the theme, the humble refrigerator got its fifteen minutes thanks to Roslisham Ismail (aka Ise), representing Malaysia at SAM at 8Q. As always with art by Ise, the audience can be drawn in by the humour of the work, and its lighthearted approach to the heaviness of the meaning of life (a happy attitude that could be said to accurately sum up the outlook of Malaysian people today). In the context of the Biennale, Ise’s arrangement of a circle of fridges and their respective contents become visual markers of the lives we lead and, with reference to Asian cultures in particular, a connection to family and identity.  Let it be broadcast here: you can touch the art to open the fridges.  Products that speak of contemporary society will be instantly recognisable to visitors, and their relationships to their originating culture are so glaringly obvious it is funny.  For Malaysians in particular there is a great deal of truth in Ise’s (indeed required) inclusion of ingredients such as udang kering, ikan bilis, and kankung. The implications are quite obvious but they are also strong, and the question of why they make us laugh is just one of many ideas the work brings to light.
In all of these exhibits the delivery of each message is playful enough to help us not take any meaning behind the Biennale too seriously this year. There was much to learn from them and the moments of easily accessible enlightenment they put on offer, and it was forward-thinking of Singapore to host their artists. In turn, it is these works and many others that, in ways other than intended by organizers perhaps, rendered SB2011 interesting, exciting, and a very important success.