Singapore Biennale: What Do the Local Works Say About Singapore?

The fourth Singapore Biennale, titled “If The World Changed,” is opening on Friday, October 25, with a strong focus on Southeast Asian art. Twenty-seven of the 82 artists participating in this edition are based in Singapore. I talked to David Chew, a curator at Singapore Art Museum and one of the 27 co-curators of this biennale, about the Singapore art scene, some of the artists selected to participate and what their works say about society’s current concerns.

What does this record number of Singaporean artists participating in the Biennale tells us about the state of contemporary art in Singapore?
Firstly, it was an intent set out right at the beginning from us as organizers of the biennale that we wanted to highlight Singapore contemporary art and in a way ‘return’ the biennale back to Singapore artists. The previous editions were very international in terms of their focus and breakdown, but we wanted a different focus this time.
I think this unprecedented number of Singapore artists does attest to the growth and development made over the past few years. With all that is going on, both the progress of their work and art practices, but also in the development of the entire industry, there has never been a better time to be a Singapore artist!
What do the works chosen for the Biennale say about Singapore society?
Quite a number of the works this year from Singapore artists comment on the nostalgia of memory, of things we’ve lost over the years. There is a yearning for this identity and for learning from this identity that has made us who we are today. For example, Royston Tan’s very poetic tribute “Ghost of Capitol Theatre,” a building that is still very much remembered in people’s hearts, as well as Boo Junfeng’s “Happy and Free” that looks at an alternative history had Singapore not separated from Malaysia. Lai Chee Kien’s tribute to the demolished national theater fa├žade (National Theatre@50) that has stuck in people’s minds as an iconic building, is another example.
Development is inevitable, and of course not necessarily a bad thing. But at what cost, and how that has changed who we are? That seems to be the question. Joo Choon Lin’s work “Your Eyes are Stupid” is a work that comments on this and our consumerist, material culture that obsesses us today. Can we actually see how that has affected and changed us into who we are today?
Are there any emerging local artists who will surprise visitors?
There are a number of young artists, like Guo Yixiu and Urich Lau, and also multi-disciplinary artists like Lai Chee Kien. But while on one hand we did want to feature young and fresh practices, we needed to balance this with also a certain established and matured practice of these artists that would stand the scrutiny, and be rigorous enough to stand on a biennale platform. Chee Kien, for example, is a lesser-known, yet interesting artist who has been around for a long time. He dabbles in many areas of art, from theater to architecture, and is also a writer and historian, but he has kept a low profile in the visual arts scene.
What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of local artists?
Singapore artists are very well-read; they are excited by plenty, and chase their inspirations and dreams. The main issue is realizing those concepts, and fabricating it to what their vision of the artwork is. Fabrication is an issue here, in part because we have lost a generation of craftsmen, etc., and we often have to resort to overseas for expertise in this area.
What have you enjoyed the most about preparing for the biennale?
Quite honestly, the madness and untidiness of it all!
One of the main things of this biennale was the focus on Southeast Asia. And that, to me, is one of the best things of the region. Singapore can be very clinical and structured sometimes; going to places like Manila, Jogja, Kuala Lumpur, one notices the messiness of things, how there are also always cracks, and fissures in the institutional and establishments of art there — but often it is in the messiness, in the cracks and fissures that beauty and magic exists and surfaces.
What have you enjoyed the least?

As first published on