SINGAPORE BIENNALE 2011: Open Houseby Sherman Sam
MARCH 13 – MAY 15, 2011
SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM AND SAM AT 8Q
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SINGAPORE
OLD KALLANG AIRPORT
THE MERLION PARK AT MARINA BAY
Quite unlike the Whitney Biennial, the Tate Triennial, or the British Art show (a quinquennale), which are summations of a moment in a specific place, most biennials—Venice aside—are dialogues or contrasts between the local and the international. They bring a certain international scene to a specific place, but also match and contrast the local and the foreign. This third edition of the Singapore Biennale is no different.
One such contrast can be found between Briton Mike Nelson’s sculptures and the Singaporean Tan Pin Pin’s short films—two stand-out participants in this exhibition. Nelson’s contribution is a 2008 sculptural installation, while Tan has organized a mini-survey of her films to go with a new Biennale commission.
Nelson’s “Le Cannibale (parody, consumption and institutional critique)” is a field of 41 white, wooden, or chipboard plinths, varying in scale, that appear to have been smashed and desecrated. Laid out in an unruly grid in an old, disused airport building (the largest of the four venues), Nelson’s sculpture recalls Brancusi and Judd, but gone lo-fi and apocalyptic.
Representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale, Nelson is renowned for his intense and eerie labyrinthine installations. His work often seems inspired by an unknowable and intense quasi-fiction better experienced first-hand. The suspenseful spaces he creates seem to have a stalled narrative. Films and books tend to provide the springboards for his febrile imagination, and Nelson’s best efforts have a dizzying quality of being lost in a mad mind. As its title suggests “La Cannibale” is cannibalized from a previous work in which Nelson demolished parts of the (false) walls of the Hayward Gallery in London with a hand axe for the 2008 Psycho Buildings exhibition. This work, “To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft”(1999, 2008), is itself a recreation of a commission for the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh in 1999. The impression created was that of a giant creature clawing at the walls. Likewise, his plinths possess an attacked feel, and a ghostly quality, as if haunting Minimalism.
Tan’s short films sit on a fence between documentary and art. For me, her most successful works are clever montages of documentary footage that are at once sly criticism and homage. “9th August”(2008), for example, is a simple seven-minute montage of National Day (Singaporean Independence day) celebrations. Originally commissioned by a local history museum, presidents and prime ministers, past and present, stand up as kitschy floats drive by, as well as military pageants parading their wares and starchy uniforms. The repetition of kitsch and the silliness involved in such events come to the fore when viewed en masse, as does their role in creating identity for a young country. Two newer works, “The Impossibility of Knowing”(2010) and “Snow City” (2011), are composed of newly filmed material, the former showing peaceful spaces around the country for which a voiceover exposes the tragedies that have occurred there—a documentary ghost story perhaps. The latter is a strange collection of scenes, an opening of a public attraction complete with politicians, the beach or river delta, office workers at work and lunch, polar bears at the zoo, and office buildings. It ends with scenes from Snow City, a local attraction that brings winter to the tropics. Such are the absurd faces of modern life, fostering awareness of the strange quality in our existence. Tan has described this beguiling work as a result of “fiddling” with her extensive collection of local footage.
The theme for this biennale is “open house,” an idea of welcome and hospitality that one finds in most Asian societies, and like most biennales the theme is open enough (no pun) to accommodate a range of art works, approaches, and thinking. Unlike the first two, this third Biennale is under the directorship of a local artist, Matthew Ngui, aided by Australian curator Russell Storer and Canadian-American curator, Trevor Smith. What is most successful about this particular showcase is its relatively compact nature. Situated in three locations, with a fourth major intervention at the Merlion Park, and composed of a mere 63 artists, it is relatively easy to negotiate, heat permitting. And with a majority of artists veering towards mid-career, it reflects the youthful nature of the curators.
For myself, the real discovery was the witty assemblage of the Australian, Stuart Ringholt. A performer and interventionist, part of his contribution was a room full of small sculptures made from junk. Aerosol and soda cans, cut-up chairs (the largest pieces) and plastic toys were recombined to form odd and pointless but funny objects. Collectively named “Low Sculpture,” these tiny, colorful assemblages had the feel of cheap poetry in a country of economic pragmatism. Biennials tend to be bling-bling affairs with hyperbolic art extravaganzas, Ringholt’s room seems to work in the opposite direction.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.