Singapore and Gwangju

the 2006 Singapore Biennale and the 6th Gwangju Biennale

Various Venues

IF THERE IS ONE THING more predictable than the inexorable expansion of the global biennial circuit, it’s the litany of complaints that trails in its wake. Whether in Berlin or São Paulo, so the refrain goes, these exhibitions routinely suffer from a fatal bout of sameness: same high-profile curators, same artists, same blather about the “world-class” status of the host city, same jaded audiences. Critics have ample reason for their disaffection, no doubt. With biennials serving as yet more layovers in the ever-lengthening itinerary of the international art market, it has become increasingly difficult to see them apart from the mercantile structures of the art fair. Indeed, the rhetoric of nation building drummed up in support of each new biennial is inseparable from the not-so-subtle requirements of that nation’s capital interests.

At first, the inaugural outing of the Singapore Biennale, titled “Belief,” would seem to provide another occasion for such hand-wringing, all the more so as it was timed to coincide with the two stalwarts of the Asian biennial scene, Shanghai and Gwangju. In what the promotional literature called a historic collaboration, all three opened consecutively during the same week— an obvious bid to encourage their desired audience to take advantage of their relative geographic proximity. Even if designed as a package for globe-trotting art collectors, curators, and critics, the lineup offers a singular opportunity to test the usual batch of biennial truisms against more recent developments in the “genre,” and it offers an impressive range of work mostly unfamiliar to Euro-American audiences. Radically different in temper and kind, the Singapore and Gwangju showings dramatize one aspect of the biennial phenomenon that demands critical redress: In what ways can we speak of these shows in regional, as much as global, terms?

Nowhere is this question raised more forcefully than in Singapore’s “Belief,” organized by a team of international curators led by Fumio Nanjo. Featuring some ninety-five artists and artist collectives, the exhibition tackles the none-too-timely subject of belief in an era of divided “values,” an era split between radical fundamentalisms of all stripes and progressively handicapped notions of secularism. It’s just the kind of big, juicy thematic proffered by biennials of late: something that can mean all things to all comers, effectively relieving the curators of the task of generating a sustained visual thesis. However, in the case of Singapore, a city-state whose pristine sidewalks and lush equatorial climes are matched only by the vehemence of its dictatorial policies, the impulse to “have it all” reads as the unintentional point of the exercise, as if the two seemingly split positions on belief are far closer in practice than one might think. No doubt the religious themes that necessarily animate the topic appear to find literal (as well as ideological) corroboration in Singapore’s religious diversity: As the guidebooks are at pains to remind us, the existence of Singapore’s multicultural population allegedly confirms the nation’s democratic ethos. Yet in a place where references to chewing gum invariably raise the specter of authoritarianism, the thesis takes on radically different associations than it would if the show were staged in, say, New York or Venice. Indeed, “Belief” inadvertently demonstrates something of the nexus of power and belief in Southeast Asia, the way the interests of religious life are never far from the interests of secular (read: economic) power. The convocation of the IMF and the World Bank there just two short weeks after the biennial’s opening went far toward explaining the exhibition’s extra-aesthetic motivations, a point obliquely embraced by governmental representatives. At a press conference held by the National Arts Council, the biennial was referred to as a venture in “imagination capital,” a strange cousin to the genre of belief seen in Singapore’s numerous churches, mosques, and temples.

Like so many large-scale offerings, “Belief” takes ample advantage of venues outside the museum (in total, nineteen sites are used), with Singapore’s diverse houses of worship and a former barracks serving as especially colorful backdrops for a good portion of the work. Art installed in the seven chosen religious sites mostly falls on the side of the pleasant, the tentative, or the bland, offering little on a topic that would by definition seem controversial. Sensitivities toward respective communities of worshippers were understandably involved in both the choice of work on display and its installation, but whatever impact the art achieves is largely a function of the setting itself. In the context of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, for example, a wall painting by Federico Herrero and a single-channel video by Hiroshi Sugimoto can barely hold their own beside the visual extravagance of the temple’s polychrome interior and facade; at the neighboring Sri Krishnan Temple, the installation of a Yayoi Kusama light piece upstairs seems an afterthought in contrast with the building’s riotously colored exterior. Art of this type may prompt a tourist’s idyll at a host of Singapore’s religious sites, but for the most part it fails to engage those sites—to say nothing of their workaday audiences—in any substantive manner. Only when the line between artwork and devotional object is self-consciously blurred (as in Tsai Charwei’s obsessive rendering of sutras on a lotus plant) is any commentary granted on aesthetic response and the uses of art in the service of religious power.

