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PRINT September 2006

International News

the Singapore, Shanghai, and Gwangju biennials

THE TITLES OF this year’s Singapore, Shanghai, and Gwangju biennials—“Belief,” “Hyper Design,” and “Fever Variations,” respectively—will to some no doubt seem typically Asian, their cumulative vocabulary evoking a millennial blend of futurism and age-old spiritualism. Regardless of whether the latter term will prove true to audiences’ experience of the shows—will we actually see ecstatic leaps of faith, for example, as opposed to the cool conceptualisms or political postures of many Western megashows?—the former quality seems assured by the jet-setting schedule of events alone. Art enthusiasts keen to immerse themselves in the Asian points of view (and who have the requisite stamina) can catch the openings of all three shows in a single week this month: Singapore’s inaugural event begins on September 4; the sixth Shanghai Biennial opens the next day; and the Gwangju Biennale, also presenting its sixth installment, commences September 8.

“Belief,” spearheaded by Fumio Nanjo (deputy director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo), with the assistance of curators Roger McDonald, Sharmini Pereira, and Eugene Tan, will be installed in nineteen used and disused venues across Singapore—ranging from mosques, churches, and temples to the former City Hall and the now-defunct Tanglin military camp. Though all of the curators have been trained at art institutions in the West, a distinctive feature of the show is its focus on artists from the equatorial belt who usually aren’t so well represented in biennials—providing, in the words of Nanjo, “an interesting mix of Asian perspectives.” Among the ninety-six artists included are Santiago Cucullu, Amanda Heng, Ho Tzu-Nyen, Barbara Kruger, Lim Tzay-Chuen, Donna Ong, Chatchai Puipia, Rizman Putra, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Xu Bing.

True to its title, the Shanghai biennial will tackle the current preoccupation with design in Asia, where, from Singapore to Seoul, government planners are obsessed with developing “creative industries.” Indeed, as organized by Zhang Qing, deputy director of the Shanghai Art Museum (along with a team that includes Huang Du, Shu-Min Lin, Wonil Rhee, Gianfranco Maraniello, Jonathan Watkins, and Xiao Xiaolan), this show might be seen as an inadvertent nod to the economic imperatives lurking behind the staging of events like these. The exhibition’s three sections—“Design and Imagination,” “Practice of Everyday Life,” and “Future and History”—frame a series of broad oppositions (art and functionalism, art and everyday life, past and future) that the show’s curators hope to transcend. At the time of writing, the organizers had yet to announce the full list of seventy-plus artists, but among those confirmed are Matthew Barney, Osman Khan, Theo Jansen, and Shi Jinsong.

Rounding out this trio of events is the Gwangju exhibition, curated by Kim Hong-hee, director of Seoul’s Ssamzie Space, with other notables such as Beck Jee-sook, project director at the Insa Art Space in Seoul, and Wu Hung, director of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago. Two main projects are featured here, titled “The First Chapter_Trace Root: Unfolding Asian Stories,” which attempts to trace Asian roots in contemporary art and culture, and “The Last Chapter_Trace Route: Remapping Global Cities,” which maps the occurrence of global simultaneities in cities across the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The show attempts to reconcile history with the forces of globalism. As Kim explains, “There is now a local Asia, which stresses indigenous values embedded in spiritual and cultural roots, and a cosmopolitan Asia, which strives to join the development of global integration beyond nationality and race.” The show presents more than ninety artists, including Heri Dono, Ham Kyung-ah, Jitish Kallat, Monica Bonvicini, Dias & Riedweg, and Lee Ufan.

While it may be that convenience and opportunism, rather than any grand plan, underlie the joint appearance and marketing of these events, their concurrence nevertheless suggests the “arrival” of the Asian biennial. In this regard one may discern an issue currently being discussed the world over by curators of large-scale exhibitions—the relationship between any given biennial and its site. But there is a twist here: What would seem commensurate among most Asian biennials at present is, to quote Asian-art historian Joan Kee, “a desire to gain entry to the international art world,” and generally speaking such shows are burdened by a self-conscious concern with the correct presentation of cultures and nations. Kee elaborates: “Curators see biennials as an irresistible chance to create their own vision of the universe, where the sins of the past can be atoned for by creating an ideal territory with the right proportion of representations.” As East and West inevitably merge, we shall see whether checking that grandiose ambition might make for a more grounded cultural politics, and more arresting and revealing takes on contemporary art—from all points of the globe.

Weng-Choy Lee is artistic codirector of the Substation Arts Centre in Singapore.