Pannaphan Yodmanee, Aftermath, 2016, mixed-media installation with found objects, concrete, and paint. From the Singapore Biennale.

Pannaphan Yodmanee, Aftermath, 2016, mixed-media installation with found objects, concrete, and paint. From the Singapore Biennale.

Singapore Biennale

Singapore Art Museum

Pannaphan Yodmanee, Aftermath, 2016, mixed-media installation with found objects, concrete, and paint. From the Singapore Biennale.

Reflecting the curatorial ambit of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the institution that both organizes and hosts the Singapore Biennale, the event’s fifth edition continued its regional focus on Southeast Asia, expanded this time to include work by sixty-three artists from nineteen countries and territories across Southeast, East, and South Asia. Titled “An Atlas of Mirrors,” and clustered by creative director Susie Lingham and a team of nine curators into nine somewhat unnecessary subthemes, the biennial suggestively coupled cartography as a form of knowledge with the mirror as a reflective surface that enables knowledge of self but that also has the potential to refract, fragment, and disrupt its unity.

A type of eye-catching sculptural installation—using local craft idioms to present regionally specific subject matter—predominated, exemplified by Eddy Susanto’s monumental The Journey of Panji, 2016, which traces linguistic diffusion across the region of a cycle of stories about a legendary Javanese prince, acknowledging the impossibility of containing this cultural complexity in a single authoritative volume. Pannaphan Yodmanee’s impressive Aftermath, 2016, executed in the style of a traditional Thai mural presented as an architectural ruin and embellished with found objects and hand-cast religious icons, updated Buddhist cosmology to include recent history. You could smell Hemali Bhuta’s sublime Growing, 2016, a delicate, wall-like thicket of incense sticks, long before you caught sight of it; the sweet fragrance seeped into neighboring galleries. Zulkifle Mahmod’s SONICreflection, 2016, a wall of wok lids cleverly rigged to function as speakers, projected an audio loop of layered field recordings made in Singapore’s various diaspora enclaves, its cacophonous crescendo a testament to the city-state’s multicultural history.

Probably closest in form to an actual atlas, Qiu Zhijie’s masterful One Has to Wander Through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End, 2016—a suite of sixteen vertical ink painting scrolls that together present an elaborate mind map—synthesized cartographic knowledge, both real and imagined, from around the world and across time. At the foot of the scrolls sat a menagerie of small glass sculptures of the fantastical creatures that marked unmapped terrain on old maps, symbolizing both the fear and lure of the unknown that drives our desire to explore. Unsurprising for a region of archipelagoes, the undying lure of the ocean was a recurrent subject, appearing in distinct guises. Gregory Halili’s Karagatan (The Breadth of Oceans), 2016, consists of a row of exquisite oil paintings of eyes on tiny pieces of mother-of-pearl, each a portrait of someone belonging to one of the communities that live on and off the sea in the Philippines. The glint of the nacreous support rendered these images both magical and spectral. Martha Atienza’s Endless Hours at Sea, 2014/2016, concisely abstracted the experience of months spent on cargo ships in a wonderful installation encompassing sound, water, and projected video. Ethereal reflections of light and images projected onto water are animated through dispersions resulting from falling drops and vibrations produced by the recorded rumble of the ship’s creaking hull.

Beyond sam and its annex, some biennial works were presented outdoors or in the lobbies of nearby museums, where they seemed to lack proper context. There were, however, two notable exceptions. At the Asian Civilizations Museum, Ahmad Fuad Osman’s Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project, 2016, resurrected the forgotten sailor, thought by some to have been the first to circumnavigate the globe, through a richly detailed museological display that included documents, artifacts, a statue, paintings, a dramatic video reenactment, and expert interviews accessible on iPads; its institutional setting added weight to its claim. And Debbie Ding’s Shelter, 2016, a free-standing replica of the household bomb shelter mandated by Singapore’s Housing and Development Board since 1997, disrupted the National Museum of Singapore’s triumphant narrative of economic development, social uplift, and successful public housing with a moment of dystopian paranoia. Ding presented the largely unused structure as an architectural folly, a symbol of governmental overreach. It was a rare but delicious moment of critique in a biennial filled with quiet sensorial delights but little visible grit—much like the city that hosted it.

Murtaza Vali