If much of the art displayed at the religious sites appears passive in relation to its immediate context, the work on view at the old Tanglin Camp barracks is far more dynamic and interactive. This does not necessarily translate into more interesting art so much as it highlights the relative noisiness of many pieces compared with the stripped-down architecture of the former camp and its tropical setting. The most spectacular works turn on the experience of surprise, inviting their audience to participate in various fun-house antics. An elaborate installation by Takashi Kuribayashi, titled Aquarium: I Feel Like I Am in a Fishbowl, 2006, has viewers climb two short ladders through small enclosed portals in the ceiling, to find themselves peering into, in the first instance, an aquarium exposed to viewers on the floor above, and, in the second, a fantasy setting resembling a small pond with a glassy surface. Ana Prvacki’s Leap of Faith, 2006, is literally attractive—viewers don metallic vests and are thus pulled inexorably toward a magnetic wall—but mostly silly. Playfulness may be an underrated virtue in art, but pieces like this quickly lose whatever charm they possess. Neither tricks nor surprises are enough to dis- tract one from the suspicion that entertainment values, always good for the bottom line, have effectively trumped aesthetic ones.

Fortunately, one finds relief from the marginally cute in some of the video works at Tanglin Camp. Bani Abidi’s Shan Pipe Band Learns Star Spangled Banner, 2004, and Cristina Lucas’s Más Luz, 2003, are more plainspoken—and far more affecting—than the gimmickry of the most intricate interactive pieces. Abidi’s two-channel installation depicts a Pakistani brass-pipe band squawking out a painful rendition of the US national anthem on one side of a suspended screen while, on the other, a bagpipe player dons the awkward garments worn by such musicians. Lucas’s video documents her exchanges with three priests on the topic of her conflicted identity as both an artist and a Catholic. But the best staging ground in “Belief” is Singapore’s City Hall, which houses an overwhelming number of works sited in dim installations or accessible only through foreboding hallways. In part a function of the punitive associations of court architecture, a vaguely sinister undercurrent runs through a number of these projects (as in the work of Yason Banal and Jonathan Allen). The simultaneously witty and creepy installation by the Finnish collective ykon, for instance, tells the story of “micronations,” utopian communities (think Denmark’s “free city” of Christiania) created to exist outside or within the traditional seat of nation-state sovereignty. M8—Summit of Micronations, Singapore, 2006, ushers viewers through a long, dim corridor, with only peals of hysterical laughter leading the way toward two inner chambers. A non-narrative video depicts the meeting of eight micronation representatives yukking it up around an octagonal table set in a dark chamber; in an adjacent room, the very same table sits empty and expectant. The endless echoes of the actors’ laughter (about what, one has to ask?) prove both weirdly funny and deeply haunting—a kind of gothic globalism.

One leaves “Belief” with the conviction that, whatever ink is spilled on the “global” art world (however distinctly Euro-American its iteration), a peculiar regional nuance need inform any responsible reading of the show’s contents. With Singapore as host, the split between the biennial’s sunnier, more user-friendly offerings and its occult preoccupations reads as an accidental thesis on the continuity of these positions within a city-state struggling to master its global identity. It is precisely the failure to reconcile these positions that renders “Belief” a strangely compelling exhibition, even if, in large measure, one lacking in compelling work.

For its part, the sixth edition of the Gwangju Biennale, “Fever Variations,” comes across as far more self-assured. Staged at Gwangju’s enormous Biennale Hall, it was organized by an international team of nine curators (including artistic director Kim Hong-hee and the esteemed Chinese art historian Wu Hung) with the professed aim of seeing contemporary and modern art with and through the eyes of Asia. “Fever Variations” is structured in two broad chapters: “The First Chapter—Trace Root: Unfolding Asian Stories” and “The Last Chapter—Trace Route: Remapping Global Cities.” Notwithstanding the convolutions of these headings and the problematic association between the words fever and Asia, the biennial reads as more decisively “political” than Singapore’s. As some have noted, the establishment of the biennial in Gwangju eleven years ago was itself a political act, designed to reinvent the city after a massacre by the military took the lives of more than two hundred citizens there in 1980.

