Michael Lee, Office Orchitect, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable. From Singapore Biennale 2011.

Michael Lee, Office Orchitect, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable. From Singapore Biennale 2011.

Singapore Biennale 2011

Various Venues

Michael Lee, Office Orchitect, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable. From Singapore Biennale 2011.

The Third Singapore Biennale, titled “Open House” and organized by curators Trevor Smith and Russell Storer under the creative direction of Matthew Ngui, attempted to delineate concepts of home and process within artistic practice. As an exhibition, it evinced a decidedly populist bent: Much of the work installed at the biennial’s five venues—the Singapore Art Museum and its satellite sam at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore, the Old Kallang Airport, and Marina Bay—felt familiar, purportedly attempting to offer a broad view of global art for local audiences, with catalogue texts and press materials making reference to a pervasive but nebulous “fear” of contemporary art. Predictably, projects responding directly to these ideas were given prime placement; unfortunately, these also constituted some of the flatter statements. Tatzu Nishi opened The Merlion Hotel, 2011, repurposing the harborside concrete statue of the mythical half-lion and half-fish that serves as a national icon and enclosing it within a hotel room, in a repeat of what has become the artist’s trademark intervention. Michael Beutler fabricated massive pillars of metal wire and paper in the front lobby of the airport terminal building for Steamed buns (working title), 2011, welcoming visitors with a boldly explicit interpretation of process. Elmgreen & Dragset constructed a sizable and passably realistic Deutsche Scheune (German Barn), 2011, within an empty airplane hangar, using the sheer absurdity of the global circulation of such traditional icons to comment on the impossibility of cultural sensitivity. These brash and highly accessible gestures did little to inspire critical reception of the ideas they presented.

Despite a suitably balanced roster of international artists, it was nonetheless the Singaporean participants who provided the conceptual and aesthetic skeleton of the exhibition. Ming Wong largely stole the show with Devo partire. Domani. (I Must Go. Tomorrow.), 2010, a reinterpretation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema (Theory), in which the artist plays all five lead characters, reveling in the structural nature of the original film by segmenting the video and showing it in five rooms, with a projection for each character. Another key project, Michael Lee’s Office Orchitect, 2011, imagines the life and career of a fictional artist through an installation whose contents ranged from stunningly intricate sculptural models to a biographical timeline mixing personal fantasy and national history.

An inspired pairing occurred with John Low—whose archival installation Skying, 2011, pulled together everything from photocopied textual references to historical paintings from local collections in a freewheeling analysis of the visual culture of the Singapore River—and Charles Lim, whose enthralling video on urban drainage networks, All Lines Flow Out, 2011, was shown alongside massive nets filled with detritus captured from the same engineered bodies of water. In sam at 8Q, an annex of the Singapore Art Museum architecturally similar to local public-housing complexes, Koh Nguang How shared a portion of his private and decidedly anti-institutional collection of newspapers and other materials as Artists in the News, 2011, papering the walls with print artifacts and producing an intriguingly mediated picture of the art world—successfully turning on its head the curators’ notion of an art-fearing public.

Interpretations of the exhibition inevitably made reference to curatorial decisions and artistic projects in terms of political repression and laboratory urbanism. Contrarily engaging with capital rather than government, Zai Kuning’s I will send you to a better place, 2010, documents a failed proposal to close a nightclub operating in a courtyard once used for readings, performances, and other events; the strategy evokes Lim Tzay Chuen’s project for the 2005 Venice Biennale—an ill-fated proposal to transport the Merlion, the national monument that Nishi has now made the focus of his work, to the national pavilion for the duration of that exhibition. Gesturing again to how the power of capital today has a greater effect on culture than political repression, the enclosure and privatization of that same icon for The Merlion Hotel in the current edition of the Singapore Biennale makes clear that there are questions larger than censorship and bureaucracy at stake.

Robin Peckham