Cool Factor


Left: Singapore Biennale curators Trevor Smith and Russell Storer. Right: Artists Candice Breitz and Ming Wong. (All photos: Brian Droitcour)

MARTHA ROSLER KICKED OFF the events program of the Third Singapore Biennale by denouncing biennials. Not a novel activity, of course, but her keynote lecture at the Singapore Art Museum last Saturday was the most cogent censure I’ve heard, with a deft demonstration of the links between municipal policies of gentrification and the imperialist cultural movement of ideas from center to periphery. Rosler also spoke of the community garden she initiated this year at the Old Kallang Airport—built in the 1930s, decommissioned in the 1950s, now the main venue of the Singapore Biennale and a prospective site for luxury hotels or condos. Rosler’s garden reworked her proposal for a park at a Helsinki business school (omitting a video based on Profit—a monument on the Finnish campus depicting predatory birds fighting over a fish—that animated the beasts in “a range of possible roles of cooperation and exchange”). In Singapore, she said, the project “opened the biennial problem as a visible wound” and revealed the “continued suppression of the local in the face of performance of the global.” Russell Storer, the biennial’s cocurator, with Trevor Smith, said it left him feeling “hideous.” But he looked happy.

Downstairs, architect Tatzu Nishi discussed his biennial project Merlion Hotel, a rentable room on downtown Singapore’s waterfront that he built around an eponymous lion-headed, fish-bodied statue (a tourism landmark that was invented to cover the absence of suitable local legends). Nishi showed slides of his other projects that turned monumental sculpture into interior decor: a living room perched atop a German church that made a coffee-table knickknack of its patinated angel; a hotel room that encased a monument to Queen Victoria in Liverpool’s Derby Square, an area that, the architect noted, had been overrun by “junkies and homeless people.” After Rosler, it was tempting to read these projects as glib and literal renderings of the privatization of public space. But Nishi’s manner was so effusive, and the work so strange, I felt persuaded (again) that in the kind of transformations of cityscapes effected by biennials, neoliberal imperialism is a tertiary meaning, at best.

Left: Artists Simon Fujiwara and Ingar Dragset. Right: Artist Martha Rosler.

It was early afternoon on my third day in Singapore and I marveled at my alertness. I hadn’t slept since 11 PM the night before, when I awoke, seven hours after lying down for a power nap, to find myself three hours late for the biennial reception at Nishi’s Merlion Hotel. Everyone was quick to assure me I hadn’t missed anything special, reporting a bar menu of Orange Crush and bitter wine. But after a Friday spent yawning at people, I would rather have not spent Saturday’s small hours yawning into my pillow. Or visiting a twenty-four-hour food court for an anesthetic beer and watching the other patrons doze at their tables. Or staring at an unintelligible Australian cowgirl soap, pretending the Vietnamese subtitles helped me understand it. Or pondering why none of the works I’d seen at Friday’s press preview of the Old Kallang Airport were adequate to this experience of jet lag. There had been a magnetic Phil Collins video about Malay skinheads, Mike Nelson’s splintered plinths fabricated from planks that had boarded up the airport, and Arin Rungjang’s room of IKEA products that Thai construction workers were invited to swap with their own home furnishings. There was also Ming Wong’s remake of a Pasolini film with himself in all the roles, and Michael Lin’s neatly shelved hardware-store items and videos of them being juggled. The art shared a languorous mood—swelled, perhaps, by the muggy air uniting the airport’s interior and exterior through open doors and windows—and palettes matching the pastel plasters common in young Southern cities like Singapore.

While the airport site was “about” travel and Merlion Hotel “about” tourism, the art museum’s contemporary annex—where artists got separate rooms, connected by a corridor—was meant to evoke domestic life in Singapore’s public housing, while works in the museum of national history addressed the city and the marketplace. The National Museum is small (Singapore’s history is short), but I still got lost trying to find the biennial galleries when I went there Saturday afternoon and ended up in the permanent exhibition, on a sloping catwalk in a vertical tube tiled with screens showing fast-moving urban scenes: traffic, a marathon, Muslims bowing in prayer, shopkeepers stocking their shelves. “Sinnnngapoooore,” a chorus chanted on the sound track.

Left: Merlion Hotel. Right: Artist Lisi Raskin with Singapore Biennale artistic director Matthew Ngui.

Finally, I caught up with Trevor Smith’s tour at the exuberant display of colored-chalk wall drawings, souvenirs, handwritten stories, and press clippings that were the culmination of Jakarta collective ruangrupa’s research of Singaporean life. I thought of a cultural functionary’s announcement at breakfast that CNN’s travel site had named Singaporeans the second-coolest people in the world; ruangrupa offered more evidence for this conclusion than the Koyaanisqatsi airline commercial upstairs. But who knows what makes something cool to CNN?

That night I returned to Kallang Airport for the biennial’s public opening. An Australian emcee who pronounced “biennale” as “banally” announced the arrival of Singapore’s communications minister. Lui Tuck Yew took the stage as a fanfare boomed from the speaker and rows of uniformed schoolgirls and their parents rose to applaud him. “His Excellency” said some words about the importance of “placing Singaporean artists in an international context” and “fostering connections with the larger art world.”

The subsequent party was concentrated in the VIP tent, behind the big one where the speeches had been given and opposite the hangar that housed Elmgreen & Dragset’s German Barn, where local boys in brief lederhosen lolled in the hay. Though the event was billed to last “til late,” the Singaporean crowd seemed to have departed after the ceremony. I didn’t linger for DJ KFC’s set for the dance party, either, though I did hear performances by two cover bands, one with a repertoire of pop standards by Madonna and Michael Jackson, the other, Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. The latter was good, so I took a seat with the dozen other people among the few hundred folding chairs. As I listened, I tried to recall similar entertainment at other art festivals, but came up blank. Here, one form of cultural karaoke enveloped another in a way unthinkable back home in the “center.” “No alarms and no surprises,” wailed the woman with the cherry-red guitar. Where was Phil Collins?

Brian Droitcour

Left: ruangrupa. Right: Models in Elmgreen & Dragset's German Barn.