“Fever Variations” has its good share of object-oriented 
and installation art (standouts include Song Dong and 
Zhao Xiang Yuan’s poignant display of vast stores of junk
 accumulated by Song’s mother, accustomed to the deprivations of life in the long twentieth century), not to mention 
a notable side trip into the art-historical past (one section
 is devoted to Fluxus, whose Korean and Japanese members
 and sidelong glance at Zen qualified it for inclusion). But 
here, time-based media is king: This is an exhibition that
 demands as much watching as looking. This is due not only 
to the art world’s current obsession with film and video but 
also to the fact that so many of the issues explored around 
the biennial’s central theme take the documentary image—
whether from the evening news, the Internet, or the photographic archive—as a point of both formal and critical
 departure. I’m tempted to call such a tendency “mediation
ism” or “representationalism” in order to stress the works’
 overweening informational aesthetic, their mimetic relation
to the tropes and mechanisms of the media, and their documentary pretensions. The question that must be answered,
 though, is where these works stand relative to such mecha
nisms. Are these representational modes held as immediate
 and accessible, the fantasy of a wholly transparent public
sphere, or is any critical distance enabled between the spec
ulative dimension of works of art and the media touchstones
 to which they refer? The strongest work in the show grasps
the latter point in terms of the representation of history.
 Thomas Allen Harris’s brilliantly edited portrayal of the life 
of B. Pule “Lee” Leinaeng, a pivotal figure of the African National Congress in exile, is narrated through the optic of Harris’s own relation to Lee, his stepfather: The work’s easy give-and-take between archival footage and dramatic restaging speaks volumes to the theatricalization of historical documents. A powerful three-channel video by the Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-Jen (Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph, 2002) unpacks the visual and ethical economy of an especially gruesome historic photograph: an image of capital punishment (death by dismemberment) taken by the French military in early 1900s China. Chen’s slow-motion black-and-white “reenactment” of this scene prompts all-too-resonant questions about the ethics of imagemaking and the dynamics of spectral power, a brutally apt lesson in the age of Abu Ghraib.

The most incendiary portion of “Fever Variations” is “Remapping Global Cities,” which attempts to frame the ways in which Asian cities might network with metropolises elsewhere as part of a dynamic sociopolitical exchange. In the section devoted to Latin America, organized by Chris Gilbert and Cira Pascual Marquina, militant media collectives, organizers, and activists (Grupo Alavío, Aporrea, ARU) collaborated to produce an installation on US imperialism, deploying videos, wall texts, and graphics. It is both gratifying and irksome to encounter such polemics in the space of the museum: The unflinching radicalism of this project (including an incisive graphic on the US privatization of war) is both ferocious and bracing, but the collective expression of the project is not. No matter how relevant the politics of its content, the politics of audience address demands more explicit investigation: Is the work’s installation in Gwangju designed principally for its declarative value (the fact, say, that such positions uncomfortably coexist within the conventional toothless liberalism of many cultural institutions?) or does it genuinely aim to instruct its local audience? One can read the phrase “nationalist-fascism” only so many times before jargon fatigue sets in. After three galleries of language like this, it all began to feel like so much Zhdanovist boilerplate, didactic without being edifying.

What the urgency of these
 messages throws into focus is
 the relative thinness of the
 work itself. There is nothing
 meaningless or “thin” about 
projected images of survivors
 of Hurricane Katrina. But
 merely representing such 
images in a Korean museum
 only does so much work, and
 they begin to read as unin
flected, apart from whatever
 charge their actual content 
might carry. In the so-called age of new media, the politics of representation is very much up for grabs, and a provisional theory and practice of mediation needs to be elaborated for those engaging it. While the groups making up this section of “Fever Variations” have done so within the context of their respective practices, here they leave open a question critical to all international biennials: Who is this work really for? What is the role of a militant media collective in a museum, much less in a biennial in Gwangju?

The answer, one imagines, is that such practices deliberately counter the protocols expected of biennials, but the sheer fact of their presence in Gwangju suggests otherwise. On the whole, “Fever Variations” effectively works from these and like critical tensions to produce a complex collective imagining of Asia. Taken together with Singapore’s “Belief,” an exhibition whose critical contribution may succeed in spite of its declared intentions, “Fever Variations” calls out for a revision of the received wisdom on the global art world, its audiences, and its producers. Whether regional, international, or a commingling of both, the two shows remain productively unsettled, as do the respective theses that drive them.

The Singapore and Gwangju biennials remain on view through Nov. 12 and Nov. 11, respectively.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.