It is impossible to objectively review a biennale, where so much depends on what route you take, what corner you turn, what artists you happen to meet. Arriving at the 5th Singapore Biennale, entitled ‘An Atlas of Mirrors’, this critical conundrum seemed heightened, as the curatorium of nine experts from around Southeast, South and East Asia provided, not so much a roadmap through the 58 artworks occupying nine ‘conceptual zones’, as a labyrinth. With the Biennale’s title partly inspired by the 1991 film Prospero’s Books, my personal experience was not unlike being immersed in Peter Greenaway’s film – beautiful though often obtuse, with flashes of visual poetry lighting the way.
My first key turning point took me, ironically, away from the Biennale’s primary site – the former St Joseph’s Institution that is the Singapore Art Museum – and down a side street past a shop selling Catholic religious souvenirs. Setting up shop opposite was Swedish-based Malaysian artist Chia Chuyia. Behind a protective pane of glass, and with a look of sweet determination, Chia sat, knitting herself a suit from green strands of leek – ‘to protect the body,’ she has said, ‘from an unknown future.’
On the top floor of the 8Q building above Chia’s performance, I found Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman surrounded by her exquisite Persian and Mughal-inspired miniature paintings on ceramic plates with elaborately carved frames. Like highly perfumed flowers, the paintings drew me in to discover scenes of surprising blood-spurting carnage. As the artist has noted, ‘the more heinous the crime, the more beautiful the object needs to be’.
Interestingly, it was a morning’s excursion away from the Biennale, to the off-site parallel project of Berlin-based French artist Agathe de Bailliencourt at the new Hermès gallery Aloft, that helped unlock the labyrinth for me. Contemplating Bailliencourt’s pencil drawings of clouds formed by the multitudinous repetition of the word maintenant (or, ‘now’ in French), and adjacent Zen pebble garden of subtly shaded tones of pastel blue, entitled ‘Here from Here’, I realised that what the Biennale was offering through its maze of mirrors and maps was a precious sense of being and belonging in this part of Southeast Asia.
Michael Fitzgerald, Editor